Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Call Bullshit

Read this article today:
Researchers at the University of Florida have found that dogs have the intelligence of a 2-year-old. They are capable of understanding the meaning of up to 165 words and gestures, can count to 5, and can perform simple mathematical calculations.

It's further expanded here:
While dogs ranked with the 2-year-olds in language, they would trump a 3- or 4-year-old in basic arithmetic, Coren found. In terms of social smarts, our drooling furballs fare even better.

"The social life of dogs is much more complex, much more like human teenagers at that stage, interested in who is moving up in the pack and who is sleeping with who and that sort of thing," Coren told LiveScience.

Now, I am an unabashed dog person. I've had dogs all my life. I've had some very smart, very well-trained dogs. And, to be honest, I pretty much expected the early part of child rearing to resemble nothing so much as basic dog training, since infants can't speak and probably don't know all that much. You know, be very clear with boundaries, repeat yourself a lot as you try to mime out what you want them (not) to do, and attempt to decipher whether their whining means they are hungry, or thirsty, or need to go to the bathroom / get a diaper change. Upshot: had you asked me before I acquired said toddler, I probably would have agreed with this study, or at least think it was reasonable.

Wow, was I wrong.

Case in point: I've not had the luxury of a fenced-in yard in my adulthood. So every dog, smart or not, has had to deal with being chained. I make the chaining as easy as possible. I attach it with a swivel to a yard stake, or sometimes a tree or pole depending on the yard. I make it nice and long. I put minimal obstacles in the animal's way. I make sure they can come right up to the door. Each and every one of these dogs managed to tangle themselves in some unlikely object, or sometimes around the pole itself despite the swivel or noose. Usually it's a simple matter of unwinding to get the dog loose. None of the dogs ever mastered it. My current dog - a lab/border collie mix - will consider herself "stuck" if the rope gets weighted down under a stick, and she'll refuse to come to the door even if I call her and tell her that she's not actually tangled. I actually have to go out into the yard and physically pick the stick up off the rope before she'll stop barking. So much for the smart breeds. My 18-month-old can wind and unwind himself into a slinky he plays with. He's mastered both winding up the jack-in-the-box and cheating with the latch. He knows how to build towers with Duplos. Hell, if you let him he'll take the house keys from you in the carseat, slide down out of the car, walk up to the door, hike up the steps, open the screen, and try his very best to insert the key in the doorhandle.
Side note: Yes, I've watched him do this. No, it's not the right key. Yet. But he's a little too short to figure that one out. And who the hell taught him how to run the remote? How to open up the oven? The other day he tried on my sunglasses and ran to the mirror to see how he looked. Can you picture a dog, presuming one would tolerate you putting sunglasses on it's nose, doing that?
Another example: The other day, my son spilled some milk from his sippy cup. I jokingly told him to go wipe it up. He went and got a spit rag and did so. This was not taught, other than by mimicry. The kid is pre-verbal, but he not only gets what I'm saying, he does it without having me explicitly show him how to do it. Again, can you picture a dog doing anything like that? Yes, I'm aware dogs don't have opposable thumbs and so probably can't get a rag. But how many times have I said: "Cut that out;" or "If you'd just go in the other room you'd see that your ball is there, stop bugging me;" or "No, I'm not taking you on a walk, get out of my way;" or "You're not stuck, you idiot dog, just go around because I am NOT coming out there in the rain to untangle you?" These phrases that tell the dogs something within their capability that relates to how to solve their own, immediate problem, but I've never a single one understand them as they are spoken in casual "conversation." Granted, you can train a dog to wipe up spills. But I've yet to hear of one who just decides to wipe up a spill because it saw one and you mentioned it should do so, and it knew how from watching you do it before.

Both understanding abstract directions and extrapolating desired actions from mimicry and contextual speech are, therefore, decidedly in favor of the toddler. But what about that whole vocabulary thing?

I totally believe that dogs have a 165 word vocabulary. 100 of those words are various synonyms for the word food, or names of individual foods or phrases like "Did you feed the dog?" At least 50 involve "go" phrases like "go for a walk" or "go outside" or synonyms for playing or toys. About 7 are actual commands - sit, stay, lie, speak, down and maybe rollover or heel. The rest are extraneous things specific to the dog. I had one smart enough to interpret "back off" to mean "back up", and "hang on" to mean stand still and wait a moment. That was my smartest dog - a beagle, surprisingly enough. My kid's lagging a touch verbally from his milestones, he only says a few words. Which I am NOT going to stress over, since there's nothing wrong with him mentally or physically and everybody ends up talking sooner or later. I have a few of those "learn to sign" videos as part of our Baby Einstein (read: baby crack) collection which I haven't really done much with other than let him watch them. I may have repeated the signs once or twice when we first got the DVDs at about six months old, but not with any consistency. My bad, since I've actually taken ASL as a foreign language in college. I'm such a slacker mommy. As for the DVD itself, it's in a rotation with about 20 Baby Einsteins, two Sesame Streets, five Curious Georges, a couple of Thomas the Tank Engines, and four Muppet Shows, as well as unlimited Blues Clues and Caillou on Netflix. So it's not like he sees it very often. Yet the other day, the kid drops his sippy cup, looks up at me, and says "more" while approximating the correct sign for it. He also understands words that refer to his toys, as a dog does. But he doesn't only get them in reference to the toy itself, like a dog might. He gets them in abstract references, like having the toy mentioned in a book and linking it to the actual object in the room. The first one I know of for sure was "balloon." He'd gotten a balloon for Halloween, at approximately 10 months old. We were subsequently reading a story in which a balloon was featured. When we got to that page, he immediately looked up and found his balloon in the far corner of the ceiling. I've yet to have a dog enjoy a good picture book, or get that the two-dimensional picture refers to a three-dimensional actual object in the room. I've had several that decided that doorbell sounds on the television were real, and barked furiously. But I tend to think that's not exactly a sign of intelligence.

No, dogs are not smarter than toddlers. They're not even close. They are warm, fuzzy, sloppy, silly friends who make our lives so much better for their unconditional love. They also have a great deal of intelligence of their own, doggy type. I do believe they have emotions. I do believe they have some abstract thought. I don't believe they think like us, nor can we expect them to.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Great Big Government Poker Game with Our Economy

For a time in my career, I worked in-house for an insurance company. One part of my job was to supervise cases in litigation against our insureds, and decide which should be settled for what amount and which should be taken to trial. So, for example, if Sally hit Joe in a car accident and caused some serious injuries, what should we pay Joe to make it go away? If Fred's defective ductwork caused a carbon monoxide leak that killed Mike, what should we pay for that? If Jane is claiming serious injuries from a fall on Wilma's property, but no matter how you look at it, Wilma didn't do anything to cause her to fall, what's that worth? If Rob is alleging injuries that appear to be in his imagination, what would we pay to avoid a trial?

Settlement negotiations are routine for attorneys, but must be a nightmare for the laypeople involved. By the time they occur, you're usually at least a year or two out from the initial accident that caused the injury. The immediacy of the pain or damage has been softened somewhat by this passage of time. Both parties are a little intimidated by the thought of trial, but both are hopeful that they can reach an agreement that will let them get what they want and get on with their lives. And, basically, they're thrown dead in the middle of an insane poker game between the lawyers without the slightest explanation of the rules. For example, most attorneys know that it costs a certain amount to take a case to trial. Rationally, one should therefore pay anything less than that amount to avoid trial. Unless, of course, you believe that the person is trying to scam you. Then it makes more sense to pay the extra money to go to trial and retain the reputation of a company one should not try to scam, because the plaintiff's lawyer not only will not have collected any fees (most work on contingency) but will be out the amount of cash it took to go to trial. High dollar value cases are more difficult. Plaintiffs are very invested emotionally, and rightly so because they were hurt badly. They are often not able to see the flaws in their case, like the possibility that the person they are suing isn't really at fault or is only partially responsible. In defense work, you often come up with a formula based on what your experience tells you a jury will award. Mine was something like: multiply the medical bills times either three or five depending on the amount of fault. Then proportion it out based on how much fault each person has. Get several opinions from others,including defense counsel, and compare it to the awards in similar cases. Adjust up or down if there are any particularly egregious or exculpatory facts. If everything is pretty spot on, you've got a good number and stick with it. Plaintiff's attorneys have their own set of numbers, usually arrived at in a similar fashion.

You can see by the above paragraph that the ultimate goal is for the plaintiff's attorney to try to get as much money as s/he thinks they will get at trial, minus a tad for trial expenses. The ultimate goal for defense is to pay less than if taken to trial. We're not so interested in hearing most of the things that matter the most to the people actually involved in the accident. This is very disconcerting for them. We also have little "skin in the game" in that we're not the ones who will have to be on the witness stand and have our lives decided by the roll of the dice that is a trial by jury. The consequences of being wrong, while serious, are all figured into our business model. I am a very good poker player with other people's money.

Once at the table, there are a number of approaches. You know that you're going to get to a "middle" point near the number that you've worked out. There are many different ways to get there. Some attorneys attempt to make outrageous demands, trying to artificially move the window so that the middle is close to their best day goal. They start high or low, depending on the side they're on, and refuse to move except in very small increments. The proper response is to go equally as far in the opposite direction and move only as much as they do, keeping the window in the true middle. If that happens, you know you're going to be there all day and you might as well order lunch. Mediators will try to get you to make a big move, hoping for a reciprocally big move. I've found that to be overly optimistic. The negotiator who will start out trying to bully you and ask for the moon will not be moved by perceived capitulation. As a matter of fact, the kind of negotiator who is overtly aggressive is also more likely to get angry if you respond in a calm, statistically sound manner, and make a mistake. I had one who started well over half a million over any reasonable settlement. I couldn't go low enough to be proportionate from the middle. I did go low enough to sound equally ridiculous. He then attempted to raise his demand. I started packing. The poor mediator finally got him calmed down, but it took until nearly ten hours later before we reached the place we should have been, and could have been much earlier but for his posturing.

Other attorneys are all business. I had one negotiation that took exactly three moves. Then we all went home and I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon off. I'm not so sure that the parties were as pleased, though. We got to the number we would have gotten to if it had taken 10 hours. But the people didn't get to process the weaknesses of their respective cases and feel like they fully vented their frustration to the mediator. For me, it didn't much matter since the defendants weren't there and the company doesn't give a damn about processing emotions. But I wonder how the plaintiff's counsel handled it, since emotional satisfaction is nearly as important as the actual cash. The plaintiff may not have felt like their attorney really worked all that hard or advocated strongly for them, and may have wondered if they left money on the table. I can tell you: they did beautifully efficient work, and I wouldn't have paid a cent more. But the clients don't know that. On the other hand, the posturing attorney in the 10-hour negotiations had gotten his clients so worked up about the alleged value of their case that they weren't prepared to accept anything less than their best-day scenario. By the time we were done talking them back down, they were so angry at me that they couldn't be in the same room. We had to wait for them to leave before going to our cars. On some level, anger is just part of the process for people who are emotionally invested in the outcome.

It is axiomatic for negotiations is that if the deal is fair, everyone will hate it equally. The plaintiff will think always the case is worth more than defense. If the attorneys are competent and haven't over- or under-estimated their case, the real value - the likely outcome at trial - is somewhere in the middle between the two. So plaintiff will be taking less than s/he wants. Defense will be paying more. And it will be fair, though no one is happy.

Which brings me to debt ceiling negotiations.

What a nightmare these things have to be. Not just two negotiators, but 535, who run the gamut in negotiating tactics. Some appear to be quite reasonable. They know the consequences of default, they understand where the deals need to be made, and they come willing to talk about what's best for the country and economy as a whole. But over half the politicians involved appear to be trying instead to play the hardball tactic, hoping to move the window in their direction through posturing. They have an additional incentive to do so, since we've got elections coming up. They want to make damn sure their "clients" think they're working very hard for them and getting unfairly stonewalled by the other side. Finally, there is also a rather significant minority of extremist/fringe politicians who appear to confuse themselves with the client. They have gotten their emotions and ego tied up in the rhetoric, and may be absolutely unable to see where the settlement window truly lies. These will be hailed by their more radical constituents as "real (insert party here)s," not like the sellouts who have compromised their principles. When, in fact, they are merely incompetent.

So my prediction: we will go to the absolute last minute, through extra innings and overtime. That will let the "hardball" politicians blow enough hot air to make their constituents think they've moved the window of settlement in their favor. Then a deal will be done which the more realistic politicians could've put through two months ago, without all the posturing and expense of these press conferences and midnight negotiations. The lunatic fringe will go ballistic about the compromises made by the hardballs, calling them no better than hypocrites and actually believing their own campaign fodder. Then everyone will go home and try to put the best spin on what happened so they can get re-elected and we can go through the whole shebang again on another issue.

Because I like to get involved where it is painless, I am one of the geeks who contacts their congresscritters to let them know what I think. I've written the following:

I am writing in regards to the debt ceiling issue currently facing the legislature. As I understand it, there have been several proposals floated from both sides and negotiations have reached an impasse. I won't bore you with my opinion of the relative merits of each proposal, as I'm sure they've been discussed at great length. What is very concerning to me is the rhetoric of intransigence that I am seeing. It seems to me that many of our legislators are more concerned with posturing for the next election than actually doing their jobs. The appearance of being unmoveable on any given pet issue is more valuable to them than actually doing the hard work and reaching a compromise. In my experience, when working with parties that oppose or hate one another or their positions, the definition of a compromise is a deal that "everyone hates equally." It is more than time to make that compromise, before even more serious damage is done to our economy. I realise that some are claiming that default won't be that bad, or that it really will have no effect at all. I believe that you are an experienced enough politician to know the falsehood of that belief. I respectfully request that you reach a compromise with those across the aisle politically. A combination of cuts and raising taxes is in order. Do the deal that everyone hates, and you will have done the right thing.


This is not so much out of an idea that it will actually do any good - we're going to go to the last minute in this poker game - as a deep desire to talk about something else already. I mean, seriously. If we're going to start next year's campaign already we need to bring on the crazy quotes. I want my "I'm not a witch" commercials. Then it'll be time to pop the popcorn and sit back for the show. . .

No, not really. I'm seriously hoping that we elect fewer incompetents this next time around. Running a government is a serious, difficult business. It demands a cool head, the intelligence to accurately read and understand material on a wide variety of subjects, the experience to know what works well and what doesn't, and the intelligence to know what's best for the country as a whole. Much of the political speech has descended to the lowest common denominator, and is nothing more intelligent than animals chattering in the night, cowering before whoever makes the loudest noise and acts the most aggressive as the leader of the pack. I'd like to think we've evolved. I'd like to think we value wisdom more than posturing. I'd like to think that we want to make ourselves better as a society than the jungle. I'd like to think that the good of the nation is still our highest priority.

Please don't prove me wrong.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Gratuitous Cuteness

I notice I said "boys" but hadn't introduced the younger. Here's Nicholas:

I want this. Seriously.

A flippin' headset for my cell. Will it work with a Samsung Android? Amazon seems to think so.

Vaccines and Hysteria

Bravo to this article:

STIs are not different than other diseases; the only difference is political, not biological. HPV in particular is ridiculous to politicize, since it's so common that it's wise to treat getting it as an inevitability if you don't get the vaccination. Indeed, the most important difference between the HPV vaccination and other vaccination isn't the sex stuff, but the fact that you probably get more individual protection from the HPV vaccination. Most people have measles and whooping cough vaccines, offering the unvaccinated herd immunity. But with the HPV vaccine, there's only 11% compliance, meaning that your unvaccinated kid's chance of getting HPV as an adult should still be treated as an inevitability. Sadly, we'll be seeing 4,000 deaths and 12,000 cases of cervical cancer a year for some time yet.
Disease is disease no matter how you get it.  Cervical cancer is cancer.  It is deadly and it is serious and it is not the least bit sexy.  Vaccines are good, unless side effects are worse and more prevelant than the disease being prevented.   The HPV vaccine prevents a disease, HPV, which is both a disease in and of itself and can turn into cervical cancer for women.  This vaccine has nothing to do about whether or not you are going to have sex at any point in your life.  News flash:  you can get the vaccine even if you NEVER, EVER HAVE SEX.  And we can be that much closer to eradicating one form of cancer.

This whole thing about sexifying the shot puzzles me.  I expect it from the anti-sex lunatic fringe who feel that the only "responsible" sex is between married couples who use no birth control and are financially able to care for any offspring of their wild and wanton behavior.   Think I'm exaggerating?  Check the latest reaction to the idea that birth control should be covered by insurance.  Apparently "consequence free" sex is not, as I had understood, the responsible way to have sex.  Au contraire, "consequence free" sex will destroy our society and makes the baby Jesus cry.  So of course, if you imbibe in that nasty HPV vaccine, you are eliminating one of the serious potential consequences for sex, and that is evil.  Are they by logical extension equating a baby with cervical cancer?  I digress.

Side note:  I once read a chick novel in which a medieval main character was convicted of heresy for attempting to use a rudimentary form of forceps to save the baby and the mother from pain and death in childbirth.  The argument was that God cursed women to pain and death in childbirth and any attempt to alleviate that was to go against God himself.  Sounds remarkably like the reasoning involved in the fundamentalist craptrap, no?
I have no daughters.  I have two baby boys.  These boys will one day have sex.  Shocker, I know.  My job is to make sure they are physically and emotionally ready to have sex before they actually have it.   By protecting them from pedophiles. By giving them "the talk" if D chickens out.  By ensuring that I raise them in a way that is respectful to other people of all genders and sexual orientations and those people's personal boundaries. And, yes, by giving them religious and philosophical instruction about the pros and cons of engaging in sexual behavior.  I also believe that this preparation means protecting them, or helping them protect themselves, from any disease.  It's my understanding that the vaccine is becoming available for boys as well as girls.  If that's the case, I believe it will be added to my son's vaccination schedule, both for their sake and their future spouse's. 

I have no idea what the future will bring for my sons, sexually.   They may choose to have only one or two partners. They may choose to wait until marriage.  They may choose to have homosexual and not heterosexual sex. They may choose to have sex with many different people.  Heaven help us, they may even choose to be priests and have no sex at all.  These choices will be theirs to make and will have nothing to do with the vaccine they got in grade school.  And I will love them with all my heart no matter what.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Being an attorney in Iowa, I have a bit of a vested interest in how our state legal system is run.  I've been both criminal prosecutor and defense counsel.  I've been in-house defending tortfeasors, and out helping plaintiffs make injury demands.  Right now, most of my cases are family law.  And I can tell you, in general, Iowa's court system is one of the best around. We really don't need damage caps here, because our juries are common-sense.  They give big awards rarely, and when they do they are well-deserved.  They are not afraid to goose-egg a plaintiff who has no case.  Criminal cases are generally brought to trial when the evidence is there to support them, not manufactured out of thin air.  We may not have the death penalty, but when our first-degree criminals go to jail, we don't let them out.  Juries are deliberate and not afraid to acquit if the proof is not there.  In divorces, there is a predisposal to shared care and I've seen as many men get custody as women.  Best interests of the child is the touchstone, and it usually wins out.   The DHS system may not be perfect, but it's tailored as closely to the family's needs as possible.  

So when Bob Vander Plaatz started his campaign to remove the Iowa judges who decided Varnum v. Brien rather than taking it to the legislature to amend the constitution, I had a big problem with that.  I've read Varnum and I've read the Iowa Constitution, and the judges got it right.  Whether you like it or not, provisions in the Iowa Constitution do clearly prohibit laws limiting marriage to opposite-gender unions.  If you want to change that, you need to change the Constitution.  Blaming the current crop of judges for the 1857 language of the Constitution is silly.  Saying that they shouldn't have decided the case in front of them because they should have put it to the legislature for a vote indicates a grave misunderstanding of our governmental structure and the separation of powers.  Claiming that we now need to change how judges are elected here because that is the real problem is, well, ludicrous.  But that's what Mr. Vander Plaatz has pushed as his nearly sole agenda for the past couple of years.  Not the consitutional repeal of the clause at hand, but a fundamental shift of how Iowa makes judges that would create a policization of our legal process to rival nearby states like Wisconsin and Illinois.  Because we all know how well that's working out for those states.

While I'm against the politication of Iowa's legal system, I'm even more vehemently against stupidity. In the now-infamous Marriage Pledge put out by Vander Plaatz' FAMiLY LEADER group, it stated in the preamble: "Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA?s first African-American President."  The group has since backtracked on that particular statement, but notably not because they've come to realize how asinine it is.  Rather, it was because "we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued, and such misconstruction can detract from the core message."  Well, "misconstrue" this, Family Leader:
I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system. The order of civilization is reversed here. The name of the child is not expected to be that of its father, and his condition does not necessarily affect that of the child. He may be the slave of Mr. Tilgman; and his child, when born, may be the slave of Mr. Gross. He may be a freeman; and yet his child may be a chattel. He may be white, glorying in the purity of his Anglo-Saxon blood; and his child may be ranked with the blackest slaves. Indeed, he may be, and often is, master and father to the same child. He can be father without being a husband, and may sell his child without incurring reproach, if the child be by a woman in whose veins courses one thirty-second part of African blood.
That is a direct quote from My Bondage and My Freedom by the American hero Frederick Douglass.  In reading the book,it is interesting to note that upon the author's first arrival at the plantation proper to begin work at about seven or eight years of age, he is met with several of his brothers and sisters who have already been working there.  Brothers and sisters he is a complete stranger to, because they have never met.  He barely knows his own mother, and is not sad when she dies because she is a virtual stranger to him.  This is the "two parent family" cited as being so much better than today by the Family Leader.  This is not a misconstruction.  This is a travesty. 

But I digress.  The main point of today's rant is the growing boycott of Wells Blue Bunny ice cream.  Why?  Because it turns out that the Wells family are huge supporters of Mr. Vander Plaatz.  From Think Progress

Mike Wells, the president and CEO of the company, was a member of Vander Plaats’ council of advisers during his gubernatorial campaign and public records reveal that Wells family members have contributed at least $456,000 to Vander Plaats and his affiliated organizations and campaigns:
– $184,500 from Wells family members for his 2010 gubernatorial race, his largest contributors.
– $246,000 from Wells family members for his 2006 gubernatorial race.
– $25,500 from Wells family members for his 2002 gubernatorial race.
– $25,500 to the Iowa Family Center PAC, a group associates with the FAMiLY Leader.

Regarding Recent Posts About Political Contributions

Blue Bunny and Wells Enterprises have never donated money to Bob Vander Plaat’s political campaign. Everyone, including our employees, has a right to support political activities within their role as a private citizen. What our employees support personally is in no way an endorsement by our brand or our company.
 Erm, yeah.  Not buying it.  Yeah, I agree that employees of a company can personally support a politician or political viewpoint that might not connote an endorsement of that politician/viewpoint by the company as a whole.  But Wells Blue Bunny is a family-owned business:
Since 1913, the colossally creative artisans at Wells— the largest family-owned and operated ice cream manufacturer in the United States —have been hard at work putting all things chunky, chewy, rich and gooey into their ice cream.
Thus, what the Wells family gets up to politically is entirely funded by the Wells Blue Bunny business, and to call Mike Wells a mere employee is being facetious.  Supporting Wells entails supporting Vander Plaatz.  That's something I just can't do.

So now for the hard part.  The current container of Wells Blue Bunny Premium All Natural Vanilla in my freezer is going to be my last.  The Super Fudge Brownie that's on the shopping list is now crossed off.  I'm going to have to go from buying ice cream made right here in Iowa, to stuff shipped in from Vermont (Hello Ben!  Hiya Jerry!) or Massachussets (Unilever owns Breyers, I guess.).  I'm not going to ask the Wells family to compromise their fundamentalist belief system in order to hawk their ice cream.  But they shouldn't ask me to buy their ice cream given that the profits will be going in part to support causes I despise.  I guess they need to look for their customer base at Bob Vanderplaatz' political meetings.