Sunday, December 27, 2015

Dogs Don't Use Tools, Or Do They?

Do dogs use tools?
Everyone who studies animal intelligence makes special note of species that use tools, something once thought to be the exclusive domain of people. (Oh, our hubris!)

First, what is it that qualifies as this special thing we call using tools? One of the basic tool usages is manipulating an object (a tool) to achieve some goal distinct from the tool. Usually, the tool is used to get food.

For example researchers started noticing that Chimpanzees make spears to use in hunting smaller primates. They strip certain twigs of leaves to use for fishing termites out of holes. They use stone hammers to crack open nuts. They even use some kinds of leaves to make sponges and then use the sponges for washing.

Gorillas cut sticks of certain lengths to use as walking sticks and as gauges to measure water depth.

Sea Otters use stone hammers to crack open shells.

Elephants make fly swatters. They plug up the openings to narrow water holes to keep other, smaller animals from drinking all the water. They drop logs over electric fences to short them out.

Crows drop walnuts into intersections so that vehicles will drive over them and crack them open. Then the crows watch the stoplights. When the light turns red and stops the traffic, the crows fly down and safely get the walnuts.

Dolphins pick up marine sponges and use them to sweep the bottom of the ocean to stir up prey that is hiding in the sand.

Orangutans make whistles out of leaves to use in communication.

But do dogs use tools? Yes, they are man's best friend, and we love them dearly. And we know that it is easy to teach a dog to pick up an object and do nearly anything with it. But what about a dog that dreams up some kind of tool use on its own? Come on, really? Tool use? Taking an object, doing something with it to turn it into a tool for a specific use?

Watch this video of a Beagle when its owner is gone. He moves a kitchen chair across the floor so that he can use it as a step stool to get up on the kitchen counter, open the toaster oven, and steal the food inside. It will remove any doubt you may have about dogs using tools!

Here's the link: 

Beagle When Owner Leaves

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Tahoe Blue Fire Kindle Version Free On Christmas


"A Gripping Narrative... A Hero who walks confidently in the footsteps of
Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer." - Kirkus Reviews

Each of the past few years I've given away my latest book for free on Kindle. This year, the Kindle version of Tahoe Blue Fire goes free on Christmas morning and stays free through December 29th.

Tahoe Blue Fire currently has 186 5-star reviews on Amazon, and it spent months on Amazon's Top 100 Private Investigator bestseller list.

Already read the paper version? You may want a copy on your Kindle just for, I don't know, when you're out of town and your paper version is at home and you want a Spot fix...

Please spread the word and tell your friends about the free version.

Here's the link: Tahoe Blue Fire

And if you come upon this blog after December 29th, check back next year. I will likely have a new book out, and it will likely be free once again.

Thanks so much for your interest!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dogs Keep Getting Smarter...

You dog owners know this feeling. You come home after a long day at work. When you open the door, your dog doesn't have her normal enthusiasm. One look at her face tells you that she got into trouble when you were gone. Her look of guilt is obvious.

But until now, scientists were almost unanimous in claiming that your perception that your dog felt guilty was nothing more than anthropomorphism, ascribing human emotions to your dog, emotions your dog isn't really capable of.

Except, oops, it turns out that those scientists are probably wrong.

Many of these questions and their answers hinge on a concept called Theory Of Mind. It is an awkward phrase that refers to the ability of humans - and elephants, dolphins, and some other primates - to understand that different individuals have different points of view. Different minds. And when one animal understands that another animal has a different perspective - a different mind - they respond accordingly, often with empathy, acknowledging and caring for another creature who may have different desires. Another individual who may, let's say, not appreciate that you ripped up the bed while they were gone.

This is important stuff, and scientists have devised lots of tests to figure out which, if any, animals might have this Theory Of Mind ability.

One of the reasons that scientists haven't spent a lot of time testing dogs may be that they simply take dogs for granted, assuming that dogs are fun, loyal pals who love to play and will learn nearly any trick if rewarded with a treat but that may not be worthy of much research. Another reason dogs may have been overlooked by scientists is that dogs are clearly not as brilliant (IN SOME WAYS) as a few other creatures.

For example, dogs fail the "mirror test." If a dog walks into a room where one of the walls is a solid mirror, he will see his reflected image, realize it is a dog, and respond with interest. But when he walks over to "that dog," he discovers that it isn't another normal dog and that it is on the other side of glass. Soon, he loses interest, because that other dog doesn't have dog smells and doesn't act much like a dog, i.e., sniffing him all over, etc. So the dog acts as if the dog in the mirror is some strange quirk that doesn't keep his interest. Most importantly, the dog never realizes that the dog in the mirror is his own image reflected back at him.

Elephants and dolphins and multiple primates DO understand mirrors. So any scientist who doesn't look at dog intelligence with awe might be forgiven. Even so, researchers kept finding evidence suggesting that dogs do understand Theory Of Mind issues. 

One of the best indicators is a series of experiments that have been done. There are lots of variations, but a typical version involves two people, let's call them Joe and Paul, a few buckets, and a treat. The basic principle is that a dog sees Joe come into a room and drop a treat in one of the buckets, let's say, the left bucket. The dog is allowed to go to the left bucket to get the treat. If Joe leaves and then returns, the dog will respond in some fashion that indicates he remembers what Joe did. So he'll likely go over to the left bucket and beg, look into the bucket, then look up at Joe, and wag, making it clear his wish for another treat.

But what if a different person, Paul, comes into the room? Will the dog engage in the same behavior, going over to the left bucket and begging for a treat? No. The dog doesn't act the same with Paul because he knows that Paul never previously brought a treat and put it in a bucket. The dog knows that Paul has a different mind than Joe. Just because Joe leaves a treat in the left bucket doesn't mean that Paul will do anything similar, and the dog understands that.

The dog knows the difference between different people, understands that each person has their own perspective, their own "mind." Dogs may not "get" mirrors, but they "get" those aspects described by Theory of Mind.

As I was researching this, I came upon one of those "Hello, duh, how did we miss the obvious" moments. While researchers were painstakingly demonstrating that dogs can understand  the concept of different "minds," they noticed something very basic. 

Your dog exhibits bad behavior now and then, but he won't get into trouble if you are in the house because your dog knows you will catch him. Leave for any length of time, however, and watch out. Not only that, but your dog can usually tell how long you will be gone.

If, when you leave your dog alone and he recognizes the signs that you are going to the corner store, he knows that you'll be gone an unpredictable length of time, and he won't get into trouble. But if he knows you're going to work for the entire day, he may well get into trouble. This clearly shows that he understands what you want and that if he's going to succumb to the temptations of trouble, he'll choose to only do it when you're gone long enough that you won't catch him in the act. 

Great Dane stealing a steak defrosting on the top of the fridge
As any dog owner knows, your dog sometimes acts guilty because he knows he's done something you don't want. He anticipates your displeasure before you even come home to discover his bad behavior.

Once again, the more we learn about dogs, the smarter they get.

Many of you also have cats, and you know that even while cats don't have the enthusiasm and the "I'm-so-eager-to-do-stuff!" attitude of dogs, they are smart. How smart? Well, those researchers made many attempts to put cats into the same scenarios as the dogs, hoping to discover if cats have "Theory of Mind" capability.

What did they find out? Nothing, because not one of the cats they tested could have cared less about the researchers' objectives. They refused to care about the treats, or look in the buckets, or pay any attention to whether Joe or Paul was in the room! No matter how smart cats are, they won't submit to what they must think are silly research projects.

Among hundreds of videos that demonstrate just how well dogs understand that what people want is not the same thing that dogs want, this is a great one: A Pit Bull waiting to be sure that his owner is gone for good before he gets up on the bed to play.
Here's the link:

P.S. Watch the cat, too.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Final Installment)

This is the final installment of my little treatise on what a writer can do to power-up one's novel so that it becomes a good seller and an anchor point for your future books.

H) Make sure you have an Author Page on Amazon. They're easy and free to set up once you have a book published. Just Google Amazon Author Pages to find information on how to do it. Readers increasingly go to an author's Author Page to see a list of the author's entire bibliography. The Author Page provides a "big picture" look at any given author.

I) Find every possible opportunity to get yourself and your books (notice the plural) before the reading public. This means giving talks and presentations at libraries, service clubs, schools, book clubs, festivals, street fairs, writers conferences, getting yourself on author panels, participating in every kind of book celebration. Get yourself some book stands, signs, and a table. Seize every opportunity to get in front of people, hold up your books, and say, "Hey, I wrote these books, and I think they're pretty good, and they've got great reviews. I'd love to have you check them out!"

I've written about this before. Click on the "On Writing" label on the right sidebar of this blog and peruse the many blogs I've written about this topic. Also, go to the "Events Schedule" on my website to see the kinds of events I do and have done over the years.

In sum, here is the list of things from this series you can do to make your novel stand out in what has become a ridiculously crowded marketplace:

A) Get multiple critiques of your book from other writers in your genre.

B) Move Life-Or-Death trouble up to the first paragraph, or, better yet, the first sentence of your book.

C) When you've rewritten your book, get it professionally edited.

D) Get a cover designed by a professional book cover designer.

E) Get a dot-com website (not dot-net or dot-biz, etc.) that uses your author name as its domain name.

F) Once your book is published at an affordable price ($4 or less on Kindle), you need to get reviews, especially consumer reviews on Amazon.

G) Continue writing books in the same genre, and, if at all possible, have all of your books be in a series.

H) Make sure you have an Author Page on Amazon.

I) Find every possible opportunity to get yourself and your books (notice the plural) before the reading public.

I believe that if you do these things, you will be well on your way to success. Even more, I believe that if you don't do these things, you may be operating with an insurmountable handicap.

These things are basic and were done by nearly all successful authors when they started out. Yes, this is all work, but none of these things is complicated. And compared to any other work, this is kid stuff, the easiest job in the world. Just by writing a novel, you've already demonstrated that you can take on, and succeed at, a huge challenge. 

As I said in a previous post, the hardest part of being an author is writing a really good novel. But the most important part is getting that book in front of readers. The points in this series belong to both parts.

Good luck!