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Puffins Tool Use Scratches Deeper into Animal Intelligence

Puffins Tool Use Scratches Deeper into Animal Intelligence

puffins picture

Humans are great at a lot of things — but one that we excel at most is being unconsciously biased towards how we see the world!
 
As such, we have created lots of so-called “intelligence” tests, designed to gauge how the non-human animals with whom we share our planet measure up in the smarts department. But, as we’ve explored in this space before, these sorts of tests are often favour human-like behaviour as the gold standard. For example, the classic mirror self-recognition test is a cinch for species that are heavily visual in their information processing — that is, us, and not, say, notoriously nose-smart dogs.
 
But even with that caveat, every once in a while an animal will beat us at our own (heavily rigged) intelligence game. Like the Atlantic puffin recently observed by Annette L. Fayet of Oxford University, who was the second puffin the scientist had observed using our most sacrosanct of intelligence markers, a tool.
 
“This time, the action unfolded in front of a camera: The bird spots a stick and grasps it with a cartoon-bright beak. The bird makes a burbling sound. It turns, as if to face the lens. And then it scratches its chest feathers with the stick’s pointy end.

This was not some nesting behavior gone awry. Puffins collect soft grass for their nests, then hurry into their burrows with beaks full of bedding. The puffin in Iceland dropped the stick after it finished scratching. Hours later, the camera recorded the stick, still discarded, on the ground.”
 
Puffins now join the 1 per cent of species worldwide that have been observed using tools, a group which includes their feathered brethren New Caledonian crows and keas (a New Zealand parrot). And they also join us; showing humans that, not only are our attempts to wall ourselves off from our fellow animals completely arbitrary, but that species-specific necessity breeds species-specific invention. Smart — “for an animal” — really is smart!

Smart Headphones, Safe Head

smart earbud

Happy New Year, and welcome to the future!
 
With the holidays over and done with, I’m sure plenty of folks are showing off what Santa brought them. The especially lucky may have found 2019’s trendy audio accessory, a pair of wireless earbuds, in their stocking.
 
But the proliferation of low-profile earbuds and headphones has some safety experts worried. Between the music pumped into our ears, phone screens hijacking our eyes, and winter hoods blocking our periphery, being a pedestrian in the winter can be fatal.
 
But a team out of the Data Science Institute at Columbia University is hoping to change the frightening statistics, by creating “smart” headphones. With (standard) ’phones in, many folks can no longer hear a honked horn or the whoosh of an approaching vehicle: The proposed headphones would sense those external cues, and then impose a warning sound right overtop of the user’s playlist or podcast of choice, in-ear.
 
“The research and development of the smart headphones is complex: It involves embedding multiple miniature microphones in the headset as well as developing a low-power data pipeline to process all the sounds near to the pedestrian. It must also extract the correct cues that signal impending danger. The pipeline will contain an ultra-low power, custom-integrated circuit that extracts the relevant features from the sounds while using little battery power.

The researchers are also using the most advanced data science techniques to design the smart headset. Machine-learning models on the user’s smartphone will classify hundreds of acoustical cues from city streets and nearby vehicles and warn users when they are in danger. The mechanism will be designed so that people will recognize the alert and respond quickly.”
 
Of course, the crank in me pipes up around now, demanding why we can’t just look up and pay attention to our surroundings to keep ourselves safe. But human beings are not perfect actors — and if we can rely on tech to remind our fallible brains that there’s a baby in the backseat, why not with walking distracted? (Besides, sometimes a driver just doesn’t see you; and in a battle between a 2-tonne chunk of metal and human body, guess who loses.)
Averting tragedy is a net good that has no moralizing value. And, really, walking is so much better with a soundtrack! Why not make tech work for we pedestrians this winter?
 

The We in Y’all: Sleeper Pronoun Key to Inclusive Language

As a Canadian by choice, I freely acknowledge that my current home has a few advantages over the country of my birth, the good old U.S. of A.
 
But there’s one factor where the Land of Liberty has the Great White North beat: its linguistic crucible has led to the only second person plural pronoun our language has seen in hundreds of years. That’s right, I’m talking about “y’all.” 
 
Y’all is a contraction of “you all” that came out of the American South, and as such has been unfairly maligned as a word used by stereotypes: cowboys and the above-linked (Beverly!) hillbillies. But it offers English speakers a handy way to refer to a group of people collectively (instead of the imprecise “you,” which is also singular). And, most importantly, it does so in a gender-neutral way: The most common workaround for lack of the appropriate pronoun is the term “you guys” which is increasingly inappropriate and insensitive to folks who identify as other than cisgender male. But “y’all” faces an uphill battle on several fronts towards widespread linguistic acceptance.
 
“For most […], pronouns fly under the radar. We repeat what we hear in the ‘linguistic ether,’ says [language, literacy and culture professor Christine] Mallinson, without much thought. And because we choose pronouns so automatically, it can be hard to change habits, even with strenuous mental effort, as those now incorporating the singular ‘they’ may have discovered.

For all the same reasons, however, doing the work to adopt new pronoun customs sends a strong message about one’s personal or cultural beliefs, Mallinson explains. So if someone values language that supports equality, but is unwilling to back away from you guys,’ they probably should be able to explain why. This is where this debate can get into sensitive territory.”
 
I think I’d feel like less of an impostor using “y’all” than some others (including the Canadian author of the above article), as I have my Americanness to fall back on. And I kind of like the fact it references being a rough and tough cowpoke — qualities that may be useful in certain meetings! Joking aside, English has a dire need for a word that refers to community, and especially a community that is diverse, and rich in the lived experiences of its members. The good news is, that fascinating word already exists. And the only thing I and all y’all, have to do is use it!

Leisure on Your Work Laptop: Never the Twain Should Meet!

laptop on the cloud

Despite our work-from-anywhere ethos plenty of DFC’s newsletter readers work in regular-style office jobs and have a boss, and a Slack channel, and a kitchenette with a sink that SOMEONE always manages to leave their dirty lunch dishes in. (When I worked in an office, that someone was Nikki. Man, it feels GREAT to finally call her out on it!)
 
So a big wave hello to you who are reading this on your work laptop! And a warning: According to a recent rundown in the Wirecutter, there are all sorts of things that we shouldn’t be doing on our work tech, including our laptop, many of which don’t occur to the average employee.
 
We all know that certain risqué web searches are best confined to your own smartphone. But what about storing a wee completed tax form on your work computer? Or taking ten minutes to side-hustle a vintage clothing sale? Not so much, writes Thorin Klosowski. But how about popping all your personal stuff into G Suite — that has to be safe, right?
 
“[It’s] easy to think of G Suite, which includes services like Gmail, Google Docs, and Sheets, as private productivity software. But the Freedom of the Press Foundation notes several reasons why you shouldn’t use a company-issued Google account to store your private data. Administrative users with G Suite Enterprise can search for specific phrases in an employee’s emails and documents, just like you can in your own account. Employers can set up audits to be notified of suspicious behaviour and create custom scripts for retaining data.
 
For example, an employer could establish a process by which your email drafts are saved even if they’re never sent. If you’ve ever considered drafting a resignation email calling your boss a jerk, do so elsewhere.”
 
This festive season, when so many office rules fly out the window like St. Nick (Bailey’s next to the coffee machine, anyone?), consider Klosowski’s tips a gift to future you. Come January, when the drudge returns, they might be helpful to remember… For your own peace of mind, let alone your boss’s!

It’s a Loud, Loud, Loud, Loud World (with noise)

Out in the boonies, we at the DFC offices rarely encounter unwanted noise. With rare exception, we work to a near-uniform soundtrack of crickets, the soft lowing of cows (link: photo of the neighbours?), and the wind in the leaves of the many maple trees.
 
But it’s hard to deny that the world is getting louder. We’re all used to cars, airplanes, and the occasional restaurant by now. But we’re getting deeper into an era of new technologies, with sound- and hearing-related fallout that is largely uninvestigated.
 
The Atlantic has one such tale, in which an Arizona homeowner named Karthic Thallikar had his sanity nearly destroyed by an annoying low-decibel mystery hum that took over his neighbourhood, and penetrated even his bedroom walls.
 
The culprit? A data centre owned by CyrusOne — that is, a massive building that houses hundreds of corporate servers, which each power up every time a client checks their bank balance online, for example, or looks up vacation destinations. This generates heat, which compounds with the heat from all the other servers, and requires massive cooling units (called “chillers”) mounted on the side of the building. The sound of the chillers drilled into Thallikar’s ears, and they drove him to nearly sell his house.  
 
“Servers, like humans, are happiest at temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the chillers were crucial in keeping the heat-generating machines comfortably cool as they worked. In the fall of 2014, around the time Thallikar started noticing the whine, CyrusOne had had room for 16 chillers. Now it was getting ready to add eight more. […]

The city [had] essentially offered CyrusOne carte blanche to develop an area three times the size of Ellis Island into one of the nation’s largest data-storage complexes: 2 million square feet protected by biometric locks, steel-lined walls, bullet-resistant glass, and dual-action interlocking dry-pipe sprinkler systems. CyrusOne even has two of its own substations humming with enough energy (112 megawatts) to light up every home in Salt Lake City — or, more relevant to the matter at hand, to power several dozen 400- and 500-ton chillers.”
 
After a long fight, Thallikar and his neighbours were ultimately successful in getting CyrusOne to baffle the sound of their chillers with specialized nylon blankets. But Thallikar soon discovered a new whine in the neighbourhood — a different financial data centre, with its own phalanx of chillers. Welcome to the 21st century noise polluter, whose racket is directly tied to the tech in our lives! I say we need regulations against this new breed of invasive noise: We humans who live near these facilities can’t keep engaging in case-by-case struggles forever.

The Reinvention of the Can

toilet aka can

The DFC ranch runs on well water and a septic system, so we put a little more thought into turning on the tap than your average city dweller might. Also, water conservation is a key issue in our neck of the woods — so I was fascinated by a new invention that looks to cut bathroom water usage by half in one of the trickiest places: the toilet bowl.
 
A team out of Penn State has invented a spray coating, based on the science of the pitcher plant. When the rough interior of the carnivorous plant’s flower is saturated by rain, the surface becomes devastatingly slippery, spelling doom for insects that attempt to feed on its tempting nectar. What happens in a toilet bowl boasting this combo coating is, while similar, a bit… less glamorous.
 
“Like the plant, the design uses two separate coatings, which create a combination of roughness and lubrication. When the coating is sprayed on a surface, like a ceramic toilet bowl, it covers the surface in nano-scale polymer “hairs” — 100,000 times thinner than human hair — that permanently attach to the surface. A second spray coats the microscopic hairs with lubrication. In lab tests with synthetic poop, the researchers watched as the waste slid effortlessly off the surface of a toilet bowl, even though poop normally sticks to toilets, requiring large amounts of water to flush it away. The coating also repels bacteria.”
 
A startup will be bringing the now-combined-in-one sprays to market soon. This is great in so many ways: When a toilet doesn’t have to work as hard to flush sticky waste, users can get away with using the “low” setting on dual flush toilets for basically everything! (If you still have a single flusher, you can hack its capacity to reduce the volume of each flush.) Even more importantly, the coating could be a game-changer for waste disposal solutions in areas without much water or infrastructure. (It was initially developed for the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.)

Since the flush toilet, as we know it, was invented by Thomas Crapper (I’m not kidding) in the late 19th century, nothing much has changed in the fundamental operation. But this new coating reduces — or eliminates, pun intended — the need for water, which is an innovation especially suited to our age of conservation. I’m interested to see where it goes!

Wolf or Dog?: A Puppy’s History Frozen in Time

ancient puppy

At DFC, we are, always and forever Team Dog. So much so, that I almost let my enthusiasm run away with me when I first saw news of this fascinating discovery: Swedish researchers are studying the body of a two-month-old puppy, found in the Siberian permafrost and estimated to have died 18,000 years ago. The puppy is so well preserved that it still has its wee perfect baby teeth, a sweet little nose, and soft, fuzzy fur over most of its body.
 
But there’s so much more to the puppy’s preservation than making me coo “Sweet boy!” at my tablet screen for far too long. This puppy is genetically neither a full dog that we would recognize nor a wolf — and may ultimately represent an intermediary stage in the history of domestication that we can finally study up close!
 
“‘We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other,’ David Stanton, a researcher at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, told CNN. ‘The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both — to dogs and wolves.’ […]

The origin of dogs is still not completely clear, hence the importance of the new discovery. The first domesticated dogs emerged in Asia around 14,000 to 16,000 years ago, but genetic evidence suggests the divergence date between dogs and ancient wolves happened at some point between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.”
 
As a dog owner and fan, my heart goes out to the little pup, that met a sad (but evolutionarily necessary) end so long ago and has been encased in ice ever since. But now that it has time-travelled to our era, I’m so excited about its potential gifts to science! I hope we can learn more about this pupper’s canine descendants, and why and how they chose us, through its story.

Tiny House Hate and the Future of Shelter

tiny house

When we moved DFC from the Toronto suburbs to the deep wilderness of the Frontenac Arch, we downsized majorly. At the time, I drew inspiration from philosophies like KonMari (“Sorry, Jill, that chewed up stuffie that used to be shaped like a dolphin no longer sparks joy.”) and minimalism (“Do I really need a kitchen whisk? I could just use three forks!”).

I didn’t go to full extremes, though: While trimmed, our household still boasts all the necessities, including a whisk. And I’m glad — because a backlash against these streamlining trends is a-brewing, and it shows that they could really drive a person mad.

In one such account in Fast Company, Adele Peters writes of life in her “Tiny House”. (The Tiny House movement aims to reduce human consumption, minimize our dependence on private property, and solve the housing crisis by making homes out of structures under 400 square feet.) Peters confesses she’s motivated more by personal economic concerns rather than fears for the fate of the planet: She lives in the Bay Area, where a normal-sized apartment is frankly too expensive for her. But even so, she hates what her tiny house has — pun intended — reduced her to.

“It’s small enough that doing anything — getting the vacuum from a tiny closet or something out of a drawer in the kitchen — often involves a Tetris-like game of moving multiple other things out of the way. Right now, because I have one chair too many, lowering my Murphy bed from the wall means moving the chair, which then blocks something else. […]
My bathroom, a 3-by-6-foot ‘wet room’ with a walk-in shower, is so small that it doesn’t have a sink, and I have to use the nearby kitchen sink to brush my teeth. Though the apartment is fast to clean, it gets messy equally quickly. Invariably, I meet friends elsewhere, since there aren’t enough places to sit. Even as a minimalist who once happily lived with an ex-boyfriend in a space that was only a little larger, I think it’s too small.”

 
Most importantly, tiny house living distracts from other solutions that directly address the systemic nature of housing shortages. Why else should someone see a 240 sq ft shed as their only option in a city where, say, rents are artificially driven up by folks who own condos but don’t live there — *cough* Toronto *cough*?

There has to be an in-between solution: comically small tiny houses and monster manses that are more conspicuous consumption than the home must not be the future of the market. I’m interested in the debate, as the Tiny House develops from trend to bellwether.

Playing at Sustainability — For Keeps

Lego blocks & sustainability

I have fond memories of gifting Lego sets to my children on early birthdays and watching as they excitedly constructed imaginary worlds with wonderful, wacky kid-logic. Today’s Lego sets may follow trends in terms of content, but the basic units — the classic bricks — haven’t changed since 1958, and still allow for grand gestures of creativity!
 
Recently, Lego expanded on its product’s creative recyclability and announced a program called Replay. Replay is a partnership with two non-profits, that will collect previously owned Legos, clean them up, sort them, and donate them to classrooms and kids in need.
 
This is just one facet of Lego’s grand sustainability plan, through which the Danish toy manufacturer hopes to be completely environmentally neutral by 2030. This includes interrogating even the plastics used to make the bricks.
 
“Last year, the company released its first batch of pieces made using more sustainable bio-based plastics. In 2017, it said that its production process was running on 100 per cent renewable energy. (It’s a little more complicated than that. According to [Lego’s VP of environmental responsibility Tim] Brooks, not every facility is entirely renewable, but Lego’s parent company, Kirkbi, has invested in enough renewable energy production elsewhere to offset the outflow.)

From a sustainability standpoint, Lego has found itself reckoning with a kind of identity crisis. The more we learn about plastic, the worse the material seems. Plastic is found just about everywhere on Earth, it’s ridiculously difficult to clean up, and we’ll be dealing with it for generations to come.”
 
While Lego grapples with the reduce part of the classic triptych, it seems to have an excellent handle on reuse and recycle, through Replay. Personally, I’m for anything that not only minimizes the human effect on our environment, but spreads joy and creativity to kids who might not otherwise have access to them. Insert appropriate “building”-related pun here!
 

The Future is Female (and Eye-Strained, and Hunchbacked): How the Typical Office Could Hurt Us

perfect office for male and female

We at DFC strive to make the office of the future a place of work-life balance, where your job can be ported to any location you find comfortable to work from, and there are no soul-destroying commutes or harsh fluorescent lighting to battle! Researchers have recently added fuel to that fire, by sourcing the worst office-related physical complaints from UK workers and distilling them all into a life-sized mannequin. Dubbed “Emma,” the mannequin purports to show what a typical office worker could evolve to in twenty years. And, the future is not bright.
 
“The doll has a permanently bent back caused by sitting for hours in a bad position, varicose veins from poor blood flow, a rotund stomach caused by a sedentary position, dry and red eyes from long hours staring at a computer screen and other health conditions. […]
 
William Higham, behavioural expert and author of the study, said: ‘The report shows that employers and workers really need to act now and address the problem of poor workplace health.

‘Unless we make radical changes to our working lives, such as moving more, addressing our posture at our desks, taking regular walking breaks or considering improving our work station set up, our offices are going to make us very sick.’
 
(It’s worth noting that the study was commissioned by Fellowes, an office solutions company that sells products that it says will help you not turn into Emma.)
 
I do find Emma’s existence a bit fearmonger-y. Besides that, I also wonder if the researchers’ decision to make Emma female was conscious or not. Women are far more likely to be found in office “grunt” positions than men, like those of data entry specialists, administrative assistants, and financial clerks. They also are (STILL!) paid less than men, which means a comparable living standard requires more hours at work. And, when they do head home, women often find themselves responsible for a “second shift” of housework and emotional labour. All of which takes a physical toll much like Emma’s.
 
But Emma’s creators don’t seem to mention her context. Instead, problems like stress eczema and varicose veins are sited on a female body purely for — it seems to me — the shock value of how it negatively affects Emma’s appearance. The issue is complicated, but many studies underscore how female bodied persons are required to manage their appearance in the workplace. That this happens in ways that never even occur to their male co-workers, makes me wonder who was making decisions about Emma.
 
The warning about how are offices are hurting us is universal — but may be more universal for some of us.