Book Review: Other Minds – by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

Musings about Latin Poetry

In my childhood I studied Latin for six years. Toward the end, I was able to read and enjoy Latin poetry. I was particularly entranced by its rhythm and beat. That skill has faded. I know some words, but I could no longer translate a single sentence.

To this day, however, I have friends how are deeply involved with Latin. One of my best friends (PG) is a professor of Latin and French in Germany. When we get together, we don’t spend time with Latin or French, but we do compare our paintings.

I have recently picked up a stimulating correspondence with my first Latin professor in school, who taught me the first few years of fundamentals (WI). Today we communicate about literature. This is a man who recently worked through reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace – in Russian! That’s what happens when you dedicate your life to language, linguistics and literature.

And finally, there is a friend of an entirely different background (JCV), who was, 40 years ago in college, for a semester, my professor of Introduction to Philosophy, who now, apparently, translates Latin poetry to English to pass the time. Here is a poem he send me this morning.

To the few readers of mine that like the classics – and the study of Latin – enjoy!


Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non aquilo impotens
possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam, usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum, ex humili potens,
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.

Horace: Odes, Book III, XXX (c. 23 BC)


I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze,
loftier than the royal landmark of the pyramids,
which neither ravenous Rain, nor wild Wind can destroy;
nor the endless passage of years, nor the flight of time.
I shall not perish entirely: a large part of me will evade Death,
as long as I thrive refreshed from ensuing praise,
while the High Priest climbs the Capitoline with a silent vestal.
It will be said of me that where the raging Aufidus roars,
where Daunus ruled over his rustic people in an arid land,
I, from humble roots empowered,
first committed Aeolian song to Italian verse.
Accept the proud achievement of those who merit praise,
Melpomene, and with the Delphic laurel freely grace my hair.

Translation by Jean-Claude Volgo

The Hawaiian Alphabet – and E Ku’u Morning Dew

There are only thirteen letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, five vowels, and eight consonants, one of which is the okina, symbolized by ‘, which actually is a pause in speech, a “no sound” which causes a halt in the language and gives it the characteristic Hawaiian sound.

The letters are:

a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w and the okina.

It’s a beautiful language, so simple, and so melodic. It seems like it’s made for songs.

Here is one of my favorite Hawaiian songs: E ku’u morning dew – by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole:

Congratulations Bob Dylan for 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

Much deserved by my favorite poet.


See CNN article here.

Simple Twist of Fate – by Bob Dylan

They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark
Tingle to his bones
‘Twas then he felt alone
And wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate

They walked along by the old canal
A little confused, I remember well
And stopped into a strange hotel
With a neon burnin’ bright
He felt the heat of the night
Hit him like a freight train
Moving with a simple twist of fate

A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin’ by the arcade
As the light bust through a beat-up shade
Where he was wakin’ up
She dropped a coin into the cup
Of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate

He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate

He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate

He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks
Where the sailers all come in
Maybe she’ll pick him out again
How long must he wait?
One more time for a simple twist of fate

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

How Russians Thought of Germans – Bigotry and Xenophobia

To a Russian soldier the Austrians, as well as all non-Russian speakers, were all “Germans.” The word German (Немецкий – pron. nimietzki) in Russian means a “dumb man” — one who cannot speak so that we can understand him.

— translation note by Aylmer Maude in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

War and Peace takes place in Europe in 1805 through 1810. Much has changed in the years since then in Europe. But it makes me think of what so many Americans, xenophobic as we often are, think of foreigners that don’t speak “our language.” The bigotry of people who view those who speak other languages as “dumb” and inferior goes back through the centuries, the times when imperial Russia was a superpower during the Napoleonic wars, and of course far back into the distant reaches of history to the ancient Egyptians.

It reminds me of the quote often attributed to Miriam Ferguson, the first governor of Texas:

“If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”

The Dumbest Skeuomorph – Our Coffee Machine Timer


A derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original, even when not functionally necessary.

Many common skeuomorphs were introduced by Apple due to a propensity by Steve Jobs for those mechanisms. For instance, the shutter-click sound emitted by many camera phones when taking a picture is an auditory skeuomorph. There really isn’t anything clicking, it’s just a sound it makes to make you feel like there is.

Another example in our house are the plastic Adirondack chairs in the back yard. The chairs imitate the design of the wooden Adirondack construction, but for no reason other than look like those.

The last coffee machine we bought employs a skeuomorph for the timer, but is has a number of annoying features of what I would call Crappy Design.

Coffee Machine

For instance, the knob labeled “Warmer Temp.” Why does it say Temp. only? Could they have not written Temperature? Then there is the knob itself. It’s a bidirectional knob. You can’t tell where the indicator is, and to make it worse, it turns round and round. There is no stop. So how exactly do you make it warmer or cooler?

Then on the left side there is the icon for a Sound, I guess. Where everything else is labeled with words, apparently here they could not write Beep or Sound, they had to apply this icon. Above it is a switch to turn the sound off, which does not work. The thing beeps no matter which side this switch is on, and it has done so out of the box.

Finally there is the skeuomorph – the clock. It’s a bright digital screen that shines a beacon through the kitchen in the dark, brighter than a nightlight. There is no way to turn it off. It shows a clock, with all three clock hands moving like an analog clock would. But the display is small enough that I really can’t see the time very well. We already have a clock in the kitchen, so I don’t really need another one provided by my coffee machine.

Then, to set the timer, you have to use the Min., Hr. and Set Delay buttons on the left. These are so unintuitive, I can never figure out how to use them, and so I don’t. When you hit the Min. (why not call it Minute?) button, the minute hand on the clock jumps a minute. When you hit the Hr. (why not call it Hour?) button, the hour hand jumps an hour. They obviously want to be cute with the clock, but skeuomorphism is supposed to make things intuitive. But what analog clock does this when you hit forward buttons? Those buttons were introduced when digital alarm clocks first came into being, to forward the displays.

Just like a writer should not mix metaphors, a designer should not mix skeuomorphs.

So there you have it. I introduced the word skeuomorph (didn’t you need to know that?), and I gave you an example of truly Crappy Design by Mr. Coffee.


Fresh Writers and Avid Readers

I just finished reading a few books (example and example) that were full of trite expressions and poor grammar. The writing was so bad, it distracted me from the story. As writers, we should not use trite expressions. There are some words in the list below, that almost always elicit a paired word. For instance, if you read the word avid, the next word that comes to mind is reader.

Let’s test this theory here. Below is a list of 10 pairs or expressions where I just list the first word. See if you come up with the second by yourself:

  1. Avid
  2. Dire
  3. Heated
  4. Reinvent
  5. Pregnant
  6. Stark
  7. Humble
  8. Trials
  9. Bated
  10. Moot

— Scroll down for the answers —










Here are the answers, and behind each expression I have listed the number of results a Google search returned when I searched for the respective pair in double quotes:

  1. Avid reader – 3,490,00
  2. Dire consequences – 723,000
  3. Heated debate – 2,060,000
  4. Reinvent the wheel – 674,00
  5. Pregnant pause – 396,000
  6. Stark contrast – 5,700,000
  7. Humble abode – 540,000
  8. Trials and tribulations – 5,730,000
  9. Bated breath – 644,000
  10. Moot point – 749,000

The simple answer is: As writers we should not use such two-word expressions. As speakers, we should avoid them “like the plague” <—

An American Polyglot

Here is an American 16-year-old speaking 20 languages in a 15 minute video. I could follow the French (a bit), the German, some of the Dutch, and I was able to tell when he spoke Italian. That is it. I am humbled.

Memory Lanes and the Digital Age

Memory Lane
Memory Lane

Everyone has memorable or favorite songs. When we hear them, we are instantly transported back to a time in our lives, sometimes to a specific period in our lives, like the senior year of high school, or even a specific day, like that first night with that special girl by the camp fire.

I noticed that when I hear such a song, I instantly mind-travel back to that period, or season, or day, when I first heard the song, or when it was popular on the radio. Some of the associations are so vivid, I can smell the air, I can see where I drove when I heard the song, sometimes as long as 40 years ago.

So I did something that I could not have done only ten years ago: I made a list of 50 songs that had special meaning to me. Predictably, many of those were songs that were popular in my youth and younger years when I tended to be more into music. To refresh my memory, I sampled collections of hit songs in some of the target years, and favorites jumped out at me that I had forgotten about.

Then I went on iTunes and bought the collection one song at a time (unless I already had it on CD somewhere). There are no artists with two songs on the list. I just picked the top 50. I called the playlist “Nostalgia.” When I play that list, in random order, I can literally mind-travel, jump around over the years and decades, and imagery of long past events flash bright in front of me, feelings and moods come to life, and the people of those days are suddenly around again – copies of their former selves, of course.

My mind always ponders mathematical implications. I realize that my list is unique in the universe. If a million other people all picked their own top 50 favorite songs and called the list “Nostalgia,” every list would be different. I’d venture to say that if I asked any random person about their list, I might not find a single one of my songs on their list. Yet, every one of us would have those unique, personal experiences when mind-traveling down memory lane.

Why can music do this to us? How is the melodic word, propped up by rhyme and rhythm, able to create such powerful associations in our heads to recreate the smells, the feelings, the places we lived when we were first imprinted with these songs?

Modern human evolution covers only a very short time span, perhaps 200,000 years, perhaps much less. Until very recently, like only a few centuries ago, knowledge and experience had to be transmitted from one person to another, from one generation to the next, by spoken and most likely sung words. Music and poetry may well have evolved to be so important in our experience now because it helped package knowledge and experience by creating associations. It’s easier to remember a poem that rhymes and is associated with a melody than it is to remember just spoken words. Those of our ancestors that were able to make those powerful associations and benefited by surviving and passing on those skills were the ones whose tribes survived through the ages. That’s probably also why we have songs that get stuck in our heads. We call them earworms.

Our brains are not good at remembering strings of numbers or words. But they are excellent at recognizing patterns, like seeing faces in tree bark or angels in clouds or animals in the stars of the night sky. When smells, images, feelings about people and places, come together with sounds, rhymes and rhythms – in short music – then magic is created.

That magic can now fuel the trips down our memory lanes unlike any generation before us could – because we have playlists to arrange them, iTunes to buy the songs from, and YouTube to trigger our memories about periods or things we have forgotten. The Nostalgia playlist is like the shoebox of photographs in the attic on steroids.


(Hai Wakarimashita – Yes, I understand.)

I find it disconcerting that a bird speaks better 日本語 (Nihongo – Japanese) than I do.

I am an Illiterate Polyglot

I consider myself a polyglot, having studied six languages, being fluent in two, and marginally functional in several others. Besides the Old German and Roman alphabets, I have studied Cyrillic and there was a time when I could sound out Russian words even though I didn’t know them. I can also read Japanese Katakana and Hiragana, and some Kanji. I would guess that’s more linguistic exposure than most Americans.

Then, today, a new person followed my blog, and as I browsed back, I found the artwork in the image on the bottom of my post. However, I also found out what it must feel like to be completely illiterate. I have no idea what this is about.

Language ChartThis is the Bengali language, used in Bangladesh by about 189 million people. It seems like an obscure language to the rest of the world, and particularly us Westerners. Let me put the Bengali language into perspective. The German language has about 98 million speakers, and when you include all varieties, it goes up to 120 million. While we would all agree in the modern world that German is an important world language, its native speaker population is only half of that of Bengali – a language most of us would not even recognize if we heard it, or saw it written, like in the image of a blog post below. The Bengali language, according to a chart of the most widely used languages, is solidly in slot number five.

The art work is in English, though – I am being funny here. This example shows how important art can be and how universal its language is, compared to linguistic languages. They eyes of the girl are extremely alive and serve as the focus in a tentative abstract painting. What a powerful message, with no words for me, the illiterate polyglot.

[for credit click on image]

Our Cool Human Languages

I am fascinated how languages work, how they fit together, and how our brains interpret language.

Realizing that the vast majority of humanity throughout history was illiterate, I feel extremely fortunate that I can read a page of English pretty much in a few seconds just by glancing over it.

Language is like telepathy. The writer, at some time in the past, had a thought and wrote that thought down. Now, I and millions of others can reconstruct that exact thought in our heads and gain experience from it.

The thoughts are real. They can make me joyous, or sad. Thoughts can make me cry. Thoughts can scare me, depress me, or enlighten me. And the thoughts are communicated by scribbles on pages, and even the scribbles, and how they are arranged, are meaningful to us, and utterly nonsensical to others.

Try this out:

Mörður hét maður er kallaður var gígja. Hann var sonur    Sighvats hins rauða. Hann bjó á Velli á Rangárvöllum. Hann    var ríkur höfðingi og málafylgjumaður mikill og svo mikill    lögmaður að engir þóttu löglegir dómar dæmdir nema hann væri    við. Hann átti dóttur eina er Unnur hét. Hún var væn kona og    kurteis og vel að sér og þótti sá bestur kostur á    Rangárvöllum.

Nú víkur sögunni vestur til Breiðafjarðardala. Maður er    nefndur Höskuldur. Hann var Dala-Kollsson. Móðir hans hét    Þorgerður og var dóttir Þorsteins hins rauða, Ólafssonar hins    hvíta, Ingjaldssonar, Helgasonar. Móðir Ingjalds var Þóra,    dóttir Sigurðar orms í auga, Ragnarssonar loðbrókar. Unnur    hin djúpúðga var móðir Þorsteins rauðs, dóttir Ketils    flatnefs, Bjarnarsonar bunu. Höskuldur bjó á Höskuldsstöðum í    Laxárdal.

Hrútur hét bróðir hans. Hann bjó á Hrútsstöðum. Hann var    sammæður við Höskuld. Faðir hans var Herjólfur. Hrútur var    vænn maður, mikill og sterkur, vígur vel og hógvær í skapi,    manna vitrastur, hagráður við vini sína en tillagagóður hinna    stærri mála

If you have never heard or seen Icelandic, you will not have any idea what this is about, it might as well be — Greek. Icelandic is actually a very beautiful-sounding language. It is very different from any other I have heard. Unfortunately, there are not many places where you can hear Icelandic, other than in Iceland. How is that for a reason for a visit to a very exotic, and cold, island?

Looking at this Icelandic text above makes is realize what it would be like to be illiterate – except we still have some letters that we recognize and can “sound out.”

How about this text below?


This is meaningful to a lot of people in the world – yet, to me, it’s completely unintelligible. I have no idea what I even posted here. This is what – to me – it feels like to be illiterate.

You might have seen how Japanese, who contrary to popular belief generally do not know much English, like to put English words on clothing to make them look exotic.

How would you like to run around with a shirt on that says “BRAKE” or “condensation?”

Try to google “Japanese t-shirts with English” and crack up. Here is one more:

Japanese Shirt

This must look really cool to Japanese, and we English speakers are completely befuddled.

Of course, this can get really, really bad. How would you like to let your little boy run around with this t-shirt on?


Here is a Japanese shopping window. Their English marketing “consultant” thought it was a good idea to adorn their window with this message:


Of course, before we laugh too much about other cultures and their misuse of the English language, let’s take a look at some of these Chinese characters that so many Americans like to tattoo on their bodies. Here is a random sampling:


I get a special kick out of the left bottom one, where three of the characters are backwards. And I have always wanted to walk around with a sign proclaiming that I was a “meanie crime poet.”

The American eye has no idea, yet it must look utterly ridiculous to the Chinese. Here is a link with these and many more hilarious examples.

I have studied Japanese and learned the basic concepts of Kanji writing. So I can tell if a character is authentic, I would generally be able to determine if it was written backwards, and I can recognize a good many of them, or some of their components. It’s easier to learn than it would seem.

There are approximately 6,800 different languages in the world, and linguists estimate that 50 to 90 percent of them will be extinct within a hundred years. And of 6,800 languages, most of us – kind of know one.


Talking Turkey

As the (probably apocryphal) tale spins out, back in the early colonial days, a white hunter and a friendly Native American made a pact before they started out on the day’s hunt. Whatever they bagged was to be divided equally between them. At the end of the day, the white man undertook to distribute the spoils, consisting of several buzzards and turkeys. He suggested to his fellow hunter, “Either I take the turkeys and you the buzzards, or you take the buzzards and I take the turkeys.” At this point the Native American complained, “You talk buzzard to me. Now talk turkey.” And ever since, to talk turkey has meant “to tell it like it is.”

— from Lederer on Language, by Richard Lederer