Murmurations

I like this word murmuration which is defined as the utterance of low continuous sounds.  You find it used in different ways, such as the murmuration of crowds, the inarticulate murmuration of prayer. But the usage I find most intriguing is the murmuration of starlings.

Common starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common starling Sturnus vulgaris

Those speckled, iridescent-black birds flock in swooping, harmonious groups of thousands of birds called murmurations. I suppose they do this throughout the year, but in Paradelle I tend to notice this behavior in early autumn.

Starlings don’t have a great reputation. These European invaders were introduced to America by a group of well-meaning but ecologically-ignorant Shakespeare enthusiasts in 1880. They decided that all birds mentioned by William Shakespeare should be in North America. Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, Part 1 and so 100 of them were released into New York’s Central Park.

They are now generally considered pests in this country that destroy crops.

But their murmurations that look like swirling clouds that pulsate, twist and get wider and thinner are intriguing to watch. How do the birds do it?

I read online that this can be caused by a threat, such as a raptor nearby, but I have seen them flock while walking in a woods and in my backyard trees without any threats seen. In fact, I learned many years ago that if they were roosting in trees nearby and I clapped loudly they would usually take off. Maybe a loud clap sounds like a gun.

Many scientists who don’t normally pay attention to birds – computer scientists and physicists – became interested in how group behavior spontaneously arises from many individuals at once. Schools of fish are another group behavior studied. The scientists might call this “scale-free correlation” but I call it awesome.

The studies indicate that, surprisingly, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. You probably have seen flocks of geese that seem to have a “leader,” but flocking is actually governed by the collective actions of all of the flock members.

But watching these murmurations, as opposed to the straight-ahead flock of geese flying in formation seems so fluid that it approaches magic.

I don’t want to doubt the science but when one starling changes direction or speed, the idea that each of the other birds responds to the change simultaneously is remarkable. What a communication system! No wonder it is studied. Information moves across the flock very quickly, with nearly no degradation in what I would describe in one of my communication courses as a “high signal-to-noise ratio.” and “scale-free correlation” and “effective perceptive range.” The simple way of saying this is that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

And yet even the researchers admit, that how starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery. Maybe that is a good thing because nature’s beauty in its limitless forms should surprise, shock and inspire us.  synchrony, that seemingly perfect connection between each starling, also reminds us to value our connection to the world around us, for connection can be truly beautiful.

Murmurations remind us that nature’s beauty can take limitless forms, and can shock and inspire us. The synchrony, of the starlings or a school of fish, or bees communicating about food sources, is a reminder about the connections to the world around us that many of us have lost.


I wrote a bit more about the science side of murmurations on yet another blog.

Making, Keeping and Losing Friends

friends girls

This past week, I met for drinks with a friend from elementary school. We were good friends when we were in school together, but he moved when we were 10 years old and we lost touch. Through the connections of the Web (I still think of that www as meaning something different from the Internet), we reconnected. Our meeting was fun and nostalgic. I’m sure there were synapses firing in our brains that night that had not made those connections for a long time. That’s because we had not seen each other for 56 years.

The word “friend” has undergone some redefining in the age of social media. Even though I may have hundreds of Facebook friends, I know that very few of them are what I consider to be friends.

It is totally human to want connections and friendship with people. Setting social media aside, making and keeping friends takes some work.

A segment on NPR’s  Life Kit (a collection of podcasts on making life better) about friends has the interesting three-part title of Accept The Awkwardness: How To Make Friends (And Keep Them).

There is the awkwardness of making a new friend sometimes and accepting that awkwardness can be a problem for someone that limits their opportunities for new friendships. Then there is the actual starting of friendship, and then there is the cultivation of a friendship so that it lasts.

I have many people who I would have classified as friends from school (kindergarten through college) and from my workplaces who I never saw outside of that setting and who I rarely or never see since that setting ended. Are they still friends? I don’t think so.

Facebook once promoted using friend lists and I set up about a dozen using school, work, former students, poetry people, etc. They seem to have fallen from favor and I’m not even sure where to find them in the app anymore.  One default category there was “acquaintance” which I think is a good word to describe a person you know slightly, but who is not a friend.

The NPR podcast had several suggestions. One is “Accept the awkwardness and assume that other people need new friends, too.”  That uncomfortable moment of introducing yourself,  in person or via an email or text or whatever, is a time when you feel somewhat exposed. There is the possibility of rejection, which no time wants.

Another suggestion is the optimistic “Remember that people will like you more than you think they will.” I’m not sure even this late in life that I have arrived at that conclusion about myself.  NPR talked to a researcher who studies the “liking gap,” which says that the little voice in your head telling you that somebody didn’t like you very much is wrong, so don’t listen to it.

They also say that you should “invest in activities that you love” because doing things you’re passionate about will naturally draw people to you, and you’ll naturally connect with other people who share something already.

I mentioned the possibility of rejection earlier and that for me was a major problem for me when it came to dating. I separate making new friends to making connections that I feel would be romantic. But their advice is “to treat friendship as seriously as you would dating.” I don’t think I agree, but since I have been out of the dating game for decades, I can’t really evaluate the 2019 situation.

To maintain a friendship you really do need to be present. You have to turn off the many distractions and really listen and notice things about your friend. I have become a friendship notetaker using my phones’ notes and contacts apps to remember birthdays, anniversaries, children, relatives, jobs other life information to make connections with friends’ lives.


ADDITIONAL: Gillian Sandstrom’s research on the liking gap found that after strangers have conversations, they are liked more than they know. She gives detailed instructions for how to in her scavenger hunt instructions – you can even take part in her research.

Degrees of Separation

Facebook invented a “holiday” called “Friends Day.” If you use Facebook, you probably have seen some auto-generated slideshows in the news feed of random photos a person has uploaded the past year.

It’s also interesting that Facebook’s data crunching found that we are all much closer than the “six degrees of separation” that you have probably heard before. Facebook claims  that each person in the world is separated from every other by “an average of three and a half other people.”

In the old version of  “six degrees,” six refers to the number of links you would have to find in your friends and acquaintances that link you to a stranger.  You would need at most five intermediaries to complete that chain.

Facebook picked today because it is an anniversary for the company, but there is a nice synchronicity that today is also the birthday of the playwright John Guare whose best-known work is Six Degrees of Separation. In that 1991 play, the character Ouisa says: “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that a) extremely comforting that we’re so close and b) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close.”

(I’ll mention here that there is a very good film version of Six Degrees of Separation with a young Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, and Mary Beth Hurt.)

Guare did not invent the theory and the “somewhere” or someone that the character read is usually credited to the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. He wrote a short story in 1929 concerning the shrinking of the planet. Characters in the story play a game of picking a famous stranger and then plot  the line between themselves and those strangers. In the story, no one needed more than five links complete the chain to the stranger.

This is not a scientific study or theory, though since then researchers have tried  to test the results and find some validity to it.

Facebook “friends” are often people you have never met or rarely ever see. By their calculations (and the explanation on their announcement is confusing about the math on those intermediary links) we can interpret this shortening of the degrees of separation in several ways.

Does it show how connected we are via social media to people we really don’t know? Is the world (or the online social one at least) shrinking? Does it mean anything about the real world offline and relationships?

LinkedIn does this same sort of connecting game and it likes to show me that someone is a “1st” level connection or a “3rd” level one. It shows me who and what I have in common with strangers. It tries to predict “people I may know” and might want to connect with online.

But LinkedIn and Facebook make these predictive analyses only using the network’s users. Yes, in Facebook that is 1.59 billion users, but there are about 5.7 billion other people without accounts that it can’t connect me to.

If you have a Facebook account, log in and go to this Facebook blog post. It will automatically do the calculation for your average degree of separation “from everyone.” It tells me that “Ken Ronkowitz’s average degrees of separation from everyone is 3.22.  The average for U.S. users is 3.46. Mark Zuckerberg beat me a bit at 3.17 degrees of separation, but Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) beat both of us at 2.92 degrees of separation.

You may remember when the six degrees game was popularized online with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”  The Oracle of Bacon website let’s you connect Kevin to any other actor.

I haven’t look at that site for a few years, so I tried a connection search yesterday. I thought this would be a tough one: connect Kevin Bacon to Charlie Chaplin. Turns out that Chaplin was in A Countess in Hong Kong with Tippi Hedren and Bacon was in Jayne Mansfield’s Car with Tippi. Wow, only 2 degrees of separation.

I may be connected to everyone by only a small number of “degrees” but those connections seem very weak.