Sunday, November 27, 2016

Apparently, Dogs Pass The Mirror Self-Recognition Test After All, As Long As It's A Smell-Based Mirror

The "Mirror Test" is a well-known way to show which animals have self-awareness and self-recognition. The basic idea is that you take an animal - say, an elephant - and, without them knowing, put a dab of red paint on their forehead. Then have the animal look at itself in a mirror. If they see the red paint and immediately focus on the red paint and maybe reach up with their trunk to touch it, then you know that they have an understanding of "self." i.e., "That guy in the mirror is me and why the heck is there red paint on my face?"

Elephants and dolphins and gorillas and chimps and bonobos and orangutans have this understanding of "self."

But dogs do not. At least, not in the conventional way. Put something outlandish on a dog's face and have him look in the mirror, he will be indifferent. A dog clearly does not realize that the image in a mirror is "him."

Except maybe we've got it all wrong.

A mirror is a visual device. Dogs are olfactory oriented. The major part of their world is perceived with their sense of smell.

So what if we could create a olfactory mirror?

I recently started reading "Being A Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell" by Alexandra Horowitz. (She also wrote "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know." )

In this book, she quickly asks this obvious question, suggesting that we foolishly judge dogs in a visual way, when they are mostly focused on the sense of smell.

So she and her colleagues devised a "mirror" that was smell-based instead of vision-based.

The basic idea was to use dog urine as a way to judge how a dog perceived itself as opposed to other dogs. The reason is that urine is one of the richest sources of information available to a dog. (Yes, your urine, too!) A sniff of urine can tell a dog an astonishing amount of information about whoever left it. What kind of animal, the sex of the animal, how long ago the animal left the urine, whether the animal was stressed or fearful or happy, whether the animal was pregnant or sick or hungry or... The list is endless.

And one of the basic ways a dog interacts with its environment is to add a bit of its own urine to the environment. When urine is added to previous urine, that previous urine is considered "marked" by the new additional urine. The result is that there are, very broadly, three categories of urine out there when viewed from the point of view of a dog. Urine that belongs exclusively to a particular dog. Urine that has been "marked" (added to) by another dog. And, third, any combination of urine that contains urine from the dog who is investigating.

In other words, the researchers wanted to know if a dog can recognize its own urine. And if so, could it recognize and be aware of when its own urine is marked by another dog, i.e., a form of looking into a mirror and discovering red paint on its face?

So the researchers collected urine from a wide range of dogs. They also collected urine that had been added to ("marked") by other dogs. Then, with careful controls, they allowed the dogs to "discover" the different urine combinations.

What happened?

There were three main reactions.

1) When a dog sniffed its own urine, it was not interested at all.
2) When a dog sniffed another dog's urine, it was quite interested and spent a lot of time investigating.
(These first two concepts say a great deal about self-awareness. But read on...)
3) When a dog sniffed its own urine that had been "marked" (added to) by another dog's urine, the dog found it very interesting. (Red paint on your forehead.)

The scientists were, of course, quite careful in their controls. Scientists always take great pains to not jump to false conclusions.

Nevertheless, the experiment seems very much like it demonstrates self-awareness on the part of dogs.

No doubt, more research will be coming. But it looks like dogs do pass the mirror test as long as the test is based on smell instead of vision.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Must-Have Social Media For All Writers

Social media has taken over the lives of practically everyone. So if you are a writer, which social media is absolutely critical for your success?


Yes, you read that correctly. Maybe social media helps your world. Maybe it helps your ego. Maybe it connects you to people who are very important to you. But when it comes to writing, you don't have to do it.

In fact, considering some of the statistics on how much of a time-suck social media is, maybe you shouldn't do it.

Case in point: I've never done Facebook. (Yes, someone put up a Facebook fan page under my name. But I don't think they're attending to it.) I don't do Twitter. Or Linked in. Or Pinterest or Instagram or You Tube or whatever are all the other platforms.

I think I have some kind of Google Plus identity because I use Blogger for this blog platform and Blogger is owned by Google and I've seen "plus" symbols appear here and there. But I don't know what to do with them.

So what do I do online? I have email, and I try to answer all non-spammy emails. I have a website, and I do my own updates. (Although I'm not very good at it, and my website isn't very sophisticated.) I put up a weekly blog post without much discipline about my subjects. If it connects to Tahoe or my writing, I'll ramble on a bit. My readers seem to like it.

The only other thing I do is periodically update my "Author's Page" on Amazon.

Call me a Luddite, but social media is for people who want to stay connected to people here, there, and everywhere, and do it all the time. Nothing wrong with that. But I'm not a fast writer, and I have lots of novels I want to write. Better I focus on that.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

When Is Over-The-Top Just Right?

The Blue Angels over San Francisco Bay

My first novel, Tahoe Deathfall (2001), had Owen McKenna steal a Piper Tomahawk in order to make an escape and save a woman who'd been held against her will.

In the process, Owen - who has a private pilot's license and has a pretty good feel for how to handle a plane - does some tricky flying over mountains at night and through a snow storm in near-whiteout conditions.

Over the years, I've had several pilots tell me that those scenes are unrealistic and unbelievable. I've always smiled and said, "Yeah, that probably was too unrealistic." 

Never mind that with my own little bit of flying experience, I thought that, given the circumstances, I might have attempted the same thing that Owen succeeded at. Because, after all, the wild flying only happens after he's already in the air and the weather takes a dramatic turn for the worse. What else is he gonna do?

But I respect all those pilots who've said that a reasonable, cautious, and prudent individual wouldn't have gotten into such a situation in the first place, nor would he or she take such risks in a small plane.

Then again...

Not long ago, I was exhibiting books at a show and a distinguished-looking man came up to my tent. He picked up a copy of Tahoe Deathfall and waved it at me. His grin was wide and infectious. "The flying sequence in this book was great!" he said. "Really great. I loved it!"

"Really?" I said. "You didn't think it was over the top and unrealistic? Because that's what a lot have pilots have told me."

"Oh, no!" he said. "I'm a retired Navy pilot, and I used to fly with the Blue Angels. I would have done exactly the same as Owen McKenna! When you are up against the elements in a plane, you have to go for it! Sure, it took some real flying skills. But it was totally realistic, considering."

Okay, so this guy was a top-level pilot who can do tricks in an F/A-18 Hornet at several hundreds of miles an hour. But that makes him an expert who thought Owen's over-the-top sequence was just right.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Writers, When Does Your Body Of Work Become More Important Than Your Next Book?

Maybe this is a no-brainer... But the obvious often eludes me.

I was thinking about the dichotomy between a writer's "next book" and a writer's slowly-growing "body of work."

As writers, we go through predictable stages. When our first book comes out, we think, Oh, my God, I have a book out! When each of our next few books comes out, we think, Oh, my God, I have another book out!

With each new novel, we are very aware of this sense that each additional book demonstrates that we're not a one-book-wonder, that we are a real writer. But we're also aware that we're only as good as our most recent book. If it is lousy and it tanks, maybe we're done for. Maybe the vast universe of readers will think we collapsed into a black hole without even going through a flame-out supernova.

A few books ago, I began to notice that readers sometimes spoke of my series, of my characters, of this whole world-building thing I've created as much as, or even more than, whatever book was my most recent. Each year, that sense has increased.

So I thought about other writers, which made me wonder about John D. MacDonald, one of the gods that all of us mystery and thriller writers worship.

Of course, I'm nowhere near John D's league. But when he wrote "The Lonely Silver Rain," the 21st in his Travis McGee series - the book that became the last of the series because of his sudden and untimely death - did he worry about whether it was sufficient in quality to maintain the rep of the series?

I'm pretty sure he realized that the series was more important than each addition to it. Even if he hadn't written about four dozen other novels, it would have been obvious that his body of work had taken on its own substance, and, that while each novel he wrote could benefit from his body of work, no single novel could measure up to it. John D's collected works had become far more important than his current or next writing project.

So here's my summation. Perhaps as writers, we should, very early on, start to think about our body of work. Maybe, while we're thrashing through the current and next writing project, we should back up - back waaaay up - and look at our total future bookshelf. When we see our work as a collected body with, hopefully, a cohesiveness that we've thought about and shaped and designed, maybe that will give us a grander vision. We can use that perspective to greenlight the good, useful stories and hit delete on the ideas that look good up close but from a larger distance - the distance of a long view - appear lame. By looking at our body of work, we can see that some of the stuff that seems so cool right now might be, in fact, a drag on the larger picture of what we're about.

Our body of work is more important than our next book.