They’re Good Dogs, Crass

I was a teenager when Norm, our younger springer spaniel, attacked my dad. He had undiagnosed rage disorder and bit my dad on the face while they were snuggling in his chair. Dad threw Norm in the back yard and mom took dad to the hospital. I had to stay behind and listen to Norm, now returned to himself and confused about his banishment, cry to be let in.

He hadn't howled like this before. This was a wholly new sound, different from the sounds of pain and stress and alert that normally came out of him. Listening to it was almost unbearable.

I sat in the upstairs hall and wept. Our older springer Malley padded up close, sniffed me twice, and nudged me. I tried to shoo her away. She normally listened to that, but that night she stayed, and she nosed my hands away from my face again and again until I let them fall. She kissed me and she lay down next to me and did not leave my side until dad came home. We put Norm down the next day.

He used to try to talk. If you were sitting in a chair and reading or watching TV, he would come and sit right in front of you, face like a forlorn Stan Laurel, and wait for you to notice him. If you ignored him, he would scoot a half-step back, sit back down, and huff once. If you continued to ignore him, he'd try to talk.

This was not a bark or a whine. He would open his mouth and start modulating his voice in a constant up-and-down rurring sound that approximated the rise and fall and cadence of human speech. I've never heard a dog do that before or since.

That was one of the things I missed most when we put him down. He was one of us. He wanted to be near us, to share body warmth with us, to be comforted and told that he was good, that we saw him there, that we hadn't forgotten our boy. He was also weird as hell, and I identified with that.


The gist of this article is mostly reasonable. Which makes the clickbait nature of its headline and framing even more tiresome in contrast. Even Norm didn't clown that hard to get our attention. He just tried to talk to us.

That clowning drowns out some of the piece's more disturbing points, like that 40% of women dog owners get more emotional support from their dogs than from their husbands. That's a parasitism that's far more worthy of scrutiny than the question of whether my Mugsy understands selflessness and altruism.

Indeed, there's a case to be made that we're all emotional parasites. That we need affirmation, that we need security both physical and emotional, that we need to feel needed and valued. That others are mostly a means to those ends.

The question of whether dogs love us or merely need us only stops with their species if you don't understand the implications of what you're asking. Pointing out that they train us just like we do them opens us up to much broader and more interesting discussions about the nature of our thinking and feeling existence than a lazy and predictable "everything you know is BACKKERDS" hot take, if we’re listening.

It’s a perfect microcosm of everything I’ve come to hate about the internet I used to love. A big opportunity for meaningful discussion torpedoed by the symbiosis of market considerations, short attention spans, and the need for an outrage platform.

Right now the San Diego Union-Tribune is basking in a viral Twitter fight that raised their ad revenue for a minute. Right now Twitter is screaming DOG HATER about an article they didn't read. Both of them sacrificed something to get what they wanted.

The whole thing makes me tired all over. So tonight I will scoop my little bearded boy up in my arms and carry him up to bed (note: that fucker’s spoilt), and I will ponder for the 500th time as we plod past the stained glass window just what all this says about what it is to have feelings.

On the Nature of Intelligence

If you’ve got some spare time, head on over to MetaFilter and check out this link to a video of Stephen Colbert interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s an hour and a half long, so make sure you’ve got the time, but it’s amazing stuff.

(Side note for my non-nerd readers: If you’re not familiar with Dr. Tyson, he’s an astrophysicist and a popularizer of science with a podcast and a TV show and another TV show and, well, you can read about him here. I’m more than a little in love with the man.)

I’ve watched it twice now, once while brainstorming ideas for a new application I’ve been kicking around, once just the other day while flying out to a conference. I’ve made a permanent copy on my iPad so I can watch it on the rare occasions that I’m offline. Don’t sue me, anybody.

I did this partly for the entertainment value, but also because it reminds me of how stupid I am.

I am, according to the usually accepted definition, a very smart guy. Been told that ever since I was three years old, when I walked into my preschool and read a book to my class. Ever since then, my life has been one of gifted programs and honors classes and people telling me how smart I am. And I wish they hadn’t done that.

You’ll get about two-thirds of the way through that video before you hear Tyson speak about the nature of intelligence. Absorbing and collecting facts, he says, even having a rare facility for doing so, isn’t intelligence.

Intelligence is about curiosity and searching and asking questions and embracing, indeed loving your ignorance as you find ever more ways to whittle away at it. It’s about puzzling over things and picking them apart to see how they work and, maybe, make them better.

I don’t do that, not much. I’ve mostly been afraid to. Instead, I collect facts like a human vacuum. When I was small, I regurgitated all kinds of data to grownups about weather and the human body and physics and math. It was stuff I devoured from books, mostly because I found it fascinating, but I think also because impressing grownups was a hobby of mine. Is, rather.

When people slap labels like “gifted” on you, now you’ve got a role to play. You’ve got a title to live up to. And that scares you. When things don’t come easily to you, you worry that maybe everyone was wrong. You become terrified of displaying your own ignorance. And you stay in your comfort zone. I absorb facts like crazy, but I don’t do very much with them except talk about them on the internet and at parties. Dr. Tyson is right: I’m not intelligent, I’m a collector.

It appears that science backs me up on some of this. I’ve taken that article to heart, shared it with my wife, and told her my desire that we praise our children for their work, not their smarts. She agrees, so we try like hell to remember not to even utter the word “smart” in their presence. Indeed, it makes me uneasy to think that we should delineate between people who absorb facts and make connections easily and those who do not.

There’s a great quote from the man whose name is a synonym for genius: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I know a man who couldn’t tell you a damn thing about Newtonian physics or poetry, but his skills as a knifemaker are earning him national recognition and may well immortalize him, if he keeps growing. I know another who couldn’t do differential calculus to save his life, but has skill as a pianist that humanity produces only a couple of times a generation. Still one more, this one extremely book-smart and on his way to becoming a university professor, who tossed it aside to pursue his passion of making the music of his home country.

These men found their intelligence and poured their guts into it. They are all driven by a curiosity and a need to create. All of my friends: the glassblower, the jeweler, the woodworker, the singer, the poet, all have a need to channel their genius into making or investigating something every day, and I have never in my life been able to find that. They take their skills and they use them, because of that need.

What I have instead is a sort of meta-need, a need to need to put my hand to something. A hunger to find that passion and pursue it. I’ve been searching for an object of obsession that I can put my alleged smarts to for a long time.

Now, I’ve dabbled, tried music and carpentry and stained glass (I haven’t fully given up on that one) and fiction. The only one that really ever took was cooking, which is about as instant-gratification as it gets—you don’t have to spend three days sanding food, if you’re doing it right. Not to mention that I still don’t have the patience for learning proper presentation or some of the more long-form methods.

So I look around, I surround myself with talented people every chance I get, and I collect more facts.

The Fibonacci sequence tends toward the golden ratio, which is found in innumerable places in nature, even in the standard flour-to-water ratio for making bread.

Electrons behave differently depending on whether their behavior is being directly observed. Because of this, we have quantum mechanics, and so you get to read this on your computer.

Objectivism is generally regarded as a self-defeating philosophy, as its ethical aims are weakened every time another person learns them.

Traditional 12-bar blues music tends to follow a I-IV-V chord progression. The Chinese have a far higher incidence of perfect pitch because they speak a tonal language.

These curiosities aggregate, and I enjoy them, and I enjoy sharing them, and I certainly enjoy looking smart when I share them. But I think I have a sliver of understanding for why most child prodigies never become anything of note. I behold the aggregation of trivia and antiques and God knows what else that is my mind, and I wonder what it is good for, what the hell I can do with it that will hold my anemic focus.

Really, the only project that I haven’t abandoned is myself, my desire to find what is lacking in me and excise it with either scalpel or hammer. It’s my focus on my lack of focus. Masturbatory? Narcissistic? Probably. But it’s something.

I’ll keep looking. I’ll keep surrounding myself with my betters, wherever I can find them. Something’s bound to rub off. I hope I’ll know it when I see it—or rather, that I won’t, that it will become so ingrained in me that I take it for granted. That’s when the good stuff happens. That’s when you’re a smarty-pants.