Thursday, December 3, 2009

Let’s Start a Fight

I’ve bought myself a bit of reprise in doing a blog entry this week by getting my latest nonfiction project into print: an article about my former town and what it’s been doing to stop the wholesale devouring of its woods. It’s certainly nice to get back on that horse — I’d done a bunch of work for the Pittsburgh City Paper back in the late ’90s and early aughts, but not recently.

Seems I’ve been scooped by th’wife — “Professor Chaos” indeed. Let me say this about anything that might be said on that particular blog: I remember the day she talks about, and will admit I purposely avoided the farm for a long time because I knew I’d react the same way she did. As Treebeard said:

“Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost for ever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop!”

The reasons for my unwillingness entirely to condemn the new wave of developers are now a matter of record; I don’t feel it necessary to respond to comments from the Peanut Gallery.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


On a summer day quite a few years ago, Lilly and I were waiting for Mel and Heather to find us on a beautiful fallow farm that today is rapidly become a bulldozed memory. Sitting on the lee side of a collapsing barn, I knew they’d have a bit of trouble getting us — scent tends to get trapped on the downwind side of structures — and that therefore Lilly and I had some time to kick back and just enjoy a golden southwest Pennsylvania afternoon.

Lilly, as she often did, was chowing down on the tall, broad grass leaves (they were, I found out later, timothy) growing around the abandoned farm buildings. Now, usually we humans have a (justified) skepticism about the culinary preferences of someone who finds cat shit an irresistibly crunchy snack; but just that once, I decided to give it a try.

I chewed the tough, raspy leaves, and soon got a wonderful note of garlic and green. Very tasty, actually.

That day, I got one of many ongoing lessons about giving my dog the benefit of the doubt.

Heather gave me minor hell for the framing story in What Died? — my skeptical account of Lilly apparently detecting 20-year-old graves. Her basic point was, “Why didn’t you just trust your dog, idiot?”

I think she missed an important point of context, a point that a lot of dog handlers get chronically wrong: when and how you express your skepticism matters to the level of trust you’re showing your dog. To make it more concrete, handlers tend to build their dogs’ performance in retrospect: pure confusion the day of a search becomes, with the hindsight of knowing the subject’s eventual location, a clear indication that the dog was on the right track. Some dog handlers compound it by historically revising their level of certainty: “I knew Sparkie was onto it.”

No, our dogs don’t lie to us: but neither do we always understand what they’re trying to tell us.

Though I can’t hold myself forward as any sort of example, I think we need just the opposite approach. In the context of a search task, we need to be respectful of the dog’s abilities but coldly honest: if it had been a real search, the proper report for the potter’s field alert would have been, “I could be wrong, but Lilly sure looked like she was detecting cadaver. I think we need to check it out.” The proper line to take now, nearly 20 years later, is that I don’t really know for sure what she was doing, though the corroborative evidence I’ve seen encourages me to take that alert at face value.

It’s a matter of context.

Context of a different sort is the gist of today’s entry, care of Jostein Gohli and Göran Högstedt at the University of Bergen, Norway: namely, when does garish coloration make a prey animal safe rather than lunch?

The classic explanation is that prey critters like the monarch butterfly use bright colors to warn predators (a strategy called aposematism) that they taste very bad — short-circuiting the potential problem that tasting bad is a little late to really help you not get killed or seriously hurt by a predator. But that explanation poses its own problem: a bird that tries to eat one monarch won’t try for a second. But that still leaves the first pretty much screwed.

The predators could be genetically disposed to avoiding the bright colors — but that argument just moves the issue further back in time, since at some point the first, behaviorally and genetically naïve, predator had to give it a try.

Gohli and Högstedt put it extremely well: “When aposematism first evolved, all predators were inexperienced and the population of aposematic prey would have been very small. Sampling (killing) would likely have led to an early extinction of this fragile population.”


The explanation, as you may have guessed from the context that I’m talking about it, hinges on smell. If a bad-tasting prey animal also smelled bad, that smell would double down with the bright colors to warn even a truly naive predator off. Both individual associative learning and evolution of the population would strengthen the predators’ reluctance to take the first bite.

But why bother with the color when you already smell bad? While you could argue a number of ways that you get from camouflaged and stinky to neon-bright and stinky, the Norsemen have provided a compelling explanation via mathematical modeling: the stink may actually have driven the evolutionary change in color.

In their computer model, bright colors only tended to get you killed more often, up until a certain level of stink — at that point, the e-animals with subdued coloring tended to get munched more often. And once that potential is there, the small variations generated by genetic drift will inevitably start to push you toward brighter and brighter colors.

It all hinges on the idea that a garish prey animal makes a predator stop and assess rather than jump in to feed, giving it a chance to notice the bad smell. This makes sense; I’ve seen videos of divers chasing after fleeing great white sharks in clear water — while I wouldn’t think this is a bright thing to try in any case, nobody would venture it in murky water, where the fish are known to bite first and ask questions later.

Predation is, after all, an extremely dangerous lifestyle; it pays for a predator to be a bit conservative. Prey fights back, so if you see something you don’t already know is tasty and relatively easy to catch, it makes sense to stop and think rather than risk tangling with something that may seriously injure you (or, in the case of aposematism, poison you).

The theoretical argument even pays itself back. The Viking Veracitators note that, to work on completely naive predators, you need to excrete your stink continuously, even though almost no insects with chemical defenses do this today: they use it only when they need it. The authors’ suggestion: as the heavy lifting shifted from smell to color, continual stink became less necessary to ward the predators off. While they haven’t reported that calculation, it would be nice to see, in future work, whether the bright coloration, once it comes, eases the pressure on the animal to expend the metabolic cost of permanent funk.

Of course, computer modeling ain’t the real world. The experimentalists will need to take this model and run with it, see if it plays out in the field. But it’s a nicely self-consistent argument that seems more than worthy of the experimental verification.

In the context of plausible ideas, it’s a winner.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Still Ticking

Doing well on surgery +5, now on one crutch -- huge in terms of improved mobility, I can climb stairs and sleep in the bed instead of downstairs like another of the dogs. Hopefully the stitches will come out next Friday, but we'll see.

Heather and Pip are in Virginia, helping look for a kid who went missing after a Metallica concert in October. Sucks for a lot of reasons, but there's always the hope that they'll find something that helps the family -- mainly, evidence that the kid just ran away and will be calling home sometime.

Right now I have some writing to do -- stay tuned for a post on a freelance project that hopefully will be web-posted so I can send yinz there.

Thanks for all the well wishes -- hoping I'll be back on something like a normal routine shortly.

By the way, anybody know how to take your own picture using that @$#%^$ little camera at the top of the Mac screen? I can't find anything in iPhoto that refers to it, and the search function in Macs always seems to miss the point for me ...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Is Roof!

It was even more of a squeaker than it looks -- sundown came moments afterward.

Anyhow, next stop is the hospital -- I'll post subsequently, but at least that's done!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

We Who Are about to Be Butterflied II

Well, I've been remiss again, but have a good reason. In addition to the desperate attempt to re-roof our barn by the drop-deadline, I have the reason for that deadline: left-foot surgery this Monday.

So. "Low risk" surgery aside, petitions to the appropriate deities, wooden fetishes, and beneficent secular concepts are appreciated -- under the circumstances, I'm not fussy. In the next two weeks of my convalescence I will, hopefully, have some time to do an entry or two ...

Monday, October 19, 2009

What Died?

One day, in the Before Time, Heather, I, and our beloved Lilly were out taking a walk on the grounds of a certain defunct Massachusetts mental hospital. The state had abandoned the place decades earlier, and though the buildings stood ominous and dilapidated, the surrounding woods — themselves adjacent to a community park called Rock Meadow — were a wonderful place to train for SAR, ski, ride bikes, or just play.

I think that day we were doing the latter: just walking around, enjoying a beautiful New England autumn day. Lilly was little more than a puppy; Heather and I were little more than children. I’m not much given to wistful reflection on times past, but I think that the three of us were pretty damned happy with each other that day.

Anyhow, we were walking across a clearing alongside the old, unpaved road that ran back from the rear of the facility when Lilly’s body went taut, her tail came up, and she began frantically sniffing at the ground.

Curious as to what she was scenting, I walked behind her, looking at the ground. I saw a puzzling series of rectangular stones set flush with the earth, inscribed with mysterious numbers: P-17; P-33; P-48. Then the numbers changed: C-54; C-22; C-12. Like that.

It wasn’t until I approached a stone dais bearing only the bottom of a crumbled statue that the penny dropped for me: all that remained was the feet, but they were unmistakable: emerging from under a dress or robes, they stood upon a snake.

This Sicilian boy didn’t need to be reminded of his iconography: this had been a statue of the Virgin Mary [1]. And the numbers now made sense: Protestant number 17; Catholic number 22.

We were in a graveyard — the place where the hospital had buried patients who had died without family to take their remains. And though it took me about five minutes to piece that together, Lilly had known almost instantly.

I can’t be sure, either then or today, whether that last statement is actually true. After 18 years of working and training with search dogs, even I have trouble believing what I saw that day: Heather checked later, that graveyard hadn’t had a new tenant in the 20 years since the facility had closed.

Like most wilderness SAR handlers, we had cross-trained our dog to find human remains. But we’d been thinking in terms of finding a fresh, whole body for those tragic but inevitable times when we arrived too late — not detecting the bare bones of a two-decade-old Potter’s Field. I still don’t really know for sure, wonder if my eyes had tricked me somehow.

Well, today’s offering speaks to this question in a fairly direct way: Arpad Vass and homeys, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the FBI’s Laboratory Division, were able to detect 478 unique decomposition-associated gasses from over human graves at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility. Even more interesting, they observed this nasty bouquet beyond 18,000 “burial accumulated degree days” — the number of days the body was buried times the average daily temperature in that location. Since that part of Tennessee gets 5,234 BADD per year, that means that at least some of the smelly compounds are still going strong three and a half years after burial, and after all the soft tissues are gone.

Pretty amazing, really.

The researchers did a couple of things that puzzled me. They ranked 30 of the compounds they found by “perceived importance,” but don’t seem to define that term in this paper. It appears that an earlier paper from 2004 sampled gases from a decomposing exposed body and ranked them somehow, but I haven’t been able to get hold of it yet. My guess is somebody smelled the test tubes and the rankings correspond with each compound’s contribution to the stink, but I need to get hold of that paper to be sure.

The guys also had a puzzling series of pie charts that show “differences in bone odor composition” in dogs, humans, deer, and pigs — but instead of the intuitive series of a pie chart for each animal showing the percent of aldehydes, amides, alcohols, and ketones in that beast, a la:

they have one chart for each chemical compound with percentages for each animal, thusly:

It shows amply that the four critters have major differences even at this broad level, I suppose, but I’m stumped as to what each percentage means in the latter — they don’t add to 100, for each animal, between graphs. May just be relative proportions reduced to percentages, but I find that a bit confusing.

Anyhow, they pick up only 19 of the 30 gases from cadavers on the surface. They don’t know whether the missing compounds, only seen in buried bodies, are the product of anaerobic decomposition that can’t take place on the surface, or are products of the interaction between the scent gases and the dirt and its microbes, so that’s a question for another day. They also identified 12 of the 30 that emanate from human bones.

This paper pokes a hole in a couple of old dog handlers’ tales: One, that pigs are chemically similar enough to humans to stand in for us as “training materials” for cadaver dogs: the pigs showed profoundly different scent signatures. The other — a rumor circulating among us scent wonks, if not the general dog-handler community — was that polyamines such as cadaverine and putrescine would prove central to “death smell,” and were pretty much the whole sum of certain commercial artificial scents. As I’d understood that these compounds were pretty much characteristic of decomposition, their total absence was a bit of a stunner for me. Gotta get hold of that earlier paper, because it might cast a different light, but right now the only thing even reminiscent of a polyamine on the list is methenamine, at number 28, and as a cyclic it isn’t really the same thing. Other expected stinkies, like the sulfur-containing compounds — dimethyl disulfide and –trisulfide, sulfur dioxide, carbon disulfide, etc. — are present and accounted for.

Again, I need that earlier paper to find out what the rankings actually mean — either the polyamines aren’t as important as I’d thought, or they’re present in a body at the surface but not underground. The latter would be remarkable, given that polyamines are the products of the kind of anaerobic decomposition you’d expect from a buried body especially. So I’ve got more work to do in understanding this one.

While the authors trot out the old trope of the “robotic scent detector” — one that doesn’t really impress me, as a wilderness handler, because the localization problem in my field is far more difficult than the detection problem — but also come down on the side of the angels in that they’re interested in producing standard, verified, published scent tools [2] that can be used to train and verify cadaver dogs. While I remain not-yet-entranced by the idea of artificial scents — you’d better be damned sure you’re giving the dogs something that really is representative of the target scent to train them, or you’re screwed — I recognize that real “training aids” suffer from a huge amount of quality variation [3]. I’m skeptical, but more than willing to see where the research leads.

Most amazing, though, is how this study really leaves the door open for how long these scents persist. I hope the researchers left their apparatus in place, and intend to come back in 10 years or so and see what’s coming out of these graves.

I still don’t know for sure that Lilly had been scenting 20-year-old graves. But I certainly can’t rule it out.

[1] I just love the poetry of this one: the saint whose bywords are nurture, forgiveness, gentleness is the only one who treads Satan below unprotected feet.
[2] Hear that, you companies with proprietary mixes who won’t even release data on how you verified their efficacy? We really aren’t too dumb to understand this stuff, you can keep your secrets but just tell us why you think it works.
[3] Very reminiscent of herbal medicines.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Every culture has its own comfort foods; every family samples from that culture; everyone has his own personal favorites, connected to a million intimate family memories.

For me, comfort foods stem from a little finished basement in South Hackensack, New Jersey. Several folks had a claim to sovereignty over that space: for example my grandfather, Salvatore Gulino, who owned the house; my great-grandfather, Melchiorre Occhipinti, who presided as a kind of family elder statesman over everything we did.

A quick word about my great-grandfather, my “Nannu” — that’s not a misspelling of the Italian, by the way, it’s Sicilian dialect for “grandpa” [1] — or as he was known by my mother’s generation, “Pop.” My mom and her sisters were terrified of him; I mean, this man was a holy terror in his day. My great-uncle, Pete Occhipinti, told a story about facing down union organizers in Pop’s small factory [2]: Uncle Pete told me about how he was yelling at the union rep, trying to scare him off, and that the guy started to get real pale, looked worried. “I thought I was scaring him real good,” my uncle said. “Then I turned around, and saw Pop standing behind me with a big lead pipe in his hand.” The other story was about Pop throwing a guy through a window because he didn’t like the way the guy was dancing with my great-grandmother.

We Sicilians can be an intense people. Very few of us are as placid and pleasant as yours truly.

By the time I came ’round, though, Pop was this kindly, gentle 90-something who, whenever I came by, would give me a dollar bill and a 7-Up and set me to drawing pictures on the vine-covered back porch of his house, next door to my grandparents’.

Man oh man, is it good to be the first grandson in a Sicilian family. I recommend it highly. But I digress.

Arguably, that big, second-kitchen, one-family events center in the basement of my grandparents’ house belonged most of all to my grandmother, Margherita Gulino. If my grandfather Sam was the strength of the family, quiet and gentle and protective, my grandmother, his profoundly beloved “Marge,” was the emotional center. We read the opening to Corinthians 13 at her funeral — a rare reading for a funeral — because it was just, so, her:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, enough to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and hand over my body to be burnt but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love [3].

Among many cherished memories, I remember, and try to emulate, my grandmother’s cooking. Variations on simple pasta are a mainstay in my house to this day [4]; I recently reproduced a promising, if not-quite-there, cauliflower pie; one of these days I’ll have to try to re-create her tomato-covered mackerel, which was amazing.

But if there’s one thing I remember most fondly of all, it was her ravioli. She’d make them from scratch, of course, rolling out a sheet of pasta dough, spooning out the cheese — her secret ingredient was a little sugar, and sometimes some cinnamon [5] — and then covering it with a second sheet, using a little tool I’ve got to get hold of to cut and crimp at the same time …

To this day, ravioli conjures up a flood of connected memories, partly because memory is so intrinsically linked to the sense of smell. I swear, if somebody exhumes the rotting carcass of Proust’s Madeleine passage one more frigging time, I’ll puke [6] — but the guy got it right nevertheless.

Today, however, we’re going to go a bit farther afield than the, in evolutionary retrospect, unsurprising idea that the structures in the brain that govern memory are connected to those that govern smell. We’re going to talk about the link between metabolic state and smell (as well as taste).

Submitted for your approval: Mssrs. Bronwen Martin & Co.’s review of connections between the metabolic hormones and the olfactory and gustatory systems.

I remember a lecture in a college endocrinology class, when the professor told us a harrowing story of a toddler with a fatal kidney dysfunction who would eat handfuls of salt. Somehow, the kid knew what he needed, even if it couldn’t save him … Then there are the women who become nauseated at the drop of a hat when they’re pregnant — maybe, their bodies are making them avoid any hint of toxin to protect the baby …

Well, today’s paper surveys what we know about how the body’s metabolic state modifies our sense of smell and taste to point us toward what we need.

Maybe the best-understood actor in this context is glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1. It’s a key actor in the body’s system for sensing satiety — when your stomach says, “enough.” GLP-1 release by the intestines signals that the body has taken up a load of glucose, and that it’s time to ratchet up insulin production — which itself is a signal for cells to take up and store the sugar from the blood— and ratchet down glucagon, which has the opposite effects to insulin.

Turns out that GLP-1 is also produced in the taste cells of the tongue, and in the glomerular layer of the olfactory bulb that receives signals from the smell-sensing neurons in the olfactory epithelium. More interesting, GLP has the ability to shift the sense of taste, reducing sensitivity to sweetness and increasing sensitivity to umami, that meaty “fifth flavor” [7] that Westerners didn’t know about until relatively recently, because, well, we’re barbarians. That’s right, the same hormone that tells the body that we have enough sugar on board makes us hanker less for sweets [8]. Its role in smell isn’t as clear, but we know it’s there.

Martin’s crew talk about a number of hormonal actors: for example cholecystokinin, another intestinal signal that encourages digestion of fat and proteins, somehow affects social memory. Neuropeptide Y, a potent natural appetite stimulant/sedative with effects not unlike a good Thai stick, is a major affector of smell as well, encouraging the generation of new olfactory neurons — a process necessary for long-term reprogramming of the nose’s sensitivity to various smells.

Most topical, perhaps, was the mention of leptin, a hormone produced in fatty tissues and whose absence has recently been linked to obesity. Mice who have mutations that make them unable to produce leptin have increased preference for sweets (and also swell up like balloons). Harder to fit into the picture, but as provocative as it is interesting, is the fact that high serum leptin levels are associated with superior odor-discrimination ability in men — but low capacity for odor discrimination by women.

At one level, these connections are almost predictable: of course there are direct links between the body’s systems for digesting food and those that help us find, make us want, to eat more — and what to eat. Of course problems with maintaining healthy body weight are going to involve breakdowns in these signals. Hell, they haven’t even completely nailed all these connections down yet, but it seems a safe bet that, somehow, it will all connect up eventually.

But a step back, and the mind reels with the delicate intricacy of the signals and counter-signals. Everything is connected; from the simple quorum-sensing molecules that bacteria use to communicate with each other nature has developed a rich, complex dance of molecules and electric impulses that make it all work.


One more food/connections story about, or rather from, the basement on Leuning Street: it’s from a day when Heather was a brand-new girlfriend, come down to meet my family maybe for the first time. My aunt Dorothy was still alive, and my aunt Barbara and my mother were still talking to each other. The discussion came down to braciola, a southern Italian specialty of flank steak, pounded flat, and rolled up with spices and pine nuts in tomato sauce — if you do it right, there’s a hard-boiled egg in the center. But not everybody does it right [8].

My aunt Dee was trying to remind my mother of a neighbor they’d had, decades before. “He lived in that brick house,” Aunt Dee said, and I wondered, from the way she’d said it, if the house even existed any more. Certainly, it wasn’t spurring any memories for Mom.

Dee thought for a moment, then brightened, and said, holding up a fork, “He choked to death on a braciola string.”

That did it: Mom had it now; everybody nodded, and went back to the meal.

[1] Note that many folks believe that Sicilian deserves status as a language in its own right, separate from Italian.
[2] What can I say: we were rare, for the period, Italian-American Republicans. I actually worked in that building one summer, for a machine shop that was leasing it from Uncle Pete. I’ll have to post on it sometime, but let’s just say if it hadn’t been for who my uncle was they’d have fired my clumbsy ass.
[3] Say what you want about Paul; I defy you to argue he didn’t get this one right.
[4] I consider myself no slouch. Maybe my best dish is cacciatore, which I admit I tinkered with for years to duplicate not my grandmother’s recipe, but
Michelle’s Restaurant’s, in Garfield, which now seems to have become a banquet hall. Not the same thing; you really can’t go home.
[5] I know it sounds a bit weird. But it works.
[6] Which I just did. Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh.
[7] Add it to sour, salty, sweet, and bitter, the four “classical” flavors. Everything else in flavor comes from the aroma, not the actual taste.
[8] Until I looked up the Wikipedia entry, I didn’t know the name braciola was a misnomer common to Italian-Americans. How ’bout that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


It was an ugly scenario, I’ll give you that.

We’d gotten the call on a Friday night, I think, for a Saturday morning response — someone had left a note in a small West Virginia state park saying he’d murdered two women and stashed the bodies at the park. Who knows how seriously the authorities would have taken that note, if it weren’t for the fact that two local teens were unaccounted for. They had to assume the worst.

By the time we got there, though, the picture had muddied. The teens had shown up, safe and sound, and the authorities were beginning to believe the note was a hoax. But they had a tiger by the tail — they’d initiated a search, and now didn’t know how to stop it. If they kept going and somebody got hurt looking for bodies that weren’t there, they’d have a legal problem on their hands; if they called the search off and somebody’s grandma found two women’s bodies two weeks later, it would be even worse.

Fortunately, one of the services that volunteer SAR teams with good incident-command training can offer is a set of mechanisms for deciding when and how to wind a search down, ethically and by the book. In some ways, when we roll up on a search like this we’re even bigger heroes to the local authorities than when we actually find somebody.

In this case, we had a number of clues of uncertain significance to follow up on, and a few bald spots in the previous search efforts to cover, before we could suspend.

Before I left for the search, I got a call from our incident commander, Don Scelza, who said, “Bring your caving gear.”

At the time, AMRG wasn’t a cave rescue team. But a number of us were cavers, and had taken at least the introductory National Cave Rescue Commission rescue class. In this case, Don had something very specific in mind. A dog of unknown quality had alerted near a maze of rocks — essentially, a little cave system that had lost its roof — and Don wanted me to explore the maze thoroughly to rule out any, well, dead people being in there.

What I did not bring, and this is going to become poignantly relevant, was a dog. With Moe’s untimely and still-frustrating medical discharge [1], we’d gotten caught with only one operational dog — and Heather and Pip, along with our teammate Bill Evans, had gone to Mississippi, as part of the post-Katrina response, duly deputized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania [2].

When I rolled up on the search scene, I had something else to do before I did any caving. At the time, before our team had its trailer, our gear had a habit of dispersing among the officers. Since I was then communications officer, I had our radios in my car and needed to set up our communications net as job one.

The base radio was a challenge. We had no electric power in the picnic shelter that served as a command post; I tried plugging the radio into a car cigarette-lighter inverter I had, only to find that, between the power loss at the plug, the inverter itself, and the power supply, we didn’t have enough juice to run the radio.

“You know, the radio runs on 12-volt DC,” Don said, looking over my shoulder, and I felt a little dim. I pulled the power supply off the radio, hooked the damned radio up directly to my car battery, and voila, we had a communications net. I wasn’t absolutely sure I’d be going home without a jump, but I had cables.

So I put my helmet, kneepads, and gloves on over my uniform, slung my gas-mask-bag cave pack over one shoulder, and hiked up to the grotto.

Normally you don’t do SAR tasks alone; and you never do cave tasks by yourself. But this wasn’t exactly a cave, and a grid team was covering an area right next to me, within easy shouting distance. So I dove in, starting at a big opening and working my way around counter-clockwise, crawling into every crack, every opening I could find.

The task was utterly uneventful until I was nearly back where I started from, at the far side of that big opening. Standing there, I had to admit that something smelled dead.

I thought, “Think like a dog.” Knowing the scent would likely rise in the daytime, I moved into the big opening and started climbing. From the top, I was able to move down into the smell, finding, eventually, the dead fox that was its source.

Can’t tell you what a relief that was. But I felt I had a good explanation of what the dog had alerted on — and that somebody needed to go back and do some remedial training.

I drew two other tasks that day; one, the field team leader’s nightmare, was to lead a team made up of park rangers, state troopers, and local firefighters in the day’s last area-search task.

I said to myself, “If you screw up, these guys will turn on you in a second.” We did have a difficult moment, when a rose thicket broke our line like the 20th Maine broke the Alabamians on Little Round Top. But I guess I handled it all right, because despite a little grumbling about how thoroughly I was making them perform a task that we all knew was pro forma, we had no major mutinies.

Earlier, though, I’d been making my way out to my last solo task of the day — a culvert leading from the reservoir that another dog had alerted on — and reflected on how utterly, totally cool I was. I was Joe SAR. I could do anything the incident required.

Multitasking? Bring it on, thought I …

Cruelly abandoned to hold down the farm on my own while th’wife was masterminding adoptions for nearly 250 rescued dogs in Montana — a different but still difficult multitasking mission — I’d been a little too busy to do a full entry recently. Instead I thought I’d give a quick smattering of stuff that caught my eye recently, but that has piled up way too fast for me to blog — or whatever it is I do in these pages — on them. In the event, this post got delayed by the timely capital punishment/high school reunion issue, but here goes now:

First, in my Fortnight of Multitasking, something I was already suspecting — namely, let’s not kid ourselves about what great multitaskers we are. The people who multitask the most, apparently, suck at it the most. I think that multitasking gives the subjective impression of productivity without actually producing all that much.

A surprisingly sympathetic — and harrowing — story about what happens to cockroaches when deprived of social interactions. Answer: the poor little buggers get clinical depression.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, there’s this item about the movement behaviors of white blood cells. A bit of context first: you may recall me getting into a bit of a twist trying to understand how having more receptors on one side of the cell would help one of these cells find the source of a chemical gradient, given that the difference in concentration of that chemical at each end of the cell has to be negligible. Then I saw this piece in Nature about a new method for observing individual cells in a living animal, through its intact skin. Turned out that not too long ago, folks used this technique to see that white blood cells moving toward an infection don’t move in a uniform front. They bob and weave, in apparent random motion.

Well, I’ve got an alternative explanation: they’re casting for scent, just like a moth trying to regain a pheromone plume he’s lost — or, maybe, a SAR dog trying to zero in on a search subject in difficult scent conditions.

Be that as it may, I had my own little epiphany about searching — and the limitations to multitasking — as I was crawling up that culvert, green slime dripping on my back [3]. It struck me that I’d never had to crawl up a culvert like that before, and I realized immediately why — normally, I’d have sent my dog.

And that’s when it hit me: I had no dog, but they’d given me all the dog tasks anyway. I really was just a dog’s sidekick.

Humbled, and again relieved at once again finding nothing, I trudged back to base to report.

[1] Happy ending: Moe has today found fulfillment and gainful employment as head of homeland security for our little farm.
[2] This is literally true. Soon after they left, I learned that the text of the mutual aid agreement between Pennsylvania and Mississippi that governed the response had been hastily scraped over, word for word, from the one that sent Pennsylvania state troopers down there, and included full police powers (remember, this was post-Katrina, and everybody was scrambling). For reasons that would be obvious to anybody who knows Bill or Heather, we didn’t tell either of them until they got back.
[3] Ruined my @$%#^$ uniform shirt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Experts and Testimony

Lord, but the Real World has a way of hijacking — or, perhaps less dramatically, riffing on — this space. A recent post was a fairly “insider’s” view of the professionalism issues facing the search-and-rescue dog-handling community, and as such I was a bit concerned about whether it would be of interest to all of DACSIH’s readers.

Huh. The state of Texas, it turned out, had other plans. But I get ahead of myself.

So there I was, at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, New Jersey, built literally on the corpse of the farm stand where I used to get cider and cinnamon doughnuts as a boy. But we won’t dwell on the evils of suburban sprawl, because it was a happy occasion: my 30th reunion, Pascack Hills High School Class of 1979.

Heather had pulled a muscle in her back from the fucking smoker’s cough she’d brought back from her Billings adventure, and of course this really wasn’t her thing anyway, so she spent much of the evening on a couch outside the meeting room. That turned out to be perfect for me, because the experience, while enjoyable, was also a bit intense: I’d spend half an hour reminiscing with people, walk out, hang with Heather for a while, and go back in once I’d de-intensified for a little while.

Much of what we did was tell stories about getting into trouble when we were at school together. I had a particularly interesting talk with Greg Bunce, who’d been first-chair trombone when I was second-chair trumpet. As band geeks, we’d spent an incredible time together; virtually every moment we weren’t in class, we were in the band room, playing or shooting the bull.

On the date of note, however, we weren’t doing any of that — I think that we may have already graduated, in fact. But in any case, Greg tells me a story I knew well:

“I remember that time that I rear-ended you — you were driving that old Mustang of yours, weren’t you? I tell my kids about that even now.”

Which came as a surprise to me, because I had good reason to remember it differently. I’m fairly certain of my facts, because I have far more details and because I vividly remember being dragged into the insurance agent’s office for the talk about teen drivers letting their attentions wander. Which was all bullshit, of course, because although none of the adults knew it, the accident had been a direct effect of egregiously and willfully dangerous horseplay.

I’d been driving, and not my 1967 candy-apple red squareback Mustang — I think it may already have died by then — but my mother’s late-60s Pontiac Le Mans, which she’d bought second-hand from her sister. The other car was Doug “Beaner” Weinstein’s, a little Mazda roadster that he pampered as his baby.

Heh. The Le Mans and I had different plans.

I don’t remember what we were coming back from, but we were on our way home on a fairly lonely stretch of road that included a causeway across a local reservoir. I was in front, my car full of wiseasses — including Greg, of course. Doug was driving behind us, and I think his car was empty because he was going a different way back.

I stopped at a light; behind me, the gentlest bump.

I look in the rearview; Doug’s grinning at me like he just ate a turd sandwich. Asshole.

At a stop sign, the same thing; I stop, he bumps me. Now he’s laughing.

At this point we hit a short four-lane stretch, and I slow down. Doug makes the amazing mistake of passing me.

Perhaps you can see where this is going; but you probably haven’t got the full picture yet.

At the next intersection, Doug encounters a red light. Who could have known the levies would fail, but as it so happens when I pull in behind him I give him a bit of a bump. But I don’t stop there: having made contact, I gently ease my foot onto the gas.

A Glory Days, unapologetic American V8 purrs to life, the raw power even at low revs starting to push the little Mazda forward, into the intersection.

Kids, I can’t stress this enough — don’t try this at home.

Doug tries his foot brake. Tries the hand break. Tries putting it into reverse — as if; the little rotary engine whines in impotent truculence, but that little car is still headed into the intersection, red light or no. Big daddy says forward, and at this point Detroit is still capable of bitch-slapping Hiroshima [1].

In my defense, I do have a carful of little shitheads howling with laughter and egging me on. Which, of course, made it all right …

Allow me to break frame for a moment, and tell you what neither I nor Doug nor our demonstrably unsympathetic fellows knew. In fact, the Le Mans’ bumper had almost no overlap with the much-lower Mazda’s. At this moment what was pushing Doug forward was about an inch of intersection between his bumper and my Mom’s.

Or rather, the torpedo nose in the front center of the Le Mans’ bumper.

The impact, when it happened, was almost gentle. Just the slightest shock, and from the feel I wouldn’t have even known it — Doug certainly didn’t, because when the light changed he just drove off.

Those of us behind him, however, had the awful evidence before us: a huge dent in his trunk, shaped exactly like the Le Mans’ torpedo nose (which didn’t, of course, have so much as a scratch).

For a moment, we all sat there in utter, awful silence. Then I hit the gas, tried to come alongside Doug and motion him to pull over. He just drove faster — thought I was trying to drag.

Eventually we managed to motion him over. He got out of his car, that big old grin still on his face until he rounded the rear and saw. The smile, and all the color, drained from his face.

That’s when we all huddled and got our story straight. We were smart kids, developed a short but believable scenario that would minimize the shit-storm I’d be in when my old man found out. I was going to have to take the fall; that was so obvious it didn’t need to be stated — but true friends are ones who help you construct an alibi that will soften the blow.

The punch line, though, is a phone conversation I had with our first-chair trumpet, Seth Rivkin, soon afterward — Seth hadn’t made it to the reunion, so I told him about Greg telling me the slightly revised story.

“Wasn’t I driving that day?” Seth asked.

I’ll be damned. Well, there’s your reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Which brings me to that earlier post — about how bogus scent-dog evidence seems to have helped convict a couple of innocent people in Texas — and today’s post — about how, in a grim finding no one could consider any kind of victory, anti-capital-punishment activists may have finally gotten what they were warning us was coming: evidence that a man was executed for a crime he did not commit.

Texas, again [2].

The particulars you can find in the excellent New Yorker article. But here’s the recap. A man named Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for setting fire to his house and killing his children. Much of the case was made by expert testimony saying that the fire couldn’t have been accidental. Unfortunately, the case began to unravel almost immediately after the conviction:

• The “expert testimony” from the fire marshal that pretty much made the case that a man had burned his family to death turned out to be little more than folklore-based.
• Research available well before the man was executed showed that the “evidence” investigators found for arson can happen naturally in any house fire, robbing us of the “it was OK by the standards of the time” argument.
• The Texas board responsible for clemency judgments seems to have willfully ignored a brief from one of the nation’s foremost researchers on fire forensics that pretty much established the state’s case didn’t hold up, and that the fire appeared to have been accidentally caused by a space heater or faulty wiring.
• Many of the witnesses who testified in court about the man’s “unnatural calm” while his kids burned up had originally described him as frantically trying to get back into the house to save them — but remembered the day differently after they found out the authorities had accused the man of a monstrous crime. Again, so much for eyewitnesses, which I’m beginning to think are a vastly overrated mode of evidence.
• The other “damning” evidence came from a jailhouse stoolie who, years later, offered this reassuring addendum (from the New Yorker article):
“After I pressed him, he said, ‘It’s very possible I misunderstood what he said.’ Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder. ‘Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy,’ he said. ‘My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.’ He paused, then said, ‘The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?’”

One might ask if I have an agenda, where I stand on the issue. Fair enough. I tend against the death penalty for two reasons: first, I don’t believe in perfection, and so I can’t get around the irrevocability if you find out your guy was innocent. Second, I don’t like giving the state any more right to take its citizens’ lives than absolutely necessary — a cop defending himself or a bystander, that’s fine; but nobody should have the right to kill citizens in cold blood, the government the least of all. Even when the son of a bitch deserves it.

I say “deserve,” because what I will not do is waste a tear over the pieces of crap who are guilty of murder. They probably do have it coming [3].

More to the point today, I have a bug up my ass about a few words, particularly when people apply them to themselves. A “perfectionist” is someone who makes huge mistakes because he’s so obsessed with trivial detail. A “paisano” is, as my Dad once told me, a fellow Italian-American who’s about to put his hand in your pocket. And an “expert” is someone who’s been around for long enough that he feels nobody should ever be allowed contradict him again.

We’ve got a lot of this kind of “expert” in the dog handling community. God forgive me if I ever start to call myself an expert.

There are real experts in this world, although you’d have a hell of a time getting many of them to admit to it. My mother for example: all her life she’s been humble about her own smarts; but on more than one occasion she was able to see through walls, as the saying goes.

The incident with the Le Mans and the Mazda was no exception. As I’d said, we were careful to build a story and stick to it; and to my knowledge, none of the adults ever pierced the construct.

Um. My mother, it seemed, had different plans.

In a quiet moment, when nobody else was around, she grabbed my arm, and said, “Now I want you to be honest with me. Just between us. You were screwing around, weren’t you?”

No flies on Mom.

For my part, when Mom’s instincts I ’fessed up. Takes a pretty low character to lie to his mother.

[1] That sounds awful, but in fact this is where Mazda was founded.
[2] I like Texas. I like Texans. Texas women, in particular, kick ass. But let’s face it, yinz have got a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to the death penalty.
[3] I still think Tolkien got this exactly right. If you read Gandalf’s take on the death penalty — or watch it in the movie, it was portrayed faithfully to the text — it doesn’t deny that some people deserve death, and doesn’t really say the death penalty is never warranted. What it does do is make us question why we want to see it applied — and whether it’s truly out of a sense of justice, or out of fear and malice.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Love Goggles

I like to tell the story of how I proposed to th’wife, partly because, at its most shallow level, it’s exactly what people would have expected of us — I popped the question on a mountaintop, with a stunning panorama surrounding us.

Even better, at a deeper level, it’s even more apt. You see, I proposed to Heather about two or three days behind schedule. And it was nobody’s fault but her own.

Every backpacker has one trip that is the gold standard, against which every other trip is measured. For me, that’s the trough-hike Heather and I made of Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, just off Thunder Bay in Canada but for historical reasons a part of Michigan. It gets sometimes ferocious weather, including winters so severe that they practically originated the terrifying Algonquin Windigo legends, and summers so wet that people have transited the island’s roughly 45-mile length without once seeing the sun (though we had an unprecedented run of 11 days without rain when we were there that June).

Having said that, its unique climate and natural history — it has species you won’t find on any other island in the lake, including a famous population of wolves — and rugged remoteness make it a great place to spend the better part of two weeks alone. Or alone with somebody special.

Which kind of gets us to the “nobody’s fault but her own” part (I can feel my comments section heating up even now, in anticipation of the rebuttal). Heather is better than special — she’s unique. Perhaps one of her best qualities, admired from afar, can be her most irritating up close, though: she has a child’s sense of wonder at the world around her. Getting her moving in the woods can sometimes be a trial; every berry [1], every piece of wolf scat, every lizard is worthy of stopping for intense examination.

Which, given N days planned to walk from one end of the island to the other, and N+1 days of food, was an issue for me.

OK, maybe it was partly my fault — I’ve learned to be a little less goal oriented in the outdoors since then, we were both in our 20s — but the upshot was I hadn’t yet learned how to pace myself for hiking with Heather. When I was in the lead she’d lag behind, and bitch about not getting as long to rest as me when I’d stop for her to catch up; when I was behind her, I’d be nearly bumping up behind her, pissing her off and making the progress even more agonizing for me. (I’m one of those folks who gets through the painful stretches of trail by putting my head down and barreling through; Heather, not so much.)

Upshot being, by the time we bagged our first summit — just a hill, really, but in Isle Royale’s harsh climate, above the treeline nevertheless — I was too pissed off at the girl to propose to her. And the second. And maybe the third.

We settled into a rhythm, finally, and the urge to give just the gentlest little push as she started down a steep bit waned and even turned into something like the warm glow I’d had before. But by then, the weight of our packs and the rockiness and steepness of the trail had worn us to a nub.

Mount Desor, Isle Royale, was the setting — the high point of the island, according to the sources I find today, though I could swear our trail guides at the time said the tops was Sugar Mountain, a forested round-top to the southeast offering little by way of a view. We’d plodded a good three quarters of the island, northeast to southwest, and emerged from the rim of slim, white-barked beech trees that marked the treeline into the open, rocky, grassy summit, to collapse on a nice, cool boulder. I finally figured it was time. But neither of us had much energy to commit to the business. Our conversation, amidst decidedly unromantic panting, went something like:

“So you wanna get married?”


And thus, in a most romantic location but with rather unromantic style, began a pairing that, while maybe not the stuff of legend, then at least, I hope, was the cause for more than one person to say, after we’ve left the room, “Who was that awful couple?”

Romance is quite literally in the air with our current entry: a study of how romantic, passionate love affects a woman’s ability to smell human body odors.

Now, a finding that women prefer the smell of their mate to that of others would not be much of a eureka moment: that’s fairly well established. But Johan Lundström and Marilyn Jones-Gotman of the ubiquitous (in smell research) Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have done something cleverer than that: they’ve asked whether love is, olfactorily, blind. And it turns out that it kind of is.

The City of That Other Kind of Love (No, Not That One) team employed a tool called the Passionate Love Scale — a 30-statement psychological test that gauges just how much a girl’s current partner glows her plug by asking her to one-to-10 rate statements like “In the presence of my boyfriend, I yearn to touch and be touched.” Chick shit like that. They then measured each volunteer’s ability to identify the body odor of their Main Squeeze, a female friend, and a male friend of no stated romantic interest.

The result may not be exactly what you’d expect: romance seemed not to have much effect on the women’s (reasonably accurate) identification of either their boy toys’ or their gal pals’ scents. But accuracy of identification plunged for their “just friends” guys’ scent as the romantic involvement increased: fully 40 percent of these women’s ability to identify a Platonic male friend’s scent tracked negatively with how much they stood by their men. Which by psychology standards is, like, huge [2].

The four most besotted gals, with Luv Scores crossing the 240-out-of-300 Rubicon, were bumping up against zero percent accuracy with their guy pals. Even more interesting, two of these four, whose accuracy with male friends was truly pathetic, were among the best at identifying Mr. Right or She-Homey [3].

So there you have your Love Goggles: love doesn’t give a girl an unerring ability to sniff out the object of her affection; but it makes her a lot less observant, at somewhere between the “Smells like team spirit” and scent-receptor levels, of the smell of other men.

Love is, surprisingly, scent-blind; just not in the sense of the aphroism.

There is a bit of a sequel to my proposal story, by the way: a few minutes after the exchange above, when some iodiney water and PBJs had brought us both back into the land of the living, Heather shattered my plans for a leisurely betrothal by saying, “We need to set a date for the wedding; maybe in a year. If we don’t, nobody will take it seriously.” Seeing that the game was up, I agreed, albeit with a bit of a gulp.

Obviously, she was talking about our relatives and friends.

[1] She’ll call me on this if I don’t admit that I was eating the berries. Red-green insensitivity, folks!
[2] How can I put this without offending? We have to employ slightly different standards with our quantitatively challenged friends in the behavioral sciences. Boy, is that one likely to come back to haunt me, or what?
[3] Different two for each, but still …

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Crowded House

Her name was Janet, and she had impossibly long, brown hair. Cute as all get-out, and smart to boot: she was one of the pack of new graduate students that year at my biochemistry and biophysics program [1]. More importantly, she seemed possibly interested in me — so I asked her out.

That Friday night, I came by her lab — she was doing a rotation with the biophysics group, a cool subspecialty in which people used x-rays to create patterns of dots that computers helped them decode into the shapes and structures of protein molecules [2] — to pick her up. The plan was dinner, maybe a coffee afterward.

But a lab mate of hers invited himself along.

“I can drive,” he said. I can’t remember whether he was a grad student or a postdoctoral fellow, only that he was older than both of us; but since he had the car, I’m thinking postdoc.

I was pissed off. I was also seriously uncertain of the terrain: was he truly trying to horn in? Did anybody have that kind of gall? Or cluelessness? Or had she set it up, to “de-date” the situation? She certainly hadn’t said she didn’t want him along, which didn’t bode well for my prospects. Still, as a matter of philosophy, my ire centered on this guy [3] — competition, OK; but I draw the line at interference.

So we have our “three’s a crowd” date, with increasing comprehension that I wasn’t going to get anywhere here. But lacking a graceful way of bowing out early, I had to follow through, as if everything were cool, with the whole God-damned dinner. I had my pride [4].

Finally, we’re done; we took her home first. I can’t remember why — I may have left my bike there — but I asked him to drop me off back at the lab. He pulls up to the building, and as I open the door and step out, I allow one crack in my “it’s all good” demeanor of the evening [5].

I asked, “Aren’t you going to walk me to the door?”

He turned away for a moment, couldn’t look me in the eye; and for the first time that evening, I found something to like about the guy — at least he had a sense of shame.

As crowded as that date was, it was considerably less so than the vomeronasal organ is turning out to be. This “pheromone sensor” is sometimes in the roof of the mouth, sometimes in the nasal cavity of vertebrates; but it’s absent in humans and great apes.

In the beginning, the concept of the VNO, also known as the Jacobson’s organ, was simple.
We already knew — because we had one — that the olfactory organ conveyed a sense of conscious smell, a flexible and rapid sensor for whatever chemical cues the environment cared to throw at us, which we then could use to craft a flexible, highly situation-specific, and even individualized response.

The VNO, on the other hand, was supposed to be the sensor for a kind of molecular secret code — a species-specific series of chemical communications that were far more specialized, and which elicited hormonal and reflexive actions that didn’t require conscious sensation of the signal.
This picture developed from the situation in insects, in which these chemical signals, called pheromones, were first discovered and studied. One insect creates a pheromone, another member of its species receives it, and that reception causes a characteristic response — whether to court and mate, show aggression, horde up, whatever [6]. Same pheromone, same response, every time.

Mother Nature, though, finds human beings’ need to classify to be utterly and hopelessly quaint. From the beginning, scientists warned us that it might not be that simple in higher organisms. They were right.

For one thing, and I’ll repeat myself here, mammals don’t do anything for just one reason — pheromone signals seem to enter a kind of voting process that takes in a lot of input and tries to create the best possible response. For another, when the lab geeks started picking apart the receptor proteins that served as the chemical sensors of the system, they rapidly found a diversity that hinted at a much more complicated situation.

The first “pheromone receptors,” it turned out, could be split into two families; interestingly, one of them is predominant in one part of the VNO, the other family in the other part. One immediate possibility was that the two parts of the organ essentially fractionated the pheromone molecules, with one set of sensors responding to one type, maybe those that volatilized into the air efficiently, while the other responded to those that didn’t volatilize well and had to enter the organ in a water solution or other liquid form. Without more to go on, a number of other possibilities fit the bill as well.

Then came the news that the VNO also contained receptors that, for all the world, looked like the ones in the olfactory organ. Was the VNO contributing to the conscious sense of smell? Or were the olfactory receptors in the organ allowing molecules that normally acted as conscious odorants convey a reflexive, pheromone-type signal as well? Investigators also discovered a fourth family of receptors, the trace amine-associated receptors, which sense volatile amines — a toxic family of molecules that contribute to the smells of decomposition, old fish, ammonia, and urine, among others. Maybe conveying reflexive aversion to toxins?

As if four weren’t enough of a crowd, today’s paper, from Mssr. Stéphane Rivière at the University of Geneva and buds, reports the discovery of yet another receptor family in the VNO: formyl peptide receptor-like proteins.

Formyl peptide receptors play a very interesting role elsewhere in the body. They help guide white blood cells to the site of an infection, using chemicals associated with pathogens and tissue damage as the cue. The City of Peace Posse tested that idea out, and found out that the genes for these VNO receptors were able to convey the ability to respond to these cues to nerve cells and that the VNO tissues themselves are sensitive to them.

The connections between smell and immunity, once suggested by Lewis Thomas as the scientific equivalent of a “spitball” idea, are getting harder and harder to ignore. Thomas’ pure concept, that the body may have co-opted the immune system to create a sense of smell (or, more likely, the other way around) mostly isn’t true; not only are most of the molecular actors in immunity and smell different, but they generally are different types of molecules with very different mechanisms [7].

Still, the parallels are striking. As we better understand olfactory receptors, they seem less the pat, lock-and-key, one-odorant/one-receptor, enzyme-like sensors we might have expected (though the “original” VNO receptors are, for a number of reasons, exactly that kind of beast) and more like a cloud of molecular recognition hovering in wait of the next odorant, old or novel, to come along. No one receptor “belongs” to, say, the acetic acid molecule that gives vinegar much of its smell; rather, all share varying responsibility for the acid, with a small number vastly better than others. Dogs’ larger repertoire of receptors than humans’ may help give the former a more acute sense of smell not because it detect more odorants per se, but because it’s got more overlapping ability to sense the same potential swarm of odorants, and so tends to do the same job with more sensitivity. That sounds a lot less like enzymes and a lot more like antibodies, the immune system’s way of doing a similar job.

The discovery of the formyl peptide receptors in the VNO immediately suggests two different but very important possible new roles for the organ.

Rodents (the study was in mice) are good at detecting and declining tainted food; rats are legendary in their ability to evade attempts to poison them. The formyl peptide receptors in the VNO could be playing an active role in subverting the animal’s appetite when food is dangerous (along with the trace amine-associated receptors, see above). On the other hand, the chemicals that these receptors detect can be found in a number of secretions, including urine: this may be a system for identifying infected animals of your own species, so you can avoid them.

Which brings us, again, to dogs. Any owner of a pack of them has probably seen how, when one is sick or somehow “not right,” the others may, shattering our boy-scouts-in-fur-coats anthropomorphization, gang up on it and harass it. Well, it now seems very possible that setting up an antagonistic stance toward a sick pack mate is a role of the VNO [8]. Along those same lines, this could be the receptor responsible for the amazing ability of dogs to detect cancerous tissues in humans — an ability whose proponents tend to forget hasn’t been proved to be any more accurate or cost-effective than standard diagnostic methods, but which nevertheless seems real.

’Course, the “all of the above” and “none of the above” possibilities remain in play. The VNO began its conceptual life as a pure mystery; in the absence of data, some folks attributed to it an almost supernatural character. The reality, now that we have the data, is a bit more prosaic, but no less mysterious, and in some ways far more majestic in scope: we have only begun to understand the large number of important functions that this organ plays in social interactions, speciation, and survival.

The naked ape, also, stands awkwardly in the room: we and our close relatives don’t appear to have a VNO, but we do have VNO-like receptors in our olfactory organs. Are any or all of the above playing roles in our unconscious behaviors?

Stay tuned. Sometimes, a crowded house is a good thing.

[1] Long before th’ better half entered the scene. Not that I'm worried about frying pans.
[2] On a topical note, one project they were working on at the time was an ongoing study of the hemagglutinin molecule, the grappling hook that the flu virus uses to gain entry into human cells.
[3] Lest you think I was attributing the worst intent to a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt to cover for a friend who was too timid to say “no,” he did wind up dating her afterward — so the vibe I was getting, that he wasn’t being altruistic, had merit.
[4] Married for 17 years as of last month, I have no further use for pride.
[5] OK, it’s just possible that I was glowering throughout the evening. I attempted the closest I could manage to cool, anyway.
[6] A little more complicated than that, because classically there were “releasing” pheromones, which cause responses, and “primer” pheromones, which set you up for later responses — in the current Wikipedia article, that list has grown to 10 types, plus an “other” category. But the classic view was it was always the same response, and required no more consciousness than is available to a fly.
[7] One important exception: the same proteins that help identify fragments of invading pathogens may also help cherry-pick the odorants that make up our individual body odors.
[8] Again, nothing for just one reason — doubtless visual and behavioral clues play a role as well.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Now On Sale!

I’m extremely pleased to report that Triangulation: Dark Glass, featuring my horror science fiction short story “Imaginal Friend,” is now on sale at

“Imaginal Friend” is about a group of colonists on an extinct alien world finding out that its former inhabitants don’t like trespassers — and can do something about it, a thousand years after destroying themselves.

Triangulation is the latest of a series of similarly named anthologies put out by PARSEC, Pittsburgh’s literary speculative fiction fan club. As such it’s been a bit of a sleeper in the past — no offense to previous editors, it was always good. But editor Pete Butler and crew have, in the last couple of years, kicked it up to a new league, putting it on the map nationally. I’m looking forward to reading the other stories; I’m also looking forward to the publication party tonight at Confluence, PARSEC’s annual convention.

Truth be told — I want to say this diplomatically — they did well enough that this particular rat wanted to jump onto the ship, and submitted for the first time this year. Can’t tell you how delighted I was that they took “Imaginal Friend,” which is one of my own favorites.

Look for my regular post — on the mysterious vomeronasal organ, and a newly discovered function for it — in the next couple of days. And if you’re anywhere near the Pittsburgh area, consider coming out to Confluence; I’ll see yinz there!

Sunday, July 19, 2009


A couple of days into the search, things were not looking so good for our subject.

For one thing, there was his physical condition. Diabetes, a kidney transplant, and what the family described as “near-blindness” all argued against him getting very far or surviving very long from where and when he’d mired his quad [1].

For another, we had the results of our efforts to date — or lack of results. We’d plastered the immediate area around that damned quad, with several dog teams and grid teams sequentially covering the same ground. I believe I took one of the last of these tasks — I think it was a hasty that walked us past the ATV, though it’s been a while and may just have been one of those “start at the quad and spiral outward” deals. On this task I was the sidekick for my first SAR partner and ever-reliable anchor, Lilly, and a Civil Air Patrol cadet who’d already demonstrated himself to be a sharp navigator and all-around handy fellow [2].

Lilly showed some interest immediately upon encountering the ATV — but that didn’t mean much to me, as so many people had already covered the area, and Lilly was not “scent-discriminating,” identifying the scent of a specific person. She searched for all human scent. I was marginally more interested when she put her nose down, trailing along the dirt road into and through a clearing up ahead, where the jeep trail ended in a T intersection.

Again, I wasn’t sure what to make of it — so many people had been through the area. Still, it wasn’t impossible that it could be our guy Lilly was following, so I tried to keep an open mind.

Something caught my walker’s eye; he paced into the intersection, knelt down — and called me over.

Lying on the ground was a Virginia Slims butt.

Now, middle-aged, male, western Pennsylvania kidney recipients don’t smoke Slims …

“The daughter,” I said aloud.

We’d been less than thrilled by the family’s insistence on going out on their ATVs on a private search the previous night — both because untrained searchers can inadvertently destroy evidence and otherwise interfere with the organized search effort and, frankly, because the noise had kept us from sleeping well. In particular I’d been peeved by the incident command staff’s inability to put their foot down and stop the freelancing — though, with a heck of a lot more experience under my belt and without a young man’s impatience, today I understand why they just couldn’t do it.

Be that as it was, I realized right away how profound a scent-contamination problem we had surrounding that quad — and how unlikely it was that we had anything left to discover in the immediate area. I told the debriefing officer as much; while I have no doubt that my report didn’t carry any greater weight than anybody else’s, it is a fact that, soon after, the plans section folks started writing up tasks farther away from the ATV — on the third of these, a grid team found this nearly crippled, diabetic, blind subject over a mile away, awaiting help next to the creek that had kept him hydrated while we were looking for him [3].

The guy walked himself out.

When I tell this story — as, in fact, with a lot of SAR war stories having to do with contaminating scent — I know that it automatically begs a question: if it’s possible to ask a dog to search for a specific person’s scent, why would you not do that every time?

There are a few reasons, actually. For one thing, uncontaminated “scent articles” — things that the subject has recently worn, carried, sat upon, touched, etc. — are harder to come up with than you may think. Generally everybody in the family has handled it before you get hold of it — remember, the daughter’s contaminating scent was an issue here. And that’s if you’re lucky, and the entire police and fire departments haven’t passed it among one another. Good scent-discriminating-dog handlers have some tricks, and some training background, that helps them deal with a small amount of contamination (at least, if they know about it); but you get to a point where you’re essentially searching for all human scent anyway.

For another reason, an airscent dog doesn’t need to scent discriminate. If you’re following a scent trail on the ground, you’re inevitably going to encounter other trails, and you need to stay on the right one. But if you’re searching an area in the hope of encountering the wind-borne scent coming off a person at that moment, you can just follow the scent to its source and, if it isn’t your guy, you’ve at least got someone you can ask: “Have you seen him?” Usually, all you’ve lost is a few minutes [4].

Ultimately, though, there’s an even better reason for us air-scent handlers to engage in discrimination cautiously, if at all: it’s flippin’ hard to do right, and if you screw it up it’s worse than useless.

Without taking away the slightest from what trailing handlers do, the tactical, navigational, and team leadership demands on an air-scent handler require a pretty serious, ongoing time commitment to acquire and maintain; the challenges of working with and communicating with a dog who’s working at liberty aren’t trivial either [5]. By no means is it impossible to do this alongside training for scent discrimination. But it ain’t easy, and again, if you don’t do it at a very high level of accuracy indeed, you’re by definition sucking at it.

Enter item number one, shared by th’ wife: a lawsuit against the only dog handler in Texas who uses scent lineups to identify crime suspects. Seems that at least two of the folks his bloodies fingered — so to speak — turned out to be innocent, and now they’re out for, um, blood.

Now, I don’t know this guy or his training methods. His dogs may be 99 percent accurate — but that still leaves one suspect out of a hundred who’s screwed, if the courts accept the dog’s nose as evidence.

More to the point, I doubt that anybody has put a numerator to his denominator and found out, for training or in the field, what his accuracy actually is [6]. And that’s a big part of the problem. Get this, from a lawyer with the Innocence Project of Texas:

“This is junk science. This isn’t even science. This is just junk.”

Now, in my book the Innocence Project folks are among the Good Guys. It hurts to hear one of them say this; it hurts even worse that, by the current standards of practice, he’s probably right.

The problem is that it’s so hard to work with a dog without cueing her as to what you want her to do. For us airscent dog handlers, it’s relatively simple: just don’t tell me where the training subject is hidden; either I find him or I don’t, and in theory at least it should be simple to demonstrate whether having the dog with me increases my search effectiveness or not [7].

For scent discrimination the task is harder. You can do a certain amount of screwing up without messing up a non-discriminating air-scent dog’s training; but every time you reward a discriminating dog, you train her; every time she self-rewards without being corrected for a faulty identification, you train her. Most discriminating handlers, therefore, spend most of their training time unblinded; they know what the answer is, so they can jump in and reward the right and correct the wrong.

The problem is, sometimes, without realizing, we jump in before the dog has actually committed to a choice, even by a fraction of a second: and thus we train the dog to tell us what we want or expect rather than the real answer. Good discriminating handlers proof themselves periodically with a blinded problem; but I worry that a lot of practicing handlers haven’t done that, or if they have, haven’t kept track of how often they mess up.

What we want and expect matters to our dogs. It seems undeniable to this working handler that our dogs read us far more effectively than we will ever be able to read them. The slave knows the master better than the master knows himself, as Heather is fond of abstracting the otherwise inabstractable Hegel.

The end result is that, even among the best scent-discrimination handlers, I don’t know how well established the standards of practice are for high-stakes lineup identification — not that you’re not doing well, just that you don’t have a handle on the actual number, and so can’t be sure.

Perversely, as we see from a review in Science, when the stakes are highest is exactly when we’ll do what we don’t want to. A phenomenon called the “ironic monitoring process” stems from the fact that intending not to do something requires us, at some level, to focus on it — which in turn makes us more likely to do it.

People do have the ability not to “mention the war:”

Our brains can, in fact, achieve the tricky balance of concentrating just enough on something to avoid it without concentrating enough to dive straight into it. But it’s difficult, and if we’re tasked with other stuff — whether actual distractions or the distraction of stress — we’re more likely to blurt out something about Hitler.

Particularly interesting in this context is a task in which one person who can see four shapes — say, a small triangle, a circle, a heart, and a large triangle — is asked to point out the small triangle to someone who can’t see the large one. It’s not at all uncommon for the first person to refer to the target shape in a way that tips off what the hidden one is: for example, by saying “look at the  small triangle.” And they’re more likely to do that if you tell them to keep the large triangle a secret than if you don’t.

There is, for us dog handlers, another way: in the early days, defense attorneys were more than leery about DNA forensics. They anticipated, quite correctly, that if we didn’t hold the field to high standards, it would result in bullshit convictions. But the guys in the DNA forensics field did their homework, refined their numbers, and today I think that in general defense lawyers love DNA testing: in the cases for which it’s relevant and doable, and when the meaning of its results are accurately reported to the jury, it is the quickest, easiest way to get innocent defendants back to their lives.

We can do this in the dog community. We can do our homework, put numbers to our abilities, and find out exactly what we can and can’t do reliably; and at that point, a jury can take our evidence for exactly what it is.

A few years back I did an article for Advanced Rescue Technology about SAR dogs and olfaction. I had the opportunity to interview Larry Myers, one of the few scent researchers who’s consistently interacted with working dog handlers, for that piece, and along the way we got into a discussion about the reliability of dog scent evidence in legal proceedings. The editor decided to let me do this as a sidebar to the scent article; my only regret is that I didn’t think of proposing it as a more in-depth, stand-alone article, but you can read it here.

The short version is that, for the level of certainty of probable cause — the gauge of reasonable suspicion a cop, once he’s stopped you for a traffic violation, needs to have in order to search your car for contraband — Larry thinks that dog evidence is OK; but for beyond reasonable doubt — what you need to convict someone of a crime — not so much. For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with him.

Nor should we feel like second-class citizens in being asked to do this. Reasonable doubts have begun to pop up with a number of common identification procedures, ranging from polygraphy to eyewitness identification [8] to, of all things, fingerprints. The common factor of these methods: they came into use before the courts started looking at the scientific bases behind methods, and so got enshrined based on “common sense” or, maybe even worse, the opinions of “experts,” itself a slippery term that I tend to try to avoid. Quantitative evidence is the wave of the future: we hold it at bay at the risk of bringing about our own irrelevance.

[1] Yes, it occurred to me too. But it’s not the strangest thing I’ve encountered regarding a search or a search subject.
[2] Briefly: on an earlier task the previous day — a hasty along the top of a ridge to the east of the ATV — a ranger, because of a miscommunication with the operations folks, left us off at a completely different location than our intended jump-off point. In those pre-GPS days, it amounted to leaving us in the middle of the woods without the slightest idea of where we were. Efforts to align our surroundings to the terrain proofed fruitless until my walker noticed that we were standing next to the confluence of two creeks — and our map only showed one such intersection. Once we knew our spot, it was simply a matter of shooting a bearing to where we’d intended to start, and then following through with the task. We never had to ask for help, and completed our assignment — took us a few extra hours, but we did it.
[3] If you don’t have anything to eat, you don’t need your insulin.
[4] At least once, I did have reason to believe we’d missed a subject on a real search because my dog had been distracted by finding someone else in my area. But that’s more an argument for not letting people — either civilians or other searchers — get into each other’s assigned areas than for scent-discrimination per se.
[5] For the record: as I train to become a trailing handler, I find the level of handler-dog communication necessary to work trailing to be daunting. But it’s a distinct and different type of communication from that of an airscent team.
[6] As some of you may know, we’re in the process of doing something much like this with our own dogs’ performance. The preliminary results are encouraging in terms of showing something objective; but it’s a long-term project, and I don’t know how long before we get results that I’d subject to peer review. Stay tuned.
[7] Again, stay tuned.
[8] Wikipedia also has an article that encompasses the “anti” argument fairly well, though it has been tagged for non-neutrality.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


I know I have the fire service on the brain lately. It’s mainly because I’m at the “easy” part of the learning curve, in which you know so little that every gain — even if you’re taking only baby steps — seems huge. I think I’ll go elsewhere for inspiration next time, but I had one more fire-company story to share first.

Last week marked another “first” for me — the first time I participated in the Independence Day parade with my company.

You’ve got to understand, this is an iconic thing for me. As a tad I would line up to watch my grandfather and his brothers-in-law march down the street — I can’t remember whether South Hackensack had its own parade, or it was part of a larger procession in Hackensack, but in that, um, slimmer era firefighters marched as well as drove their trucks. South Hackensack Company Number Two being an informal (by the standards of the day, which seem fairly formal these days) production, the chieftaincy rotated; but I know my grandfather, Salvatore Gulino, served as chief for at least one term.

One of my earliest memories is of spending the night at my grandparents’, and of waking when the town horn went off — a Morse-code-like pattern told the firefighters where the fire was in that pre-scanner era. Outside my room, I could hear rustling as my grandfather got dressed and went out to help somebody who was in trouble.

The man was twenty feet tall.

So as you can imagine, marching with the company carried a huge amount of baggage — in the best possible sense of the word — for me. Last year I didn’t do it because, mere days into my membership, it didn’t seem right. Now I’ve responded to some calls, gotten some training, have some history with these guys. So this year, I knew I’d participate.

I had a welcome surprise coming; Neil, our assistant chief, took me aside and told me, “I want you to drive the squad.” Now, being assigned to drive was an unmitigated honor; but in all honesty, the “squad” — a van that carries odd roadside tools and which the guys at our substation chiefly use to get to incident scenes when the tanker isn’t needed — is a pretty lame vehicle.

As if I needed to be reminded of this, they had to pull one of the junior members off an engine — actually, it was my partner from Fire School — so we’d have more than one person in the vehicle. There weren’t going to be any volunteers, you see.

“How am I going to impress the chicks now?” he asked me.

In my best avuncular mode, I suggested, “You could always tell them it’s the pussy wagon.”

He brightened slightly: “Hey, that could work.”

“No, it won’t,” I laughed.

Anyhow, we lined up — I believe the brush truck came first, then the rescue truck, us, and then the engines, starting with “23” [1], and finally the tanker.

The parade was, of course, a low-velocity follow-the-leader thing down Main Street, plodding like ducks in a row; the squad having an automatic transmission, I was riding my brakes all the way. I didn’t see Heather and my Cleveland relations — we’d imported a houseful of them for the holiday — partly because I was so intent on monitoring my peripheral vision for any kids who might dash into the street. Between that, and the obligation to wave back as we drove by, my attention was surprisingly filled for what I think was a half-hour drive.

Anyhow, my point being, when your navigation consists of putting your nose into the next guy’s butt, it isn’t much of a challenge. Which brings us to our current entry, a fascinating video study of wayfinding by rats (note that this journal has a limited-time one-day free subscription, so if you hurry you can view this for free).

Primarily a brain-function study rather than a scent study, it consisted of having rats follow a scent trail to a food reward, and then — and it’s this second step that’s important — seeing what they did next, as the normal behavior would be to rush straight back to their hole to cache the goodies.

In some of the animals, the researchers had surgically damaged the ability of the hippocampus, a memory- and spatial-sense-associated part of the brain, to move information. This removed the animals’ ability to dead reckon — basically, get to where you want to go by remembering how you got where you are, without either following a guide or other external navigation method. They used dark conditions and little hoodies for some of the rats to make sure they weren’t navigating by sight.

Both the animals who received this surgery and those who received sham surgery — meant to rule out any effect from anesthesia or non-hippocampal-effects of the surgery — were able to follow the scent trails pretty well. Some individual variation, but I don’t believe any significant difference.

Again, though, it was that return trip that posed the problem: the hippocampal-operated rats just couldn’t do the quick, effortless dash back to the hole. They took longer; they made a lot of mistakes, sometimes going to the wrong hole; one enterprising individual even back-trailed on the scent trail. But their ability to simply remember the direct path back to their hole was no longer there.

I don’t have much to add to this one, except to point out how powerful the simple video is; and how amazing it is that web technology allows this kind of work, and this kind of journal, to exist.

Would it be cheesy to call it pathbreaking?

[1] Interesting fact here: soon after I joined, I learned that, of our three engines, 23, 23-2, and 23-3, 23 never rolls. I assumed at the time, and from the numbering, that 23 was the oldest engine and so the chief liked to employ it as a reserve instead of in daily use. Oh no, I come to learn: 23 is the replacement for the old 23, and is in fact the newest of the three. It doesn’t roll because the chief doesn’t want us to get it dirty. That taught me something about fire chiefs; I kid, but you know, the more I think about it, the more I think that mind-frame is a good thing in a chief.