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.

Shared Bloodlust: When inter-species pacts go horribly right

Killers of Eden

We’re comfortable with our position on planet earth. As relatively new to the scene as we are, it does appear as if we’ve taken to the role of World Dominators with peculiar ease. We’re not exactly imposing in and of ourselves. Hell, we’re not even from predatory stock! No claws or fangs… though yes, we do tic the “forward facing eyes” part of the checklist, but that’s only thanks to some ancient ancestor that needed to be able to hop to the next tree over. It was only after we came up with a novel little weapon of our own that we started staking our claim.  We’ve adopted the predatory lifestyle with much gusto; but really, we’ve only been at it for a few million years. We’re really just glorified banana eaters. But I digress, the enemies that we haven’t hunted to extinction have been relegated to wildlife reserves or zoos. It was once thought that it was in our nature to elbow everything else out of the way. Our modern sensibilities tend to look down on this view of things, claiming that it’s done nothing but alienate us from the natural order.

We’re at the top of the ladder and, looking around, it’s pretty lonely up here. Or is it? Are there animals that would do the same thing, given the specific sequence of random events that might culminate into what we’d refer to as a chance? I’ll take a step back. Are there animals who find it in their nature to help man further his diabolical ends? Yes, actually. Plenty.

I could go on and on with a list of ‘Budding World Dominators’, but we know how that would end. My posts tend to be long enough as it is! Today, I’ll focus on one of my favorite groups of creatures. The cetaceans. Not only do I like the subject of whales and dolphins, but I like the subject of whales and dolphins acting like completely heartless killing machines. It’s much more fun, and probably closer to reality. So really, we’re not so different.

The advent of modern science has only recently shown us just how intelligent some of our fellow earthlings are. From tool use to culture, the list of candidate creatures continues to grow. One of the more popular entries is, of course, the dolphins. They’re up there in what I call the Famous Four: apes, elephants, corvids, and cetaceans. Communication is key when we’re talking about interaction between species. And not only interaction, but coalitions as I’m proposing. Luckily, it has been recently found that just such exchanges are well within their capacity. Dolphins are expert linguists. Just ask Brin.

Fishermen and bottlenose dolphin coordinate in an attempt to catch mullet.

Is it just me, or is the thought of an animal intelligence reaching out to communicate with us really freakin’ cool? Let’s begin in Brazil. Off the Atlantic coast of a small town called Laguna, the local fisherman have taken advantage of a strange outreach program doled out by a group of bottlenose dolphin. They (meaning the dolphins) drive shoals of mullet into the shallows near the beach, where they come into the range of the humans and their fishing nets. But it gets better; the dolphins actually signal when and where the fishermen should cast their nets. By thrashing their heads or slapping the surface of the water with their powerful tails, the dolphins appear to be communicating the presence of the fish. On the face of it, it seems a selfless act on the part of the bottlenose pod. Why would they act this way around humans? Please.. don’t get your rain sticks and prayer crystals out just yet, brethren. It turns out that the escaping fish are easier for the dolphins to scoop up individually. It’s a fully fledged, everybody wins, exercise in teamwork. Everybody but the mullet. This isn’t a new behavior either. This collaboration has been going strong since 1847.

But in a post touting blood pacts and promising heirs to earth’s destruction, this may seem kind of weak. What’s the big deal about coordinated fishing? Aren’t they just fish after all? It’s not much of a reach for dolphins to want to fish. Well, yeah – but if you don’t see the fact that dolphins having created a culture that integrates another intelligent species, our species, into the equation as extremely cool, I can certainly up the stakes.

An orca leads a group of whalemen to a baleen whale.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been a particular pod of killer whales that would journey to the mouth of the Port of Eden every year during their annual migrations. For over one hundred years, these over-sized predators visited the south east coast of New South Wales, Australia. They came to be know as the Killers of Eden and they were unlike any other pod of orcas known, before or since.

Old Tom featured with his primate pack-mate in 1908.

The killers of the Port of Eden were transients; meaning, they were the variety that have a taste for mammalian blood. For generations, these killers would chase baleen whales up and down the coast of Australia, as they had throughout the rest of the world. While all other killer whales were happy to keep their hunting “in-house”, the Killers of Eden fell upon a very interesting strategy. They would herd their quarry into Twofold Bay before commencing to attack. And this is where things got weird; several individual whales would peel off and cross the bay. Oddly, they would then begin to display at the mouth of the kiah river. Same story as before. The orcas would breach, crashing onto their sides, or pump their flukes through the water. This behavior was called ‘flop-tailing’. All of this was to gain the attention of a certain group of whalers, who would row out to, and be guided by the whales.

That’s right, the killers would inquire for the assistance of human whalers to help bring down their prey. The two deadliest super predators of their respective domains joining forces for mutual, bloodthirsty gain. The humpback whales never stood a chance.

After the deed was done, the killers were allowed first access to the carcass. A kind of accord was made between the whalers and the killers. It was called the Law of the Tongue. It was called this, I’d guess, because orcas feast mainly on the lips and tongue of their kills, leaving most of the valuable portions of the whale untouched. It was only later when the humans would return to the scene, having lashed an anchor to the rotting body, and claim the rest of the remains, such as the valuable bones for scrimshaw and the blubber. It was claimed that this was a kind of subsistence hunting, where the humans rarely took more than what the killers brought in themselves.

As you might imagine, the whalers grew very fond of their fellow hunters. The men went out of their way to free the orcas from fishing nets and in return, it was said that the killers would protect the men from sharks when their boats capsized. Some even called them family, going as far as naming some of the regulars. Names like: Skinner, Hookey, Jimmy, and Montague. This was pretty impressive in itself, as the whalers would usually recognize the whale by it’s particular fin shape and notch pattern of scars. This is the same procedure modern day naturalists go about recording individuals in a pod.

Carcass of Old Tom, found in 1930.

The most famous killer, however, was called Old Tom. He was said to be one of the most outgoing of the killers. Old Tom was usually at the forefront when it came to alerting the whalers to another kill. Because of his proximity to people, many legends sprung up around Old Tom. It was rumored that he was over eighty years old and that (naturally) he was the leader of the pod. He was said to be clever, even pulling the row boats out to the site of an attack by hooking the whaler’s tow lines in his mouth. Old Tom would also grasp harpoon lines after they had been thrown and appeared to play with them. Out of joy or blood lust, we’ll never know. It turns out that such activity might have doomed Old Tom in the end. His corpse was found after it drifted into Snug cove in 1930. When it was studied, it appeared as though his jaw had become infected due to the damage done to his teeth. Some had been worn to the gum line. *It was also discovered post mortem that Old Tom was closer to 35 years old when he died.

Because of overhunting of their prey species, it was theorized that the Killers of Eden eventually disbanded. Breaking up into several pods, they eventually moved on. The last of the original killers to be seen was none other than Old Tom.

The consequence of chewing on tow lines. Viewing the skull, it’s easy to make out the damage done to Old Tom. Also note the teeth on the left side of his lower jaw.

It’s interesting to see just how successful such ventures can be. A stable arrangement was made for more than a hundred years at the Port of Eden. It’s fun to speculate just what kind of legends might have sprung up on the other side of the waterline. Did the killer whales have their own equivalent to the Law of the Tongue, and did we somehow break the pact, causing their eventual dispersal? We have learned just how intelligent these creatures are in recent years, but perhaps the whalers of Eden knew so all along.

What sorts of arrangements would we find ourselves fostering when we finally break the language barrier with other intelligences? Would we stand back in horror when we realized how violent they really are? Would we stand by and allow them the right to pursue their own traditional or social ends? Would we even concede that they’re intelligent at all?

Greetings from Earth Part I: Memorable first contact moments in video games

Aliens and video games. The two go back to the beginning, when you could count the data bits that powered a game on one hand. Representations of human/alien interaction are just as old. Think of those gnarly little pixels from Space Invaders. Sure, it’s not the happiest of close encounters as you lay huddled amid the remnants of your precious bunkers – waiting in vain as they descended to seal your fate! It’s safe to say that this common sci-fi trope has been resurrected time and time again throughout the history of the media. And with good reason! There’s something powerful about that moment when you encounter your first alien. If the game handles it well enough, you may end up like me and retain some fond memories of some of those first contact moments – even if (more often then not) the confrontations rarely turn out well for everyone involved. Blame the genre!

A few guidelines to help us before we get underway: This is strictly a list of video games that I find personally memorable. This post has nothing to do with their playability and does not reflect any kind of rating system, though I will be commenting about gameplay sparingly. They’re all good, in my opinion. I’ll mostly be referring to the story or background in which these inter-species exchanges will be taking place. A little build up to set the stage. There will also be some spoilers. But I’ll be sure to keep them minimal if I can help it.

Also! I do realize how prolific aliens and sci-fi are to the fabric of video games. Trust me. I’ve played my share of them. Many games handle the subject beautifully. Recent examples include  the Halo series, Starcraft 2, Gears of War, and of course the Mass Effect trilogy. These games are pinnacles in their own right. People love them for good reason. Yet most of these stories include species and cultures that are already well established within the fiction. Wars are already being fought on a galactic scale! My list will focus instead on those brief moments in video games where the character in question is first running into his oft-scaly extra solar friends. With a few exceptions: the encounter with the Flood in the first Halo comes to mind, most games forgo introductions for the benefit of just getting to the damn running and gunning already. I’ll try to stick with the first-offs.  This is a tenuous rule, as we’ll soon see, but I think it holds up; more or less.

If you guys have any suggestions of your own, I’d love to hear them! My list is kind of piddling.. though I’ll just say that it’s a work-in-progress. These are current standouts. Burned into my vision centers most recently or most prominently. Forgive me if I leave out a few good ones. Like I said.. let me know. I’m always willing to hack away at my own ignorance one bit at a time! So now, without very much more ado, and in no particular order:

Memorable moments of first contact in video games!

*Edit:* It has now been decided that this post will be extended to include a kind of “saga” of video game first contact posts. Who’d have known I could be so long winded?!

Ecco the Dolphin

Hey, why not set off this list without humans whatsoever! Ecco the Dolphin is one of those rare gems that involves alien confrontation that cuts out the need for humanoid bipedalism completely. Maybe that’s why it stayed with me over all of these years. Yes, me and this game go way back. I was poking around at a Sega controller long before I was capable of playing a game so notoriously difficult. Many of my friends couldn’t get past the beginning stage where Ecco’s pod is mysteriously and violently hoovered up into the sky by a mysterious and jaw droppingly violent force. If this were a blog post about “Video game moments where idyllic scenes were suddenly replaced by supercharged-nightmare-fodder that can give you a heart attack” this would be right up there!

Anyways, to the important stuff. For a game about cetaceans, Ecco the Dolphin was a real powerhouse when it came to its science fiction content. I remember it being kind of off putting to some of my friends. “Since when did Flipper get super powers that involved breathing water, laser-like echolocation bursts, and a general demigod power over all sea life?” This bottle nose dolphin would do Aquaman proud.

Sure I remember lots of bits here and there. Like who could forget that damn octopus? There was time travel which involved pterodactyls. A trip to the frigid arctic to find a sagacious old blue whale that could fill the entire map. Navigating the submerged annals of Atlantis, and a very strange DNA being that had lost some of its double helixes… heli… whatever. That’s all well and good, but when it comes to the parts that still shine decades on.. it’s that twisted ending with the aliens. It really isn’t often when you’re treated to the dolphin version of Odysseus butting heads with a few hostile life forms from another ocean. And we’re not talking the Atlantic here.

In your jaunts through time and space, you return to the beginning of the game and end up traveling up that cyclone from hell that I mentioned earlier. And where do you end up? Why, in a kind of unholy marriage of H.R. Giger and H.P. Lovecraft’s vision of a Sea Park. And those are bad enough as it is. You’ve got Giger squid things chasing you through a maze of vents and ducts… all under a time limit. If the claws of the green freaks don’t dice you first, you’re liable to get crushed by the edge of the screen as it continuously moves and shifts, trying to propel you forward.

Flee or fight? Just get used to that piercing squeal Ecco makes every time he gets hit. Every. Single. Time.

As powerful as as a dolphin demigod might be; I died. A lot. And all of this was before meeting her highness, the Vortex Queen. The floating alien head with a penchant for using Ecco like a blubbery toothpick. Good luck saving your pod now.

I’d like to give you a happy ending after all of this, but I literally can’t remember if I beat the game or not. All I can see are those thrashing teeth and those creepy red eyes.

In the end, I appreciated Ecco the Dolphin for its originality. Its take on the plight of the hero was pretty ingenious. It was the complete lack of humankind throughout that really stuck out to me. It gave the game its own feel, and made the encounter with extraterrestrial non-terrestrials that much more poignant. And who says a tail fluke can’t kick as much ass?

I remember cries of “Go for the eyes!”

Okay, wow. It turns out that this post might be a bit longer than previously anticipated. Only one game down! I suppose I’ll end up stretching this out into several posts. I have two or three more games in line for a proper description!

Alright… so!

Ahem – On our next installment: A video game with a bit more fidelity for our discerning readers. A newer game that stands on its own as a prime example of doing some exploration of an alien vessel right! Ecco the Dolphin could have taken a few notes.. but alas, time is a one way street. Until then, I’ll see you down the road.