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July 17, 2006

If a lion could talk

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what would it say?

Stephen Budiansky found this question compelling enough to use it for the title of his 1998 book (above) exploring animal intelligence and the nature of consciousness.

Now comes Jonathan Balcombe

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with "Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good."

It's the first book-length survey of the question of whether animals experience pleasure.

Marcela Valdes did a short interview with Balcombe which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Book World, and follows.

    Fido Wants Fun, Too

    Since the 1859 publication of Darwin's The Origin of the Species , scientists have indulged a rather Hobbesian view of animals: that they're selfish, brutish and bent on nothing but survival. But D.C.-based biologist Jonathan Balcombe takes issue with the Hobbesian view. On a recent Sunday, working the podium at Politics & Prose book store, the poised, almost balletic scientist argued for a full range of bestial motivations. Beyond hunger, reproduction, survival and pain, Balcombe posited pleasure. His animal-loving audience purred.

    Balcombe first stumbled upon his idea in Assateague, Va., while spying on two fish crows happily grooming each other in a marsh.

    Stepping back from his telescope, Balcombe thought, "What have I read about pleasure in animals?" By that point, he'd studied biology for 10 years in three different universities. He'd spent countless hours probing through scholarly journals and reading books about nature. "My jaw rather dropped," he said, "to realize that I hadn't read anything" on the subject.

    Thus Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan, $24.95), the first survey of pleasure in animals, was born.

    Going against his training, Balcombe prowled for other examples of pleasure, turning up more than enough for a book. The results contribute, he says, to "a revolution" in the field.

    Balcombe baited his audience with tidbits of research -- lettuce-loving iguanas, bunnies who somersault in joy-induced flips. Lemurs and capuchin monkeys, he said, harvest millipedes for nibbling and rubbing on their lips, savoring the "very powerful defense chemicals" the millipedes produce. The monkeys "get floppy and drooly," he said. "They kind of hang out. And in parallel with certain human behavior that might be familiar to some, they pass [the millipede] around." The audience laughed.

    Balcombe doesn't throw Darwin out with the bathwater. He's simply broadening the field of interpretation. Pleasure, he argues, is adaptive. "The way I like to put it," he said, "is: Just as pain is nature's way of punishing bad or dangerous behaviors, pleasure is nature's way of rewarding good or adaptive behaviors."

    But he's quick to admit that, in the case of the aforementioned monkeys, pleasure could be "maladaptive" as well. A lemur under the influence "might be more vulnerable to predation," he said. "Or he might fall out of a tree."

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I remember once reading an interview with a writer whose name I've since forgotten in which the questioner asked him if he'd like to be able to enter the mind of another person and see what it felt like to be them.

The author replied that he'd find it far more interesting to enter the mind and consciousness of a dog.

Concur.

To even begin to understand what it means to be human we need at the very least to feel — not just imagine — what it is like to be alive and other than human.

John C. Lilly spent his life investigating the nature of the dolphin mind: his 1967 book, "The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence" is a classic.

It costs $2 (used) at Amazon.

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Not a bad price for a book that might well cause you to take a new look at yourself and the nature of identity in an ever more mysterious world.

July 17, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Bookworm Boots

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From the website:

    Bookworm Boots

    Glazed Kelly leather and cocoa suede make a fine read.

    Pull-on construction.

    Leather insole/sole.

    Romania.

    4" heel.

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$598.

July 17, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Free directory assistance from both cellphones and landlines

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Say what?

Duffy Franco wrote about it in the latest edition of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, as follows:

    Free 411 Directory Assistance

    The number is 1-800-Free411, and it's pretty self-explanatory. It's free directory information. Works on cells and land lines. The other day I was about to call a store and my sister shouted "1-800-Free411" at me as I pulled down her driveway. I dialed it on my cell phone, and gave the name, town, and city. Somewhere in there they air a 12-second commercial, but then they give you your requested number, and even repeat it twice. I haven't experimented yet, but you MAY even be able to circumvent the commercial by pressing "2" on your keypad.

    Cell phone companies in MOST parts of the world only charge you for calls you place; incoming calls are free (as they SHOULD be), so I'm annoyed enough when I return to the USA. If I can find a way to keep large corporations from taking more $$ outta my hide, I do it. When cell phone companies charge you up to $2.50 for a directory information request, I'll listen to 12 seconds of blather instead.

    1-800-Free411 (1-800-373-3411)
    http://www.free411.com/index.htm

July 17, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

USB Webcam Telescope

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Long story short: 7x magnification, just 18mm in diameter.

Still shots at 800 x 600, video at 320 x 240 at 30 frames/second.

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YouTube ready, in other words.

Quite a lot of kit for not a bad price: $26.

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Check out that cleaning cloth — w00t!

Alas, not Mac-compatible.

Oh, well.

As they say in the car business,

zoom

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Zoom

With00700_l

ZOOM!

July 17, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Airport Fun in St. Maarten — Episode 2: Takeoffs Are a Blast!

I was gobsmacked by the photos I featured yesterday, of an Air France Boeing 747 coming in for a landing at Philipsburg/St. Maarten–Princess Juliana Airport in the Netherland Antilles.

Well, guess what?

Readers clifyt (in his Clark Kent day job at the University of Indiana he's known as Clifford C. Marsiglio) and Matt Penning sent a link to a movie (above) of a 747 taking off from that very same airport that will blow you away.

Literally — if you happen to be on the beach at the time.

Said one commenter on the video, "I've been there, it's really supercool, I stood on the beach and the sand really hurts, it's like you're being sandblasted. I jumped in the water just to get away from the sand."

[via 10 daily things at djstelios.wordpress.com]

July 17, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Shu Uemura Limited Edition Depsea Water

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That's the way they spell it — go bother them, leave me alone.

From a write-up in yesterday's Washington Post:

    Summer Savior

    Cool and hydrate thirsty skin with these refreshing mists, which the Japanese cosmetics company Shu Uemura culls from the mineral-rich ocean depths around Hawaii, Norway and Japan.

    This summer's scents are inspired by Japanese fruits to make your skin smell as good as it feels.

    Choose from Yuzu, a citrus that reminded us of Love's Baby Soft; the light, peachy Momonomi; or Midori, a grassy his-and-hers option.

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Me, I felt cooler just looking at the picture, so I figured it was worth putting up.

In the picture up top Yuzu is on the left, Momonomi in the center and Midori on the right.

$22.

[via Holly E. Thomas and Michelle Thomas, in their "Sunday Shopper" feature in yesterday's Washington Post]

July 17, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fine Wines of... China?

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Hey, they laughed at Australia when they planted grapevines to see what would happen: now wines from down under are considered among the world's greatest.

Donald Greenlees explored the nascent Chinese wine space in an article which appeared in the New York Times on July 4; it follows.

    Working on a Dream: Fine Wines of China

    It was not an obvious place to put a vineyard. The ground was barren and stony. In winter, temperatures could drop below freezing and the wind blew cold and hard.
    In October 2000, however, Nicolas Billot-Grima decided to build a winery, far from his native Bordeaux, within sight of the Great Wall of China, 43 miles northwest of Beijing.

    ''The field was totally no man's land,'' Mr. Billot-Grima said. ''It was nothing. It was rocks. And the idea is to do something where no farmer will use this unfertile land.''

    Despite the harsh weather and terrain, Mr. Billot-Grima, whose family has produced wine for six generations in southwest France, decided he had found his terroir -- the blend of earth and climate that winemakers seek to give vintages a unique character.

    Here, he would embark on an ambitious experiment to produce wines of high quality in the French tradition. He would join a small number of winemakers trying to turn China into a respected wine producer, alongside other non-European producers like the United States, Chile, Australia and New Zealand, with the capacity to export and to meet the needs of a more demanding domestic market.

    In recent years, newly affluent Chinese professionals have been abandoning beer and potent local spirits for the refined taste and image of grape wine, in contrast to the relative decline in wine consumption in some parts of the developed world that has led to a global oversupply.

    Wine consumption in China, including Hong Kong, is forecast to grow 78 percent in the 10 years to 2009, according to a study by The International Wine and Spirit Record in London. This means Chinese wine consumption will grow more than seven times the forecast average for the rest of the world.

    By 2009, the Chinese are expected to drink 766 million bottles of wine, up from 500 million in 2004.

    With 95 percent of sales going to domestic brands like the top sellers Great Wall, Dynasty and Dragon Seal, Chinese wine production is increasing to meet the new demand. According to The Record, Chinese output is on target to grow by 50 million liters, or about 13 million gallons, to 420 million liters from 2004 to 2010.

    The increase comes as subsidized European winemakers are under pressure to cut production and reduce the so-called wine lake -- the surplus wine that often ends up being transformed into industrial alcohol.

    While wine producers in Europe are being asked to produce less and focus on quality and competitiveness, the challenge in China is to make a giant leap in standards. Most Chinese wines are barely palatable to anyone accustomed to wines from Europe and other well-established producing regions. Last November, the magazine Wine Spectator found at a tasting of typical Chinese wine that ''both reds and whites were achingly sweet, tended to be high in alcohol, and resembled vermouth or sherry, with flavors of raisins, toasted nuts, orange peel and hard candy.''

    But a new breed of winemaker in China, backed by foreign investment and technical advice, is trying to change that reputation. The aim is to keep pace with the evolving tastes of more widely traveled and sophisticated Chinese and to compete with other wine-producing nations, which see China as a rising and potentially huge market.

    ''As the market is opening to international wines, there is a real concern by the Chinese wineries to increase the quality of their wines to make them more competitive with international tastes,'' said Dominique Hériard Dubreuil, chairwoman of Rémy Cointreau, which owns 24 percent of Dynasty Wines in Tianjin, China.

    Some winemakers in China are dreaming of the day when Chinese wine might be of export quality in a world market where imports account for an increasing share of consumption, even in wine-producing nations.

    In his five-year-old vineyard in Hebei Province, 600 meters, or 2,000 feet, above sea level, Mr. Billot-Grima has made a start on that ambition in what he named Château Tayshi. He planted his imported French vines in May 2001 on 50 acres. The red wines would blend merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; the white wines would be chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

    It was not an easy beginning. Chinese customs officials held the imported vines in quarantine for two months. Then, his farmers objected when he wanted to cut the first grapes and let them rot on the ground to improve the soil. But by 2004, Mr. Billot-Grima had produced his first wine -- a chardonnay.

    ''It was amazing,'' he said. ''All of us were surprised by the quality.''

    A certain amount of French prestige has been riding on his success. He established Château Tayshi with his Hong Kong business partner, Bosco Wang, after winning a French government contract to build a winery as a ''demonstration project.'' The venture's goal was to help nurture the Chinese wine industry's effort to achieve high quality. Because it is a demonstration project, Château Tayshi's production is likely to peak at about 150,000 bottles a year.

    ''We don't want to be big,'' Mr. Billot-Grima said. ''We only want to produce quality wine.'' But he added: ''We are thinking about export. I am sure we will export to Japan and America.''

    At a wine and spirits show, Vinexpo, held in Hong Kong in May, six Chinese winemakers set up stands alongside the finest European and other producers, signaling their aim to compete. Industry experts estimate that of about 400 wineries in China, a quarter have some hope of achieving good quality.

    One of those to exhibit was Grace Vineyard, which was established in 1997 by a Hong Kong businessman, Chan Chun-keung. The 200-acre winery is in Shanxi Province in northern China.

    ''One day we hope people will try our wine and say this is great Chinese wine, like people speak of a great French or Australian wine,'' said Judy Leissner, the 28-year-old chief executive and daughter of the winery's founder.

    Yet, before wine producers elsewhere start to tremble at the prospect of China's flooding the already saturated global markets with inexpensive wine of reasonable quality, winemakers concede that China is still a long way from being internationally competitive. Furthermore, the size and growth potential of the Chinese market are likely to keep Chinese wine producers busy at home. Many of those producers are importing low-cost wine in bulk and rebottling it to make up for a domestic shortfall.

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FunFact: China is currently the world's sixth-biggest wine producer.

More where that came from here.

July 17, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Collapsible Picnic-Size Food Umbrella

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Say what?

From the website:

    Picnic Size Food Umbrella

    Big enough to protect all of your picnic foods from bugs, flies, and falling leaves.

    Fine nylon mesh screening allows you a full view of the food while keeping goodies fresh and appealing.

    Opens easily when picnic time arrives; collapses in seconds for easy storage.

    When open, the oblong cover is 24"W x 48"L and 16"H inside.

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Price break: originally $5.99, now reduced 33% to fly off the website at $3.99.

July 17, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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