Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Barack Obama's Last Press Conference

I listened to President Obama's last press conference today, and I was suffused with melancholy... this is the last time we will hear an articulate, calm, and competent American executive speak for the foreseeable future. I'm going to miss hearing an educated person speaking in multisyllable words as if he were talking to adults. I going to miss it Big League. The president threw down a gauntlet to the press, which they will hopefully take to heart:

That does not of course mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed, but that’s the point of this relationship. You’re not supposed to by sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here. And you have done that. And you have done it for the most part in ways that I could appreciate for fairness even if I didn’t always agree with your conclusions. And having you in this building has made this place work better, it keeps us honest, it makes us work harder, you’ve made us think about how we are doing what we do and whether or not we’re able to deliver on what’s been requested by our constituents. And, for example, every time you’ve asked “why haven’t you cured Ebola yet?” or “Why is there still that hole in the gulf?” it has given me the ability to go back to my team and say “will you get this solved before the next press conference?”
I’ve spent a lot of time in my farewell address talking about the state of our democracy. IT goes without saying that essential to that is a free press. That is part of how this place, this country, this grand experiment in self-government has to work. It doesn’t work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenry, and you are the conduit through which they receive information about what is taking place in the halls of power. So America needs you and democracy needs you. We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress. So my hope is that you will continue with the same tenacity that you showed us to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories and getting them right and to push those of us in power to be the best version of ourselves. And to push this country to be the best version of itself. I have no doubt that you will do so. I’m looking forward to being an active consumer of your work, rather than always the subject of it. I want to thank you all for your extraordinary service to our democracy, and with that I will take some questions.

The preamble to the press conference can be summed up as: "Do your jobs!" President Obama gave some subtle digs at Trump for planning to move the press corps out of the White House, and challenged the press to play the necessary role of check on political power. In his inimitable 'no drama' way, he lectured the assembled press corp to push back against the 'fake news' that has so tainted this political cycle.

As a nerd-American, I am going to miss this intellectual president. While he wasn't the 'liberal messiah' that his detractors believed his supporters believed he was, he was measured and prudent... something to be cherished after the unabashed, irresponsible adventurism and kleptocracy of his predecessor, seemingly ramped up to eleven by his successor. President Obama's tenure in the White House was unmarred by scandal, free of major blunders- all in the face of Republican hostility and intransigence. If he had had a loyal opposition, one which hadn't attempted to sabotage his every accomplishment, I imagine he could have achieved truly great things.

At the very least, I will remember the past eight years as a dreamtime during which a president could string together coherent sentences, a near-decade of sagacity sandwiched between the misrules of C-plus Augustus and Pee-plus Augustus. Le sigh...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Maya Angelou Was Right

The late, great Maya Angelou coined an aphorism which should be rendered in needlepoint and hung on the walls of every American: “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” Oddly enough, though, some people really don't get this- exhibit A being: "I voted for Donald Trump because I wanted to see change in our country. One change I didn’t want to see was access to health care at Planned Parenthood blocked."

Le sigh...

Besides choosing virulently anti-choice Mike Pence as his running mate, Donald Trump came out and said that he'd defund Planned Parenthood during one of the GOP debates:

I'm still wrapping my head around the notion that people would vote for a guy who made clear-cut statements about his policy proposals, believing that he wouldn't follow through with them. Not too long ago, one of Trump's spokescritters exhorted the public not to pay attention to Trump's words, but to 'look into his heart' (funny, all I see is arteriosclerosis)... basically, she was urging people to trust him precisely because he's lying.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


Via Tengrain, we have a hilarious juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane that was sent to him by zrm. This reminded me of a similarly-themed bit of artwork I came across in Brooklyn:

Now, this is a Holy Family for our debased age, a perfect blending of the sort of religiosity and consumerism that leads to televangelists selling potato slop on the t00b. It's still not as crass as the prosperity gospel, though.

Friday, January 13, 2017

About that Canadian Drug Importation Bill

I'm going to have to sound a somewhat contrary note regarding the thirteen Democratic senators who didn't support the bill to allow the cheap importation of drugs from Canada. The issue of cheap Canadian drugs is a red herring, because these drugs are typically American-made drugs which are exported to Canada at low cost because the Canadian Health Services buy in bulk and can negotiate low prices. Here in the 'States, the Republicans placed a ban on Medicare negotiating directly with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of medicines. The solution to the problem is not to buy back our own drugs from Canada, but to give Medicare the power to use leverage on the pharmaceutical industry to lower prices. I love Canada, and Canadians (check out my blogroll), but I don't see them as the saviors of sick Americans, Canadian drugs are a poor solution to an engineered problem. We need to free Medicare to buy the pharmaceuticals at low cost... personally, I'd nominate Dick Valentine to head up such an effort:

The sick joke behind this whole tragic mishegas is that American taxpayers foot the bill for the development of the drugs that bring huge profits to Big Pharma.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: SSC Goes to the Dogs

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club, featuring Dr Alexandra Horowitz, director of Barnard College's Dog Cognition Lab. Dr Horowitz' new book is Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell.

Dr Horowitz began her lecture by noting that the study of dog (n.b.: in this recap, dog refers to Canis lupus familiaris) cognition is a young field. Much of the study of animal cognition involves looking for play behavior, as play is useful for developing cognitive abilities, and the preferred animal subjects tended to be primates. Dr Horowitz recounted taking her dog to the park while casting about for subjects to study, when she had the inspiration to study dogs. It took her two-and-a-half years to convince her advisor that dogs were proper subjects- dogs are ubiquitous, and they were perceived as being 'changed' by humans. The dog cognition expert Dr. Ádám Miklósi noted that the natural place for the existence of dogs is an anthropogenic environment created by humans. The dog 'wilderness' is among humans.

To some extent, dogs have a sense of social cognition- dogs look at humans for cues, they follow the human gaze to a point of interest. Dr Horowitz cited a proverb attributed to Confucius: "When a wise man points at the moon, a fool looks at his finger." While a dog can locate food based on cues given to them by a human, a chimpanzee would be unable to do so. Dr Horowitz expressed this in a particularly beautiful manner: "Dogs can see the mind behind our eyes, they pay attention to our attention." In one experiment, dogs were presented with food but instructed not to get it, and the time it took before the dog disobeyed was measured- they tended to disobey most quickly when the testers turned their backs, taking more time when testers closed their eyes. Dogs have some perception of language- in one case, a border collie was trained to distinguish labels for over one thousand toys. Although dogs were known to respond to linguistic cues, their potential cognitive capacity was largely unknown. People weren't studying dogs- the prevailing attitude could be summed up as "we know about dogs, they share our beds". Dr Horowitz posed the question, "Are we right?"

People tend to anthropomorphize dog behavior, with one particular doggy look being interpreted as a guilty look. In a 2009 study, Dr Horowitz endeavored to decipher this 'guilty' look. Dogs were presented with food, but instructed not to eat it. Obedient dogs didn't eat the food, disobedient dogs ate the food. The dogs owners were instructed to greet the obedient dogs and to scold the disobedient dogs. In some cases, the owner was given wrong information, and the disobedient dogs were greeted while the obedient dogs were scolded. The guilty look was not determined by 'guilt', but by the owner's reaction- dogs which were scolded assumed the guilty look, while greeted dogs did not. The guilty look was most prevalent among obedient dogs which were scolded. The 'guilty' look (eyes averted, paw up, even belly up) is a submissive posture, behavior designed to avoid punishment.

In 2012, Dr Horowitz set up an experiment to determine if dogs had a sense of fairness. Can dogs be jealous? In this experiment, trainers could be fair or unfair- they could dole out equal rewards or unequal rewards (fair trainers tended to give one treat to each dog while unfair trainers gave one treat to the subject and three to the control) to the subject dogs and 'control' dogs. The subject dogs did not favor the 'fair' trainer over the unfair trainer, they affiliated with the unfair trainer because she had more food than the 'fair' trainer and could potentially give out a bigger reward- Dr Horowitz quipped that dogs are optimists.

Dr Horowitz referenced Philosopher Thomas Nagle's paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat?, which posits that humans will never know what a bat experiences. Dr Horowitz joked that this is the philosophical approach, which is why she went into science... such things are knowable.

Dogs live in an olfactory world, and any study of dog cognition must take into account the olfactory experience. Humans have about five million olfactory cells while dogs have two-hundred million to one billion olfactory cells. These cells are packed into the olfactory epithelium at the back of the nose. Doctor Horowitz characterized the dog nose as a two-part structure... The 'first nose' tends to be at the end of a long snout. It has a wet, 'pebbled' surface and nostrils which have a unique musculature and act independently- dogs have stereo olfaction. Dog nostrils have slits on the side which allow exhalation without disturbing scent-causing molecules in front of the dog. Dogs sniff 'better' than humans do, their nostrils provide an 'olfactory route' for air as well as a 'breathing route'. Humans only have the 'breathing route'. Dogs sniff five to times per second while humans sniff once ever one-and-a-half seconds- dogs get more 'odor pictures' than humans do. With the exhalation of air out of the side nostril slits, more molecules are stirred up with the expired air, ready to be inhaled. The long snouts of most dogs are lined with convoluted turbinate bones lined with mucous membranes which humidify inhaled air and remove irritants. Humans have three turbinate bones. The 'second nose' of a dog is a vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson's organ. The vomeronasal organ is vestigial in humans, but it allows dogs to detect pheromones, which are water-soluble, non-volatile, particles with low molecular weight. Dogs can detect the hormones which signal that a female is ready to mate, and the hormone which signals aggression, cortisol.

The somatosensory cortex processes the input from the various sensory organs in an organism. Different animals have different levels of commitment to different body parts. Dr Horowitz used the example of the star-nosed mole, which has a set of fleshy appendages on its snout which are used as tactile sense organs. She characterized the star-nosed mole's sensory cortex as being 'overcommited' to these appendages. The human sensory cortex is traditionally illustrated by a figure known as a sensory homonculous, which depicts human body parts with sizes relative to sensitivity- the fingertips, lips, and genitals are the most sensitive parts of the human body. An analogous depiction of a dog would feature an extra large nose, representing the 'overcommitment' to olfaction.

Tracking dogs can detect different concentrations of odor-producing molecules between the first and fifth footprints of their quarry, typically representing a two second difference between steps- thus they are able to determine direction of movement through scent. Trained explosive-sniffing dogs can detect a picogram of TNT. Dr Horowitz displayed a photograph depicting the path a dog takes to track a dragged pheasant to illustrate the dog's use of scent to determine directionality. Dogs can be trained to sniff out a myriad of items- explosives, drugs, insect pests... in one particular case, a dog in the Seattle metro area has been trained to sniff out orca feces. Dogs being trained to sniff out victims of building collapses learn their tasks in centers in which subjects hide in large pipes so the dogs can locate them. The ability of dogs to sniff out cancer is currently being studied.

Studying the cognitive abilities of dogs necessitates looking at the experience of a dog qua dog, it shouldn't conform to our human, primarily visual, senses. In the case of quantity discrimination, though, dogs don't distinguish quantity by smell alone- cues from a dog's owner can influence a dog's choices, though by visual means, a dog can determine that three hotdogs are preferable to one. Owner enthusiasm can influence a dog to choose a smaller quantity- though dogs tend to be attracted to a larger plate, they act on what their owners present them. Being smell-oriented creatures, environments which are too clean can 'turn off' dogs olfactorily- dogs in an odor-deficient environment will follow their owner's cues more than their own noses. Recently, an organization called K9NoseWork has provided olfactory play-spaces for dogs.

Dr Horowitz then brought up the subject of mirror self-recognition among dogs. Chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, and some Asian elephants can come to recognize themselves in a mirror- at first, they interact with a mirror as if it were another individual, eventually they will learn to use the mirror for self-examination. Dogs don't pass the mirror self-recognition test, do they lack a sense of self, or do they not 'care' about marks on their bodies? In order to test self-recognition among dogs, an olfactory component needs to be introduced. The right test needs to be implemented- do dogs recognize themselves with odor as they recognize others? In one experiment, urine was collected from several dogs, some urine was altered olfactorily. The experimenters then determined how long a particular dog would smell various samples- the urine of other dogs was typically smelled for a longer period of time. Dr Horowitz noted that, when one walks a dog, the dog doesn't typically turn back to sniff its own pee. While not exactly parallel to the mirror self-recognition test, dogs did tend to recognize their own urine. Dogs engage in chemical communication- they sniff each others' rears where anal glands and tail glands are located. Many dog behaviors can be interpreted olfactorily- dogs wag their tails to distribute scent from their glands and a dog drying itself off by shaking can disseminate a whole lot of odor-producing molecules.

In a particularly poetic turn of phrase, Dr Horowitz noted that dogs smell the passage of time- weaker odors are older odors, the future is on the breeze. Who will come is on the air. She then digressed, talking about her efforts to emulate her dogs- she sniffs what they sniff, she underwent olfactory training, studying under such scent senseis (scentseis!) as 'smell-mapping' artist Kate McLean and Secret Science Club alumn Dr Leslie Vosshall. She studied perfumery, wine odorants, animal tracking. She advised us, be more like a dog, master your sense of smell.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session, which Dr Horowitz prefaced with a funny quip- a lot of questions in her Q&As are prefaced with 'my dog does this...' One dogless bastard in the audience asked about the funny, higher pitched 'dog voice' which was used even by serious scientists- has the role of auditory cues in dog cognition been studied? Dr Horowitz noted that the primary reason for speaking at a higher pitch is to signal to the dog that it should pay attention. Another question involved the olfactory abilities of brachycephalic dogs, and Dr Horowitz joked that there are very few bomb-sniffing pugs. Why do dogs roll in dead things? It's possibly to camouflage one's scent, it's also an attention getter. Perhaps the best question was, does anything smell bad to a dog? Dr Horowitz noted that humans have a binary attitude towards odors- there are good ones, there are bad ones. To a dog, though, all odors are information.

Dr Horowitz' lecture was entertaining and informative, and her love of her subjects was expressed throughout the talk. Once again, the Secret Science Club dished out a fantastic lecture- high fives to Dr Horowitz, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a nice, informative cartoon based on Doctor Horowitz' research:

Dr Horowitz showed this cartoon, teaching viewers the art of smelling:

Here's a longer video on the subject of dog cognition with the good doctor:

Crack open a beverage, if you're lucky enough to have a dog, give it a good ear scritch, and soak in some SCIENCE.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Vexing Lacuna in My New Zealand Music Knowledge

I fancied myself a bit of an aficianado when it came to music from the Not-So-Drouthy Antipodes, having listened to a radio documentary about Flying Nun records that Another Kiwi clued me in to. Yesterday, though, I learned better when Alicublog commentor billcinsd posted a video for a song by Blam Blam Blam, who were signed to Propeller Records... also aviation-oriented, but no Flying Nun. Anyway, Blam Blam Blam was almost as eccentric as early Split Enz:

They also knew their way around political satire:

Now I have to wait for the radio documentary about Propeller Records to come out... anyway, I'm Brooklyn bound this afternoon, so it'll have to wait until I come home.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Titan of the Alternative Press Passes

While listening to NPR this afternoon, I learned of the passing of Nat Hentoff- alternative press giant, first amendment absolutist, jazz aficianado, fixture of New York's liberal 'elite'. Mr Hentoff, who attained the venerable age of 91, was eminently readable, sometimes exasperating, never boring. The Village Voice was a must-read, not only because it was a free paper to read on the subway, but because of writers like Mr Hentoff and, of course, Roy. Of course, Nat was bounced by the 'Voice' in 2008, much to the dismay of some on the left.

The tragedy here is that voices like Mr Hentoff's, even though they could sometimes infuriate even sympathizers, will be needed more than ever now that we have a vindictive kleptocrat taking power.