Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes

"If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee's eyes, and intelligent, self-assured personality looks back at us."

The author, Frans de Waal, is a primatologist who for several years studied a colony of chimps in Arnhem zoo. Although studying them out of the wild like this is not an entirely natural setting, the zoo visitors are kept well back, and the chimps have been found to act very much like they do in the wild in most respects. In addition the setting allows them to be watched close up without danger.

We get introduced to the key players in the chimps community and feel like we are getting to know real individuals. Then the author covers their behaviour in detail. Factual but never boring or superficial.


Chimps behave with surprising intelligence. In the book they make several elaborate escape attempts, some successful, that require planning and co-operation.

In other chapter an ape demonstrates that lying does not require human language. Using body language alone a chimp is described acting like he does not know where some food is hidden when with the group, but later alone he runs straight for it.

Also discussed is the social intelligence hypothesis. That intelligence evolved in order to deal with increasingly complex group life of the apes. The technical inventiveness that chimps have in limited degree and humans have, is a secondary development to the need to outsmart others, detect deceptive tactics and so on. Is it therefore reasonable to suppose that humans had centralized social organization before they had material possessions with which to display their wealth and power?


Even in the zoo colony the chimps occupied themselves with leadership battles. Chimps want to lead their colonies as the leader gets his pick of females to mate with, and is able to keep his children safe. However in order to become the leader in the first place there is months of not just physical intimidation, but political gesturing and favour giving to win support of the females and other apes in the group.

The author mentions the French phrase "Noblesse Oblige", which means that with wealth power and prestige come responsibilities.  In order to keep their position at the top of the hierarchy, chimp leaders will need to help weaker chimps in disputes, keep the peace, act for justice and share the females in the group.

The way the chimps behave in the colony is really not very far removed from the way managers and executives behave in a large company in some respects!

Avoid the epilogue

Originally the book was published in 1982. I picked up a revised edition 1998 with an additional introduction and epilogue, and some edits to reflect updated theories. I recommend skipping the epilogue if you want a happy ending, because you grow attached to the individual apes and there is bad news for a couple of them that was only added in the 1998 printing once the author had time to come to terms with what happened.

In all I think it's a fascinating book, and anyone interested in where we came from should check it out. In addition it seems to be recommended reading for senators and business leaders. Hopefully my boss will not read this and groom me at work before attacking one of the other managers.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chicken and vegetable slow cooker dish

This is very easy.


1/2 lb small potatoes
4 carrots
2 leeks
1 medium onion
2 lean chicken breasts
1 can of chicken condensed soup
1/2 cup of water
1/2 cup of milk
2-4 tsp Paprika
Salt and Pepper


Cut the vegetables into 1/2 cm thick slices, except the onions which can be finely chopped.

Layer from the potatoes upwards (working down the ingredients list) in the slow cooker

Wash the chicken breasts, dry and cut into 2-3 cm cubes and layer on the top

Mix the soup with the water and milk until homogeneous and stir in the paprika

Pour the soup over the chicken and vegetables

Cook on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours

Healthier options:

Ditch the can of soup and use chicken broth. Use skimmed milk.

Unhealthier options:

Use cream instead of milk. Cross the street without looking.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

This story follows the lives of a handful of people whose paths cross and are connected in various ways. Joinson's tale skips between modern day England and 1920's Northern China, and both the characters and the world they live in are brought to convincing life.

Frieda, in modern day London, is a young woman whose life is in some disarray; both her career and relationships. She finds Tayeb, a filmmaker forced to flee his native Yemen, sleeping outside her apartment. Inviting him in they become friends and he begins to help her with emptying the apartment of a old lady who has died, and although Frieda does not know who it is, has been identified as the next of kin.

In Kashgar, a trio of lady Missionaries venture into Kashgar in remote China where they become involved with the death of a woman giving birth. Eva, our narrator for these chapters, must help take care of the baby whilst the women are held in house arrest awaiting trial for the murder. Their mission is lead by Millicent, a blinkered authoritative woman, and also with them is her sister Lizzie who is dizzy and somewhat intoxicated by Millicent.

Each of Eva's chapters begin with a quote from 'The Lady Cyclists guide', a book which Eva has brought along on the journey along with her bicycle. These quotes have an old school charm of their own and the anonymous author becomes another character of the book.

What I enjoyed most about this book were the many little details and observations that bring the world to life. Similarly the characters all have unique voices and their motivations in life are easy to understand and empathise with. Tayeb's chapters, for example, capture a believable portrait of what England must be like to an exile without papers; always moving, always at risk of being discovered and sent home.

The story moves at a moderate pace and everything is tied up nicely at the end. In summary a richly interesting and enjoyable tale that has been finely crafted.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Road trip 2012

In 2010 we went on a family road trip through the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton from Vancouver.  Having enjoyed it so much we did it again this year.  In case you're planning a similar trip here's some info on the driving times and hotels for our route, which went Eastwards to Calgary via Banff, then up to Edmonton, and finally back through Valemount.

Day 1: Drive to Golden from Vancouver. Approx 8 hours driving.
Stopped at Kamloops for lunch
Stayed at the Travelodge Golden, which is a bit old and dirty. Not recommended

Day 2: Drive to Calgary. Approx 4 hours driving.
We had time to stop at Lake Louise in the morning and spent the afternoon in Banff
Stayed at the Thrift Lodge Calgary University. Quite old. Very cold outdoor swimming pool. Not recommended.

Day 3, 4, 5: Drove to Edmonton stopping at Drumheller. Approx 6 hours driving
Stopped at the dinosaur museum and had lunch there
Stayed at Days Inn West Edmonton for three nights. Very nice hotel, highly recommended.

Day 6: Drive to Valemount, BC. Approx 7 hours driving
Stopped several times on the way, not much to see. Did not buy a park pass, although you could do so and stop in Jasper.
Stayed at Chalet Continental Hotel. Old but clean and good service. Pool, play area and spa.

Day 7: Return to Vancouver. Approx 8 hours.
Stopped in Kamloops on the way back.

You can view all the albums from this post here:


Friday, May 25, 2012

Book wish list

I'm currently making my sluggish way through the fifth (of seven planned) Game of Thrones "Dances with Dragons" and I've also started "Dickens" by Peter Ackroyd which is perhaps the biggest book in the world (1200 pages and weighs nearly 4lbs. Once I have read it I will probably use it as furniture). So although I went to Chapters yesterday and found a bunch more books I want to read, for now they are just on my wish list.

I loved Oliver Sacks's "Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" in which he talks about some of the patients he had as a neurologist. I can't say I've ever done that, but I've certainly done things almost as daft and I'm not even officially mentally ill. Anyway, I loved his writing style, and in this book Sacks heads off to Mexico to write about Ferns. Not that I am at all interested in Ferns but from the book jacket it sounds full of interesting anecdotes.

Not on the shelf for another week. "A Lady Cyclists Guide to Kashgar" is the first book from Suzanne Joinson (disclaimer she is a cousin) and it's published by Bloomsbury. I love the cover and the idea and can't wait to check it out.

A staff pick at Chapters... Mr G tells the story of creation as told by God. “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.”. Sounds awesome.

I read most of Neal Stephenson's books but he lost me a bit with his Baroque Cycle. While it has some good characters and lots of historical information, it got too long for me to follow. Maybe when I retire I will revisit these on a chair overlooking a lake, occasionally calling a nurse to come and turn the page for me.

This is a neat book... I need to learn some CSS3 right now, and this is a nice thick book filled with screen shots of what the code does. Also seems to be quite detailed unlike a lot of the 'quick' guides to things.

That's all folks.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

This is the 9th review I'll have written about a Studio Ghibli movie, but the first that I have seen in the theatre. We went along for to see the North American release of the 2009 movie, which has been dubbed in French and (British) English already. As a kid I really enjoyed the Borrowers books by Mary Norton, but I can't say any of the movies and tv shows based on the works impressed me much. So it was pleased to hear that Studio Ghibli were making the movie, and in fact the founders of the studio have been thinking about doing so for 40 years!

Borrowers, if you do not know, are 10cm tall people that live hidden in our houses, and get along by 'borrowing' things that we won't miss. Borrowers must never be seen, as once curious humans are dangerous, so once spotted they must uproot and move to a new home immediately. This movie takes the Borrowers story and relocates it in Japan, telling it the style of the many Ghibli movies before it.

The story begins when a young boy, Shō, is driven to the house in Tokyo his mother grew up in, to stay with his Great Aunt. While his Aunt goes into the house alone, he investigates the garden where a large (fat) cat is investigating a bush. The cat takes off and Shō catches a glimpse of our hero Arrietty as she slides down the stem of a flower and out of sight. Later that night we join Arrietty in the Borrowers home, as she prepares with her Father for her first dangerous journey up into the house to acquire sugar and tissue paper.

As with all Ghibli movies, the heroes are the children. The adults may be busy, sick, turned into pigs or just not give a damn, whilst the kids are independent, fearless and trying to grow up. In this movie the father is a strong yet silent type who obviously runs a tight ship with his family but is not afraid to let Arrietty grow up and take on dangerous work. The mother is more of a worrier, very comfortable in her little Borrower home and not wanting anything to change that. Of course Arrietty soon gets into adventure, or misadventure, with her parents nowhere to be seen.

Having seen a lot of animated movies aimed at kids recently, it was refreshing to watch one where the pace of the story was slow and thoughtful. Rather than being 90 minutes of action and drama, there is time for tension to build as the characters face increasing danger. There is time to watch amazingly animated beetles, centipedes and ants interact playfully with Arrietty, and for the sour faced fat house cat to play with Shō as he lies on the grass.That said there is plenty of action too, and the movie is never dull. It should appeal to most age groups.

The audio is notable, in that the sounds of everyday objects have been amplified and deepened in pitch so they become alien and scary when heard as if through the ears of the tiny people. I thought the soundtrack sounded like it was influenced by Irish or Spanish folk music, and really suits movie, but in fact was created by French musician Cécile Corbel. From Wikipedia:

"Corbel also performed the film's theme song, "Arrietty's Song", in Japanese, English, French, German and Italian. Corbel became known to Ghibli filmmakers when she sent them a fan letter showing her appreciation of their films, together with a copy of her own album."

There's no need for me to say that the animation and backgrounds are gorgeous, but it's certainly amongst the top three Ghibli movies. In particular the animation of the creatures in the movies is both lifelike and at the same time they have a lot of personality. The Borrowers house is as richly detailed as the real house upstairs.

Much as I love all the Ghibli movies, this is now among my favourites. Arrietty is a strong, attractive and likable character, whilst Shō is a tender and pleasant one. The movie explores some serious themes without getting too morose or serious, and gets nostalgic without being sentimental.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ocean Waves

A while ago I set myself a goal to watch and review all of the Studio Ghibli movies, since I enjoy them a lot, and I wanted a way to remember what each one was about. (I am losing my marbles you see.) Here's my eighth one.

Ocean Waves was made for Japanese television, directed by Anime producer Tomomi Mochizuki, his only Ghibli title. Despite being made for TV it ran over budget and over time (when does anything good not?).

Set in a rural city of Kōchi on the Japanese island Shikoku, it's a high school "love story" of sorts. The main characters are friends Taku Morisaki and Yutaka Matsuno. Strong willed they make a stand alone against the school authorities when a school trip is cancelled due to poor academic performance. (The kids instead get to go to Hawaii, my heart bleeds!) Japanese school children being much more deferential to authority and elders, their behaviour is quite something to the other kids. Taku in particular seems an independent and strong willed fellow.

Meanwhile, following a marital break up Rikako Muto must attend the high school in Kochi having previously lived in Tokyo. She quickly moves up the schools academic league table, and feeling more sophisticated than the other students in Kochi she doesn't make friends. Instead she is defiant and doesn't take part in school activities.

Needless to say the boys are attracted to Rikako. Yutaka expresses this openly to his friend Taku. As the story unfolds Taku connects with Rikako. Initially they mock each other, but Taku helps Rikako and she quickly decides that she can both trust him and exploit him to enact her plan to visit her father in Tokyo.

Taku has to do all the work in this story, both to maintain his friendship with Yutaka and Rikako, but he never seems to be bummed by it, and his personality is refreshingly strong and positive.

This movie won't appeal to kids as the story line is too mature to be interesting (not that there is anything inappropriate though). I really enjoyed it however, it's typical Ghibli. Beautifully drawn and animated in the usual style. The characters and the world itself feel fully real.