Friday, October 24, 2008

Crowing around

If you're from northern New Jersey, or really most other places in the world, like, say Vienna for instance, chances are you share your living space with crows. True, they might not be the most beautiful of birds nor the most mellifluous, but they are keenly intelligent. For example, crows have been known to take nuts and put them on roads where cars are driving, so that the cars will drive over the nuts and thus open them for the crows to eat. It's not quite rocket science, but as animal intelligence goes, that's a lot higher than most species get.
In Europe there is one major crow species, sometimes called the Carrion Crow (although it, like most crows will eat just about anything- not just rotting meat). Interestingly the Carrion Crow comes in two major races, the western race, which is all black, and the eastern race (sometimes called the "Hooded Crow" although the two forms are conspecific) which is gray below. Their ranges barely overlap (crows usually don't migrate either), but Vienna, ornithologically as well as culturally, is right on the dividing line between eastern and western Europe.
Thus I had the opportunity yesterday to come across two crows, one western and one eastern on a Vienna street. At the time, I had just bought a chocolate muffin and became curious. Do crows have taste buds? Could they pick out the taste of a chocolate muffin? Would they enjoy it? Although I had never really thought about it, I would assume that all three questions can be answered with a yes. Clearly, my pet parakeets over the years have preferred certain foods to others, so one assumes that crows must too.
I would further assume that these two crows had never tasted a delicious chocolate muffin before, so I thought that I would bring some unexpected delight into their lives by feeding them. Probably not the healthiest thing to do, but they both sure enjoyed it.
And that got me thinking- if crows enjoy chocolate, maybe they enjoy other aspects of existence that we overlook. And maybe, though unable to speak or do higher mathematics or write a blog entry, maybe they and their animal kin should be treated with a lot more respect than we normally give them. This doesn't mean we should all become vegetarians- I'll explain why next week- but it does mean that when we think about how best to help the world out, maybe we ought to give the other tens of billions of birds, mammals, and other sentient beings (i.e. beings that can enjoy life, feel pain and even express certain emotions) their due. And maybe people (who rather selfishly and solipsistically often say that "man is the measure of all things") should recognize that on any reasonable moral grounds, the distinction between humans and animals is not as big as we think. Again, more on that next week.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Dangers of Motorcycling

When I got my motorcycle license earlier in the year, numerous people told me that this was a very dangerous activity. I parried that by replying that so are skiing and ocean swimming, and that's never stopped me.
Nevertheless, I must confess that two nights ago, motorcycling put me in a rather dangerous position. I was about to take my girlfriend on her first ride ever, just a little bit around Vienna at night, but after we had walked the half mile or so to where my motorcycle was parked (on a side street), there were some twenty police officers there, and they told me both that I couldn't access my motorcycle and that we should run away as fast as possible.
Apparently, some crook was holed up in a parking garage whose entrance was next to my motorcycle, and he wasn't taking no for an answer. We didn't stick around to see how the altercation ended, but as we went away, I looked back and saw a policeman with his pistol drawn inside the garage. Finally, after we had turned the corner, three female police officers, all of whom seemed to be about 18, ran toward the back of the garage saying "Scheisse! Ich hoffe es gibt keinen Ausgang dahinter!" or "Shit! I hope there's no back exit!"
Which really inspired confidence in me for Vienna's finest. Moreover, though, what are the odds that of all the streets in Vienna, which is literally the safest city in the world with more than 1 million people, that there's a shootout on the block of the street where I parked. Bizarro, but I don't think anything can surprise me anymore after the hike, where it was one coincidence after another.
One final thought. I hate Kid Rock and his stupid song that's a complete rip off of Warren Zevon.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Al-Qaeda, Red Bull, and Random Acts of Kindness

Here’s a question for you: what do random acts of kindness, red bull, and al-Qaeda have in common? Not much perhaps, but they are all topics that I am keenly interested in, though for rather different reasons. So in this week’s blog entry, let’s start with the bad news first to get it out of the way before moving on to the humorous and the uplifting.
It has now been over seven years since al-Qaeda attacked the USA on September 11. To some extent, this is due to the facts that the al-Qaeda leadership has largely been killed or forced into hiding in the border regions of Pakistan and that some potential attacks have also been foiled by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However, all this was also true four years ago, when bin Laden reared his ugly head and called on Americans to vote for Kerry. Well, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I know that bin Laden had to have known in advance that this would make it more likely for Bush to win the election, which, of course, is what ended up happening. Why would bin Laden have wanted Kerry to win? Simple. The Bush Administration had so antagonized the rest of the world, especially Muslim countries. Unknowingly, with their bungled efforts, Bush was playing into bin Laden’s hands.
Likewise, McCain’s bellicose rhetoric and penchant for supporting military action without always considering the possible consequences, the fact that in a recent worldwide poll, residents of every country sampled favored Obama over McCain, and the fact that Obama cuts a far more sympathetic profile in the Muslim world in particular all make it more likely that al-Qaeda would prefer a McCain presidency. So, if al-Qaeda has any capability to attack the USA at all, it seems very likely that it would try and attack the USA directly or at least US interests abroad between now and election day in the hope that it helps McCain. While hesitant to put a probability on it, I would say that the chances of something happening over the next four weeks are at least 1 in 3.
After that disconcerting prediction, a little levity. Many in the states might not know this, but Red Bull is in part owned by and has its headquarters in Austria. So fine, it’s an Austrian drink. But it has an English name, which, when pronounced in German, sounds like Khrrret Bule. If I ask for one in my American accent, no one understands me. So I hef too speak wiss a Gehmun Excent eef I wan too gett a Khrrret Bule...
Finally, a random act of kindness was performed by yours truly together with his better half on Sunday. We gave out about 155 homemade cookies outside the main cathedral in Vienna for no other reason other than to make people smile. It was great to see their reactions, and was lots of fun to coordinate. I’ll keep doing this once a week or so, and update what sort of hijinx we get ourselves into. Any suggestions for future goodwill are of course welcome.