Sunday 28 April 2013

Did You Know Mice Can Sing? And What Has This Got To Do With Being A Vegetarian

It always amazes how much we think we know only to discover there’s so much more we don’t know, just like the old pie chart:

So yesterday driving along, playing ‘mum’s taxi’ for the umpteenth time, the universe took the opportunity to remind me of how much I don’t know I don’t know. I was listening to a very interesting interview on Radio National – I’ll tell you what the interview was actually on later - and I heard that scientists have discovered that mice sing.  I thought ‘What the…? Maybe it’s a metaphor for something else’, but no, it turns out mice actually really do sing. They are one of the few sentient mammals that do this – research published October 10 in the journal PLOS one showed that mice can be taught to vocalize different notes—just like humans, dolphins, whales, and a few other species.
 How did they find this out? Using ultrasonic listening devices – mice sing at a frequency we humans cannot hear. Mummy mice sing their children to sleep (how adorable is that!) and male mice can be veritable Caruso’s wooing the ladies with melodies and repeated phrases that they can learn to change. Female mice will flock around a male with a particularly good singing voice. 
Scientists have known about this since 2005 but in a more study conducted in 2010 they studied what happened when two male mice of different genetic strains, one which sang tenor and the other which sang bass, were put in an enclosure with a single female for eight weeks. Rather than physically fighting each other for the female’s attention the scientists discovered that two male mice would change their songs, each imitating the higher or lower notes of the other's song. Just like humans, those boys soon changed their tune when they wanted to woo the lady. It’s possible that the mice may also sing to communicate aggression and other emotions.
Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University says that mice have more similarities in their vocal communication with humans than other species like our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Vocalizing happens when the brain's motor cortex, which controls voluntary muscles, tells the vocal cords in the larynx how to move. Jarvis and his scalies found a rudimentary indirect connection in mice between the motor cortex and the larynx that is absent in chimpanzees and monkeys.
The Minuet by Perth artist Alene

 So we all perceive the world in different ways and I guess the take home message here is yes, this is a Wonderland, but don’t be a Queen of Hearts – not all ways are your ways. Every species and indeed even within our own species perceives this Wonderland with a different set with a finely tuned senses and thus the world is slightly different for all of us. As writer for the Smithsonian Rob Dunn informs us: ‘Bacteria call to each other with chemicals, mosquitoes detect the carbon dioxide we exhale, ants see polarized light, turtles navigate using the earth’s magnetic field, birds see ultraviolet markings on flowers, snakes home in on the heat in a cougar’s footprint or a rabbit’s breath. Most of these different worlds are little understood because of the narrow reach of our own perceptions.’

Oh and by the way, the point of the Radio National interview was actually to discuss research that had been conducted on the effect on animal life between living a Vegetarian/Vegan lifestyle and that of being an omnivore/carnivore and it turns out that the Vegetarian/Vegan lifestyle choice actually has MORE impact on animal life! We don’t normally consider the cost to such animals as mice that are grain lovers, but maybe now we’ll all think a little differently about these surprisingly sentient animals – turns out the mice of Brambly Hedge and Stuart Little might have more basis in fact than we realised and we just need to regain some of that childhood wonder at the world.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Seduced by New York

I never expected to like the U.S. of A. In fact, I’d never expected or desired to visit there. I’d grown up surrounded by a certain disbelief and incredulity at the ridiculous excesses and antics of ‘those Yanks’. Artist friends derisively referred to them as ‘Septics’ – from the English propensity for using rhyming words to replace the actual word: septic tanks-yanks. It was the land of too much fast food, too many fast car chases in mediocre movies and too many loud-mouthed, narrow minded provincialites who thought the world revolved around the U.S. of A. like pre-Galileoists thought the Sun and planets revolved around the Earth. Once, in rural France, I spent an evening with a lovely newlywed couple from Idaho. Over dinner in a small bistro of a delicious variety of French delicacies that they hadn’t yet dared to try on their own, I ordered a bottle of wine and introduced them to the subtleties of wine tasting. As we noted the ‘nose’ and aerated the wine across our palettes, I could see the beginning of enlightenment and enchantment beginning to dawn on the face of the male of the species. Meanwhile a certain look of horror was beginning to catch a hold on the visage of the female of the species.
‘If we told the folks back home we were drinking WINE they’d be horrified!’
‘Really?’ I asked, astonished. ‘Why on earth is that?’
‘All as anyone drinks back home with their dinner is milk! They think we’re strange enough as it is for wanting to honeymoon in Europe!’ She said Europe as if it were the equivalent of taking a holiday on Mars. There was a distinct scent of fear that clung to the air around her that her friends would shun her if she ever revealed the truth of what they had participated in on their travels.
With my suspicions about the unglobal mindset of all Americans confirmed by a statistical polling of two, that left few good things to say about the country. As far as I was concerned it was a miracle they’d managed to produce something as brilliant as the TV series The Addams Family which was equalled only by their ability to send man to the moon. They may have helped save Europe in WWII but they’d sure made an apocalypse of Vietnam and it was only that ‘sending man to the moon’ business that saved their arses in the global opinion polls. I remember very precisely the day Neil Armstrong took the Giant leap for Mankind. It might have been Sunday July 20th 1969 in the States but in Melbourne it was a Monday morning, 10.19am 21st of July to be precise. It wasn’t until my dad came home from work, ordered a stiff scotch from my mother and announced, ‘Those bloody Yanks have finally done it! They walked on the moon today!’ that I knew something special had happened. My dad turned on and tuned in the old black & white TV. as I lay on the Raffia matting that covered our living room floor and my mother took up her seat in her Addams Family chair and speculatively lit a cigarette. There on the six o’clock news that most households religiously watched, was the first crackly and static filled images of Neil Armstrong as he leaped stiffly onto the dusty surface of the moon and spoke those immortal words. At school the next day it was all anyone could talk about. No longer could we say things like ‘I’ll eat my broccoli when men walk on the moon’. I was in grade 1 and what I most remember was that all the other little kids’ eyes were like saucers. Our teacher procured a television set and we watched the replay on the morning news and speculated in hushed and amazed tones about whether we thought we’d be going to live on the moon and that maybe the next year we’d get to meet some Martians because surely it wouldn’t be too long before those astronauts went there too, because clearly those Yanks were capable of anything now!
My mum in her Addams Family chair
It was with the same awe filled wonder that everyone years later heard the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers announced on the radio and rushed to their television sets to view the awful footage, only this time it was with horror rather than elation. Everyone in the western world remembers where they were that day – I was standing in my kitchen putting on a pot of coffee to brew and suddenly the phone lines were running hot as everyone rushed to make sure that not one single person was left out of the loop of knowledge of the events unfolding. These days I stand on my balcony scowling impotently at the hypocrisy of international outrage. Crap happens every day around the world but when it happens in the U.S. of A. we hear about it every five minutes on the news in sensationalised, outraged tones. Where is the outrage for all those other innocent people who are suffering similar fates every day in other countries?
Anyways, when Occy(R) and I decided to travel to the States in 2007 to further his medical education, I was a rather reluctant traveller – I could think of 50 other places I’d rather be exploring, but I supposed if I had to go I’d suffer it. We started in Las Vegas and the people were certainly eccentric but friendly, the Grand Canyon amazing and the shows great. Okay, off to a reasonable start. Next was a pit stop for a week in New York. Apart from a love for the Chrysler building that I’d acquired in first year architecture, I was sure I was going to hate it – I now want to move there! That city in the summer completely seduced me! The ‘Guggi’ (Guggenheim museum from whence my name was extrapolated by Occy – he expanded it to Guggilaba, then re-shortened it to Guggi) now sits alongside the Louisiana Art Gallery by the sea on the outskirts of Copenhagen as some of my most favourite buildings and places of pilgrimage in the world. Sometimes I just long to be back there and when I do return it is always with a sigh of homecoming relief.
Occys shot of the classic Guggi interior
Chicago Stadium
I loved everything about New York, from the mountains of fresh berries in the market squares to the hot dog and pretzel stands, the Statue of Liberty and Broadway shows, MOMA (museum of modern art) and of course the pilgrimage to the 9/11 site that had rocked us all. We moved on to Chicago for a 10 day long conference and fellowship program where we sat through our first real game of baseball, drank Buds, ate dogs, and had the guys next to us enthusiastically explain all the intricacies of the game to us. We loved it so much we took our four kids there a few years later and included a trip to the obligatory Disney and to see Cape Canaveral where the famous man on the moon launch that I’d watched as a kid on the black & white TV. had taken off from all those years earlier.
Written by Guggi

Saturday 13 April 2013

volcanoes in the mist

The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to second prayer from the nearest mosque saw us eating banana pancakes, a staple breakfast served to backpackers all throughout Asia. We had intended to climb the nearest volcano which sat at some 2040ft but rain and a pervading mist made it unsafe to do so.
We decided instead to hail a minibus to the hot springs and soaked ourselves in the milky, sulphur laden hot water for nearly an hour, watching vents of steam erupt from the nearby hillside. I had left my silver necklace on that my girlfriend Therese  had given me for my previous birthday and as I emerged from the hot spring there was a collective gasp from the kids. 'Your necklace is black, mum!' - oh dear! Hopefully it polishes up again or I'll be in big trouble with the practical Therese for being so absent minded! We had also watched as India's nose ring morphed fascinatingly from silver to purple to blue! My gold belly ring remained gold, the alloy being minuscule enough not to precipitate in a light coating with the sulphur. We were red like lobsters which inurred us to the chilly temperature and arctic winds howling around us.
Faridah and Lise (mother) hadn't come into the hot spring because they were afraid they'd be too cold when they came out, but luckily this wasn't the case. Back at the guesthouse the car that Faridah had called to come from Medan (two hours drive away) hadn't yet turned up. She called the driver while we were packing and all of a sudden there was a great yelling down the hallway - we thought someone was being murdered but it turned out to be one very ropable Faridah in full swing! Some idiot white person had chartered the car in the meantime for more than what Faridah had negotiated and the driver didn't even bother to call her and let her know. Several phone calls later, she finally managed to summon up another vehicle to take us on into Aceh. By mid afternoon the car still hadn't turned up, it was stuck in traffic with all the holiday goers - it was a Sunday - trying to get back home.
Finally, late in the afternoon our car arrived for the 10 hour journey home to Lise's house in Air Dingin, West Sumatra! As we drove through the last bit of the Provence of North Sumatra and approached the border to Aceh there was an increasing number of Christian churches, as if in defiance of the approaching fatwah on Christian churches across the border. The churches were all labelled either GBKK (Gereja Batak Christian Catholic) or GKBP (Gereja Batak Christian Protestant) and interspersed with them were mosques. As we passed thru the elephant statue at the border into Aceh there were noticeably more coffee bushes planted out.
 Passing thru Sibulasalam (meaning nice place to live) we looked for a roadside restaurant. Our Acehnese driver took to us to one he was familiar with and stood outside looking at the glass window full of food. We went inside and sat down then Lise said 'Well you know normally one goes up and helps oneself to whatever one wants in these Acehnese  places you know'. 'Oh!' I replied 'Buffet style, why didn't you say so!' I replied and we all stood up and filed over to the food much to the drivers relief. He thought we had sat down at the table because we didn't want to eat the food. There was selection of various fishes, kankung, rice in a gigantic rice cooker and various fried eggs, omeletes and other goodies. The food was delicious, the restaurant full of mainly men watching us curiously.
 Back on the road I thought 'Gee, we seem to be racing along here!' I glanced at the speedo. It sat on 200km/hr! Holy f***! I felt like vomiting as we veered past chickens, goats and dogs, motorbikes and other cars. Later on Lise put her GPS on (yes, she's a regular Lara Croft Tomb raider and has all sorts of 'survival' gadgets) and measured the speed we were doing and we discovered the speedo was in fact faulty and we were only doing half the indicated speed. 'Does that make you feel better?' she asked. 'Oh yeah!' I replied, 'Just great!'. We finally made it to Lise and Faridahs house just after midnight.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Easter Traditions at Our Place

Easter in Manijimup 2013
 Easter at our place is always greatly anticipated, particularly for the traditional Humpty Dumpty Easter eggs that are filled with smarties. This is a phone conversation with eldest daughter a week before Easter:
Vee: ‘Mum I’m sooo excited for Easter!’
Me: ‘Really darling, why’s that?’
Vee: ‘I can’t wait for my Humpty Dumpty egg!’
Eldest daughter is 21 this year! Since we moved to far north Queensland we traditionally spent Easter up the coast in the world heritage listed Daintree rainforest. There we would rent a log and canvas cabin set in the rainforest and the Easter egg hunt would take place on Easter morning in the rainforest outside the cabin, dodging the pythons, cassowary and green ants. More recently since R has been working on the Western seaboard we make the trip over to Manjimup and spend the Easter week at his little cottage hunting for eggs in the Peppermint gum fringed garden, amongst the kookaburras, magpies and wild bunnies.

This Easter one of the nurses, Barbara, called late in the afternoon and asked if anyone wanted to go for a joy ride in her hubby Simon’s plane. Yep, that would be us. As we pulled up to the gate at the little airport Simon met us there in his four-wheel drive:
‘Just make sure you close the gate after you drive through to stop the kangaroos getting onto the runway’ he said.
  Monkeybuns and I jumped on board the little four-seater for a flight over the south-west coast.
Me: ‘That’s a lovely British racing green colour you’ve painted the plane’
Simon: ‘See the springbok painted on the tail? It’s actually what they call springbok green and gold in South Africa’
Obviously you get they’re from South Africa. When they moved out to Australia he brought a microlite plane with him but the red tape paper work required to get it registered exceeded the weight of the aircraft so he gave up and bought a light plane off a local farmer that was already registered instead! So, headphones on with voice activated mouth-pieces so we could speak to each other, Monkeybuns and I sat in the back and Simon and Gordon (the hospital administrator who also flies) piloting in the front, we taxied out along the little runway and lifted off over Manjimup, waving down to R and Lion boy who stood by the hanger down on the ground.
Simon (left) Gordon (right) in the cockpit
 As we flew out toward the coast Simon pointed out a section of the forest below us that was covered in a long line of sand dunes, inland from the actual coast itself:
‘That’s moving sand dunes completely covering a section of that forest. In parts you can just the tips of the trees sticking up above sand.’
The sand dunes in the middle of the forrested area
The westerly sea breeze had come in just as we had taken off, cooling the inland town of Manji and creating a smoky mist over the coastal areas. We flew over the mouth of the Donnelly River, closed off from the ocean until the winter rains swelled the river forcing it through the river mouth and out into the sea.
Monkeybuns taking a shot of the Donnelly River Mouth
 As we turned south to head down the coast we spotted a gathering of six four-wheel drive vehicles racing up steep sand dunes and speeding back down them:
Simon: ‘They’ll destroy the dune environment if they keep that up. Let’s go down and circle a few times and see if that scares them off.’
It stopped them briefly but as soon as we flew on the ratbags were back at it again! We flew over the deep blue ocean fringed with long layers of white lacy foam from layer upon layer of waves breaking along the shore. As a small island appeared below us with sparse vegetation and rocky outcrops, Simon came on over the headphones:
‘The old-timers used to put their sheep out on this island. They’d leave them out on it for six months and then come back for the survivors. That was their way of weeding out the fittest to breed up.’
Gordon came on:
‘I used to wind board out there back in the day but you wouldn’t catch me doing it these days. Not brave enough anymore, too many sharks about for my liking!’
View over Manjimup

We circled over Windy Harbour and headed back towards Manji, flying over the hundreds of marron farms. The commercial ones have red, white or black shade cloth over them to stop the birds from pinching the marron. Up in Perth we had stopped the night with my girlfriend Therese and she had come back from the shops remarking ‘We are so putting in a dam! The marron down at the shops is $60 a kilo!’ (They’ve just bought a bush property out at Wandering and they have a natural creek meandering through it) Marron are such odd creatures. If they don’t like the dam they’re in they just get on up and walk on out of there, often walking kilometres and usually at night to another ‘better’ dam. No one knows just what makes one dam preferable to the next.
Marron dams and orchards over Manjimup
Over Simon's property
As we circled over Simon’s property, waving down to his wife Barbara, and headed for the runway for a perfectly smooth landing, we were treated to another spectacular Western Australian sunset blending in to the red of the earth. What a great Easter flight – thanks Simon!
Here's a terrific video Monkeybuns made of the flight