Sunday, June 24, 2012

Animal Intelligence is Always Underestimated

I'm an animal person. I write books that feature a dog. So I occasionally sound off about animals. Here goes...
Warning: If you're a scientist, read no further, as you may find this post an affront to your profession. (Hey, I appreciate scientists, and I'm even a bit of a closet science geek myself – ask me about entangled particles, one of the stranger aspects of quantum mechanics – but this is just one of those subjects where scientists have spent far too long catching up with what regular people have always known.)
Here's a truth as I know it, a statement with which more than half the country – the pet owners – will agree. (Oh, the very thought of popular opinion rearing its ugly head into the world of hard knowledge is not just disagreeable, but naive. Yet here I go, another philistine, steeped in his own militant ignorance.)

The statement: Animals are much smarter than the people who measure animal smarts think.

Nearly all people with dogs and cats will tell you stories of their pets' amazing abilities. When this happens, any nearby scientists try not to roll their eyes. Scientists think that people attribute intelligence to hard-wired behaviors. People misconstrue animal behavior and call it smarts, they think. People confuse a myriad of observations and biased opinions with fact, they think. From the scientists' perspective, they are correct.
So why would I even venture into such scientific hot water? Because all of my life I usually found myself agreeing with scientists except when it came to their pronouncements on animal intelligence.
When I was a kid, scientists applied what they now realize were crude techniques to determine that animals were not very smart. Birds had “bird-brains.” Horses had about enough smarts to eat and that was it. Dogs merely did whatever would get them a treat; no significant intelligence was needed.
They've come a long way, those scientists. And as their testing has gotten more sophisticated, animals have – surprise – gotten a lot smarter.
Scientists now know that crows make and use basic tools.
Scientists have shown that parrots can count and identify different kinds of fruit and tell it all in English. Wait, let me say that again. Parrots can look at a pile of fruit and tell us what and how many there are in ENGLISH. How many scientists out there can speak Parrot? A University of Oregon scientist did a study showing that when it comes to telling impressionist paintings from abstract expressionist paintings, trained pigeons can do it with greater accuracy and speed than can college students. Scientists have learned that geese go to great lengths to keep their extended families together while they migrate thousands of miles. And they get where they're going in the dark. At night.
Scientists now know that orangutans will purposefully deceive them and tell lies and hide the evidence of their deceit from the scientists. Scientists have discovered that dogs can read people's faces and understand what people want just by the look in people's eyes.
Scientists know that chimps can learn a huge amount of human sign language even as the scientists haven't learned how to speak any substantial amount of chimp language.
Scientists have discovered that dolphins and elephants have self-awareness. These animals understand mirrors. They know the difference between themselves and others.
Scientists have even found that fish – fish! – can recognize their buddies. (Even I thought that all fish looked alike.)
True-Wildlife blog
Every year, more papers are published that detail scientists' discoveries that animals are smarter than people used to think. Just like what pet-owners have been saying all along.
Emotions are the next area where scientists are catching up with what regular people have always known. The people in white coats have historically said that our perception of animal emotions is merely anthropomorphism, people ascribing human-style emotions to the behavior of animals. Yet slowly, scientific study is discovering the emotions of animals. Dogs, especially, have many human-style emotions. Those of joy and happiness are manifest. But melancholy, fear, worry, and grief aren't far behind. It won't be long before brain scans and other evidence show clear signs of less obvious emotions.
Those of us who know animals know how smart they are, how emotional they are, how their worlds are immeasurably complicated.
Just like the worlds of scientists.
Have you ever noticed that we humans have always had a hubris that says that we are special, that we are much more than just another extra-clever animal? We assume our specialness just as we assume that animals are not very special. Prove it, we say about animal smarts even as we regularly engage in behavior that might have other species saying “prove it” about our own smarts.
Animal lovers have known all along that in fact animals are much like us in many ways. Yes, we humans are clever, perhaps too much for our own good. But our arrogance is such that we often don't realize the truth.
We aren't as smart as we think. And animals are smarter than we think.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

French Version of Tahoe Hijack is Published in Hardcover

Tahoe Hijack has had a good year.
The book has gotten many rave reviews. For example, check out this A+ rating by Kittling Books.
The book's translation rights sold to a French publisher. The hardcover just came out.
Cover for the French version

The French paperback will be out in a year.
Tahoe Hijack was also a finalist for Best Mystery of the Year from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, with the ceremony at the posh Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Am I a lucky guy or what?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Can a Guy have Fun on a Tandem Kayak?

My buddy took me for my first ride in a kayak built-for-two. We rented it from Kayak Tahoe on the pier at the Timber Cove Lodge on the South Shore. They are one of several kayak rental services around the lake. They had lots of kayaks to choose from. Better still, the woman (from Down Under) who took care of us was very knowledgeable and helpful.
The weather was perfect, mid-70s, calm wind, and the water was OMG clear. We had a great time cruising the shoreline, the non-hypothermia swimming distance from shore should you happen swamp your craft.
Power boat and kayaks from shore cliff

Do I recommend a tandem? Oh, yeah. One hull with two paddlers means twice the power with less drag, which equates to fast. Although perhaps power isn't the word for our casual paddling and coasting.
Is there a downside to cramming two guys into one small, plastic boat? Not much. My buddy was driving, meaning he sat in the stern. With less steering control, I couldn't easily go where I wanted. And when I paused paddling to gawk at a bird or a snowfield on the Sierra Crest or something on the lake bottom 50 feet below, we'd clash paddles during our lame attempt to re-synch our strokes.
It was a fantastic escape from routine. We even spotted some lakeside houses I could probably live in if I had an extra 5 or 10 mill I didn't know what to do with. Of course, those pesky views of lake and snowcapped mountains would upstage every activity.
So come on up the mountain, and bring your Kayak or rent one. Cruising on the biggest, clearest, high-elevation lake in the northern hemisphere is an unforgettable experience.
Kayak Tahoe

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The White Guy who “Discovered” Tahoe

The cliche is that history is written by the victors. It might be more accurate to just say that much of history was written by white guys (who were obviously victors in a lot of the conflicts around the world over the last thousand years or so).
Even so, it seems awkward at best that John Fremont, a U.S. senator from California would have his memory morph from politician and explorer to “discoverer” of Lake Tahoe. This “discovery” by John Fremont took place in 1844.

Scientists say that people have lived in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin for nearly 10,000 years. If fact, possibly the oldest human remains ever discovered in North America were found just a few dozen miles east of Lake Tahoe.
It only makes sense that the lake, with its rich resources of water and fish and all manner of other plants and animals would be attractive to North America's early inhabitants. The Washoe, Tahoe's Native Americans, have a history that is thousands of years old. They spent summers hunting and fishing at the lake, and when the snows of winter buried everything, the Washoe went over the East Shore mountains and down to Carson Valley to spend the winter.
In short, people in Tahoe go back much further than the Roman Empire, past the Greeks, further back than the Egyptians. People in the Tahoe area may go back as far as the earliest civilization in Mesopotamia. Maybe even further. Ten thousand years is a long time.
The hubris of guys like Fremont (and his treatment by history writers) claiming discovery of a place that has thousands of years of human history is off-putting.
It's worth noting that some accounts of land discovery are gradually being rewritten to change the presentation. We now see statements like, “Columbus was the first major European explorer to set foot in the Americas.” Yet even as I write this, Wikipedia's entry on Fremont calls him “the first American to see Lake Tahoe.” 
Like native people everywhere, Tahoe's inhabitants of ten thousand years are still waiting for the “White Guy” lens to be taken off of history's camera.