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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/16/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 7
Table of Contents
The trip logs for our recent trip to the north central United States are available at:
("A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.")
A Brighter Black Bird (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
What must have been one of the great double-takes in science happened last week to some scientists in a lab at Oxford. They were doing some experiments in animal intelligence and recognition of tools.
Ravens are known to be really intelligent birds and crows are considered their slightly less intelligent cousins. Both use tools to a limited degree. The paragon of intelligent animals is thought to be the chimpanzee who really does find objects to use as tools. But do crows really understand the concept of tools? Answering that was the object of the experiment. Two crows were being tested, Abel and Betty. There was food placed in a small basket inside a vertical tube. The food was too far down for the crows to get it with beaks alone and without tools. The scientists put some wires at the base of the tube. One was twisted into a "J" and could be used as a hook to bring up the basket. Would the crows recognize the straight wire was useless, but the J could be used as a hook to bring up the basket? Would the crows recognize the hook as having a characteristic they could exploit?
It seems the experiment ran into a small snag. Abel flew off with the hook. Betty, who was left behind, wanted the food but had no way to get it. She went for the useless wire, the one that did not have the hook. With her beak she bent the wire into a hook, used it to lift the basket out of the tube, and devoured the food. Uh, well, yeah, that's another solution to the problem.
The scientists were intrigued and repeated the experiment over and over leaving Betty with straight wires and food she could not reach. Betty made her own hooks when she wanted to get at the food. In ten tries Betty made nine hooks. It was no fluke.
So what was learned? Chimpanzees are smart enough to understand and use tools. And ravens are pretty smart. But now it may be that their more intelligent cousins are crows who actually understand tools and FORGE THEM THEMSELVES. Tool forging is not all there is to animal intelligence, it is only one measure. It does not prove that crows are the smartest animals by any measure, but it proves they are by at least one.
Actually it had been known for a while that crows cut and rip shapes out of leaves to make them more effective as tools. Crows use leaves to extract insects from places their beaks will not go. There is a fine line of distinction between taking a leaf and turning it into a more effective tool and turning a wire into a tool. Tearing parts off the leaf to make it effective is very near tool-forging. I have to admit that even as I write this, I am not clear why one is counted as tool-making and the other only as tool improving. Perhaps Betty can explain it.
But it seems our observations of chimp intelligence may have been tainted with prejudice. Our reasoning was that we humans are the most intelligent animals, the second most intelligent animal will be the one that is most like us. Still there are rumors of surprising avian intelligence. Even avian politeness. I am told that if you are handing out fish to penguins they queue up. No pushing or cutting in line. And if you give a penguin too small a piece how does he show it? He quietly walks to the end of the line and waits for a second turn. This sort of etiquette seems to come more naturally to penguins than it does to humans. I am not sure that is really considered to be an intelligent feat. But now a crow has performed something that has been a standard of intelligence. In fact, what was one of the old distinctions of human superiority to other animals has fallen by the wayside. Yes, humans are tool-making animals, and now we know so are crows. Chimps still have not joined this select fraternity.
Crows are also smart enough to use human machines, though not always in ways they were intended. Another article I read talks about how crows line up with humans at traffic crossings waiting for the light to change. But they are not trying to cross the road. When the light changes they walk into the road to drop walnuts. Then they go back and wait for cars to drive over the walnuts. When the traffic clears again they pick up the edible pieces. If the nuts were not hit, they will often reposition the nuts to where they think they will have a better chance of being hit by the car. Another technique that has been observed is for a crow to sit on electrical wires over the road and drop nuts right into the path of the wheel of a moving car. They know where the tires are and this one should work the first time.
Back in December it was discovered crows share another interesting characteristic with intelligent primates and few other animals. They tend to develop one side more than the other. Humans, chimps, and gorillas tend to use one side more then the other. In humans we call this right-handedness or left-handedness. Some animals like crabs will favor one side due to a natural asymmetry. But the animals who tend to more develop one side, having one side that specializes in strength and dexterity, is usually seen in animals closer to humans. But over the last year it was discovered that most crows are right-beaked. When they use tools they tend to use the right side of their beaks. This is one more characteristic that we share with these birds.
Henry Ward Beecher said "If men had wings and bore black feathers few of them would be clever enough to be crows." In fact it seems that crows are better adapted to live in a human world than we would be to live in theirs. [-mrl]
Of Books and Birds (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was talking about bird intelligence and, you know, there is someone who has associated intelligence with birds all along. That is book publishers. They so frequently seem to choose bird names for their the names of their publishing houses. There's Penguin Books, Bluejay Books, Puffin Books, Roc Books, and Bantam Books. The one that tickles me was the publisher that resulted when Penguin Books bought Viking Press and for a while they were calling the resulting publisher "Viking Penguin." I think they should have used the name for a cartoon series.
And speaking of publishers with weird names, isn't it about time Random House put their house in order? [-mrl]
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The autobiography of Robert Evans gives insights into his own life and the Hollywood studio film industry in general. In his tenure as the production head of Paramount Robert J. Evans undeniably has made no small number of the right decisions about the film business and no smaller number of wrong decisions about his personal life. Gossip-magazine-level material but still this a compelling biographical documentary. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
I didn't read Robert Evans's book THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. Instead, I listened to the audio book on a long drive. I am sure there was a lot that was cut out from the book to put the material in the audio book format. There always is. Do I think that I missed a lot of the story? No. The audio book was "read" by the author. Actually he didn't so much read the material, he performed it. This is material that should be performed and not just delivered in printed format. The film THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE itself is more like the audio book than it is the printed book. The film is just an abridged version of the audio book with the same ironic laconic delivery and some visual illustrations. The visuals use all sorts of clever ways to illustrate Evans's memories, but they are not Evans himself the way the monologue is. They are someone else's illustrations. What is important is what Evans is saying and how he says it. How he says it is how he feels about it.
Like MY DINNER WITH ANDRE or the Spaulding Grey monologues, the visual aspect adds less to the film. It is nice to see what some of the people looked like in the still pictures turned as three- dimensional as the filmmakers could manage. We even get to see a little of the Evans mansion, the building which means so much to the man. But it was the audio book where I think he poured his heart out, probably even more so than the book, and the film is just a quick and considerably shorter version of that audio book.
So who is this Robert J. Evans? If you didn't know, don't worry. All is explained in the film. He started with cinema as the wholesome-looking young actor who played legendary producer Irving Thalberg in THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, the (highly Hollywood- ized) screen biography of Lon Chaney. The film ended but the Thalberg role has gone on for Evans for a lifetime. Evans decided that what he wanted to be was Thalberg. He wanted to use his artistic taste to build films that he thought the public would like. And for the first half of his career he did just that surprisingly successfully.
As his entrance to the production world he acquired the rights for the novel THE DETECTIVE. He parlayed that into a career in film production. He produced the weepy potboiler LOVE STORY and then married its star. Other films he put together include ROSEMARY'S BABY, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THE ODD COUPLE, CHINATOWN (as an independent producer), MARATHON MAN, and BLACK SUNDAY. And the list goes on. He battled his company executives to get to make THE GODFATHER, then battled Francis Coppola to make the film more of an epic. Evans seemed to know what kind of films the public wanted to see, even before the public knew. Under his control Paramount went from being the eighth most successful studio to the number one spot. Then Evans started making mistakes.
The story of his career and his life from the 1950s to the 1980s is told with surprising candor in the film. Though cut down and toned down from the source material the film is still very revealing. There is probably nobody in Hollywood as positive or as negative on Robert Evans as Robert Evans is himself.
The directors of this film, Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, have found tricks to taking still photographs and making them visually interesting to go with the dialog. But they remain just tricks. Frequently they even seem pretentious and it is good the monologue distracts from them. Curiously the script is credited to Brett Morgen, though it seems like Evans is telling his own story in his own (frequently course) words. Perhaps Morgen just determined what stories would go in the film version.
Evans has a slightly irritating delivery but the authenticity of having him do the talking more than makes up for it. I rate THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. Stay for the closing credits. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A man always blames the woman who fooled him. In the same way he blames the door he walks into in the dark. -- H. L. Mencken
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