The End of the World has a Commentary

The end of 2012 appears to be angling towards batshit insane after all. It might not be on par with a Mayan foretold apocalypse, but between the east coast of America getting pummeled by a hurricane and news of talking animals coming to light, even hardboiled skeptics like me are beginning to take notice.

Belugas may have to trade in their old monikers of “canaries of the sea” to something a bit more appropriate. Is your money on parrots or mockingbirds?

In all seriousness, learning about several “high-profile*” animals taking to spontaneous mimicry is all that’s keeping me going. It’s good to know that when climate change eventually kills us off, parrots won’t be the only animals to carry on our linguistic legacy.

First up, we have a beluga whale who needed a little personal space. NOC (named after nasty little insects “no-see-ums”) apparently uttered a phrase from every ghost story you’ve ever heard. “Get out.”

When he was nine years old, NOC began to emit calls many octaves lower than cetacean norm. The haunting, garbled sounds appeared very similar to human frequency speech. Such spontaneity is a first. As you can imagine, dolphins have been taught to mimic human language (along the lines of teaching the apes to sign), but this could be the one of the first instances of a beluga whale taking it upon itself to mock exemplify hominid sounds.

Sure, it’s amazing to hear a whale babble incoherently, but it gets better. Or creepier. Or maybe just closer to home.

Next: A male Asian elephant called Koshik was recorded ‘actually speaking Korean words’. Though his vocabulary is limited, Koshik can clearly be understood by other Korean speakers. It turns out that in the formative years of calf-hood, the elephant was only exposed to humans and human interaction. He was taught several simple commands (which I strongly suspect influenced his lopsidedly “commandy” current vocabulary. “Sit down” and “lie down” make up one third of the words he uses.)

Koshik reproducing the devilry that is human speech. He uses his trunk for the tough bits; namely all of it.

Elephants are consummate mimickers. They sometimes emulate lyre birds and imitate manmade sounds such as car engines. That doesn’t make it any less creepy when you learn that Koshik reproduces his trainers down to their individual voices.

None of this comes natural to these animals by any means. There are plenty of extenuating circumstances that has led to their impersonations. Creating such sounds is obviously well outside what their bodies can produce naturally. A massive elephantine throat and the pitched nasal calls of belugas are hardly suited for the job. Both of the animals have to physically modify their ‘vocal apparatus’ to get the job done.

Koshik substitutes his trunk for mobile human lips. And it works startlingly well. He’s able to reproduce tone and enunciation to a degree that is unreal.

NOC had to increase the pressure in his nasal cavity to get it right. He over-inflated a few key elements of his anatomy (which doesn’t sound comfortable by any means) to reduce the pitch of his regular, screeched calls.

There’s a long distance between imitations and actual full-fledged language, of course. It’s a stretch between “Polly want a cracker” and “Hey, want me to drop by the local market for some chips?” But the implications are there. I thrive on implications.

Earth is changing around us. Storms are gettin’ bad and I’m ready to head for the hills when the coastline decides a change of scenery would be in order. Our perception of animal intelligence has also changed much over the last few decades. There’s simply a lot more to them than we once thought.

There’s still so much to learn. I hope we can stick around for the coming golden age in animal communication. Hell. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be part of the creation myth of the future elephant civilization?

*By “high-profile” I of course mean; candidates for sentient intelligence, or; our replacements.

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Bow To Your New Overlords: Cats

It seems I’ve got felines on the brain lately, what with the recent passing of a lifelong pet that stretched away into the annals of my childhood. I’ve been coping pretty well, I’d wager; and was even faced with something you might call heartwarming very recently– But more on that later. For now it seems like I’ve got some more healing to do. What are blogs for but to be used as the tools for writer-ly expression? Or just plain venting.

It’s time to focus on a new series that I pulled out of thin air. In Overlords, we’ll focus our speculative powers on what species might take the mantle of world dominators from us. When we pass the buck, who will be there to scoop up the pieces? It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but I’m sure that’s just a defense mechanism for all the hypothetical drivel I purvey.

“On your knees!” Complements: akreon

First up we have domestic cats, in all their aloof, love-em-or-hate-em glory.

When they inevitably usurp us, what would become of those conniving fuzzballs? Evolution would unquestionably have its way. Ah, evolution: the speculator’s whore. You could branch off into a million-trillion directions. Or you could if you were a mental case like me.  But what does popular culture have to offer on the subject?

Humanoid cats in spec fiction and fantasy are a literal dime a dozen. They clog books and video games so much, you’d think everyone would get sick of the hair-balls. I even covered a game that chronicles an adventure across a whole planet of ‘em, and Outwardbounder is still causing birthing pangs! But as per our mission statement, what might future cats evolve into? We’re talking felis catus here.

The undeniable authority on the subject #Tongue-To-Cheek Alert# can be found in the British television series, Red Dwarf. One of the characters is actually a super evolved descendent of the protagonist’s pet. When Dave Lister is accidentally left in suspended animation for millions of years, his pregnant cat Frankenstein gives birth to a whole race of (suspiciously) humanoid catpeople.

The Cat. Pinnacle of interstellar feline evolution.

An entire culture and religion is sprung up around Lister and his pie-in-the-sky plans to retire to Fiji. The show really tears society a new one and is a marvel to behold. As for Cat, (capital c) he becomes the recipient of all of humanity’s stereotypes about felines. Fashionable, uncaring, cool… he’s got it all. The Cat has maintained the most elaborate, funny, and original origin story for any comedy series that I’ve ever seen. Hell, I might go as far as “any sci fi series, period.”

But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How would it all start? What would go down in the first place? Some might argue that they’d need thumbs. Others have presented scenarios where humans personally uplift animals through diabolical technology.

In the bloody and beautiful comic We3, a group of fluffy animals have been engineered into competent killing machines. Things take a turn for the heartfelt when the robotic creatures break free and are hunted down by the military. Naturally, throughout the story, characters remark at how viciously proficient the cat appears to be.

There’s something hauntingly plausible about humanity falling because of its own hubris. Evolution made cats into perfect killing machines. Might humanity push the scale even further? Or would we just end up with this?

I could see something like this eradicating all mankind…

How might our Overlords view us? Would they stamp us out completely with no remorse, or perhaps; would they see something of themselves in us? Strangely enough, this might not be completely speculative. In 1999, scientists at the University of California studied how neurons fired inside cat’s brains. They managed to project the data picked up by their retinas onto screens; effectively revealing what the cats were seeing.

As amazingly cool as eye-cameras and dream recorders would be, the study did manage to pick up a snippet of delicious spec fodder on the side. When it viewed a human face, the cat seemed to interpret it in its own felid-centric way. Check this amazing video and judge for yourself.

And there you have it. Cat Overlords, though maybe not completely terrifying, present a particularly wide array of possibilities to ponder. Be it your typical Man Vs. Kzin laser weaponry genocide-fest, or your slow and calculating tabby on a windowsill, you never can tell just how they’ll pounce and steal the stage from under us. Somehow, you wouldn’t put it past them. It’s something about that cold and distant stare. The purr is just to lull you into a false sense of security.

As George Carlin once put it, you can’t really relate to cats like you can with dogs. Cats don’t have eyebrows. Cats have a bunch of shit sticking out of their head.

Pomeranian to the Jugular in the Tokyo Jungle

Tokyo Jungle

If you’re like me, you’ve probably caught yourself wondering some fairly random things. Like what it would be like to be a gazelle chased down by a saber-toothed cat. Or a Bengal tiger chasing a zebra because you have a stripey inferiority complex. Perhaps a chimpanzees float your boat; ones who have a thing for slapping hippos and running away screeching.

Well there’s a game for that. What will they come up with next?

Tokyo Jungle is a new download-to-play title released on the Playstation Network and it’s been my good fortune to play it. It’s quirky/addictive, satisfying/fun, and asks all of the poignant questions like the ones I posed in the first paragraph. And there are probably some other crazy encounters that I just don’t have the time to imagine. This game’s got the crazy.

If you’re not like me, but you’re more or less similar to the rest of the world; you probably can’t get enough of the post-apocalyptic views of our world after the fall of civilization. You’ve got your Walking Deads and Survivors TV shows (Not to mention the promising new addition Revolution)… and you’ve got your I Am Alive’s and forthcoming The Last of Us’s on the gaming front.

If you’ve ever watched I Am Legend and had a blast watching the CGI deer and the lions co-mingling, you have absolutely no reason to avoid playing this game. It’s got pixelly ungulates in common! Who didn’t like Will Smith’s dog in that movie? Tokyo Jungle lets you be that mutt. More or less.

Tokyo Jungle is built on the premise – what lengths would our pets go to survive after severing human contact. Would their natural instincts ignite? Would they compete with wild animals? Zoo escapees? Could they thrive in a world still polluted by human toxins? Navigate to procreate?

The ruthless beast-king himself. Note the red slicker — the color of BLOOD!

Would you be cheering your Beagle on when he encounters a pack of Hyenas in a dark alley?

It makes for a fun playground. The possibilities are endless when those pesky humans aren’t in the way to regulate the hell out of the planet.

This is where Tokyo Jungle shines for me. It’s random, chaotic approach to the genre. It certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. How can you when you have packs of Silky Terriers nipping at the toes of Wooly Mammoths? It’s mindless, sure, but underneath it still presents the burning question… “What would happen after humans go–?” Also: Dinosaurs!

The rendering of a decades old Tokyo in decline, slowly eroding away beneath the paws of roving packs of wolves, it’s exciting. It makes you want to see more. Learning the ins and outs of gameplay, and crashing and burning HARD when survival of the fittest kicks you in the nose—it’s in full show here, and done extremely well.

There are more than fifty animals to choose from. Most of them unlikely and implausible, but every single one of them is a sheer blast to try out. I do warn you though – unlocking other creatures might be one of the games weak points. You must manually play through a Survival Mode as different creatures, in a more or less randomly roundabout way to get to the critters you like. Me? I bolted headlong for the chimp before getting utterly hooked and desperate to unlock more.

Another iffy bit? Multiplayer is limited to those couch potatoes beside you. As much as you want to disembowel your friends overseas, you just can’t do it. The actual internet portion of the game is saved for stats posting and leaderboards – and the unholy gamer’s bane, downloadable content. As much as I want to kick ass as a croc, I’m still tentative to pay extra for it.

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As it stands, Tokyo Jungle is a great strategic survival game with zany elements. It a lot of fun, and lets crackpots like me draw conclusions about a post-human era in a new and unconventional way.

Why not let the Pomeranians get a chance to rule the world?