Tangents

This page contains a pushdown list of curiosities, miscellany, recommendations, and generally fun stuff. It's not quite a blog (no RSS feed, sorry) but I try to keep it updated with whatever has caught my eye recently.

  • In the The Center For Fiction's online literary magazine, The Literarian, a short essay about Kipling. (11/13/2011)
  • Shades of Eadward Muybridge: check out this slo-mo video of dogs tracking, leaping, snapping up, swallowing and licking their chops over a treat. All in all, a fascinating motion study. My favorite image occurs at 0:50. And yes, it's a commercial, but the kind that offers a worthy experience in exchange for a moment of our attention. Created by the advertising firm TWBA/Toronto using a Phantom high-speed video camera -- the same device that was used to capture the slow motion explosion sequences early in the The Hurt Locker. Apparently the concept here was inspired by a Pleix video from 2006. (3/18/2010)
  • Recently posted on the Book Bench blog of the New Yorker was a version of this 2007 YouTube video, showing of a pair of foxes playing with an Akita. According to the original poster of the video (drjoeri) the location is "somewhere in the north of France, near the sources of the Meuse (Maas)." The foxes were apparently rescued kits and semidomesticated. In a comment, drjoeri says, "The little foxes were found i the field, and more or less adopted by my brother who lives there. They survived with eggs and minced meat. The male was shortly after shot by a hunter. Hunters in France are ferocious and shoot everything thjat moves. The little girl - Yashi - made her hole in the garden and still lives there." (1/18/2010).
  • I keep banging the Patricia McConnell drum here, but come on — she's really good. Check out her blog post about Comparative Canid Behavior, inspired by a recent expedition to Africa to observe African Wild Dogs. She says she could go on about the subject. I wish she would. We live so close to our dogs, and have for so long, that it's difficult to understand their behavior unless we consider what it almost is but is not. That's what she's doing here, in capsule form, and it's wonderful. I loved the BBC documentary series Planet Earth; someone needs to make an equally lengthy and high-quality Planet Dog, and McConnell gets my vote. Because, honestly, has there ever been a satisfying documentary film about dogs? If so, I haven't seen it. (9/29/2009)
  • 100% totally agree with: The Ethicist considers wolf hunts. (And see Cohen's followup blog post, in which he summarizes and responds to some of the commentary it inspired, here.) For a broader consideration of the human-wolf relationship, check out Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men, originally published in 1979, and happily, still available at finer bookstores near you. It was one of the first books I read when I began researching Edgar Sawtelle. In fiction, read (of course) Jack London's The Call of the Wild, and the brilliant opening section of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. (9/8/2009)
  • If you have read the Further Reading page, you know I'm a big fan of animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell. Check out this post on her blog concerning Cesar Milan — I'm mainly interested in the discussion of his training methods — and the long chain of comments it inspired. I'd love to hear a discussion between Cesar and Patricia. And by the way, the Malcolm Gladwell essay McConnell references is available here, and was reprinted in Best American Essays of 2007. (6/25/2009)
  • One training detail in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle that often confuses readers is the notion of "shared gaze" exercises. These are meant to suggest that the Sawtelle dogs practice looking where their human companion is looking, not into their companion's eyes. (The fault is my own, of course: I should dramatized the exercise more clearly.) In the scientific literature this is often referred to as "gaze following," and it has long been believed that such behavior was unique to human beings — in fact, exhibited very early in life by human infants. A new study out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany tested, and tends to confirm, this hypothesis by noting the differences in how chimapanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and human infants reacted to the head or eye movement of a human experimenter. The authors of the study use the phrase "cooperative eye hypothesis" (Wikipedia entry here) to capture the possible reasons why such behavior is advantageous. Take a few minutes to try this with your dog. It's very difficult behavior to elicit. (5/5/2009)
  • The TED videos are a trove of fascinating material, and I've posted links to them before on this page. The latest to pique my interest is a talk by Dr. Stuart Brown, who specializes in studying play and the role of play in human and animal development. About two minutes into this talk, Dr. Brown describes an encounter between a male polar bear and a Husky, one that started out as, apparently, predation, but was diverted into play by the dogs. (The event was captured by wildlife photographer Norbert Rosing.) Brown claims that the polar bear's stereotyped predation sequence was interrupted by, of all things, play solicitation. I was reminded of the chapter on "Behavioral Conformation" in Coppinger and Coppinger's book Dogs, in which they propose that what we call "hunting" is more accurately described as a "motor pattern" that often must be executed from start to finish; they give examples of animals like cheetahs that cannot complete the hunting pattern unless their prey is fleeing. They go so far as to say that the motor sequence is so automatic that, "it just might be that most animals don't 'know' that hunting leads to eating" (a claim I found very hard to, er, swallow.) In any case, Dr. Brown's talk is interesting on several levels. Another site that features a few more of Rosing's polar bear/Husky images can be found here; see also snopes.com for their analysis of whether the pictures are legit and whether Dr. Brown's interpretation of events is correct. (5/4/2009)
  • More bird fun: check out this YouTube video of Snowball, the Cockatoo, dancing to his his favorite song, then read the Avian Dancing entry in this year’s New York Times “Year in Ideas”. It's been an interesting year for people interested in bird cognition. Recently, Irene Pepperberg published "Alex and Me", her memoir of working with Alex, the African Grey parrot. Plus, Joshua Klein's experiment in teaching crows to fetch, mentioned below, was also featured in the "Year in Ideas".

    Also mentioned in the same issue of the New York Times is Rebecca Carroll's article on the National Geographic web site about whether dogs can feel envy. The research was conducted by Frederike Range at the University of Vienna, Austria; see also this video from another study of Range's, this one demonstrating that dogs can discriminate between images of a landscape and another dog by nosing a touch screen. The video is brief but a lot of fun to watch. It's interesting in part just to see how quickly the subject dog makes its decisions. (12/14/2008)
  • Another TED talk I've enjoyed features Spencer Wells discussing how the study of population genetics can tell the story of human development. I particularly liked his discussion of planetary climate 60,000 - 70,000 years ago, at a time when a sudden, dramatic change in human culture occurred. Jared Diamond considers that time period at length in his book The Third Chimpanzee, labeling it, "The Great Leap Forward."

    The same sort of DNA analysis shown here has been done on canines (you can see a brief sample in Csanyi's book, and read an interesting critique of the technology of mDNA analysis in the Coppingers' book, both as mentioned on the Further Reading page) and the result can and has been expressed with the same sort of migration map that Wells shows. What I wish for, but have never seen or even heard of, is an overlay of the two maps, synchronized in time. Perhaps there isn't enough data to do that, or perhaps no one has yet bothered, but what a fascinating little movie that would make. (9/7/2008)
  • If you've looked at the Further Reading page, or attended one of my bookstore readings, you know that I'm a big fan of Dr. Patricia McConnell, whose books, The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog, are great examples of well-grounded behavioral science applied to dog training. There's a wonderful interview with McConnell available on the web, where you'll hear her discussing some of the common problems dog owners face and how she handles them. As usual, along the way she provides numerous asides and anecdotes related to dog behavior. (7/28/2008)
  • NYT Mag CoverThis week's New York Times Sunday Magazine features a cover story by James Vlahos entitled "Animal Pharm" which examines the trend toward applying "lifestyle drugs" to behavioral problems in pets. It's one of those pieces that gets better the further you read, an anecdote-sandwich with all the meat in the middle. Some of that meat includes a nice précis of canine evolution, a virtual debate on the existence of emotions in animals, and a reference to Thomas Nagel's seminal essay on animal consciousness, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?". The animal-consciousness argument embodied in the article is nicely captured by this single question: "If the strict Cartesian view were true -- that animals are essentially flesh-and-blood automatons, lacking anything resembling human emotion, memory and consciousness -- then why do animals develop mental illnesses that eerily resemble human ones and that respond to the same medications?" But the larger point concerns when the use of such drugs is an inappropriate substitute for training and when it is an effective adjunct. (7/14/2008)
  • After reading this post on the New York Times Paper Cuts blog, I had to know what sort of word cloud Wordle would make of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. In my software life, I've written a lot of code that performs statistical analyses of text -- clearly part of what Wordle does in order to decide how to size the words. Here's a sample of the results. I just might make a t-shirt of one myself. Click a thumbnail to see a full-resolution PDF version. (7/5/2008)

    Edgar Sawtelle Wordle Result 
  • Joshua Klein discusses how to train a crow to fetch spare change. This is interesting in and of itself—particularly the moment when the crow bends the wire into a hook—but it also reminds me of the argument, put forth in Ray and Lorna Coppinger's book Dogs, of how wolves, with their innately twitchy retreat from human approach, somehow managed to evolve into an animal whose natural habitat is the human sphere. The Coppingers' explanation is that prehistoric human garbage dumps functioned much the way this peanut vending machine worked; over generations, wolves with less and less fear response gradually thrived (and, I'd add, people with less and less wolf-fear must have thrived as well.) (5/15/2008)
  • Here's an interesting story about canine cognition research, this one published in Spiegel Online. I'm late in finding this (published August 2007) but it is entirely worth reading. It's a flyby summary of research conducted by researchers Friederike Range and Julianne Kaminski at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. For example, they tested dogs on a variety of recognition tasks using touch screens (nose-touch screens, in the case of the dogs) as well as a number of gaze-following experiments, at which dogs handily beat primates. Make sure to follow the links to Part 2 of the article, with its description of how dogs learn from one another through "selective imitation" — by watching other dogs and inferring from their behavior, without being trained directly. (5/7/2008)
  • Gil Adamson has written a truly gorgeous novel entitled The Outlander, from Ecco Press, the publisher of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Set at the turn of the (last) century, it tells the story of Mary Boulton, a self-made widow who finds herself fleeing through the Canadian wilderness. It's a great read—a masterful combination of story and prose style. Without verging into spoiler territory, I can tell you there is a moment in this book that had me, figuratively, standing up in astonishment. I love when that happens! The other day, Gil and I were jointly interviewed by Dave Weich of Powell's Books; look for the result to appear on their web site soon. (4/23/2008)
  • Check out Martha Sherrill's book Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first biography of a dog breeder ever written, and the story Sherrill has to tell—about Morie Sawataishi, his wife and family, and the dogs he helped rescue from oblivion—is both beautifully rendered and riveting. There's a dog in common between this book and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle; read both and you'll see the connection. (4/3/2008)
  • Rico in National GeographicIf you've read the March issue of National Geographic, mentioned below, you'll wish you could see Rico the Border Collie in action. Check out this video of him fetching both toys with known names (a blue dinosaur and a red doll) as well as an unnamed object, the white bunny, which has been given a novel name. Look near the bottom of the page for an explanation of the commands (in German) being used and the video link. This is the "fast mapping" behavior that Fischer and her colleagues claim Rico demonstrated—the same sort of near-instant word acquisition that children display. (3/16/2008)
  • Read Virginia Morrell's article "Minds of Their Own," surveying the results of research into animal cognition in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. (Thanks to Sybil Steinberg, 2/23/2008)
  • Watch this video of a dog childproofing a bathroom cabinet drawer the old fashioned way. And by the way, teaching your dog to nose drawers closed is easy and fun. (Thanks to Dave Jenkins, 2/19/2008)
  • Check out the IMDB entry on the forthcoming film "Hachiko: A Dog's Story", directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen. And visit the Further Reading page for more on Hachiko. (2/13/2008)
  • Watch Carolyn Scott and her dog Rookie do their amazing freestyle dance routine on YouTube. Is this dog having fun or what? Carolyn and Rookie are also discussed in Chapter 14 of Stanley Coren's book How Dogs Think. (2/12/2008)