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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

'Big, bad wolf' image flawed – scientists

By Helen Briggs for BBC News

16 October 2017

New research casts doubt on the idea that dogs are naturally more tolerant and friendly than wolves. In tests of cooperation skills, wolves outperformed their domesticated relatives. Scientists say the findings challenge assumptions about how dogs were tamed from wolves and came to live alongside humans. Previous evidence has suggested that the domestication process may have given dogs a more tolerant temperament. "We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa," Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News. "But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that."

Wolves are highly social animals. They live in close-knit family groups, raise puppies together and hunt in groups. This sort of behaviour is not seen in modern dogs, despite the idea that domestication selected for dogs that were more tolerant and friendly, both of each other, and humans. To test whether cooperation comes naturally to wolves and dogs, scientists carried out a classic behaviour experiment. Known as the rope-pulling test, it involves two animals simultaneously pulling on a rope to pull a tray towards them to get food. The animals are rewarded with a chunk of raw meat only if they pull the rope together. The scientists found that dogs succeeded at only two of 472 attempts. Wolves, however, managed the task 100 times during 416 attempts. Dr Marshall-Pescini of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna said wolves "did pretty well" at the task, performing on a par with chimpanzees. "[Wolves] are incredibly cooperative with each other and they form very strong social bonds," she said. Dogs almost never worked together on the rope task, possibly because they wished to avoid conflict. The experiment took place at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where wolves and dogs are raised from puppies in the same environment. This gives an insight into the natural behaviour of both animals, away from the influence of humans.

Dr Krishna Veeramah of Stony Brook University in New York, who is not connected with the study, said wolves are the only big carnivore that has been domesticated. ''It is possible that their social behaviour was key to this process, and thus studies like this help piece together more of the puzzle,'' he explained. The story of how dogs came to be tamed from wolves is complex and hotly debated. Some time around 30,000 years ago, wolves moved to the edges of human camps to scavenge for leftovers. The long process of domestication began to alter the behaviour and genes of wolves and they eventually evolved into the dogs that we know today. Dogs and wolves are similar in physical appearance, although they have different instincts and temperament. The research, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests there is more to learn about the effects of domestication.

[Although I’m definitely a cat person I do like dogs very much too. This liking easily transfers over to wolves who, I believe, have many admirable qualities. How wolves became domesticated dogs is a fascinating question which we are slowly piecing together. We clearly have a strong bond between us which obviously goes back a long way. Humans and dogs ‘fit’ together on a deep level. We ‘get’ each other I think probably because we’re very similar creatures deep down.]

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Blowback – How the West f*cked up the Middle East (and why it was a bad idea) by Michael Luders (FP: 2017)

This is an example of one of those rare books that I buy and read within weeks of purchase. The rather unusual title helped along with the fact that it was a slim 151 pages. Being so thin the author had little time to waste building arguments and honestly went at it with a rather breathless gusto. In fact there’s so much going on here, and so much to follow up on, that I’m going to need to revisit the region on multiple occasions to ‘catch up’ with the authors obvious deep understanding of the history of the Wests involvement in such a volatile region.

The question of what made the Middle East so volatile is easily answered (although I think the subtitle kind of gives that away). Yes, it was us – particularly Britain (with the French as associated co-conspirators) and, naturally, the US who, the author maintains, started the ball rolling in 1953 when they deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran – Mohammed Mossadegh – and installed the Shah in his place (the irony that the Shah had been previously overlooked by the Americans because of associations with the Nazi’s in WW2 was not lost on me) supposedly to stop the country falling into the Soviet sphere. The rest, as they say, is a long and bloody history. Oh, and of course, that blowback is an unforgiving bitch. The whole stability of the region wasn’t really helped by the creation of Israel (that would be our fault) and the continued ‘get out of sanctions free’ card every time they shell the Gaza strip or attack any of their other neighbours in ‘self-defence’. If that didn’t make things bad enough we have the great western ally Saudi Arabia promoting hard-line Islam and with its wealthy citizens directly funding fundamentalists throughout the world – again ironically protected by a country that spends a great deal of time, effort and money tracking down and killing those same Islamic groups that regularly hit the global headlines.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete mess and somewhere the West finds difficult to leave alone. A good part of that is, of course, oil as it has been since before Britain and France created and then partitioned Iraq as part of their empire projects. The other part is, as we all know, the problem of Israel that, seemingly, cannot even be talked about without someone somewhere playing the ‘off-side’ Jewish card. Until that happens settlements will continue to be built, Palestinians will continue to be oppressed and killed with impunity and tensions will simmer and occasionally boil over and the whole region will remain dangerously unstable.

Luders certainly isn’t brave enough to propose a magic bullet to solve the areas problems but he, rightly, says that we need to look at the area from all sides and not just from, or not just prioritising, the Jewish side. Gaza is an open wound that needs to be healed (or at the very least its obvious haemorrhaging needs to be reduced to more humane levels) and Israel needs to agree its borders like every other country in the world. The problem of Saudi Arabia needs to be looked at too – and, again, not just given a ‘free pass’ as the friend of the West in the region. Finally, when we’ve started to clean up the mess we’ve made we need to walk away and stop meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. We cannot be seen as icons of democracy whilst deposing democratic governments that don’t happen to support us and replacing them with brutal dictators who do. This is most definitely not a book for the faint hearted. There’s some horrible and shocking stuff in here and the author pulls few punches as he directs his criticism at those responsible for fucking up the Middle East. Most of my knowledge of the region has so far been from the news over the last 40+ years. I think it’s about time I learnt a great deal more of what’s really going on out there. This was a pretty good start and there will be far more to follow. Highly recommended but be warned it could give you some sleepless nights…. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Walkies..... Sit..... Beg.... Roll over..... and make it snappy!

Just Finished Reading: The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (FP: 2012)

England, 1593. Court astrologer and (quite possibly insane) wise man Dr Dee has been kidnapped in an act of desperation by Irish spy Red Meg. Without him in place the magical defences protecting the realm begin the fail. Once secure from the Unseelie Court even Queen Elizabeth herself is vulnerable to attack. Sent to retrieve him at all costs is England’s greatest spy Will Swyfte. But Will has his own agenda which may put the country he loves in even greater peril. For Will has learnt that Dee intends to travel to the New World – a place of great mystery, great opportunity and even greater terror – where the Fey hold court and plan the destruction of humankind. If Will and his friends can stay one step behind Dee they could do uncounted damage to the plans of the Fay and, more importantly, recover the woman Will loves stolen from him over a decade ago and taken away to a land far more foreign than anything imagined by mere humans. Will is willing to chance everything, his life, his friends, and his country, for the opportunity to see Jenny one last time before he dies. But can even the greatest agent of the age stand against the supernatural armies who face him. Will a sword, a pistol and natural intelligence be enough against a race that has plagued mankind since the very first days and what if he fails and darkness falls – for ever.

This was the third and last instalment in the Swords of Albion series. Unfortunately it was also, I believe, the weakest of the three. All of the elements I enjoyed so much in the first two novels were there but something I felt was missing. There was a breathless pace to it but the regular as clockwork cliff-hangers started to grate after a while. No matter what the problem, with many pages to go, you just knew that something would turn up to save the day and, just as regularly it did. There was a ‘creep’ factor especially when the Fey began their attack on London but the long section in the New World went on too long and just wasn’t weird enough to add much tension. It’s hard to put my finger on it except to say that this volume didn’t really have the “heart” of the other two. Maybe it was because it was the last book and many of the threads had to be tied up neatly? This is not to say that this was a bad book or even a poor fantasy novel. It was, at the very least, a more than reasonable read and often head and shoulders above some of the previous fantasy novels reviewed here. It was a credible ending to a very good trilogy but instead of, as I had hoped, going out with a bang left me thinking more fizzle than boom. Reasonable, but I’d definitely start the series in sequence rather than jumping in at the end. More fantasy to come as I feel it’s a neglected genre in my life.