Songwriting State Of Mind: The Stories Behind Alicia Keys' Hits

September 22, 20166:43 PM ET

There are a few elements that reliably form the basis for an Alicia Keys song: heartache or infatuation, an essential tenderness and emotion made heavy with wisdom, a patiently unfurling melody and, of course, that voice, yearning and ready to break, even as it remains in control. Even though these building blocks have helped her stand apart from pop trends while forging a remarkable career, Keys says the making of a classic song is still a mystery to her.

Fifteen years after the release of her first album; 15 years after her first single, “Fallin'” went to No. 1 on the pop charts and became repertoire for televised singing competitions; 15 years after that first armful of Grammys, Alicia Keys says her songwriting has not become any more scientific. “Every time I write a song, I never know how it happens. And I kinda always wanna be like that,” she tells Jason King in the latest episode of NPR Music’s documentary series Noteworthy. “Some people are very mathematical writers, which is very intriguing. … It’s so opposite from me.”

But, Keys says, “there are ingredients that make it more digestible. And for me, [that’s] mostly a piano and a voice.” Keys was drawn to the piano from an early age, and reaped benefits from the hours of practice she put in while friends were outside playing. “It provided me… focus, the ability to pay attention for a long enough period of time to make progress,” she says. “And the actual knowledge of music, which then unlocked the ability to be able to write my own music and put my own chords and things I heard in my own head to different lyrics I felt. And I never, ever had to wait for anybody to write something for me.”

In the earliest phases of her career, she says, artistic control was the first thing on her mind: “I would go into sessions already prepared with, ‘Here’s different groups of chords: I wrote this, I wrote this, I wrote this, I wrote this, I wrote this,’ because they didn’t believe that I could do all these things, that I could play and that I could produce and that I could actually write. I was like 15 years old, and they were like, ‘I’m sure you have a cute little idea but let’s get to the real music.'”

Since then, she says, she’s learned that “if you try to control things too much, you miss the magic.” Part of that has been a slow embrace of collaboration, though it was hard to let anyone into her writing process. “It’s so vulnerable,” she tells King. “Who wants to just bare their entire fears, insecurities, mistakes in front of people who can look at you and judge you and whatever? That’s super, super scary.”

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Police Reform Is Happening, But It's Hard To Track

A protester demonstrates against the death of Keith Scott in front of police in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday. Brian Blanco/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year old African-American man, by Charlotte police is under investigation, and the circumstances are very much in dispute, but when you listen to protesters, you hear that their frustration isn’t about just this one case.

“I can’t watch another black man getting shot on another Facebook page, another newscast. I can’t keep watching it happen and nobody else doing nothing about it,” says Shahidah Whiteside.

A lot of people feel this sense of frustration, that two years after Ferguson, we’re still seeing videos of questionable police shootings — like the aerial view of the shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa last Friday.

But the truth is you really can’t judge the pace of police reform based on videos or even media attention. You could direct the question to an expert, say David Klinger at the University of Missouri St. Louis. Does he think police have changed how they use deadly force?

“Unfortunately, we don’t know, and the reason we don’t know is we don’t have a sound count of the number of times police officers discharge their firearms,” Klinger says.

After Ferguson, it became apparent that the official government count of the number of people killed by police was low; it was off by about 50 percent. So journalists started counting. The Washington Post counted 990 people shot dead last year, a quarter of them black. This year’s on about the same pace. But Klinger says we need more details about every instance of deadly force, even when no one dies.

“I think there is nothing more important for the government to track than the numbers of times that government agents try to kill people,” Klinger says.

In the absence of decent statistics, you’re left with anecdotal evidence. Michael Nila, founder of a reform-oriented police training company called Blue Courage, says as he travels the country, he’s seeing change in some places.

“Clearly the high-profile agencies … the ones that have experienced challenges and are under scrutiny, they clearly have a deep motivation to do this and to make change,” Nila says.

But there are practical limits to how fast a willingness to reform can translate into concrete change. Nila says there are so many new kinds of training being pushed now — community policing, implicit bias, de-escalation — that some departments are caught in scheduling gridlock, trying to get it all done while still keeping enough cops on the beat. He says people may say it’s been two years since Ferguson, but changing ingrained habits is hard.

“So while two years may seem like an eternity, when these situations are still continuing today, in the life of muscle memory and retraining heart-set and mindset, that’s a blink of an eye,” he says.

And when it comes to the use of deadly force and the complaint that American police are too quick to shoot, Nila says there’s a simple fact here that’s often overlooked: Police today are less hands-on than they used to be. When he was on patrol a generation ago, he says cops were quicker to mix it up.

“We were willing to take a punch, we were willing to even get cut,” he says. “[Even with] the things that have happened to me in a fight on the street, [it] never entered my mind to shoot somebody.”

In the decades since then, the training has shifted toward a more cautious, standoffish approach — more use of commands shouted from a distance, Tasers and finally guns. Nila says the greater emphasis on self-preservation is understandable, but if Americans want police to show more restraint with deadly force, then we need to be honest about the fact that we’re also asking them to take more risks.

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There's A 'Glaring' Gap In The War Against Poverty And Disease

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Katherine Streeter for NPR

It’s almost a year to the day since world leaders committed to meeting 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” by 2030, from wiping out extreme poverty to fighting disease and inequality.

Perhaps they should have added an 18th goal — compiling all the data needed to achieve the other goals.

This data gap has been the talk among advocates for the poor this week as the U.N. General Assembly’s current session got underway. It was at last year’s General Assembly that the 17 goals were set.

The only way to achieve them is to know where we stand now. And it’s surprising how little data is available on the rates of everything from disease to employment in poor countries, says Trevor Mundell, president of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — which is one of NPR’s financial supporters.

“It is amazing — all the data gaps that we have are just vast in the areas where there’s the most pressing need,” says Mundell.

For instance, governments and international organizations and researchers still aren’t collecting basic statistics on a lot of major diseases in Africa.

Take typhoid — it’s a big killer in South Asia. And yet, says Mundell, “there’s a complete absence of solid data around what the dimensions of the problem are in Africa.”

There’s a similar problem with dengue — a very unpleasant virus that’s spread by mosquitoes.

“You will speak to a lot of people who say, ‘Well there’s lots of dengue in Africa.’ Well what’s the data behind that? There’s no data,” says Mundell.

This makes it hard to set priorities for health spending, he adds. “How do you plan for the future if you don’t even know the state of the present?”

And even when the extent of a health challenge is clear, there’s often not enough information on how to solve it. For example over 150 million kids in poor countries have stunted growth, largely due to malnutrition. But the statistics that could tell us which micro-nutrients are crucial mostly come from rich countries where conditions are different.

“So the basic elements of what should a kid eat in order to be healthy — we don’t know those in the countries that we’re working in. We don’t have that data,” says Mundell.

The data gap is especially noticeable when it comes to statistics on girls and women — and ending the inequality they face is a major focus of the global goals.

Emily Courey Pryor heads Data 2X, a nonprofit that recently did a detailed survey of global statistics on girls and women on everything from health and education to political participation.

“We found that there were 28 glaring gender data gaps on these topics when you look across the globe,” she says.

For instance, it’s hard to get solid, comparable numbers across all countries on everything from maternal mortality to how well girls are transitioning from school into jobs to what assets women own.

In some cases — domestic violence against women is a classic example — many countries don’t consider gathering this data a top concern.

Another issue is that much of the data on women that does exist is based on faulty assumptions. For instance when employment statistics are gathered through household surveys the methodology often fails to check if a homemaker is doing unpaid work on, say, her family farm.

“The data is biased from the get go and this is particularly an issue in the realm of economic participation. So women’s work not being fully counted and valued,” says Pryor.

As for the huge pool of data we do have — advocates say much of it is difficult to get hold of because it’s being hoarded by everyone from U.N. agencies to researchers.

Jody Heymann is dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the affiliated World Policy Analysis Center, which is trying to gather much of this data in one place and make it comparable from country to country. Her dream is to inspire app developers to find a way to get it on smartphones.

“It’s exciting because we potentially have the tools now to really hold governments accountable for whether they do what we need them to do,” she says. But not without the data.

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'Transparent' Actor Jeffrey Tambor Says He Found His Dream Role In Maura

Jeffrey Tambor stars as Maura Pfefferman in Amazon’s Transparent. The show’s third season comes out on Friday. Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Prime Video hide caption

toggle caption Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Prime Video

The Amazon series Transparent is about a transgender woman named Maura who for decades was known to her kids as Mort, or Dad. Actor Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura and has just won a second Emmy for his performance. “When those roles come along, you don’t run away,” he tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “It’s a perfect role, you know? I thought I was gonna do Lear, but I’m gonna do Maura.”

Tambor isn’t transgender, and when he accepted his latest Emmy, he told the crowd that more trans actors should be given a chance to play roles like his: “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television,” he said.

On the stage, Tambor looks nervous. “Did you hear my voice quivering?” he asks McEvers. “In the first sentence I said, ‘I’m not gonna say this beautifully.’ And I didn’t know I was going to say it. … I was very surprised when I won, and so I was very nervous about that and I had this list and I actually forgot people — and I forgot my wife — but I wanted to say that.”


Interview Highlights

On the criticism Transparent received for casting a cisgender male in a transgender role

I must tell you that has become [less] and less and less and less because I think [showrunner] Jill Soloway has proved her intention. Everything is done with love. But there is not a day that goes by that I don’t go to the set where I have that tap-tap-tap on my shoulder of: You are fortunate and you have a responsibility and do this right, not for 87 Rotten Tomatoes, not for the review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer … but to do it right for the community because — some people eye roll when I say this — but because lives are at stake. And that’s the truth.

On showrunner Jill Soloway saying that if she had cast Maura today, she wouldn’t necessarily have chosen Tambor, a cisgender male actor

I just think the time has come and I’m glad she said that, yeah. The revolution is here and my kids and their grandkids will not accept this. There are talented people out there. They need a chance. Someone has to write the stories and give them a chance.

On how much he knew about transgender people before he got the role

I grew up in San Francisco [in] a very liberal community, but I must tell you there was a capital “I” on my ignorance. I really had to go to school, and am continuing to go to school — I have the greatest trans consultants, teachers. But the fail safe in this role [that] helps the actor Jeffrey Tambor is that Maura is also learning as she continues.

I did not know that you had to learn makeup. I just thought you went, “Oh, I’m gonna put on some makeup.” … Everything is new to me and I had a big learning curve. But it’s a wonderful learning curve and it’s changed my life. I think it’s made me a better daddy, I think it’s made me a better citizen, it think it’s made me more aware. I get to use more of Jeffrey than I’ve ever had to use and gotten to use in my acting. People say, “Do you get to use more femininity?” I think I have femininity, I have masculinity, but I get to use all of Jeffrey and that’s very powerful. And this is what I always thought when I went down in my little basement in San Francisco, where I grew up, and day dreamed about being an actor: It felt like this. This is what it felt like.

On how he prepared to play Maura

There’s a food store … called Gelson’s and it’s for the — well, it’s for money. And I knew that Maura would go to Gelson’s, so we dressed her up and we put on nice clothes and makeup and I took her shopping. And I remember picking out something and I felt something and I looked over and there was this man looking at me. Now, I don’t know if he recognized me as Jeffrey, I don’t know if he clocked me as an obvious transgender person, but it was not a pretty look. And there was a smirk on the face and that smirk had hatred in it.

And I remember saying, “Don’t ever, ever, ever forget that look.” And I was out by myself preparing for the role before we shot and I was alone. I have a family of four … and I was so lonely and I missed them so much and I was so scared about the role. And I went, “This loneliness, just [multiply] that about a hundred times and you got every waking moment of Maura.” That’s the well you draw from.

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Amid A Business Boom, A Wealth Gap Between Races Leaves Some Struggling

The Skinner-Seney family: J’Nye Sibley, 14 (from left), Wedly Seney, J’Neen Skinner, and Loyalty Seney, 2, toast around the table. J’Neen Skinner says she and her husband are struggling to buy a house. Jesse Costa/WBUR hide caption

toggle caption Jesse Costa/WBUR

Much of the anger and anxiety in the 2016 election are fueled by the sense that economic opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. This week, as part of NPR’s collaborative project with member stations, A Nation Engaged, we’re asking the question: What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?

Boston’s high-tech economy is flourishing and real estate prices are soaring, but a legacy of racial discrimination has worsened a huge wealth divide.

South Boston’s waterfront is the heart of the city’s innovation district, the home to biotech and financial services companies — and proliferating steel and glass office towers and luxury condominiums.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks Boston as the American city best positioned to lead the shift to a digital economy, thanks to this innovation boom.

“So I think it’s a significant moment that says to anyone who’s thinking about where they either want to do their startup, locate their company that Boston is now the place to be,” says Jim Rooney, president of the greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

But J’Neen Skinner and her husband represent another side of this economy. Not long ago, Skinner who is African-American, and her husband, who’s the son of Haitian immigrants, were both unemployed, and counted on food stamps, cash assistance and public housing.

Things are better now. They both have jobs at a nonprofit in Boston — and have their sights set on a key piece of the American dream. “Currently, we’re looking to buy a home and it is quite a struggle across the board,” J’Neen Skinner says.

It’s a struggle because Boston has some of the highest housing prices in the country. And because when times were tough, J’Neen Skinner and her husband relied on credit cards to pay their bills — and fell behind. Skinner also has more $30,000 in student loans, so their credit score is too low to qualify for a mortgage.

“We were both not educated on the importance of having a high credit score,” she says. “So we are diligently working on paying off past-due balances.”

And so that’s a snapshot of Boston’s divided economy: the city’s innovation district, building enormous wealth for some and J’Neen Skinner, struggling to buy a house.

The Millennium Tower looking down Franklin Street in downtown Boston. The city has seen a tech boom and housing prices have also increased over the past few years. Jesse Costa/WBUR hide caption

toggle caption Jesse Costa/WBUR

Ana Patricia Muñoz, an assistant vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, says it’s just one story about the dramatic disparity in wealth.

“And when you get deeper into the data, you really realize that the racial differences and ethnic differences are immense,” she says.

Muñoz is the author of a study called “The Color of Wealth in Boston.” Among the key findings: the city’s white households have a median net worth — the value of their assets minus their debts — of about $250,000. The median net worth of black households: zero.

And almost 80 percent of white families own a home, while just a third of black families do. Muñoz says that means blacks have much less ability than whites to pass wealth on to their children — perpetuating the racial wealth gap.

“It’s really the money that’s passed down from generation to generation,” Muñoz says. “Whites are more likely to get help to buy a house or more likely to get help to pay for education. And so then you see the cumulative consequences reflected in that number.”

By contrast, consider the experience of Setti Warren, who inherited his home in Newton, a wealthy Boston suburb. “I think about my story and how fortunate I’ve been because there’s no way my wife and I would be able to afford to live in that house right now if not for the inter-generational transfer of our home,” he says.

Warren is not just a fortunate homeowner in Newton, he’s the mayor, and he’s African-American. But he’s keenly aware of the racial wealth gap and that too few blacks are in his position. He says his father was a Korean War vet who bought the family home with the help of the GI Bill.

“This idea that if you work hard, you’re able to take care of yourself and you’re able to ensure that your child’s life will better off than yours. That story is something that we’re losing,” Warren says.

The reasons for the wealth gap are many and complicated, including racially discriminatory housing and lending policies of the past. The report from the Boston Fed calls it a public policy challenge requiring immediate attention.

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As a GMO Pillar Wobbles, Biotech Companies Promise New Insect-Killing Genes

Corn rootworm beetle larvae feed on maize root and seed. Nigel Cattlin/Science Source hide caption

toggle caption Nigel Cattlin/Science Source

For all the international furor over genetically modified food, or GMOs, the biotech industry has really only managed to put a few foreign genes into food crops.

The first of these genes — actually, a small family of similar genes — came from a kind of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Those genes make plants poisonous to certain insect pests.

These genes are a pillar of the entire industry. But that pillar is wobbling. Three of the four Bt genes that are supposed to fend off one particularly important pest, the corn rootworm, are showing signs of failure. Corn rootworms have evolved resistance to them.

But the biotech companies say not to worry. More genes are on the way.

This week, a team of scientists from DuPont Pioneer announced in the journal Science that they’d discovered a new rootworm-killing gene.

They found it by searching through the countless bacteria that live in the soil, looking for one that is lethal to the corn rootworm. Many have carried out such searches and failed. The DuPont Pioneer team, however, succeeded.

They first found a protein that killed rootworms, then worked backward to find the bacteria and the gene that produced that insecticidal protein. Then they inserted the gene into corn plants. As they’d hoped, it worked. The genetically modified corn plants killed rootworms.

“This is a very important discovery, because it shows we can find very efficacious proteins from non-Bt sources,” says Tom Greene, a senior research director for DuPont Pioneer.

Meanwhile, Monsanto is working on another new weapon against the rootworm. It relies on a different mechanism, called RNA interference. The modified corn plants produce a type of RNA that poisons rootworms when they eat it.

Despite DuPont Pioneer’s discovery, farmers can’t celebrate quite yet. Greene says this new weapon against the rootworm won’t be available for a decade or so. His company will have to convince regulators that it’s safe for people and for the environment.

Fred Gould, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, says that he hopes that the industry has learned some lessons from the history of the Bt genes. If you overuse a gene like this, it may not work for long.

Years ago, he says, when rootworm-fighting Bt genes were still new, a group of scientists warned the Environmental Protection Agency not to let farmers plant corn containing this gene on all their fields. They predicted that if farmers did so, corn rootworms would evolve resistance to Bt more quickly.

“The majority of the people on that EPA Science Advisory Panel recommended a 50 percent refuge,” Gould says. “That means, 50 percent of the corn [seed] that goes out could have the Bt gene, and 50 percent would not.”

Seed companies, though, persuaded the government to let farmers plant up to 95 percent of their acres with Bt corn. It encouraged farmers to rely on genetic engineering instead of old-fashioned methods of controlling pests, such as crop rotations — planting their fields with a variety of crops, and not just corn.

It only took about a dozen years for Bt-resistant rootworms to appear.

Gould says that if this new gene eventually does go on sale, he’s hoping that regulators manage its use so that it stays effective for longer than the Bt genes have.

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Tulsa Police Officer Will Face Manslaughter Charge In Unarmed Man's Death

Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by police in Tulsa., Okla., on Friday, in a case that has prompted a Justice Department investigation. Tulsa Police hide caption

toggle caption Tulsa Police

Betty Shelby, the Tulsa Police Department officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, is being charged with first-degree manslaughter in the case, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler says.

Kunzweiler announced the charge Thursday afternoon, six days after Crutcher died in a controversial encounter that was captured on video by a police helicopter camera and dashboard cameras.

“A warrant has been issued for her arrest,” and arrangements are being made with Shelby’s attorney for Shelby’s surrender, Kunzweiler said in a brief statement announcing the felony charge.

Here’s how we described the case earlier this week:

“Crutcher, who was black, died next to his SUV that had stopped in the middle of a two-lane road in Tulsa, Okla. Seconds before he was shot, police dashcam and helicopter footage shows, he had walked to his car with his hands held over his head as Officer Betty Shelby walked behind him, her gun raised.

“Shelby, who is white, was one of four police officers who were standing at the rear bumper of Crutcher’s car as he stood next to his vehicle around 7:45 p.m. Friday. She’s also the officer who shot him once, in the upper body — and who then radioed, “Shots fired.” Police say another officer used his Taser on Crutcher at nearly the same time he was shot.”

Tulsa, Okla., police officer Betty Shelby, seen here in an undated official photo, is being charged with first-degree manslaughter in the death of Terence Crutcher. AP hide caption

toggle caption AP

When the Tulsa Police Department released police videos of the moments around Crutcher’s death, Chief Chuck Jordan said the footage was “very disturbing; it’s very difficult to watch.”

As the case drew national interest, Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, told the Tulsa World that the officer, who at 42 is a nearly five-year veteran of the Tulsa police force, believed Crutcher was reaching for something inside his car.

Credit: Tulsa Police Department

Chief Jordan dismissed the idea that Crutcher had a weapon, saying, “I’m going to tell you right here and now: There was no gun on the suspect or in the suspect’s vehicle.”

Noting that he had contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office about the case immediately after the shooting, Jordan added, “We will achieve justice in this case.”

The U.S. Justice Department is carrying out a civil rights investigation into the case.

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Call It The Great Sidewalk: Chinese Officials Under Fire For 'Repairs' To Great Wall

Chinese officials are under fire after a local government tried to repair a section of the Great Wall by apparently just paving it over. Now, a centuries-old stretch of the wall looks more like a gray sidewalk than a global treasure.

“The five-mile stretch of wall in northeast Liaoning province is known as a particularly scenic part of the ‘wild wall,’ ” NPR’s Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing. “Its towers and parapets are partially crumbled by seven centuries of wind and rain.”

Experts urge unified repair standards for Great Wall after botched repair of primitive section https://t.co/BvSGVQDi6I pic.twitter.com/KGTSNh843Z

— People’s Daily,China (@PDChina) September 22, 2016

Anthony says that “local authorities say they had to do something to protect the wall from further erosion, although they admit, it didn’t come out looking very nice.”

Cultural preservation officials involved in the repair efforts defended the job to The New York Times, saying that “the section was in danger of falling down, that the higher authorities approved their plans and that, like emergency dental work, beauty was not their priority.”

Wang Jianhua of China’s bureau of cultural heritage protection says “maintenance of the section, from the design, approval, repair and completion, had followed reasonable and lawful standards,” according to China News Service.

Chinese media say the work was done two years ago — but, as the Times reports, “came to wide attention only on Wednesday, after a local newspaper, The Huashang Morning News, described what had been done in the name of preservation.”

Broken walls of Great Wall simply filled and leveled with mortar,the questionable
maintenance raises concerns https://t.co/zpZv040gpz pic.twitter.com/koEqianR2E

— China News 中国新闻网 (@Echinanews) September 22, 2016

The wall’s puzzling appearance has sparked outrage on social media — as Anthony reports, “many internet users in China say the restoration job is the ugliest they’ve ever seen.” Now, according to the People’s Daily, local authorities have sent experts to the site “for further investigation.”

Experts on the wall are also crying foul. “This was vandalism done in the name of preservation,” Liu Fusheng, who has studied this section of the wall for 15 years, tells the Times. “It’s like a head that’s lost its nose and ears.”

It’s not clear what material was used to cover the wall. Some local media reports say it’s mortar, while others say cement. According to the Times, officials denied using cement and said it was “a mix of lime and sand.”

Local governments across China are having trouble maintaining the Great Wall. “Roughly a third of the wall’s 12,000 miles have already crumbled to dust,” Anthony says, “and local governments are often too strapped for cash to protect what’s left.”

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Can Pigeons Spell? New Study Suggests They Can Recognize Words

One of the pigeons in a study that found the animals could distinguish dozens of words. Damian Scarf hide caption

toggle caption Damian Scarf

Take a look at this video:

YouTube

If a word is spelled correctly, the pigeon has been taught to peck at the word. If it’s spelled incorrectly, the pigeon is supposed to peck at the star. When it gets it right, the machine hands it some food.

A group of researchers from New Zealand were able to train four pigeons to consistently — with 70 percent accuracy — recognize dozens of words. The smartest pigeon learned about 60 words that it could distinguish from about 1,000 non-words.

Their study is published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And it marks the first time that a non-primate has been found to have an orthographical brain. That means a brain that has the ability to recognize letters.

Damian Scarf, a lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand and the study’s lead author, says this kind of study is important because it might give us some insight into our own brain development.

Scarf says that because human brains don’t fossilize, we know very little about the cognitive abilities of our ancestors.

“But if you find something like this with pigeons, you can argue that it must’ve been common to our last common ancestor with pigeons, which is about 300 million years ago,” Scarf said. “So the same flexibility and plasticity of the human brain that lets us pick up on words and the statistics behind them, must’ve been present when we were still joined with pigeons.”

Scarf says his pigeons were not only able to pick up words, but they also began to make assumptions about how those words are put together. They learned common bigrams — two letters that usually go together in the English language (th, he, es, ea) — and when they were presented with a new word, they would guess using that knowledge.

Scarf, who has worked with pigeons for about a decade, says he wasn’t surprised by his findings. He also works with primates and he’s usually more surprised to find things that are different about the two.

He says that his findings probably mean that if scientists tested more animals, we’d find that most of the ones with good vision could probably learn to recognize words.

“That’s what I like the most about this type of research,” he says. “It proves that it’s really not necessarily true that humans have different abilities. It’s basically that we have maybe the same ones but we’re much better at them.”

If you’re wondering about the methodology, this video of B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, shows you how something like this could work:

YouTube

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Syrian President Bashar Assad Says U.S. 'Not Genuine' About Cease-Fire

Syrian President Bashar Assad at the presidential palace in Damascus. AP hide caption

toggle caption AP

In an interview with The Associated Press, Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed the U.S. for the collapse of a fragile cease-fire earlier this week and denied carrying out well-documented human rights abuses, such as besieging civilians or using chemical weapons against them.

“I believe that the United States is not genuine regarding having a cessation of violence in Syria,” Assad told the wire service. The Syrian government announced Monday that it was unilaterally ending the cease-fire, as we reported. Assad also suggested that the U.S., which leads a coalition against ISIS that has been conducting operations in Syria for two years, “doesn’t have the will” to work against ISIS and other extremist groups.

The Syrian leader “cut a confident figure during the interview — a sign of how his rule, which once seemed threatened by the rebellion, has been solidified by his forces’ military advances and by the air campaign of his ally Russia, which turned the tables on the battlefield last year,” the wire service reports.

The Syrian war has entered its sixth year, and the latest U.S.-Russia brokered cessation of hostilities collapsed earlier this week.

During the week-long truce, there was a lull in violence rather than a halt. And the atmosphere of mistrust only increased after the U.S.-led coalition hit Syrian troops on Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “terrible accident.”

Assad said the aerial bombardment wasn’t in error, claiming that it involved four planes and lasted more than an hour. “You don’t commit a mistake for more than one hour,” he said. A Central Command official told The New York Times that Russia notified the U.S. military that they were hitting Syrian troops 20 minutes after the bombardment began.

On Monday, a U.N.-coordinated aid convoy heading to besieged areas in Aleppo was attacked, killing approximately 20 civilians, according to the Red Cross.

U.S. officials blamed the deaths on airstrikes from Syria and their Russian allies — allegations that Assad denied during this interview. “Those convoys were in the area of the militants, the area under the control of the terrorists,” he said. “We don’t have any idea about what happened.”

The rebels fighting against Assad’s government do not have an air force, and Assad said there were “no airstrikes against that convoy.” However, as NPR’s Alison Meuse reported, an eyewitness said that “the attack consisted of helicopters and warplanes.” She added that many reports from Aleppo that night said there was “heavy bombardment by Syrian warplanes and their Russian allies.”

During the course of the AP interview, Assad also repeatedly denied assertions that his government’s troops have carried out a broad range of human rights abuses and criminal actions, insisting that such actions would defy logic. “We don’t kill civilians, because we don’t have the moral incentive, we don’t have the interest to kill civilians,” he said.

In April, the U.N. special envoy for Syria estimated that 400,000 people have died in the Syrian war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-leaning monitoring group, put the number at 300,000 confirmed deaths, one-third of which are civilians, as NPR’s Alice Fordham reported.

She added that “another monitor found that in one six-month period at the beginning of 2015, the regime killed nearly 8,000 civilians.” Here’s more from Alice:

“Another report by a human rights group found Assad’s Russian allies killed about 2,700 civilians in the first eight months of their air support for him.

“Throughout the five years of Syria’s civil war, doctors, activists, commanders and civilians have described civilian fatalities as a result of regime attacks to NPR reporters on a daily basis.”

Assad denied using chlorine gas and barrel bombs against civilians. “A recent joint investigation by the U.N. and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found at least two occasions when government forces used weaponized chlorine,” as Alice reported.

At one point during the AP interview, Assad denied restricting access for aid convoys to besieged cities. Speaking about Aleppo, where rebel-held areas have been intermittently under siege for months, he said, “If there’s really a siege around the city of Aleppo, people would be dead by now.”

He also claimed that his forces “don’t attack any hospital,” saying that such actions would be “against our interests.” However, as The Guardian has reported, aid organizations “are refusing to share GPS coordinates with Russian and Syrian authorities because of repeated attacks on medical facilities and workers.” Last month, Doctors Without Borders said warplanes destroyed a busy hospital in Idlib governorate, “killing 13 people and depriving 70,000 of essential medical care.”

Speaking about the nearly five million refugees who have fled the violence in Syria, Assad called them a “great loss.” He told the AP that “I’m sure that the majority of those Syrians who left Syria, they will go back when the security and when the life goes back to its normality and the minimal requirements for livelihood will be affordable to them, they will go back. I am not worried about this.”

However, Alice said many of the Syrian refugees she interviewed told her they are too afraid of Assad’s security forces to return home, even if there is peace in Syria.

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