Saturday, February 28, 2009

Newfie Laser Light Show

This is, apparently, how to have cheap fun during a recession.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Home Improvements Meet Canine Approval

All home improvements are made for the comfort of the residence's two canine guardians. We bought those couches for them, so they'd have a comfortable place to chew toilet paper stolen off the roll in the bathroom. And, although we put a lot of thought into how much Katy would appreciate the cool temperature of the wood floors, she has made her preference clear. Somewhere behind those couches a third Newfie grows tuft by tuft, day by day. The only question that remains is how large will I let it grow before I move it to its new home in the innards of the vacuum cleaner, a device purchased solely for the entertainment of the Newfies.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bonobos hunt, eat monkeys

Bonobos have been popularized by many to be a peace-loving species. They've been called the "Make Love Not War" ape. They've been held up for contrast with chimpanzees, a very closely related ape biologically-speaking, but one that is very different behaviorally. Chimps are strongly male dominant and are physically violent to the point of engaging in deadly gang-style warfare with their neighbors. Plus, they assemble organized male hunting parties that target monkeys. Red colobus are their favorite prey. They share the meat too, favoring their allies and friends. Bonobos, in contrast, lack male dominance (about half of troops are female-led) and are far less physically violent with each other, preferring to solve conflicts through other means. They've never been observed perpetrating gang warfare on neighboring troops or hunting meat, let along eating it.

Now, two reports have been published that may upset what was understood to be unique about bonobos. One study reports that researchers combed through wild bonobos' poo and found something surprising — monkey bones. Picking through monkey doo may not be a glamorous job, but it is the best way to find out what primates actually eat. It turns out bonobos eat monkeys. The other study reports that research actually observed their hunts.

Five hunts were observed. Three were successful and 2 of the 3 kills were made by females. It's a small sample of hunts so it's really not enough to decide whether there is a sex difference in hunting. But, if there is, it would stand in stark contrast to chimpanzee hunts which are overwhelmingly male affairs.

Time will tell whether this milestone research changes what we think of bonobos. Perhaps they'll shed some of their peaceful reputation — or maybe they won't. After all, just because you eat meat doesn't mean you're violent.

Current Biology. 2008. Primate hunting by bonobos at LuiKotale, Salonga National Park.

Folia Primatologica. 2008. New Records on Prey Capture and Meat Eating by Bonobos at Lui Kotale, Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Friday, February 20, 2009

'Little Baby Thumpins'

You wouldn't think that reading Developmental Psychobiology journals on a Friday night was at all fun, but I love that stuff! What can I say, I am a nerd. I read college level astronomy textbooks when I was in 6th grade. That probably makes me a dork, but I don't care. Knowledge is thrilling. Science is thrilling.

My reading was sparked by a question I had, based on an observation and a hypothesis. See, my developing baby is now kicking. Even Mr. Field Notes can feel it. Most first-timers can't detect the baby's movements this early so I chalk it up to being highly observant. The kicking got me wondering if babies who move and kick a lot grow up to have highly active personalities. Do they grow up to be more extraverted and bold? That's the question I had in mind when I started my mini lit review.

All good literature reviews begin with knowing which key words to search for. I think a lot of students have trouble at this stage, which makes sense. They don't yet have the jargon of the field down enough to know which terms will quickly get them the relevant research. I also think they don't realize that they don't know which terms to search for and don't ask for help early enough so they waste time searching around for stuff like "baby personality development" and maybe adding in something like "movement during pregnancy" when a simple "fetal movement infant temperament" would return the landmark research right away.

In psychology, temperament is the key word. It's like personality — in the sense that it refers to an individual's pattern of behavior and emotional states (level of arousal, motivation, mood) that are apparent and stable over time. But — it's a little different in the sense that temperament typically only refers to what is seen in infants and it's more often thought of as genetically based, if not nearly completely genetically determined.

Temperament varies from individual to individual. Babies may have the same level of motor development and ability level but differ in their mood (calm to irritable), how distractable they are and their ability to adapt to changes. These patterns are believed to be dependent on inherited physiology — concentration of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine as well as density of receptors on the brain's neurons for those neurotransmitters. They form a biological basis for personality development.

I would go so far as to say that all animals have a temperament. Even some paramecium are more active and mobile than others. Behavioral differences are one of the variables that make evolution possible. These difference fall into three broad areas:
  • Emotionality: calm vs. irritable, easy vs. difficult to soothe during distress, frequency of crying and tantrums
  • Activity: lethargic vs. energetic
  • Sociability: reclusive vs. social, prefers to be alone vs. with others
Katy and Yuki, the lovable Newfoundlands that grace these pages now and then, have remarkably different temperaments. Katy is incredibly difficult to soothe if she's upset and is a bit of a loner. Yuki on the other hand, calms down easily and strongly prefers to be with others. These two are very different in temperament in spite of growing up on the same farm, with the same family and having the same biological parents. I suppose Forrest Gump would now say something like: DNA is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get!

But, I sure would like to be able to predict whether Baby Field Notes is going to be hell on wheels or a relatively easy baby. I thought perhaps fetal movement would be associated in some way with later temperament.

These are precisely the kind of thoughts that lead scientists into new avenues of research or at least a decent start at a thesis or dissertation topic. My brief review of the literature suggests there's no need for me to embark on a new field of research — it's actually already been done before and the question is answered.** It turns out there is evidence that the roots of temperament begin during the prenatal period and can be observed in fetal movements. Cool beans!

More fetal movement is associated with being easier to calm but also to being more active, and perhaps hyperactive. I can handle that. But, I still don't know whether 'Little Baby Thumpins' kicks any more or less than other developing fetuses. I guess I get what I get! I'm excited either way, but I really would love love love to have an "easy" baby. Mine just seems to kick and squirm an awful lot!

DiPietro et al., Child Development, 67(5):2568-2583, 1996

Hello Wood Floors! A little photo tour...

It's finally done! The carpet is out and the wood floors are in. We just need to finish staining the wood transition pieces that go between the dining room and the living and it will be complete. I spent all of yesterday afternoon putting the new decorative touches on the living room... and cleaning off the dining room table that had an absolutely hideous amount of stuff on it.

Katy made herself right at home right away. 'Moving in' to a new room gave me the opportunity to decide what to keep, what to move, and in some cases — what to get rid of. I had a lot of fun combing through our collection of handmade art to redeploy it in new spots. I find that if things don't move, they fade into the background where they are eventually unseen. We have a large collection of raku pottery that is now displayed on the shelving unit behind Katy. I decided to keep the funky blue and white fish noren from Japan that hangs in the doorway to the baby room.

Next to the entertainment armoire I deployed some iron lantern candle holders on top of our speakers. I left the wall ones where they were at. My little bamboo plant sits behind one speaker and I moved my gardenia plant to the floor next to it. Hopefully it will get enough light there. Now that it's in a more public place it is bound to get more watering. I've also got a big umbrella 'tree' in the opposite corner that is also on the floor. Time will tell how ill-fated this move was to the plants, but I really like where they're at now and we haven't had any disasters or even any close calls yet.

The table in between the newfs' favorite "Big Comfy Chair" and our couch now has a chimp candle holder and a glorious wooden box that Mr. Field Notes mom gave us for our anniversary one year. It used to be way up on top of the entertainment armoire where it just gathered dust. I love having out in the open where I can better appreciate it. It's definitely among my favorite pieces of art. The stargazer lilies are from Mr. Field Notes for Valentine's Day. They are my favorite cut flower. The smell is intoxicating. Like jasmine and gardenia. Mr. Field Notes thinks they smell like urine but he gets them for me anyway. What a hero =D

The 'baby room' still has a ways to go. I'm not going to mess with it until sometime in April. We had planned to take the shelves off the wall and move them to the dining room but then Mr. Field Notes told me that as a kid, he would have thought a room with this many shelves and books was way cool. That it would have been perfect. And I got to thinking about it too and agreed that I would also have liked to have that much shelf space for books and to display my stuff.

Many of the books are still going to move to the dining room because I am not about to just hand over all of my primatology, psychology and evolution books to Baby Field Notes. Maybe BFN won't even like primates. Maybe monkeys will be boring because that's what mom does. Who knows. But the kid should and will have her own books, or his own books. So the shelves are staying.

But, the hideous orange curtains are going once I figure out what new colors to make the room. NO pastels! That's for sure. I like this baby bedding set at but it's not very 'babyish' in the sense of bunnies, teddy bears, bouncing frogs and whatnot. It's rather mature. I like it though, but then again, I've been mature since I was born. Just ask my parents.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Chimpanzees Should Never Be Pets

I'm sure by now you've heard about the chimp who was stabbed by his owner then shot to death by Connecticut police after he attacked the owner's friend.

Sandra Herold had owned the 14 year old chimp, Travis, since he was three days old, the AP story says. The friend almost, and may yet, die. Chimpanzees, even 'domesticated' ones like Travis are incredibly unpredictable and incredibly strong. They are extremely dangerous. In fact, all great apes and most large monkeys, such as baboons, are strong enough to literally rip human limbs off.

Why on earth anyone keeps them as pets is beyond me but even more so, why they are even allowed to be kept as pets anywhere is puzzling. I guess people here about Jane Goodall's studies and human-like they are and think they can actually be domesticated. Well, they can't and anyone who tries is a god-damned idiot.

“It’s a horrible thing, but I’m not a horrible person and he’s not a horrible chimp,” Herold the owner said.

Well, I agree. He probably wasn't a horrible chimp. But she is in my book a horrible person who should go to jail for manslaughter. I am dead serious about that.

Apparently the chimp starred in Old Navy and Coca-Cola TV commercials, rode around town in her truck, and made appearances at casinos. She had to have profited off of him. I think it's disgusting all around. No private individual has any business owning an endangered species, as chimpanzees are. And no one should be allowed to keep them as pets.

Thankfully the one bright spot in all of this is that it just might lead to the changing of laws on keeping exotic animals. Currently, CT like some other states, doesn't prohibit primates being kept as pets but that may change if the head of CT's Department of Environmental Protection gets her way. She's asking the legislature to support a proposed law to ban all potentially dangerous exotic animals from being kept in residential settings. That would include chimpanzees, crocodiles and poisonous snakes. Another similar law banning all primates is also being considered.

I think it's very good idea. If you'd like to keep up with the latest developments on this story, The Stramford newspaper's website is the place to go. Just click here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Agony of Home Renovations

Really, why do they all have to take six times longer than you estimated?

Over the weekend Mr. Field Notes and I decided, after one of our usual 'Yeah, I totally agree with you' brief-but-weighty conversations, that we would rip out our carpeting and install wood flooring.

Good Bye Carpet

With a baby on the way and carpeting that just three years ago was brand spankin' new but now is worse than horrid, we thought it was time to do something about it. I know you can't tell in the photo, but that carpet is seriously stained and spotted.

You see, the youngster Yuki (worst Newfoundland puppy on the planet) continues to not sleep through the night and then pees all over the carpet when no one magically wakes up to let out Yuki, the silent dog standing by the back door in the dead of the night who expects people to just know when she's communicating via mental telepathy that she needs out. Her communication is piss poor.

This was never a problem with Katy. She always cried at the back door to go out. No matter where you are in the house, you know when Big K needs to go out. She cried to go out early on so it was easy to reinforce. With Yuki, the only way she communicates is through barking. But never at any point did she spontaneously use that bark to go out. Very, very, very rarely she cries to go out. It's almost inaudible, but everytime we hear it, we let her out immediately. You'd think she'd learn but no. No one is up in the middle of the night to correct her for peeing on the rug. I know we have got to figure something out, and I have some ideas, so at least until we get that worked out, clean up will be a lot easier.

You'd think Yuki is the only impetus for the house transformation, but Katy isn't perfect either by any means. Katy (most sensitive Newfoundland on the planet) has done a number on the carpet her fair share of the time. She throws up, not constantly, but just enough to be annoying when it's on the carpet — which for her is nearly every stinkin' time. She has hang-ups, one of which is that vomiting cannot happen on any other surface than carpeting.

So, we decided to make clean-up easier and improve the smell of the house in one easy step: Install wood floors. Piece o'cake.


We're 2 days into the project and it is looking really, really good. But, like all DIY home improvements, problems ranging from small to large creep up. Non-square walls, non-level sub floors, transitional wood pieces that don't fit right, etc. It can all be fixed, but it takes time.

We've got all the furniture (except for the bedroom which we're leaving the carpet in) crammed into the dining room which already has wood floors. It's a real obstacle course. And we had to unhook the internet. We've got it going again now that the "Baby Room" is finished enough to plug the Airport into.

Yeah! Internet again! It's kind of crazy how dependent I am on the internet, but when it goes out it cramps my style like nothing else. I think I'd sooner do without hot running water. Okay, maybe not, but that's the best thing I could come up with for comparison.

Hopefully I'll have some finished pics to show off by the weekend. Right now it feels like we're just moving into a new house. It's fun and exciting and a pain-in-the-butt all at once.

But these floors are looking sooooo good and the house already smells a thousand times better.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cucumbers & Morning Sickness by Design

Cucumbers must have some highly toxic components because they continue to be a food that smells absolutely disgusting to me. Unfortunately, someone who sits near me at work loves them. Fortunately though, the scent aversion is all part of the mind's design — a pregnant mind.

Morning sickness, or rather pregnancy sickness for it truly occurs at any time of day, appears to be a bona fide adaption in an evolutionary sense. It's adaptive, meaning it is helpful for us as a species, but more than that, it is an adaption — a mechanism with enough complexity, precision, and efficiency to indicate a functional design.

Long, long, long before I ever became pregnant I read Margie Profet's landmark research on the evolutionary significance of morning sickness and was impressed enough to remember that although it is seriously annoying — it is actually a very good thing to experience while pregnant. It means the baby has a higher chance of being healthy and a lower chance of miscarriage.

What I didn't recall, until I recently reread the paper, is that the evidence is actually quite impressive. I also learned that the author herself is impressive. Having never formally studied biology or evolution and with only a BA degree — and a brain — she scored a $250,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant to study the phenomenon. Freaking awesome! And jealous! I could have spared myself all those wasted years slaving away in grad school... grrrr. However, they did land me a couple of killer teaching positions!

So, McGenus Profet accumulated the evidence that showed that the nausea, food and scent aversions, and vomiting associated with the First Trimester of pregnancy represent an adaption. Previously, it had been thought that it was all a sickness, a side effect of pregnancy hormones with no benefits, only costs. And, those costs are significant. Women who experience pregnancy sickness can experience weight loss and inadequate nutrition from avoiding and/or throwing up nutritious though unpalatable foods. But there is a method behind the months of madness.

Evidence pregnancy sickness is an adaption
  • Many foods contain compounds that can produce malformations, sometimes fatal ones, in developing embryos.
  • Women who have pregnancy sickness selectively avoid foods that indicate those toxic components are present.
  • The onset of pregnancy sickness coincides with the time the embryo becomes vulnerable to the toxins.
  • Pregnancy sickness ends when the embryo's need for calories for growth outweighs its vulnerability to the toxins.
  • Changes in the olfactory system of a woman who has pregnancy sickness cause her to avoid substances with those toxins. Basically, a more sensitive sense of smell and lowered threshold for finding scents disgusting help a woman avoid foods that could harm the developing baby.
  • Finally, and most important for establishing pregnancy sickness is adaptive, women who experience moderate to severe pregnancy sickness have greater pregnancy success rates.
Cool beans if you ask me! The part I forgot was the 'sickness' ending when the fetus isn't as vulnerable as it is hungry.

So the list of no-go foods? The article pointed out that celery, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bananas, oranges, apples, potatoes, soybeans, black pepper, cocoa and nutmeg (among lots of other foods, especially green, leafy veggies) all have compounds that are known carcinogens. Although they are in small enough quantities to be safe for adult consumption, they are harmful to a fetus.

So glad, in way, to have experienced the morning sickness phenomenon! Equally glad, if not more so, that it is going away!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Baby Monkey Faces & Feeding Time

Baby monkeys, to me, are some of the cutest critters on the planet so I was really excited when I got to see them at the hot springs in Japan. The one to the left and on the left in the above pic was having fun soaking in the water until her little friend left. I caught her mid-holler when she was crying out. She carried on crying for quite a while until deciding her friend wasn't coming back. Then she just got out of the pool and ran off. That was just one of many instances of vocalizations I heard at the monkey park. It was raucous at one point during food distribution - monkeys chasing each other, fighting, shrieking, biting, wrestling, mounting — you name it.

Wild monkeys are provisioned in Japan. Provisioning, or giving the monkeys food, is a technique for getting monkeys to stick around close for closer, and longer, periods of observation. It's a much criticized technique in primatology because it distorts natural monkey behavior, i.e. creating situations that would otherwise not occur. Nevertheless, it is used because sometimes it is the only way to actually observe monkeys in the wild. Jane Goodall used the technique during her early observations of chimpanzees and was criticized for it, but it did help her gain the trust of the chimps and allowed her to accumulate a wealth of previously unknown knowledge of their behavior. Her observations are now widely accepted. Also, zoo and laboratory observations and studies continue to make up a good deal of research in primatology and they are surely a lot less ecologically valid. Anyways, enough primatology methodology talk - back to the monkeys!

During the winter in Japan, food is scarce for the snow monkeys. But, provisioning is not something done to keep the monkeys alive and fed during this time. They eat mostly bark and whatever leaves or winter shoots they scrounge up. Monkeys also bulk up in the months prior to winter and babies are born in advance enough to make it through the rough winter. Together, it's enough to get them through the lean months.

As I learned at the park, snow monkeys are provisioned with less desirable food than is available in the wild. So, sometimes during the fat months, monkeys don't even bother to come down for the easily available barley when the have berries in the forest.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The You've Got to Be Kidding Me Panties.

Here I am minding my own business, quite literally, and I click on a link for what I think is going to be forget-me-not pansies information. See, for a client I would like to include growing zones and re-seeding information with the paper germination instructions. So I click on the link to read about Forget-Me-Not Panties, thinking it's just a misspelling of pansies.

Oh so veeeeeeeery wrong.

With forget-me-not panties, you can "protect her privates" according to the ad copy.

* Ever worry about your wife cheating?

* Want to know where your daughter is late at night?

* Need to know when your girlfriend's temperature is rising?

Evidently this amazing underwear uses a GPS and sensor to give you up-to-date temperature, heart rate and location of the wearers nether regions. All it needs is regular watch battery — and a payment of 180 bucks. For one.

And what's perfect is these puppies are made in Japan.

Giggling my pants off now... though not literally. Whoever is tempted to buy a set of these babies surely has to recognize that women are smart enough to figure out something fishy is up with with that weird little flower and funny bump that feels an awful lot like a watch battery — and remove it. And, how the heck do you wash those things and still maintain the integrity of the electronic chip?

The website doesn't say, but don't worry, they apparently aren't for sale anyway.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Jigokudani Monkey Park: For watching snow monkeys bathe in hot springs!

A relatively young, probably female, snow monkey relaxes in the sulfurous natural hot springs in January at Jigokudani, Japan. The mountainous valley is part of the Joshin-Etsu Kogen National Park and is near Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The area gets plenty of snow during the winter and is quite cold, but the monkeys have adapted to the environment, growing thick coats during the harsh winter. They are the northernmost dwelling monkeys in the world and are native to Japan.

The area was difficult to get to. However, that did not stop throngs of tourists from being there. I think the vast majority of them arrived on tour buses. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano and then hitched a ride on a series of much, much slower trains to the town of Yudanaka. There, we caught a bus up to Kanbayashi Onsen after which we walked the 30 minutes to the entrance to the monkey park. It took 4 hours all told.

There was apparently a direct train we could have been on that goes more or less straight to Yudanaka, but we unfortunately ended up on about 4 different trains, having transfered from one train to another repeatedly — and spent about 45 minutes standing around for a train in the middle of nowhere at one point. It was super cold. And, the path to the monkey park began with a very steep slope that, being winter, was icy and very difficult to safely negotiate, especially coming down. So, if you plan to visit this monkey park at the best time of year (when the snow is falling) be prepared and carry a walking stick or crampons or something. And, be sure to catch the speedier, direct train to Yudanaka!

After all was said and done, the monkey park experience was well worth the effort. Once there, we got to watch monkeys swim, dive in, fight, groom and play until we just got too cold to stand it any longer. Standing near the hot spring kept me warmer, but it smelled strongly of sulfur and the rocky rim was covered with monkey poo. That didn't stop me from getting in close to snap some photos though!

Instead of elbowing my way into the crowd of photographers with huge camera lenses and expensive looking cameras, I bided my time and figured out the rhythm of the place. Once feeding time came, the monkeys cleared out of their swimming hole and so did all of the people. When I sensed that the monkeys were just about done eating, I headed for the poop-coated rocky edge of the hot springs and staked out a spot. Soon I was joined by the throng of cameras. You'd think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were there skinny dipping!

The monkeys didn't mind the paparazzi presence at all.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Spectacular Japanese Signs you have to see

Signs in Japan are nothing short of spectacular. Sometimes spectacularly bad. I think a good sign communicates an unambiguous message. The truly awful ones in Japan, and there are an impressive number and variety of them, all leave much room for interpretation. Here are two of the truly great signs followed by the most spectacularly awful sign I may have ever seen.

The Inscrutable Sign
Its meaning was the subject of much conversation. If you can provide a convincing interpretation of what the sign means, I have a green tea KitKat candy bar I'll send to you as a reward. We are still puzzling it out ourselves.

In case you have difficulty reading the sign as an image, here's the text:
Please do not see it while drinking drink. The PET bottle caps it and put it in a bag, and please carry it. Please see the thing which the chief does not have after finishing drinking.

And here is the sign in context, on a vending machine near a rest area on the grounds of Nijo castle in Kyoto.
And, just in case you come away thinking that only the dog-related signs in Japan are clear, here's one to dispel that notion:

To me, it looks like a dog giving a pair of cats a lecture about garbage, but really, your guess is as good as mine!

My Own Snow Monkeys

True to form, newfies love water in whatever form it takes. Before we left for Japan, we got hit with a couple of big snow storms, one after the other — much to the newfies delight. Yuki, whose name means 'snow' in Japenese, really got a huge treat. We had trouble getting them to come back inside, and even when we did lure them in with treats, they whined at the back door ten minutes after refueling (read: gulping water and drooling it all over the kitchen floor).

I've had to clear out saved video on my hard drive to make room for photos from Japan, so that's why I'm using 'old' material!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I'm back - And with loads of NEWS!

For the last 2-plus weeks I've been in Japan! And, for the last 4 months I've been... pregnant!

See here for why that is actually a very, very big surprise. I am not a believer in miracles in the religious sense at all, but as far as miracles might represent statistically improbable events, me being pregnant is very much a miracle. Now that I'm out of the first trimester, I finally feel comfortable talking about it with others. Sometime around the end of July/beginning of August we'll have our lives rocked. I know what to expect, but also have a healthy (?) amount of anxiety over what I am sure is totally normal stuff.

Over the next few weeks and months, I'll share plenty of stories and photos from my travels in Japan and no doubt news and articles about pregnancy and parenting. It's a subject matter perfect for an evolutionary lens. Not that knowing the evolutionary underpinnings of morning sickness makes it at all easier!

And, for those of you dying to know whether I saw any of Japan's famous snow monkeys — the answer is YES! And I have photos and video clips too. Here's one of my favorites.