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Thursday, April 17, 2014

A really interesting article in this week's Science Times...

The Moral: Aesop Knew Something About Crows
APRIL 10, 2014

ScienceTake: Those Clever Crows

Crows and their relatives, like jays and rooks, are definitely in the gifted class when it comes to the kinds of cognitive puzzles that scientists cook up.
They recognize human faces. They make tools to suit a given problem.
Sometimes they seem, as humans like to say, almost human. But the last common ancestor of humans and crows lived perhaps 300 million years ago, and was almost certainly no intellectual giant.
So the higher levels of crow and primate intelligence evolved on separate tracks, but somehow reached some of the same destinations. And scientists are now asking what crows can’t do, as one way to understand how they learn and how their intelligence works.
A useful tool for this research comes from an ancient Greek (or perhaps Ethiopian), the fabulist known as Aesop. One of his stories is about a thirsty crow that drops pebbles into a pitcher to raise the level of water high enough so that it can get a drink.

Researchers have modified this task by adding a floating morsel of food to a tube with water and seeing which creatures solve the problem of using stones to raise the water enough to get the food. It can be used for a variety of species because it’s new to all of them. “No animal has a natural predisposition to drop stones to change water levels,” said Sarah Jelbert, a doctoral student at Auckland University in New Zealand who works with crows.

But in the latest experiment to test the crows, Ms. Jelbert, working with Alex Taylor and Russell Gray of Auckland and Lucy Cheke and Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge in England, found some clear limitations to what the crows can learn. And those limitations provide some hints to how they think.New Caledonian crows, rooks, Eurasian jays and humans (past age 5) can do it, said Ms. Jelbert, who noted that great apes could do a slightly different version.
The birds, Ms. Jelbert and her colleagues reported in PLOS One last month, were wild New Caledonian crows trapped for the experiment and then released.
The crows were first trained to pick up stones; this is not something they do in the wild. They dropped the stones into a dry tube to gain a reward. Then they took the Aesop test, in several different situations.
The birds learned not to drop the stones in a tube of sand with a treat. And they correctly chose sinking objects rather than floating ones, and solid rather than hollow objects, to drop in the water.
But if part of the tube apparatus was hidden, the birds could not learn. They also seemed unable to learn that the water would rise more quickly with fewer stones in a narrow tube.
This suggested two things, said Ms. Jelbert. They weren’t just learning abstract rules, because otherwise they would have been able to learn where to drop the stones to make the water rise even if they couldn’t see what was going on.
And second, the need to see the results of the behavior suggested that they did seem to have “a level of causal understanding.” These were just hints, though, in terms of understanding how crows learn and think, Ms. Jelbert said. “We’re still very much at the beginning.”
Amanda Seed, who studies animal cognition at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said in an email that the results were intriguing but still left open the question of whether the crows grasped cause and effect.
“The experiment raises a really interesting question: Why is intermediate visual feedback so important for learning?” she wrote. “But whether or not a representation of causality comes into this remains to be seen.”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Leaping in the air

Bertie Boy

Princess Fiona
So, as I was telling Bertie and Fiona that the foxes and coyotes would chase them if I let them outdoors, I looked up in the sky............and see what I saw:

A FLYING fox!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Today's NYT editorial - Tuesday April 8

Hey, I'm back.............prompted by an editorial in the NYT today.

Take a look, especially if you, like me, see more and more plastic bags fouling up our countryside:

There’s something ridiculous about the life of a two-handled plastic shopping bag. The 20 minutes it spends cradling your groceries home is bracketed by two vast gulfs of time. First, thousands of years beneath the earth, in a natural-gas deposit, and then, after its conversion to a disposable polyethylene product, a second eternity as all-but-indestructible trash.
Derelict bags flutter from tree branches and power lines; they float in the ocean; they foul beaches and roadsides. If they are not offending the eye they are endangering fish, clogging storm drains or, most likely, bulking up a landfill. Some find brief second lives through reuse, like picking up dog droppings,but those noble detours, too, are short and swift, and end most often in the trash.
The New York City Council has a bill to limit the use of plastic bags. It would charge people a dime for them at retail and grocery stores. The money would go directly to retailers, who would use it to stock paper and reusable bags. The idea is to get New Yorkers to cut back on the 5.2 billion plastic bags they go through each year.
The measure, sponsored by Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, does not ban bags outright, as some cities and states have done. It exempts restaurants (bicycle takeout without plastic bags in New York City is hard to imagine), food pantries, street vendors who sell prepared food and customers using food stamps. This is meant to ease the burden on the poor.
The city should go farther and find a way to rid itself of a bad habit that prizes convenience over litter, wasteful energy use and environmental damage. Until then, 10 cents a bag is a start. The bags are no good. Their use should be curtailed. The bill should pass.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The sad news.......and the good news....

I read in the NYT yesterday about the passing on Anthony Wedgewood Benn, a prominent Labour politician during the 1960s - and, later, according to the article. Reading his obituary reminded me of his claim to fame - an aristocrat who had very left wing beliefs - and underlined how the years are passing by.

The good news is that today I watered the garden!!

Hey, spring really is coming and gardening time is just around the corner.


Friday, March 7, 2014

My second Douglas County School BoE meeting

Lucky School Board, Lucky Douglas County Parents.

With vivid memories of the crowds at my first Douglas County Board of Education meeting buzzing in my head, I set out very early for my second meeting being held at Cimarron Middle School. I didn’t want to be late as I so wanted to witness the first item on the agenda, the Board interviewing the candidates for the vacant Board position.

Apart from a couple of Board members sitting at the table near the stage, I was the second person to arrive.

I chose to sit right at the very front. I wanted to see and hear everything.

The interviewing process (which I already knew from a conversation with one of the applicants) was relatively straightforward. The applicants had submitted their letter of application, and were consequently invited to the open interview session. An open interview? The thought of that quite took my breath away. I know, from experience, that being interviewed is stressful. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me what it would be like to be interviewed in a large hall, with every word, every intake of breath being magnified and broadcast live.
As the minutes ticked towards 5:00 p.m., the official starting time, I turned and counted 18 people now seated behind me.  At 5:00 p.m. exactly, the Board Chairperson shuffled his papers and repositioned the microphone in front of him. Oh, good, I thought, he’s going to welcome everyone, explain what was going to happen, and say a few words about the qualities and strengths the Board was looking for in its dream candidate – you know, transparency.
He didn’t say a word. He continued to shuffle his papers.
My patience was finally rewarded. Eventually, at 5.20, the Board Chairperson tapped his microphone and called the meeting to order. He told the audience that there were 11 candidates for the Board vacancy, and that we would observe 10 of them being interviewed. There were now, I noticed,  23 adults sitting in the large hall.
The first candidate was brought into the hall by a Board representative, invited to sit at the table, and given 3 minutes to speak. She opened her papers, thanked the Board for giving her the opportunity to be interviewed, then, confidently, spoke for every second of the 3 minutes allotted to her. She was, she said, a mother of school-aged children, and so wanted to represent the views of parents on the School Board. When she finished, she smiled broadly and asked if there were any questions.
Much to my surprise, the Board members did not each have a set question to ask the candidate. In fact, they looked more uncomfortable than the candidate. Needing to break the ice, the Chairperson leaned towards his microphone and asked a question. When the candidate responded (with wonderful confidence and conviction), another question came from someone not sitting at the table but through the ‘phone. The question, which was, incidentally, appropriately repeated to each candidate, asked for their views on the controversial teacher pay–for-performance  evaluation process.
The Chairperson asked another question, then, very courteously, thanked the candidate for attending the interview.
The next candidate was ushered in and the process repeated.
More and more of the chairs in the hall were now being occupied.
Candidate Two was a former teacher and principal.  The third had a background as a D.A.C. member,  [1]the fourth a school parent volunteer, the fifth a  S.A.C member, [2]dad and technology specialist. The sixth candidate said she had volunteered often for the Board, the seventh was a very experienced teacher, the eighth a businessman, the ninth, a teacher, and, finally, the tenth, a pilot.
By the time candidate 6 sat down and read from her papers, three of the Board members actually posed questions. One, in particular, asked a couple which were sharp and appropriate.
Overall, I was so impressed with each candidate’s use of the three-minute opener and their positive, knowledgeable responses to the few questions from the Board.
I was in awe of the candidates’ exuberance, their passion and their commitment to public service.
As I sat, watched and listened to every word, I kept thinking how lucky we - the public and the Board of Education - are that such people are eager to devote their time, their energy, their intellectual prowess, to supporting the Douglas County school system, especially the teachers.

Later, looking back at the evening, I would have appreciated an opening statement from the Board that informed the audience what the Board was looking for.

I was disappointed (and not impressed) with the Board’s interviewing techniques. I expected - at the very least - a formal set of questions for each candidate so that we, the audience, could compare the candidates.
Now I’m wondering: what happens next?
How and when will the Board make its decision?

Footnote 1      District Accountability Committee
Footnote 2     School Accountability Committee