Archive | February, 2013

Dogs, and the Nature of Problem Solving

mazeWorldCesar Millan, Nat Geo’s “Dog Whisperer”, contends that dogs don’t think. They react. I regard my Australian Cattle Dog, Fafnir, as a prime example. She is sweet as honey, this dog, and the most cooperative creature who has ever lived with me, but she has the brains of a pillow.

However, she is wise. Sometimes beyond measure.  Here is a simple example:

I sleep on my back. Our cat, Divan, sleeps (especially in winter) on my crotch, that being the warmest place in the house. Unlike most cats who sleep on the brink of total wakefulness, Divan sleeps like a rock, and has to be crowbarred awake. Often this doesn’t matter, but first thing in the morning it can be a nuisance.

One such morning last fall, I really, really had to go. The cat was especially intractable. Fafnir leapt up beside me, drove her snout under the cat’s ass and flung her halfway across the room. I was deeply impressed. The dog had never shown any aptitude for leverage before, and was an indifferent student of ballistics, but she sure knew how to put it all to work when it was needed,

Now this bulletin has been brought to my attention. The blurb below refers to the Russian Parliament, not dogs. But legislative bodies have far too many similarities with dog packs to go into here.

“Recently, MPs have often surprised us [with] solutions [to problems, in which it is] difficult to find logic. But is intelligence necessary to make decisions? Studies show that complex decisions are often made without any participation of consciousness [whatever].”

We don’t get enough insight into how other societies malfunction. This deficit leaves us self-conscious, too focused on our own perversities and corruptions to fully appreciate the miracle of life spread before us. I thought, “Here’s a chance to rebalance ourselves, and perhaps gain a bit of perspective on the whole opera.”

Could this one article reveal mysteries, unlock the Significant Difference that has divided East from West since homo Sapiens first walked out of Africa? Well? Could it?

Alas, the article deals with science. It’s about two studies, one Russian, one American, of how decisions are made. But even here, perhaps, we can get some insights into national character.

The problems were grouped as Easy (which washcloth for the pictured bathroom decor?), Moderate (which hotel to book for a 3-day visit?), and Complex (which car to buy?). The participants were divided into three groups, too. One group studied each problem, whatever its difficulty, for five minutes before presenting solutions. Another group had to announce their decisions immediately. The last group had to spend five minutes working on puzzles and letting their unconscious minds make the decisions.  Overall, the straight thinkers did best on the easy stuff, but the puzzle-players, using their unconscious minds, cleaned up on the tough questions and had the overall best score.

The Russians published their work.

Reading the article, some American researchers had issues with the “five minutes” business. What if the decision only took six seconds to work out? Would the problem get “overthought” – the right choice being replaced by one that began to look better? Or what if it took thirteen minutes to work out correctly? The Americans repeated the experiments, allowing the participants the time they needed until they were satisfied they’d made the right choice.

I can’t imagine American researchers operating on the premise that a standard period of time for considering a problem was ‘normal’. Similarly, I was startled by the brilliance of giving the participants puzzles to distract them while their unconscious minds worked it out.

Also, I wonder, if the Russian test was conducted in, say, North Carolina, and the American test in St Petersburg, how would the results differ?

I understand the World Health Organization has given a grant to the Royal Zoo. Gorillas with typewriters are developing culturally and species unbiased IQ tests. I wish them all the luck, but I still won’t administer one to Fafnir. I don’t want her to develop an ego. Personally, I’ll continue to decide most problems as I’ve always done: flip a coin, then do what I want.

The article is, unfortunately. in Russian, which I unfortunately don’t speak. Fortunately, though, it is online and Google Translate will give you a fighting chance at deciphering it, should you choose to.



Gun Control

There’s a Famous Statistic these days concerning Guns and  School Shootings.

Between the massacre at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999, and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012, there had been 31 shootings in schools. Since then, there have been I think three more, indicating a rise in frequency. But I digress. I’m not all that into statistics, anyway. You may review the list here:

If you do, you will note that a few of these shootings were gang related. Some others were committed by deranged husbands killing their wives as they attended community college, and some others by disgruntled school employees.

All the rest of the list, all of it, consists of what happened when children brought their parent’s loaded guns to school.

The NRA has recommended armed guards be placed in schools. Their concern – their only concern – is that the government will disarm us ordinary citizens, and thereby make us slaves. Their website talks about “media misinformation” and “the myths about high-capacity magazines [assault weapons]”. There must be 15,000 words on this site. I’ll bet somewhere in all this is some mention of safety, of keeping guns away from children. I know I saw the phrase “gun safe” in one of the dozen graphically-correct billboard headlines I saw flash by. Or, maybe not. Maybe it said, “keep our children safe”.

That billboard linked to a video of Chris Cox of the NRA interviewed by “Lauri” on Lou Dobbs Tonight [no last name for Lauri; no broadcast date either, but apparently it was last Friday, January 25]. Mental health. Punishment of criminals. How to keep guns out of criminals’ hands. These are the NRA’s prime concerns when it comes to children’s safety.


No. The NRA educates millions of people on gun safety, children and adults, each year. Gun safety is a primary function of the NRA. Don’t doubt it. It’s what they do, day in, day out. And it wasn’t such common knowledge that it didn’t warrant mentioning. The topic rated at least two sentences in Mr. Cox’s interview.

Both he and Lauri commended the hiring of the armed guard who disarmed the teenager who’d shot another teenager in the Atlanta middle school the day before. For the record, I’d like to include some details from an account of that event:

“Investigators believe the shooting was not random and that something occurred between the two students that may have led to it.

“Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis said the school does have metal detectors.

“‘The obvious question is how did this get past a metal detector?’ Davis asked about the gun. ‘That’s something we do not know yet.’

“The armed resource officer who took the gun away was off-duty and at the school, but police didn’t release details on him or whether he is regularly at [the school] …

As in most other “school shootings”, nothing was mentioned about how the 14-year-old got his hands on the gun. That’s my obvious question, here. Why isn’t it ever brought up these days?  Too obvious, maybe?

I know, if I owned guns and had children in my home, I’d keep the guns in a gun safe. If I had any reason to fear burglary or home invasion, I would arrange some way to have a gun at hand but out of the chidlren’s reach. Or, maybe I wouldn’t. Before all else, the guns would not be available to the children.

Even though the NRA’s website carries a banner reading, “Stand And Fight”, don’t think they dismiss gun safes out of hand. On the contrary, entering “gun safe” into the search field brings up 28 links to videos in which “gun safes” are cited as the proper place for gun owners to store their weapons.

Many of these also refer to Eddie Eagle. The NRA’s mascot for gun safety, Eddie Eagle comes to life as a costumed mime who appears at elementary school assemblies carrying the message, “If you see a gun, don’t touch it, keep other kids away from it, get an adult to take the gun away.” The message is for k-3. Older kids would make fun of an adult in a bird suit, wouldn’t they?

I’m no authority on education. The NRA is, though. They can educate people on proper care and use of guns. I won’t take their word on psychiatry or even law enforcement, but if the NRA President said, “Kids! Don’t play with guns! Parents! Keep your guns away from children!” I tend to believe his name would be shouted to the stars and his words echoed to the the edges of the continent.