Where does patience come from?

Cottontop tamarin
Impulse snack: A cotton-top tamarin eats a grasshopper (Mickey Samuni-Blank on Wikimedia Commons)

To explain the origin of patience, scientists tell a modern-day fable. It is about cotton-top tamarins and their close cousins, marmosets.

Being patient often feels like a rational response, whereas being impatient feels like the animal mind acting out. Indeed, scientists used to think that the ability to be patient was a high-order function nearly unique to humans. Other animals were just impulsive, grabbing what they needed when they could get it.

But patience, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Research in the past decade suggests that all species have a combination of patience and impatience that makes sense for their evolutionary background. 

The cotton-top tamarin and the marmoset provide evidence. Both new-world monkeys dine on tree gum. But they have different overall feeding strategies. The tamarins will eat the gum if they see it, but they’ll also eat other things like fruit and insects, foods that require a certain amount of impulsivity.

The marmosets, on the other hand, eat primarily the gum, using special teeth that let them gouge holes in a tree. “They basically just sit on the tree and wait for the sap to leak out of the tree and then they eat it,”  says behavioral anthropologist Alexandra Rosati, who is finishing a postdoc at Yale before joining the faculty at Harvard. “As you can imagine, this is a very slow process.” 

Noticing this ecological difference, Rosati’s colleagues including Jeffrey Stevens of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln tested the two monkeys to see how patiently they would wait for food. They did this by adapting a classic economics study, in which subjects are offered a small reward now or a larger reward later, in order to see how much they will discount the future reward. People who discount the future reward too much are considered to be acting irrationally.

For humans, the reward in this type of experiment is usually money, but Stevens offered the monkeys two versus six pieces of food. At first, he offered both with no delays. Of course, the monkeys preferred the six pieces to the two. Then he began delaying the six-piece option by a second, then two seconds, then three, and so on. Eventually, after the delay got long enough, the monkeys decided that it was better to have the two pieces now than the six pieces later.

As Stevens predicted, the tamarins and marmosets had a very different tolerance for waiting. For the tamarins, which forage impulsively for fruit and insects as well as tree gum, the game-changing delay was nearly 8 seconds on average. For the marmosets, which gladly wait for sap to ooze out of trees, the average delay was over 14 seconds.

This could mean that the marmosets are more rational than the tamarins. But the right conclusion (supported also by further research) seems to be the opposite one: That patience is not necessarily about rationality at all, but a finely tuned adaptation to ecological niche. “The amount of patience different species show is an evolved ability that is tailored to their normal environment,” Rosati says. That is, the marmosets' patience helps keep them alive; likewise, the tamarins' relative impatience helps keep them alive.

It follows that our inherited balance of patience and impatience must have kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive at one time too. The fact that today we value patience so much may indicate that that balance isn't working quite as well for us in the modern world. But if I had to give this fable a moral, it might be this: Patience is a virtue, but wait too long for anything and you might die.

Even monkeys know that.

If you have any patience left for reading about patience, please click over to my latest piece for Nautilus, "Why Your Brain Hates Slowpokes."

Scenes from a Louisiana oyster boat



At the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting, I got to go out on an oyster boat operated by John Tesvich and his nephew, Luke. We learned about the challenges to oyster reefs, including Katrina, the BP oil spill, the low-oxygen "dead zone" along Louisiana's coast, and the proposed freshwater diversions that will build up wetlands along the coast.

Above all, oysterers want to preserve their lifestyle, and it's clear why. It's not an easy life, but it's a special one.

(All photos are my own.)


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Paul Robeson: An unlikely Passover hero, waiting in the seder's wings

Robeson singing
The original caption to this 1942 photo read: "Paul Robeson, world famous Negro baritone, leading Moore Shipyard [Oakland, CA] workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, here at their lunch hour recently, after he told them: `This is a serious job---winning this war against fascists. We have to be together.' Robeson himself was a shipyard worker in World War I."

“Go Down, Moses,” a traditional African-American song, is widely sung at American Jews’ Passover seders, including my own. Although that may be a little bizarre (as is beautifully pointed out in this piece in Tablet), the song’s subject matter makes it the perfect match for the seder’s raison d’être: to tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It also links the Biblical story to the relatively recent American historical events of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, reminding us of our responsibility to continue to fight for freedom wherever it is in short supply. 

It feels triumphant to sing “Let my people go!” at seder after a few cups of wine, I can tell you. But there’s a major buzz kill lurking in the song’s past: the troubling story of Paul Robeson, the singer who first made it popular. He was on a trajectory to be enshrined in history books as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, until he found himself on a collision course with anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Because he used his fame to advocate for the oppressed, Robeson ended up vilified and muzzled.

It is a sobering story, but one that I would argue is a perfect fit for the seder, reminding us of the harsh price of freedom, especially for those like Moses and Robeson who try to lead us there. In case you aren't up to speed on Robeson's story, let me amaze you: An extraordinary Renaissance man, Robeson rose to fame in 1915 as Rutgers University’s first African-American football player, and also graduated as its valedictorian. He went to Columbia Law School, but left legal practice due in part to racial discrimination. In the 1920s and 30s, he moved to London and turned to acting on stage and in film, gaining worldwide fame, especially for his role in "Show Boat." His Othello was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway’s history, and his kiss of Desdemona during that show was the first time a black man kissed a white woman on a major American stage.

Paul Robeson, Go Down Moses

But it was his singing that reaches through the years to touch us today. With his resonant bass-baritone, he recorded many traditional African-American songs, bringing some, like “Go Down, Moses,” to a broad white audience for the first time. He felt a deep affinity for the message in many of these songs: freedom for the oppressed. Touring the planet, he spoke out unapologetically about social and political issues, and connected the struggles of African Americans to those of poor and minority people around the world. Ultimately—like many Jews at that time, it should be noted—he embraced the ideals of communism (although he never joined the Communist Party) and publicly supported the Soviet Union, where he felt there was no racial discrimination. “Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.” 

Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway, 1943-44

The FBI began surveillance on Robeson in the 1940s as the Cold War developed. In 1949, he gave a speech at a peace conference in Paris, and a reporter quoted him as saying that black Americans would never take up arms against the Soviet Union. It was out of context, he later clarified without apology, but the damage was done. Americans turned on him; even the black American leadership distanced itself from him. His concerts were cancelled; concert halls and recording studios banned him. When he did hold a concert in a small New York State venue, concertgoers were attacked while police stood by. It was one of the largest riots in U.S. history. One friend and contemporary, Lloyd Brown, later said Robeson was “the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.” 

Robeson was called in front of McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, where he passionately defended both his patriotism and his loyalty to the Soviet Union. (The transcript is astounding.) A Moses to McCarthy’s Pharaoh, his passport was revoked for 8 years, so he couldn’t perform for his still-adoring fans abroad. Recordings of old media appearances were destroyed; his Broadway record was removed from the books; his films were banned from television. He still toured in churches and union halls, but his voice had been effectively silenced.

It was a silence that, in many ways, lasted decades after he got his passport back. Robeson began to tour again, but his career was cut short by a mental breakdown that included hallucinations and depression. His son later accused the CIA first of drugging Robeson with LSD and then later ordering extreme, disabling treatments in a psychiatric hospital. Whatever happened, Robeson was never the same again. He died in seclusion in 1976. 

It seems that Robeson is still much better known abroad than in the United States (and I’ve noticed that's the case in Vienna, Austria, where I live), but Robeson’s legacy has been largely recovered at home. He has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and his name graces many libraries, schools and cultural centers. But, like Moses, Robeson is not a hero without flaws. His unwavering support of Stalin remains problematic, since he surely knew of Stalin’s crimes. When Robeson was in Moscow in 1949, he demanded to meet with his friend, Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who was released from jail for the occasion. According to Robeson’s son’s account, Feffer desperately informed Robeson about the imminent execution of many Russian Jews, including himself. Devastated, Robeson closed his last concert in Moscow with a direct reference to Feffer and a Yiddish rendition of the Song of Resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Portrait of Paul Robeson by American painter Betsy Graves Reyneau

But when Robeson returned to the United States, he denied having seen any problems. Nobody knows why exactly, because his attachment to his friends and his declared admiration for Jewish culture always seemed deep and sincere. Maybe he thought that he had done all he could, and that speaking out in America would hurt his friends. Maybe, as some have claimed, he feared lending support to anti-Soviet political forces, and possibly starting the war he so feared. Maybe, like many, he simply couldn’t reconcile his loyalty to communism’s ideals—the ideals that he thought would bring equality to his people and to all people around the world—and the reality of the Soviet state. Whatever his reason, it must have been a difficult decision, and one that weighed on him. Maybe we can find our way to compassion and forgiveness by remembering the seder’s teaching that the fight for freedom always comes with a high moral cost: After all, we spill drops of wine in recognition of the innocent suffering caused by the plagues. The seder also reminds us that if we demand that our heroes be perfect, we will be left with no heroes at all.

I’m no rabbi, but there’s got to be room for one more fascinating and flawed hero in the already large American Passover pantheon. In fact, I think Robeson’s been there all along, subtly making himself known when we sing “Go Down, Moses.” We can make his presence explicit by telling his story, and glean deeper understandings by contrasting it with Moses’s. After all, our ancient stories do their heaviest lifting when they help us make sense of the present. So here are some observations to start: Whereas Moses stuttered, Robeson had a voice that captivated the world. Whereas Moses was a reluctant leader, Robeson didn’t hesitate to use his fame for social good. But they both tirelessly repeated their demands for freedom. And neither got to enjoy the Promised Land: Moses died at the border, and Robeson in a country that had far from—has still far from—perfected the freedom and democracy its leaders preached.

Chag sameach. Happy Passover.

If you would like to learn more about Paul Robeson, I was moved by this radio report from Australia. It features the author of the first new biography of Robeson to come out in a long time. (I haven’t read the book yet, but the reviews are solid.)

Dictionary Review: Oxford Collocations Dictionary

Collocations dictionary2
Dictionaries and fruit: Not a common collocation

I’m disappointed that the subtitle of this dictionary is “for students of English.” That is, unless they mean that we are all, in our ways, students of English. Perhaps as a writer, I’m a student of English more than most, and that’s why I wish it had come into my life a long time ago.

OK, back it up. What is a collocations dictionary? No, further. What is a collocation? No, further. What is a dictionary review? Right.

Ah! This blog post is greatly much profoundly deeply indebted to Helen Fields, who invented the genre of dictionary reviews (as far as we both know) for her blog. She also invented Bug on my Window, so you can see she is a genius. The idea is that I’m going to write a little bit about why this dictionary is awesome and then, at the end, I’ll give you some relevant stats, like what some of the entries look like and whether there are obscenities in the dictionary (spoiler alert: No.).

So, back to collocations. A collocation is something you use all the time when you speak: a combination of words that go well together. It’s nothing so complex as an idiom; indeed, it requires no thought at all for native speakers. It’s how you know you can get caught in a heavy rain but not thick rain, or how you know to order a light beer but not a diet beer—you just know.

But as anyone who has spoken known understood used learned taught mastered studied a foreign language knows, this is one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to learn. I get collocations in German wrong, like, 99 percent of the time. When I use a German dictionary, very often it’s to find the right collocation, but that’s for writing. (Maybe you’ll get a review later about the awesome dictionary I use for that.) When I’m speaking, I’m saying the equivalent of thick rain and diet beer nonstop. Luckily, people can often understand me, but it sounds extremely fairly very incredibly terribly sehr awkward.

But I’m going to argue that the Oxford Collocations Dictionary goes well beyond its subtitle and is also useful for native speakers, at least native writers. Once I saw it, I realized that almost every time I reach for a thesaurus (or google for one), what I really want is a collocations dictionary. That’s because whenever I find choose pick look up a word in the thesaurus, it’s not because I’m trying to diversify my word use—that always leads to finding the wrong word when you already have the right one, a absurd bad mistaken ridiculous stupid crackpot crazy mad outlandish wild terrible idea. No, it’s because I can’t find the precise very exact word I want, and that word is very often part of a collocation. With a collocations dictionary, all you need is one word, and it will give you the other.

Take a recent story I wrote for Nature. It was about scientists who had accurate reliable comprehensive detailed extensive preliminary raw oh to heck with it data showing that birds in V-Formation coordinate their flapping in order to save energy. We didn’t want to say it was proof that they save energy—that was too strong—so we went with compelling evidence. If we didn’t want to use compelling for some reason, we could look up the word evidence in the collocations dictionary and find a slew of adjectives that go perfectly well with evidence: clear, conclusive, convincing, decisive, definitive, good, hard, incontrovertible, irrefutable, overwhelming, persuasive, positive, powerful, solid, striking, strong, unambiguous, unequivocal. Obviously, not all of these would work in context, but they are more appropriate than the words you would find if you looked up compelling in a thesaurus (for the record, from fascinating, constraining, coercive, compulsory, forcible). Come to think of it, I’m pretty fond of persuasive and striking—hold on a second while I make a note of them.

There are two drawbacks to this dictionary: There aren’t enough collocations in there. Just from this post, I tried to look up go + together (under together, where you should also be able to find, say, fit) and invent + genre (under genre, which has lots of collocations), and neither were there. To really be useful for writers, it needs to be bigger, MUCH BIGGER. Do you hear me, Oxford University Press?

The other downside is that it is not mine. I have to return it to my librarian husband’s library, where the international staff at his office frequently use it. I will miss you, Oxford Collocations Dictionary. I say wish you bid you a emotional tearful sad silent fond farewell.



Title: Oxford Collocations Dictionary

Subtitle: for students of English

Date: 2009

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Length: 963 pp.

Guide word on p. 50: await verb
ADV. Anxiously, breathlessly (AmE), nervously She is anxiously ~ing a decision on her future. | eagerly, keenly (BrE), with interest (esp. BrE) ◇ The outcome of the appeal is ~ed with interest. | patiently | impatiently
PHRASES long ~edher long ~ed return to professional tennis

Guide word on p. 106: catastrophe noun
ADJ. absolute, big, complete, great, major, terrible, total | minor | national | global, international, world | ecological, economic, environmental, financial, human, humanitarian, natural, nuclear The country is on the brink of a humanitarian ~. | imminent, impending, potential
VERB + CATASTROPHE be | cause, lead (sth) to These policies could lead us to environmental ~. | have We had a few ~s with the food for the party. | be faced with, be heading for, faceThe area is now facing economic ~. | avert, avoid, head off, preventmoves to avert a national ~
CATASTROPHE + VERB happen, occur, strike, take place 

Introduction: Very short. Once you grasp the idea of collocations, the dictionary and its entries don’t need much explaining. If there’s some abbreviation you don’t understand, you can of course look it up in the guide in the introduction (e.g., esp. BrE means that a collocation is used particularly in British English). 

Thematic pages: There’s a page on fruit. It covers collocations related to growing fruit, tasting fruit, preparing and preserving fruit, parts of fruit, and more. There are only ten of these thematic pages. I find it depressing that one is on meetings (circulate an agenda—gah!).

Study pages: Really for students of English as a second language, these are for practicing common collocations on various topics. For example, fix the incorrect collocation in this sentence: Police carried out a raid on the premises early this morning and did two arrests. (Most of you won’t need the study pages, but they’re a good reminder of how hard it is to learn to speak English in a way that sounds natural. Max props to those people I know who have.) 

Obscenities: Sadly, no. Would be so great to see the list of collocations for some four-letter words. But nothing, not even bloody. (Update: Hell is in there, but bloody is not one of the suggested collocations.)

Recycling and upcycling at Vienna Design Week

P48-buzzilightThe morning after the opening party of the Vienna Design Week, the event's organizers were feeling, quite understandably, a little rough. But they had scheduled a press tour for 10 a.m., so they rallied, leading us on a journey through several of the festival's 47 locations.

The exhibits in the festival are eclectic. Some are purely theoretical, others are already commercially available. On the commercial side, I was taken by the products from Buzzispace. The company is deeply offended by excess noise -- in particular, reverb. I happen to share that sentiment; I still get enraged when I think about noise levels in New York City. (Why don't taxis have to disable their P1010640horns when they enter Manhattan? Why is the music so loud in restaurants that it makes everyone  scream over it?) To combat unwanted noise, Buzzispace has designed sound-absorbent, felt-like materials out of recycled PET plastic and recycled wool. These are used to construct cool furniture for offices and, to a lesser extent, homes (like the lamps in the photo above, or the pouf to the right, occupied by Vienna Design Week co-organizer Lilli Hollein). Buzzispace's prices are a little daunting, but the exhibit, in the festival's center in the fourth district, inspired me to put more fabric into my high-ceilinged, echoey apartment.

P1010612The Kunstraum Niederoesterreich, located in Vienna's center, exhibited another project inspired by concerns about the environment. Called "I love Brot," the artist, Kathrina Dankl, took old bread from a bakery, which would otherwise get thrown out, and baked it again into bread chips. Visitors are invited to take a bag of chips, taste them, and then pass judgment by putting a chip into one of three slots: "good," "has potential," or "not to my taste." I was impressed: I ate my vote.

I got the biggest kick out of a third exhibit with a related, "upcycling" theme. The Souvenir Transformation Center, by students from the Kunstuniversitaet Linz, takes on the stuff you have sitting around -- you know, the objects you don't have any use for but that you also can't get rid of due to se P1010619ntimental value or maybe just hoarding tendencies. At the Souvenir Transformation Center, you place the object on a conveyor belt, which transports it into a big white box (in fact the proverbial "black box," since what's inside is a secret). Some unspecified amount of time later it emerges on the other side in a new form, sealed in a vacuum pack. "You have the chance of freeing yourself from the material things of the past and reliving your relationship to the object afresh," the catalog declares. "Transformed" objects I saw included a necklace, a teapot, an apple, and an Eiffel Tower souvenir (photo left).

Vienna Design Week is an annual affair. This year it continues until October 6. I hope to go see more of it before then.

(All photos except the first, which is from Buzzispace, are mine.)

The largest subterranean lake in Europe

GlueckaufSome people go to the pool when it's hot; my friends and I go to a cave. What the Seegrotte Hinterbrühl, just 17 kilometers from the center of Vienna, lacks in beauty and wildlife, it makes up for in pure cold. Inside, it's 9 degrees Celsius all year round.

Not that the Seegrotte is completely ugly, though some of its history is. Its existence began in the late 1800s when miners dug it out in order to extract grey and red gypsum for fertilizer. So it's not really a cave at all, but a mine. Mining is a dangerous business; so much so that the traditional miners' greeting in Austria is "Glück auf!" a wish for luck. Mining can also be a sad business. The guide informed us that the horses used by the miners lived their whole lives underground, ultimately leading to blindness.

BoatIn 1912, the miners accidentally blasted through a wall that was holding back water. The result was that 20,000,000 liters flooded in, putting an end to the mining and creating the largest underground lake in Europe -- 6,200 meters in area and up to 12 meters deep. Twenty years later, the first tourists entered the cave. It is erily lovely -- the still, lifeless waters glow blue under artificial lights.

Disney decided to film parts of the 1993 movie The Three Musketeers there, and they left behind a spooky gilded boat and the set for D'Artagnan's prison. The boats that took us along the lake were more plain and practical than the movie version, but that's a good thing -- some tourists drowned in 2004 when an older style of boat overturned.

But that unfortunate accident is not even the most haunting thing about the Seegrotte. During the Second World War, the Nazis used the cave as an airplane factory. Concentration-camp prisioners were forced to work there, assembling parts for the first jet plane, which never went into use. At the end of the war, the German armed forces destroyed the factory, but quite a few airplane parts remain and are on display. Working in that cold, dark place must have been miserable.

Not having done my homework in advance, I went to the Seegrotte expecting bats or eyeless fish. What I found instead were ghosts.

(Photo credits to Rachael Lloyd (top) and Florian Pötscher (bottom).)