Lament for J2

I was struck by the latest bad news concerning the Southern Resident Killer Whales: the presumed death of J2, also known as Granny. Likely over 100 years old, she was the matriarch of J Pod for decades. I don’t usually write poetry but have found that it helps express complex but brief feelings and thoughts. So here is some imagery evoked by the loss of Granny:


A world is lost with you


Orcinus orca

“From the underworld”

(An underworld that is heaven to me)


Queen of the Sound

The Strait

The sea coast


Glaucus sparkle

emerald and iron

spring nights, stars above and below

Noctiluca scintillating

Forests of firs and kelp

Barriers of stone, pebble interfaces


An audience is enraptured


Family following your lead

And your wisdom


You have descended into the silence between songs

A symphony diminished

Is there a greater silence still?

Or a crescendo?



It was never up to you

It’s a question we answer

It always is

Moana’s Environmental Message

*Author’s note: this post will contain heavy spoilers; read at your own risk.

The latest Disney Princess flic, Moana, is at once buoyant, beautiful, and poignant—and it tells simultaneously two stories: one about a Polynesia teenager satisfying her wanderlust and saving her home, and another about us—the collective viewers.

In the film, Moana, a girl who has always yearned to venture out onto the open ocean, heard as a youngster the tale of how the demigod Maui stole the Heart of the nature goddess Te Fiti but lost it in the ocean when he was struck down by the volcanic demon Te Ka, thus becoming trapped and inadvertently releasing a blight of decay and darkness into the world.

Moana eventually goes on a quest, after receiving the Heart from the ocean and discovering the blight on her own island, to force Maui to restore the Heart of Te Fiti.

Maui reveals that he originally took the Heart with good intentions: to gift it to humanity and bestow the power of creation. He eventually, grudgingly, agrees to help restore it. However, when his magical hook, the main source of his power, is nearly broken in the first confrontation with Te Ka, he almost abandons Moana completely. Only when she continues on her own and is put in mortal danger does he return, sacrificing his hook in the melee.

Moana discovers that destructive, volcanic Te Ka is actually the heartless, enraged form of Te Fiti. She makes peace with Te Ka and so is able to restore the Heart and end the darkness.

This is the first, overt story told by the film. But I saw another, hidden within the images. In this story, the stakes are higher, the challenges greater, the scale vaster, and Moana and Maui represent not individual characters but aspects of us all.

During the Industrial Revolution, humanity thought to dredge up the compressed bodies of millions-of-years gone plants and plankton from the depths of the earth and burn it for fuel and energy1. In our modern day, we continue this through ever-escalating means and also extract ores by tearing apart mountains; furiously produce animals via factory to feed our growing hunger; hunt and persecute wildlife; and fracture2 our Earth from horizon to horizon with roads, housing, farmland, and industry.

We used it to generate energy to fuel civilization and technology through continuous growth3. We have improved medicine and increased life expectancy4. We can sustain more humans than ever before, and more humans are enjoying a higher quality of life and leaving poverty5.

But this initial abundance and harvest have come with a cost.

We have released a darkness of our own making unto the world. Wild creatures and intact, pristine land have declined sharply, even into extinction6. We have polluted land7, sky8, and water9, making these unsafe for ourselves. We have altered the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. Decay and death are following in our wake.

We’ve even pushed nature to violence—a corrupted form of itself—with heightened likelihoods of severe storms, wildfires10, and even earthquakes11 due to resource extraction and waste disposal12.

Now we have the option to act.

Like Moana, upon learning of this blight, will we strive with all our might to fix it?

But, as in Maui’s case, perhaps this will take sacrifice.

To completely restore our biosphere’s heart we will most likely need to live less consumptive, smaller lifestyles. We also may need to give over a greater proportion of our economy to ensuring a future for natural systems. We must focus more on well-being and less on growth13.

There are some big steps humanity must take to end the darkness: eliminating the use of fossil fuels; restoring some breathing room to wild spaces; and vastly diminishing waste, pollutants, overdevelopment, and overharvesting. To these ends, we should look for ways to help in our everyday lives and support leaders, creators, and innovators who work for healthy natural systems.

Going on as we are will only lead to greater destruction, but there is one piece of knowledge we can hold dear:

It’s not too late to restore the heart.



Works Cited

1. “Fossil Fuels.” Institute for Energy Research.

2. Carrington, D. “New map reveals shattering effect of roads on nature.” Dec. 15, 2016. The Guardian.

3. “Global Economic Outlook 2017-Home.” The Conference Board.

4. Roser, M. “Life Expectancy.” Our World in Data.

5. “Global Monitoring Report 2015/2016.” The World Bank.

6. Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., Garcia, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. 2015. “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances 1.

7. Dalrymple, A. “Oil pipeline spill near Belfield, ND, estimated at 176,000 gallons.” Dec. 13, 2016. WDAY.

8. Phillips, T. “Beijing smog: pollution red alert declared in China capital and 21 other cities.” Dec. 16, 2016. The Guardian.

9. “Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts.” Updated Dec. 21, 2016. CNN Library.

10. “Understanding the Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather.” US Environmental Protection Agency: Climate Change Science.

11. “Induced Earthquakes: Overview.” USGS.

12. “Induced Earthquakes: Myths and Misconceptions.” USGS.

13. “View the Book (Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot).” Global Population Speak Out.

Header Image: “Bora Bora” from mariamichelle on Pixabay.

Lifestyle in Harmony

We can’t always trust those in power to reduce human impacts on the environment (through regulations, sustainable development, renewable energy targets, etc), especially not if we as consumers and members of society don’t care about changing our own lifestyles to reflect a life in balance.

Living with less impact on the environment is not hard to do. I will compile on this page links to lifestyle tips as well as tips of my own.

Let’s build a sustainable society from the ground up. With more and more people, reducing our consumption and degradation of the natural world, intended or simply borne of ignorance, is increasingly crucial to saving what natural beauty we have left.


Reduce your use of plastics

Store produce without plastic

(I will continue updating this list)

The easiest thing to do in terms of achieving a more sustainable lifestyle is to pick one change to implement at a time and only move on to another thing when you have mastered the first. Making these changes into habits will have the greatest staying power.

Rally (Response to 2016 US Election)

About a decade ago, near the end of the Bush administration, middle-school-aged me attended a green energy/environmentalist convention in Minnesota. I was filled with all the righteous outrage and hyperactive passion of an energized preteen who read a lot of fantasy books (saving the world, good vs evil, all of that), and I wanted to do just that: save the world. I visited the stands on various “green” initiatives (recycled materials, efficient light bulbs and household heating, renewable energy) and bought a set of activist buttons which I wore regularly until 2008 had come and gone. They had mantras like “Save the Future” with a picture of a melting Earth or “Organize” with a group of small fish chasing a larger one. My activism was in full stride. I told everyone I knew about the perils of global warming and melting ice caps, about solar and wind energy and the dangers of fossil fuels, and fervently defended the Endangered Species Act.

I was able to become a little more complacent, as can be imagined. I still fought against initiatives that I knew would be harmful to the environment, but most of my effort was spent on advocacy and spreading awareness of issues to others. It was a good eight years.

We have entered the Anthropocene. The changes that humankind will wreak across the planet will be cemented in geology for millennia to come. The rate of extinction–that is, the complete annihilation from existence–of species is possibly higher than it has been since the end of the dinosaurs. Humans have been disastrous, but I still held out hope.

We have been making slow progress. Renewable energy has been slowly spreading, with new global initiatives in funding and investment. There have been instances of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) continuing to block the efforts of traffickers and poachers (for example, in ivory). There has been social outrage over trophy hunting and oil pipelines. In the United States, very recently, two marine reserves were created and we got onboard the Paris Agreement. For someone who, as a child, was innocently outraged at our lack of support for the Kyoto Protocol, this felt like poetic justice and resolution: the first step in a road to staving off the worst effects of climate change.

But our hard-won progress may be slowed. It may be halted. It may even be reversed.

There is a lot of fear and trepidation over the shift in American government (understandably). I am an advocate for many of the affected social movements, but I will not address them here. Instead, I will continue to address the slow erosion of our biosphere. It’s where my expertise lies and it is where, in my opinion, the most irreversible damage is taking place.

I will address the slow death of Planet Earth. We have lost over 50% of our wildlife in the last fifty years. We are reduced. We are lesser. Earth is decaying beneath our feet, and we are concerned about money, as always.

In the aftermath of this election, those of us who are concerned with a more existential crisis than turbulent borders or health care premiums are worried, to say the least. The track record on science and environmental issues of the now dominant Republican party is not conducive to optimism.

Once again, the will of those in power is against us. If we want to save our world before irreversible harm is done, we must act.

Recall the Green Movement of the early 2000s. Dredge up that passion and spirit. You will need it again.

Extinction is here. Climate disaster (which will, *shockingly*, affect the economy!) is creeping up on us. We’ve just experienced the five hottest years on record: it is not a trend our civilization knows how to stand against.

We must keep fighting for a future of diversity and life. We must fight against isolation, both within humanity and of humanity.

If you were there with me, ten years ago, trying to advocate for clean energy and habitat protection: take up arms again. And if you’re newer to activism, keep fighting.

Keep working. Speak up. Don’t let those in control get away with any atrocity.

“We must not go quietly into this impoverished future.”

It will be harder now, but we must keep our momentum and keep our voices raised.

Hope for the Millennial Attention Span

Screens flash, pixels lit to their most garish and LED displays shifting with popups, sidebars, and glowing links. Post after post betray headlines in varying shades of clickbait. Even the headers of professional news sites are getting in on the action, offering a tantalizing hint of the story without delivering the punchline. Advertisements are crammed in the borders or shove themselves into your face in the worst of cases. Buttons for games are displayed everywhere, including amongst the apps on your phone screen.

Everything is competing for your attention. Tactics vary, but the goal is the same: grab a click from the user.  If you are millennial, of course, your attention is highly valued. You have so little of it to give, after all. And they have to deliver the message quickly: with your eight-second attention span, you’ll be gone again like that.

But is the millennial attention span really so short? With so much interconnectedness at their fingertips, how can anyone capable of comfortably using touchscreens or internet browsers pass up an opportunity to give in to curiosity? When did being curious suddenly start becoming a bad thing?

There is a huge amount of knowledge available on the internet. More is being generated every single day, including in hard factual fields like science, technology, and statistical sociology; as well as news about current events, politics, and entertainment media. With all of that knowledge readily available (and going to fantastic and tawdry lengths to sell itself), it is perhaps arguably better to have an ability to soak up the important, relevant facts and then move on quickly to something else. In order to stay well-informed and open-minded, a person has to sort through a large wall of information on a daily basis and be able to pick out everything of significance.

Of course, along with this, there is the constant temptation of humorous listicles, trashy gossip articles, and angry but engaging rants. How can a person be dividing up their attention so much between these things and the more meaty information and still actually devote time and effort to really caring about the things they see?

There is some evidence that millennials are still quite capable of devoting time and effort to one thing at a time. Enter the fandom.

Reactions to the word “fandom” usually prove threefold, in my experience:

“What is a fandom?”

“More like fan-dumb. Ugh. Nerds.”

And finally:

“My people!”

Fandoms are a fairly recent entry into the multitudinous web that is pop culture. A good way to describe one would be a large amount of internet-savvy fans of shows, books, movies, or other specific pieces of entertainment art grouping together and creating a subculture based on their shared interest. This can result in internet things like memes and gifs, fan-made content which builds on the original worlds and characters, or real-life things like conventions and products.

In the best of cases, the fans will form a supportive community and this can be used to build up charitable organizations or support groups. A few big examples that come to mind for me personally are the various charity efforts by Hank and John Green of the Nerdfighteria community; the Lumos organization which helps institutionalized children, spearheaded by J. K. Rowling; and the Always Keep Fighting campaign supporting those with depression, based within the Supernatural fandom.

There are simpler beneficial outcomes besides full-fledged charity organizations. Pokemon Go, for example, uses the abiding millennial love of Pokemon to draw them into the outdoors. Many players have reported experiencing friendly social interactions, new aspects of their hometown’s culture, routine exercise, and the cleansing presence of nature just by being drawn out of their comfort zones.

Before forming positive results like the ones above, these fans spend a huge amount of time immersed in their shared worlds. Creating, exploring, or sharing worlds with each other is a positive way to build community. Close-knit communities are able to start focusing on other shared interests beyond the original one, and this often takes the form of an issue the community wishes to tackle together. So much devotion to a specific community, whether that community be physical or virtual, is certainly not the mark of a shortened attention span.

By sharing worlds, we can improve our own.


A Doe

Short Story

*Author’s Note: Real life has been rather busy for me over the past couple of months, so for a while, I will upload some of my older work that I still enjoy. Here is a piece of flash fiction I wrote for a contest a couple of years ago that uses an interesting perspective. 

She listens, ears taut and too heavy-looking for her delicate head. A long call pierces the stillness, high and resonating. Her left ear flicks, but the hoot is unworthy of her concern. An owl is nothing to her: her of the four powerful limbs and supple body. There are other things which might threaten her, but neither sound nor olfaction has revealed them and there is no risk of hidden danger tonight.

Almost perfect silence surrounds her, the air cold enough that sound carries a horizon away. The skies are clear, washed with silver glittering points. The ground upon which she steps with tiny hooves is almost glowing; the white of snow reflecting a bath of starlight onto the trees and the one lithe figure in the middle of the field. Urgency floods her otherwise graceful movements.

She has been out, searching. Though creeping predators are currently no threat, there is the problem of food. Many of the elderly and youthful ones cannot last the winter. She is neither, and it does not cross her mind that once she was weak and she will be again. She found little sprouts of grass, hiding down in the deep cold drifts, and now she can return.

As she traverses the forest at the end of the field, an alarming scent suddenly wafts past her nostrils. She stills and then bolts, the smell of blood mixed with the dead odor of her own kind setting her into a panic. This one has ended in blood. Many of them do. She can’t imagine herself ending the same; she simply bounds away.

At last, she returns to the grotto that holds her future. The smells and sights are all the same, dim and peaceful with the highlights of icy bark. A scent warmer and more welcoming than any other greets her, and she bends toward a hollow of roots where the tiny creature waits for his mother. Her fawn was born early, at the end of the season, but he is healthy and strong and his mother more so. All is safe this night, and he nurses.


Musical Dolphins

Can the Study of Music Inform Science?

*Author’s Note: The following post will contain interesting scientific findings as well as (frequently wild) speculation by yours truly. Please take the latter as more food for thought than serious scholarly argument.

Let’s begin with an imagined scenario. You are traveling with your friends, specifically out looking for a place to eat. You’re not in a heavily populated area and there are few choices, so it takes a while. Eventually, you locate a source of sustenance and indulge yourselves. Satisfied, you depart, but as you do you encounter another group. They seem friendly enough, and are also looking for food, so you decide to introduce yourselves and help them out a bit. Eventually, your turn comes to pronounce your name.

It comes out as a string of music.

This occurrence does not apply to human interaction, but it may very well be a common event for a dolphin.

In 2013, Arik Kershenbaum (now of the University of Cambridge), Laela Sayigh (of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) and Vincent Janik (of the University of St. Andrews) published an interesting study on the categorization of signature whistles (Kershenbaum et al. 2013). A signature whistle is an individual identifier for a dolphin, essentially a name, used mainly when the dolphin in question is separated from its companions or when it is meeting new dolphins.

kershenbaumfig1 sigwhistles

Spectrograms of Signature Whistles (Figure 1 from Kershenbaum et al. 2013)

The premise of the study was simple enough. In order to classify signature whistles (taking a large amount of whistles recorded in the field and sorting them by which dolphin each whistle belongs to), many studies up to this point have used human observers who look at spectrograms—a plot of sound frequency (or pitch) over time—of the different whistles and try to match the dolphin they belong to. Human visual inspection is the most reliable method used, but it is also very time consuming. The researchers wanted to find out if other methods would work in classifying signature whistles to save time. They used two computer algorithms that have been developed in other studies (the correlation metric and the dynamic time-warping metric, both detailed mathematically in the paper), but also used an algorithm based on the Parsons code (Kershenbaum et al. 2013).


This was a fascinating choice. The Parsons code is widely used already—as an algorithm applied to music retrieval databases (Downie 2003). It functions by defining each note based on the note before it (or time step in the musical score), using “*” to define the first note and labeling each of the next notes depending on if they repeat (“r”), go down in pitch (“d”), or go up in pitch (“u”). So, the first line of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” would be “*rururd.”

The most interesting part of the findings was that this Parsons code-based algorithm actually performed significantly better than the two other computer algorithms in correctly identifying which signature whistles belonged to the same dolphin (Kershenbaum et al. 2013). While it was still not as effective as human sorting, the fact that this was the first use of such an algorithm and so lacking in refinement meant this was a significant finding, potentially leading to a new, much faster way of sorting signature whistles.

The striking part of the findings to me, though, was the fact that a music-sorting code was able to perform comparatively well in the task of sorting whistles made by dolphins. Are dolphin whistles inherently musical?

First, it is important to take into account that both of the most effective means of sorting signature whistles were based on the contour of the whistle (the pattern of frequency change over time). Human observers could view the overall shape of the contour quite easily, seeing it directly imaged on a spectrogram. The Parsons code works in much the same way, defining a contour in simple terms. The code works in retrieving music because the contour of the music is one of the most important features in the memorization of the music itself (Dowling 1978, Downie 2003). It would appear that this feature of human perception, the frequency contour of music, is also important to dolphins, since it is the primary way to differentiate between different signatures. This makes dolphin signatures different from human names, since there are no consonants or vowels involved but only changes in pitch in a specific order.

Of course, there are many human languages that rely on pitch to convey meaning (tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese or Hmong) (McWhorter 2015). So, if we are going to compare the dolphins’ whistles to any aspect of human communication, would they be more like a tonal language or more like music? Aspects of their behavior lead me to consider the latter option.

There are other aspects of dolphin communication that have been likened to music—the most telling of which is chorusing along with other synchronous vocalizations. Janik et al. (2011) reported instances of groups of offshore bottlenose dolphins (between two and six) in the Gulf of Mexico producing the same whistle type almost simultaneously, something rarely seen even in other dolphins (they found no instances in a few inshore populations). Herzing (2006, 2015) described a behavior seen in both Atlantic spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins in the Bahamas in which the dolphins would synchronize calling (using either squawks, whistles, buzzes, or brays), often in rhythmic patterns, during bouts of aggression. In some cases, the dolphins even synchronized their body posturing to the rhythm of their calls (Herzing 2015).

herzing2015 fig1 synchronous calls

Bottlenose Dolphins Use Ritualized Synchronous Calls (Figure 1B from Herzing 2015)

Such behavioral synchrony, especially in the vocal realm, was possibly very important in early human development. Merker (2000) described chorusing as a human behavior which probably aided in language development (through vocal learning) and the development of advanced social systems and rituals as well as leading directly to more sophisticated forms of music. “Synchronous chorusing and dancing to a repetitive beat qualifies as music in the human sense,” Merker postulated, which is possibly what the dolphins in Herzing’s reports were doing.


So does that mean dolphins are musical? There are plenty of alternative explanations and careful considerations to make before calling their behavior or communication definitively musical in the proper sense, but the idea itself might not be so farfetched. To understand why, we must learn more of the dolphin brain.

Neuroscience might just hold the key to understanding if dolphins are capable of music. Many neurological findings lead to the conclusion that dolphins have one of the most sophisticated emotional processing systems of any animal, possibly including humans. A great deal of research shows that dolphins have advanced social systems and the neuroanatomy to support advanced cognition, especially in the social and emotional realms (Marino et al. 2007). Many specific components of their brains specifically illustrate their emotional capabilities. The dolphin brain has a well-developed anterior insular cortex (AI) which “may be the equivalent” of the primate AI (Jacobs et al. 1984).

buttifig2 ai brain region

The Anterior Insular Cortex (AI) of the Dolphin Brain (Figure 2 from Butti et al. 2009)

The AI is very important to social emotions in humans, playing roles in traits like empathy, compassion, interpersonal relations, and in predicting emotional states of self and others (Lamm & Singer 2010). Dolphin brains also have a comparable number of Von Economo neurons (VENs) to those of humans, great apes, and elephants (Butti et al. 2009). VENs, also called spindle cells, are extra-large neurons important in social and emotional cognition, awareness, and intuition (Allman et al. 2005). Dolphins even have VENs present in the AI (Butti et al. 2009). As well as these specific structures, the generalized organization of the dolphin brain is conducive to advanced emotional processing. Based on communication with Denise Herzing, Thomas White explained that the dolphin limbic system (the processor of base or primitive emotions in mammals) may be connected to more portions of the brain than in humans and other primates, leading to a higher prominence of emotions in decision-making and behavior (White 2007). Dolphins may base more of their behaviors and social interactions around emotions and relationships.


With this in mind, it is not surprising that dolphins engage in ritualized synchronous calling and posturing (at the very least the precursors to human song and dance if not full-fledged music). Music is, after all, the language of emotion. Through arcs and dances of pitch and steady beats, we speak more of emotion than in hundreds of words. Perhaps dolphins, valuing emotion and relationships over rational discussions, speak more in music than in so many words.

In his book, Thousand Mile Song, David Rothenberg summarized an arranged encounter between a musician, trained in recognizing different tones and voices in a score, and a recording of several dolphins interacting. The musician was able to piece together the different components of the interaction better than the scientists could, which might make more sense now. It could help us learn more of their perception and behavior of we keep in mind that dolphins might communicate at times like different instruments in a symphony, “speaking” of emotion and connection more than anything else.



Allman, J. M., Watson, K. K., Tetreault, N. A., & Hakeem, A. Y. (2005). Intuition and autism: a possible role for Von Economo neurons. Trends in Cognition Science 9, 367-373.

Butti, C., Sherwood, C. C., Hakeem, A. Y., Allman, J. M., & Hof, P. R. (2009). Total Number and Volume of Von Economo Neurons in the Cerebral Cortex of Cetaceans. The Journal of Comparative Neurology 515, 243-259.

Dowling, W. J. (1978). Scale and Contour: Two Components of a Theory of Memory for Melodies. Psychological Review 85 (4), 341-354.

Downie, J. S. (2003). Music Information Retrieval. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 37, 295-340.

Herzing, D. L. (2015). Synchronous and Rhythmic Vocalizations and Correlated Underwater Behavior of Free-ranging Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis) and Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Bahamas. Animal Behavior and Cognition 2 (1), 14-29.

Herzing, D. L. (2006). The Currency of Cognition: Assessing Tools, Techniques, and Media for Complex Behavioral Analysis. Aquatic Mammals 32 (4), 544-553.

Janik, V. M., Simard, P., Sayigh, L. S., Mann, D., & Frankel, A. (2011). Chorussing in delphinids. Acoustical Society of America 130, 2322.

Jacobs, M. S., Galaburda, A. M., McFarland, W. L., & Morgane, P. J. (1984). The Insular Formations of the Dolphin Brain: Quantitative Cytoarchitectonic Studies of the Insular Component of the Limbic Lobe. The Journal of Comparative Neurology 225, 396-432.

Kershenbaum, A., Sayigh, L. S., & Janik, V. M. (2013). The Encoding of Individual Identity in Dolphin Signature Whistles: How Much Information Is Needed? PLOS ONE 8 (10), 1-7.

Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2010). The role of anterior insular cortex in social emotions. Brain Structure and Function 214, 579-591.

Marino, L., Connor, R. C., Fordyce, E., Herman, L. M., Hof, P. R., Lefebvre, L., Lusseau, D., McCowan, B., Nimchinsky, E. A., Pack, A. A., Rendell, L., Reidenberg, J. S., Reiss, D., Uhen, M. D., Van der Gucht, E., & Whitehead, H. Cetaceans Have Complex Brains for Complex Cognition. PLoS Biology 5 (5), 0966-0972.

Merker, B. (2000). Synchronous Chorusing and Human Origins. In The Origins of Music. Wallin, N. L., Merker, B., and Brown, S. (eds). MIT Press, MA, USA. 315-327.

McWhorter, J. (2015). “The World’s Most Musical Languages.” The Atlantic. <;

Rothenberg, D. (2008). Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound. Basic Books, NY, USA.

White, T. I. (2007). In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier. Blackwell Publishing, MA, USA.



The Psychology of TV Tropes: A Cultural Tool?

Think of two stories. Any two stories, from literature, television, film, or the internet. What do these stories have in common? It is essentially the sole purpose of one (noble?) website to answer that question. The answer involves tracing the patterns within a superficially diverse field, popular culture, to determine its underlying web of common threads.

If you’re like me (an experienced denizen of the internet and consumer of entertainment media) you are probably quite familiar with the website TV Tropes (“The All-Devouring Pop Culture Wiki”). If not, I’ll give some brief explanation (for more details, I recommend visiting itself, but only if you do not mind the possibility of getting sucked into its black hole of information—potentially for hours). TV Tropes deals with tropes, defined by the page as a tool, originally a “figure of speech,” used by “creative writer types” to “convey… a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.” Tropes are tools of the story itself, used to advance a story or character arc (or in some cases hinder it). Tropes in many cases are unintentional: clichés we find in many different stories. Reading over them, it becomes clear that many tropes (all of the ones listed on the site have individual names) are simply important commonalities between stories: specific character archetypes, moments of action, plot-building, or world-building.

That is really the simplest definition of the trope: a specific commonality that can be seen in many different stories. A pattern.

So what could bring on the existence of such a site? I’ve touched before on humankind’s need to define and categorize—this is certainly part of it. But why do we feel such a need? What could bring about the obsessive creation of an exhaustive list of such patterns?

It is all for the sake of the patterns themselves.

Humans excel at one very important cognitive trait: pattern recognition. This is an important concept in cognitive psychology—the ability to link new sensory input with previous memories and finding patterns amidst the data—so important that it may be one of the defining traits of humanity.

M. P. Mattson recently provided a comprehensive look at the vital role pattern recognition plays in human cognition and the development of the human species (Mattson 2014). One of the preeminent cognitive abilities in humans, a trait which Mattson proposes is one of the primary drivers of human advancement above other animals, is superior pattern processing (the “encoding and integration of perceived or mentally-fabricated patterns which can then be used for decision-making and for transfer of the patterns to other individuals”).

So why is pattern processing so important to humanity? Mattson lists many examples and even explains some of the underlying neural substrates which can make such cognitive abilities possible (specific hormones, areas of the brain, or arrangements of neurons). Pattern processing allowed humans to develop language, since language is itself a symbolic representation of specific meanings, using patterns in auditory (spoken word) or visual (writing) cues to convey information. The recognition of these patterns and incorporation of them into increasingly complex modes of communication was key in our development of advanced technology and culture. Maps and other kinds of illustrations also necessarily rely on patterns used across individuals to get a message across.

Pattern processing was also necessary for the development of advanced social structures (Mattson 2014). The ability to recall faces and identities of other people, as well as all of the information about those people (who they interact with, how they feel about the person doing the recognizing, their position in social hierarchies, and even the knowledge they might have) is key to developing cultures and social networks as complicated as our own (which now stretches across the entire globe in many cases). The cognitive demands of sociality may even influence brain size and complexity—a concept called the Social Brain Hypothesis (Dunbar 2009), so pattern processing in humans enabling more and more advanced social networks directly leads to increased cognitive abilities all around.

This pattern processing ability continues to be fundamental to human cognition in its most basic sense but it serves other assets to human culture as a whole. We as humans look for patterns everywhere, so much so that we have created tools to look for patterns for us. Statistics, the branch of mathematics that is, essentially, used to verify how likely scientific findings are to be true uses patterns in data sets to assess the significance of those data sets to proposed hypothetical conditions. Pattern recognition is also important to machine learning, although it works a bit differently for computers (data inputs are assigned to classes or with labels based on their relevance to these classes or labels, as described by the Wikipedia page on pattern recognition in machines).

In addition to aiding in scientific and technological endeavors, pattern recognition is hugely important in storytelling. Consumers of stories come to expect certain commonalities within those stories. Those commonalities can be defined by the culture that produced the story or can be based on patterns from reality. The description and locating of those commonalities is, of course, the purpose of TV Tropes.

Why is it so important to define all of these patterns and similarities?

Stories can provide different viewpoints and can also use those viewpoints to teach lessons or explore difficult themes. The commonalities within the stories make them relatable to each other and to our own lives. Since storytelling evolves from reality, we can relate to specific elements in the stories we consume, making us more likely to relate to the story as a whole piece. When we can relate to stories, or relate one story to another, we are developing one of the most important traits of humanity: empathy.

Storytelling is one of the most important mediums through which we find empathy for others. Through empathy, we can work together and learn what it’s like to inhabit other points of view without being physically capable of leaving our own. Through empathy and commonalities in storytelling we can also develop culture. TV Tropes might deal with “pop culture,” but many aspects of pop culture eventually become ingrained in the permanent culture of a people. Recognizing patterns within our culture could potentially allow us to grow it with more purpose and direction, a tool which so far humans have been somewhat lacking. There is much speculation I could bring about on this topic, but my original question has been answered. TV Tropes, the nerdy catalog of pop culture tropes, does serve a valuable purpose and could make a useful tool. As with any tool, the only issue remains whether to use it wisely.


Works Cited

Dunbar, R. I. M. (2009). The social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution. Annals of Human Biology 36(5), 562-572.

Mattson, M. P. (2014). Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain. Frontiers in Neuroscience 8, 1-17.

Wikipedia. “Pattern recognition.” <>

TV Tropes. <>

Is Nature No More Than a Museum Exhibit?

1st part of a series: Saving Our World.


I stand before a crowd of about a dozen guests, seated on hard plastic and metal chairs. The lights are dim. A wall of glass and stone behind me separates us from darkness. I explain to the guests, before we begin our tour, that there are a few things to go over. “Use the hand railings, feel free to take pictures, no food or drink allowed so could you please use the lockers, and last and most importantly don’t touch the walls or formations!”

“You could permanently damage them and we want to preserve them for future generations.”

It’s the thesis, the battle cry, of the preservation movement. Preserve and protect. We want denizens of the time after NOW to be able to see this too. Think of the children. And so on.

We head down into the cave, a small natural wonder developed for tourism. The guests exclaim and gasp over the depths, the stone, the darkness… Some still try to touch at first. I remind them, again, to enjoy with eyes only.

It isn’t until later that we see why: some of the formations are broken from past guests. Some parts of the walls have been discolored by their dermic oils. They didn’t care, at first, about preserving the cave. “Touch here! Look at this! Feel how these formations are solid rock, though they look like mucus!”

Our attitudes towards natural places have been improving, to be sure. At first, everyone who visited marveled at the spectacle and wanted to either take a piece home (break off a stalactite, hunt a trophy animal, collect interesting rocks or fossils) or tame what they saw. The natural world was too wild and dangerous for mankind. We would render it docile and pleasant—just another garden to stroll through on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally stocked with game animals for the noble sportsmen among us.

This changed when we realized how very dire the threat of extinction to those game animals. Of course it was the creatures we had an economic or recreational interest in that we chose to preserve first; their habitats followed in the list of things to be preserved and managed.

Our understanding of preservation has dramatically improved. We look at public parks and wildlife refuges with an ecological perspective. We must protect keystone species, umbrella species, maintain predator-prey interactions, remove invasives that are outcompeting natives, and so on.

But still, we have a damaged view.

These natural wonders, like the cave, are protected in bubbles. They are museum exhibits. We drift along, marvel at the spectacle once more, learn about how they work and why it’s so important to protect them—and we leave.

We leave.

We return to the comfort of our homes. The cities and suburbs are our habitats, stretching infinite and geometric and anything but green in every direction from us.

We visit the little parks and gardens for a bit of refreshing verdant life. We gawk at falcons and foxes and deer that pass like ghosts through our backyards, remnants of what was. We name our housing developments after the natural places that once existed there, that which we destroyed.

And on three-day weekends, we head off to Yellowstone, to the Grand Canyon, to Carlsbad Caverns, to the Great Lakes, to Niagara Falls. Occasionally we learn about these places (though mostly we just watch and play). But we just visit and leave again.

The challenge now is to transition our movement from preservation to conservation, to connectedness.

I do my best with this. When I talk about bats I emphasize that they are good for humans and the ecosystem (they keep those repellent insect populations in check!) and so we must monitor them for White Nose Syndrome (and please treat them nicely, implied in my words). That’s really the only time I can get people thinking about their connectedness to something as strange and self-contained as a cave. I wish I could do more on a larger scale. Occasionally I ask them about why they’re visiting. Most of the time it’s simply because they’re passing through or live nearby and were curious, wanting to see something new and interesting.

Often, though, it’s because they love visiting caves or other natural wonders. They love to explore and experience the natural world. This is the mindset that I hope spreads and clicks. We all love to go see cool new things when it’s convenient, but we should devote more of our attention to thinking about our connections to nature and the natural places we visit.

You can’t boat on that lake if it’s polluted by industrial or agricultural runoff from upstream.

You can’t go see wolves hunt elk (or hunt them yourself) if there is not enough space to support a population of wolves or elk.

You can’t go to the park today if the air pollution is so bad you shouldn’t go outside.

The only exception to these rules would be geologic marvels (like a cave, or cliffs, or the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone), immune to pollution and only vulnerable to direct physical destruction. And, of course, pockets of nature so strictly maintained that they aren’t really natural at all anymore. Places like zoos. We can go see animals from all over the world… but are they really from all over the world if there are none of them left in the wild—in those places they were once from?

Are tigers part of nature if they only exist in captivity?

These protected, controlled little pockets should not be all we have. If we want nature to remain, then we need to let it grow beyond our contained, protected bubbles.

We need to let those animals drift into our cities. We need to remove invasive species from our yards and help native plants grow. We need to encourage green spaces throughout our neighborhoods and discourage development of natural areas into commercial ones. We need to search for corridors between patches of wild land and let the wildlife roam where they will. We need to make sacrifices, sometimes, about how much space we are willing to give to the other life in our world. We need to become so familiar with “wild” that it is not wild anymore.

Most importantly, we need to be aware of how we are connected to our world. We affect it with everything we do. Building this awareness and letting nature retake land and reconnect itself will bring a positive feedback loop: with more nature comes more awareness and more awareness comes more value on and protection for nature and so on.

So, next time you visit a national park or a waterfall or a cave or just go hiking through the woods or watch songbirds at your park: think about what you’re seeing a little harder. What can you do to protect places like this? How are you affecting it? How is it affecting you? How can you ensure the less spectacular, less noticed examples of nature are still protected even though they aren’t as economically alluring as a natural wonder?

See yourself as connected to this world. That is the first step in saving it.

If we lose that connection, then nature might as well be relegated to the museums. Parts of it already are: just ask the passenger pigeon or the thylacine.

Shall that be the fate of it all?

Animal Deceivers and What They Understand

I paced through the streets of Friday Harbor, a tourist town on San Juan Island which was empty of tourists. It was spring in 2014. The town, nestled around a ferry harbor at one end (I was waiting for my class’s ferry to arrive and had an hour to myself), was quiet and inviting, clear of the crowds I guessed would be there in only a month or two. I had just purchased a sandwich and snacks from a local shop and was looking for a place to eat. Ever the anti-social loner, I didn’t want to sit awkwardly by the docks while my classmates had their lunches. Instead, I made my way up the street and found a tiny park situated above the gleaming waters of Puget Sound. I took a seat on a bench and started unwrapping my food. I could feel the slight tingling sensation on my arms that meant I was slowly getting a sunburn, but I ignored it. I wouldn’t be out in the sun much longer and I wanted to enjoy it.


Friday Harbor, Washington


As I began my lunch, a group of crows fluttered down in various perches around the park. I had seen them all over town, individuals or small clumps of them traveling between buildings or scavenging around the streets, always wary of my approach. These ones seemed interested in me, though.

One crow flew down onto the grass and pavement in front of me, quite close. I watched it, curious. One-half of my unwrapped sandwich was on its paper on the bench beside me, the other half in my hands. The crow started clumsily hopping toward me, its gait uneven. Concerned, I leaned forward, but it hopped back again and started lurching across the grass. I noticed another crow flap down slightly behind and to the side of my bench. I ignored it and kept watching the odd hopping bird.

I twisted around after a few seconds to see where the other crows were and found that the other bird that had landed by my bench was suddenly several feet closer, eyes trained on my sandwich. I laughed quietly, starting to realize their game. I turned my head again to watch the hopping crow and then turned back a second time. As I had expected, the second crow was even closer to my food.

Laughing further, I picked up my sandwich. “I know what you guys are doing,” I told them cheerfully, “I’m not going to share this.” But that was a lie. Amused at their efforts to trick me out of my sandwich, I left a few small pieces of bread for them before I headed back to the ferry.

Of course, I can’t be sure that they were indeed trying to deceive me, but that was how it had appeared for all intents and purposes. Crows are known for sophisticated acts of trickery and planning, so this kind of deceptive teamwork could be within their realm of cognitive ability.

This kind of trick in the animal kingdom is an example of tactical deception. There are many forms of deception among animals, ranging from camouflage designed to make a leafy sea dragon look like seaweed to possums feigning death when predators have found them to tufted capuchins giving alarm calls when they have found food in order to keep it all for themselves (Wheeler 2009). This last example is also a form of tactical deception, in which animals purposefully use behavior they know others will misinterpret to give themselves some form of advantage.

I was reminded of the crows in Friday Harbor, Washington recently when I started watching Lie to Me, a television show based around the idea that deception in humans comes with visual cues. Deception in real life, among animals both human and nonhuman, is not so simple in reality, but it is an interesting topic nonetheless. When deceivers of social species are discovered they are often punished by society. When rhesus monkeys fail to report discovered food but that act is itself discovered, they become the subjects of increased aggression by their peers (Hauser 1992). In humans the social implications of cheating can be more diverse, ranging from ostracism to legal consequences.

One of the hottest debates in the field of animal behavior involving deception is exactly what function of the brain produces tactical deception. Deception is a sophisticated social ability, but just how sophisticated? Are the deceptive behaviors learned tricks involving manipulation of others’ behavior, or are the deceivers actually anticipating the knowledge in the minds of others? This latter option has a name: Theory of Mind. It is the ability to know that your peers also have minds which can contain knowledge, beliefs, and emotions. In humans, this ability develops around the age of four to six (there’s a good reason toddlers are so selfish: they can’t properly comprehend that others can think and feel!) (Wimmer and Perner 1983). Do any other animal species possess Theory of Mind?

So far, the debate continues. There has been a lot of potential evidence for Theory of Mind in dolphins, great apes, and corvid species (among others) but researchers are not yet able to say for certain if it is actually Theory of Mind they are displaying or just another form of learning (most alternative explanations involve the animals making inferences based on the behavior of others rather than representations of their mental states). Penn and Povinelli (2007) summarize the counter explanations for some of the examples of deception. Corvids (the group of birds containing crows, ravens, and jays) display complex food-caching behaviors depending on others. Some species will re-hide their food if a peer is watching, and can even remember which peer was the watcher. Thieves will not attempt to steal cached food if the one who originally hid it is present. Western scrub jays, specifically, will deploy additional measures to hide and re-hide their food if they are accomplished thieves themselves, suggesting they may be able to project their own experiences onto others (I am a thief, therefore this other bird could be a thief as well!).


Western scrub jay caching an acorn

Of course, the counterarguments all suggest that the caching behaviors could just be very sophisticated learned methods for keeping food safe. Even the scrub jays might have another reason for being more careful with their food if they are thieves (although the arguments against this ability seem weaker).

Since—so far—solid, widely accepted evidence for Theory of Mind hasn’t been shown in acts of deception, what could provide evidence of it? The most common way to nonverbally assess the presence of Theory of Mind in human children is to use a false belief task. Often this involves the subject watching someone else witness a desirable item being hidden. The witness then leaves the area and the item is either left alone or moved to a new location. The witness then returns and the subject must guess which location they will search for the item in (Suddendorf and Fletcher-Flinn 1999). If the subject has Theory of Mind then they will understand that the witness can have false beliefs as well as true ones, and so when the item has been moved the subject will guess that the witness will look for it in the original location.

This test has been carried out with some animals, with limited success. The most successful trials involved bottlenose dolphins who did pass with a significant margin, but there were too many confounding factors in the setup and methodology of the experiment to make strong conclusions (Pack and Herman 2006). Dolphins, like corvids, are also quite capable of deception. Diana Reiss, in her book The Dolphin in the Mirror, writes about a famous example: captive dolphins were trained to bring pieces of trash in their pool back to human handlers to help clean up. They would receive a fish reward for every piece of trash. One clever dolphin hid one large piece of plastic under a rock at the bottom of the pool and would bring back several small ripped strips from it during clean up times, receiving many treats at once. Her deception was eventually uncovered, probably to her dismay.


Dolphin at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (where Kelly the dolphin tricked her trainers)

Could dolphins also be using a Theory of Mind to deceive others? This particular behavior could easily be based on other kinds of learning, but perhaps the dolphin did have an understanding that the humans assumed she was honestly bringing individual pieces of trash to them and did not know about the larger hidden piece.

So far, the evidence for corvids and dolphins displaying a Theory of Mind to guide their deceptive efforts is suggestive but inconclusive. Of course, researchers might be going about this the wrong way. Is it really necessary for an animal to have the same level of Theory of Mind as a human in order to be able to know that other animals can have knowledge and beliefs? Could there be orders of magnitude to Theory of Mind? It will only take further research to uncover the depths of this amazing cognitive ability.

And what about those crows back in Friday Harbor? When they were trying to trick me, did they understand that I possessed knowledge about where they were, where my sandwich was, and a belief that my sandwich would remain next to me (a belief they were trying to make false)? Certainly, they could determine the direction of my gaze and the focus of my attention. For now, I don’t really know the answer. Like many other mysteries, we must rely on science to reveal gradual small truths until a bigger picture is constructed.


Works Cited

Hauser, M. D. (1992). Costs of deception: Cheaters are punished in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 89, 12137-12139.

Pack, A. A., & Herman, L. M. (2006). Dolphin Social Cognition and Joint Attention: Our Current Understanding. Aquatic Mammals 32(4), 443-460.

Penn, D. C., & Povinelli, D. J. (2007). On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 362, 731-744.

Reiss, Diana (2011). The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives. Mariner Books.

Suddendorf, T., & Fletcher-Flinn, C. M. (1999). Children’s Divergent Thinking Improves When They Understand False Beliefs. Creativity Research Journal 12(2), 115-128.

Wheeler, B. C. (2009). Monkeys crying wolf? Tufted capuchin monkeys use anti-predator calls to usurp resources from conspecifics. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276, 3013-3018.

Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition 13, 103-128.


Birding Information. Scrub Jay, La Purisima Mission, Lompoc, CA. “Western Scrub Jay.” <>

San Juan Islands. Image 1. “Friday Harbor, San Juan Island.” <>

The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. Dolphin Encounter Program. “Dolphin Programs.” <>