Monday, 27 July 2015

Dog and other animals

Any dog owner will tell you that dogs are smart. I'm not a dog owner but I had
one as a kid. Back then I wasn't much into noticing clever stuff about animals but I've learned a bit since. Here's an example.

Some years ago Mrs and I were walking on a beach in the summer. There was sand, a few people and waves, it was a nice day. There were dogs, mostly dogs with people but one dog was unaccompanied. This dog spotted us, picked up a handy bit of driftwood and trotted over, dropping the wood in front of us. (The picture is a random internet one, not of this dog).

I was intrigued. We had just been 'adopted' as the dog's stick thrower, and it was the dog's idea. I wondered how far this would go. So I ignored the stick and walked on. Back he came with his stick, dropped it in front of us and did a sort of half bound away looking back as us as if to say 'see? you throw it, I run after it. You can do it, sure you can!'

Okay I threw the stick. Dog ran after it grabbed it, brought it back. But the lesson wasn't finished. I had thrown the stick, and that was pretty good, obviously I could be taught stuff. But I didn't quite get it yet.

A couple more throws and Dog started running in the wrong direction. I was throwing the stick along the beach but he wanted it thrown into the water. So I threw and Dog jumped in the water, jumped over a wave and then ran and got the stick. He looked at me hard to see if I'd got it. I let him work a bit, a couple more wrong throws (I'm a dumb human). But he eventually convinced me to throw it into the water. Yes! That's more like it! He ran after the stick, plunged through a wave and brought it back to me, dropped it at my feet ready for the next go.

There were plenty more throws but I realised Dog had all afternoon for this and we had other plans, so I gave it a good throw and then we made ourselves scarce. I could see him looking for us from the car park, then he went off in search of another 'throw the stick' student.

This is a dog who could communicate with a stranger well enough to teach me exactly what he wanted. There were at least two steps to the lesson and he worked with me until I got it. Not every dog can do this, neither can every human, especially if you take away language. It takes a bit of mime, and encouraging bark and (with me) quite a lot of persistence.

Much later, when we had our cats, I watched for their efforts at communication. One of them lived to 18 so we got to know him pretty well. In his last year or so his legs didn't work very well. It meant there was a lot of picking him up and putting him where he wanted to be, and that meant he had to tell us. I'm still not sure how he did it, but he could do it mostly with a look, helped by our reasonable guesses. He also had something like seven different kinds of meow, but it was mostly a look and it ranged from 'I need to go outside, I need to come inside, need a lap, where's the dirt box, want a drink...no not from the bowl, it needs to be the shower. I really hate it when you sneeze....' This went on all day.

Then there are the sheep. Sheep farmers around here think of sheep as absurdly stupid because they panic when the farmer approaches. Well, how would you feel if a tiger walked into the room and you had no way out? We humans kill and eat sheep and they know it. We are their tigers. Our sheep vary in cleverness. There's Curious I mentioned not long ago who calls out when she wants something. Unlike a cat or a dog she does not want a stick thrown or a cuddle. But she, perhaps dimly, remembers calling to her mother long ago and getting what she wanted, a feed of milk. So she has that pattern to work with, and she uses it to communicate, overcoming her instinct to stay the hell away from the tigers. She is selective, though. She'll call to Mrs and I, but she doesn't want to know any other tigers. She actually prefers Mrs who is smaller and doesn't grab her (once a year) to apply necessary insecticide.

On the whole the sheep know how to be sheep very well. The two paddocks are either side of the house and we walk them through the garden to get from one to the other. They know the way. We've done this badly in the past, confused them and had sheep running in directions we didn't want. But as long as we're clear they work with us just fine. There's a shrub one like to take a mouthful of as she passes but she only takes one bite and moves on, she knows where she's going.

The point of all this, and there is one, is that animals are surely a lot smarter than we often think. Just because they can't talk and don't communicate in the way we do we often overlook how they actually do communicate. Often it is just a matter of watching and listening and getting to know them a bit.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Car phone holder

I fitted this in my car today. It is a car phone holder without the phone (I'm using the phone to take the photo). I looked quite hard to find one I wanted.
It needed to clip onto the dash of my car without needing to cut any holes. Sticking onto the windscreen did not appeal and hooking onto the air vents seems like a way to get a phone too hot. This one came in two parts. There's the bit that holds the phone and the bit that clips to the dash. You get them separately, because not all Galaxy S4 owners drive Renault Meganes, and screw them together. Obvious, eh? That's so often true of clever ideas.

Anyway, it took about 10 minutes to fit. It would take about 2 minutes if I went around again, I was slow because I didn't want to screw it up. But it came with good instructions and it holds the phone firmly, yet allowing it to be swivelled a bit for fine positioning.

The one downside is that it fits the phone exactly. I have a case on my phone and the phone + the case doesn't fit. Not a big deal. The case pops off easily. I'll talk about the case in a moment.

You can see the white and blue square on the holder? That's a tectile. A bundle of them came free with the phone. They are little NFC squares you can program to hold commands for the phone when it passes over it. This one makes sure bluetooth is turned on, switches the mode to hands-free and a couple of other things. It means once in the holder the phone is all set up for the car, S Voice wishes me good morning, I tell S Voice to play some music and, maybe, navigate somewhere and I'm set to go. Sometimes it launches the music without being told, I haven't worked out the pattern on that yet. I'm still impressed S Voice can understand my accent.

Back to the phone case. I like a lanyard on my phone and the S4 doesn't have a loop for one so I got a Targus case, bored a hole in it and attached a lanyard. I also stuck some velcro all over the back. I made a strap for my wrist and put enough velcro on that to stick the phone to. This is so I can manage the shopping trolley in the supermarket as well as the shopping list on the phone as well as reach stuff off the shelves. Mrs tells me (affectionately) that it makes me look ridiculous.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Sheep and weather

The sheep are in our lower paddock. I've labelled them so you can see who is who. We can tell them apart at a glance and sometimes visitors look at us funny when we point them out. Sheep are not all the same.
We only have a little bit of land because we aren't real farmers and our sheep are pets. So we have two paddocks. This one and another about this size. We move the sheep between the two regularly not because they run out of grass but because they get bored.

We also move them because of the weather. Real farmers put their sheep out on the hills (like that one in the background) and let them take care of themselves but they only keep their sheep a few years, probably not more than 6, before they get 'a ride on a truck' and never return. Our youngest (Lambkin) is about 9 and Curious is about 10. The other two are older but we're not sure how much older.

So when the weather turns cold we try and make sure they are in this lower paddock where they can shelter under overhanging trees. The trees on the left are a New Zealand native called totora which keeps rain off very effectively and they huddle under there when the rain is heavy enough for them to notice. That means it is very heavy. Rain doesn't normally bother them.

I've mentioned Curious before. She seems a bit smarter than the others. Last week they were in the other paddock and it was a nice enough day, but Curious was calling out to us. She calls out when she wants us to bring her some apples or she wants to move paddock. There aren't any apples on the trees just now and she knows that, so she wanted to move. Well, the weather forecast said a storm was on its way so we wanted to get them down to the lower paddock. I'm wondering if she knew about the storm. Maybe she was just bored, I can't tell, but they're outside in all weathers, I would not be surprised if they could detect small drops in atmospheric pressure etc, and she's smart enough to connect that with a coming storm. But I can only speculate.

Anyway they seem happy in the lower paddock and, because we got them shorn a couple of weeks ago, they're more active than usual. They have to eat more to keep warm. They do have plenty of grass and I toss prunings over the fence for them as I clip back various bushes and trees over the winter. They really like the leaves and the various minerals in them, such as zinc, do them good.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Cyber bullying legislation

We've just passed a new law here in NZ that is designed to curtail cyber-bullying. It's a tricky area because of the tension between restricting free speech and, for example, ensuring we can take down messages exhorting vulnerable people to kill themselves. It seems people are a lot meaner on-line than in real life, or something.

I have a bit of trouble relating to this. If someone was sending me hate txts I would just block their number. I don't know if their phone company would still charge them for sending the txts but I just wouldn't see them. As far as I can tell pretty much every social medium I use has some equivalent. Ignoring the whole space, for me anyway, would not be a hardship. Still, it would be wrong if the haters won that fight so we need something.

But I wanted to say something about bullying in general, rather than cyber-bullying alone, and I wonder if this ought to have been considered in the legislation. Bullying of any kind is about power. Powerful people exercise control over the less powerful. We all understand this, but it is easy to lose sight of in the murk sometimes.

When the boss makes a lewd comment at the new office girl and she gets upset he says something like 'Can't you take a joke?' and we all know he's being a bully and calling it humour. What if she makes a joke about his appearance (that overhanging gut, perhaps) which might seem to be just as hurtful, just as mean? Is it the same thing?

To say it isn't the same might seem like we're being unfair but I suggest it is different (mean is still mean, I'm not saying either of these comments are good). He's in a position of power, she's not. She simply cannot bully her boss, unless there is something else going on we cannot see like blackmail. So while she is being offensive, she is not being a bully.

The distinction is important. We had a story I found astonishing here a few months back. When I first read it I assumed it was some kind of parody that hadn't quite worked, but it turned out our prime minister repeatedly 'playfully' pulled a waitress' pony tail at a cafe he frequented. This is after she asked him to stop. He suggested the cafe was the kind of place where all kinds of hi-jinx went on and he was part of that and it was all good fun etc.

Now turn this around (we have to imagine our prime minister has a pony tail which he doesn't) and have the waitress pulling the PM's pony tail. Here's the leader of the country surrounded by his goons (we didn't used to do this but now politicians, especially our PM, always have goons) getting his pony tail pulled. Yes, that's kind of funny. Everyone could laugh, call it hi-jinx, no one felt intimidated. But the other way around adds the kind of power difference that turns it into bullying. It's conceivable that the waitress might find it funny, but it is pretty obvious that it could so easily go wrong.

So bullying is about power. If someone makes a mean comment about a politician on twitter it isn't about power. You go into that job with a thick skin or you don't go into the job (or maybe you just stay away from twitter). But part of the story behind this new legislation includes politicians quoting the mean comments (mostly about their appearance) they have to put up with. Mean is mean, but it isn't bullying. Look where the power is.