The smartest dog in the world?

January 31, 2023 • 2:00 pm

I have four writing projects to finish, so for the next few days posting will be light. Bear with me; I do my best.

Here’s an 8.5-year old 60 Minutes segment largely about Chaser, a border collie touted as the “world’s smartest d*g” and “the most important d*g in the history of scientific research.” Chaser is a border collie, of course.  The show displays demonstrations of her “intelligence”: she’s learned the names of over 1,000 toys, including a variety of different balls with different names. She also knows the difference between nouns and verbs. This does not, of course, mean that the dog knows language, as in “language with syntax” but it shows an extreme ability to associate words with objects.

Chaser and some other dogs we’re shown, understand the meaning of “pointing”, though I’m not sure that the demonstration we see distinguishes pointing as a referent to the object pointed at from pointing as a command “come to what’s by my finger.” We’re also shown brain scans of other dogs demonstrating that different parts of their brains light up when they smell their owners as opposed to a stranger, but that’s what happens when a dog learns by association, which isn’t the kind of “intelligence” I expected.

The real question is whether dogs can solve novel puzzles: putting together separate bits of knowledge in a useful way.  Can they do, for instance, what crows can? I don’t think so.

I’m not trying to diss dogs here, nor extol cats; I have, so to speak, no dog in this fight. I just wish the show had shown the kind of intelligence evinced by other animals. That it, it could have discussed “intelligence” and demonstrated the different varieties.

As they say on the show, border collies are both bred and trained to understand commands, so I’m not surprised that Chaser wins the prize for understanding commands and learning the names of toys. When I was in England and the telly was on, I was always transfixed by “One Man and his Dog”, a televised competition between border collies and their trainers to see which teams best herd sheep. And I’ve even seen this skill in person in New Zealand. Regardless of whether this evinces “intelligence”, sheep-herding behavior is impressive and (to me) mesmerizing.

Here: have an hour of “One Man and His Dog”:

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

June 15, 2021 • 6:30 am

Welcome to Tuesday, June 15, 2021: National Lobster Day.  It’s also National Cherry Tart Day, National Electricity Day (see below), Native American Citizenship Day, Magna Carta Day (agreed to on this day in 1215 by King John; see below), Nature Photography Day (take some photos and send them to me!), Global Wind Day and, in the UK, National Beer Day (United Kingdom).  Would some reader in the UK please drink a pint of Landlord for me? I keep asking readers to quaff a pint of my favorite British ale, but everyone says they can’t find Landlord.

I am rather low today, so posting is likely to be light.

Today’s Google Doodle (below), created by senior Milo Golding at Lexington (Kentucky) Christian Academy, was the winning submission among thousands of entries from K-12 in a national contest. Milo wins a $30,000 college scholarship on top of a $50,000 technology package for his school.

The Doodle honors MIlo’s dad, who died of a heart attack when the artist was just 13. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reports:

“Milo’s Doodle, titled ‘Finding Hope,’ speaks to the resilience and hope that lives in all of us,” Google officials said. “The Doodle is inspired by his father’s advice to find hope in all circumstances as a source of strength. It was inspired by Milo’s journey to find hope after the loss of his father”. . . .

“I am strong because I have hope,” Milo said, describing his entry and its inspiration. “I once asked my father how he overcame obstacles and became who he wanted to be. “

His father, Deeno Golding. replied, “Hope, hope keeps me strong.”

“After I unexpectedly lost him at 13 due to a heart attack, it helped me overcome grief and support other children who lost loved ones.,” Milo said.

The Doodle:

An old photo with Milo, his mom, and his dad:

Lexington Christian Academy senior Milo Golding with mom Yanya Yang and dad Deeno Golding. PHOTO PROVIDED

Congrats, Milo, and may you attain your dreams.

News of the Day:

The news is thin as Biden slowly wends his way towards Russia for the big summit with Putin. Some good news for conservationists, though: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has asked President Biden to restore environmental protections for three national monuments that were eroded by the Trump Administration. From the NYT:

In a report sent to the White House earlier this month that has not been made public, Ms. Haaland recommended that Mr. Biden reinstate the original boundaries, which included millions of acres at Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two rugged and pristine expanses in Utah defined by red rock canyons, rich wildlife and archaeological treasures.

Mr. Trump had sharply reduced the size of both national monuments at the urging of ranchers and many Republican leaders, opening them to mining, drilling and development. At the time, it was the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history.

I’m pretty sure Biden will assent; so far, his efforts on the environment have been excellent.

BIG MOUSE PLAGUE DOWN UNDER! As the Washington Post reports, agricultural areas in Southern Australia are overrun with millions of mice, ruining the crops and costing farmers millions. They also carry diseases that can infect humans and die in the walls of houses, making an unbelievable stench. NOTE: if you like mice, don’t look at the pictures! One below just shows the density of the rodents. (h/t Randy)

Photo credit not given at the WaPo

Jump for Joe: You java drinkers should take heart, for a new piece in the NYT gives us good news, “The health benefits of coffee.” Coffee is no longer bad for you! And the benefits are many; here’s an excerpt:

The latest assessments of the health effects of coffee and caffeine, its main active ingredient, are reassuring indeed. Their consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of all kinds of ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, depression, suicide, cirrhosis, liver cancer, melanoma and prostate cancer.

In fact, in numerous studies conducted throughout the world, consuming four or five eight-ounce cups of coffee (or about 400 milligrams of caffeine) a day has been associated with reduced death rates. In a study of more than 200,000 participants followed for up to 30 years, those who drank three to five cups of coffee a day, with or without caffeine, were 15 percent less likely to die early from all causes than were people who shunned coffee. Perhaps most dramatic was a 50 percent reduction in the risk of suicide among both men and women who were moderate coffee drinkers, perhaps by boosting production of brain chemicals that have antidepressant effects.

It’s not all positive: coffee can cause insomnia (duh!) but can also increase the rate of miscarriage. There’s also this: “When brewed without a paper filter, as in French press, Norwegian boiled coffee, espresso or Turkish coffee, oily chemicals called diterpenes come through that can raise artery-damaging LDL cholesterol.”  Still, I’ll keep using my espresso machine.

This year’s Westminster Dog Show, held outside because of the pandemic, was won by a male Pekingese named Wasabi.  Here’s a photo of the Best in Show winner from the NYT. Put a stick up its rear and you’d have a mop!

And for you dog lovers, here’s an eight minute video of the competition. Wasabi shows up at 5:58 and wins his crown at 7:20.  I love the way he walks!

And for you lovers of Greece, a group that includes me, there’s a short but colorful article in the NYT on unvisited corners of rural Greece where people still wear their traditional costumes. Now I have a list of new places to visit. (My last visit, to the Peloponnese one September about 20 years ago, was one of the best trips I’ve ever had. The tourists had left, but it was still warm and the seas wonderful for swimming. Go see the Mani!)

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 599,486, an increase of 339 deaths over yesterday’s figure. We will probably pass 600,000 deaths by Thursday.  The reported world death toll is now 3,828,472, an increase of about 8,300 over yesterday’s total. Remember when 200,000 deaths was regarded as an unimaginable toll?

Stuff that happened on June 15 includes:

Here’s one of four surviving copies of the document, though the King’s wax seal has been lost. You can see this in the British Library:

  • 1520 – Pope Leo X threatens to excommunicate Martin Luther in Exsurge Domine.
  • 1648 – Margaret Jones is hanged in Boston for witchcraft in the first such execution for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • 1667 – The first human blood transfusion is administered by Dr. Jean-Baptiste Denys.

Denys performed several transfusion (forcibly) on a madman abducted from the streets. The first one seemed to work, but the man died after the second one.

  • 1752 – Benjamin Franklin proves that lightning is electricity (traditional date, the exact date is unknown).
  • 1844 – Charles Goodyear receives a patent for vulcanization, a process to strengthen rubber.

The original additive to harden rubber was sulfur, discovered by Goodyear when he accidentally dropped a mixture of sulfur and rubber into a hot frying pan, and it didn’t melt.

  • 1877 – Henry Ossian Flipper becomes the first African American cadet to graduate from the United States Military Academy.

Here’s Flipper who, predictably for a black officer, was court-martialed and discharged. He was first exonerated and then pardoned by Bill Clinton:

Here’s that series with the caption from Wikipedia; note that in two photos (second and third in top row) all the horse’s feet are off the ground. This was a long-standing debate that was settled with a single piece of empirical evidence. (Of course, one could argue that other horses’ feet never left the ground.

“Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford; ridden by G. Domm, running at a 1.40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19th June, 1878 (1878 cabinet card, “untouched” version from original negatives)

Alcock and Brown landed in a bog in Ireland, and the result is below, but neither were hurt and both feted as heroes:

The mountain, called the “Killer Mountain” was finally summited by Hermann Buhl in 1953. It’s a lovely peak:

  • 1970 – Charles Manson goes on trial for the Sharon Tate murders.
  • 1977 – After the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the first democratic elections took place in Spain.

Latest news: Franco is still dead.

  • 1992 – The United States Supreme Court rules in United States v. Álvarez-Machaín that it is permissible for the United States to forcibly extradite suspects in foreign countries and bring them to the United States for trial, without approval from those other countries.
  • 2012 – Nik Wallenda becomes the first person to successfully tightrope walk directly over Niagara Falls.

Here’s Wallenda’s walk; he seems to have no safety rope!

Notables born on this day include:

Here’s one of Steinberg’s cat cartoons:

  • 1937 – Waylon Jennings, American singer-songwriter and guitarist (d. 2002)
  • 1941 – Harry Nilsson, American singer-songwriter (d. 1994)
  • 1943 – Johnny Hallyday, French singer and actor (d. 2017)
  • 1963 – Helen Hunt, American actress, director, and producer
  • 1970 – Leah Remini, American actress and producer

Those who relinquished their ghost on June 15 were few, and include:

  • 1849 – James K. Polk, American lawyer and politician, 11th President of the United States (b. 1795)
  • 1996 – Ella Fitzgerald, American singer and actress (b. 1917)
  • 2014 – Casey Kasem, American radio host, producer, and voice actor, co-created American Top 40 (b. 1932)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn: Hili has a rodential “present” for Paulina:

Paulina: You brought something from the garden to the verandah, again.
Hili: It’s a still life meant for later consumption.
In Polish:
Paulina: Znowu przyniosłaś coś z sadu na werandę.
Hili: To martwa natura przeznaczona do późniejszej konsumpcji.

From the Harnish Vet Service’s Facebook page. The best thank-you note ever!

From Divy:

A bad groaner from Bruce:

A tweet from reader Ken, who helpfully adds, “Trump daughter-in-law Lara (wife of son Eric) tells Fox New’s Jeanine Pirro that the solution to problems at the US border (which consist in large measure of crossings by unaccompanied minors) is for locals on the border “to arm up, get guns, and take matters into their own hands”:


Tweets from Matthew.  Lovely photo in the first one. But where are the clowns? Well, maybe next year.

A lovely portrait of a lion:

I believe this is a fruit bat who needs something to cuddle:

Speaking of fruit bat, here’s a lovely video tweet from Bat World, home of Statler the geriatric fruit bat:

You do remember Statler, don’t you. He’s too old to fly, but the workers carry him about so he can flap his wings and remember the old days. . .

Even though his cinematic roar was fearsome, Leo must have been pretty tame!

And the only cat gargoyle I know of, complete with a kitten as lagniappe!

But can it herd sheep? Spot, the Boston Dynamics robot

February 1, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Here’s the YouTube video of Spot the Robotic D*g, of course a product of Boston Dynamics. It’s programmed to do this stuff, meaning it doesn’t find trash by itself and deposit it in the basket (at least, as far as I know). That’s coming, though. And of course it would be good for police work, disposing of bombs, and so on. Spot can certainly bring you your slippers, too!

The YouTube notes:

Now that Spot has an arm in addition to legs and cameras, it can do mobile manipulation. It finds and picks up objects (trash), tidies up the living room, opens doors, operates switches and valves, tends the garden, and generally has fun. Motion of the hand, arm and body are automatically coordinated to simplify manipulation tasks and expand the arm’s workspace, making its reach essentially unbounded. The behavior shown here was programmed using a new API for mobile manipulation that supports autonomy and user applications, as well as a tablet that lets users do remote operations. For more information, watch our launch event at 11am EST tomorrow.

And that launch will be at this site.

h/t: Bryan

Howling with wolves

January 19, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I’m off to the dentist downtown for my first cleaning since the pandemic began. I will wear a mask except when they’re scraping my teeth, and now one must gargle with a hydrogen peroxide solution. That’s okay by me!  I’ll leave you with a short animal video.

If you think yawning is contagious, look at this mischievous woman starting a group howl. What a racket! But how did she get to be with the wolves?

Readers’ wildlife photos (and videos)

October 14, 2020 • 7:45 am

Stephen Barnard from Idaho is back with some lovely photos—and two videos as lagniappe. His captions and IDs are indented.

The first four are mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in flight. Migratory mallards are pouring in from Canada and parts north. There will soon be thousands. Duck hunting season, popular here, starts October 19. You’ll be happy to know I don’t hunt ducks or allow it on my property. [JAC: Yes, I am delighted at this!]

Next is a photo of Hitch (Canis familiaris), two more mallards, two Canada geese (Branta canadensis), and a moose (Alces alces). It’s not much as a photo, but funny.

This bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sometimes perches in this tall blue spruce (Picea pungens) in my back yard, scanning the creek for fish. This is probably Lucy.

A rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) consuming a callibaetis (Callibaetis) mayfly.

Two short videos:

Rainbow trout spawn in the spring, and brown trout (Salmo trutta) spawn in the fall, which is convenient when they coexist because they use the same spawning beds, called redds. These brown trout are on a particularly nice redd, which is also what anglers call a “prime lie” — a favored spot for fish to feed and rest.  They compete with each other, and drive away the rainbows that threaten to eat their eggs. The bird calling in the background is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris).

Hitch moving cows (Bos taurus).

Toby, the duck-guarding dog

August 24, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Finally—d*gs do something good for waterfowl besides scaring them. Here we have a maremma (technically known as the Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdog) who spends his days guarding ducks). These dogs are best known as sheep guardians,  but they do a terrific job with ducks. Or at least Toby does.

From Gold Shaw Farm, we have these terse YouTube notes for a 15-minute video.

Let me tell you the story of our farm dog, Toby. He is a maremma who guards the ducks on our farm.

h/t: Reese

Readers’ wildlife videos

June 26, 2020 • 7:45 am

Today we have two—count them, two—videos.

I had forgotten about the backlog of wonderful videos by the late Ecuadorian naturalist and photographer Andreas Kay, but he posted quite a few before he died at only 56. I’ll parcel them out over the coming months.  Here are his notes on a remarkable caterpillar that almost certainly deters predators by mimicking a snake. Note that, relative to the body, the “snake head” is upside down so, when presented by a clinging caterpillar, it looks like a right-side-up head.

Snake-mimic caterpillar, Hemeroplanes triptolemus, Sphingidae from the Amazon rainforest near Puyo, Ecuador. When disturbed this larva of a sphinx moth expands and exposes the underside of the first body segments, mimicking a snake head with black eyes and even light reflections. Sometimes it also strikes like a snake to deter predators such as lizards or birds. Photos here.

And Rick Longworth made this video, complete with music, of a den of foxes (mom plus kits). The play behavior of the kits is adorable. Rick’s notes:

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). At the end of May, I noticed a group of about 5 or 6 young foxes across the Snake River at a distance of about one third of a mile from my back deck. The mother had dug a den in an earthen mound at the end of a utility road between two farms. At maximum magnification, the uneven heating of the atmosphere made the image quite unsteady.

Readers’ wildlife photos

June 22, 2020 • 7:45 am

We have a few in the queue, but I’d like more, so send in your good wildlife photos (please make sure they’re in focus, of a reasonable size, like 1mB, and have the species identified along with the Latin binomial). Thanks.

We have several contributors today, the first being Dieter Letsch. As always, contributors’ words are indented:

I was at my mother-in-law’s one morning watering her garden, and I saw these tiny bees working on a pot full of black-eyed Susans [Rudbeckia hirta].  They are only about a centimeter long – not typical honey bees for sure, but I have no idea what species these are.  They were very methodically “mowing” the pollen on the cones of each flower, which is actually a composite of many florets, like a sunflower.  Their legs and sides were covered with pollen which I thought was very picturesque.

From Jamie Blilie, our youngest contributor. I lost the email and don’t know the species, but will inquire. In the meantime, you can guess them:

From Rachel Sperling:

Here are a few snakes I’ve encountered in the woods of Connecticut this spring. We’ve got a garter snake  [Thamnophis sirtalis], a couple of northern water snakes [Nerodia sipedon] getting their kicks, a timber rattlesnake [Crotalus horridus], and what’s probably an eastern racer [Coluber constrictor] (but could be a black rat snake). I’m hiking the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail in bite-size sections and I think snakes are beautiful so these have been exciting encounters (though the water snakes made me feel like a bit of a voyeur). I didn’t realize non-rattlesnakes also vibrate the tips of their tails when you get too close. It’s good they do or I’d probably have stepped on that eastern racer!

Finally, from reader Ken Phelps, we are giving d*g lovers their due with a picture of two leaping specimens of Canis lupus familiaris:

Every dog has its day, and today is that day!

Photos of readers

May 31, 2020 • 3:15 pm

Today’s photo and narrative comes from reader Max Blanke and his trusty hound. Max is engaged in an very interesting quarantine project, and his commentary is indented:

Here is an image of the dog and myself today, working in the shop. One of my current projects is on the table. It is a hand cannon, of a type that would have been used in Western Europe around 1750. The originals would have been used to lob bombs over fortifications (“bombs” in the cartoon sense of iron balls filled with gunpowder with a fuse stuck into it) .

I, however, am building this for a different purpose. I sized the bore so that I can shoot racquet balls for the dog.  Almost any other device for shooting rubber balls would have been much simpler to make, but I have never built a flintlock before, and it was on the list of things I wanted to know how to do.  I have built percussion guns before, but they are easier to design and build.

I sort of had the idea of this project in the back of my mind for several years. But recently I was working on a more important project, and ended up with just the right piece of 4150 tubing, so I just stuck it on the lathe and got started. The stock is walnut.

My current quarantine routine is that every other day, I go over to help an elderly friend with his restoration of a 1940 ford convertible. The rest of the time I either do chores around the house, or go down to the shop and work on frivolous projects like this.

Should we open up America now? A cat and a dog debate the issue.

April 18, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I’m going to follow this quickly with another post, as you might not be able to read it if it’s at the top.

Reader Simon sent me this, and it’s about the funniest thing yet to come out of the shutdown. Below you see a screenshot from an article in The Wall Street Journal.

I hate to say this, but, just for the time being, I’m on the side of the d*g.