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September 22, 2007

sanguinello (citrus sinensis)

sanguinello.jpg Absolutely all that happened was that you, or rather your hand, reached out and offered me a small segment of orange, a tiny quarter-moon of pulp, seeds and juice. The piece of fruit lay in my outstretched right palm, curled up like a strange kind of shrimp or a miniature, discoloured baby. Slowly I picked up the piece of orange and held it between my left thumb and forefinger. The strange thing is that, although you were talking to me and giving me pieces of orange, I did not have any idea about why you were or who you were or who I was. Nor did any of it seem to matter. I lifted the segment of fruit up to the window and stared at it again. Sunlight flooded through; everything changed hue. Now I saw that inside the orange's skin, about half the fruit's flesh had been displaced by a tiny sac of dark liquid. For a moment, I could not take my eyes off this little, black spot. I wanted to squeeze, to burst the sac. Then you spoke. "It's called a blood orange", you said. You were still faceless and without identity, as was I. But I nodded gravely. And then, sighing, I hung my head down in shame.

Anyway, as I say, I realized a few seconds later that this was all just the inside of a dream. I woke up in a sweat. The first thoughts that came into my head were: "There is orange juice running down my face and chest." And then, "Orange... orange, there is no rhyme for orange. It has no mate. Or for silver, or purple. Or for wolf, or dangerous or hospital."

Posted by njenkins at 04:08 AM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2007

what is this? stanford's rumsfeld controversy

DonaldRumsfeldonhisbike.jpg [image: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on his unicycle; source: unicyclist.org]

Stanford University's Hoover Institution is the archetypal curate's egg. On its roster of fellows are a good number of very distinguished scholars, "public intellectuals" and former public servants. Most of these people are of a more or less conservative cast of mind, but that is no crime. Collectively, they would do credit to any institution of higher learning.

Amongst these figures at Hoover, one could single out as instances of exemplary intellectual seriousness the economists Gary Becker, Michael Boskin, Kevin Murphy, Douglass North, Thomas Sowell, Michael Spence, and John B. Taylor; Caroline Hoxby, a specialist on education policy; William Perry, a former Secretary of Defense; George Schultz, a former Secretary of State; the social critic and commentator Shelby Steele; the historians Robert Conquest, Mark Harrison and Norman Naimark; and the political scientists Larry Diamond, Timothy Garton Ash and Michael McFaul. (Many of these scholars are, not coincidentally, also members of one of Stanford's, or another university's, formal academic departments.)

Combine the Hoover Institution's magnificent collection of books and periodicals on economics and history with the presence of such figures and one can see how, as one senior and very distinguished faculty member pointed out to me, the Hoover, managed by someone purposefully wielding a large broom and shovel, could quite rapidly be transformed into one of the truly great centres of political and economic scholarship in the world, something akin to Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

(There would then be, incidentally, a pleasing historical symmetry to the paired names of Wilson and of Hoover. Both were once considered as "failed" Presidents of the country. However more recently their strongly humanitarian principles and actions have become much better appreciated. Hoover was head of the Committee for Relief in Belgium after the German invasion of that country in 1914. Then, at the end of the war, Wilson made him the head of the American Relief Administration, from which position he organized one of the great modern relief efforts, managing extraordinary shipments of food to Europe for millions of people who were close to starvation in Central Europe, including those in the land of the defeated enemy, Germany, and in the empire of the new foe, "Bolshevik" Russia.)

But there is also presently, alas, at the Hoover Institution a solid and stolid phalanx of tired and/or discredited Republican politicians, fixers and hacks, of no discernible intellectual substance, whose appointments, as far as one can judge, were made largely on the basis of ideological solidarity rather than analytic or scholarly accomplishment. The intellectual positions (if that is the right term) of these individuals look massively out of kilter with the energy, expertise and diversity of the rest of Stanford. Sadly and unfairly, the effect of this latter group has been to cast a long, distracting shadow across the achievements of the Hoover Institution's dynamic and creditable fellows. In some lights, one looks at the Hoover Institution and feels that it is, truly, the Party of the Elephant's mystical graveyard.

On 24 August 2007, the labour economist and statistician, John Raisian, the director of the Hoover, put out a press-release which struck a blow for the reputation of the less sweetly-smelling half of this curate's egg. He announced that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (1975-77, 2001-06), a man for whom even amoral, battle-hardened Republican pundits have few good words, would become a "distinguished visiting fellow" at Hoover for the coming year. "I am pleased that he will spend time during the coming year in thinking, writing and advising on important matters of public policy", Raisian said in a museum-quality piece of linguistic boiler-plate. "I have asked Don to join the distinguished group of scholars that will pursue new insights on the direction of thinking that the United States might consider going forward. I am delighted that he will participate in the deliberations of our task force".

In effect, Raisian dropped the news about the existence of this as-yet publicly unknown "task force" into his Rumsfeld announcement. Its task was (or is, or will be) to deliberate on such vast subjects as "national security, ideology and terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks."

In recent days, concern about the wisdom (and taste) of appointing Rumsfeld to a position of any kind at Stanford has increased as students return for the start of a new quarter, and as news of the decision has begun to percolate through the ranks of faculty, staff, graduate students and alumni. Thus, an online petition, started just last Friday, has (as of this writing) been signed by more than 1,900 Stanford community members.

An article in yesterday's Stanford Daily only made the Rumsfeld appointment seem odder still. In it, Hoover Public Affairs Manager Michele Horaney conceded both that Hoover had "not yet set a timetable for Rumsfeld’s appointment to begin" and that "no other members of the task force have been named." This Committee of the Indefinite is, according to the Stanford Daily, which was evidently relying on information from Horaney, "expected to convene infrequently, with members meeting from time to time then going back to other endeavors." How civilized!

How to defend this flagrant piece of ideological grandstanding? The same article cited Jeff Wachtel, the special assistant to Stanford's President John Hennessy, arguing, very temperately and reasonably, that "The University is a place of free expression of ideas, and there are some ideas that generate controversy, but that's not a reason not to have those ideas expressed." Wachtel also pointed out, again justly, that "Appointments and fellowships such as Rumsfeld's are the prerogative of individual institutions and departments."

My own reactions on reading the report were twofold. First, I thought: "But what a pitiful waste of resources and credibility this is for Stanford." And then I wondered: "What exactly is going on here?" The questions seem to spring up faster than mushrooms in a field where horses are pastured.

In fact, the more one thinks about it, the more enigmas arise:

I agree absolutely with Jeff Wachtel that all kinds of ideas should be expressed at Stanford. But in a university context, don't there have to be some basic benchmarks for the participants and the ideas; benchmarks to do with issues such as seriousness, credibility, content, honesty, accountability and transparency?

Indeed, to follow up on his point, it seems that the only way a free exchange of opinions can actually take place is if the task-force issues a report, signed by all participants. This would have the not-undesirable result of meaning that the report's ideas could, if necessary, be debated. Although that might only happen on one of those "infrequent" occasions when the writers of the report were actually at Stanford, it would surely be better than nothing.

It would also mean that the university as a whole could see what it got in intellectual return for invoking, presumably not lightly, a principle so fundamental as the principle of freedom of expression. It has done so on behalf of a man who has never bothered much about that principle where others are concerned. Moreover, it has done so on behalf of an individual who is also responsible for designing, administering, accelerating and defending what has become a nightmarish (and still unfolding) human, moral, social, economic, military and geo-political catastrophe for the peoples of the world.

Posted by njenkins at 11:43 PM | Comments (0)

September 15, 2007

do you moon-google?

google moon.jpg There are some deep, perhaps obvious, linkages between writing or appreciating poetry and writing or understanding computer code. In fact, my friend and colleague Eavan Boland has a poem, called "Code" about Rear Admiral Grace ("Amazing Grace") Hopper, who was responsible for the conceptions underlying the computer programming language COBOL, including the notion that "programs could be written in a language that was close to English rather than in machine code or languages close to machine code."*

In addition, in 1952, Hopper wrote the world's first compiler for a programming language, using the A-0 language. Boland begins her poem by recognizing that relation between the manipulators of different codes, addressing Grace Hopper, "Poet to poet." (You can find the poem in Against Love Poetry.)

Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has one of the most prestigious and active Computer Science departments in the world. Perhaps the most prestigious. I get a few CS students each year who take a poetry class with me. It always seems to be out of interest rather than the need to fulfill a requirement, and it is usually a humbling experience. For me, that is.

As a professor you get used to meeting a lot of intelligent, capable young people. But, so stunning are the analytical capacities of some of these Stanford CS students, that in my darker moments they feel to me a bit like a set of politely unshaven Martians doing fieldwork amongst a tribe of troglodytes. They think differently, and often more intently, than humanists do, and they "think language" from an entirely different, and very illuminating, angle. For example, recognizing complex verbal patterns which remain hidden to many other eyes seems seems to come beautifully easily to them.

Today, I find that I have been thinking about the ways, material and imaginative, in which computer scientists have had an impact on my own scholarly and personal life. Two Stanford CS grad students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, started a research project at the university back in January 1996. That evolved into something which was probably good, innovative code but grisly branding: "Backrub", a system that "checked backlinks to estimate a site's importance."*

Here's the "Backrub" homepage, complete with dorky boiler-plate ("a 'web-crawler' designed to traverse the web" — what else can something called a web-crawler do but traverse the web?") and touchingly authentic apologetics ("type in top box, ignore cgi.bin error"):


Mercifully, "Backrub"'s front end soon disappeared, shortly leading to the emergence of Brin's and Page's Google™ (a misspelling of "googol", 10 to the power of 100). Ten years ago today, Brin and Page registered the domain name "google.com". I wonder if anyone audacious is going to notice that their lock on that domain name is set to expire on 14 September 2011 and go for the gold by back-ordering it? Good luck if you are, chum.

Here is a screen shot of Brin's and Page's homepage for their newly-titled websearcher from later in 1997.

1997 google.jpg

In the same year, they published a paper, "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine" (1997), which they described as "an in-depth description of our large-scale web search engine — the first such detailed public description we know of to date." Google was planting its flag.

They incorporated as a private company, Google Inc., on 7 September 1998. Here is that year's homepage, now very close in all its simple essentials to what users see today. The most obvious, and telling, difference is that leaping, Yahoo™-modelled exclamation mark, which was soon to fall unmourned off the Google! logo, like a rusty fender off an old car.

google.stanford.edu 1998.jpg

Paul Buchheit (Google employee #23), one of the main engineers behind my mail-program of choice, Gmail, came up with the corporate mantra "Don't be evil" in mid-2001 when the company's engineers were trying to hash out what exactly the company's corporate philosophy was. It must have an oddly different ring in the post-9/11 world than it did when Buchheit thought of it.

Perhaps the brainstorming session when Buchheit made his suggestion was connected with the filing on 2 July 2001 of the main Google patent with the US Patents and Trademarks Office: "Method for node ranking in a linked database". The abstract announces dryly that: "The method is particularly useful in enhancing the performance of search engine results for hypermedia databases, such as the world wide web, whose documents have a large variation in quality."

On the patent, which needless to say I looked up on Google's Patent Search page, Lawrence Page is listed as the "inventor" and, most interestingly, the "assignee" is "The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University", as it is in the European version of the patent. (According to the USPTO, "The assignee, when the patent is assigned to him or her, becomes the owner of the patent and has the same rights that the original patentee had.")

Ah, now I know where the money for all those palm trees, each more lovingly tended than a giraffe, on Stanford's Palm Drive comes from. One tree is said to cost the equivalent of an entire undergraduate education, but that must not seem much of a problem if you own a big chunk of the Google patent.

By freakish coincidence, as Google Patent Search also reveals, in 1998, the year when Google incorporated, one Constance Carroll, fumbling at the keyboard, accidentally filed a patent for a "Swim google [sic] retaining device for swim wear".)

The true and flourishing Google went public on the New York Stock Exchange in August 2004; and in 2005, it announced "a partnership with NASA Ames Research Center [at Moffett Field in Mountain View] to build up to 1 million square feet of offices and work on research projects involving large-scale data management, nanotechnology, distributed computing, and the entrepreneurial space industry."

Powered by some 450,000 servers bound together into clusters at data farms around the world, last year the company earned over $3 billion. By this summer, approaching the date of its 10th birthday, it had 13,748 full-time employees, as well as at least 50.8% of the market share of web searches.

In less than a decade "Google" went from being a misspelling to a brand name which had achieved the ultimate form of public legitimacy — it had become the common word for an overarching activity or process. In this case, the activity is "searching for something or someone online" as in the phrase "I googled you [or 'myself']". It may be significant that, like earlier successes of this kind, such as "hoover" or "xerox", "Google" is disyllabic. (Surely, too, one has recently heard of people "iPodding along the street", that is, "going along the street listening to their iPod™.) By contrast, I wonder if anyone has anyone ever even dreamed of saying or thinking: "I microsofted the document"?

It may also be some kind of a suggestive index of the character of contemporary life that whereas "hoover" and "xerox" can be used both as verbs (processes) and as nouns (objects), "google" seems destined to remain forever in the etherial dimension of verb-ness and never to be likely to acquire the materiality of the noun-like.

Contrast this phenomenal rate of growth, as measured in both strictly economic and in mass-cultural terms, with that of Microsoft Corporation. Founded in 1975, by 1985 its major successes were MS-DOS (1981) and the Microsoft Mouse (1983). The first version of Windows lay just ahead....

Where is Google at 10? The company's connection with NASA appears to be the focus of much energy at the moment, as if, having conquered the earth, Google were now shooting for the moon. "Google Earth" has recently added a stunning "Night Sky" feature, and, within the last few days, the "Google Lunar X Prize" had been announced. Any group which is able to land a rover on the moon capable (after surviving the landing) of travelling at least 500 meters and sending high-resolution video, still images and other data back to earth will receive $20 million from Google.

[PSThe symbolic suturing of Google and NASA was strengthened still further shortly after I wrote this post. Apollo 11 took off for the moon on 16 July 1969 and the "Eagle" landed there four days later on 20 July 1969. On or about 20 July 2007, Google launched "Google Moon" to celebrate this anniversary. Now, they have launched a fully revamped version. An engineer explains on the Google Lat Long blog: "we've released a new version of Google Moon, one that fully eclipses its predecessor. This update brings higher-resolution map imagery, text search, and photos and stories from every Apollo landing. We even included Street View-style panoramas of the moon's surface, taken by the Apollo astronauts ... something you won't see anywhere else. And last but certainly not least, we tossed in scientific charts that are good enough for actual mission planning and science classrooms alike." This is fascinating as a resource. But of course it also constitutes another stage in the company's evolving myth, or narrative, of itself. That currently involves developing as many links as possible between Google and that huge lump of grit, our beautiful planetary satellite, which, as Auden wrote in 1969: "still queens the Heavens | as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at."]

Google Maps tells me that, as the sedate humanities professor drives, I live about 1.72 miles from the Googleplex in Mountain View. For locals such as myself, the company puts a lot of pressure on the real estate market, which is nice if you got lucky and not so nice if you did not. (It strikes me that unwittingly Siri and I moved into our house right around the time that Sergey and Larry were putting up that "Google!" homepage. The city has a great free WiFi service thanks to Google, and there is also the city library's "Googlemobile" (not to be confused with the "Google Mobile" service) which chugs round the neighbourhoods in an effort to get books into the hands of the city's kids.

View Larger Map

To the green-gilled horror of many of Silicon Valley's mega-rich, Brin and Page have also just secured the almost unique privilege of using the NASA-spec facilities at our other local "sight", the Moffett Field Airbase (see above), which once boasted the world's largest wooden-frame building, to take-off, land and park their customized Boeing 767-200.

This aircraft, formerly a humble mule in the Qantas fleet, was upgraded by Brin and Page so that it can now carry about 50 passengers in a fuselage which is fitted with two staterooms with adjoining lavatories and a shower, a large sitting-and-dining area at the aft, while, at the back, there is room for 12 to 16 first-class seats for the convenience of guests or employees.

(In fairness, the plane probably cost Page and Brin about a third of the price of a new, standard-issue , corporate Gulfstream 550 jet and it will carry, and sleep, more people than the latter plane does.)

Any way, why begrudge either of them this physically large but financially relatively small luxury? "Envy", as Lincoln Kirstein once told me, "is really stupid." A person without a vice is indeed a sinister creature. And, from providing a free WiFi service to making such a vast amount of the world's information digitally available to me and to millions of others, what other company or institution — aside from Stanford itself, which, as we saw, once fed, and is now partially fed by, Google — than the one owned and run by these two tough, super-reflective CS Martians has done anything near as much to help me with what I want to do?

It looks to me like a viable example of the humanistic-capitalist complex actually at work. And, just at the moment, is there anything better on offer?

Posted by njenkins at 06:59 PM | Comments (0)

September 14, 2007


OK, so you know how it is. There I was today at the wheel of my ancient Buick as it cruised asthmatically along El Camino Real. Rather than think about what I would be writing this afternoon, I made the "swerve". Nervously, acting as an agent of my unconscious, I turned on the car radio. It was an obvious, attempted diversionary tactic. And there's Terry Gross interviewing David Cronenberg about his new film, Eastern Promises, about an English woman's ensnarement in the web of the Russian mafia in London.

I've liked (a bit) some of Cronenberg's films: Spider was interesting, and of course you've got the safe choice — Dead Ringers. On radio, Cronenberg himself sounded like a true-blue twit, captious and wormy with self-regard sloshing around inside him like the captain's bathwater during a heavy swell. But perhaps you have to be that way to escape the death-sentence of being a film director? It doesn't really matter. At some level, T. S. Eliot was surely right to say that something becomes artistic when the personality of its maker is rendered extinct.

[Note to self: consider the wording of the phrases in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" more closely than you have so far. The "progress of the artist" (not of "art) is a "continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." These are enigmatic ideas: an ever-renewing "self-sacrifice" — how can a sacrifice not come to an end? and a "continual extinction" — isn't something either extinct or not? Can there be, except in language, such an endlessly intermediate state as a "continual extinction"? More thought from below-decks on this matter as soon as possible, please....]

In any case, I won't be seeing the Cronenberg film, mainly because, although I love movies, Siri and I almost never go out to the cinema. Why, when we're finally alone, would we sit in the darkness not talking? I won't even take the film in as a DVD in six months' time. We (or I) watch DVDs almost solely with the kids. We enjoy all the classics: Gilligan's Island: The Opening Series, Star Trek: The Complete First Season, every single one of the Pixar films, The Wizard of Oz. After a minimum of 60 attentive viewings, I feel that I know the second half of the Star Wars cycle so well that I could give George Lucas a quiz on his films which he would find hard to complete to either his or my satisfaction.

Recently, I've been trying guilefully and indirectly to interest the boys in some of the TV doll-serials (Thunderbirds in "Supermarionation"&trade, for example) which I poured into my mind as a child. The thing is, I'd be "interested in" watching again now in middle age. Hugo and Owen have no idea yet that I've just managed to get them (ie, me) a complete set of the Joe 90 series on DVD for about $4! Tight! (That's what my younger son, Owen, says kids say nowadays as an expression of approval instead of "Sweet!")

I'm a bit nervous about their reaction to Joe 90, a series which features the adventures of a pliant, blond-haired boy whose father has a machine capable of transplanting the brain of another, usually gravely endangered, person into his son's head at the beginning of each episode. (I know, it sounds a bit odd; don't worry: Joe gets his own mind back at the end of each installment. I think....) I'm nervous because what excuse will I have for watching the series if the kids say they don't like it? And how will I bear up if they say it's boring?

As for more classically-defined artistic filmic fare, well, once the boys are in bed, Siri and I are usually so exhausted that we do little more than creep slowly to our own cot, feeling like dazed shipwreck survivors crawling wearily up the beach, too tired even to gasp "We're safe!" So it's "Нет, спасибо" to Eastern Promises even in its DVD-format, as far as I'm concerned.

But on the radio this afternoon Cronenberg did manage to murmur a few words about some of the exotic-sounding books he'd used during his research for his new film. So, when I breezed through Stanford's library a bit later in the day, I took a look at one of them: Danzig Baldaev's, Sergei Vasiliev's and Alexei Pluster-Sarno's Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II (Fuel Publishing, 2006). It's a remarkable book! Most memorable are Baldaev's sketches of the "tail coats with medals", as tattooed bodies are called in Russian criminal slang, which he saw during his several decades of service on the Soviet and Russian prison systems.

Alexei Pluster-Sarno writes in his essay accompanying the images that these "tattoos broadcast certain information to the world of thieves simultaneously from many points on the surface of the thief's body, and so the thief's 'speaking' is, as it were, located in every point of his body. Ever one of his tattoos is a separate narrator, a separate story." Positioning is crucial. Thus "shoulder straps" articulate the thief's convictions and his "position" in the criminal hierarchy, signs on the toes provide details about the place where the prisoner has been incarcerated, "rings" on the fingers describe the thief's professional identity, while

Signs on the chest are more serious and carry more status. Most often these are stars with between seven and sixteen points, with skulls, heads of cats, lions, devils or wolves, crosses, candles, crowns, daggers, double-headed eagles, wings, the signs of the suit of spades or clubs and several other central thieves' symbols."

During the early decades of the Soviet regime, criminals would often have a large image of Lenin, and then Stalin, tattooed onto the centre of their chests, in the partly-superstitious, partly-canny belief that no-one would want, or dare, to shoot a Soviet leader in the face.

Thus, the tatoos constitute a complete "portrait" in visual and verbal ciphers of the thief himself.

I think that most of the tatoos are a little too racy for me to reproduce. But here are a couple of restrained examples of Baldaev's drawings of tattoos from the early Soviet period. (He found them both on very old men.) The one on the left, as Baldaev's note makes clear, is an acronymic cipher. Many of the tattoos are overtly, smirkingly polysemous — as intricate verbally as they are finicky and involuted visually. This one's owner/wearer acquired it at the age of 30 in a Soviet labour camp in 1931.

The one on the right, another shoulderblade tattoo from exactly the same period, shows that the owner/wearer worked on the vast White Sea-Baltic Canal near what was then Leningrad (St Petersburg before and after). The first major construction project in the Soviet Union to be supervised by the GULAG administration and to be built entirely by prisoners from the "corrective labour camps", the "Belomorkanal" as it was known, probably cost around 100,000 lives. (There is a beautiful but utterly mystificatory photograph by Rodchenko of construction workers labouring on the canal while a small orchestra plays sweetly to encourage their endeavours.)

elephant.jpg canal diggers.jpg

Uboat.jpg girl on dolphin.jpg

cat.jpg mrs t.jpg

Well, it seems like my tactic in switching on the radio worked quite nicely, didn't it? From my grateful unconscious, then — thanks, DC!

Posted by njenkins at 01:51 AM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2007

the enigma of alex, the avian learning experiment

kaspar hauser.jpg [image source: Bruno S. as Kaspar Hauser in Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), dir. Werner Herzog, 1974] The death has been announced in Massachusetts of Alex, the world's most famous African Grey parrot. Hatched in the last year of the Gerald Ford presidency, Alex was 31 years old at the time of his passing on the night of 7-8 September 2007.

The African Grey (Psittacus erithacus), a common pet species today, has a mixture of dark and light grey, black and white feathers on its head and body, with a striking maroon or reddish tail plumage. Zygodactylic, like all parrots, it has four toes per foot, two on the front and two on the back. It enjoys feeding on nuts, fruit and leaves.

In the case of the African Grey, there is a long history of human-parrot interaction. Experts believe that they were probably kept as pets both by the ancient Egyptians and by the ancient Greeks. Aristocratic Romans also owned parrots as status symbols and they taught their pets to pronounce select Latin words. (It seems to be typical that parrots in captivity speak the language of their captors and that they express faithful support for their owners' opinions and for the social status quo of the period and the place in which they find themselves.)

Parrots became fashionable in Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation. (Portuguese mariners would keep African Greys as companions during the long voyages of plunder which they made back and forth to Africa.) King Henry VIII, who had seven wives, also had an African Grey parrot. Perhaps knowing the King's fondness for his pet, the poet John Skelton, appointed King's Orator in 1512, wrote an anti-Wolseyian satire called Speke, Parrot (ca. 1521). The work purports to record the rambling, pugnacious thoughts of a parrot at court. At the start of the poem, the "speaker" wisely declares its undying loyalty to "King Henry VIII, our royal king" and to "Katherine incomparable".

When the King fell into the Thames, the bird was reputed to have called out (perhaps to the dismay of certain courtiers), "Help, I am drowning!" The association between British royalty and the African Grey was continued, at least down into the reign of Queen Victoria, whose Coco could sing a version of "God Save the Queen".

However, the place of these birds in humanity's annals pales before Alex's. Thus, as I write these words on the morning after General David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker completed their reports to Congress on the progress of the war in Iraq, Alex's story ranks as the "most emailed" story in the current edition of the New York Times. [PS Later in the day, Alex was displaced from first place by two stories, one about socializing websites for older people and the other about a man's search for "coffee's holy grail".]

Alex's name originated as an acronym: "A.L.EX.", standing for "Avian Learning EXperiment". Purchased in a pet store, he worked for several decades with Professor Irene Pepperberg, first in Arizona and then in the Boston area.

Alex had a vocabulary of some 150 English words, could distinguish between "over" and "under", and had seemed to be able to appreciate the concept "four" because he was able, in the words of the New York Times, to transfer "the concept of four blue balls of wool on a tray to four notes from a piano." Professor Pepperberg was also training Alex to recognize the Arabic numeral "4" as a representation of the "four"-concept. Further, the Times reports, the bird had a repertoire of "one-liners from hanging around the lab, like 'calm down' and 'good morning.' He could express frustration, or apparent boredom." (In 2005 Alex apparently mastered the concept of zero.)

African Greys are highly social creatures, but they are not necessarily universally gregarious with humans. They tend to bond tightly with their keeper and to ignore or appear relatively indifferent to other people. Julie Rack wrote that: "When Dr. Pepperberg left Alex with a vet for treatment, Alex vocalised the words 'Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back.'"

Professor Pepperberg's extensive scientific studies of Alex's brain and its endeavours were collected in her The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots (Harvard UP, 1999).

Much became Alex in this world, but nothing so much as his leaving of it. Last week he and Prof. Pepperberg had been studying compound and hard-to-pronounce words. In the past, when the Professor said goodnight to her feathered friend, he would very often reply: "Bye. I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow."* However, on Thursday, when he went into his cage for the last time, Alex looked at her and said: "You be good. I love you." She responded: "I love you, too." He said: "You'll be in tomorrow?", and, as if parrotting his words, she responded: "Yes, I'll be in tomorrow."

Alex had seemed to be in good health. But he was found dead in his cage the next morning, a Friday, apparently of natural causes. A necropsy of the body has revealed no discernible cause of death. Few relationships between humans and other creatures can have been as close and productive as this one, and our inevitable sadness over Alex's death is tempered by the thought that no other experimental partnership can, after many years, have ended so peacefully with the right words uttered on both sides.

Professor Pepperburg will continue her work with two more African Greys, Griffin and Arthur. Those who wish to make donations in support of her research may do so at the Alex Foundation.

Professor Pepperberg's research on Alex is controversial in some quarters (what genuinely path-breaking research is not controversial?). Critics had asserted, for example, that his "alleged use of language" was "merely operant conditioning".

But if there is any cause for regret in this story (and what life or narrative can end without regrets?), then it must lie in the fact that Alex was never able to develop his linguistic capacities in English to the point where he could explain in our terms what it felt like to be a parrot or, even more profoundly, who he, Alex, really, deep-down was. Of the same failing, of course, many humans have been equally guilty.

Doubtless over time Alex gave us many signals in his own avian semiotic system pointing towards answers to these questions. But, enamoured of our own linguistic processes and convinced of their absolute superiority, we have been disinclined, or unable, to read these answers satisfactorily. And, finally, for all his heroic efforts at human socialization, Alex was not yet ready to speak about these mysteries in terms which we could appreciate. He died, as we have noted, at the "compound and hard-to-pronounce words" stage. It is difficult, perhaps it is unbearable, to be honest with ourselves about the discontents as well as the benefits of existence within a culture. But, if we are, I believe many will admit it was at the very same stage, long ago in each life, that a small but invaluable "something" (if I may be forgiven the expression) died too.

Posted by njenkins at 05:27 PM | Comments (0)

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