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

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.

Kitchen Technology and the Nature of Work

commercial kitchen made sauces

David & Sons Fine Condiments is at the Royal Winter Fair this week! Cooking vast batches of our sauces in preparation, not to mention filling hundreds of tiny bottles, was only possible through the use of industrial kitchen machinery we have access to at the awesome Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre. Technology is definitely a time and effort saver on the kind of scale our sauces are produced at. But Bustle has an interesting look at technology in the home kitchen, and how gadgets from eggbeaters to raisin seeders to gas stoves have served not to free the (exclusively female) occupant from her drudgery — but ensnare her further, in unimagined ways.
 
“Due to its coinciding with a radical adjustment in the division of labor between the sexes, the arrival of appliances did not necessarily make life any easier for women. This case was made, with scholarship and wit, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her groundbreaking 1983 book More Work for Mother. From around 1860 to 1960, the American household steadily shed its colonial character and became industrialized. That century saw countless new contraptions hit the market, from cheese graters to toaster ovens; electric waffle presses to blenders. But, at the same time, the whole workflow of household cooking changed, and not to the benefit of women. Cowan observed that in the preindustrial rural kitchens of the United States, men and women were forced to collaborate to prepare food. The housewife might stew a simple meal of meat and grains in a kettle, but her husband would have grown the grains, butchered the meat, and constructed the fireplace. He grew corn; she baked cornbread. Children would also have helped out their parents by carrying pails of water. By contrast, the advent of industrially milled flour and cast-iron stoves and running water left women alone in the kitchen, solely responsible for making dinner.

[…] As late as the early 1980s, the author observed that the existence of large numbers of culinary contraptions could make some men feel unburdened of any obligation to help out. ‘In homes where there are garbage disposals, men give up removing the small quantities of garbage that still need to be carried to the curb; and in households where there are dishwashers, men cease providing whatever help with the dishes they had formerly proffered.’”
 
I take for granted my equality in the industrial kitchen, as I work side-by-side with David and other users of the space to get our products just right. But, the personal remains political, and I try not to forget the lived experiences of those women for whom tech is not the path to freedom. There are countless activities on this planet that bring joy to some and pain to others. Relentlessly interrogating the invisible systems that guide our lives — not the newest, shiniest gadget — is the way out!

“Edible” Water Treats Sweeten Dehydration Treatment

water filled jelly drops

As 2019 slowly winds to a close (where has the time gone?!), I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a fascinating invention that its creator hopes will help people with dementia by the end of the year. Pattinson’s Jelly Drops are brightly coloured, deliciously flavoured pods of “edible water” — 90% liquid water in fact, with gelling agents and electrolytes making up the rest. They are made specifically to appeal to the eyes and palates of people with dementia, as well as address a dangerous problem they face: dehydration.
 
Creator Lewis Hornby threw himself into finding a solution when his grandmother Pat, who has Alzheimer’s, was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with severe dehydration. In his research, Hornby discovered that drinking water can be difficult for folks battling dementia: they may not feel thirsty, might have trouble swallowing, or even be on medications that dry them out. In order to improve his grandmother’s quality of life, as well as those of others with similar conditions, he had to think… inside the box. (Candy box, that is.)
 
“For people with dementia, these solid shapes can be much easier to hold and ingest than a regular glass of water. They also take longer for the body to break down, which increases how much the body can absorb. They really are a pretty simple solution to a harrowing problem.

And most importantly, they were a total hit with Lewis’ grandmother. ‘When first offered, grandma ate seven Jelly Drops in 10 minutes,’ Lewis said, ‘the equivalent to a cup full of water, something that would usually take hours and require much more assistance.’
 
Lewis noticed when visiting his grandmother that the dementia patients often struggled to eat if they were just handed a plate of food. But they had a much easier time if they knew they could eat with their hands. For example, when he gave them a box of chocolates, they instinctively knew to pick up the individual chocolates and put them in their mouths.’
 
Hornby’s close relationship with his grandmother (he’s named the drops after her!) not only inspired him but also served as a testing ground for boxes of his drops, as he trialled them extensively with her and her fellow nursing home residents. The Jelly Drops project formed part of his Innovation Design Engineering degree from the Royal College of Art, and now Hornby and his team are working hard to roll the product out to the wider market. (You can keep track of their efforts here.)
 
As the saying goes, “growing old is not for the faint of heart.” Having spent some time in assisted living myself after my dog-inflicted leg injury, I’ve seen first-hand how rough the latter part of our lives can be. So, I’m a giant fan of this invention: it not only promises to empower people with dementia to hydrate and make themselves comfortable but to do so in a delicious and fun way. I look forward to seeing Pattinson’s Jelly Drops (hi, Pat!) on the market soon!

The Sound of Selling: Evolution and e-Commerce

If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably know DFC as your friendly neighbourhood boutique IT and business solutions company. But perceptive readers are also aware that we sell barbecue sauces (developed from David’s legendary from-scratch recipe) too! Our sauce business has taken us all kinds of places; from barbecues to country fairs to the shelves of fabulous local grocers. But no matter how deeply involved we get in our side gig, our first love — technology — always finds a way in!
 
Most recently, I was struck by the powerful little gadget that is the Square credit card reader. This little reader plugs into a smartphone’s headphone jack, and, when paired with the proprietary app, processes in-person debit and credit orders when we’re out in the (sometimes literal) field.
 
I was intrigued by how this 21st Century doodad worked, so I dug a little deeper. Turns out, it’s distantly related to some very 1990s technology: the dial-up modem. When it detects a swiped credit card, the Square converts the information on the magnetic strip (owner, number, expiry, and CVV) to an UNHOLY sound, which it then sends through the headphone jack. This sound is “decoded” by the app back into a recognizable credit card number, and the transaction is completed.
 
“All credit card readers basically function this way, although their noise is much harder to eavesdrop in on compared to the Square reader since they aren’t hooked up to a headphone plug. The screeching of a dial-up modem also functions somewhat similarly, in that they transmit data via noise, then send it over phone lines. The initial noise when your modem attempted to connect is called a ‘handshake’ […] The modem had a little speaker to play the handshake, so that users would know if something went wrong, like a clueless parental figure picking up the phone in the other room when you were halfway through downloading a mislabeled bluegrass cover of ‘Gin and Juice.’”
 
If you’re intrigued, The Outline, quoted above, pointed me towards this handy primer that breaks down the language of a dial-up modem’s “conversation” with a personal computer. I knew that the screeches that greeted my attempts to get online in the last century served this purpose, but I was fascinated to learn such a discreet, speedy, and small bit of modern tech was based on this same principle. Much like natural evolution — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Build on it!

WHOoo has Invented a New Owl Inspired Gadget?

barn owl

As frequent readers of this newsletter know, DFC HQ is located deep in the country. As such, our team has had their workday interrupted by fishers, porcupines, cows, donkeys, and any number of gorgeous local and migrating birds.
 
One bird I’d love to see is the magnificent barn owl, which is regrettably endangered. We’re just barely in its habitat range, and I would die happy if I spotted one! My birding appetite is only whetted by some fascinating tech news just out of Penn State. Researchers there have studied the barn owl’s prodigious sense of hearing and turned around a cool new invention: a circuit that mimics the way a barn owl triangulates the location of its prey. This circuit could revolutionize wayfinding technology — all thanks to the greatest designer of all, Mother Nature.
 
“The ability to use sound to locate relies on the distance between the ears. In barn owls, that distance is quite small, but the brain’s circuitry has adapted to be able to discriminate this small difference. If the owl is facing the sound source, then both ears receive the sound simultaneously. If the sound is off to the right, the right ear registers the sound slightly before the left.

However, locating objects by sound is not that simple. The speed of sound is faster than the owl’s nerves can function so after the owl brain converts the sound to an electrical pulse, the pulse is slowed down. Then the brain’s circuitry uses a lattice of nerves of different lengths with inputs from two ends, to determine which length is where the two signals coincide or arrive at the same time. This provides the direction.”
 
The team has created a complicated proof-of-concept circuit, involving split gate transistors and a time-delay mechanism. This translates the barn owl’s brain into electronic terms, that can be applied anywhere there’s power to run it. Check out the Penn State press release for a fabulously detailed explanation here.
 
Evolution is an incredibly efficient design process, and the creators have acknowledged the time and energy saved by piggy-backing their invention off an already tried-and-true natural blueprint. We owe so much to our natural world — and remixing it may be the sincerest form of flattery!

Looking for Nessie

I’ve long been fascinated by cryptids: It would be so cool to see a Sasquatch sashay across my backyard, pat Jill on the head, and keep going into the trees! Unfortunately, as a scientist, I must temper my enthusiasm with evidence. Which is why I loved digging into this tale of an international team of researchers, who unleashed science on the waters of Loch Ness.

For centuries, humans have been trying to figure out what — if any — large, snakelike mystery animal purportedly lives in Loch Ness. Guesses have ranged from a plesiosaur, to, um, a wooden and plastic head attached to a toy submarine. But scientists have now banded together to test the environmental DNA of the loch. Environmental DNA refers to, in short, the genetic traces of animals that exist in a habitat due to waste excretion, or shed skin, scales, or hair, that can be collected, assembled into a profile, and identified. From Popular Mechanics:

“‘There is a very significant amount of eel DNA,’ lead researcher Neil Gemmell, a geneticist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said in a press release […] After he and his fellow scientists from the U.K., Denmark, the U.S., Australia, and France analyzed around 500 million sequences from 250 water samples, they couldn’t find any traces of shark, catfish, or sturgeon DNA—or, crucially, long-dead, Jurassic-era dinos.

‘We can’t find any evidence of a creature that’s remotely related to that in our environmental-DNA sequence data,’ Gemmell said.”

But they did find DNA pointing to the presence of lots and lots of eels… Potentially GIANT EELS. Which could have been the source for the original myth, if spotted by folks without the biology know-how to correctly identify them. According to the Popular Mechanics report, divers in Loch Ness have surfaced with tales of spotting eels up to 13 feet long since at least the 1930s. I will swallow my disappointment that Nessie is still a myth — because it’s actually cooler that nature has cooked up an amazing real behemoth!

Dance Like a Team of Scientists is Watching: Birds and the Cognition of Boogie

birds dance

At the DFC ranch, we are endlessly fascinated by reports of animal  intelligence — not least because we share our workspace with two remarkably smart canine co-workers (link: pic of Samson and Jill). So when I read news of an unusual kind of intelligence showing up in a representative of a really unusual species, I was just about as thrilled as he seems to be!
 
Snowball the Eleanora Cockatoo has long delighted the viral video viewers by bopping along to human bangers like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Backstreet’s Back”. Tufts neuroscientist Ani Patel, while watching one of these early videos, immediately became interested in where this behaviour came from — was it spontaneous, and what did it mean for our understanding of bird intelligence?
 
In a recent paper in Current Biology, Patel and team recount how they filmed the bird dancing to his favourite songs, then analyzed each frame and categorized the distinct moves Snowball exhibited. They found fourteen of them, with clear favourites being the “Vogue” and the “Headbang with Lifted Foot”. Snowball’s complex choreography pointed the team towards a theory of cognitive flexibility that, in short, might mean birds respond to music and choose dance moves much as humans do.
 
In the paper, Patel and his team list the five traits they believe are required for an animal to be able to spontaneously dance to music: vocal learning; the ability to imitate; a propensity to form long-term social bonds; the ability to learn a complex sequence of movement; and an attentiveness to communicative movements. Humans and parrots share all five. […]

‘If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity,’ said Patel, ‘because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.’”
 
Absent these standard animal motivations, Snowball’s sole drive to dance seems to be… because it’s fun! As a science buff, I’m eager to dig further into what this means for birds and humans. But, as someone who also loves to bust a move, it almost doesn’t matter — like Kevin Bacon, Snowball’s fate is to dance, no matter what the science says.