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Any science in new Planet of the Apes film?

British actor Andy Serkis plays the intelligent chimp Caesar, who is the leader of the ape community
British actor Andy Serkis plays the intelligent chimp Caesar, who is the leader of the ape community

The latest instalment in the Planet of the Apes film franchise opens in the US on Friday. The rubber masks of the 60s and 70s films have been discarded in favour of motion capture suits and CGI. But how much did science inform the new movie’s portrayal of our close relatives?

In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Frans de Waal has cemented a reputation as one of the leading authorities on the behaviour of great apes.

The Dutch-born professor at Emory University in Georgia, US, has made a major contribution to our understanding of primate communities – uncovering many parallels with human societies.

But he’s not impressed with the way our evolutionary cousins have often been portrayed on screen.

“If they were shown in a respectful way, that would be one thing. But they are usually made to be clowns, which is not helpful for the conservation case or the ethical case,” he tells me.

So what did this top primatologist think of the new instalment in the Planet of the Apes franchise?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which goes on release in the US on Friday, is a bold sequel to the 2011 re-boot. That movie – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – saw a group of genetically modified primates revolt against their human masters.

Aggression may be a feature of chimp society, but so is reconciliation
Aggression may be a feature of chimp society, but so is reconciliation

The new film continues the story of that rebellion’s instigator, an intelligent chimpanzee by the name of Caesar, but picks up his story after a manmade virus has devastated the human population. Amid the rubble of our civilisation, the apes are pitted against surviving pockets of Homo sapiens in a battle for mastery of the planet.

Prof de Waal calls the storyline “impressive”, adding: “I’m not usually into action films like this one, but this held my attention.

“The apes are very humanised: They walk on two legs, they talk – somewhat – they shed tears. In real life, apes do a lot of crying and screaming, but they don’t produce tears like we do.”

However, other aspects of ape behaviour in the film, he says, are true to life.

“We know chimpanzees are aggressive and territorial – they wage war. The use of tools and weapons is also a possibility,” he explains.

To quote a colleague in his field, he said: “If you gave guns to chimps, they would use them.”

The primatologist says the reconciliation following a fight between Caesar and Koba – a bonobo character in the film – rang true in terms of ape interactions. He says he also recognised real-life behaviour in a scene where the apes are seen bowing before their appointed leader.

In real groups, Prof de Waal says, “when an alpha male makes an appearance, the other apes grovel and make themselves appear small”.

If you gave a gun to a chimp, would they use it?
If you gave a gun to a chimp, would they use it?

But he draws attention to the contrast between the thoughtful male chimp Caesar and Koba – a bonobo – who is the most aggressive character in the film.

“It’s strange because, in reality, the bonobo is a more peaceful ape than the chimpanzee. There is also the character of an orang-utan, who is interested in teaching and in books, so they have added some twists to it.”

Fans will recognise this as an allusion to the position of orangs as a clerical caste in the ape society depicted by the 60s and 70s films and the 1963 novel by French writer Pierre Boule, on which the movies were based.

In real life, orang-utan males are rather solitary, but actress Karin Konoval, who plays the orang Maurice in both Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, says she understands why the forest primates were characterised as wise elders.

“At core, they are the watchers, who are able to assess everything. They never do anything gratuitously,” she told BBC News.

“There is nothing gratuitous that I’ve ever seen with any of the orang-utans I’ve known. They are very specific and clear in every choice that they make.”

To prepare for the role of Maurice – the trusted confidant of Caesar, played by British actor Andy Serkis – Ms Konoval studied videos of the animals and read “every book that had been written” about the apes.

“The movement of a mature male orang-utan is very specific. So one of the challenges I had on Rise [of the Planet of the Apes] was getting the weight right in my performance. I’m a 120lb woman, and Maurice is a 250lb orang-utan male. One of the things we did in the original film was to weight down my arm stilts,” she says.

But she says that being invited to spend time with the five orang-utans at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle gave her a wealth of experience to bring to her performance in Dawn. Her initial introduction to the group was via a 40-year-old orang male called Tuan, who has something of an artistic streak.

Karin Konoval portrayed Maurice using a motion capture suit
Karin Konoval portrayed Maurice using a motion capture suit

“I watched him paint on a canvas for an hour, an hour-and-a-half at a time. He moves the canvas around and considers it as he goes; this is not slapping the paint around. It was a real artwork. It was amazing,” she says.

If the studio were to make another instalment, Prof de Waal says he would advise the filmmakers to include more female and juvenile ape characters, to give a sense of real group dynamics among the animals. In the wild, gorilla and orang males rarely co-operate, as they do in the film, though this is more likely for chimps.

But he praises the film’s “astonishing” visual effects, which leads us on to an issue that exercises the professor – the welfare of primates in entertainment.

Prof de Waal strongly opposes the use of real primate actors in advertising, film and television, and comments that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ realistic depictions of apes using computer technology alone proves that the industry has no need for the genuine article.

“I hope the practice disappears completely,” he tells me.

“The first Planet of the Apes movie raised some philosophical issues: What are the ethics of keeping humans in a cage? Which is a reversal of the issue we are faced with now: What are the ethics of keeping an ape in a cage?”

So if apes really did usurp humans as the dominant group on the planet, what does de Waal think it would be like with chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangs at the top of the pecking order?

“Hmmm,” he replies, pausing for a moment. “I’m not an optimist in that regard. The male chimpanzee is very aggressive. I’m not sure they would be angels of peace, as Caesar is in this movie.

“The bonobo would be a more peaceful character – they do not wage war on other groups as chimpanzees do. These groups have even been shown to mingle in the wild on occasion.”

“It would be more like Woodstock – and a completely different movie.”

Courtesy : bbc

Allan Ahlberg turns down Amazon-sponsored award

Ahlberg says he turned down the award several weeks ago
Ahlberg says he turned down the award several weeks ago

Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg has turned down a lifetime achievement award after discovering it was sponsored by Amazon.

The writer, whose books include Each Peach Pear Plum and Funny Bones, was due to be honoured at the Booktrust Best Book Awards last week.

In a letter to the Bookseller, he said he felt compelled to decline the honour because of Amazon’s tax arrangements.

“Could Booktrust not have found a more moral sponsor?” he wrote.

“Tax, fairly applied to us all, is a good thing. It pays for schools, hospitals – libraries!

“When companies like Amazon cheat – paying 0.1% on billions, pretending it is earning money not in the UK, but in Luxembourg – that’s a bad thing.

“We should surely, at the very least, say that it is bad and on no account give it any support or, by association, respectability.”

“The idea that my ‘lifetime achievement’ should have the Amazon tag attached to it is unacceptable.”

The online retailer has been heavily criticised ever since its low tax contributions were first revealed in 2012.

Amazon UK sales are routed via a Luxembourg affiliate
Amazon UK sales are routed via a Luxembourg affiliate

Amazon’s UK subsidiary paid £4.2m in taxes last year, the online retailer’s accounts show, despite making sales of £4.3bn.

The tax bill is so low because when shoppers in the UK buy items from its store, the payment is taken by a subsidiary based in the low tax jurisdiction of Luxembourg.

It is also reduced because the company only pays tax on its profits – which were £17.1m in 2013, with much of its turnover ploughed back into expanding warehouses and negotiating deals on its products.

Amazon has always insisted that it pays all required taxes in every jurisdiction that it operates in.

‘Buzz’

Booktrust’s chief executive Viv Bird said she was disappointed Ahlberg had turned down his award but “this was his personal decision.”

“Booktrust works with a wide range of partners in order to fulfil our charitable aim of bringing books to children and children to books,” she said.

“We are also grateful for the tremendous support we get from many eminent authors and illustrators. Amazon’s sponsorship of the Best Book Awards, in its inaugural year, enabled us to celebrate some of the best of children’s literature, create a buzz around books, and make a significant contribution to our mission of encouraging more children to read.”

Many of Ahlberg's books were illustrated by his wife Janet (left), who drew this picture of the Ahlberg family for 1981's Peepo!
Many of Ahlberg’s books were illustrated by his wife Janet (left), who drew this picture of the Ahlberg family for 1981’s Peepo!

The prizes, which were handed out last week, were voted for by 12,000 schoolchildren across the UK.

John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars was named best book for 12 to 14-year-olds.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck won in the nine to 11-year-old category, while Stephan Patiscame’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made took the 6 to 8-year-old category.

Best picture book was won by Peck Peck Peck, the latest story from Maisy author Lucy Cousins.

No mention of the lifetime achievement prize was made at the time.

Allan Ahlberg began his writing career in the 1970s, and his wife Janet illustrated many of his picture books – including The Jolly Postman, Ten in a Bed and the Ha Ha Bonk Book.

Janet, who won a Kate Greenaway medal in 1978 for her illustrations of Each Peach Pear Plum, died of cancer in 1994.

The couple’s daughter Jessica now illustrates many of her father’s books.

Courtesy : bbc

English Idioms

English Idioms play a vital role in the development of the language of an individual. Let us look at an idiom a week.

Idiom of the Week
Idiom of the Week
The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food

Fossil of ‘largest flying bird’ found

The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food
The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food

The fossilised remains of the largest flying bird ever found have been identified by scientists.

This creature would have looked like a seagull on steroids – its wingspan was between 6.1 and 7.4m (20-24ft).

The find is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 25m-year-old fossil was unearthed 30 years ago in South Carolina, but it has taken until now to identify that this is a new species.

Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, said: “This fossil is remarkable both for the size, which we could only speculate on before the discovery, and for the preservation.

“The skull in particular is exquisite.

“And given the delicate nature of the bones… it is remarkable that the specimen made it to the bottom of the sea, became buried without being destroyed by scavengers, fossilised, and then was discovered before it was eroded or bulldozed away.”

The researchers believe this huge bird surpasses the previous recorder-holder, Argentavis magnificens – a condor-like bird from South America with an estimated wingspan of 5.7-6.1m (19-20ft) that lived about six million years ago.

The bird would have dwarfed our largest living birds - the California condor (left) and the albatross (right)
The bird would have dwarfed our largest living birds – the California condor (left) and the albatross (right)

Scientists have called the new giant Pelagornis sandersi. They believe it would have been twice the size of the wandering albatross, the largest living bird.

Like the albatross, it was a seabird, spending most of its time swooping above the ocean, preying on fish and squid.

Despite its scale, it would have been an elegant flier.

While theoretical models suggest that it would be tricky for a bird of this size to stay airborne by flapping its wings, researchers believe it used air currents to soar above the ocean.

Its long, slender wings and light, hollow bones would have made it a powerful glider.

“It would have been fast and very efficient,” said Dr Ksepka.

“Computer models suggest that it had high lift-to-drag ratios, which would allow it to glide for a very long distance for every unit of altitude it could attain.

“It could likely glide at speeds over 10m per second – faster than the human world record for the 100m dash.”

On land, though, the seabird was probably far less graceful.

“The long wings would have been cumbersome and it would have probably spent as little time as possible walking around,” Dr Ksepka explained.

Taking off would also have been an ungainly affair.

Computer models reveal that the bird could not have taken off by simply standing still and flapping its wings.

Instead, scientists think P. sandersi might have had to waddle downhill and hope to catch a gust of air.

Huge birds like this were once common, but they vanished about three million years ago.

Scientists do not yet understand why these giants of the skies died out.

Courtesy : bbc

Nasa

Robots with smartphones

Nasa
The bowling-ball-sized robots are said to have been inspired by Star Wars

Nasa plans to send Google’s 3D smartphones into space to function as the “eyes and brains” of free-flying robots inside the Space Station.

The robots, known as Spheres (Synchronised Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental satellites), currently have limited capabilities.

It is hoped the smartphones, powered by Google’s Project Tango, will equip the robots with more functionality.

The robots have been described by experts as “incredibly clever”.

When Nasa’s robots first arrived at the International Space Station in 2006, they were only capable of precise movements using small jets of CO2, which propelled the devices forwards at around an inch per second.

“We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors,” Spheres project manager Chris Provencher told Reuters.

“As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realised the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.”

In an attempt to make the robots smarter and of more use to astronauts, engineers at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre sent cheap smartphones to the space station, which they had purchased from Best Buy, an American electronics shop.

Astronauts then attached the phones to the Spheres, giving them more visual and sensing capabilities.

Helping astronauts

Looking to further improve the robots, Nasa turned to Google’s Project Tango.

Tango uses the 3D cameras embedded in Google’s latest smartphones to give the handset a human-scale understanding of space and motion.

Once at the space station and attached to the Spheres, the phones will use their onboard motion-tracking cameras and infrared depth sensors to safely navigate around the ISS.

These more advanced phones will be launched into space on 11 July and are intended to replace the earlier models.

Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC: “This is an incredibly clever way to unite different technologies in an unexpected way.

“It will be interesting to see how much this inspires Google to use this technology for its own robotics development following on the several world-class robot companies it has purchased in the last year.”

Dr Fumiya Iida, lecturer at the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge, praised Nasa’s ingenuity.

“Robots were and still are usually very expensive and complex, thus they often don’t match to a cost-benefit balance. By using consumer electronics such as smartphones, we can significantly reduce down the development cost for robots with high-performance capabilities which were not possible 10 years ago.”

Nasa envisions a future in which its spatially-aware Spheres can help astronauts with daily chores and risky tasks.

Dr Walterio Mayo of Bristol University’s Robotics Lab told the BBC that the basic idea behind the mapping system, a technique known as Slam(simultaneous localisation and mapping), was developed substantially in the UK ten years ago.

He said that while the robots are an impressive start, they currently have no arms, which could limit their potential.

The Spheres’ creators are said to have been inspired by Luke Skywalker’s training droid, from the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, although it is unlikely lasers will be fitted to the device.

Courtesy : bbc

Know your English

Know your English

What is the meaning and origin of ‘smoke and mirrors’?

(Jawaid Hasan, Patna)

This expression is frequently used in American English, particularly in the contexts of politics and marketing. When you refer to the statement made by the CEO of a company as being nothing more than ‘smoke and mirrors’, you are suggesting that the individual is distorting or obscuring the truth; that he is, in fact, lying. A company that is going bankrupt will often issue statements in the press to make investors believe that the situation is much better than it actually is. When you say that a politician’s argument is ‘smoke and mirrors’, you mean it lacks substance.

*Use smoke and mirrors if you have to. We must convince the investor that he is in good hands.

*The government’s report on inflation was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

I understand the expression comes from the world of magic shows. A magician depends upon smoke and mirrors to perform his tricks. The mirrors help create an illusion, and the smoke is frequently used to divert the attention of the audience.

In restaurants, you find people are either talking on the phone or texting instead of the talking to the person they are with. Is there a word for this?

(L Revathi, Vellore)

This is happening everywhere; at home and in public places, people are constantly busy communicating with everyone, except with those who are sitting right next to them! Such behaviour is called ‘nocialising’. The individual is not socialising!

*We hardly talked. Rahul spent the evening nocialising.

What is the difference between ‘laden’ and ‘loaded’?

(K. Kasturi, Trichy)

When you ‘load’ a car or a truck with something, you put a lot of things inside it — it could be anything: empty suitcases, boxes, blankets, sand, etc. The items that we put inside the vehicle may or may not be very heavy. The ‘lad’ in ‘laden’ rhymes with the words ‘made’, ‘paid’, and ‘jade’; the word is pronounced ‘LAID-en’ with the stress on the first syllable. It comes from the Old English ‘hladan’ meaning ‘to load or heap’. When you say that a truck is laden with boxes, you are suggesting the vehicle is loaded with heavy items; the word suggests that someone or something has been ‘heavily weighed down’. ‘Laden’ is mostly limited to literary contexts; it is usually followed by the preposition ‘with’.

*The trucks were laden with farm equipment.

*We could see from a distance that the trees were laden with fruit.

Is it okay to say, ‘The club is nearly half of a kilometre away’?

(J Nikhila, Mysore)

No, it is not. We have to say, ‘The club is nearly half a kilometre away’. Usually, ‘half’ and ‘half of’ can be used interchangeably in most constructions — without really affecting the meaning of the sentence. For example, there is no difference in meaning between ‘Half my friends are moving to Delhi’ and ‘Half of my friends are moving to Delhi’. But when we are talking about measurements or quantities, ‘half of’ is not used; ‘half’ is the preferred form. We don’t say ‘half of a dozen’, ‘half of a bottle’, ‘half of an hour’, etc.

*Renu used half a dozen oranges to make the juice.

*Thiru ate half a packet of chips before dinner.

******

“If you don’t agree with me, it means you haven’t been listening.” — Sam Markewich

upendrankye@gmail.com

Courtesy : thehindu

Sreemoye

Sita’s Curse launched in Chennai

Sreemoye
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu (right) with Anita Ratnam. Photo: R. Ragu

The launch in the city of Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s book Sita’s Curse — The Language of Desire, laid bare the truth about sexual socialism and our society

“She had eyes the colour of rain — the most soulful pair of eyes, I had ever seen and also the saddest,” says author Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, talking about the inspiration for her feminist erotic novel, Sita’s Curse —The Language of Desirewhich was released in the city recently.

It was in another life, in another city, in another world that she first encountered this woman who she refers to as the hero of her novel, “I used to be a journalist in Bombay and would travel by cab to work every day. On my way, I would pass by this chawl in Byculla and my cab would always slow down as it went through that area. That was when I first noticed her. She wasn’t glamorous the way Bollywood makes women out to be, but she was beautiful,” says the 36-year-old author.

Perhaps it was her sheer radiance amidst the sordidness and squalor of her surroundings that made the memory so potent but Sreemoyee could never forget her, “I would look out for her every day— there was something so captivating about her. I assumed that she was Gujarati because she wore her sareeseedha-pallu style, I knew she was married because she wore a mangalsutra but that was all I knew. Sometimes she would be on the phone, sometimes she would be feeding her parrot; sometimes she would be drying her long, tousled dark hair. She was the most sensual, exotic creature I had ever seen.”

Then the July 26th floods happened and everything changed, “I was a victim of the floods myself, was trapped in office, contracted leptospirosis after wading through filthy water to reach home and was ill for many days,” she says. “When I resumed work again, I looked out for her but I never saw her again. I am just a vessel, a medium through which her story can be told.”

Sita’s Curse (Hachette Rs. 350), the product of that experience, tells the story of a beautiful, sensuous woman, Mrs. Meera Patel, who is trapped in a soulless marriage for nearly 20 years. The book chronicles her choices, her emotional upheavals, the discovery of her own physicality and the coming into her own as both a person and a woman. It also raises questions on issues such as the sexual politics of Indian households, the primordial connect between religion and sexuality, marital rape and women’s empowerment.

The excerpts of Sita’s Curse were read out at the launch, certainly seemed to be appreciated by the mostly woman audience of the Duchess Club who had gathered in Hotel Savera for the event. Also present were dancer Anita Ratnam who released the book, artist Thejo Menon and journalist and activist Apsara Reddy while the panel discussion that followed the launch was moderated by theatre personality, Prema Venkat.

According to Anita, “Erotica is a vital part of our culture — in fact cliché though it may be India is the very birthplace of it. We have myriad references to it in our art, literature, dance and music. Take, for instance, the 12th century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda that constantly refers to the physical aspect of love between Krishna and his consort Radha.”

Closer home, we have the work of the Tamil poetess Andal whose work was, “soaked in erotica,” as Sreemoyee says. Yet when plans to stage the Vagina Monologues were made in Chennai, a huge uproar was created, “I don’t see why they make such a big fuss over a small patch of skin,” laughs Anita.

Perhaps the reaction stems from, as Sreemoyee believes, the inability to accept female sexuality as an inherent, intrinsic part of her being. But as Apsara says, “Why are we apologetic about our desire? Why is the prevailing sentiment this — do what you want but don’t talk about it?”

Sreemoyee adds, “Desire is such a natural thing — why should we assume it is derelict or dirty?  I think it empowers women and induces a degree of sexual socialism. Every single human being has the right to be free — to explore their sexuality and make their own choices — sexual or otherwise.”

Thejo Menon agrees, “As an artist I believe in the freedom of expression. As someone who comes from a matrilineal society, I believe in male-female equality and paint from that perspective.”

At the end of the day, however the message is far beyond the sexually explicit parts of the novel Sita’s Curse, “I am using the sexual body as a medium to tell a message,” says Sreemoyee. “I want my readers to experience Meera and reclaim their true selves through her.”

Courtesy : thehindu