Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Foxes On Leashes? Hot New Hollywood Pet?

In a strange example of unintended consequences, when Joseph Stalin endorsed psuedo-sceientist Lysenko's attempt to disprove Mendel's theory of genetics, he also set into motion a series of events that will undoubtedly lead to tame foxes on leashes becoming the hot new power pet of LA movie moguls.

Nice Rats, Nasty Rats: Maybe It’s All in the Genes

By Nicholas Wade

On an animal-breeding farm in Siberia are cages housing two colonies of rats. In one colony, the rats have been bred for tameness in the hope of mimicking the mysterious process by which Neolithic farmers first domesticated an animal still kept today. When a visitor enters the room where the tame rats are kept, they poke their snouts through the bars to be petted.

The other colony of rats has been bred from exactly the same stock, but for aggressiveness instead. These animals are ferocious. When a visitor appears, the rats hurl themselves screaming toward their bars.

“Imagine the most evil supervillain and the nicest, sweetest cartoon animal, and that’s what these two strains of rat are like,” said Tecumseh Fitch, an animal behavior expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who several years ago visited the rats at the farm, about six miles from Akademgorodok, near the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. Frank Albert, a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, is working with both the tame and the hyperaggressive Siberian strains in the hope of understanding the genetic basis of their behavioral differences.

“The ferocious rats cannot be handled,” Mr. Albert said. “They will not tolerate it. They go totally crazy if you try to pick them up.”

When the aggressive rats have to be moved, Mr. Albert places two cages side by side with the doors open and lets the rats change cages by themselves. He is taking care that they do not escape to the sewers of Leipzig, he said.

The two strains of rat are part of a remarkable experiment started in the former Soviet Union in 1959 by Dmitri K. Belyaev. Belyaev and his brother were geneticists who believed in Mendelian theory despite the domination of Soviet science by Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics.

Belyaev’s brother was exiled to a concentration camp, where he died, but Belyaev was able to move to Siberia in 1958 and became director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk. There he was able to study genetics in relative freedom, according to a report prepared by Dr. Fitch after a visit to the institute in 2002.


Belyaev decided to study the genetics of domestication, a problem to which Darwin gave deep attention. Domesticated animals differ in many ways from their wild counterparts, and it has never been clear just which qualities were selected for by the Neolithic farmers who developed most major farm species some 10,000 years ago.

Belyaev began his experiment in 1959 with 130 farm-bred silver foxes, using their tolerance of human contact as the sole criterion for choosing the parents of the next generation.

“The audacity of this experiment is difficult to overestimate,” Dr. Fitch has written. “The selection process on dogs, horses, cattle or other species had occurred, mostly unconsciously, over thousands of years, and the idea that Belyaev’s experiment might succeed in a human lifetime must have seemed bold indeed.”

In fact, after only eight generations, foxes that would tolerate human presence became common in Belyaev’s stock. Belyaev died in 1985, but his experiment was continued by his successor, Lyudmila N. Trut. The experiment did not become widely known outside Russia until 1999, when Dr. Trut published an article in American Scientist. She reported that after 40 years of the experiment, and the breeding of 45,000 foxes, a group of animals had emerged that were as tame and as eager to please as a dog.

As Belyaev had predicted, other changes appeared along with the tameness, even though they had not been selected for. The tame silver foxes had begun to show white patches on their fur, floppy ears, rolled tails and smaller skulls.

The tame foxes, Dr. Fitch reported, were also “incredibly endearing.” They were clean and quiet and made excellent house pets, though — being highly active — they preferred a house with a yard to an apartment. They did not like leashes, though they tolerated them.

American researchers have suggested that the foxes be made available as pets, partly to ensure their survival should the Novosibirsk colony be wiped out by disease.

So there you have it. Renegade Stalinist mad scientist inadvertently causes latest Beverly Hills status symbol.

A true fable for our times.

Equally intriguing, though, is that hidden away in Siberia, a group of likely forgotten scientists have been running a breeding program of rats and foxes with close to zero economic benefit for almost half-a century, unmolested by several regime changes or even the collapse of communism.

Clearly a fable from a time that no longer exists.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Low Tech Teachers Who Can Actually Teach Trump High-Tech Subsitutes!

First, read my prior post on contemporary relationships. The following piece will have another layer of meaning if you do.

Bob Sipchen (Monday's Column, July 24, 2006)

The teacher’s blah-blah-blah sent my brain swooning toward hibernate mode. I slumped into the flesh-toned plastic chair, propped an elbow on the laminate wood desktop and fought back panic.

I knew the fear was irrational. “You’re an adult, a journalist on assignment!” I told myself. “Your pals aren’t really out there having a total blast playing while you suffer.”

Even now, you see, it’s hard for me to discuss the trauma that summer school boredom inflicted on my young psyche. Entering that classroom rekindled the pain.

Here’s what’s bizarre, though: Before I could escape into guilty slumber, I found myself paying attention. In a classroom. On a hot summer day.

And it wasn’t the hand puppets that saved me from stultifying ennui. It was the teacher. She captured my attention without so much as a state-of-the-art interactive whiteboard with edit-as-you-go video clips.

Which brings me to today’s subject: Teachers and technology.

My July 10 column, written from an education and computing conference in San Diego, chided schools for a Luddite-like refusal to take young peoples’ techno-sophistication and entertainment addiction into account.

Thanks to the relatively new technology of the Internet, a rippin’ good discussion of that subject has been unfolding at this column’s latimes.com blog. So far the online debate among students, parents, teachers and crabby citizens is ping-ponging from gung-ho geekery to traditionalist scoffing, with hurtful assaults on my eggshell-like ego thrown in: “…The LA Times, great paper that it is, should probably start attacking the problem by finding writers for this subject who don’t mock their subject matter.”

A few excerpts:

“… Computers and media, especially in early childhood and up through 7th-8th grade, do more harm than good. . . . Being active, hearing stories, using the imagination is critical to well-rounded kids.”

“The problem is that exploring Internet links is so easy and tempting, it is difficult to stay focused.

In science and engineering, much learning comes from working problems. I am worried that many students spend more time searching for a solution they can copy than working the problem themselves.”

I have nothing else to else to add. It says it all.

When Friends Are Really Friends - Or Just Not So Old Acquaintances!

The significance of others

A study says Americans' personal ties are waning. Or maybe not -- if you count MySpace friends.
By Gina Piccalo
Times Staff Writer

July 23, 2006

EVERY now and then, a study comes along that declares our modern life terminally fractured, inspiring weeks, sometimes years, of despairing headlines and intellectual navel-gazing. This year, it's the so-called friendship study, which announced that nearly one in four Americans has no confidants — no spouse, no one — nearly triple the number in 1985.

The findings have resonated high and low: grave warnings from world-weary columnists, a joke in a Jay Leno monologue. Story after story has heralded the study as revealing "a nation of isolation" and "casualties of the Internet age." That's because it certainly feels true. Sure, we work too much and commute too far to build anything more than a broad network of acquaintances. We hunker down within our immediate families.

But step back a little and another picture emerges. What about the mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary? The explosion of online networking, for example, MySpace.com being among the most notable, or our addiction to e-mail…. If we're all so isolated, as Leno pointed out, "who the hell is everyone talking to on their cellphones?"

Then there's the study itself and the news media's hasty interpretations. Of course, when it comes to academic research, few would accuse reporters of overly careful analysis, particularly when a "finding" such as this one promises such tantalizing, blockbuster bad news. Who could forget the June 1986 Newsweek article — only recently retracted — about the bogus notion that single women over 40 were more likely to get killed by terrorists than married? That story was embroidered into the culture. (The most recent findings, it turns out, show that women over 40 have more than a 40% chance of marrying.)

Or the study in May in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. That one showed that middle-aged Americans are more likely to go to the doctor than their English counterparts — but many in the media looked at the study and concluded that Americans are sicker.

Uh - wait a second. As I recollect... the LA Times was one of those... many in the media... who got taken in (at least initially, and I do not recall any correction or retraction since then) by that sham of a study while the New York Times instantly and correctly deduced that the study was essentially... bogus.

But I digress. Now for the meat of the matter:

In some reports, the study's co-author and spokeswoman, Lynn Smith-Lovin, seemed to get a little carried away, using images of Hurricane Katrina victims stranded on rooftops to illustrate her findings. "It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them," she told Reuters. "It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?' "

Still, if reporters had just read the study closely, the stories would have been more nuanced, even more interesting.

For one thing, the friendship study isn't, as sociologists and demographers like to point out, even about friendship. It's about confidants, people you discuss personal matters with, who are just as likely to be your bank teller as your best friend.

But the whole notion of candor these days exists independent of friendship, as the culture of Internet exhibitionism seeps into — and reshapes — the "real" world. Blabbing into our cellphones, posting our personal stories on message boards and blogs, and wading through celebrity-tabloid minutiae, we've lost all sense of what's public and what's private. We spill and spill and spill on reality shows, on YouTube.com, on niche online groups. It's a wonder we have anything left to say, let alone need more of an audience.

Questionnaire questions

MANY sociologists consider the Smith-Lovin team's data solid because it's based on the General Social Survey, a questionnaire that has been widely used every year since 1972 to measure a variety of social, cultural and political shifts.

Though one experienced social networks expert — who feared professional backlash if named — questioned whether the findings are a better reflection of the changing work ethic of interviewers from 1985 to 2004, the period the study compares, rather than our nation's purportedly growing isolation.

That's because the GSS requires the interviewer to "probe" if a subject lists fewer than five confidants. Probing leads to more questions; when a respondent lists no confidants, the interviewer can skip about a dozen questions. (Though the study's authors said they were concerned about that possibility, they also state that the "probe pattern" in the 1985 and 2004 surveys was "very similar.")

The interviews, during summer and early fall 2004, included as many as 148 questions, asked over 90 minutes. Respondents were interviewed in person, often in their homes, and selected from a random sampling of regions of the country, in urban and rural areas. The authors — Smith-Lovin, Miller McPherson and Matthew E. Brashears — are still skeptical of their findings and say so in their conclusion, even after months spent searching for what they assumed was a mistake in their methodology. They didn't find an error, but they did include several caveats to their conclusion.

"Possibly, we will discover that it is not so much a matter of increasing isolation but a shift in the form and type of connection," they write.

Could it also be that the interviewer-respondent connection is very different from it was 20 years ago?

The authors also acknowledge that people's reports of their actions aren't "perfect reflections" of them. And it's possible, they write, that their key question to the 1,467 respondents — "Looking back over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" — may have been misinterpreted to exclude newer forms of communication like e-mail.That wouldn't be surprising considering the 19-year span between GSS studies on the topic of social isolation, said Tom Smith, director of the survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

"The issue comes here not with reliability of the data source, in a general sense, but complexities in measuring these kinds of intimate relationships and whether people may or may not be using the same standard they used 20 years ago," he said.

Subjects may not have qualified their e-mail or cellphone chat as "discussion," the researchers write. And, they write: "What Americans considered important might well have shifted over the past two decades, perhaps as a result of major events (the attacks of 9/11 and the wars that followed)."

"One of things we read out of our data is that people may have fewer really close ties," said Smith-Lovin. "That doesn't mean they're isolated, but they have more weak ties…. We're kind of circulating through interests, groups and relationships at a faster rate, and we may not stay at any one long enough to develop that close tie."

Remarkably, in all this coverage, what might be considered a huge upside was often portrayed as a negative — that marriages are more intimate than ever, with spouses relying more on each other for emotional support. The study also found that women are achieving equality with men in the number of social ties outside the family. There's also evidence that more people now have a confidant of another race. Still, it's the portrait of new American "isolate" that made the headlines.

So what does this study tells us about human relationships?

Too much!

In other words, it shows how complex and changing - and not changing - relationships are among humans. It also shows there is no one answer or one sound bite that can describe how we all relate to one another.

As for myself, I had a half-dozen close friends in high school - several of whom I will see at my John Marshall Class of 1966 reunion next month. After that, I had ten years of running and riding with nine crazed cowhands who were closer to me than even my own family until that way of life tragically ended for us all.

My friendship with them became the pivotal event of my life. They enabled me to discover who I was meant to be and they then gave me the courage and the skills to be that person. Because of them, everything I have done since then has in some way been an unsuccessful attempt to recreate that now lost world we once inhabited.

Today, I know hundreds of people with whom I regularly communicate with - and - on occassion, I even recognize a few of their faces and remember a few of their names.

And I consider many of them to be good friends.

But I have not a single close friend like those I once had.

And of all the people I now know, there were but two and now three, people with the range of interests and the variety of knowledge - with whom I can really communicate with about the things that matter most to me.

Communication, friendship - and close relationships. Three very different states.

But if one is lucky enough to be married to someone who is a combination of all three - then I'd say you are far more fortunate than the rest of us.

Lastly - read my next post about the LAUSD and education. It surprisingly says a lot more about the state of relationships in today's world than any study ever could.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Another Non-Paying Job For LA Cowboy!

Normally I don't link to articles about myself - but the attached photo is simply too funny (alas!) not to share. Note though - please subtract about twenty years from the age I appear to be in the photo.

Even I am not that old....

And I would like to add that I am very honored to have been selected by the delegates to the Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils Congress - LANCC - as their next chair. And, luckily, I have a great team of officers to work with; Jim Alger as First vice-chair, Luciana Dar as Second vice-chair, Adrienne O'Neill as Secretary and David Strause as Treasurer - plus Ken Draper as Director of Communications and Outreach and Roger Kulpa as Director of the website.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Cowboy Christmas! Or As You City People Better Know It - The Fourth Of July!

Though more accurately, it is the week before - and after - the Fourth of July that is called the Cowboy Christmas. That is because there they are so many damn rodeos going on at one time that poor ole cowpokes don't know which one of them to unwrap first. So it is not uncommon for rodeo cowboys to hit a dozen – or more – rodeos – in one week either by sharing private planes – or splitting driving shifts in cram-packed extra-large pick-ups with four stall horse trailers following behind them.

Now while I never did the rodeo cowboy thing – with a few exceptions – when I first hit the cowboy trail I did train bucking stock that we sold to stock contractors and we then went to the rodeos to see how they performed… which brings us to today’s tale…

During my first Cowboy Christmas, one of the contractor’s bucking stock couldn’t make it from one rodeo to the next in time and my own personal horse – Mr. D – the buckinest horse that ever lived – just happened to be with me. So with it being a seller’s market in bucking broncs – I asked good old Mr. D if he would care to make his rodeo debut and he quickly gave me an eager snort - hell, yes.

The next few hours were mighty entertaining for us and Mr. D as we watched one cowboy after another go flying in near record times.

So we repeated this several times over the next few days. And it was a mighty sad Mr. D when we finally returned back to the ranch after our first Cowboy Christmas. The next year, however, due to small rodeo’s close proximity to a much larger rodeo – a couple cowboys who were in the money for that year’s championship showed up – and both got promptly throwed by Mr. D as soon as they cleared the chute.

Now as keeping a low profile was always our number one priority, with that kind of attention focused on my horse – we quickly broke camp and left – and returned to the ranch.

The following year, we hit some smaller rodeos – making certain that no ranking cowboys would be there – but when one person moseyed over to us and asked us if this was the Cowboy Christmas horse… we quickly packed up and left, thus ending Mr. D’s rodeo career to both our regrets.

So now I am sitting in a loft in Downtown Los Angeles… but my mind today is far way in another time and another place.

Because it is Cowboy Christmas and I am a long way from home.