Talking Dolphins and The End of the Internet: Science Wednesday

Image result for dolphins

“Thanks for all the fish”- Everyone, simultaneously, after reading about this. 

If you were to ask people what separated us from the animals, there would be a whole range of answers, including technology and guns and morality (good or ill) and football and pants. But what it would always come down to is language. After all, without language, we couldn’t express concepts like “this is immoral” or “I have a gun, you give me your technology or else” or “football pants”. It’s truly a rich cultural heritage.

That’s why it is always both mind-blowing and a little uncomfortable when we hear that other species have the rudimentary of language, which is different than just communication. When species can actually have “words”, the line between us and them is even more blurred, reminding us that brains are just one evolutionary factor, and maybe not ultimately as beneficial as whatever keeps crocodiles going after hundreds of millions of years (scales and anger, I think).

This is relevant because it turns out that dolphins can talk.

Researchers have known for decades that the mammals had an advanced form of communication, using distinctive clicks and whistles to show they are excited, happy, stressed or separated  from the group.

But scientists have now shown that dolphins alter the volume and frequency of pulsed clicks to form individual “words” which they string together into sentences in much the same way that humans speak.

Researchers at the Karadag Nature Reserve, in Feodosia, Ukraine, recorded two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, called Yasha and Yana, talking to each other in a pool. They found that each dolphin would listen to a sentence of pulses without interruption, before replying.

Now, we don’t know what they are saying, of course, and maybe never will. But this is a remarkable breakthrough, and a sobering one. It’s remarkable because it completely changes how we might relate to these animals. It’s mystical and mind-altering enough to have langauge to talk to gorillas. But in a way, that just enhances a connection that any basically empathetic human feels when looking at a creature so clearly closely related.

Dolphins are different though (breaking! Dolphins, gorillas, are different). We don’t really have any knowledge of the ocean. It’s alien to us, as it should be, because (breaking!) we can’t fucking breathe underwater. It’s literally not our world, and seems far more distant and removed than even space. There are some really weird creatures down there. But one of the creatures in it can talk. It has language. And where there is set language, there is the chance of communication.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine what we can learn? Can you imagine how much this might change our relationship with the sea? And can you imagine how much they must hate us? These are intelligent, creative, problem-solving, and now language-having creatures that we’ve put in dumbshows for tourists and have harvested because we’re too lazy to catch tuna, the ocean’s dumbest fish, without drawing in dolphins as well. Our first words in Dolphin better be “About that…”

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In other paradigm-shifting news, China or Russia might be trying to take down the internet. Not just its top sites like Google or Shooting Irrelevance, but the whole, you know, internet. Bruce Schneier, who is always important to listen to on these things, writes in Lawfare:

Recently, some of the major companies that provide the basic infrastructure that makes the Internet work have seen an increase in DDoS attacks against them. Moreover, they have seen a certain profile of attacks. These attacks are significantly larger than the ones they’re used to seeing. They last longer. They’re more sophisticated. And they look like probing. One week, the attack would start at a particular level of attack and slowly ramp up before stopping. The next week, it would start at that higher point and continue. And so on, along those lines, as if the attacker were looking for the exact point of failure.

The attacks are also configured in such a way as to see what the company’s total defenses are. There are many different ways to launch a DDoS attacks. The more attack vectors you employ simultaneously, the more different defenses the defender has to counter with. These companies are seeing more attacks using three or four different vectors. This means that the companies have to use everything they’ve got to defend themselves. They can’t hold anything back. They’re forced to demonstrate their defense capabilities for the attacker.

I don’t really see the benefit this has for China, other than maybe blackmail, or at least leverage. Russia is more of a wildcard, and this also might be a show of strength. But just like our dependence on language for proof of evolutionary superiority, our current reliance on the internet is basically species-defining. It’s hard to imagine the chaos if it just went away, even for a day. When we realize that the very basis on which we have built everything is essentially vulnerable, it is terrifying and can unleash weird social ramifications. The internet isn’t solid. It isn’t the ground beneath your feet. It is a new and vulnerable technology, and could just blank out in a life-changing blink.

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Finally, there’s the story of a ship that disappeared in the arctic ice 168 years ago, and were just found, perserved in the cold Canadian waters. The HMS Terror and the HMS Ebrus were part of a voyage looking for the Northwest Passage, which people still believed in in the 1800s apparently, even though they knew that it just kept getting colder and worse the more you went into Canada. Seriously, this wasn’t John Smith landing in Virginia in the early 1600s, believing China to be just around the corner, or Champlain assuming the India was on Huron’s western banks. We knew better.

Anyway, the men abandoned ship when they got caught in the crushing ice, which forms so quickly up there, blocking any passage, blocking any hope. All were lost, and the search for the route pretty much stopped, and we realized we could just dig through the continent, why not? But now the Terror was found, almost immaculate, just much farther south than people thought. Did the ice carry it? Did it survive the winter and then float before sinking? There are a lot of questions to which we now might have answers.

Just two brief notes:

  • Don’t forget that, thanks to global warming, we actually created the northwest passage. There’s a cruise ship plying it now! I don’t think your preciou dolphins could have pulled that off.
  • Really, the HMS Terror? Even M.R. James would be like “a bit on the nose, yeah?”
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