A Question of Time

My question for today is: What does it mean to say time is the fourth dimension?

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To truly understand I suspect you need symbols and equations, but if you relax your  brain and don’t over think, you should get the general idea.

We live in three dimensional space. Objects make that clear. A box has width, depth and height (in my other life I’m a box maker).

cherry box with spalted top
box by creative woodworking
cherry and walnut box
box by creative woodworking

 

 

 

 

 

But in order for the box to exist it must exist in a specific time. It exists now, or did in 1235, or will in 2317. Okay, but what does that mean?

Let’s say you want to meet a pal for lunch. You decide to go to the Skinny Pancake. You have decided on a place in space, a location. That location is defined by the space around us. For instance, the restaurant is located on the corner of State and Main. That gives a point where two lines (in this case streets) meet, the “X” which marks your spot, so to speak. If you lived in a large town you might need to invoke a third dimension – it’s on the first floor. You have now defined space by using three different reference points, that is; three dimensions.

“That’s all well and good,” your pal says. “But when shall we meet?” Ah ha! You need one more set of instructions to allow your plans to work. It turns out that Friday at 1:30 works for you both. A physicist would say you just added another dimension to your plans. You have now defined the time as well as the space for your lunch.

Space (as we know it) is three dimensional. The Skinny Pancake is located in space. But it also exists in time. You need that fourth dimension to fully describe your lunch date.

You can put an object in space, but time is needed to make it understandable, whether that time is a millisecond or a millennium. Without time existence is impossible. We take time for granted because we live in it. We don’t need to consciously think: my cat exists right now in this same time as I am existing.

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Yet time is essential none the less. We can talk about now or the past or the future, but in each case it adds another description to the equation. That is why time can be thought of as a fourth dimension.

Enjoy your lunch.

Puppy Socialization

 

Let’s talk about puppies.

I often foster pups for the local animal shelter (Central Vermont Humane Society – great place, support them!). We have fostered more puppies than I can count. Sometimes it is simply that there isn’t enough room at the shelter. Sometimes it’s because the dogs aren’t ready for adoption.

The first time was for a dozen (okay, there were only 4, but it sure felt like a dozen) 4-week old puppies. These four were given up for adoption after the owners discovered it would take 25 hours a day to care for them (perhaps another slight exaggeration).

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being greeted by 4 cheerful puppies

Those pups were a handful, but they were a happy handful. They romped, they howled, they chewed, they dug holes and, in general, they acted like puppies. They were outgoing and curious, they wanted attention. They were sometimes fearful, but it was a healthy fear of new things that would set them back on their chubby little haunches until curiosity took over and they set out, nose first, to investigate.

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My first sight of Grady and Benito, on the other hand, was enough to show this would be a different challenge. These puppies looked like a single tightly packed ball of fur, with two sets of eyes darting between me and the shelter worker. Their bodies were tucked as tightly as possible in the furthest corner of the crate. My heart went out to them immediately.

scared puppies

 

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When we first put them outside they just sat, as if they didn’t dare to move. Fortunately, after a day or so they figured it out!

Role of Puppy Socialization

Numerous studies have shown that early development has a large role on adult behavior. Scientists have divided puppy development into 3, sometimes overlapping, stages. The first is known as the neonatal or “stimulation” stage and it generally lasts from 3-16 days old.

This is a time when newborn pups can be gently handled and moved around. You can tickle their toes or gently stroke their ears and tail. Stroking has been found to lower blood pressure in young dogs, and evidence suggests that early stimulation encourages faster maturation. Some of this stimulation comes from the mother and litter mates, but, positive human touch will teach the puppy to have confidence in people. However, it is important to go slowly and not stress the puppy, as over stimulation can be as bad as under-stimulation.

young puppy
gentle handling by her mother and her humans helps her develop normally

The second stage of dog development is the socialization stage. This begins at around 2 weeks and runs until the puppy is 10-12 weeks old (some experts put it as late as 16 weeks). It is during this period that the puppy begins learning about the world outside its immediate surroundings. Proper socialization involves introducing the puppy to positive environments, different people and unknown dogs. A bit of stress is ok for the dog at this point but it is important for the puppy to succeed in the stressful situation. This success gives the puppy confidence which can continue into adulthood.

puppy explores egg carton
Many studies have shown both the positive effects of appropriate socialization, as well as the negative effects of inadequate socialization. Lack of socialization is correlated with fearfulness, separation anxiety, aggression, house soiling and other behavioral issues in the adult dog. On the other hand, positive socialization often leads to greater confidence, less stranger and dog aggression, and a dog that is easier to train.

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According to Cynthia Drinkwine, owner of Playful Pups Dog Training and CATCH CTA certified dog trainer, dog expert and, oh yes, my sister, Grady and Benito showed typical signs of lack of socialization. At around 4 or 5 months (their exact age was unknown) Benito and Grady were beyond the socialization stage and into the 3rd developmental stage, the juvenile period. As with human juveniles, this is a time when puppies should be learning to explore on their own. They should be into everything, sniffing and investigating new smells and sounds.

 

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Most of our foster pups, for example, approached visitors (human and animal) eagerly, expecting playmates. They quickly learned that cats required caution, people represent play and food, some dogs are fun and others grumpy. They also preferred to go to the bathroom outside, where they busily explored everything within reach. In a well-adjusted puppy this behavior continues throughout the juvenile stage.

pup playing on couch
this girl had so much energy she literally did somersaults

Grady and Benito, by contrast, although already in the juvenile stage, were terrified of new experiences, jumping at even moderate noises, shying from people and moving objects. The challenge with them was to get them to explore anything at all. Many dogs don’t like to be crated. These two wouldn’t leave their crates.

 

Temperament also plays a role. Benito was shy and timid, but after a couple days he came to trust me and would ask for attention.

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Grady on the other hand wouldn’t let me touch him until literally weeks of sitting quietly beside him, ignoring him. I’d read a book and hope he would come out of his crate to explore.

After a month or so of patience Grady slowly began to trust me. He wouldn’t let me reach out to him, but he would come to me. He also learned to play. It was a wonderful day when he finally relaxed enough to smile.

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It is highly likely that both dogs will remain shy throughout their lives. Fortunately, the shelter knew that and passed over potential adoptions until they found people with the patience and gentleness these dogs require.

The Moral of the Story

It shows the importance of working with a young puppy and also knowing the history of the pup. In another post I will rant about the cruelty of puppy mills. Until then, please, please, don’t buy a puppy online or in a pet store unless you can first visit the breeder directly. Many online places are scams, where you either don’t get any dog, or you get one that is different from what you expected. But more importantly, it is legal in many states to treat dogs horrendously.  They are commodities to be kept just healthy enough to sell. This is cruel to the animals and produces dogs that are both physically and emotionally scared.

The Bottom Line

If you love dogs, support your local shelter, or find a breeder who cares for dogs as much as you do.

Puppies and Taxes

“If I need to pick Char up at 2, I should leave here at 1:30.”

“I wonder if I have enough change for an ice cream cone?

“We’re getting how many puppies???”

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These and dozens of similar questions come up daily in our busy world and most of us calculate them without thinking about it. But imagine living in a world without numbers. Like everything, mathematics has a history and while humans began calculating early on, we haven’t always known how.

Say you let the pups out to play. How would you know if they all returned at dinner time? One early solution was to make a one to one correspondence. I can make one knot in a string for each puppy, or I could pile pebbles, or notch a stick. All of these and more were systems used to “count” before  people knew what counting was.

In England, “tally sticks” evolved to become quite sophisticated. At first a stick was simply notched to indicate quantity, but by the 1400’s they were widely used as currency. Say I wanted to buy a pig from you but didn’t have any cash.

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After deciding on a price, we would take a flat stick and cut notches in a certain way to indicate the price. We would then split the stick down the middle so that each side matched. In this way you and I would each have half a stick that recorded what we had agreed on.

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photo from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tally_stick

 

After a while it became the custom to cut the stick so that one half was longer than the other. The lender would keep the longer half which was called the stock. So, the lender was the stock holder, while the borrower got the short end of the stick (sound familiar?).

These and other details are known because of a book written in the late 12th century by a master exchequer for his apprentice. In it he described the process of cutting the tally:

“The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower; then a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.”
If you feel so inclined, you can read the entire thing
(translated from Latin into English) here. 

Tally sticks were used in England for paying taxes until 1826. Once they became obsolete the tally sticks collected dust in the House of Parliament until 1834 when Parliament ordered the sticks burned. Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm the workers got carried away and burned down the Parliament building.

I’m sure there is a moral there, but I have other things to think about (9 of them).

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Much Ado about Nothing

When was the last time you watched the sky? We have had a rainy, stormy, summer here in Vermont and the sky has been gorgeous.

Yesterday, I was sitting on our porch trying to get up the energy to work on the woodshed I’m building. It was Sunday and the local building supply closes at noon. “Hurry, hurry, hurry” said my frantic brain. “Go, go, go,” said my head. “Get busy, busy busy,” demanded my conscious.

But my body was having none of it. I decided to sit just a bit longer watching the clouds drift by. The moment stretched out delightfully.

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The clouds were low and puffy, with occasional blue peeking through,

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The chickens were happily chattering,

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and the breeze was causing the trees whisper to each other.

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A robin gave a call, perhaps in response to the wildly gregarious crows.

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I tipped back my chair and drifted with the clouds in a state of not-quite-sleep,

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and didn’t worry one bit about the woodshed.

Killer Cats

Cute Cuddly Killers Are Our Responsibility

Much discussion has been going on for several years now about cats killing birds (and other animals). Some people call cat owners to task for letting their cats out to hunt. Others say cats are being needlessly demonized. I suggest the argument is more nuanced.

According to my research, habitat destruction is the main threat to wild birds. Natural predation is the leading cause of death for individuals within a species, but species as a whole are threatened by the loss of territory. However, having said that, the next leading cause of bird death in the US is cats.

Then come window strikes, windmills, car collisions, oil spills and pesticides, all of which kill large numbers of wildlife annually. Clearly cats are not to blame for endangering birds. Humans are.
What can we do about it? First, we need to stop destroying bird’s habitat. While we’re at it, we also need to reverse global warming, as global climate change will be disastrous for us all. (It may not be an exaggeration to say that electing Trump is the worst thing we could have done for birds since the invention of the internal combustion engine.) We can do our part by living lightly: driving less, using less, wasting less. However, that doesn’t answer the problem of cats killing birds.

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Forget kayaking or canoeing, this kitten went straight for the bird books.

Our complicity with cats is complicated by the fact that cats are, technically, an invasive species. They are introduced to different areas by humans, meaning the native predators have not evolved to compete with cats, nor have the native prey adapted to avoid them. Furthermore, humans “subsidize” cats. We give them food and shelter, making it easier for them to survive than the animals who must compete with cats for the same territory. Feral cats are also often subsidized, as many people put food out for homeless cats in the well-meaning attempt to help them. So, not only are cats introduced predators, they also are given a strong advantage over native prey animals who hunt the same species. This throws off the natural balance.

All these introduced cats are killing huge numbers of animals, there is no doubt about it. I looked at a number of studies and read numerous articles relating to cat predation. The consensus is that cats kill billions of animals a year, mostly rodents and other small mammals, but also huge numbers of birds, amphibians and reptiles. The majority of the studies found feral cats were deadlier than house cats, but pets also account for large numbers of deaths. While there are some flaws in each of the studies I looked at the bottom line remains: cats are killers.
The problem lies in the numbers. According to the American Pet Products Association’s biannual survey, 85 ½ million US households have at least 1 cat, with the average number of 2. That’s approximately 170,000,000 house cats in the US.
I did a (decidedly unscientific) survey of my friends and found that 3 indoor cats and 4 outdoor cats killed 8 birds and 123 rodents over a years’ time.

One “cute little field mouse” was killed by an indoor cat, all other deaths were down to outdoor cats. Using my “study” we could say that 4/7 (57%) of cats go outside, giving 96,900,000 outdoor cats in the US. Of those, each kills, on average, two birds and 46 rodents a year (that number includes one rodent for every three indoor cats), leading to 193,800,000 bird deaths and over 4 billion rodent deaths yearly.

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indoor cat getting into trouble
kitten in action
outdoor cat getting into trouble

However, there are problems with my study. First, there were far too few cats in my survey to be able to extrapolate to other populations, much less the US as a whole. Second, most of the people I surveyed are rural and my guess (no proof) is that city people would be less likely to let their cats out, because of cars (although we have coyotes to worry about). Also, these numbers are based on the animals that people saw their cats bringing in, who knows how many went unnoticed. One person saw no bodies dragged in by the cat. Does that mean his cat is a vegetarian? Doubtful. Finally, even if these numbers could tell us something, they don’t take into account feral cats, barn cats, and other full time outdoor cats.
These were the sorts of problems I found in the various studies I researched. Some studies looked at thousands of cats, but several used fewer than 100 animals as the basis of their research. Many studies relied on surveys to find numbers of animals killed. Some were limited to a small area. Several didn’t distinguish between pets and feral cats, or between the type of animal killed. In each case, there was the trouble of determining how many animals a cat killed. Some researchers depended on what the owner saw, some collected scat, a few used radio collars to follow cats, one study used hidden cameras. None of these methods are particularly good, so I think it’s safe to say no one really knows how many birds or other animals are killed by cats.
However, no matter the method, every study (like mine) came up with alarmingly large numbers of animals falling prey to cats. Furthermore, the evidence from island populations is pretty damning. In a limited area such as an island, studies are more controlled and can look at specific populations. Many islands, including New Zealand, have clear evidence of cats decimating native populations of birds, reptiles and /or rodents, including endangered species.
So, while I don’t particularly trust any specific number, it is clear that cats are killing huge numbers of birds and other animals yearly. (I did find one study that said that cats are saving endangered species. But it turned out that was because cats were killing rats in an area where rats were the more dangerous predator for native wildlife.)

 

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gft33bvvvvvvvv3333333333333333333333333333333333+*- (The line above was written by a kitten walking on my keyboard. Can we consider it the cats’ response to this article?)

Interestingly, everyone I surveyed knew about the controversy about keeping cats indoors, but in about half the cases it didn’t seem to make a difference. None of the indoor cats asked to go out, while all of the outdoor cats did. I don’t know if that has any bearing on the issue (I know in my case I have a hard time keeping them in when they so clearly want to be outside.)

So friends, I’m sorry to say, that while the best thing we can do for birds, cats and people is to reverse global warming, we can start helping wildlife by keeping our cats inside.

I’m writing this with a kitten in my lap, another snuggled by my side and a third curled around my neck. All three are sleeping soundly. It’s hard to imagine them as cold blooded killers. And yet….

 

 

A Case for Curiosity

If you were out walking your dog and came across a man rolling a ball down an angled track while marking its progress against a water clock, you might be forgiven for thinking him a harmless eccentric with an odd hobby. But in the 17th Century that man was Galileo and he was busy laying the groundwork for much of modern physics.

In his time, the work he was doing with falling bodies and his studies of planetary motion was considered irrelevant at best and blasphemous at worst. In fact, his work was frowned upon by the church to such an extent that Galileo eventually had to deny his knowledge and retreat into house arrest so as to avoid further offending the inquisition. Yet, today his name is revered as one of the fathers of scientific inquiry. (You will be happy to hear that in the end, the church decided Galileo had a point about the earth revolving around the sun and, in 1983, formally cleared his name.)

Fortunately, the threat of torture is no longer used to quell scientific curiosity. However, public criticism and denial of funding is. I would like to make the case for encouraging science even if it appears to have no social or economic value. I make this point, not only because without Galileo our society would be far different, but because I recently came across an experiment involving spiders watching virtual reality while on a treadmill. Personally, I think the joy of imagining such a thing is, in and of itself, enough to justify the work. However, not everyone will agree. We can think of this as the modern equivalent of rolling a ball down an inclined plane. Of what possible use could it be to learn about spiders on a treadmill?
I would argue that the question of why study spiders (on a treadmill or off) is irrelevant for three reasons: The first is simply this: why not study spiders? We shouldn’t need a purpose to investigate the world around us. Why not encourage curiosity for its own sake? We are a curious species, it’s part of what makes us human.
On a more practical note my second reason for encouraging curiosity is that often studies have more importance than meets the eye. Let’s go back to the spiders. Before beginning their study, the researchers had to design and build a tiny treadmill (they used a 3D printer). Then, since getting into shape was insufficient motivation to keep the spiders on the treadmill, they had to come up with a way to restrain the animals. The spiders were briefly chilled in a refrigerator to make them passive. Then, tiny magnets were glued to them. The magnets held the spiders on the treadmill but allowed for measurable movement. The spiders were then presented with various stimuli either in reality or through virtual reality.

The goal of the study was to see if the spiders would react the same way to both types of stimuli (they did). Interesting, but so what? Actually, two things came of the study, not counting building a spider sized treadmill. The first was increased knowledge of how spiders’ vision works and that could help us understand our own eyesight. Second, the study opens up the possibility of using VR with other animal studies, potentially saving a great deal of time and money that would otherwise be spent in field work.
But what of something as ridiculous as the study of sexual behavior in screwworms flies. Okay, this sounds bad. In fact, in 1975 William Proxmire awarded it the “Golden Fleece Award” as a waste of public money. Actually, the screwworm is a parasite that was (note the past tense) decimating cattle around the world and the research done on its sexual behavior helped prevent infestations and resulted in lowering the price of meat. Proxmire eventually admitted he was wrong to target the study.
Still, these were practical studies, so we should expect practical results. What of something that is purely theoretical? This brings me to my third reason for encouraging scientific creativity. Even when there is no immediate goal in mind a theory can lead to practical use, whether intended or not.

Theory often comes before applied knowledge. For example, in the 1830’s Michael Faraday described the force we now call electromagnetism. Using this knowledge, he invented the first generator and the first electric motor. However, that wasn’t enough for his critics. When he was questioned by a politician (an ancestor of Proxmire perhaps?) as to the use of his new discoveries, his reply was “At present, I don’t know, but one day you will be able to tax them.”
Similar examples of work, once thought useless (but now taxable), abound. Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the most influential mathematician who ever lived, was playing around with shapes and invented something called Non-Euclidian Geometry, which Einstein used in his Theory of Relativity, which in turn is used today in ways too numerous to mention (do you have a cell phone? Thank Einstein). A way of staining bacteria on slides was invented by a student just “fooling around”. The cosmic microwave background was discovered by a couple of scientists trying to figure out why their equipment wasn’t working the way they expected.
Another recent example is the Large Hadron Collider, which was in the news a few years ago with the discovery of the Higgs Boson (certainly obscure research). Building the LHC was a colossal project by anyone’s standards, taking about a decade and costing nearly 5 billion dollars. It had an unexpected bonus however. In order to expedite communication between the thousands of scientists involved, a man named Tim Bernes-Lee invented something you are surely familiar with: The World Wide Web. I doubt anyone saw that one coming.
All these examples show that results of seemingly irrelevant or obscure theory and research can lead to great discoveries. Of course, not all experiments will lead to the world wide web and not all scientists are Gauss or Faraday. In fact, science can lead to dangerous results (even when well intentioned). I’m not saying anything goes. The scientific community should be criticized for irresponsible research and for waste. But not for simply doing science. We shouldn’t automatically assume something that sounds silly or irrelevant has no value.
Instead, let’s give curiosity a chance. For without a crystal ball (and we know what science thinks of that) we can’t know which theories will be important. We can’t know what research will lead to a cure for cancer or a new encryption method for on-line banking. Who knows, maybe spiders on treadmills will become the next fad and lead to an economic boom. Without investigating the unknown we will surely stagnate, both as a culture and as a species.

Beautiful Storm

Lightening flash

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We just had a beautiful and wild storm come through.

I was sitting near the window and I glanced out to see a dark cloud rapidly approaching. It overtook the blue in no time. The wind picked up, the trees swaying as it got darker. I heard the rain approaching before I saw it. Then it came pouring down while lightening flashed and thunder rumbled. The sky turned dark and the rain came harder until it was hail, bouncing and rattling onto the ground. Water poured off the roof and the trees creaked and moaned. Then it was over. As fast as it, came it moved off into the distance, taking the thunder and the rain with it. The sky is blue again, everything washed clean.