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The Good Question Hiding In “How Smart is Your Pet?”

The Good Question Hiding In “How Smart is Your Pet?”

smart pet

In my time with DFC, I have worked with lots of intelligent humans: clients, suppliers, colleagues, and friends. What I enjoy most about all these connections is that, when it comes to smarts, everyone has different strengths. Some excel at spatial know-how, others emotional intelligence, still others are wizards of scheduling. It makes for a great mix!
 
Often, after a long day working with among human intelligences, I’ll look into the eyes of my dogs, and wonder “How smart are you?” Over at iai News, Ali Boyle (a philosophy research fellow at the University of Cambridge) grapples with just that question — showing that it’s less about the animals that are its subjects, and more about the humans asking it.
 
One way humans have tried to assess animal intelligence is by correlating it to trainability. I’ve done this with Jill: she excelled at the scent tracking course we put her through a few years ago. While it takes a certain kind of smarts to make the connection that “scent!” equals “treat!”, other kinds of animals don’t train well because they are not interested in that equation. (Like an octopus, that might prefer to steal light bulbs or squirt water at its trainer!)
 
One fascinating question about animal intelligence vs. human is if animals possess “episodic memory” like we do — the ability to recall events from your past, like a trip or a wonderful meal, rather than cold hard facts learned. In short, it allows humans to create a narrative of our lives. If animals are without this ability, so fundamental to human intelligence, can we even conceive of how they might organize the world?
 
“Some think [episodic memory] is intimately connected to both imagination and foresight – the ability to mentally travel into the future and ‘play out’ possible future events. […]

This makes it tempting to think that if animals lack episodic memory, they don’t have ‘selves’ constituted by memories, and they are ‘cognitively frozen in time’. But here we should exercise caution. It may be that simply having episodic memory prejudices our response to this question. The loss of episodic memory would, for most of us, be devastating. But, as it turns out, there are humans who lack episodic memory – and they are not very different from the rest of us. Their deficits are often not discovered until late in life. In fact, to these individuals, it often comes as a complete shock that other people can mentally relive past events. It seems odd to suppose that these individuals lack selves, or are cognitively frozen in time and that this has gone unnoticed.”
 
I’ve started reframing the intelligence question when I look at Samson and Jill. It’s far more interesting to think of the mechanisms by which their minds were formed (as a result of evolution, and sensory inputs unique to their canine bodies), and why they work the way they do. Even though I may not be able to comprehend their experience (and vice versa!) the question does bring us both, as intelligent creatures, closer together.

Porcupine’s Pointy Problem = Surgical Solution?

As a country-dweller, porcupines are second on my list (after fishers) of Not Cool Local Animals, judged by the main criterion of how much they can hurt my dogs (link: to story of Jill vs. Fisher).
 
Porcupines are herbivorous rodents who are native to most of Canada and the western United States. They are each covered in around 30,000 sharp quills (actually modified hairs), which they release as a last-ditch defense when physically attacked by a predator. When we first moved to the DFC ranch, our dogs made the unfortunate decision to go after a porcupine; which, as thoroughly suburban canines, they had never encountered before, and as, well, just canines, they immediately believed they could eat. Let’s just say that the vet bill, which sets a seemingly reasonable rate of a buck per quill removed from your dog’s face, quickly balloons when there are hundreds of quills involved.
 
So, I’ve long thought porcupines’ painful, tenacious quills to be a problem. But researchers are now looking at their physical properties as a naturally derived alternative to surgical staples in humans. Current surgical staples injure tissues themselves when being applied; also, their curved structure can give infection a foothold. But modeling a new innovation on the porcupine quill might change everything. From KQED Science:
 
“North American porcupine quills pack a hidden punch: microscopic, backward-facing barbs.

Covering just the needle-like tip of the quills, the barbs make removing a quill difficult, because they flare out when pulled in the opposite direction. […]
Those barbs are the main attraction to [bioengineer and professor of medicine at Harvard, Jeff] Karp. He and his team ran experiments comparing a barbed quill to a barbless quill. They measured the forces required to insert and remove the quills.

The results show that the barbs are dual-functional.

“They’re reducing the penetration force and increasing the pullout force,” said Karp. “It’s pretty neat.”
 
The research team likens the ease with which a staple, barbed like a porcupine quill, could enter human flesh to slicing a tomato with a serrated knife (yay!). They’re also looking at creating these staples out of biodegradable material — if the staples’ main asset is their barbed stickiness, then I definitely don’t want a doctor to have to dig one out of me.
I always love it when we look to nature for solutions to our human problems. Mother Nature has had several million years to get things right, after all! And though I have always respected porcupines, I now have a new appreciation for them. If only I could get Jill and Samson on board, on both counts…

Procrastination and Human Emotions

procrastination

Procrastination gets a bad rap: as a demon outside of ourselves, sitting on our extremities, preventing us from picking up a pen, or a broom, or a copy of TurboTax, like we know we’re supposed to. It’s that little imp that has had me up making a total of three separate cups of tea while I attempt to compose the very sentence you are currently reading.

But, as I’ve written in this space before, procrastination is actually linked to deeply set survival mechanisms in the human brain. Previous research has pointed to a battle between your limbic system (“fight or flight”) and prefrontal cortex (the slower, more rational future-planner) as the crux of procrastination. But just because procrastination is a natural response to perceived danger doesn’t mean it’s appropriate all the time. (Like when you spend a week trying to pick up the phone to book a dental cleaning.)

The New York Times has a fascinating deep dive into procrastination-as-self-harm, and how, as such, it’s actually more of an emotional regulation issue rather than a productivity issue. Researchers say it prioritizes a quick repair of bad feelings sourced in self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, etc., over the long-term happiness of successfully completing a task.

“But, of course, this only compounds the negative associations we have with the task, and those feelings will still be there whenever we come back to it, along with increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame. […]

But the momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — ‘you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,’ [professor of psychology Dr. Fuchsia] Sirois said. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.”

So how do we shake off the demon? Forget Getting Things Done or Pomodoro or any number of productivity-focused techniques — counter-intuitively, they won’t help procrastination.

We have to address the very unpleasant feelings procrastination is trying to help us avoid. According to the researchers in the NYT profile, that means finding a “Bigger, Better Reward” for our brains than putting things off. This can involve dividing a big task up so we get more frequent “hits” of reward. Or forgiving ourselves for the times we do procrastinate, so we’re not compounding our bad feelings by beating ourselves up. In short, recognizing that we’re human — and that it’s not a bad thing — can help us overcome our most human of protective mechanisms.

Computing without Computers

When we first started out, DFC was primarily in the hardware/software business. Since then, we have moved to include networks, security, and bespoke business solutions. I see DFC’s trajectory as a metaphor for the development of computing at large. Time was, you got the unit first (whether out-of-the-box or DIY) and then futzed around figuring things out and building muscle memory. In short, in the chicken or egg metaphor, the egg of hardware came first, before the chicken of skills.
 
In today’s modern and connected world, having computing skills are taken for granted — but what happens if you’ve never even seen a computer? Ghanaian information and communications technology teacher Richard Appiah Akoto is subverting the binary: successfully teaching his students how to use a computer, without a single computer to practice on.
 
The mother of Mr Akoto’s invention is the fact that public schools in Ghana lack the significant resources of private schools. His enthusiastic Facebook posts about his work went viral last month, and the BBC has produced a video of his teaching in action. In it, he replicates the standard working screen of Microsoft Word with chalk and a ruler on a blackboard, then guides his students step-by-step through its processes by pointing at each function. He also explains how to use a mouse, and a keyboard, by drawing them too. Watch the video here.
 
Mr Akoto is dedicated to making sure his students pass the national ICT exam and compete with students in the future workforce from larger cities, and whose schools have computers. His students, like those in a computer-filled lab, still need some wrangling — but mostly due to lack of context for what they’re learning.
 
“It’s sometimes challenging. You will draw, and expect the student to do the same thing, but you go around to inspect it in their books, and they will be doing a different thing,because they are not familiar with the features.” Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9rtFiZ7unw
 
“Definitely those in Accra [Ghana’s capital] will pass the exam because you cannot compare someone who is in front of a computer, who knows what he is doing with the mouse to someone who has not had a feel of a computer mouse before.”
Link: https://qz.com/africa/1217879/a-ghana-teacher-shows-microsoft-windows-on-a-blackboard-is-a-viral-sensation/

Upon hearing Mr Akoto’s story, Microsoft pledged to send his class one computer, gratis. Several other donors have since stepped up to fill the need for as many desktops as possible. While the donated computers will take his students far, I think Mr. Akoto’s ingenuity is the greater gift — showing kids that limits can be dissolved by outside the box thinking.

Artisan vs. American: Cheese and the Business Context

processed cheese slices

Out in DFC country, we are definitely spoiled when it comes to quality food — especially dairy. In particular, some of our province’s best (in my opinion) cheeses can be found a stone’s throw 
 
This cheesy reality got me thinking about how responsiveness to context is deeply necessary for business success. Artisan cheesemaking makes a lot of sense in a marketplace that values that kind of handmade attention — like in our area, where The Frontenac Arch is literally a UNESCO-designated protected environment, and sustainability is a community concern. But in a world where you could have a gorgeous salty squeaky perfect cheese curd, or a slice of blue so delicately aged you’ll want to put it in a museum, why would you “waste” your time with a floppy square of American cheese or hunk of Velveeta?
 
I didn’t pick the much-maligned Kraft Single or its melty cousin for effect: one of my favourite newsletters outlines the history of processed-cheese, and, friend — It’s all about context. American cheese was actually invented by a Canadian, James R. Kraft. It being 1916, the American military was in search of a cheese-like product that would remain edible after shipping to troops then engaged on the battlefields of World War 1. When the soldiers’ context changed after the end of hostilities, their taste for the orange squares did not, and American cheese entered the civilian palate.
 
The invention of Velveeta was economy-conscious as well:
 
“Emil Frey, the Swiss-born inventor of Velveeta, honed in on another problem that processed cheese could solve — waste. While working for the Monroe Cheese Factory in New York state, he developed a way to melt and combine scraps from imperfect wheels into a new cheese using whey as an emulsifying agent. Et voila, Velveeta. Kraft quickly purchased the brand. As the American appetite for uniform, pre-packaged food grew, the company rolled out innovation after innovation: Pre-sliced cheese in 1950 was followed by individually wrapped Kraft Singles in 1965 and Velveeta Shells and Cheese in 1978.”
 
So the presence of processed-cheese on our shelves is not necessarily a sign of cultural stagnation but of cultural — and business! — adaptation. As an American by birth, I can respect the opinion that a Kraft Single might make the best grilled cheese, or Velveeta the most nostalgic mid-century cheeseball. But as a Canadian by choice… A gooey slice of some local Madawaska wins every time!