Archive for March, 2007

Where Do I Sign Up For This Job?

This past weekend, John Tierny from the New York Times blogged about Jaak Panskepp, a Washington State University scientist who’s studied the chirping sounds rats make when they play to see if these sounds are equivalent to human laughter.

Best quote from Panskepp: “Then one day we decided to tickle some animals.”

To get the full effect you really need to watch the video of Panskepp tickling some rats. Their ultrasonic vocalizations are amplified by a device called a bat detector so you can hear the chirping. The ticklish rodents cheered me up so much, I’ve watched the clip three times already.

At first I wondered if the rats were really trying to communicate something more along the lines of “get away from me you big, hairless hand,” but Panskepp found that they will run mazes or perform other tasks in order to get tickled. They also seek out the company of other chirping rats, and the rats in the video chase Panskepp’s hand around the cage for more tickling.

I don’t think this is enough evidence to definitively equate chirping and laughter, but it does seem like the rats are enjoying themselves and that their sounds express that enjoyment.

Incidentally, Panskepp has what may be the best academic title I’ve heard: Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science.


20 March 2007 at 17:53 2 comments

Eavesdropping Nuthatches and Chirpy Chickadees

The science headline of the day comes from New Scientist: Eavesdropping Nuthatches Act on Chickadee Warnings.

The article reports the findings of two University of Washington scientists, Christopher Templeton and Erick Greene, who studied red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees. In an earlier study, the scientists found that chickadees varied their call depending on the size of the predators. The smaller the predator, the more vocal the call and the more vigorous the response of the flock:

“It doesn’t seem intuitive. The big predators, with huge beaks and talons, seem dangerous to us. But big, nasty weapons are only useful if you can catch your prey. And the maneuverability of predators is determined by their wingspan,” says Templeton. Small predators are more adept at hunting chickadees than large ones.

Now Templeton and team have found that the nuthatches can understand the small differences in the chickadees’ calls and adjust the vehemence of their response accordingly.

Templeton says the nuthatches probably discriminate fine-scaled features in the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call such as the number of harmonics in the “dee” notes, or the length and timing of different syllables.

I grew up watching both these species of birds on the feeders outside my parents’ kitchen window, so it’s pretty cool to find out that they’re up to more than just gorging on sunflower seeds.

P.S. Is it just me, or does the word nuthatch look odd? Now that I see it in print, it’s almost like I can’t decide whether to parse it as nut-hatch or nu-thatch.

19 March 2007 at 22:26 Leave a comment


chowdah.jpgAfter two days and trips to three grocery stores, I finally managed to make the batch of chowder I’d been planning. Here’s a picture of the finished product (in a cup made by my friend Kelly). I snipped some chives over the top of the soup for garnish.

Click for the chowder recipe.

18 March 2007 at 23:59 Leave a comment

Snow Day!

I slept in today.

I don’t know when I last managed that. (Last weekend when I slept through the alarm clock on the morning after the time change doesn’t really count since I had been up until 2 a.m.) Waking up early is one of the curses of adulthood. Barring too many late nights, it’s hard to sleep much later than whatever time your alarm clock usually rings.

Today I woke up at  7:30 and decided that was far too early to be awake, so I went back to bed. And, miracle of miracles, I actually fell back asleep. The falling back asleep part is always the problem. I’m one of those people who’s much more sensitive to light than to sound, so once the sun’s up, I’m up.

Not this morning though. I somehow managed to nod off until 10:30. Then I stayed curled up in bed with my blankets and my heating pad and my pile of pillows and read a novel until noon. I may have wondered, just for a second, if I should have been working on homework or cleaning up my room, but it felt so wonderful to do nothing but have fun.

Eventually I got up and ate buckwheat pancakes and surfed the Net for a while. Then I watched a sappy movie on TV and played piano for a while. I know that I titled yesterday’s post “Weekend Project #1” — as if I were going to accomplish a lot — it’s just that it’s been so long since I’ve both managed to do nothing and to not feel guilty about it.

My only regret is that I never did end up making chowder. And that had nothing to do with my day of self-indulgence. My local grocery store, with its limited selection, didn’t have any leeks, so I’ll have to go to the next town over to get them tomorrow.

17 March 2007 at 20:43 Leave a comment

Weekend Project #1: Chowder

I was supposed to fiddle at a dance tonight, but ended up having a much-needed evening at home instead. Thank goodness for New England weather and the occasional snow emergency.

I got my laundry done (which means I can sleep in a little tomorrow morning), listened to a couple of episodes of a hilarious Swedish radio program whose podcast I just discovered and watched an episode of Law & Order: SVU, my new vice. (L&O and its various spin-offs are the British Empire of cable syndication: the sun never sets on them. I can almost always find at least one episode on some channel or other.)

What I really wanted to do, though, was cook soup. (I can’t really think of a better way to spend a snowy evening. Well, maybe curling up in bed with an escapist paperback novel and a cup of cocoa.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have all the ingredients I needed, and I wasn’t going out in a nor’easter just to buy potatoes. So the chowder will just have to wait until tomorrow when it stops sleeting.

I’ll be cooking up my favorite chowder recipe, one I came up with when I decided that the bacon and codfish I usually use for fish chowder could be replaced with smoked haddock.

The version below is the slightly lower-fat version I usually cook. For a truly low-fat version, you could substitute margarine of some sort for butter and replace the half-and-half with another 1/2 cup of low-fat milk. For a damn-the-cholesterol-full-speed-ahead version, use whole milk and heavy cream. (Don’t replace all the milk with cream, though. Chowder should manage to be both creamy and light.)

Smoked Haddock Chowder

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, well washed and finely chopped
  • 1 medium large potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/4 pound smoked haddock, any skin and bones removed
  • 1 cup water or mild stock (preferably fish stock)
  • 1/2 cup low-fat milk
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. In a large saucepan, heat the butter until it sizzles. Add the leeks and sauté until soft and shiny.
  2. Add the potatoes, the haddock, the milk and the water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender.
  3. Flake apart any large chunks of fish. Add the half-and-half and bring back to a simmer.
  4. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Serves: 2 (or one with leftovers for another day)

16 March 2007 at 23:26 2 comments

Signs of Hope

After a slew of news stories about U.S. states and counties attempting to declare English the one official language within their borders, it was a heartening to read this item from the New Zealand Herald.

The New Zealand government recently voted to add New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) to the country’s list of official languages, along with English and Maori, entitling NZSL speakers to interpreter service in all legal proceedings. They’ve also begun creating teaching materials so that middle and high school students will be able to study NZSL as a second language in public schools.

15 March 2007 at 22:46 Leave a comment

Parental Metaphors

The year I lived in Sweden the phenomenon of curlingföräldrar — curling parents — was a hot topic in the media.

To understand this expression, it helps to know that the sport of curling is much more popular in Sweden than in the U.S.  You don’t need to be an expert on the sport to get the joke, though.

If you’ve ever seen a clip of a match from the Olympics,  you can probably imagine the way the curlers scrub at the ice with their brooms, clearing a path for the stone. Curling parents are just as intent as they try to smooth the way for their precious offspring.

Ever since I heard about curling parents, I’ve lamented the fact that there was no equivalent expression in English. “Overprotective” isn’t quite the same thing, and “over-involved” isn’t nearly as vivid.

Now, thanks to my college alumni magazine, I can rest easy. The most recent issue features an article on helicopter parents — so-named presumably because of their hovering.

14 March 2007 at 23:17 1 comment

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