Freedom to Roam

Just Wandering Around

McCoy: Free to Roam

McCoy...Dreaming of Roaming Around

Quite a few European countries have "freedom to roam" laws, allowing you to wander onto private land as much as you'd like, so long as you don't damage it or cause trouble.This seems unusual but, unlike in America, which has a lot of public land, some countries in Europe, such as Scotland, are 90% or more composed of private land; you’d be almost solely restricted to public roads there, without freedom to roam laws. Some 45% of land in Scotland is owned just by 450 or so people. without freedom to roam laws, an astonishing amount of the country would be cut off from most of the population.

Of course, there are plenty of restrictions. For example, you usually can’t freely enter a fenced field with a gate. If someone has a little forest on their land, though? G’head: absolutely wander through it, or even go mushroom hunting, foraging, or camping, depending on the specific laws of a particular country.

We have ample history behind the freedom to roam laws, even if, remarkably, many countries didn't bother to formalize these laws until recently, depending on custom, to keep access available.

Those customs date back centuries. I expect you could trace them all the way back to Medieval times, when peasants were allowed to freely use forests owned by nobles to forage, gather firewood, and graze their pigs on acorns and the like.

By and large, while most American states don't have a direct equivalent—you're well within your rights to exclude other private citizens from your land—we have a surprising amount of parallels.

In Hawaii, all beaches, no matter who owns them, are legally public beaches (excepting some military beaches and such). California and Florida have similar laws for their beaches, with a gaggle of variables. In Oregon, the entire coastline is public property, up to sixteen vertical feet above the low tide mark.

For the most part, these laws are wildly popular with just about everyone, except for a few ultra-wealthy people who'd prefer to own their own beaches. I'm not overly sympathetic to their plight.

America certainly doesn't need freedom to roam laws as far-reaching as Europe's, but really: only thanks to our large quantity of publicly-owned lands, like our National Parks and Forests. Publicly accessible lands are an important part of a healthy society.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: The Industrial Supply Chain

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes the idea of supply chain through a prism of my favorite invention, the yard ramp.

Check out his great insight HERE.

The Frequency Illusion

Everything Old is New Again

Rinse, Dry, Repeat

The other day, one of my grandkids was telling me about a video game he’d been playing. Kids being kids in the 21st century, this was hardly an unusual occurrence, and I was only halfway paying attention. (And, um, please don’t tell Maggie; it’ll just encourage her conspiracy theory that I’m not listening.)

Then: a couple days later, a friend mentioned that their kids were playing that same game. And then I saw an ad for the game. And then I saw a news article about it. Now, this was not a new game or trendy fidget spinner-like sensation. It'd been around for a bit. So why, all of a sudden, was it appearing in my life?

It probably wasn't, actually. If I'd been paying attention, I'm sure I would have noticed this video game’s presence for some time.

The human brain tends to be extremely selective about what it pays attention to. This is sometimes known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Essentially, what happens is that your brain gets really excited about this new thing and starts noticing it much more often, whereas before that same brain of yours might have just dismissed it as unimportant.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon has one of the weirder names in psychology. Most monikers for stuff like this have to do with its discoverer or researcher, but Baader-Meinhof was a West German terrorist group in the 1970s. It's actually a nickname; the frequency illusion is the preferred name.

An anonymous poster on an Internet forum had been discussing how he'd learned about the terrorist group. The next day, he came across a gaggle of seemingly random references to Baader-Meinhof, just as the name of my grandson’s video game kept popping into my life.

If this seems like a weird brain quirk, in terms of evolution, it actually makes a lot of sense. There's way too much happening in the world for us to really pay attention to all of it, so we need filters for the important stuff. Like video games. And everything Maggie says.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Benevolent Butterfly Effects

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy is really speaking my language. His blog is all about connections and unexpected outcomes as a result of small things brought together.

Check out his great blog HERE.

Whales, Elephants, and Dolphins

Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 3

McCoy on Language

Communication: Many Forms

Years ago, gibbons were thought to be one of the least intelligent apes. They repeatedly failed intelligence tests that other apes passed with ease, and they were quickly written off as stupid.

Then a group of researchers proposed something – seemingly obvious in retrospect – that was revolutionary at the time: Because gibbon hands weren't physically able to pick up objects from flat surfaces in the way other apes were capable, the researchers shouldn't be giving gibbons the same intelligence test as other apes.

When the researchers changed the test to better suit gibbon hand shape, the gibbon test scores skyrocketed, quickly landing alongside the other apes.

There's an important lesson to learn here. Summed up, we might say that judging others solely by our own standards might not be the best strategy ever.

You might be wondering why I’m starting a post about whales, elephants, and dolphins by talking about gibbons. It's for this exact lesson: our past attempts to crack the code of their conversations might have been foiled for similar reasons as the gibbon example.

Let’s take a look at elephants first. They are tool users, have fantastic memories, are socially gregarious, are self-aware (can identify themselves in a mirror), and are generally agreed to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom. But what about language?

One of our biggest clues comes from a few interesting stories about elephants traveling long distances to hold wakes. Elephants are notorious for mourning their dead. We know that they’ve also done this for humans, even going so far as to give them burials. When celebrated elephant activist Lawrence Anthony died, two herds of wild elephants that Anthony had rehabilitated traveled from hours and hours away to hold a two-day wake outside of his house. How'd they know?

Well, it turns out that elephants are capable of generating incredibly loud noises that travel for miles and miles. Amazingly, those “loud” noises are too low for humans to hear. They can talk with other elephants at great distances and, apparently, are capable of conveying fairly complex information.

It goes deeper than that. Elephants appear to have massive numbers of learned behaviors—not just tool-using skills but also, apparently, cultural ones. Researchers have discovered surprisingly different social structures between herds, even among the same species. It would seem utterly astonishing if this was all accomplished without language of some sort.

Similar traits apply to dolphins and whales. Both are capable of making noises well above and below our hearing ranges. Both are also incredibly intelligent and social.

If we want to learn whether elephants, dolphins, whales, or other species truly have language—or, even more dauntingly, learn to understand or even speak it—we'll need to learn to start understanding how the lifestyles and physiologies of these animals would alter their needs and abilities in terms of communication.

We can't merely judge them by human standards.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Yard Ramp Rental vs. Purchase

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes the choices to make when it comes to renting or purchasing one of his quality forklift ramps. Seems you won't go wrong either way.

Check out his new blog HERE.

Humans Speaking Animal

Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 2: Groundhog Day

I just scampered in from Jackson Hole, and man are my dogs tired.

Last time around, we looked at animals speaking human language. What about humans trying to speak animal language?

Well, somewhat embarrassingly—and other than some scientifically and ethically suspect experiments with dolphins back in the day—we really hadn't tried too hard until fairly recently. We're looking into it with a vengeance now, and we're coming up with some astonishing results.

First of all, we've got parrots (like Alex) in the wild. We've confirmed they have words for specific types of predators, foods, etc. The most fascinating thing we've found, though, is that they give each other names. Each parrot has a distinct name that remains throughout its entire life, given to it by its mother. That's…pretty astonishing.

Next, we have prairie dogs. (Not groundhogs, I know; I couldn't resist the title.) Prairie dogs live in huge underground communities, and scientist Con Slobodchikoff has been studying their vocalizations fairly intensely over the years.

He's confirmed they have a variety of different danger calls. Essentially, they have words for hawk, human, coyote, and even domesticated dogs. This is quite useful, since each threat demands different responses.

Here's where it gets crazy, though: Slobodchikoff tried sending people, dressed differently, through the prairie dog villages and eventually realized that prairie dogs had the words that actually described individual humans. He found that the prairie dogs could differentiate the color of the humans' shirts, as well as differentiate between different shapes on their shirts.

The prairie dogs could identify the difference between triangles and circles, but not circles and squares. The ability to use adjectives like this is far from one expected in a species of rodents.

There are quite a few more obviously intelligent animals in the world than prairie dogs. They’ve got to have even more language, right? (So long as they’re social and not solitary, at least.)


Next time: Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 3: Whales, Elephants, and Dolphins

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Appreciating the Yard Ramp

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy continues to honor the beauty of a yard ramp with a terrific perspective on its logistical and economic value.

Check out his new blog HERE.

Animal Intelligence and Language

Part 1: Birds of a Feather

Alex, Talking About Things

Ever heard of Alex the grey parrot? Alex could supposedly use language, though his owner, animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, quite cautiously claimed he could use a “two-way communications code.”

That, you know, involved Alex understanding more than a hundred words.

He could identify more than fifty different objects (and could even tell you what color it was or what material it was made of), could count to six, and even knew how to apologize and when it was appropriate.

Alex could invent names for things (he called apples “banerrys,” presumably a combination of banana and cherry, which he was more familiar with).

Every night, as Pepperberg left the lab Alex lived in, he'd tell her, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

They were the last words he ever spoke to her. He died in his sleep at age 31.

So why, exactly, did Pepperberg refuse to say Alex used language?

Well, it's because of linguists. Or, more precisely: the animal intelligence debate, and the role linguists and animal cognitive scientists play. The debate is a complicated, in-depth, challenging thing, and trying to summarize doesn't do it justice. But I’ll give it a shot.

Essentially: Animal cognitive scientists believe that animals might be capable of using language, while linguists don't. (There are, of course, dissidents on both sides, but those are roughly the camps.)

Alex the grey parrot is hardly alone as evidence for animals being able to speak language. Gorillas and other great apes, for example, have been taught to speak sign language. Dogs and many other domesticated animals can learn extensive commands in human languages, though how much is them actually understanding and how much is them just learning behavioral triggers is a point of massive contention.

All that being said, Alex is the only known animal to have been able to ask questions, so that somewhat leans things back toward the linguist side of the argument, outside of Alex himself.

Here's the tricky bit, though: all of the above are animals trying to speak human languages, not humans trying to understand animal languages.


Next time: Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 2: Groundhog Day

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Back to Yard Ramp Basics

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy waxes in a fine way about the beautiful simplicity of the yard ramp. Honored that he quotes me in the piece.

Check out his new blog HERE.