Thursday 28 February 2019

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Mother octopus

I’ve just read a very sad chapter in The Soul of an Octopus
Female octopuses die a few months after laying their eggs—they spend all energy caring for and cleaning the eggs, and at some point, stop feeding, and slowly die. 
At the aquarium that Sy Montgomery visits for The Soul of an Octopus, the octopus Octavia lays eggs, and starts dying. 
“Octavia is puffed up, her skin not, as usual, creased or crinkled, thorny or warty, but smooth as a blown-up balloon. 
This looks decidedly wrong to me, like a giant tumor or an internal organ bloated with disease. My distress increases when I can’t see her gills, her funnel, or her eyes. She has turned her face to the wall, as a dog or cat often does when suffering.” (p.111, ch.4) 
Octavia changes colour, and devotes all the time and energy to caring for the eggs. She loses interest in interaction with people at the aquarium. Nothing else matters but the eggs. 
The sad part is that her eggs are not fertile. 
“… we watch Octavia, our alien, invertebrate friend, caring for her infertile eggs at the end of her life with a tenacity and tenderness at once heartbreaking and glorious.” (p.118, ch.4) 
“Though Octavia’s eggs will never hatch, it fills us with gratitude that Octavia tends them with diligence and grace. For when she dies, Octavia will do so in the act of loving as only a mature female octopus, at the end of her short, strange life, can love.” (p.119, ch.4) 
This is heartbreaking.

Monday 25 February 2019

A difference between me and Sy Montgomery

Before going to the main point, I’d like to say that The Soul of an Octopus is a very good book. It is less about octopus facts than about the author’s personal accounts of her encounters with octopuses at New England Aquarium, written in lucid prose, full of feeling and tenderness. Now and then there’s a sense that there’s some exaggeration—like the over-enthusiasm of an octopus lover who glorifies everything about the creature, but the author has such an infectious curiosity and sense of wonder that you share the enthusiasm and want to know everything possible about octopuses and start seeing them in a different way. 
Now, on chapter 4, I’ve started to see a significant difference between me and Sy Montgomery—it is the fact that I’m not an animal lover. By this, I don’t mean that I dislike animals; I love dogs and cats, and like other “safe” animals like hamsters or rabbits, and so on, and even with dogs, prefer puppies and small dogs; I’m not a fan of insects nor arthropods, and don’t come near wild, untamed animals, especially those with venom or massive strength.
Part of it is ignorance, indifference, and fear. I have always been a city person, who can’t tell the difference between crocodiles and alligators, between leopards and jaguars, between rabbits and bunnies and hares, between frogs and toads, you get the idea. I can’t tell which kinds of snakes are venomous either. To me it’s simple—stay away from snakes. My interests have always been in other things. 
Part of it is that I think wild animals are wild animals. No matter how much you love them and care for them and understand them, they are still wild animals, driven by instinct, undomesticated, untamed, and unpredictable. Animal lovers usually say people are not much better, they may also kill you or ruin you in other ways, but at least people can communicate in language, and people know such things as law and concept of ethics. Animals follow instinct, they function and operate in their own ways, and don’t know anything about law or consequences. Wild animals are very different from us humans. 
On page 70-71, chapter 3, Sy Montgomery writes about Marion Fish, who “demonstrated the positive power of interesting, gentle, loving interaction between keepers and the animals in their care” by directly handing anacondas, without head restraint. “[T]he snakes are healthier and happier for it”, she says. 
That seems to work, I guess, but they are anacondas. What if 1 day they go crazy? What if they get irritated by something and take it out on a keeper? What would you do? 
Now, in chapter 4, Montgomery describes an episode where several people are having an interaction with a young octopus named Kali, suddenly she (Kali) hoses and then, for no obvious reason, bites Anna, a volunteer. 
It is an act of aggression. The bite isn’t serious, there is no venom, Anna feels fine afterwards. Montgomery says “Being bitten is an intimate interaction” and “a bite is proof of a kind of contact that—even when it goes wrong—at a time when most people are increasingly isolated from the natural world, we are privileged to experience.” 
Nobody understands why the octopus bit Anna. Montgomery’s theory is that Anna is on medication and the doctor has just changed prescription, so Kali could taste the difference and got confused. 
Even then that doesn’t change the fact that the octopus, unprovoked, bites someone it knows. If an octopus attacks again, you can never know, as you don’t know what they think. Montgomery may try to understand, and explain the behaviour, but it doesn’t change anything. 
Wild animals are still wild animals. At the beginning of the book, when an aquarist introduces Montgomery to an octopus, he also tells her never to let an octopus near her face. He has worked there for years, and knows enough not to let an octopus near the face. It could pull out your eye.

Sunday 24 February 2019

On Oscars 2018 and 2019

Last year I didn’t write a word about the Oscars. 
It was a bad year. Of the 9 films that were nominated for Best Picture, I haven’t seen Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Get Out, and The Post—I was busy, and just indifferent. I had a strong dislike of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which had some touching moments but as a whole was a corny film, with a forced message and a contrived plot. I didn’t buy Sam Rockwell’s character’s transformation, which means that I wasn’t happy about him getting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (though it’s the fault of the script, not the actor’s fault). Above all, I didn’t like that the dead police officer was so perfect, and the Frances McDormand character was seen by everyone as a bad person—the film deserves credit for its different approach in that generally the mother of a raped and murdered girl should be sympathised with, but the character is so angry, obsessed, and single-minded that everyone else turns against her as she becomes more extreme, but at the same time, it seems to me rather heartless that she is portrayed as an angry and unreasonable character and has nobody’s sympathy and understanding. 
Another film that I vehemently disliked last year was The Shape of Water, which won Best Picture. It’s a silly film, with a banal, commonplace story and a 2-dimensional villain. The Shape of Water was a disappointment after Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and it’s beyond my comprehension that such a film won Best Picture. 
I thought more highly of Phantom Thread and Lady Bird, especially the former. Phantom Thread is a film that I didn’t enjoy on a personal level, because of the toxic relationship depicted, but it’s an excellent film, a great film that doesn’t have the bagginess and messiness of most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s works. It’s also a nice film for Daniel Day-Lewis to end his career with, though of course I wish he’s still acting. 
In general, last year was a bad year, and I was indifferent to most of the films. I wasn’t, for example, enthusiastic about Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk, the 2 films that my classmates were crazy about.
The only film I really liked last year was The Square, in Foreign Language Film category, but it didn’t win. I haven’t seen A Fantastic Woman
This year is another shitty year. 
I haven’t seen Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and A Star Is Born. Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, and Green Book are quite good. Vice is dead boring and tries too hard to be quirky. Roma is hugely overrated. Do people praise it because it’s slow and in B&W? It baffles me that the film gets nominated for Best Cinematography—it’s not even B&W, just shades of grey, with no real black and no real white. A friend of mine compares the film to Fellini, but it’s nothing like Fellini, especially in cinematography. I hate that Roma didn’t have close-ups and the camera was far away most of the time, that at the beginning I got the main character and another servant mixed up. I hate that the camera movement was, for a large part, unmotivated. I hate that it’s not really B&W. 
Another thing that perplexes me is that Yalitza Aparicio got nominated for Best Actress. She was passive and unresponsive for the entire film. Things happen—earthquake, forest fire, fights, cries, threats, riots, shootings, etc. she never reacts. She remains slow, unresponsive, and expressionless for the entire film, except when the character has a miscarriage—but even then, the actress doesn’t express much. It is not stoicism, even when the lover shows off his martial arts skill by playing around with a pole, which might fly into her face any moment, or when he later humiliates her, or when he points a gun at her, she never reacts. Her performance doesn’t hint at anything hidden underneath. Why would she deserve the nomination, and such praise? 
Roma is, to me, a weak film, and I wouldn’t hate it so much if not for the universal acclaim among the critics. Why is it that such a film gets nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film? I don’t remember any such thing happening before. 
I predict that Rami Malek will win Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody, Olivia Colman—Best Actress for The Favourite, Mahershala Ali—Best Supporting Actor for Green Book, Marina de Tavira—Best Supporting Actress for Roma
For Best Picture and Best Director, I suspect Roma will win, though I prefer The Favourite
Still going to watch it tonight, but this year is such a shitty year.
Maybe for me the Oscars have lost their magic. 

Saturday 23 February 2019

Octopuses and colour

I’m on a break, after finishing filming on Monday night 18/2. 
Currently reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.
There are lots of interesting facts and observations about octopuses in the book. 
Take this passage from chapter 2: 
“The ability of the octopuses and their kin to camouflage themselves is unmatched in both speed and diversity. Octopuses and their relatives put chameleons to shame. Most animals gifted with the ability to camouflage can assume only a tiny handful of fixed patterns. The cephalopods have a command of 30 to 50 different patterns per individual animal. They can change color, pattern, and texture in 7/10 of a second. On a Pacific coral reef, a research once counted an octopus changing 177 times in a single hour. 
[...] For its color palette, the octopus uses 3 layers of 3 different types of cells near the skin’s surface—all controlled in different ways. The deepest layer, containing the white leucophores, passively reflects background light. This process appears to involve no muscles or nerves. The middle layer contains the tiny iridophores, each 100 microns across. These also reflect light, including polarized right (which humans can’t see, but a number of octopuses’ predators, including birds, do). The iridophores create an array of glittering greens, blues, golds, and pinks. Some of these little organs seem to be passive, but other iridophores appear to be controlled by the nervous system. They are associated with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, the 1st neurotransmitter to be identified in any animal. Acetylcholine helps with contraction of muscles; in humans, it is also important in memory, learning, and REM sleep. In octopuses, more of it “turns on” the greens and blues; less creates pinks and golds. The topmost layer of the octopus’s skin contains chromatophores, tiny sacks of yellow, red, brown, and black pigment, each in an elastic container that can be opened or closed to reveal more or less color. Camouflaging the eye alone—with a variety of patterns including a bar, a bandit’s mask, and a starburst pattern—can involve as many as 5 million chromatophores. Each chromatophore is regulated via an array of nerves and muscles, all under the octopus’s voluntary control. 
To blend with its surroundings, or to confuse predators or prey, an octopus can produce spots, stripes, and blotches of color anywhere on its body except its suckers and the lining of its funnel and mantle openings. […] And of course the octopus can also voluntarily control its skin texture—raising and lowering fleshy projections called papillae—as well as change its overall shape and posture.” 
Later in the same chapter: 
“… the octopus eye and our own are strikingly similar. Both have lens-based focusing, with transparent corneas, irises that regulate light, and retinas in the back of the eye to convert light to neural signals that can be processed in the brain. Yet there are also differences. The octopus eye, unlike our own, can detect polarized light. It has no blind spot. (Our optic nerve attaches to the back of the eye at the retina, creating the blind spot. The octopus’s optic nerve circles around the outside of the retina). Our eyes are binocular, directed forward for seeing what’s ahead of us, our usual direction of travel. The octopus’s wide-angle eyes are adapted to panoramic vision. And each eye can swivel independently, like a chameleon’s. Our visual acuity can extend beyond the horizon; an octopus can see only about 8 feet away. 
There is another important difference as well. Human eyes have 3 visual pigments, allowing us to see color. Octopuses have only one—which would make these masters of camouflage, commanding a glittering rainbow of colors, technically color-blind.” 
Isn’t that fascinating? It’s like reading about whales in Moby Dick
Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, Sy Montgomery has such an immense curiosity and sense of wonder that you feel captivated and feel changed as a person as you read the book—you start to wonder, what is it like to be an octopus? do they have consciousness? do they think? how do they feel about us? how do they see the world? do they dream? why are they so smart? 
Love this book.