Where community and environmental literacy come together:
Relax. Sit down. Enjoy. Connect.

April 19, 2015

The Architectural Genius of ANTS!!!

Ants have very sophisticated societies and social lives.  It is their social organization that allows them to accomplish tremendous feats compared to their size.  Whether this is biologically hard-wired or is learned or cultural or some mixture of these influences is a topic not yet resolved, but the outcomes of their collective efforts are there for us to wonder at.

More specifically, this blog is about their colony structure.  And more specifically, the colony structure of those ants who build their homes underground.  Ants build many kinds of houses, which also double as fortresses, to live in and their structure can vary greatly from species-to-species.

Some ants build bivouacs which are "a structure formed by migratory driver ant and army ant colonies. A bivouac nest is constructed out of the living ant workers' own bodies to protect the queen and larvae, and is later deconstructed as the ants move on." (3)

Other ants build mounds out of clay or pine needles that rise high above the ground.

Still others build nest of leaves woven together with silk threads.


And as you will see in the videos below, there are many ants that build their homes underground and the variation, both in size and structure, of these underground engineering feats is staggering, with each species and colony doing things slightly differently.

These homes that ants build are clean.  You'd think that with such high numbers, sometimes in the millions or billions, of individuals living in such close proximity there would be lots of diseases and epidemics, but ants are very clean, keeping their colonies hygienic, sealing off parts of the colony that become infected and quarantining individuals who get sick.  They even know how to use antibiotics, gathering plants with anitmicrobial activity to scrub down their colonies in the event they get infected.  They also have rooms where waste goes and when they're full they are sealed off.  

Ants also build homes that are buffered against environmental fluctuations with climate control.  Irrespective of what's going on outside an ant colony tends to have a steady air circulation and constant humidity and temperature because of the engineering genius of these structures.  This has allowed ants to live in the barrenest deserts and above the Arctic Circle.

What's more, ant colonies tend to grow like trees, in the sense that just as trees gain more rings as they age, ant colonies tend to get bigger and bigger, with more compartments and/or multiple interconnected colonies, as the colony ages.  Some ant colonies are measured to be over 800 years old!!!  Colonies can outlive their members just as nations can.  This being the case while the average worker only lives a few weeks to a few months while the queen can live for decades.

Many ant societies have a division of labor of varying complexity.  Some with general workers, nurses, cleaners, guards, police, managers/supervisors, queens and drones, tunnel miners, scouts, herders, gardeners, food gatherers, hunters etc..  Similarly, their underground colony structures tend to be divided up into specialized compartments.

From storage rooms to trash rooms, the queens' egg laying quarters to the nursery, the room where aphids are kept to rest rooms, to sleeping quarters, to processing rooms and quarantine rooms, etc., etc., etc..  An ant colony is pretty much like a city.  And not all of these cities are so small.

Some ant colonies have been found that are over 670 acres in size (over a square mile!)!  One in Australia is over 62 miles wide!!  These colonies have billions of ants and thousands or even millions of queens.  And somehow, through leaving chemical scents and feeling each other with their antennae all of these ants are able to figure out who belongs to their colony and who doesn't, immediately attacking intruders.

More recently, nation like conglomerates of non-aggressive colonies have been found that stretch over 3000 miles in Europe, 500 miles in California and a 100 miles in Japan.  If an ant is taken from one end and another from one hundred miles away meet they won't attack each other, instead treating one another as if they were from the same colony or nation.

For a long time people wondered about what ants were doing underground.  What their underground houses looked like.  How they survived rainstorms and snowstorms.  A technique was developed to cast the structure of these underground colonies.

I don't know about the morality of destroying all of the ants in the process of making these casts, (some of the makers claim that they only cast molds when the colonies are abandoned or if the colony is destined for extermination because it is a nuisance, but hopefully in the future there will be more humane ways of figuring out their structure without having to kill whole colonies of ants), but the videos below shed light on ants and their underground abodes like nothing I've ever seen before.  (It seems to become more of an ethical dilemma for me, the more I learn about how magnificent these creatures are).  These casts magnificently show what the structure of the underground colonies are in all their intricacies.  These videos show the amazing engineering feats that ants are pulling off to survive the conditions thrown at them by the world.

The following videos show castings of the underground networks made by the colonies of various species of ant.  They are all quite remarkable and show how different species evolved different aesthetics and architectures depending on their environment and societal demands.  Especially for the fourth video it is almost impossible to believe that such small creatures could pull off such building feats and it is truly mysterious to think what these creatures' lives must be like under the surface.  Also, many of them have such stunning architecture it calls into question the definition of intelligence and what can be made possible when beings work together.  Each is a few minutes long, but all are worth watching.

Here are some other images of ant colonies cast by Walter Tschinkel:


Besides art, I don't know what to call some of these marvels.  One has to wonder if these structures don't shed some light on the psychology of ants much like art can tell us something about the psychological state of humans.

Seth Commichaux

1) http://www.cmoe.com/blog/the-team-approach-with-teamwork-anything-is-possible.htm
2) http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8127000/8127519.stm
3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bivouac_%28ants%29

March 8, 2015

Gambling With The Future: The Fight Over The Implementation of Renewable Energy in Utah

The Nature of the Debate

The State of Utah Public Service Commission has a running docket about the cost-benefit analysis/debate over Pacificorp's Net Metering Program, which is about whether Pacificorp should have to pay, and how much they should pay, customers who net produce more solar power than they consume from the grid, especially as the community of residential solar power energy producers grows.  It also questions what responsibility energy producing companies have to promote a better future.

"Net metering is a policy designed to foster private investment in renewable energy. In the United States, as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, all public electric utilities are required to make available upon request net metering to their customers..... Current law requires all utilities to offer net metering upon request, which implies no limits, and is in conflict with state laws which do set a limit." (9)(10) 
Code Ann. § 54-15-102, which states:
(12) Net metering program means a program administered by an electrical corporation whereby a customer with a customer generation system may:
(a)    generate electricity primarily for the customer’s own use;

(b)    supply customer-generated electricity to the electrical corporation; and

(c)    if net metering results in excess customer-generated electricity during a billing period, receive a credit as provided in Section 54-15-104. 
The debate began when Rocky Mountain Power (here I'll use interchangeably with Pacificorp, which is its parent company) moved to raise a fee of $4.65/month on net metering customers.  Because Net Metering issues are governed by state and federal laws, Rocky Mountain Power couldn't just raise its rates on net metering customers without first getting approval from the state and hence the Utah Public Service Commission mediating the public debate.  
Utah Code Ann. § 54-15-105.1 of the NEM statute, which provides that:
The governing authority shall:
(1)  determine, after appropriate notice and opportunity for public comment, whether costs that the electrical corporation or other customers will incur from a net metering program will exceed the benefits of the net metering program, or whether the benefits of the net metering program will exceed the costs; and
(2)  determine a just and reasonable charge, credit, or ratemaking structure, including new or existing tariffs, in light of the costs and benefits.

Utah Code Ann. § 54-15-105.1 Requires Consideration of the Costs and Benefits of the “Net Metering Program” (Not Solely of the “Net Electricity”) Which Necessarily Entails the Costs of the Entire Production from Participating Customers’ Distributed Generation (“DG”) Systems
The rationale Pacificorp used for the fee was that customers, who contribute energy generated from solar panels to the grid, should have to pay more for grid maintenance because "feeding small amounts of electricity from net meter customers to their neighbors results in increased "wear and tear" on the grid, and requires more frequent maintenance."  They also argue that customers who produce electricity with solar panels that goes back out into the grid should have to pay for the general use and maintenance of the grid.
The Company supports development of cost-effective renewable energy. But that development must not be at the expense of customers who choose not, or cannot afford, to install distributed generation. Moreover, voluntary actions taken by individual customers for their own personal reasons cannot shift expenses to the utility, as TASC and Sierra now advocate. Customers partially relying on renewable energy and the net metering program must still pay their fair share of the costs to serve them and to provide them with reliable backup power, and to provide them a grid through which they receive credit for their excess generation. As discussed below, the net metering program as currently structured unfairly shifts costs from net metering customers to all other customers. (1)
NOTE: As of 2014, there were approximately 2,500 residential net metering customers of Rocky Mountain Power as compared to their 800,000 non-net metering customers in Utah. (1) 

At first, in August, the commission ruled that Pacificorp couldn't apply the fee until they could prove factually that net metering customers were incurring higher maintenance costs.  Net metering customers who would be affected by this new "maintenance" fee and environmental groups such as UCARE, the Sierra Club and Utah Clean Energy had argued that if anything, people who were switching to solar were actually reducing the maintenance costs of the grid because they were using less kilowatt-hours and were striving to be more energy efficient in general.  

Rocky Mountain Power, convinced of its position, went forward by doing a study of electricity use and maintenance costs for its customers, comparing net metering customers with customers who only consume electricity.  The study was highly criticized by customers and environmental groups alike for being non-representative, biased and incomplete.   

Pacificorp has not given up the struggle for the fee, threatening that the cost for increased maintenance caused by net metering customers, if not paid for by them, will inevitably be passed on to all customers in the form of higher rates.  

Over time the debate has heated up and taken on global proportions by including global issues.

An argument posed by net metering customers and aformentioned environmental groups is that net meter customers should not have to pay more because their conversion to producing solar energy is net beneficial for the environment, the economy and public health when compared with the adverse impacts of fossil fuel burning for electricity generation.  It is also argued by the same parties that introducing a unique fee for solar power generators who contribute to the grid would have a chilling effect on the use of renewable energies, which is detrimental to the economy, the environment and public health, especially in the face of modern problems such as climate change and environmental pollution.  The debate also centers around whether or not Pacificorp has a responsibility to be modernizing towards renewable sources of energy production, perhaps paying a carbon tax/fine, knowing that fossil fuel burning for electricity production is contributing to environmental degradation and climate change, perhaps even contributing to adverse health impacts in Utah's public via air and water pollution. (1)  http://psc.utah.gov/utilities/electric/elecindx/2014/14035114indx.html.  
Pacificorp hasn't dedicated any attention to the "externalized" costs of burning fossil fuels to produce electricity.  These real-world health care, economic, and environmental costs of burning carbon are shifted from Rocky Mountain Power's financial calculations to our families and communities. (1)
To counter these arguments, Pacificorp's latest addition to the docket comes out with guns blazing calling the "avoided costs for healthcare, environmental clean-up or other intangible societal benefits" by the use of solar or other renewable resources as "unquantifiable" and "speculative." (12)
"While the Company knows with a degree of certainty what its fuel costs are, the same cannot be said for avoided health or environmental impacts from displacement of fossil fuels-based resources." (12)
And because all these impacts are "unquantifiable" and "speculative" Rocky Mountain Power continues by absolving itself of all responsibility in argument 5.
V. The Company Does Not Have the Burden of Proof to Support Costs And Benefits of the Net Metering Program. 
In response to arguments such as Don Gren's:
"There are benefits to Rocky Mountain Power that solar contributes to the electrical system (i.e. less carbon fuel burned, less need for more powerplants, fewer transmission costs and less energy lost on transmission lines, reuced EPA compliance costs, and less vulnerability to fossil fuel price fluctuations........ As well as solar's value to the State and its citizens in offsetting the costs (healthcare, economic, and environmental) of burning fossil fuels to produce electricity."
Pacificorp counters:
Assuming some intervenors’ arguments to be true (though unproven) that subsidizing residentially-produced renewable electricity at the expense of other customers will provide a benefit of reducing the use of fossil fuels, the Commission must necessarily consider such things as loss of jobs, loss of network reliability, and loss of profit margins for small businesses as they grapple with dramatically rising electricity prices, and so forth. All of these things would negatively impact the economy. All of these would need to be considered and are probably more quantifiable than the hypothetical societal, health and environmental “benefits” of displacing base load resources.  Value should not be attributed to alleged fuel price hedging, fuel price volatility and environmental risk factors, as well as to societal and health risk factors.  They are based on divergent and speculative projections and are not costs the Company incurs to provide service. (12)
According to Pacificorp, the quantifiable benefits of the solar output generated as part of the net metering program include a) avoided energy costs and b) avoided capacity costs.  These benefits, from their point-of-view, are only net-metering customer specific and thus do not offset the costs that come with the increased costs on the grid incurred by net metering.
Depending on the electrical characteristics of the distribution system, a high penetration of NEM requires infrastructure upgrades to provide safe and reliable electricity to customers. For example, the upgrades include, without limitation:
·    replacement of existing voltage regulators, installation of new voltage regulators (particularly on lines with NEM customers heavily clustered at the end of the line);
·    increased maintenance of voltage regulators due to the impact of cloud cover resulting in an increased number of operations;
·    replacement of distribution transformers;
·    upgrading or replacement of existing line reclosers or protective relays and installation of new line reclosures to replace existing fuses where protection coordination may be impacted due to large amounts of NEM connections on the feeder; and
·    installation and maintenance of additional substation equipment such as dead-line check.
Rocky Mountain Power closes their argument by essentially claiming that all objections to their proposed fee on net metering customers are politically motivated and thus not worthy of consideration:
And although at least one party in this case sees it as a decision that rewards “smart customer choices” for “smart and engaged … distributed solar customers,” the Company views it as a decision that would force subsidies to support certain customers’ social, political and economic choices at the expense of others. (12)
There is an especially strange line in Pacificorp's argument that I'd like to address later:
The Company submits that policies that artificially boost a specific type of renewable energy rather than targeting emission reductions from any source, in particular at the expense of Utah customers and at the expense of the utility, is not good policy.
Getting To Know Pacificorp

Before we parse the details of the debate previously mentioned, I felt it would be good for us to get to know Pacificorp a little bit, locally known as Rocky Mountain Power, Utah's major electricity provider.  On their website Pacificorp describes itself as "one of the West’s leading utilities. It operates as Pacific Power in Oregon, Washington and California; and as Rocky Mountain Power in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. Balancing growing energy needs with costs and the environment is an ongoing focus for the company."  (2) http://www.pacificorp.com/index.html

It operates 69 generation facilities in the six states that Pacific Power and Rocky Mountain Power operate in, plus two facilities in Montana, three in Colorado, and one in Arizona.  It serves serves most major cities in Utah, with the following exceptions: Bountiful, Eagle Mountain, Kaysville, Lehi, Provo, Murray, and Logan.  Overall it provides power to over 1.4 million residential customers, 202,000 commercial customers, and 34,000 industrial and irrigation customers - for a total of approximately 1,668,000 customers. 70.6% of the power generation is from thermal sources (i.e. coal or natural gas), 6.7% from hydroelectric sources, and 0.2% from wind sources. 22.5% of PacifiCorp Energy's generation is purchased from other suppliers or under contracts. (3)

Pacificorp is a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy (formerly MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company), which is a holding company that is, itself, 89.8% owned by Berkshire Hathaway (controlled by investor Warren Buffet). (4)(5)  Berkshire Hathaway Energy holds the following companies: MidAmerican Energy Company, MidAmerican Renewables, PacifiCorp, Northern Powergrid (formerly CE Electric UK), Integrated Utility Services UK, CalEnergy Generation, Kern River Gas Transmission Company, Kern River Pipeline, Northern Natural Gas Company (Omaha), HomeServices of America, BYD Company (10% of outstanding shares), NV Energy, Metalogic Inspections Services, Intelligent Energy Solutions, AltaLink.

The parent company of Berkshire Hathaway Energy is Berkshire Hathaway which has $493 billion worth of assets and according to Forbes is the fifth largest public company in the world.  The company wholly owns GEICO, BNSF, Lubrizol, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, Helzberg Diamonds, FlightSafety International, NetJets, Acme Building Brands, Benjamin Moore and Company, Clayton Homes inc., owns half of Heinz and an undisclosed percentage of Mars, Incorporated, and has significant minority holdings in DIRECTV, Exxon Mobil Corp., Goldman Sachs, Phillips 66, Wal-Mart, The Proctor and Gamble Company, American Express, The Coca-Cola Company, Wells Fargo, IBM and Restaurant Brands International, amongst many others. (4) 

A holding company is "a company that owns other companies' outstanding stock. The term usually refers to a company that does not produce goods or services itself; rather, its purpose is to own shares of other companies to form a corporate group. Holding companies allow the reduction of risk for the owners and can allow the ownership and control of a number of different companies." (6) 

The point of all this, is that when we're talking about Pacificorp, we're talking about the tip of a massive iceberg of companies-who-own-companies that suspiciously seem like a hierarchy scheme to diffuse liability and to be a monopoly without apparently seeming to be one.  

Pacificorp fuels 58% of its electricity production with coal and according to its website, "Approximately one-third of the coal used in the PacifiCorp system is produced from captive mines. PacifiCorp's mines produce approximately 8.8 million tons of coal annually from both surface and underground mines. Surface operations produce approximately 0.6 million tons per year and underground operations produce approximately 8.2 million tons per year." (2)

According to its website, it produces renewable energy in the form of geothermal, hydroelectric and wind. (2)  Wind power accounts for about 8.8% of their total electricity production and, as far as I could tell, the total amount of energy produced by hydroelectric was 10.8%, and geothermal 0.2%.  Additionally, from my calculations it came out to be that fossil fuel burning for electricity production accounted for about 80.2% of the company's total output.

Addressing The Economic and Environmental Costs of Burning Carbon

On a factual level Pacificorp's argument is problematic to say the very least and as I hope to have shown in the previous section, one can hardly expect an honest argument out of such a vested hierarchical scheme (Rocky Mountain Power as one branch of Pacificorp which is one branch of Hathaway Berkshire Energy, which is just one branch of Hathaway Berkshire, which is only the 5th largest company in the world!).

In a statement, Rocky Mountain Power said that there were beginning to be enough net metering customers that it effected normal business operations, which, to me, might be implying that the real motivation behind this public debate is that residential solar panel use is cutting into Pacificorp's profits.

Further proof that Pacificorp's actions are more motivated by the bottom line, than by any other consideration, can be found in a recent Deseret News article titled, "Clean Power: States Told to Reduce Carbon Dioxide; Utah assails Obama's Plan."  Therein it talks about "Obama's Clean Power Plan mandating carbon reductions from existing power plants" in effort to address human-caused climate change and how its being received by many states and businesses as an attack on coal.  In reality it is an attack on coal because coal power plants are some of the worst point sources of pollution anywhere.  According to the White House, Utah power plants produce 31 million metic tons of carbon pollution annually, which equates to the average pollution created by 6.5 million cars over the course of a year.  As we all know, carbon pollution is the main culprit of climate change, but this doesn't phase Rocky Mountain Power, the main electricity producer in Utah.  In the article it talks about Rocky Mountain Power's resistance to the plan for initiating a greener future.  And in some ways their resistance makes sense because, after all, Pacificorp generates the majority of its electricity with coal power plants and much of this is fueled with coal that comes from mines that Pacificorp owns.  If you made your money by owning coal mines and producing electricity by burning coal, wouldn't you find it threatening if it was mandated that coal could no longer be used for any of these purposes?  But just because, their motivations are understandable does not make their resistance to change excusable, especially when failure to change endangers the health of the environment and society, from here to the future.

As if there needed to be anymore evidence that climate change is underway as a result of humanity's boundless appetite for combustion, a new study published in Nature journal, "Observational determination of surface radiative forcing by CO2 from 2000 to 2010," provides more such evidence. 
"Scientists have observed an increase in carbon dioxide's greenhouse effect at Earth's surface for the first time. They measured atmospheric carbon dioxide's increasing capacity to absorb thermal radiation emitted from Earth's surface over an 11-year period at two locations in North America. They attributed this upward trend to rising carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuel emissions." (7)
Climate change, contrary to Pacificorp's claims that it is "unquantifiable and speculative", is a reality with much supporting evidence that is going to have to be dealt with by all humans regardless of agenda.  Along with climate change, the deterioration in quality of air, water and the environment are also readily quantifiable and non-speculative outcomes of burning of fossil fuels,
Prolonged exposure to toxins from energy production facilities, is tied to (mortality), birth defects, heart disease, asthma attacks, lung disease, learning difficulties, and even lower property values.  A 2010 report by the National Research Council (NRC) calculates that particulate matter pollution from U.S. coal-fired power plants is solely responsible for causing approximately 1,530 excess deaths per year.  In addition, properties in close proximity to toxic facilities average 15% lower property values. (8)
There is also a racial/minorities/poverty and disenfranchised people's component to these adverse effects.  For instance,
Approximately 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, which produces the largest proportion of energy compared to any other energy production type. The health conditions associated with exposure to toxins coming from these plants disproportionately affect African Americans. An  African American child is three times as likely to be admitted to the hospital and twice more likely to die from an asthma attack than a white American child. Though African Americans are less likely to smoke, they are more  likely to die of lung disease than white Americans are. (8)
At the same time, many of the same polluting facilities that affect the daily health and well-being of host communities are major contributors to the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions are the leading cause of climate change and coal-fired power generation accounts for 32% of all carbon dioxide emissions. (8)

As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way."  Most problems are not without solutions, but without cooperation they might as well be without solutions.  What I don't understand about Pacificorp, and many other companies with similar stature and influence, is that they resist the inevitable rather than being the vanguards.  Realizing that climate change, pollution, resource uncertainty and the resulting costs to society in health and wealth are modern realities that must be dealt with, why not just invest in the necessary changes rather than standing in front of the crumbling dam insisting that it's just an illusion?  Face it, humans have screwed up a lot of things on this Earth, but it will only be the end of the world if we insist that we haven't and continue down the same old path of destruction.  There's nothing inevitable or unavoidable about our current situation nor are the problems we've created unsolvable if we had each other's cooperation and determination to take the facts into account and make the necessary changes.

So how much energy could renewable sources generate in Utah?

Solar power in Utah has the capacity to provide almost a third of all electricity used in the United States. (8)(11)

Solar: Utah has urban utility-scale PV potential of 30,492 GWh (72.2% of total net generation), rural utility-scale PV potential of 5,184,878  GWh (over 100% of total net generation), rooftop PV potential is 7,514 GWh (17.7% of total net generation) and  concentrated solar power potential is 5,067,547 GWh (over 100% of total net generation). (8)(11)

Wind: Onshore wind power  potential is 31,552 GWh (74.6% of total net generation). (8)(11)

Geothermal: Utah has hydrothermal power potential of 12,982  GWh (30.7% of total net generation) and enhanced geothermal systems potential is 939,381 GWh (over 100% of  total net generation). (8)(11)

And besides, Utah has a voluntary renewable energy standard of 20% by 2025.  Why not strive to attain a goal worth so much more than money, like individual and societal well-being?  (Currently, only about 3% of electricity production in Utah comes from renewables, the other 97% coming from the combustion of fossil fuels, 30% of which leaves the state). (8)

1) http://psc.utah.gov/utilities/electric/elecindx/2014/14035114indx.html
2) Pacificorp Website http://www.pacificorp.com/index.html
3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PacifiCorp
4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkshire_Hathaway
5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkshire_Hathaway_Energy
6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holding_company

7) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150225132103.htm
8) http://naacp.3cdn.net/65ceef04a8572daf81_tym6blqfc.pdf
9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_metering
10) http://web.archive.org/web/20090521131550/http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/states/alternatives/net_metering.cfm
11) http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/51946.pdf
13) http://www.pv-tech.org/news/utah_suspends_net_metering_dispute

February 11, 2015

Language and Scientific Inquiry Lesson Plan/Activity

A longstanding and as of yet unresolved question in science is whether or not other species use complex language to communicate.  So far, some humans take great pride in thinking that they are the only ones who use complex language.  Many approaches have been used to answer this question from trying to teach apes sign language to training dogs and pigeons to recognize hundreds and thousands of symbols and commands to recording and playing back modulated songs to birds to see their response.  But as of yet, there is no conclusive evidence that other species use language as complex as say English or Chinese.  Science is fairly certain that dolphins and whales know and call one another by name.  Many small mammals and birds have specific warning calls that they give that identify different predators to the rest of their communities.  Some songbirds know and sing over 200 unique songs and it has also been shown in songbirds that within the same species there are dialects.  In the south sparrows might sing with a twang whereas in the New England they sound more academic and snobbish (maybe I need to look up my sources again!)  It has also been shown in songbirds that within 30 years, their songs can evolve quite rapidly indicating that their songs are just as much learned as they are genetic.  Some parrots and crows and dogs can say human words and sentences, but are they really using language or are they just mimicking human voices?  (Sometimes the way some people talk I have to wonder if the same question can't be asked there as well!)

In a minute I'm going to guide you through a scientific inquiry about whether or not a robin in a youtube video is using language, but first let's start on a historical note about a dead language that took 2000 years to decode:  Cuneiform.

Cuneiform originated in Sumer (Southern Iraq) and is the earliest known system of written language, dating back to around 6000-5500 years ago.  It was used for nearly 3000 years before it went extinct around the year 150 C.E.  At that time all speakers and all of those who knew how to read it were dead.  It wasn't until the 1800s before people began to fully decipher it although Greeks, Romans, Persians and Arabs had noticed it and wondered about it when they traveled to the region and saw it on monuments and clay tablets. In fact, Medieval Persian and Arab scholars were the first known people to try to systematically decipher Cuneiform and although they were largely unsuccessful they did figure out some things.

Cuneiform began as a pictogram, accounting system for keeping track of trade transactions, but over thousands of years became a complex written language.  The characters started out as symbols for objects and words, but gradually morphed into a hodgepodge of that as well as characters that represented phonetic syllables much like our alphabet.  Below is an image that shows the evolution of the character for head over 3000 years.

Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 B.C.E.

Deciphering Cuneiform was a process that can help us appreciate the difficulty of scientific inquiry as a process.  This is because it often takes many minds working over many generations to make progress on difficult questions.  The question people faced when they saw Cuneiform was, "what is this?  Is it meaningful?"  At first, when nothing was known about Cuneiform because all of its speakers and scribes were dead, it was a hypothesis that it was a written language.  It very well could have been just so many scribbles or it could have been a system of numbers with no words.  When you first looked at the stone tablet above, if you had known nothing about Cuneiform, would you have guessed that it was a language?  Considering the evidence, that it was found on clay tablets, monuments and temple and building walls, it seems a good hypothesis that Cuneiform was a language and that's what people ran with.

 Pietro Della Valle, an Italian who had traveled to the Near East in the early 1600s, hypothesized after seeing many examples of Cuneiform that it must be read left-to-right.  This was an important contribution, though his only contribution, to the decipherment of the dead language. 

Sir Thomas Herbert in 1634 England, after seeing many examples of Cuneiform, hypothesized, correctly, that it wasn't an alphabet, but a written system of words and symbols.  He guessed this because it would be highly unlikely that there would be an alphabet of over 1000 letters (Cuneiform had about this many characters), because many examples are continuous without breaks as one would expect to separate words, and because some of the inscriptions were quite short.

"Bishop Friedich Munter discovered that the words in the Persian inscriptions were divided from one another by an oblique wedge and that the monuments must belong to the age of Cyrus and his successors. One word, which occurs without any variation towards the beginning of each inscription, he correctly inferred to signify "king." By 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend had determined that two king's names mentioned were Darius and Xerxes (but in their native Old Persian forms, which were unknown at the time and therefore had to be conjectured), and had been able to assign correct alphabetic values to the cuneiform characters which composed the two names." (1)

"In 1836, the eminent French scholar Eugène Burnouf discovered that the first of the inscriptions published by Niebuhr contained a list of the provinces of the Persian Empire. With this clue in his hand, he identified and published an alphabet of thirty letters, most of which he had correctly deciphered." (1)

In 1835, Henry Rawlinson found the Rosetta Stone of Cuneiform.  An inscription that had the same statement in Old Persian Cuneiform, Elamite and Babylonian.  This inscription led to the complete decipherment of Cuneiform.

Figuring out how the language was spoken and with what accent was done through comparison of it to other related scripts and languages.  Today there are several hundred scholars who are both fluent in writing and speaking Cuneiform.

The history of the decipherment of Cuneiform tells us something about how science works.  People hypothesize about a problem they are faced with and then seek evidence that upholds or disproves it.  To solve a difficult problem often requires contributions from many minds in many different fields.  People have to collaborate, sharing their perspectives, insights, and using their creativity.  In order to decipher the dead language people had to study many hundreds and thousands of examples of it to find patterns that might give context to otherwise incomprehensible symbols.  The process of science can be frustrating because some problems are just too difficult for one person or one generation to figure out and sometimes the best that can be done is to make progress on understanding without ever coming to any absolute truth.  Luckily in the case of Cuneiform, the researchers were dealing with a human language with many examples of the writing in existence thus giving many angles for discovering patterns and giving context to those patterns.  Also, they were lucky in finding an inscription that contained two known languages as well as the Cuneiform. But despite, these breakthroughs, it still was a 2000 year process, since the extinction of the language to bring it back to life.

What happens though when we deal with an even harder problem?  Such as trying to figure out whether or not other animals use sophisticated language.  In this case, there are no known examples besides human language, that we can use to help us decipher these languages, and we are stuck in an even harder spot because we don't even know if other animals are just making sounds or actually using a systematized language in the first place.  But if we hypothesize that some animals indeed are using language, how can we go about finding evidence to support or disprove it?  Just like in the case of deciphering Cuneiform we have to go back to looking for perspectives, insights, patterns and contexts that will help our understanding.

I found an interesting video of an American Robin singing that I'd like to use to guide us on our scientific inquiry.  First of all just watch the video once or twice and think/question about what you think the bird is doing by singing and pay special attention to the way it sings.  Write down your observations and thoughts.

Have a discussion with people about what they think the bird is doing by singing as well as what they notice about its vocalizations.  Is it just talking to itself?  Is it talking gibberish?  Is it meaningful?  Is it language?  Is it just expressing itself through music?  Is it just a vocal instinctual fixed-action-pattern?  Did you notice how songs of a similar pattern are sung and then separated by a pause?  Is each song sung the same?  Does the number of chirps per song vary?  Do the pitches of notes change from song to song.  Etc.

Now, how can we go beyond just mere conjecture and find evidence about whether or not the bird is speaking a language?  It might be best to begin by allowing everyone to come up with their own method of collecting evidence that the bird is or isn't speaking a language and then playing the video once or twice more.  After showing the video again, let everyone share what they came up with and then let people collaborate, adapting their approaches or adopting someone else's, just as it happens in science.  Then show the video again once or twice more and repeat the process a few times to see how far people get.  Part of what should dawn on people is that 1) we all have unique perspectives and ways of applying our creativity to problems.  This is good and other people's ideas should be embraced when they prove to be useful.  2) Real world scientific inquiries are often frustrating and difficult.  This is why people have to learn to collaborate and adapt their approaches according to progress that others have made.  It should be emphasized from the history of Cuneiform decipherment that many scientific problems take a long time to solve if they are solved and making progress on understanding, sometimes, is the most that can be hoped for, although this can still be very rewarding.

My approach for gaining insight into the bird's songs can be done as follows:
1) Number 1 - 15 on a piece of paper (this is the number of discrete songs the bird sings in the video)
2) Then listen to the video once or twice, having everyone take a tally of how many chirps occur in each song.  The numbers will likely vary from person-to-person because the bird sings slurs that sound like two notes as well as notes with two quick beats compared to most other notes sung that have just one beat. 

When I'm just tallying beats I get the following numbers:
1) 8
2) 9
3) 5
4) 2
5) 11
6) 5
7) 8
8) 5
9) 8
10) 6
11) 6
12) 7
13) 12
14) 6
15) 6

Have people compare their results and then discuss if any patterns emerged and what might be done to improve their methods.  Are there numbers that occur more frequently?  Do combinations of numbers always show up together?  Etc.  What can this tell us about whether or not the bird is using language?

The next time that I listened to the video I used a tally for a regular note, a V for quick double notes, and a dot (I'm typing as an "o" here for convenience) for high pitch notes and got the following results.  You could have people do the same.  This is the process of refining our methods in science so that we obtain better data and observations.  With better data and observations we can make better inferences and conclusions about what is going on.

3) IIIIo
4) II
6) IIVIo
12) IIIIIo

Again, have people compare their results, discuss their interpretations of and observations about the results and then offer suggestions about how to improve their methods even further.  It isn't a problem if they only have pencil and paper and no other instrumentation for it exemplifies the common dilemma in science where we often have questions and methods we want to try that go far beyond our current technological and technical capability.  When we lack technology we have to apply our creativity to use what we have to get better results, when we lack technical ability we have to train ourselves and increase our knowledge or find and learn how to collaborate with the people who have the skills and knowledge in demand.

End by having people recommend what things could be done to get better results, what other experiments, knowledge and observations would be useful to shed further light on the issue of whether or not robins or any other species are using language besides humans.

This activity is meant to help people come to understand how science really works.  It should make them appreciate that science can be very difficult, slow to progress and frustrating, but also that it can be very exciting and rewarding as well as a playground for the maximum application of creativity because many problems/phenomena have no known answer and many problems/phenomena haven't even been identified yet.

What I found interesting, just by tallying the chirps of the robin's song, is that meaningful patterns began to emerge.  For instance, high notes tended to occur as the fifth and eighth note of the songs.  The number of notes in the songs varied, but there was occasional repetition.  This all highlights something that I've experienced when doing scientific research; oftentimes meaningful patterns emerge when we take the time to make careful observations and to think about what those observations might mean.

Discoveries are rewarding because they further shed light on the nature of existence and our context in the universe as humans.  And what's more, one need not be a professor at an elitist university to make discoveries; anyone who is willing to apply their creativity can take part in the excitement of discovery and furthering the process of understanding our universe known as science. 

-Seth Commichaux

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform
2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0omo_-InUuE

January 5, 2015

Dogen and Me: Person, Perspective, Purpose and Place

Hello friends!
Seth has written another exciting blog that looks at poetry derived from Zen practice and its ability to help us connect to the world and each other. This is a great topic! Forging personal and deep connections to both the human and non-human world is a very big piece of the environmental education puzzle.

We would love to hear from you on your own thoughts about how poetry and other forms of art cultivate a sense of place and connection! Please add your comments in the comment box.

USEE Staff

Lately I've been reading some of the poems and sayings of Dōgen.

He lived from 1200 to 1253 in the modern era.  Thought to be born an illegitimate child of a noble family, he was given up to a Buddhist monastery (which acted like orphanages, back then, for unwanted children in many cases) after his mother died at 7 years old.  He was influential in establishing the Soto school of Zen in Japan after studying it under master Rujing in China.

One thing I really like about Dōgen (as well as many other Zen poets) is that he practiced extracting symbolic profundity from any place and any moment by just being aware of what was outside and inside himself, thereby dissolving the boundary between self and world until there were no distinctions.  Oftentimes, making connections between seemingly unconnected things leads to thought-provoking insights.
When my mind is free--
I listen to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
And the drops become
One with me.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Trying to observe the world and his thoughts as with a mirror, Dōgen captured the world in the art of poetry.  With just a few well-chosen words he expressed that the real world was mystical and mysterious because relationships could be found between all things, beings and times.

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Oftentimes, when I get bored with life it is because I have lost awareness of the things and beings around me and the relationships I share with them.  I have lost sight of the mysticism and mystery of just existing.  Dōgen and the Zen poets help my awareness extend beyond myself reawakening a sense of wonder that has a healing affect on my mind.  I don't know how such simple observations/insights captured in such few words can have this effect.
The migrating bird
leaves no trace behind
and needs no guide.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Robert Bly

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
It does not get wet nor can its image be broken.
Although the moon's light is wide and great,
it is even reflected in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Reawakened with a sense of place, I realize all of the amazing things in the environment around me.

"When snow falls,
a heron
uses its whiteness
to disappear."
--poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

"Do not ask where I am going,
For everywhere I step in this world,
I am home."
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Sometimes, we're so caught up in the reel of our own lives, we forget just how amazing, complex and vast the world and universe beyond really are and we forget just how many other beings on Earth and beyond are navigating their own lives in their own little bubbles.  How often do we live right pass one another?  Sometimes loneliness, fear, paranoia, hatred, and insecurity kill the realization of connectedness, interrelatedness and wonder; our perception shrinks to hardline dichotomies like self and other, good and evil, us and them.  We only see strong distinctions everywhere, our judgments become severe, we become disinterested in learning about our differences (losing opportunities to build bridges, losing the insights that come with different perspectives), we cease to believe that everyone and everything has something to teach us, we forget that we too are not perfect and have blind spots.

I won't even stop
at the valley's brook
for fear that
my shadow
might flow into the world.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator
In the spring wind
peach blossoms
begin to fall.
Doubt will not grow
branches and leaves.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

But if we can re-center ourselves and reconnect with the moment, place and beings that we are sharing existence with, perhaps the world will seem less threatening, the differences that divide seem less alien, and the potential to transform it all in a constructive way will be greater than when all seems divided, antagonistic and in disarray.

"A fool sees himself and no other.  A wise man sees others in himself and himself in others."
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Life is opportunity, but many opportunities can only be realized by seeing the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be.  Dōgen was just a human being, but his unique way of seeing and approaching the world was a great contribution to the collective perspective.  His flavor of Zen tries to connect a person with the world as it is, believing that such a connection will lead to many insights and truths.

"If you cannot find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?"
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

I do not know if Dōgen is right in any absolute sense, but knowledge does not necessarily need to settle any questions of universal significance in order to help us learn and grow.  It is amazing enough that his art, after so many centuries, has helped me and others become more aware of the connection we have with the beings, things and time surrounding. 

With this deeper awareness comes the realization that if all beings are interconnected then so are their destinies.  Therefore a sense of responsibility grows that I work to better myself so that I can make my best contribution and that I help others maximize their potential so that they can make their greatest contribution, all working together towards a mutually better world.

Dōgen, seeking to discover a sense of place and connectedness through art led me to attempt the same.  Here is my Zen poem.  I encourage you to write yours.

When the cosmic wind loses its mind in a kaleidoscope tantrum
it blows a dust storm of time across the universe.

The trees on the side of the ever rising Mountain of Life,
keep pulling themselves higher by the root.

They hold fast to the underground network that sustains them.

Each one only perceives
their will against the world.....

Their focus solely on the stars,
who seem reachable in moments of inspiration,

but hopelessly far away
when in doubt........

How close must hardship bring us before we recognize that we are not alone?

=Seth Commichaux