Monday, July 31, 2017 Blog · News

Shorter emails. Brilliant corvids. Not as brilliant county councils. I-526 “death rattle?” Ancient resorts. Modern heroism.

by Dana Beach


I’ve gotten a lot of comments about the past three email news summaries and took a week off to think about them.  (Actually, I was just too disorganized to get last week’s out. Sorry!)  A few significant people tactfully suggested that I cut the length down.  I agree, with the caveat that I will have to leave a few items out (important topics like testosterone research…).  With brevity in mind, I’ll get directly to the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter this week is a question.  Who are the best planners – humans and apes or crows, ravens and jays (corvids)?

This article from the Washington Post reports on a recent study concluding that corvids are not only exceptionally intelligent, (we already knew that), but that they possess the ability to analyze complex circumstances and plan for the future.

Washington Post: Are people and apes the only ones that can plan ahead? Quoth the raven ‘nevermore.’

According to the article, earlier studies concluded that these birds modified their strategies for hiding food depending on whether other animals were watching.  This suggests that they possess “a cognitive awareness of what others might know or intend, as well as the ability to plan for future consequences.”  (My emphasis.  More on that in a minute.)

The new study took this a step further:

Osvath had to modify the tool-based experiments he and others had conducted on apes, given birds’ lack of opposable thumbs. Instead of the sticks or drinking straws used with apes, the ravens got small rocks as tools to open the boxy contraption. For their reward, he provided a juicy, meaty dog kibble that they seemed to love.

 In the end, the ravens matched the primates in every respect. On tests in which they had to barter for their reward by trading a specific token, the birds outscored the apes and even outperformed 4-year-old humans.

 In an accompanying perspective, two University of Cambridge cognitive scientists called Osvath’s study “compelling evidence.” They wrote, “These results suggest that planning for the future is not uniquely human and evolved independently in distantly related species to address common problems.”

So the study proves that crows, ravens and jays can “plan for future consequences.”  But can humans?

If the saga of the I-526 extension to Johns Island is any indication, the answer is: not very well.  After 10 years, Charleston County has made no progress resolving the dispute over this embattled project.  Consequently, almost half a billion scarce transportation dollars have been immobilized instead of being put to beneficial use.  And Lord knows there are many unfunded beneficial uses.

The latest action by the County Council looks like a “Hail Mary” pass, with no receiver in sight.  As this article from the Post and Courier reports, the Council filed a lawsuit against the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) on Thursday, alleging a breach of contract.  In their pleading, the county demands “damages” from the state of $750 million – enough to pay for the entire interstate extension.  It’s an interesting tactic, to say the least.

Post and Courier: Charleston County files suit over I-526 funding, asks court to make state bankroll entire project

In fact (and in law), all the STIB did was require the county to identify a specific source of funding to complete the project, which the county failed to do.  Not only is that requirement not a breach, it is a fiduciary obligation of the STIB to make sure state tax dollars are not wasted.

In this video by the irrepressible, and always timely, Quintin Washington, I explain the situation.  (The video lasts just 15 minutes…)

Quintin’s Close-Ups: Dana Beach interview

Of the many problems with the lawsuit, one is that the Council filed it without public debate or vote.  The decision was apparently a surprise even to some of the road project’s strongest supporters.  This next article, by Prentiss Findlay with the Post and Courier, reports that the secrecy of the decision may be illegal.  Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association and the state’s foremost authority on the Freedom of Information Act (FIOA), believes that is the case.

Post and Courier: County Council decision to file suit over I-526 contract reached in private discussions

From the article:

Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said deciding in a closed session to file suit was illegal under the FOIA.

“The county could not commit itself to a course of action without a public vote,” he said.

So, although crows and ravens may have “the ability to plan for future consequences…”, it’s hard to make the same claim about the County Council.  One thing we can say is that this lawsuit is unlikely to end well for anyone.  It is certainly a major failure of leadership (a point S.C. Representative Leon Stavrinakis seems to be making in the first article).

According to this next article from the BBC, “ancient resorts” like Dubrovnik are in desperate need of leadership to avert being overwhelmed by cruise ships.

BBC: Cruise tourists overwhelm Europe’s ancient resorts

The article reports that tourists arriving on “apartment building sized” cruise ships outnumber residents.  This is true also in smaller U.S. destinations like Key West.  While the 3,000 or so cruisers who engorge and disgorge from the Carnival Ecstasy (it’s still unsettling to have a ship named after a creepy drug visiting us once a week…) do not yet outnumber Charleston residents, when you add the profusion of hotels and, potentially, short-term rentals to the mix, we are getting perilously close.

This advice from the article is completely applicable to Charleston:

It will fall to local governments in places like Dubrovnik and Capri and Venice to find a way of reducing those growing pressures.

For now, ideas like installing turnstiles on ancient squares and pedestrian traffic lights on crowded streets may sound rather fanciful.

But if that tourist tide keeps rising they might start to seem a little more tempting.

By the way, if you want to weigh in on Charleston short-term rentals, here is a link to a petition put together by the Charlestown Neighborhood Association you can sign:

Petition Requesting the City Retain Existing Prohibitions on Short-Term Rentals and Enhance Enforcement

Petitions (an easy form of citizen action) are important, and leadership is important.  Together, they will make the difference between a city, or a region, or a planet, losing its character or sustaining its environment.

This brings me to the final item on this week’s shortened list: Dunkirk.  Or more specifically, the movie “Dunkirk,” which is playing at the Terrace Theater on James Island.  It is rivetingly intense from beginning to end (even though I found it very difficult to understand the British accents).  The catharsis (spoiler alert, for those of you who have not read your World War II history) is the arrival of the citizens’ flotilla from England that assisted in the almost miraculous evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops.  The denouement, for me, was the recitation of Churchill’s speech to Parliament following the evacuation, and England’s recommitment to fighting, and winning, the war.  Here is the best-known part:

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

So, there you have it with Dunkirk – brilliant, courageous, inspiring leadership.  And courageous, determined citizens, willing to do what was necessary to prevail, (despite having little certainty that they had a chance).

I don’t think I am overstating the circumstance by saying that we face a challenge of protecting our communities and the earth on par with, (I say greater than), the one Europe and America faced in World War II.  Prevailing will require the same type of leadership, and the same unflagging commitment on behalf of citizens who see the threats clearly, and relentlessly respond.

Keep the faith and carry on!


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