Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Problem with Dogs

I don’t remember what I was trying to figure out. But I do recall getting the name of an expert in finding human remains. Somebody who’d gone to places like Chile, to look for the thousands of people that the dictatorship had murdered.

I called him, I’m sure, to ask a question about human remains detection dogs — HRD dogs, in the parlance.

I don’t remember my exact question, but I do remember he didn’t really answer it: instead, he said, “In my experience, dogs are best at detecting the urine of other dogs.”

Not very many responses you could make to a statement like that; I think he knew I was a dog handler, knew how provocative he was being. I don’t remember whether I offered a defense. In the first place, it really wasn’t my specialty, so I didn’t have a very knowledgeable defense to offer; in the second, it occurred to me that maybe an HRD handler had failed the man badly enough to earn that attitude.1

Suffice it to say, we dog handlers sometimes struggle with a perception of our value that is, shall we say, rather deflated compared to what we think we deserve.

Check this one out.

Heather sent the link to me, flagging the claim that it takes 17 days for a buried body to be detectable it certainly seems overly long to me, but frankly there are so little good data on what real detection dogs can do in the field that I'm not sure we could prove otherwise. I vaguely remember a study, but don’t have it at the tip of my keyboard.

What really caught my eye was the statement, “... in other words, it can map the odor plume coming from the ground where the body is buried, which can be a key factor in pinpointing the location of the grave or looking for victims in natural disasters.”

There are a couple of ways to interpret this. The simplest and more direct is that the guy doesn't think dogs can pinpoint the source of a scent not effectively, at least but that giving a human operator numbers, or maybe graphic representations, corresponding to smell intensity can.

I find that very difficult to believe.

One major misconception that I think lurks in the artificial scent detection world is that so-called “detection dogs” do just that — detect a smell. And if you're screening suitcases for bombs, fish for spoilage, or whatever, that may be mainly true. But as any dog handler in search and rescue or human remains detection can tell you, detecting the smell is the easy part. Most of the work goes into locating the source, and getting the dog to tell you when she’s done it.

Problem One, the “getting them to tell us” part, comes from the balance between what researchers call type 1 errors and type 2 errors. A type 1 error is when you fail to detect something that's there. Type 2 is when you get a false detection of something that isn’t there. The issue is that anything you do to reduce one error type tends to increase your errors of the other type. Worried about missing a signal? You can increase your sensitivity, but that will also increase your rate of false detections. Want a “bomb-proof” indication, with utter certainty that when the dog (or device) says it’s there it really is? Inevitably, you’ll increase your number of total misses.

I don’t think a device is any more or less “reliable” than a dog on this count — it’s a phenomenon of the physics of detection, independent of the detector. But I will grant you can probably work out the optimal balance more easily on a device — and engineers are probably better at dispassionately working out “I’m willing to accept an X rate of type 1 errors if I can get a Y rate of type 2 errors” than dog handlers, who tend to ignore the issue and try for zero type 2 errors and assume it means zero type 1 errors as well, which it almost always doesn’t.

Problem Two is that localization issue. And ladies and gentleman, it is one bitch of a problem. The difficulty revolves around the nature of the signal rather than the detector: scent plumes consist of discontinuous clumps of scent that don’t simply or clearly point the way to the source in a snapshot. As often as not, the source lies in the direction of the weaker scent. Researchers have learned a lot about how animals negotiate intermittent scent plumes quickly and efficiently — and surprise, surprise, they don’t try to build an exact map of the plume. They follow these simple but effective rules of engagement:

  • if you detect the scent, dash into the wind

  • if you lose the scent, cast back and forth across the wind in until you detect it again

  • if the wind dies down, even if you’re detecting scent, stop and wait for it to pick up again so you have the directional cue to know which way to go2

Believe it or not, under conditions of any significant convection, this is all you need to do to find the source. It doesn’t make the job easy — there’s a lot of casting about to be done before you get close enough to the source to make any real headway — but it’s rapid and accurate. (Dog handlers’ search patterns, by the way, are just fancy versions of casting, to make sure that, while searching for the plume, we’re fully covering the area within the artificial boundaries dictated for us by the command staff’s planning.)

I think that part of the problem is that the engineers who work on artificial noses understand detection but they don’t know anything about search. Going back to our “pure” detection dog, checking your suitcase to see if you’ve smuggled fruit, there really is no search function. It’s just: is the target scent there, yes or no?

For the police dog handler searching a basement for a buried body or a warehouse for a bad guy, the search part is simple enough that the dog pretty much does it unguided. In these circumstances, I think this detector might be able to help because it may be a matter of just walking around until the signal maximizes. I think that’s how dogs search such small areas, and how they work “scent pools” — in other words, find the source when there’s no wind moving the scent and you essentially have a uniform murk, the center of which you need to pinpoint.

But we wilderness handlers think in terms of areas of 40 to 160 acres. Certainly, if you’ve got a body that’s truly missing — as opposed to believing it’s in a modest-sized back yard but needing to pinpoint it — the kind of painstaking mapping of intensities that the artificial approach would seem not to be the way to go. You need to find the scent plume in the first place, which brings us back to dashing and casting, at which point the device’s lesser sensitivity would probably put it at a disadvantage compared with the dog.

I haven’t even touched the issue — found with bodies under water or under collapsed structures — that the scent doesn’t always come up directly over the body, but can often take a winding route to the surface so it emerges some distance away. That’s an in-built limitation of detection by scent that isn’t going to go away no matter what detector we’re using.

If you’re looking for a punch line, here it is: this is a short story I wrote, called “A Technical Fix,” which appeared in Cicada magazine. The only cheat when I wrote it was that I knew the technology wasn’t nearly as far-future as the setting I chose for it. Life imitating art imitating science fiction.

I’ve said it before: We dog handlers will eventually be put out of business, but it won’t be by artificial noses. It’ll be by something like a Star Trek communicator that immediately calls for help when you’re in trouble and gives a sub-meter-accurate location to the rescue crews looking for you. Our mobile phones are already so close; it may be that what takes the longest is working out the privacy issues of automatically sharing that kind of data with the authorities.

In the meantime, here’s my fear: that we’ll be replaced by something that isn’t as good, merely because we’ve failed to document our utility to the search effort. Or worse, because somebody screwed up, turning us all into suspected “urine detection dog handlers.” Either way, it’s a matter of the standards — operational standards, yes, but also standards of proof — to which we hold ourselves.

It may be more up to us than we realize.

1Mind you, at that point nobody even knew about Sandy Anderson’s fraudulent “dog handler” activities. The man may very well have watched her work and come to certain conclusions long before the law came to the same conclusions.
2I’m simplifying a bit here. For one thing, different species do seem to riff differently depending on their specific scent mission. For another, even among the species that do employ dash-and-cast, there are different strategies for different atmospheric conditions. Dog handlers will have seen another pattern, called “weaving,” in which the dog works into the wind in a weaving pattern that gets narrower and narrower until you reach the source. There’s evidence that this behavior results from a superimposition of dashing and casting, a response to a relatively “clean,” low convection scent plume without large gaps of scent. Your major challenges under those conditions — usually at night or on cloudy, windy, or winter days — are to keep track of the edges of the plume so you don’t run out of it, and to keep your nose from desensitizing to the smell.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

MEanderthal Me!

This app, for Android or iPhone, is too good.  (Droid, users, you can find it by searching for "MEanderthal" in the Market.)

For your amusement, me as a neanderthal:

Here I am as a hobbit (southeast Asian variety); something disturbing about this one:

Or Homo heidelbergensis -- I think it's my favorite:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

About the Moderation ...

I've hated to do it, but I've had to start moderating the comments -- not because of anything any of yinz have said, but because I've been getting a steady stream of Chinese-language (I think) "comments" that contain toxic links.  So don't take it personally, and I'll approve your comments soon as I can get to them.

Thanks, as always, for you readership and commentary.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


And again I see a spot that reduces me to near-speechlessness.

Here's my question, though:  When a "dog hander" shows up in front of the cameras claiming to have made several thousand finds, why don't people apply the same measure of journalistic skepticism?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I'm Allergic

Check out this New York Times article.

Say what?  A lot of the food allergies people claim are either misinterpretations of what their docs said -- or outright misdiagnoses?

How could this be?

The next thing is they'll be telling me that many of the folks who claim allergies to my dogs are just people with phobias and other psychiatric malfunctions who're just using the suffering that people with real allergies have to live with -- often on a daily basis -- as a screen for their own need to control others!

Go figure.

'Nother radio spot

Sorry for not getting to this last week -- but I've done another environmental-commentary radio spot for The Allegheny Front.  This is a fun project!

Monday, April 19, 2010

I Are Radio Personality Big Good

First, abundant apologies for neglecting the blog for so long -- assuming any of you are still out there. I intend to get back to it immediately; in the meantime, here's my latest project, for The Allegheny Front, an environmental news program from Pittsburgh's own, the incomparable public radio alternative music station WYEP, 91.3 FM (note you can live stream from the YEP site, which if you don't live in the Pgh area is a worthwhile thing to do).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The London Thing

Weeks since I touched my blog, it's lame beyond the telling of it that this has to be the occasion. But no, I wasn't mugged in the UK, and yes, somebody hacked my Yahoo! account. So needless to say, don't send the $^&%$#^%s any money.

Hopefully I'll have something to talk about soon; lots of interesting developments, but nothing I can share right now.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Wuzzint Doin It Right

So my surgeon's partner is yanking on my toe with a great big frown on his face.

“There's less flexibility now than there was last time. I'm going to write you a prescription for physical therapy.”

I think I managed not to groan. It isn't that I really mind physical terrorism — I'd done well playing through the pain before the surgery, and doing the same through far less pain afterward. But we're talking about the Little Piggie that Went to Market. I am kind of known at this podiatry practice as the Patient Who Does So Well because He Always Complies; but really.

Still, Mister Compliant took the scrip in hand, showed up at physical therapy, and was lectured on how, really, a stiff big toe can completely mess up your gait and your sense of balance.

“But I have no sense of balance,” I said, “Never did.”

The doc who runs the PT practice overheard, and swooped in for a test. It's actually not uncommon for folks with a hinkey middle ear to do things like ski, mountain bike, and climb — they just (over)compensate using vision and by feeling the floor (proprioception). But we soon found out I was not one of these.

While I tried to balance on one foot, the doc observed that I wasn't actually doing badly at all — but I was maintaining my balance too much using my ankles and not enough using my toes.

“You have to dig in with the toes to maintain balance,” he said.

The man was telling me I'd never learned to stand properly. I felt like a Lolcat poster:

Standing still: Yer Not Doin It Right

Well, maybe there's more than that I haven't been doing right: hence today's entry, from Brian Duistermars and Dawnis Chow of Mark Frye's lab at UCLA. Using a wind tunnel, they tested whether fruit flies could turn in the right direction to find a scent source when an antenna on one side or the other was “occluded” with a tiny little glob of glue.

I kid you not.

This kind of research nearly always truns up a couple of surprises: for one thing, the flies are left handed: blocking the left antenna affected their ability to find the scent more than blocking the right. The Johnston's organ — the middle part of the insect antenna, which detects motion, unlike the outer part that detects smell — is necessary for proper turning into the scent, though not its detection.

But maybe the most amazing part of the experiment was that it worked at all: that flies need two antennae to track the direction of a smell in the wind, and that therefore it's possible to detect a difference of smell between antennae that are less than a millimeter apart.

To help me wrap my head around this, I actually emailed Mark Frye to ask him whether that inference was really warranted. He said yes, but threw a further monkey wrench:

“If you calculate the mean molecular concentration gradient across the fly antennae it is on the order of thermal flux (noise) ...”

So somehow the little bastards are detecting a difference against a noise background that's as loud as the signal.

Now, I've been bloviating on the dog lists for some time now about how I'm having trouble seeing how a dog's nostrils, which draw scent from about three inches apart, can detect a usable concentration gradient. I'd say the fly results pretty much put any doubt to rest.

Having said that, it occurs to me that what I was tripping over had less to do with whether they could detect a smell difference across that distance than how it would be useful. To see why that's an issue, let me explain how our understanding of what smell looks like has changed since the 1980s, when the scent theory explanation that most dog handlers have read was published.

Starting from the idea that, as wind blew scent along, it would diffuse outward and mix with the surrounding air, creating what we call a “scent plume:”

If you look at how the scent gradually decreases with downwind distance, there's a very subtle change that would be incredibly difficult to detect.

But wait; folks working with smoke in wind tunnels have found out that that old picture of a scent plume is vastly oversimplified. In reality, as the scent mixes with surrounding air, it does it turbulently. Think of how, if you stir a black coffee and then drip cream in, it doesn't mix evenly. Stronger chunks of cream remain visible for a while. Same thing with cigarette smoke, or a smokestack. The real scent plume looks like this (and note you can see a much better drawing, for which I wasn't able to get reprint rights, in this paper):

So even though I had the correct picture in my head of a filamentous scent plume, with really strong chunks of smell interspersed with increasingly large voids, I wasn't putting it all together: dogs don't have to detect subtle scent gradients — or at least not that subtle — because such gradients essentially don't exist in nature. All the pups need to do is detect the transition from no smell to strong smell and back, as it sweeps past: and for that, a different signal in each nostril actually does provide important information.

'Course, it's not as simple as turning toward the stronger scent, like you would in the “old” scent plume. If a filament has just swept by you, that would be the wrong direction. But by checking which nostril got the smell when, and what direction the wind was blowing from, you can develop a more involved strategy, something like the ones seen in insects and birds and fish — and unless my own, humble and as-yet-anecdotal observations are way off base, search-and-rescue dogs as well.

For the flies, that signal-to-noise problem still stands. But at least, finally, I think I may be on track to “doing it right.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Phil Klass, aka William Tenn

I made a jackass of myself the first time I interviewed — hell, spoke with — Phil Klass.

“You have no idea who I am, do you?” he asked, frustrated, after I’d posed a few questions over the telephone. I hadn’t yet connected him with his pen name.

To be honest, I hadn’t read much William Tenn at that point, even if I had known he and Phil were one and the same. And as a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh, I didn’t yet have an internal map of the local SF community’s leading lights. It wasn’t until later, when I looked Phil up in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that I tumbled to how badly I’d blown the interview, which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had assigned me by way of covering ConFluence, the city's major SF convention.

For all his multicultural sophistication — he went to war as a socialist, Jewish U.S. soldier, the son of a Brit and a Russian — Phil Klass was an American original. He embodied so much of what makes me proud of this country. He had his opinions, and stated them courageously no matter what anybody thought; during the McCarthy era, he was one of a few SF authors openly parodying the Red Scare. He claimed no special courage, on the grounds that the folks who would have objected didn't read, and wouldn't have understood, science fiction.

Having done some intelligence work on captured Nazis, and despite the fact that he and they were each other's worst nightmares, Phil had utter contempt for torturers and their ultimately craven arguments of “utility.” Yet he told a story about dragging local townspeople in to see what had been happening in the death camp next store to them, belying their claims of “not knowing.”

Phil also told a captivating story of a major SF editor of the classic era — I think it may have been Campbell, but I'm not sure — confiding in him that “Jews probably are Homo superior” — an embarrassingly common trope of SF in its sophomore years — and how, despite his best attempts, he couldn't get the man to understand why this was so wrong, how it insulted rather than honored the memory of the Holocaust's victims. “I told him I was sorry to hear that, because it meant we'd learned nothing,” Phil said decades later.

Phil also was generous in advice, and gave good advice. I wish I could tell you how his tips transformed my SF career — but sadly, the industry is too much of a train wreck for anybody to provide the magic words. Suffice it to say he was bullish on nonfiction, bearish on creative nonfiction, and absolutely gloomy on science fiction. I've seen nothing to indicate that he got anything even slightly wrong in that.

Of course, Phil Klass, under pen name William Tenn, was a gifted science fiction author, a David-Bowie-like figure who maybe didn't get read as often as the Asimovs, Heinleins, and Herberts, but who was read by, and influenced, just about every subsequent major SF author. He was as honest in his fiction as he was in real life, arguing at a time when SF stories typically had genius inventors creating the first moon rocket in their back yards that it was going to take the finances and physical resources of a large government bureaucracy to reach the moon. It pissed people off to have someone puncture a cherished trope like that, but I note that it was a bloated, inefficient, can't-do-anything government agency called NASA that got the job done, and not private-sector venture capitalists.

But I digress.

Going over my notes from that first interview with Phil and my subsequent research, I had an inspiration: I would fight my every instinct. Rather than side-step my cluelessness, I would confront it. I opened the article with Phil’s exasperated words. It gave me a perfect entree into talking about the many reasons people come to an SF convention, and the uphill battle those of us with the SF-writing compulsion face.

After the piece ran, I ran into Phil at ConFluence, and introduced myself. He said simply, “I read your article, and it was mostly accurate. I was surprised!”

Phil, wherever you are, I'm going to take that as an indictment of modern journalism. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Literally snowbound, it's hard to come up with excuses not to blog. And I suppose, on a frigid day, it's not too unusual to be put in mind of old flames.

Mind you, this wasn't someone I actually dated — more an unrequited torch, before th'wife, even before the Before Time. We're talking what cosmologists call Deep Time, back around the point when God was thinking maybe the neutron might be a good idea.

Her name was Kathy Ewing, and she was my Self, Culture, and Society lecturer at Hogwarts [1]. She was young, pretty, and smart as all get-out — and I had a fantastic crush on her, though doubtless she wouldn't remember me at all by now.

At least, I hope to God she wouldn't, the reasons being imminently obvious.

Required background: Like many of the common-core courses [2] at the University of Chicago, Self, Culture, and Society had two hour-and-a-half discussion sections each week, in which Kathy and about a dozen of us would discuss, argue, and hash out the course materials — in this case, a “Great Books” [3] mix of psychology, anthropology, and social science.

A side-note: the U of C is the intellectual equivalent of someone throwing a knife to you and hollering, “Now, come at me!” It's exactly the kind of place that pussy little right wingers like to bitch about being hostile to their ideas — only they're missing the point: it's hostile to everybody's ideas. It's all about forcing you to defend your beliefs, structure your arguments so that they make sense somewhere else besides the addled interior of your head ...


I don't remember whether it was every week, every two weeks, or what, but every once in a while all those little discussion sections met in a big hall for a lecture. The professors and lecturers teaching the study sections [4] would rotate this duty, each taking, I suppose, a topic of particular interest or expertise on which to hold forth.

So this particular upcoming lecture was Kathy's, and I was determined to sit front and center, nodding sagely at all the appropriate points, impressing her with my interest in her topic — and, strange as it seems now, thereby my interest in her. Not that I had it planned out even that clearly.

Only the night before, a good friend who will remain nameless had the latest in a series of fights with her boyfriend, another nameless good friend, and I spent much of the night and next morning sitting in a stairwell offering fantastic advice [5]. Didn't really get any sleep to speak of that night.

So picture me the next morning, bleary eyed, too late to get coffee at the dining hall, stumbling into the lecture hall, only just barely conscious enough for a fogged corner of my mind to remember the plan of the previous day.

Unfortunately, all it remembered was, “Sit front and center.”

I'm sitting there, then, about 10 minutes into Kathy's talk when the realization comes over me that there's no way I'm staying awake. Just can't keep the eyes open. I did my best to hide it — the old, cover-your-forehead-with-your-hand-while-you-look-down-at-your-notebook thing, the hunch-down-over-the-table thing, every trick I could think of. Needless to say, even five minutes afterward it didn't seem likely that I'd had much luck at hiding from Kathy that I was sleeping through her lecture.

Dashed expectations are the subject of today's entry, a bit from C. Eisenegger and pals at the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics in Zurich and other environs, about testosterone.

Now, in the words of Robert Sapolsky — of whom I'm an admirer — in his wonderful essay The Trouble with Testosterone, here's the gist of the results when you inject testosterone into a submissive male monkey:

“Take that third-ranking monkey and give him some testosterone. None of this within-the-normal-range stuff. Inject a ton of it, way higher than what you normally see in rhesus monkeys, give him enough testosterone to grow antlers and beard on every neuron in his brain. And, no surprise, when you check the behavioral data, he will probably be participating in more aggressive interactions than before.

So even though small fluctuations in the levels of the hormone don't seem to matter much, testosterone still causes aggression, right? Wrong. Check out number 3 more closely. Is he raining aggressive terror on everyone in the group, frothing with indiscriminate violence? Not at all. He's still judiciously kowtowing to numbers 1 and 2 but has become a total bastard to numbers 4 and 5. Testosterone isn't causing aggression, it's exaggerating the aggression that's already there.”

So you get the background here: testosterone as a vehicle of aggression, of conflict, if not social dominance.

Imagine Herr Eisenegger & Co.'s collective surprise, then, when they gave sublingual testosterone to a bunch of women [6] and then had them play one of those social-strategy games: In this case, they gave one woman $10 [7] and told her that she had to make an offer to another — to give that other woman $5, $3, $2, or nothing. If the second woman refused the offer, nobody got anything. If she accepted, she got what was offered and woman number one kept the rest. So there are two separate motivations: the less woman one offers, the more she gets to keep; but if she doesn't offer enough, woman two can play the spoiler.

The expectation, of course, is that testosterone will bring out woman one's inner total bastard, to use Sapolsky's words, and offer less, even at the risk of losing it all.

You've probably guessed that it didn't come down that way: in fact, testosterone made woman one offer not less to woman two, but more. On the average, she offered about fifty cents more than when she hadn't been given the testosterone.

This isn't necessarily a surprise; some experts the investigators had polled beforehand had actually predicted this result, on the grounds that testosterone would enhance the women's desire to take leadership: and one way to establish leadership is to make a more generous offer that makes the other gal more likely to trust and follow you.

But that's not the interesting bit. Eigenegger etc. then took their data, and sorted it differently. Instead of separating the “women one” who'd gotten testosterone vs. those who got a placebo, they separated by which of the two the women thought they'd gotten. And guess what? The women who thought they'd gotten testosterone acted, if not like total bastards, then at least like bastards: on average they offered a dollar less than the women who thought they'd gotten placebo.

That's right, the expectation of testosterone was more potent in terms of both size of effect and statistical significance than the real thing was. And it had the opposite effect of the real thing. For all the world, it looks like testosterone's bad rap in popular culture carries more weight than its biological effects in our little brainbones.

Deep waters here: did expecting testosterone make gals one a bit on the bitchy side, or did the bitchier girls expect they'd be given testosterone? And since the anti-placebo effect was stronger than the real thing, what thence?

Our authors did a bunch of work to control for various complications; you can read more about it in their paper. As always, a single experiment isn't going to be gospel. But it does give us a wallop of a lesson in being careful about our expectations.

I don't know what expectations Kathy had of me, if any — for obvious reasons I never had the guts to ask her about that day. But I got a disturbing window on the question a few years later, as a senior, when I ran into a fellow student from Kathy's study section.

When we figured out that we'd been in the same class, his eyes first narrowed, a bit angrily. Then the light bulb went on, and he said, “Oh, I remember you — you always asked the stupidest questions!”

Oh well; expectations be damned.

[1] A prospective student I was interviewing for the college put this metaphor into my head. Geeks surrounded by stone: God, yes. At Harvard, Heather may have been a resident tutor at Slytherin, but we had Lord Voldemort — I mean, Milton Friedman.
[2] U of C is one of those liberal-arts-and-a-bit-angry-about-it places — everybody shares the same common core of science, social science, and humanities courses before they get to take their major requirements and electives.
[3] Mostly dead white European men, though there were a few chicks in there —
Mary Douglas and the like. And I understand they've been broadening it since.
[4] And I think most of them actually were lecturers or professors of varying type, and not grad students — that's another thing U of C is serious about to the point of it being a “thing.”
[5] I don't know what's harder to believe — that we actually did this, or that anybody would want to hear my advice.
[6] This, of course, is a loose end to the study: would the result have been different had you done the experiment with men? It's a quandary, though, since in men there'll be a normal variation between individuals and from day to day, and so, like the monkey, you have to give a snoot-load of it to make sure you're significantly changing what's already there — and then you have to worry about non-natural effects of what amounts to an OD of testosterone. And they won't let you do that with humans anyway. Women, at least, are more of a blank canvas, though you do have the possibility that their brains won't react in the same way that mens' will.
[7] Actually, it was “monetary units” — maybe euros — but you get the idea.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Who You Think You’re Fooling?

The excellent Smartdogs’ blog has cited an interesting — if ill-advised — new way the government is wasting our money: building robots to train animals without human involvement.


Mind you, I do differ with Janeen in one important way: I’m not so sure you can’t, given the amazing robotics advances on their way in the next 10 to 20 years, build a robot that can train a dog. Given that the Japanese are starting to build robots with facial expressions, and even pheromone signals are beginning to make sense, I’m not so sure that this task is beyond near-future technology.

Now, I agree with Janeen in that the project is hopelessly naïve: at best it will take much, much longer than its creators realize (partly if they waste time with an all-operant box rather than starting by building a robot that looks and smells like a human trainer) [1]. But one important thing that a robo-trainer can have is perfect timing. Never a cue too late, never one too early. Never tired. Never distracted, pissed off, sinus-infected ...

As th’ better half is fond of pointing out, accurate communication with the animal is a fundamental — and good timing of such can produce results in the face of muddy-headed methods, unsavory personality, and much else that’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

I think it could work.

I’m already a bit off-message: my point today has to do with building a machine that looks and smells like a person, at least to a dog. Before you say “could never happen,” recall the cuckoo.

This is the bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, getting free child-rearing in the process (often, the cuckoo chick will kick the lawful denizens of the nest out, so the mama bird is actually losing her babies as she raises the changeling). But it’s all the more amazing in that the cuckoo chick doesn’t look anything like the chicks of the birds it parasitizes: it’s bigger, uglier, just a different, um, bird entirely.

How in the hell can mama bird not tell the difference? Could it be that easy to fool dogs as well? Granted, most dogs are smarter than most birds (though consider the amazing intelligence of the corvids and the psittacines, and don’t be too sure of yourself), but this seems to be well within the ability of a bird to sort out.

Except if they tried, it would be a disaster.

Today’s entry, courtesy Diazaburo Shizuka and Bruce Lyon at UC Santa Cruz, explains why. Not content with basking in the permanent sun we’re told they enjoy out that way, these folks took a look at coots — no, not volunteer dog handler/firefighters pushing 50, but the water birds. Coots are a special case because they sometimes parasitize the nests of their own species.

What the California Dreamers discovered is that mama coot actually does a fair job of kicking changelings out of her nest, even though they look a lot like her own. How? She uses the first-hatched chick as a template, and boots chicks that don’t look enough like it to the curb.

Why does this work? Because, of course, you don’t parasitize an empty nest — you sneak an egg into one that’s already got eggs in it. You therefore start out with a younger egg than the rightful owner’s. And because of that, the first-hatched is likely to be a chick who belongs there, and not an interloper.

Why can’t it work for the birds that cuckoos parasitize? Because cuckoos grow fast and big, the better to muscle out the competition. There’s a good chance that the first egg hatched in a cuckoo-parasitized nest will be a changeling — and if mama uses it as a pattern of whom to keep, fewer, not more, of her babies will survive.

Bird-brained indeed. Maybe I was hasty in rejecting Data’s cat; getting a dog to accept a robot trainer may have less to do with how convincing it is than with picking the right cues, and understanding how dogs think.

[1] Another thing: as I’m fond of telling people, technology is likely to put us dog handlers out of business, but not by creating a robotic searcher. Why? Because by the time they could develop one, it’ll be too easy to find people in other ways, such as reading the location of their GPS-equipped cell phone. (Though this, too, isn’t quite as easy as you’d think.)

Friday, January 1, 2010


So on our way back from Jersey, visiting the Sicilians [1] for the holidays, we decide to take a little detour across the river into New York City to visit my old friend (and co-Best Man at my wedding) Mike Gelfman for an afternoon.

We met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was my clever way of getting spousal brownie points, hanging with an old buddy from the Before Time, and getting to look at cool old armor and weapons all at the same time.

In the event, though, we never got to the Met's amazing medieval arms exhibit because we got sucked into the far earlier pottery and artifacts exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Tuscany [2], and so forth.

I didn't feel cheated.

Tucked away in a case, one vase among thousands, was this customer [3]:

Heather immediately noticed that the descriptive signage, while full of interesting bits about the religious symbolism, left out an important, if puerile, fact: what seemed obvious to us was about to happen in the depicted scene.

We went back and forth over whether the writer was assuming that tidbit would be obvious to museum goers; while we often decry the rather pathetic state of the art in museum signage these days, the fact is the Met's signs mostly date from some time ago, and it seems far mor likely to me that the author, in a Looney Tunes kind of way [4], was presenting information that a proper, if educated and cosmopolitan, city slicker parent can read to a child while “getting” it at a more adult level.

'Course, that's an assumption, and assumptions can be dangerous. Leading us to today's entry, a study of how the smell-reactive structures of the mouse olfactory epithelium map to the sensations reported by human subjects coming from Yuichi Furudono and pals at, of all places, the Japan Tobacco company's [5] Science Research Center and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Amagasaki, Japan.

They found, interestingly enough, that the patterns of nerve-cell activation in the mouse olfactory epithelium caused by 12 different odorants matches quite well with similarities and differences in the smells experienced by their human subjects when exposed to those odorants. It's a remarkable finding in its own right, in that it's a kind of Golden Spike that verifies what we're learning about the brain's encoding of olfactory experience by explicitly connecting a series of events in the nose and brain.

But let's take a moment to pick apart exactly what they were doing: they were watching the patterns of nerve-cell activation in the mouse's nose, using that information to figure out how the brain transforms those signals into the smells that we experience — as if we were certain that what happens in the mouse nose reflects perfectly what happens in the human nose, and to some extent brain to brain as well.

Now, the authors are careful to point out that this assumption carries some dangers, and discuss the issue at some length in the paper. But what really pops for me isn't that they're making this assumption, but that the odds are so fat that it's likely to be a sound assumption: from everything we know about the remarkable similarities in the sense of smell among vertebrates, I don't think anybody's losing sleep over the formal possibility that something vastly different can be happening in the mouse brain vs. human to produce similar patterns.

How far we've come.

Anyway, let me wrap up by taking a moment to wish everybody the best New Year Possible — Lord knows, we all could use a better year — and a belated Happy Other Holidays. And please, consider donating some dough to Wikipedia so that this remarkable resource can be there for us all.

[1] Aka my relatives.
[2] The Etruscans, who are a new interest of mine and worth a check-out.
[3] It's a krater, not a vase, apparently. Whatever.
[4] There's a New Year's Day marathon on today.
[5] Check out the link, there's an interesting, if coincidental, connection with the dumpling poisonings in Japan in 2008.