the screen of consciousness

September 7th, 2007 | Uncategorized

bat on screen

(Click the bat photo and it’ll take you to YouTube.) I’ve been slogging away on my next memoir, which I keep telling people is about my relationship history, and it is, but it’s also about something much more vague that I can’t quite pin down yet. Something to do with subjectivity and the nature of consciousness. I’ve been doing a lot of psychoanalytic and philosophical research which yesterday led me to a 1974 essay by Thomas Nagel entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

I won’t pretend that I actually read it, but I assume it’s getting at the question of how we can know what it’s like to be anything. I did skim it a little, and saw that he chose bats for his experiment because they’re different enough from humans to make the comparison useful, yet not so different (as “wasps or flounders” might be) that we can’t believe there’s “experience there at all.”

Anyhow. I’ll read it eventually. But the reason I’m posting about this is because late last night while I was reading, a bat came to my window! I made another Wild Kingdom episode for you, of the bat feeding on the moths that were gathered on the screen. Also, this morning I show you where the bat sleeps. (If you’re chiropto- or mottephobic, best not to look.)

79 Responses to “the screen of consciousness”

  1. ArgentLA says:

    At the risk of revealing too much of my inner geek, my immediate reaction was “My god, Alison Bechdel is becoming Batman!”

    (Sadly, in the real world “bat in the window” often means “off for a rabies shot,” which is not so heroic. But it is a funny mental image.)

  2. Oh god, my secret identity is out.

  3. DSW says:

    wow! that’s really cool!

  4. Dr. Empirical says:

    Neil Gaiman had some interesting musings about subjectivity and the nature of memory, if not consciousnes in his childhood memoirs Violent Cases and Mr. Punch. I found the former to be more interesting, but possibly only because I read it first.

    I haven’t read The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish but I imagine it’s similar.

  5. susana v. says:

    As a recent transplant to the country from the big city, I wonder if I will also have bats in my future – not sure I’m ready for them yet. What I most noticed was the totally absence of background noise in the film. The quiet is exquisite.

  6. straight girl fan says:

    The basic idea behind Nagel’s essay is that, no matter how much science learns about the brain and the mind, there is still a kind of “knowledge” that you can’t attain from this kind of inquiry, namely, how having a mind *feels*. It’s really an argument in the philosophy of science: are there types of knowledge that are not accessible to science? Nagel argues that there is one such type of knowledge, namely subjective experience. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn things *about* subjective experience. There are all kinds of questions science can fruitfully ask about it. For example (sticking with bats) there is interesting research that suggests that when bats do echo-location, they experience something more like seeing (i.e. a 3D “picture”) than like hearing. But no matter how closely and accurately you *describe* it, you can’t make someone else *feel* it.

  7. Aunt Soozie says:

    I recently spoke with a friend who was hearing as a child but began losing her hearing as an adolescent. She had almost no residual hearing by her early twenties. Now she has a cochlear implant.

    I was trying to get a sense of what it’s like to hear with her implant…how does she perceive sound? music? voices? But like straight girl said above, though I asked many questions and my friend was generous with answers, I was left knowing that I’ll never be able to grasp her experience… that there are no words… that it’s indescribable.

    I watched a program on television that also got me thinking…I know – odd – right? It’s some show about love versus science? They let a person pick a date from a group of people and then they choose a date for the person based on some scientific-ish formula.

    The person plans and goes out on a date with the person they choose for themselves. Then they go on a date that the scientists arrange with the person chosen for them.

    The dater then decides which person they’d want to continue to date. (Seeing who is a better predictor of love, science of the heart…more or less.)

    In the episode I watched the science date was specifically orchestrated to induce “feelings” of love, attachment and attraction. They had the couple bungee jump strapped to one another…the increase in adrenaline and perspiration would increase pheromone release… they had the couple spend some time staring into one another’s eyes…etc.

    It was so fascinating, how they could “induce” feelings of “love”…it makes you take a long hard look at the person next to you and you gotta wonder…how did this happen? hmmm…or something like that….sort of…

    I know it’s much more complex than physiology but I think we humans tend to underestimate those biochemical responses and imperatives. As a therapist I’m immersed in the “your replicating you parental blah, blah, blah…”. I believe all of that…but sometimes a pheromone is just a pheromone.

  8. Jeff says:


  9. Aunt Soozie says:

    Cute bats!
    My daughter said…awwwwww…that umbrella’s a bat mansion.

  10. criminallyinane says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it’s like to be one of my cats. But that’s mostly because I’m trying to figure out why they keep jumping on top of the fridge.

  11. straight girl fan says:

    Oh, and, Alison? Don’t get too deep into continental philosophy or you might get lost and we’d never see you again! Or worse, you might turn into Sydney.

    As an amusing palate-cleanser, check out these two entries from Language Log, my favorite language-related blog, about whether Derrida and his ilk are “not even wrong”:


    And for a longer treatment of the subject, try this New Yorker article:

  12. Lori in NYC says:

    My cats would be all over that bat on the screen!

  13. Andrew B says:

    Alison, you should read Nagel’s essay. You can handle it. You did make a slip, though. The thing about bats, according to Nagel, is that we can’t believe there’s “no experience there at all”. That is, bats must have experiences, but we have no idea how to even get started characterizing them.

  14. Maggie Jochild says:

    Here in Austin we have a major love affair with bats — almost a million of ’em live five minutes’ drive from me under the (newly renamed today) Ann Richards Bridge, which is a few blocks from the Capital building. We go at dusk, when we can, to watch them emerge in unfathomable numbers. Since each of them can eat 1000 mosquitoes a night, we encourage their development. One or more live in the rain gutter beside my apartment patio, and I love watching her/them flickering through the twilight. Our main population is a breeding colony, so there are lots more mamas and babies than anything else. Small, fuzzy, a lovely deep brown, and very timid — ours are Mexican Free-Tailed bats. There’s a You Tube video of them coming out from under the bridge, which can also be found on the links section at my website

  15. j.b.t. says:

    Did anyone read the Sandra Steingraber article in the most recent issue of Orion about her kids and the bat? It’s excellent. She discusses how the gov’t will pay for rabies shots if a person is in contact with a bat. The article focuses on the idea of “risk” – because we know that rabies is fatal, we will prevent it regardless of cost. She then compares this notion to the “risk” of carcinogenic chemicals that we don’t officially “know” cause cancer, and that the gov’t allows. I love her work. She also wrote an Organic Manifesto in which she recommends skipping the donation to the Cancer Society and spending your money on organic foods – you’ll be preventing a lot more cancer (especially in farm workers and rural people) that way.

    My cat once caught a bat and I was terrified that he would get rabies (though he had ben vaccinated), so I put it in a tupperware (in a paper bag marked “bat”) and then froze it so I could have it tested for rabies (he caught it on a Friday night, and the DNR wasn’t open, so I wanted to bring it in on Monday). Well on Monday they said I couldn’t test it because it had been frozen (Sandra Steingraber was able to test her frozen bat, so maybe the technology for rabies testing has changed in the past few years). Anyway, I forgot about the bat and 2 years later when we moved my sister found it: “bat” in the back of the freezer. She said she always suspected me of being a witch…


  16. Suzi in NorCal says:

    Does anybody besides me find it funny that there’s bats under Ann Richards’ bridge?

  17. Douglas says:

    I spoke reprovingly to a spider today. It was starting a very ambitious web project across a doorway when I noticed and brushed away its work, declaring, “You can’t do that here!” I’m just thinking about the way AB talks admiringly to the bat as if it’s a person. Well, I guess it is a person in the sense that it has its own agenda and point of view. What I suppose I’m driving at is that the question “What is it like to be a bat?” is a subset of “What is it like to be another person?” Writers work on that all the time, and lovers chip away at it too, if not too self-involved. So I’m really looking forward to this next book about Self and Other, because I haven’t got it figured out.

  18. j.b.t. says:

    Oh – Allison, please be careful about the bat droppings (saw the video) – there’s some kind of disease you can get from them. Bob Dylan had it once and had to cancel shows…


  19. Josiah says:

    I don’t think Alison slipped (unless she’s edited her post since Andrew B.’s comment). She writes that Nagel chose bats ‘because they’re different enough from humans to make the comparison useful, yet not so different (as “wasps or flounders” might be) that we can’t believe there’s “experience there at all”.’ If you remove the dependent clauses, she’s saying that he chose bats “because they’re different enough… yet not so different (…) that we can’t believe there’s ‘experience there at all’.” They’re not so different that we don’t believe they have experience; in other words (and removing the double negative), they’re close enough to us that we can easily believe they do have experience — which is what both Nagel and Andrew B. are saying.

    I’ve often wondered what it is like to be a dog, and have your primary perception of the world be through smell. I think that dogs must perceive the world not as we do, as a collection of subsequent nows, but as something which is constantly permeated with what has been, since everything leaves a trail of scent behind. A dog doesn’t just perceive what’s in a room; it perceives what’s been in the room, and how recently. When a dog greets you, it doesn’t just apperceive what you look like, but what you’ve eaten recently, what other people or animals you’ve been in close contact with, and so forth.

    A dog’s perception might be a bit like that of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, who experience the universe in all four dimensions simultaneously, and perceive a moving being as something like a strand of spaghetti, occupying every place the moving being has ever existed or will exist. Obviously, dogs can’t smell the future, but they do perceive the past as more “present” than it is to us. I wonder, what would a civilization created by beings who conceived of the world like that be like?

  20. Jeepers, j.b.t. Thanks for the warning about the droppings. I’ll be careful.

    And Andrew B, I’m pretty sure my proposition is equal to yours, if more cumbersomely phrased.

    “They’re not so different that we can’t believe there’s (any) experience there at all”

    That is, if bats were more different, we’d be less likely to believe they have experience

  21. Maggie Jochild says:

    Josiah, have you read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book
    The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company
    ? She’s a field anthrolopologist (studied the Bushmen for one famous book) who decided to apply her techniques to her pack of canines. It utterly changed my understand of and sense of connection to dogs after reading it.

    On another tangent: How we love Tupperware for unconventional storage. A few years ago, an elderly woman here out in her back yard saw her dog messing with something on the ground, walked over just in time for the dog to fling it up in the air so it landed on her bare foot and bit her: it was a rattlesnake. She put her other foot down on the snake to keep it from getting away, grabbed the barbecue tongs and picked it up, then carried it into the house to take with her to the emergency room. We have three major crotalid species here — rattler, cottonmouth, and copperhead — and she knew the antivenin was distinct for each, so she needed to be able to tell them what kind of snake had bit her. She stashed the rattlesnake in her Tupperware cake-carrying box and drove herself to the emergency room. (We grow our old ladies very tough here in Texas.) When she was finally seen, 20 minutes later, she was starting to get wonky from the pain and venom, but she still got a good laugh from the reaction when they asked her if she could identify the snake and she pointed to the cake-box by her side, saying “It’s right in there, have a look.” Took five vials of anti-venin, but she survived just fine. Dog was okay, too. I don’t know what happened to the snake.

  22. Pam I says:

    Who opened the tupperware box????????

  23. straight girl fan says:

    I am in a state of great puzzlement. My comment above has been flagged as “awaiting moderation,” and it’s hanging up there like a criminal awaiting trial and everybody politely averting their eyes out of embarassment. Please either just remove it, or else remove the “Unclean” sign from around its poor little neck.

    Also, I’m a little bit shocked that this comment has been flagged for possible removal. I thought I kept the tone light and friendly, and I didn’t engage in ad hominem attacks (unlike some comments that apparently were acceptable in the last thread). Is it just simply not okay to criticize Derrida in this forum?

  24. Straight girl, I’m so sorry. I think because you had so many links in your post, your comment was assumed to be spam. I just went in and released it from moderation.

    And thank you so much for your lucid explanation of WIILTBAB. Now I don’t HAVE to read it.

  25. Jana C.H. says:

    Straight Girl, your scarlet letter must have been extremely small, because when I read your last note I thought, “Flag? What flag? Show me this so-called flag; I’ve never seen one before.” So I don’t think your reputation was seriously blighted.

    Keep on socking it to us!

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Fridtjof Nansen: Fram!

  26. Josiah says:

    Straight girl fan, I think that when a comment is “awaiting moderation” the poster and the blog owner can see it, but nobody else can. I think that it happens whenever somebody includes a link in a post, so that the blog owner can make sure it’s not spam. I don’t think that anybody else can see the “Unclean” sign.

    Maggie, I started reading The Social Lives of Dogs an age ago, but got distracted by something else and never picked it up again. It’s still on my shelf — I probably should give it another shot.

  27. Lydia says:

    wow, I had no idea Derrida deriding and Rorty repudiating was all the rage.

    Thanks for the links, straightgirl.

  28. Aunt Soozie says:

    Josiah, interesting thoughts and I’m sure you’re aware of the dogs that can sniff out cancer and precancerous lesions? So, maybe that sensing the future?
    Maggie, send me some bats to eat my mosquitoes. We have a few but not enough to keep the mosquitoes under control. I’ve heard that even if you put up bat houses it can take years to attract a family of bats to your yard.

  29. kate says:

    *suspiciously eyeing the green patio umbrella in my backyard

  30. Andrew B says:

    Josiah and Alison, thanks for pointing out how that sentence was supposed to work. Alison, I apologize for my mistaken “correction”.

    If you’re willing to bear with me, though, I think there’s still a problem with Alison’s original phrasing that will be relevant to understanding Nagel’s argument. Nagel needs it to be true that bats have experience. For Nagel’s purposes it’s not good enough to say that it’s possible that bats have experience. If they only could have experience, then they could fail to have experience. That lets Nagel’s opponent argue that the problem about knowing what it’s like to be a bat is just a good reason for thinking that there is nothing it’s like.

    So. Alison’s phrase, “not so different … that we can’t believe there’s experience …” amounts to saying only that it’s possible that bats have experience. That phrase (not…can’t) says it’s not impossible for us to believe that bats have experience. But “not impossible” means only possible, not true.

    What Nagel says is “I assume we all believe that bats have experience”. That is, we all believe it’s true, not merely possible. (There is another wrinkle here in the distinction between P being true and everyone believing that P is true, but you really don’t want me to go on about this any longer, do you?)

    I realize that’s going to sound like a horrible lot of nitpicking, especially after I already made one mistake, but if you’re going to read Nagel and related writers it is important to be clear about the difference between possibility, truth, and necessity.

    When Alison plays with analytic philosophy she can come up with interesting results. The version of Russell’s Paradox that she gives in Fun Home is not really paradoxical. “The barber who shaves all and only those men who do not shave themselves” doesn’t lead to paradox. It only implies that the barber is not a man — which seems fitting in the context of the problems she was raising in Fun Home. The phrase only seemed paradoxical because of our assumption that barbers must be men.

  31. Suzanonymous says:

    Just skimming, I read E. M. Thomas’s The Hidden Life of Dogs, which is a different book. I loved it. I saw the author on a PBS show about dogs.. Seemed like family 🙂 but I’m often wrong. 🙁 🙁

  32. Suzanonymous says:

    Oh, yeah, susana v. there are bats in cities. I look up at night in the parks and see them going for the swarming bugs. I don’t often see them, but they’re there. Someone told me he and a friend went out to an open area in a park walking around with a long pole stuck in the air and soon bats were knocking against it.

  33. riotllama says:

    you can try and attract bats to your area by putting up a batbox. take 2 pieces of plywood a foot square, and three 2x2s cut to fit 3 sides of the plywood. lay the 2x2s down on three sides of one of the ply wood pieces and glue them down with wood glue, then use a knife to score a grid of lines close together on one side of the remaining plywood and glue it (scored side in) down on top of the 2x2s so its like a 2×2 sandwich. (you can also just staple some window screen or plastic mesh to one of the plywoods. this is so little bat claws have something to grab onto.)
    put outdoor caulk all around the edges. you can put a slanty roof on top to keep off water if you want. paint it a nice dark color like brown or black or dark green/blue/purple. then hang it so that the open end is opening down. it should be 15-25 feet up in the air and preferably facing south. The best time to do it is may, as bats have already found their nesting sites by midsummer. you want a bat looking for a nice nesting place to find yr bat box before then. and yeah, it can take up to 3 years for some bats to find and like your box. you can tell there’s bats living there by the poo they’ll leave under the box. the disease from bat guano is called histoplasmosis and is caused by a fungus that grows on guano after it has been around for a couple years. it doesn’t seem that common or that statistically likely to be awful. Here is a link to the national institute of health’s site about it:
    PS. my bat box info is for little and big brown bats, which is what we’ve got around Philly. if you have massive bats where you live, you might need to make the box bigger. the opening for my box, you should just be able to shove your flat hand into the opening. (shush now) the box will fit up to 100 bats prob’ly.
    PSS on the days when i was supposed to teach bat boxes, i tried to wear my bat boxers. black with glow in the dark bats on them.
    PPSS. heres a way more complicated way to build on, but the pictures might help if yr confused by my directions.

  34. Alex K says:

    Subjectivity and the nature of consciousness, the mind, the body.

    My parents had a large chiffarobe with two mirrored doors. When I stood between the doors, my head turned sideways to let the doors open perpendicular to the front of the chiffarobe – I went on forever, back and belly and back, until can’t-see and tiny far in the depths of the mirrors.

    I think of that when I think of AB at work. As she slogs along, recollecting her past, reviewing (as one says here, “revising”) her relationships, sketching the storyboards and projecting the story arcs, she stands, crouches, twists, photographs – photographing herself, herself as her partner, herself as her partner responding to herself, herself as herself responding to herself as her partner… The piled-up, receding images, between the mirrors, herself the mirrors.

  35. Ginjoint says:

    My comment above has been flagged as “awaiting moderation,” and it’s hanging up there like a criminal awaiting trial and everybody politely averting their eyes out of embarassment. Please either just remove it, or else remove the “Unclean” sign from around its poor little neck.

    I come to this forum for lots of reasons, one of which is the intelligent writing. Every time I read the paragraph above, I laugh again. Well done!

    And oh? There’s tons & tons of little brown bats where my mother lives. I love ’em, but I’ll never again so blithely whip open the patio umbrella. I don’t know about other species of bats, but the ones by Mom can’t take off from the ground, like birds – they have to climb up high first, and then “drop” into flight. This makes them easier to catch if they get indoors; just gently toss a towel on them and carefully (don’t want to get bitten, the little buggers are scared) set them loose outside by a tree or something tall.

  36. Jaibe says:

    I think the main people arguing about the “bat” nagel thing now are David Chalmers and Dan Dennett. My understanding is Chalmers thinks Dennett is missing the “big question” of qualia (what is it like to sense) and Dennett thinks Chalmers is being quasi-religious in redescribing the experience of (say) seeing something red as a special qualia of redness. From the Dennett perspective (again, as I understand it) the process of seeing red and the qualia of what seeing redness is like are really just the same thing. That may seem obvious, but when you’re an undergraduate the idea that someone else may see green when you see red and just call it green is a big deal. The point about the bat (as someone pointed out earlier) is that the process of experiencing 3-D depth / object identification may be just the same whether you use sonar or vision.

    There is some weird experiment where scientists connected a camera to little sticks that pressed on people’s backs, so they *felt* a camera’s image rather than seeing it, and after they’d got used to that and could recognize things that way, they claimed it was the same sensation as seeing, a visual experience. Here’s an article about that on line:

  37. Jaibe says:

    sorry, I meant “see green when you see red and call it *red*”. I confused myself…

  38. Maggie Jochild says:

    Wow, Jaibe. Great article (first paragraph, anyhow) and great line of thought. Processing…

  39. rob says:

    “fun home” was the featured article on wikipedia’s english home page today !

  40. emaline says:

    bats scare the living beejezus out of me and I grew up in the country where there were tons.
    I’ve been reading your blog for months and I never realized that the pictures linked to youtube. I’m so embarrassed.

  41. Josiah says:

    Yep, Rob — I arranged the Wikipedia featured article to go up on Alison’s birthday. (It’s a little bit early, because Wikipedia is on Universal Coordinated Time [which is basically Greenwich Mean Time under a fancy name], so the day’s already started.)

  42. Wow!
    Josiah, that’s so cool! I just happened to read this right around midnight, so now it actually is my birthday. What do you mean, you “arranged the Wikipedia featured article to go up on Alison’s birthday.” ?? Do you also control the tides? The stock market? I though Wikipedia was a force of nature.

  43. Aunt Soozie says:

    Happy Birthday Alison!

  44. Ginjoint says:

    Wow, all hail Josiah! Are you a Freemason too?

    Happy Birthday, Alison – I hope you have some good, gooey cake.

  45. --MC says:

    Happy b’day Alison!

  46. TMVA says:

    Bats are incredible. And it’s good they are nesting in your umbrella and not somewhere in your house. If they nest in your house, you can get an infestation of bat bugs, which are very similar to bed bugs. A friend of mine had bats in her eaves and got such an infestation. It was a whole production — biologist hired to move bats, carpenter hired to install screens over the eaves to keep bats out, exterminator to get rid of the blood-sucking bat bugs in the bedrooms. Apparently the bugs travel through the wiring and find you as you sleep.

  47. Josiah says:

    No, I’m not a Freemason — but I am a straight, white, rich male with media connections, so I suppose that from a certain point of view I do control the world. 🙁

    Wikipedia isn’t a force of nature — it’s just a bureaucracy. (It pretends not to be, but it is.) I’ve been contributing there for several years, and have been made an administrator (which basically means I clean up after vandals who think it’s clever to write “poop” or “Joey is stupid” in articles). I worked on the “Fun Home” article over the past few months to bring it up to the standards of a featured article (other Wikipedians get to decide whether an article meets those standards or not). And then, once it was made a featured article, I dropped a note asking the guy who determines the front page rota whether he could put “Fun Home” up on September 10. It was a bit more complicated than that, but that’s more or less how I did it.

  48. ocd/twof says:

    Happy Birthday, Alison – will you be having some Maoist Orange Birthday Cake to celebrate?

  49. Chewy says:

    Holy Bat Guano!

  50. little gator says:

    I’d say sniffing out cancer is finding the cancer that is there in the present.

    I recently heard of a service dog who somehow knows when his human has low blood sugar and the human knows from his behavior when to take steps to prevent a diabetic coma. He’s even woken her from a deep sleep when she coudln’t have been aware of the situation.

  51. Aunt Soozie says:

    and I just heard about a service dog that can tell when it’s person is going to have a seizure so the person can take precautions. I love dogs.

  52. kate says:

    or that cat in the nursing home in mass. that predicts within hours that a resident is going to die.

    we all want to be josiah’s friend now! josiah, did you get a pic of ab? i know where you can get one if allison doesn’t donate one.

    maggie jochild–is that near that swimming hole–the one that’s made of granite–i can’t remember the name?

    bats=cute; batbugs=not so cute

  53. PKintheUK says:

    Oh yeah. I read (or at least skimmed) Nagel’s article when I took philosphy of mind as an undergrad. If you like that, you might also like “What Lucy doesn’t know”…but I can’t remember who it’s by. Maybe it’s “What Alice doesn’t know”

  54. Aunt Soozie says:

    I heard about that cat. And I wish riotllama would come make a bat house for my yard. Riotllama…what kind of work were you doing where you were teaching folks to make bat houses?

  55. Josiah says:

    Kate, I’ve been talking to a few folks about photos but so far everyone is balking (understandably) at the ridiculous licensing requirements that Wikipedia insists on these days. (Basically, it’s not good enough to say “Wikipedia can use this picture”; you have to say “anyone can use this for any purpose whatsoever”. It’s all to do with the “free culture” movement, and it’s one of my pet peeves about Wikipedia at the moment — but that’s neither here nor there.)

    Kate, if the source you mention is someone who’d be willing to release the photo either into the public domain or under a free license, contact me at josiahroweATsbcglobalDOTnet. (I spelled it out to avoid spambots.)

  56. Maggie Jochild says:

    Kate, yes, Barton Springs is in South Austin and is in the same general region as the new Ann Richards Bridge (used to be Congress Avenue Bridge) that’s home to the largest urban bat colony in the U.S.

  57. Pam I says:

    On Wiki – sadly I can’t put up a photo of Alison to the Wiki site becasue as Josiah says, they have this weird rule that if I give them a licence to use it for free (which I’d happily do), I have to relinquish all copyright and give it away to everyone. I’m a photographer, I make my living by _selling_ my work – so obviously can’t do this. I guess Wiki ideologues must all have nice cushy non-freelance jobs and/or a big fat inheritance. So here for you, the chosen few, is a pic: Don’t steal it! You can stick it on your own wall, but that’s all. In fact for personal use, I’d send you a high-res file – for free.

  58. kate says:

    oh barton springs–i love to swim there! yeah that ann richards has a bridge named after her–she was the best!

    josiah–the pic in mind is from the same event as pam i’s photo (to quote allison, “jeepers”, that’s a great pic). again, maybe the easiest is to see if ab would donate one of her own (HINT, COUGH, AHEM).

    josiah, i know that’s frustrating. i have to have people sign media releases and once they’ve read it, they always sort of look at me ashen-faced. that’s when i promise them that i won’t actually take their first born, i’ll just take their picture.

  59. liza from pine street art works says:

    Nice picture, Pam.

  60. erin says:

    There is a haunting story by Jess Row called “The Secrets of Bats” (Pushcart Prize, 2002). The protagonist is in Hong Kong to teach English and has a student trying to teach herself to navigate the world through echo and sound.

  61. Maggie Jochild says:

    Pam and Liza, sorry about the wacky Wiki issues regarding yr photos of Alison. Their loss, I say.

    While we’re on it, there’s a great photo of Alison looking at the work of Connie Imboden (amazing photographer) at Liza’s PSAW site, Connie’s work is currently showing there. To see the pic of Alison (by Liza), click on News and Events.

  62. Pam I says:

    Thanks MJ but what’s annoying is it’s really my loss more than Wiki’s. Turning down the chance to get thousands if not millions to see my work and pick up links was not easy. Principles, schminciples.

  63. Josiah says:

    Pam (and Liza), I’m sorry that Wikipedia’s ideological inflexibility on the “free licensing” thing put you in a difficult situation. With your permission, I’d like to present this situation to the Wikipedia community (when I have time, after “Wizard of Oz” opens). They’ve probably run into it before, and I can predict the ideologues’ response (“So she doesn’t want to release her photo? OK, then someone else will.”) But it should be worthwhile to show them the cost of their inflexible policy.

  64. Aunt Soozie says:

    might it be worthwhile to release that one photo for the sake of the exposure? Afterall, how often would you hope to sell that particular photo? and, whatever you would get for it might not equal the opportunity to have lots of people see your name associated with your work. Or is that what you mean by principles? that you wouldn’t release it based on the principle that you are a professional photographer??
    It might be worth considering. Maybe Liza has an opinion since she’s in both the business and art producing worlds.

  65. Pam I says:

    The urgency has passed as AB’s link is no longer front page Pick of the Day at Wiki. Maybe it was a mistake to hang on to copyright despite that chance of exposure – but, but. The Wiki rules are that you not only give them a free licence to use anything, you have to agree that anyone else can thereafter have it for free. This is simply WRONG. And ridiculous. I couldn’t do it. To use a fashionable word – it’s bullying.

    If we lived in a socialist and /or cashless utopia I’d love to give my work away to anyone who asked – presuming that state gave me and everyone else a living. Sometimes I charge people the going rate, then donate back the fee – just so they understand what the cost should be.

    I support the Wiki ideal of an open collectively-written and editable mass resource, free to use. I wouldn’t mind (much) if people downloaded a photo for their own personal use – though I’d prefer they asked first and would also prefer they got a bigger file off me than the low-quality web based image, just because I want my work to be seen at its best. But as I pay my bills by selling my work, I can’t give it away to potential paying clients. That’s financial suicide.

    There are other sites, for example Indymedia, where I post pics for free but retain copyright, no problems.

    This is all against the backdrop of photographers, especially press photographers, having a tough time lately. The day rate has hardly changed in twenty years. Publishers (including the BBC) encourage readers / viewers to send in pics for free and often grab the rights to those pics – read the small print – they can then sell them to third parties and keep 100%. Often the creator’s credit drops off along the way. I would hesitate now to recommend anyone to a career in press photography, it will get more & more difficult to make it work commercially.

    And Wiki does lose – I flipped through 50 random pages, and it’s notable how few pages are illustrated. Maybe the ideologues don’t care, and they certainly seem unbudgeable. Josiah, feel free to quote any of this – with attribution! Sorry y’all for digression. I do still love my job.

    Maybe I could get a tiny camera and fasten it to a bat’s feet, for an unique perspective. But who would own those pics?

  66. Natkat says:

    Happy Birthday Allison.

    A Virgo, eh? Why am I not surprised?

    To Magie Jochild, I’ve been twice to see the bats. I took my daughters to see them one summer and they were enthralled with them. I think it’s amazing that the good people of Austin view the bats as something precious worthy of preserving. Anyone else would have called the exterminator. I love Austin.

    I think the disease you get from bat droppings is histoplasmosis. Most people in the Ohio Valley area test positive for it but don’t have symptoms. I guess if your immune system is strong enough it’s not a problem.

    I don’t think the bat near the window has rabies. He(she?) was attracted by the moths and probably wouldn’t have been near the window otherwise.

  67. Aunt Soozie says:

    Oh. Thanks Pam…now I get it. And as I thought about it… I had been frustrated by the lack of illustrations/photos on Wikipedia…something I had noticed but not really taken note of before this conversation.

  68. Public health vet says:

    I love bats and they play such an important ecological role! But I’m also a public health veterinarian so I just want to comment: bats are a major reservoir for rabies in the U.S., and they are often asymptomatic carriers. That means that you can’t tell if a bat is infected with rabies by looking at it.

    Rabies is essentially 100% fatal (no survivors ever recorded except for the young woman from Fon du Lac, Wisconsin – an amazing story!) once you become symptomatic. It’s also 100% preventable, by getting post-exposure prophylaxis (a series of 12 injections given after you are exposed but before you become symptomatic, and they don’t even go in your stomach anymore). Infection occurs not only through bites, but scratches. So please don’t pick up bats for any reason, and because you may not wake up if a bat bites or scratches you while you’re sleeping, please always, always see a doctor right away if you wake up with a bat in your room. The incubation period from exposure to developing symptoms can be as short as 9 days.

    Finally, it’s actually not true that we try to prevent rabies regardless of cost. There are guidelines in place for when to give post-exposure prophylaxis, as the injection series costs around $2500. Public health veterinarians provide lots of consultation to human physicians on this, since some people become convinced they’ve been infected just because they *saw* a bat by outside house, etc. But it’s true that we err on the side of caution, always – it’s not only 99.999% fatal, but a truly horrible way to die, and 100% preventable through prophylaxis.

    OK, I’m off the public health soapbox! 🙂 And Alison, I love your work and your wildlife videos! Cheers.


  69. Josiah says:

    Public health vet, was the Font du Lac case the one in which the doctor induced a coma in a rabies patient for a month or so, and she was cured when they took her out of the coma? I heard something about that, but never got the details.

    And yeah, Wikipedia shoots itself in the foot with its absolute insistence on “freely licensed” photos, excluding those which are restricted to non-commercial use. It all comes from this ideology of “free culture“, which started with a lot of sensible ideas (shorter copyright terms, stronger moral rights for creators, limiting the ability of corporate entities to profit indefinitely from the creative works of individuals) and has gone into la-la land by promoting a model that doesn’t work for actual creative individuals at all in the current system.

  70. Pam I says:

    Later – reading between, under and on top of the lines in various Wiki blurbs (I should just let it go), Wiki is less concerned with Free Culture and more with covering its back against being sued for breaches of copyright. Maybe I misread it because I should have been in bed already, but there’s a whole bunch of stuff about not exposing Wiki to being sued, for example by not even linking to another site that may be infringing copyright. Fair enough. Simple solution, in my case, I could issue them a licence to use a photo, indefinitely, for free, and the work could be marked as still belonging to me. Watertight guarantee, they can never then be liable in that instance, even if someone downloaded the pic and used it on a poster stretched across the Brooklyn Bridge. Frat boys gone powercrazed, stuff ’em. Move on.

    There’s some fun software in the pipeline that lets you search for photos by the shape of the image itself. This is creeping into cameras with face recognition focusing – I presume the sensor picks out the eyes-nose-mouth shape and targets that. If/when this new package arrives, it will be possible to crawl around the web picking up every use of a particular photo, just as google searches for text strings. Photographers (and cartoonists) will then have a field day getting back what’s been stolen. Bring it on.

    I’m currently “engaged in dialogue” with a local dyke magazine that grabbed some of my Pride pics for a (yukky messy) photo spread. When I went Oi, where did you get these, they said, Oh we just downloaded them off the web, we thought everything on the web was free. Possibly bluffing, but it’s scary if a professional publisher doesn’t know these basic bits of law. Copyright isn’t _that_ complicated.

  71. Public health vet says:

    Yes, that is correct (re induced coma) but the medical therapy was very involved and I don’t know most of the details. The patient has made a near-complete recovery. She was young and in excellent physican condition at the time she was infected, which were very helpful. It is a miraculous story, and does offer some hope for rabies treatment in the future, but there is no inherent implication that a ‘cure’ like this could be repeated. The mainstays of rabies control and prevention remain 1) massive canine vaccination campaigns, like those accomplished in the U.S. (rabies still kills around 55,000 people/year, mainy in Africa and Asia, regions that still have big problems with canine rabies); 2) public education about bats and terrestrial reservoirs like skunks and racooons; 3) vaccination of persons in high-risk professions (like vets!); 4) timely post-exposure prophylaxis for those potentially exposed to rabies; 5) ongoing surveillance of rabies prevalence in wild animal reservoir populations.


  72. Josiah says:

    Oh, there’s definitely a lot of “don’t sue us” going on at Wikipedia, but it gets wrapped in the “Free Culture” blanket pretty thoroughly. And some of the people really do believe that content under copyright (as commonly understood) isn’t completely “free as in free speech” (as opposed to “free as in free beer”). The stated goal is to provide content which anyone can use for any purpose whatsoever. They really do want the content to be usable by anyone who wants to down the road, and the only restriction they want to place on the content is that nobody else can restrict its use either. They call this “copyleft“. Again, nice idea for the culture at large, but problematic on the individual level.

  73. Andrew B says:

    Josiah and especially Pam I, I think you’re underestimating the seriousness of the free culture movement. I don’t fully agree with Wikipedia’s approach to licenses, but they are doing more than wrapping a base fear of lawsuits “in the ‘Free Culture’ blanket”. (I’m not going to try to explain my full views on free culture, which would take a lengthy essay.)

    First, wiki plainly has been influenced by the free software movement. Those who don’t know what that is, check out

    That movement has been around for over twenty years and its supporters have created many genuinely useful tools which they really do distribute under the type of license that wiki wants to use for photos. And the people who started wikipedia are, of course, programmers. I don’t believe that software licensing is a good model for artistic licensing, but they are serious about this. They aren’t just covering their asses.

    Second, wiki’s position formalizes an attitude toward cultural appropriation that has been developing over the last quarter century or so. It has been particularly prominent in the debate over hip hop producers’ use of sampling in assembling their recordings. Similar debates have taken place in other fields, including photography. The February 2007 Harper’s magazine included a discussion of artists who have tried to appropriate Susan Meiselas’s famous image of a Sandinista throwing a Molotov cocktail. The article isn’t online but you can find information about it here:

    The artists want to treat the image as something that is somehow just out there in the atmosphere; Meiselas points out she damn near got killed taking it.

    Again, I don’t support the extreme position wiki takes in this debate, but they are taking a serious position in a real debate.

    Third, the key restriction in the copyleft is a significant restriction. Anyone who redistributes or reuses your work is required to apply the copyleft to the redistribution or reuse. That is not the same as putting your work in the public domain, which would allow anyone to do anything they like with it.

    Finally, changing the subject, I would think Alison Bechdel fans would have to have a somewhat flexible attitude toward appropriation. Fun Home incorporates quite a lot of copyrighted material, including text, maps, and illustrations. Given the use of appropriated material, the nature of the story, and how Alison learned it, the whole book could be taken as a meditation on appropriation (of course among other things).

  74. Maggie Jochild says:

    I’d like to thank all the smart, smart people who have written long, eloquent pieces above about rabies and about how Wiki works. Insiders’ views are fascinating. This is not sarcasm, I’m quite sincere. You’re a treat to read.

  75. Pam I says:

    Free software – I’ve been using it, and Public Domain things, from my first Amstrad PCW in 1986 to Firefox now. I’ve never understood how people can afford to make it for free, given how long it must take to write. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

    Thanks for the Meiselas link, I’ll check in the library. Another notorious piece of appropriation was Alexander Korda’s Che Guevara image, which once it had slipped from his grip, Korda didn’t chase until Smirnoff used it in a vodka ad (Che was not a drinker). He won an out-of-court
    settlement of $50,000. There’s a nice account of the life of the photo here by Trisha Ziff

  76. kate says:

    i’m not sure how clear that it was made above but the saliva of the bat is apparently very contagious–apparently bats have recently invaded a texas college dorm so it’s all over the news.

    here’s a story on the girl that survived:

    but a sad note, a texas boy treated with the same regimen, didn’t live:

  77. Vancouver Sue says:

    Here is a perspective on bats worth noting: “To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human,which is also full of being. Bat-being in the first case,human being in the second case,maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.”
    (Elizabeth Costello – a character in the South African writer J.M. Coetzee’s ‘ Lives of Animals.’)

    also on the subject of bats and people – we both have the foxp2 gene implicated in language and human speech & the echo-location of bats.

    According to George Pollak, a neurobiologist studying Mexican free-tailed bats, bats have a complex language “composing elaborate songs,made up of syllables that merge into phrases and are repeated in particular sequences,with rules and what seems to be some kind of syntax.” ( speaking of bats / U of Texas/ George Pollak)

    your bat film was lovely. & thank you Allison for all your brilliant work. long time fan I am…

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