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Your Dog Has Something to Tell You

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Alexandra Horowitz always wanted a dog. But when she and her college boyfriend visited a shelter, she had no idea that the shaggy black puppy they brought home would end up inspiring her career. Even six years later, as a grad student in cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego, she still didn’t guess that the dog greeting her at the door might have more to say than the bonobos and white rhinoceroses she was observing for her degree.

But as Horowitz steeped herself in her studies, the way she looked at her dog, Pumpernickel, changed. Where she once simply saw a pooch at play, she began spotting glimmers of sophisticated behavior. Before long, she was bringing a video camera to the dog park and watching the footage in slow motion.

“It took a real change of perspective to consider studying dogs,” Horowitz says. They seemed so familiar—happy creatures that chased balls and inhaled kibble—what else was there to say? As Horowitz has since discovered, a lot. A decade and a half later, Horowitz heads up one of the premier canine-studies labs in the country, helping scientists and pet owners alike uncover new truths about man’s best friend.

Why do dogs wag their tails? Sniff one another’s butts? Save children from drowning? The answers aren’t what you think.

Until she starts casually dropping terms like “efficacy” and “cognitive understanding” into conversation, Horowitz might not strike you as a scientist. For starters, she never wears a lab coat. “I’m usually covered in a fine mist of dog hair,” she says, makeup-free and dressed in jeans.

And at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at New York’s Barnard College, jeans do seem the natural choice. Her lab doesn’t have a set location. Instead, she tows a camera to dog parks—or pet owners' homes or anywhere dogs are—where she catches dogs playing, fetching, fighting, and mating on video. Horowitz’s mobile office has the benefit of being cost-effective, but its real asset is scientific: Observing dogs in the field is her lab’s signature strength. Rather than drag the animals into unfamiliar settings, Horowitz watches dogs being dogs on their own turf.

“My goal is to get inside the mind of the dog,” Horowitz explains. “They can’t tell us how to treat them; we just decide. I think that decision should be informed by what their experiences are actually like.”

Still, not everyone finds merit in Horowitz’s work. When she first switched her focus to dogs, her decision was met with head-scratching and even outright derision. For her colleagues, “there were no data in dogs.” So she set out to find her own way. While she didn’t know it at the time, Horowitz was one of a handful of scientists around the world blazing trails into the dark continent of the canine mind. As years passed, studies on canine cognition began cropping up in scientific journals. Next came labs devoted to dog behavior. "Just a few years ago, [studying canines] felt like a novelty," Horowitz says. "Now it feels mainstream." In 2009, Horowitz opened her lab at Barnard. Today, she has a full-time researcher and 10 undergrads assisting. And what they’re learning, as they piece their data together in conference rooms and coffee shops, is that for centuries now humans have gotten dogs all wrong.

It begins with the "guilty" look. You know the one. At some point, every dog owner has come home to new couch cushions or shoes or drapes that have been reduced to confetti. Lurking over the demolition work is a pup bearing his most pathetic face: head slung low, ears pinned back, eyes big and wet, emanating guilt. The common assumption is that the dog is genuinely remorseful. But is it true?

To find out, Horowitz ran an experiment where she asked dog owners to place a treat in front of their dogs, instruct them not to eat it, then leave the room. If, in the owner’s absence, dogs ate the treat, their owners scolded them when they returned a few seconds later. But in some of the trials, Horowitz had owners scold their dogs even when they hadn’t eaten the treat. In others, certain treat-eating dogs got off scot-free.

By videotaping the interactions and scoring how guilty the dogs looked, Horowitz discovered something interesting: Even the innocent dogs looked guilty when scolded. Meanwhile, treat-eating dogs who weren’t scolded didn’t look remorseful at all. A dog’s “guilty face,” in other words, didn’t spring from guilt; it appears to be a reaction to the owner’s finger-wagging, a ploy to get off easy. “Dogs may feel guilt,” Horowitz clarifies. “Science hasn’t figured out how to test that yet, but this behavior isn’t evidence of it.”

Of course, Horowitz the scientist and Horowitz the pet owner aren’t always on the same page. As she told the pet enthusiast site, “I sometimes tell people to try to forget everything they know about the dog, and pretend it is an alien animal arrived in their home: What is this alien doing?”

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Talking about her own dog, Horowitz recognizes that he looks proud when he’s run off with a ball or sheepish when he gets carried away roughhousing. “Those looks are real,” she says. “But I remain agnostic about whether they map to emotional experiences that are just like mine.”

Horowitz also worries about the greater dangers of anthropomorphism, such as relying on your pet’s secret identity as SuperDog. While newspapers are quick to print stories of doggy heroes—devoted animals rescuing people from burning buildings or raging rivers—in reality, their motives may be less pure. In one study by other canine researchers, dogs witnessed a staged crisis—their owners pinned under a bookcase made of lightweight particleboard, though the dogs didn’t know that. But the dogs didn’t leap to the rescue. Instead of dusting off their Lassie routines, the majority of pooches ignored their owners’ cries for help.

The conclusion? Dogs can be trained to rescue people or may even do so on their own, but that doesn’t mean that they know what they’re doing. Instead, their behavior may be something simpler, like a desire to be near their owner or to bark when distressed—still a useful skill in attracting help but not the heroism we attribute to them.

While feel-good stories about dogs rescuing people will no doubt continue to surface, Horowitz believes the “evidence” ignores a basic statistical fact: “What of all the cases when a dog didn’t save the drowning child or the lost hiker? Newspaper headlines never crow ‘Lost woman dies after dog fails to find and drag her to safety,’ ” says Horowitz.

Does it matter whether a dog’s feelings are real or imagined? If an experiment proves that dogs don’t love us in the same way we love them, do we even want to know?

It may require some mental adjustments, but Leslie Irvine, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes so. “By unpacking how dogs experience the world, it can help people interact with them in ways they can understand,” says Irvine. And that can make for “a more compassionate relationship.” In the past, for instance, trainers used to think it was best to yank dogs around by choke collars and rub their noses in their feces if they relieved themselves indoors. But studies on reinforcement have curbed these practices by proving that they don’t work.

Horowitz herself makes a strong effort to debrief the owners of the dogs she works with, and many come away with a new understanding of the animals living under their roof. Just ask Jo Anne Basinger, who’d enlisted her two dogs for experiments ranging from which scents dog dislike (lavender, in particular) to whether dogs can sense fairness in people.

“One thing that I’ve realized is that the things dogs do that annoy me are important to them—like excessive sniffing,” Basinger says. In fact, Horowitz’s research suggests that sniffing is not just important; it’s the crux of how dogs perceive the world. Humans see first, dogs smell first. Even their sense of time in some way comes down to their noses, as older smells fade and hints of smells to come arrive on the wind. And of course, the canine habit of sniffing new friends from behind makes more sense once owners learn that canine anal glands emit a cocktail of chemicals as unique as a human voice, which may indicate a dog’s age, their interest in mating, and what they ate for dinner. Sniffing, in other words, is the doggy version of small talk.

Despite the inroads she’s made into the canine mind, Horowitz savors the mystique. “If I woke up and my dog said to me, ‘Alexandra, I’m going to tell you the whole business right now,’ I would hesitate,” she says. “I appreciate a dog’s quietness. There is something about the dog’s mystery that I treasure.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]