Best Dog Ever

Not long after we moved into our first house my wife and I got a dog.  Riley was a free puppy found via a classified ad in the local newspaper.  He was a German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix and a very sturdy mutt.  The puppy grew into a confident dog, who was protective without being aggressive, and easy to train.  And the perfect dog for children to grow up with.

Riley

Along with raising Riley we rescued a Doberman-something mix that some idiot had tried to train as a guard dog.  Duchess was most likely tied up and abused, which left her a quivering wreck.  Fortunately, Riley helped re-socialize her to people.

Best dog ever.

As it happens, dogs and people probably have been socializing each other for well over 20,000 years.  There are theories on how this started but nobody really knows.  Dogs could have reasonably started out as wolves rooting around in the discarded bones from our kills, and at some point, we quit driving off the ones that were less aggressive.  Thereafter the first midnight snarl at a larger predator prowling about would have made the benefits of having them around readily apparent.

The wolf packs from whence dogs originated are highly cooperative affairs.  It doesn’t seem like it would take very many generations of favoring less dominant individuals to tip the balance from cooperation with wolves toward cooperation with us.  And domestication would be off and running.  In the millennia since dogs have become thoroughly attuned to our behavioral cues and emotions.  We’ve adapted to them as well, with some variation among cultures concerning how we think about them.  Horse are another animal that has become attuned to us.  But I digress.

I was very attached to Riley.  When his lower spine gave out at around twelve years old I had a very difficult time.  After the euthanasia by the veterinarian I could not bring myself to even think about another dog.  Later, when Duchess passed, that was that.  The children, however, had other ideas.  The girls picked out a prospective litter in the newspaper and went with their mother to a local farm.  And brought home Maggie.

The new puppy was a little pistol.  She was malamute – border collie mix, very smart, very busy, and very strong-willed.  She destroyed at least one pair of my son’s pants by sinking tiny needle teeth into the cuffs and tugging.  Which she did while he was attempting to walk in them.  We needed professional help with training and enrolled Maggie in a local obedience program at six months old.  The classes got the family and the dog on the same page and thereafter we had another excellent family dog.

Maggie

I am serious when I describe her as intelligent.  Like most dogs she loved to ride in cars.  Except that Maggie learned the difference between “ride in the car” and “ride in the truck,” and would wait at the rear of the correct vehicle.  She was also an escape artist.  Fences a challenge to solve, and not necessarily a barrier.  The dog didn’t wander off when free.  She just wanted out.  One family vacation we boarded her at my sister’s place which had a fenced yard, and Maggie figured out how to open the gate.  When my sister got home, Maggie was waiting outside the fence.  Her own dogs were nowhere to be seen and fortunately wandered home some hours later.

Maggie was also one of those dogs that was extremely possessive about things like food and bones.  We did some work fairly early on to ensure a family member could remove those without getting snapped at.  But a couple of years ago some kittens joined the household and we watched in horror as Maggie picked up a kitten who was nibbling at the contents of the dog dish.  And gently tossed it away from the bowl, with no injury whatsoever to the kitten.

Best dog ever.

She was almost ten when she got sick, just after New Year’s Day.  It was most likely a cancer.  She was not in pain but couldn’t keep regular dog food down.  After five months of vet visits and home-made dog food concoctions, she finally stopped drinking water and got too weak to stand.  I really, really, miss that dog.  Sometimes I still do.  I can still picture her in the back yard, sniffing the wind.  But this time was different.  I wanted another dog.

With the children grown and (mostly) moved out I was on my own at the beginning of this past summer to search for another dog.  It was a bit of work.  The newspaper classifieds have mostly disappeared in the last decade, along with most of the free puppies from litters.  It seems like everybody online is trying to make a buck raising and selling dogs.

The new dog was a three-year-old male from the local animal shelter.  My long-suffering wife came along to help pick one.  This was mostly out of self-preservation, so I wouldn’t come home with the first dog that caught my eye.  Which happened to be an Australian Cattle Dog.  That breed needs a lot of activity.  It helps if the owners are runners.  We’re not.  So, what we came home with was Kona, another Rottweiler mix.

Kona

Kona loves to bring back balls, and is fast.  The ideal exercise for him is a rubber lacrosse ball, thrown fifty to seventy-five yards with a launcher.  He tires after about a dozen throws and walks home with the ball in his mouth, slobbering all the way.  He’s very affectionate, more so than any dog I’ve had, and will climb up in your lap if you let him.

He’s not quite the Einstein that Maggie was.  He barks at reflections in the windows after dark.  But I really like this silly guy.

Best dog ever.

 

Our Bias Can Cost Us

Our ability to deceive ourselves seems to be quite resilient.  There is this thing called “confirmation bias” where we search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that validates what we already think.  And researchers in Europe recently found the following:

We tend to pay more attention to information that confirms our own beliefs and biases, and we are prepared to lose money to stick to our guns.  We ignore what doesn’t fit with our biases – even if it costs us | New Scientist

We appear to dismiss the obvious costs of bad choices, and this presumably extends beyond financial incentives.  The tendency might help explain we keep defending appalling behavior from elected officials we voted for.  Or can’t cut loose from time commitments that are clearly burying us.

The one comment I would make about the study is that someone ought to design broader tests for the outcome (if this hasn’t already been done).  The study was based on two experiments on groups of 20 participants.  The description of participant demographics was a bit thin.  Sex was identified and beyond that, adults with mean age in the early 20’s and a negative report of neurological or psychiatric issues.[**]

photos-public-domain.com

I work with large data sets on a regular basis and I am always a bit cautious about conclusions drawn from small numbers.  Interpreting small scale results is a bit like navigating in the dark with a flashlight.  What you see can be an artifact of where you happen to be looking.

Or as the study results suggests, where we choose to shine the light.  If this effect holds it should be repeatable by other researchers using different populations, and at larger scales.  I suspect that it probably does, which might suggest some caution about the purported wisdom of crowds.

Information in large groups tends to stovepipe around occupational specializations and areas of interests.  What is known inside the stovepipe becomes self-reinforcing and bad information becomes highly resistant to change.  Which suggests the aggregation of confirmation bias might be part of why it sometimes seems to take the retirement and/or death of an entire generation of theorists, researchers, and practitioners to erase a bad idea.  Even when the costs of being wrong were found to be high.

It is possible that confirmation bias may have had a survival benefit in our deep history before civilization.  We still do second-guess ourselves and our group decisions.  But second-guessing slows down making and implementing critical decisions when they have to be acted on immediately.  Or at that are at least urgent, and irrevocable once adopted.  Second-guessing doesn’t contribute anything particularly useful when a mistake got you or your small band of hunter-gatherers killed.  As in:

This was a really bad valley in which to camp for the winter.  We’ve run out of food.

If you and your group survived to pass on the benefits of experience your choices were clearly correct.  Or at least they were among a number of several acceptable alternatives.  But in the complexities of the modern world the bad consequences tend to be less lethal and less immediate.  Confirmation bias might not serve us very well any more.

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[**] The citation for the paper referenced in the news clip is for those of you with the math to understand the statistical work.  While I work with data I lack the background required to get very far into this.

Palminteri S, Lefebvre G, Kilford EJ, Blakemore S-J (2017) Confirmation bias in human reinforcement learning: Evidence from counterfactual feedback processing. PLoS Comput Biol 13(8): e1005684. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005684

 

Smartphone Apps and Your Conflicts

Reconciliation is supposed to be a defining characteristic of Christian community.  But the social media and messaging apps that smartphones weld into everyday life might actually get in the way.

The previous post highlighted a CBS News report* detailing how app developers attempt to deliberately manipulate the way our brains work.  The goal is to keep us coming back to apps and the advertising they push.  But one of the byproducts is that our phones make us anxious when we don’t use them.  So, if you are in conflict with someone and using social media or messaging apps to communicate, you are likely at least somewhat stressed before the fighting ever starts.

This seems like a recipe for misunderstanding and escalation.

Plain-old email is bad enough.  Text-based communication inherently lacks the non-verbal cues required for language to fully express emotions.  Over the years I have watched a number of conflicts spiral out of control as the recipient colored otherwise innocuous language with tones to which the sender was insensitive.  But now a smartphone addiction can add a dollop of excess cortisol and load the interchange with some very unhealthy overhead.

Wikimedia Commons

So, the next time you feel the urge to fire off an angry text or post to a friend, just don’t.

Instead, use this cool app on your phone that allows you to avoid all that.  You know, the one that makes phone calls.  Call the person and have a conversation.

Or better yet call them, arrange to meet for coffee, and then have the conversation.

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*Anderson Cooper. What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care 60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

A Caution for Visionaries

This will never do.

Or such was likely the first thought of an old desert tribesman on seeing the line of petitioners winding through the encampment.  The line ended at the tent of his son-in-law.

The younger man had done well for himself.  When they parted he was an exile.  He returned now as the leader of a people.  And the older man had heard stories about how this came to be.  But the younger man had little sense of his surroundings and the limits they imposed.  He grew up as the adopted grandson of a king, and accustomed to having slaves hanging about out of sight, anticipating and delivering needs and desires.  The upbringing also steeped him in stories that somehow elevated a mortal human king above the forces of earth and sky.  He consequently seemed to have a rather blurry sense of personal limits.

Bedouin Tent, Syrian Desert
photo by Kok Leng Yeo, Wikimedia Commons

The older man was Jethro, priest of Midian.  He was grounded in a way that his son-in-law was not.  On the one hand his position as a holy man brought prestige.  On the other there was the poverty of his situation.  When they first met Jethro lacked adult sons and his flocks were not large enough to support hirelings to tend them.  They were also too small to attract the interest of suitable matches for his daughters.  Jethro cultivated his prestige and was very careful how he used it.  His status protected his daughters from physical harm when they tended his flocks.  But it did not prevent intimidation when they brought the stock to water.  Water in the desert was life, which meant it was often wielded as a cudgel by the strong.  So Jethro lived in a balancing act between his position as priest and the limits of his actual power as the leader of his family.

But then a headstrong young fugitive waded into the midst of his daughters’ tormentors and beat them black and blue.  Jethro was quick to recognize the potential. The fugitive became a relative and grandsons were added to Jethro’s little family.

There was some understandable consternation a few years later when the son-in-law proclaimed an encounter with the I AM.  The encounter was followed shortly by a return to Egypt.  Jethro knew whispers of the I AM from his service to the gods.  But the vision of Moses dictated a confrontation with Pharaoh and survival seemed unlikely.  Fortunately Moses left his family behind in the relative safety provided by the Midianite tribes.  The children were the future.

And against all hope Moses returned.  Jethro found himself learning something new of the I AM.  But he also could see that the favor of the I AM did not apparently not bestow the good sense that comes with successfully navigating treacherous limits.  So, Jethro stepped into the problem to bring a bit of that good sense.  Again he was carefully trading on his status, this time as the family patriarch.

Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning to evening?

Jethro could see that this was not going to end well.

The thing that you do is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone.

Moses did not yet grasp the significance of divisions between what he must do, what the I AM must do, and what others must do.  Jethro brought his experience to bear on the divisions.

You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God.  You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do.  Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.  Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you.

Fortunately, Moses listened.  Not every visionary leader does.

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Quotations are from Exodus 18 in the public domain World English Bible.

Mark Buchanan on Reconciliation

Reconciliation is what Christianity is supposed to be about.  Just over a year ago I posted about shredding the toxic lists we keep of the wrongs others have done.

Here’s another view of it.  I just listened to a podcast by Claire Perini and Mark Buchanan at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  They unpack what reconciliation looks like at a personal level between individuals and within national movements.  Mark describes reconciliation as “…a father running down the road with his arms wide open…” and shares some personal stories of the “open embrace.”

The audio is about 45 minutes long and definitely worth the time.  What really caught my attention was Mark’s statement near the end:

…if you unpack them in the wider context what Jesus is saying is that things love and forgiveness are places you live.  ‘Dwell in my love.’  And if we refuse to live in that place, then not only can we not give love, or give forgiveness, we can’t receive it because it’s actually, it’s an abiding in Christ…not only are you not then going to be refusing to be an agent, you are actually refusing to be a recipient. Source: Regent College Podcast.

The lists we keep prevent our receiving love and forgiveness for ourselves.

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The podcast can be found here, as well, along with others from Regent: http://www.regent-college.edu/lifelong-learning/podcast

What Political Behavior on Facebook Might Actually Reveal

Politics has taken on a whole new corrosive aspect:

Turning friends into foes on social media is a new kind of political statement.   Source: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters are unfriending each other on Facebook – MarketWatch

Stuff seems to leak out in our behavior online that says things about us we did not intend.  And Christians need to take a good hard look at their motivations if cutting ties is wrapped up in severing a real relationship.  This latest manifestation of the political climate is not something we should be participating in.

There are valid reasons for severing social media connections, such as avoiding the spillover from someone else’s toxic behavior.  But if politics are at the bottom of this, your primary loyalties may be at issue.  Christian faith at its core is allegiance to risen Jesus.  It seems to me that this extends to how we treat his people — including those whose politics we find detestable.

Jesus gave the world the right to judge the authenticity of our claim to faith by our behavior toward one another.

Which might include how we behave in our political activities on social media.

Not in Front of the Children

We are often more concerned with the appearance of our personal behavior than the actual substance.  So we hold grudges and carry on our personal warfare with each other out of sight.  Or so we think.  Not so fast, suggests this article from The Atlantic.  It discusses the effect of parental conflict on children:

“They aren’t fooled when one spouse gives another the silent treatment—the emotion is palpable.”  Source: How Passive Aggression Hurts Kids – The Atlantic

The article described how smoldering, unresolved conflicts between parents do damage to their children, and quoted psychology Professor E Mark Cummings as saying that  “‘…people underestimate the sensitivity of kids to their environments…'”

It might even be a step back from underestimation to a lack of awareness, which may be a broader feature of our conflicts with each other.  We seem to have little or no idea of the damage we do to those around us.

Thought Leaders

I’ve watched a bit of TED and there’s been quite a lot of good stuff on it.  As I’ve noted previously, the format of TED successfully makes use of the shrunken attention spans of modern culture.  But the packaging that makes TED work also suggests its effectiveness has very little to do with the actual content.

With that in mind, here’s a bit of Canadian satire from Pat Kelly of This is That.  It’s about how to inspire people and say nothing at all:

 

 

There is a very good chance that you could take any given TED talk, flip the content so it says the opposite of the original, and the audience engagement would be just as high.

 

War in Heaven

There is an odd bit of gangland slang that was popularized in the late 1980s where bystanders hit by stray bullets were referred to as “mushrooms.” They “popped up” in the line of fire.  At the time the actual incidence appeared to be relatively low[*] but there was justifiable public outrage over the apparent disregard for the innocent.

Callousness was an obvious dominant factor in the shooter’s mental framework.  But the bystanders didn’t just wink in out of nowhere.  They were already standing where the shooters were spraying their bullets.  Which suggests the slang might point to a more broadly applicable feature of conflict.  It might be very difficult for the combatants to recognize who else their wrath might injure besides the intended targets.

One of the things that I was taught during a prior career in law enforcement was that, in an armed confrontation, the officer “tunnels in” on whatever is perceived as the immediate physical threat.  This results from the flood of “fight or flight” hormones dumped into the bloodstream.  It is a normal physiological response which prioritizes energy and focus toward the immediate danger.  It is hard-wired and was appropriate when the threat was a large predator on the savanna.  But the response is not appropriate when the confrontation involves firearms and innocent civilians.  So officers are trained (at least in theory) to think about their surroundings in spite of the adrenaline dump, and this includes maintaining a conscious awareness about whoever else might be standing in the line of fire.

This physiological response to threat is also not appropriate in our personal relationships.  Conflicts are inevitable.  But they also cause stress.  Some stress is helpful if handled properly and it pushes us to seek resolution or accommodation.  But chronic, destructive, or otherwise mishandled conflict is another matter.

Most of us deal with conflict using whatever strategies we absorbed growing up, coupled with whatever our personalities tend toward.  And when things get out of hand the escalating stress levels are likely to lessen our awareness of another’s welfare, making it easy to cross lines and start doing harm.  If this happens we will probably lose track of the bystanders.

Severely dysfunctional parents might be an example at the extremes.  Over the years I’ve had quite a few casual chance conversations with acquaintances who were separating from a spouse.  The welfare of the kids seldom came up.  If children were mentioned at all, it was usually in the context of legal wrangles over money, property, visitation and custody.  The rest of the conversation was all about the intolerable behavior of this other person.

It seems that once the parents are tunneled in on warfare with each other they no longer see their children.  It’s not that the parents intend harm.  But somewhere during the course of the chronic personal warfare and the divorce they lost track of the kids.

To be clear, some divorces are inevitable and most parents do consider their children.  But when they cease to seek the welfare of each other the stress levels rise, and one or both parents risk not being able to see the bystanders.  Particularly if malice has taken hold, or if one of the participants happens to be toying with trading up to a more interesting bed-mate.  The effect on the children is at this point is no longer a matter of conscious thought.  Conflict metastasizes into open warfare and what ought to be a bit of heaven turns into something else entirely.

What happens in families is probably true of most social groups.  Churches are unlikely to be any different.  I’ve attended a church of one type or another for as long as I can remember.  And a common features of group conflicts seems to be that at least some of participants appeared completely insensitive to the effects of the conflict on those not directly involved.  They seemed unable to grasp the damage from the relational shrapnel scattered by their warfare.  The nature of the conflict appeared irrelevant; it seemed not to matter whether the conflict was doctrinal, leadership, over programs, or just driven by personality.  The broader effects of the conflict seem beyond the range of conscious thought.

Christians ought to be better at this.  Conflict is inevitable.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  But if the welfare of our fellow combatants is not part of our thinking we are apt to mishandle the dispute.  We either escalate, or dig in and nurse grudges, turning what ought to be a bit of heaven into something else.  The rising stress levels that result will make it hard to pay attention to those not involved, particularly the young and the weak.

And heaven becomes a free fire zone with bystanders in the way.

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[*] Lawrence W. Sherman, Leslie Steele, Deborah Laufersweiler, Nancy Hoffer, Sherry A. Julian. Stray bullets and “Mushrooms”: Random shootings of bystanders in four cities, 1977-1988 Journal of Quantitative Criminology, December 1989, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 297-316
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01062556

The Universe Looks Mighty Lonely (and we don’t like it).

We like the idea that someone else is out there.  Someone intelligible to us.  The crowded, fictive universes of Star Wars and Star Trek are fun to imagine.  They are also easy to imagine, possibly in part be because of the influence of the mediocrity principle, which has been rattling about in modern cosmology for some time.  A simple way to think about mediocrity is that if you are on a walk and pick up a random rock, it is apt to be of a common type[1].   For extra-terrestrial life this means that because we happen to be here, complex life is likely to exist on lots of other earth-like planets.

Not so fast.  A recent Discover Magazine article suggests something different:

A model of the universe predicts the universe holds some 700 quintillion planets, but none like Earth.

Source: Earth May Be a 1-in-700-Quintillion Kind of Place – Discover Magazine

The idea that our particular type of world might be rare is not new.  As Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee suggested over a decade ago,[2] there really is quite a laundry list of things that have to happen to make a place suitable for complex life.  Microorganisms can live in some really nasty places (including possibly the oceans of Saturn’s icy moons).  But not much else.

And if we do share the cosmos with someone else they might be too far away to ever know about.  It is really hard to grasp just how far away celestial objects actually are.  The roughly ten thousand years of human history (settlement and agriculture) is a statistical blip when distances are measured in thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of light years.  By the time an electromagnetic signal from another civilization is received and responded to our own may be long dead.

So far we have not heard from anyone, which was commented on in an Atlantic Monthly article about SETI in 1988.  Nothing has changed since then.  SETI has been listening to silence for quite a few years now.  It’s as if we are the only flea on an elephant.  How is that possible?

This idea that we might actually be alone really bothers us.  Having killed off  belief in God and the immaterial (or at least made it irrelevant) we seem to feel compelled to populate our empty spaces with something.  Granted, most of the sci-fi is just good fun — Guardians of the Galaxy was a hoot.  But in the last couple decades it seems like there has been rather a lot of it.

And it’s been apocalyptic.  The blockbusters all seem to be about someone or some thing trying to end everything and someone else trying to prevent it.  And one side  (or both)  having extraordinary abilities.  The perseverance of ordinary people against long odds no longer speaks to us.  We want heroes and demi-gods, and we them to ride in and save us from being alone in an anxious world saturated with bad news.

And then some scientist comes along and tells us that no one will be coming.  That we really are the only flea on the elephant.

Looking into the vastness of the cosmos by ourselves unsettles us.  It gnaws away inside us in a way that has been spoken of before by the writer of Ecclesiastes:

He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end (Ecc. 3:11 NASB).

The Hebrew word translated as “eternity” seems to have the sense of darkness or obscurity[3].  This gnawing inside appears to have been bothering us for a very long time.

 

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[1] The Mediocrity Principle is essentially that the chance selection of an item is more likely to come from more numerous classes than from less numerous ones.  The caveat is that the selection must actually be random.

[2] Peter D Ward and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2000. Print.

[3] I don’t claim to read Hebrew.  This is what I’ve teased out of an interlinear which also referred to it as “eon.”  It has also been translated as “ignorance” (NET).  I would welcome comment from someone knowledgeable.