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Archive for November, 2009

Yes, the above photo is of the gratuitous, dog-in-a-funny-hat variety, but the linked story is illuminating.  Apparently, parents tired of the never-say-no approach to child-rearing are turning to Cesar Milan’s methods (a/k/a the Dog Whisperer) that have been so effective on dogs.  As one parent says, “When we started watching his shows, we had intended to apply his advice toward our dogs, but we realized a lot of ideas can be used on our kids.”  Parents, get ready to  become the Alpha Dog.

Here’s the link.

November 24th, 2009
3:12 am

I have long appreciated the great Vladimir Nabokov (pictured above) for chief among many virtues his decision to write in English after his arrival in America.   I would gladly read anything written by this man, but recently his son has decided to go forward with the posthumous publication of a novel his father had left unfinished (and apparently wished destroyed).  I am not sure what to think.  After all, Nabokov was known for his particularity about how and when he expressed himself (he conducted all interviews via written questions and responses –nothing ex tempore).  Here is the link to the article in the New York Times and a few of the first paragraphs –what do you think?  Should an author’s wishes for the destruction of his/her material always be obeyed (if Max Brod had followed Kafka’s we wouldn’t have Kafka):

By Michiko Kakutani

Given the shape of Vladimir Nabokov’s own life, it’s hardly surprising that death — and its cousin loss — permeated his fiction like a potent but noxious perfume.

Nabokov’s wealthy, aristocratic family was forced to flee Russia in the wake of the Revolution, and in 1922 his father, a liberal politician, was shot at a rally in Berlin, trying to protect another man from an assassin. The Nazis would later drive Nabokov and his wife and son from Europe to America, where they moved from sublet to sublet, motel to motel. Although he gave up his beloved Russian and reinvented himself as one of the great prose stylists of the English language, an exile’s detachment and nostalgia would always lurk beneath the surface of his playful, glittering prose, and a heightened awareness of mortality would create a powerful undertow in his novels and short stories.

Indeed, death comes to Nabokov characters with astonishing swiftness, variety and heartlessness. He famously dispatched the narrator’s mother in “Lolita” with a two-word parenthesis “(picnic, lightning)” and subjected other creations to death by fire, poison, ski jump, suicide, bus accident, strangulation, gunshot, assorted illnesses and firing squad.

November 21st, 2009
4:23 am

Tuesday Diversions have happy endings.  The story of the puppies pictured above has brought me back to my own pet-store days.  Apparently, these four above and thirteen others successfully thwarted a dog-napping by their loud yapping and uproarious behavior which resulted in the destruction of one parked car.   Here is the link and the story is below:

Police have charged three people over the alleged theft of puppies from a pet store in in Melbourne’s east.

A neighbour rang police when they heard breaking glass and barking coming from the store in Ringwood East.

Sergeant Steve Robinson says police found a teenage boy and girl inside the shop and 17 puppies in a car in a nearby street.

“An additional police unit was patrolling the area looking for dogs that we thought had been released, and located the car with 17 puppies inside and a large mess,” he said.

“It was amazing to look in there before it fogged up.”

“There were an awful lot of dogs in there and they were just roaming around inside, chewing on the seat covers and doing what puppies do.

Sergeant Robinson said the car will be seized, but he will not be driving it.

“We’ll be getting a tow truck,” he said.

Pet shop owner Lyn Watson-Gust said the puppies annihilated the car.

“It’s been a huge night for them, but thankfully they’re back to safety again. The police have done an absolutely fantastic job,” she said.

“A very happy ending for us and the puppies.”

The puppies are reportedly sleeping off their ordeal.

November 18th, 2009
4:15 am

Whenever anyone asks J.F. about what pre-occupation resides at the core of the the novels that feature Yours Truly, he almost always answers (after several awkward moments and false, stammering, starts) something like this: “consciousness is at the center…and the idea of what it would be like to have a treasure trove of wise sentience trapped within a basically uncooperative body in an uncooperative environment.”

Perhaps this explains my own pre-occupation with animal consciousness.  Most recently one of my favorites, Natalie Angier at the Times tackled pig consciousness, the mirror test and various other questions.  The article is here and the first few paragraphs below.  My only response to human observation of a mute species (mute to human ears at least) is that perhaps it is perilous to conclude interior decision-making based on certain actions or uncertain action.  After all, a philosopher pig might be asking quite different questions about himself in the mirror than where the next scrap is hidden.  Enjoy:

We’ve all heard the story of the third Little Pig, who foiled the hyperventilating wolf by building his house out of bricks, rather than with straw or sticks as his brothers had done. Less commonly known is that the pig later improved his home’s safety profile by installing convex security mirrors at key points along the driveway.

Well, why not? In the current issue of Animal Behaviour, researchers present evidence that domestic pigs can quickly learn how mirrors work and will use their understanding of reflected images to scope out their surroundings and find their food. The researchers cannot yet say whether the animals realize that the eyes in the mirror are their own, or whether pigs might rank with apes, dolphins and other species that have passed the famed “mirror self-recognition test” thought to be a marker of self-awareness and advanced intelligence.

To which I say, big squeal. Why should the pigs waste precious mirror time inspecting their teeth or straightening the hairs on their chinny-chin-chins, when they could be using the mirror as a tool to find a far prettier sight, the pig heaven that comes in a bowl?

The finding is just one in a series of recent discoveries from the nascent study of pig cognition. Other researchers have found that pigs are brilliant at remembering where food stores are cached and how big each stash is relative to the rest. They’ve shown that Pig A can almost instantly learn to follow Pig B when the second pig shows signs of knowing where good food is stored, and that Pig B will try to deceive the pursuing pig and throw it off the trail so that Pig B can hog its food in peace.

November 16th, 2009
3:40 am

From time to time, Yours Truly cannot resist the absurd news wire story –it is not as intoxicating as a roll in sidewalk pate, but it has its own delights.  We have no pelicans in New York, but if I were a Chihuahua in pelican country I’d keep one eye peeled on the sky.

LA MARQUE, Texas (AP) — A man blamed a low-flying pelican and a dropped cell phone for his veering his million-dollar sports car off a road and into a salt marsh near Galveston. The accident happened about 3 p.m. Wednesday on the frontage road of Interstate 45 northbound in La Marque, about 35 miles southeast of Houston.

The Lufkin, Texas, man told of driving his luxury, French-built Bugatti Veyron when the bird distracted him, said La Marque police Lt. Greg Gilchrist. The motorist dropped his cell phone, reached to pick it up and veered off the road and into the salt marsh. The car was half-submerged in the brine about 20 feet from the road when police arrived.

Gilchrist said he doesn’t know if the car was salvageable, but in his words, ”Salt water isn’t good for anything.” He says the man, whose identity hasn’t been released, was not injured.

A 2006 Bugatti Veyron was recently offered for sale in Jonesboro, Ark., for $1.25 million.

November 12th, 2009
6:18 pm

I don’t typically pass on “dog-interest” stories, but the story of Sabi seems mythic and valuable (yes, she is a Labrador but this only moderately influenced my decision).  Here are the opening paragraphs of the tale from the UK’s Timesonline.  I trust the reporting is solid (although these days with the media one struggles to believe):

An Australian special forces explosive detection dog has been found after going missing in action in Afghanistan 14 months ago.

Sabi, a four-year-old black Labrador, was returned to the Australian base at Tarin Kowt after she had been found by an American soldier wandering in a remote area of the southern province of Oruzgan last week.

The US soldier, named only as John, knew his Australian counterparts had lost their favourite canine companion during a gun battle involving Australian, US and Afghan special forces fighting against Taleban insurgents in southeastern Afghanistan last September. Nine Australian soldiers, including Sabi’s handler, were wounded during the engagement, and Sabi went missing.

Sabi, who was on her second tour of duty to Afghanistan, was officially declared Mission In Action. It is not known how she survived the past year, presumably eluding the Taleban, until she was discovered by the US soldier, who realised she was not a stray dog because she understood certain commands.

Read the rest here.

November 12th, 2009
4:01 am

Like your typical Labrador retriever, Yours Truly needs his sleep and like his human friends, his dreams are varied, wild and often surprising.  Not too surprising are theories about dreams that attempt to explain the dog “chasing rabbits” or Yours Truly making progress in the mystery of Overton’s death by way of a symbolic dream.  Very surprising are a recent set of theories on dreaming from neurologists suggesting that dreams are our true consciousness and that waking “reality” is the dream reality shaped by the five senses. Other theories suggest that dreaming is always going on inside of us, dog or man, but it is drowned out by waking distractions.

J.F. has spoken to me about the act of writing and has told me of a few Coleridgian moments of his own when flying somewhere north of normal (when does he not?) on a rush of caffeine and sleep deprivation, an almost  dream-like state has enveloped him (this is particularly evident in a few places in the latest, A Dog At Sea, where not to spoil the “fun” Yours Truly also finds himself intoxicated).  Ah, but we’re getting off the scent.  This fascinating article appeared today in the Times.  Here are a few paragraphs below and the link:

By the way, it is also National Shelter Appreciation week!  As you know, we hope to one day be able to say New York is a no-kill shelter zone.  Please consider visiting the humane society here and to read the inspiring tale of Mogley from the Rockies who was rescued moments from death and discovered a “forever home” with humans who kindly let him blog visit his site here.

The dream article:

Yet what if the primary purpose of dreaming isn’t psychological at all?

In a paper published last month in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and longtime sleep researcher at Harvard, argues that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, when most dreaming occurs, is physiological. The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking.

“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson said in an interview. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Drawing on work of his own and others, Dr. Hobson argues that dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but normally suppressed during waking. The idea is a prominent example of how neuroscience is altering assumptions about everyday (or every-night) brain functions.

“Most people who have studied dreams start out with some predetermined psychological ideas and try to make dreaming fit those,” said Dr. Mark Mahowald, a neurologist who is director of the sleep disorders program at Hennepin County Medical Center, in Minneapolis. “What I like about this new paper is that he doesn’t make any assumptions about what dreaming is doing.”

The paper has already stirred controversy and discussion among Freudians, therapists and other researchers, including neuroscientists. Dr. Rodolfo Llinás, a neurologist and physiologist at New York University, called Dr. Hobson’s reasoning impressive but said it was not the only physiological interpretation of dreams.

“I argue that dreaming is not a parallel state but that it is consciousness itself, in the absence of input from the senses,” said Dr. Llinás, who makes the case in the book “I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self” (M.I.T., 2001). Once people are awake, he argued, their brain essentially revises its dream images to match what it sees, hears and feels — the dreams are “corrected” by the senses.

These novel ideas about dreaming are based partly on basic findings about REM sleep. In evolutionary terms, REM appears to be a recent development; it is detectable in humans and other warm-blooded mammals and birds. And studies suggest that REM makes its appearance very early in life — in the third trimester for humans, well before a developing child has experience or imagery to fill out a dream.

November 10th, 2009
3:39 am

The weather gets colder here in Manhattan and I have been burrowing in and stealing moments to read my favorite newspaper online.  Sarah Kershaw at The New York Times did an admirable job on dogs this week. I’ve pasted an excerpt below (the illustration above is by Ross McDonald).  At last, humans are beginning to recognize canine intelligence.  I only hope Yours Truly doesn’t find himself with electrodes hooked up to his cranium by some overly enthusiastic researcher  who thinks he is a good candidate for further testing.  I will play dumb.  Very dumb.  I’ve bolded the last paragraph for your especial attention:

Life as a Labradoodle may sound free and easy, but if you’re Jet, who lives in New Jersey, there is a lot of work to be done.

He is both a seizure alert dog and a psychiatric service dog whose owner has epilepsy, severe anxiety, depression, various phobias and hypoglycemia. Jet has been trained to anticipate seizures, panic attacks and plunging blood sugar and will alert his owner to these things by staring intently at her until she does something about the problem. He will drop a toy in her lap to snap her out of a dissociative state. If she has a seizure, he will position himself so that his body is under her head to cushion a fall.

Jet seems like a genius, but is he really so smart? In fact, is any of it in his brain, or is it mostly in his sniff?

The matter of what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog is a tricky one, and until recently much of the research on canine intelligence has been met with large doses of skepticism. But over the last several years a growing body of evidence, culled from small scientific studies of dogs’ abilities to do things like detect cancer or seizures, solve complex problems (complex for a dog, anyway), and learn language suggests that they may know more than we thought they did.

Their apparent ability to tune in to the needs of psychiatric patients, turning on lights for trauma victims afraid of the dark, reminding their owners to take medication and interrupting behaviors like suicide attempts and self-mutilation, for example, has lately attracted the attention of researchers.

In September, the Army announced that it would spend $300,000 to study the impact of pairing psychiatric service dogs like Jet with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Both the House and Senate have recently passed bills that would finance the training and placement of these dogs with veterans.

Hungarian researchers reported in a study last year that a guide dog for a blind and epileptic person became anxious before its master suffered a seizure and was taught to bark and lick the owner’s face and upper arm when it detected an onset, three to five minutes before the seizure. It is still somewhat mysterious how exactly dogs detect seizures, whether it’s by picking up on behavioral changes or smelling something awry, but several small studies have shown that a powerful sense of smell can detect lung and other types of cancer, as the dogs sniff out odors emitted by the disease.

Beyond these perceptual abilities, in which trainers can use the dogs’ natural instincts, some research has examined dogs’ actual cognitive ability, and found not just good doggie, but smart doggie.

“I believe that so much research has come out lately suggesting that we may have underestimated certain aspects of the mental ability of dogs that even the most hardened cynic has to think twice before rejecting the possibilities,” said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of several books on dogs.

November 7th, 2009
12:36 am

As I write this, Harry has ducked out to buy a large Kit Kat bar at Duane Reade (alas, chocolate does not work with Yours Truly’s canine liver enzymes).  Given Harry’s commitment to his La-Z-Boy recliner, I hope he doesn’t get wind of the following story out of Minnesota.  Pictured above is a La-Z-Boy recliner that can travel at 40 miles per hour, has headlights, a stereo system and a cup holder.  It is not a stretch to imagine my owner taking to the streets of Manhattan in one of these –although he couldn’t get it up and down our multi-floor walkup stairs and if parked at the curb our overzealous traffic police would ticket and tow in a New York minute.

Here’s the story:

The chair, which apparently can go up to 40 miles per hour and even pop wheelies, was confiscated by police in northern Minnesota after its owner was arrested for driving drunk in the vehicle last year.

Dennis LeRoy Anderson, 47, pleaded guilty to the charge last month, admitting to police that he drove the vehicle to a bar and had eight or nine beers before crashing the chair into a parked car on his way home. Apparently, he was, uh, giving a female patron a ride on the chair when he lost control and they were both tossed off the vehicle.

“It did a wheelie and I flipped off the back in the middle of the street—and he fell off—the chair went running into the parked car,” Tammy Verrill told the AP.

Here is a video of the “vehicle” in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yssna75qsEo   The chair is being auctioned on E-Bay by the cash-strapped police department.  Bids have reached $43,000.

November 2nd, 2009
7:50 pm