Let's All Relax With Some NICE THINGS
Why cats AREN'T psychopaths, some podcasts, and other coolness
Time for an abbreviated Nice Things, your weekly escape from the daily stream of terrible terribleness! We'll be a bit shorter than usual this week because Yr Dok Zoom is a terrible planner and took far too long on the Book Club this week. Maybe next week we'll figure this all out. Or not!
Let's start out with a really brief but fun read from the Atlantic,Sarah Zhang's "Why We Think Cats Are Psychopaths," Zhang starts with the common observation -- like, common even among folks wholove kittehs -- that virtually every cat ever could adopt "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" as its theme song (while their owners wish the kitty would please Wanna Be Sedated). University of Liverpool psychology grad student Becky Evans has been conducting a survey of cat owners on the question, with hopes of developing a "cat psychopathy" scale. Of course, since cats are notoriously bad at completing questionnaires (they knock them on the floor then lie right on 'em), it's really more a study of human perceptions of fairly normal cat behavior.
Here's the really neato observation, though, courtesy of cat behavior researcher Mikel Maria Delgado, a post-doc at UC-Davis. For one thing, when people talk about cats, they nearly always include an implicit comparison to dogs, which makes sense, considering humans domesticated dogs a lot longer ago and have shaped their evolution far more dramatically. Cats have remained cats -- a fact that makes them seem more alien, particularly since we've remade canis lupus familiaris in our own image.
"We like things that remind us of us," Delgado told me. "We like smiling. We like dogs doing what we tell them. We like that they attend to us very quickly. They make a lot of eye contact."
OK, no surprises there. But now, prepare for your mind to be blown:
Cats, she pointed out, simply don't have the facial muscles to make the variety of expressions a dog (or human) can. So when we look at a cat staring at us impassively, it looks like a psychopath who cannot feel or show emotion. But that's just its face. Cats communicate not with facial expressions but through the positions of their ears and tails. Their emotional lives can seem inscrutable—and even nonexistent—until you spend a lot of time getting to know one.
Dogs, on the other hand, have learned to mimic humans. They do that thing where they pull their mouths back into something resembling a smile. They hang their heads in a way that looks super guilty. Just as humans have shaped the physical appearance of dogs, we've bred them to be extremely attuned to human social cues. Dogs that repeatedly raise their brows to make cute puppy faces are more likely to be adopted out of shelters.
Cats aren't crazy. They're different, and we're anthropocentric bigots, kinda. The piece also looks at other human-biased assumptions about what's going on in cats' little fuzzy heads. But that right there is just something I'd never thought of, and so, wow.
Evans, by the way, has a very practical reason for exploring cats' perceived psychopathy:
The survey, Evans hopes, is just the first step in devising a way to measure psychopathy in cats. She'd like to eventually study cats in their natural habitat—their house—so as not to rely on the word of their owners. The ultimate goal of the research is to devise a test for shelters so they can better match cats with owners. Whether it's fair to call a cat a psychopath, we naturally do it, and it affects how well new owners and their cats will get along.
Psycho kitty, qu'est-ce que c'est!
Also! More Atlantic goodness! A review of a new biography of Edward Gorey, with the best possible title for the subject: Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey . I dunno, a future Book Club selection?
Get Thee To A Podcast, Go
I have become more than a little dependent on MSNBC host Chris Hayes's weekly podcast "Why Is This Happening?" to feel just vaguely smart about stuff. Each week, Hayes spends an hour or so -- designed to be the length of a workout, he recently revealed -- talking to an expert on some important issue of public policy. It's sometimes an issue smack dab in the middle of the news, like his interview last summer with ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt about Trump's family separation policy. More often, the topic is some aspect of our crazy world that isn't in the headlines, but matters, like the two recent pieces we'll profile here.
For the February 12 edition , Hayes spoke with ProPublica journalist Jesse Eisinger about the gutting of the Internal Revenue Service by Republicans, who wanted not only tax cuts, but to also limit taxation by reducing the ability of the IRS to enforce tax law at all. Eisinger recently published a piece on that at ProPublica, and it's absolutely infuriating.
Some of the factoids are just plain amazing, like the fact that, after the super-wealthy, the category of people who get audited the most isn't the merely very wealthy, but instead people making under $20K a year. You see, Republicans whined about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income tax and qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, so the IRS is dutifully scrutinizing the returns of people who make very little, to weed out some perceived "fraud." The episode raises a very real and disturbing question: If Democrats take the Senate and the presidency in 2020, will the IRS be in any shape to actually collect any of the new taxes on the rich that candidates are running on right now? Here, give a listen, even if you're not working out:
Also a darn good listen is the most recent episode, an interview with Gizmodo journalist Kashmir Hill, who recently wrote a series of articles about trying to erase the five biggest tech companies from her daily life. That meant not just not buying anything at Amazon, for instance, but also trying to eradicate the portions of the interwebs that Amazon (or each of the other big tech companies) controls behind the scenes. Turns out Amazon provides the web architecture for a huge part of the internet. The company makes far more money through its Amazon Web Services than through selling stuff. The research design was nifty, too: Hill worked with a technologist who built a virtual private network for her home that automatically blocked IP addresses belonging to Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple, making each disappear from her internet for a week at a time.
That resulted in some weirdness: In her week without Amazon, for instance, Hill couldn't watch any streaming services at all -- not just Amazon Prime, but also Netflix and Hulu, because both those companies rely on streaming architecture owned by Amazon. And because Amazon Web Services is pervasive, not a single US Government site Hill visited worked for her, either. Going without Google, which provides analytics and other back-end services for tons of websites, made sites load funny or not at all. Of the biggies, Apple proved the easiest to go without and still use the internet, largely because Apple doesn't sell users' data -- but she's also an Apple devotee, so she had to lock away her phone and iPad for a week (resulting in a surprisingly calm flight with her young daughter, who read books, colored, and napped -- she never naps on planes). It's a really fascinating discussion of monopoly power and technology, and a mandatory part of any reply to people who say "well if you don't like [ name of tech giant ], then don't use it."
Tech Does Neat Things, Too!
From the Irish Times, a cool story about the intersection of Big Tech and Big Druid:
Up to fifty previously undiscovered archaeological monuments have been unearthed through a series of Google Earth images taken during the 2018 summer drought.
Dozens of monuments, some dating back 4,000 years, have appeared in a series of photographs published online by the Google Earth mapping app which were taken at the end of June 2018.
Author and photographer Anthony Murphy, who has been photographing ancient monuments across Ireland for more than 20 years, said he had counted between 40-50 sites in the photographs along with another 50 that had previously been chronicled through images from the 1960s and 70s.
Soil over ancient building and farming sites retained different amounts of moisture, and the areas in the minute depressions grew greener during the drought, leaving outlines detectable in satellite imagery.
"Some are small ring-ditches, maybe 20 metres or 30 metres in diameter, but there are some truly enormous structures like ringforts and enclosures, in some cases measuring 100 metres in diameter and more," Mr Murphy said. "The largest structure visible in the Google imagery is in Co Dublin and measures a staggering 350 metres wide."
Citizen science. Obviously that's why tech giants need bigger tax cuts! (OK, or not.)
Miscellaneous Fun Stuff!
Nice things on the Twitters, starting with a confession from an embarrassed physicist who had him a brain fart. This is very reassuring to me, since for years I've struggled to bring up perfectly ordinary words and stuff and things:
Hello my name is Paul, I have a PhD in physics and thanks to a random brain freeze forgot the word for photon so ha… https: //t.co/wBzix7oH9U
— Paul Coxon (@Paul Coxon) 1550502649.0
@fisty @paulcoxon https: //t.co/LdPtaaVmPG
— Carl Smith (@Carl Smith) 1550619281.0
@paulcoxon Hello, I am a librarian and thanks to a random brain freeze I forgot the word for book and said to a new… https: //t.co/1VlomHTjkl
— Beth Dunston (@Beth Dunston) 1550543851.0
Paul Coxon's original tweet went viral, of course, leading him to follow up with the only funny "check out my SoundCloud" variation, ever:
If I had a SoundCloud it’d be here but that’s what I call a thunderstorm
— Paul Coxon (@Paul Coxon) 1550564725.0
If you're craving more, there was a similar thread on AskReddit this week that was very entertaining.
Also, since kitties got the header image and the top article this week, some attention to a woofer:
Dang, that's some pretty heavy political content. Has Tucker Carlson condemned it as a moral threat yet? THE END!
OK, almost the end! Remember to check out the book club post, buy the book club book ( A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis), and read the book club book (chapters 4-7) for next week, really the END!
Yr Wonkette is supported by reader donations. Giving money to keep us going? Nicest Thing EVER! Also, remember to buy your own copy of A History of America in Ten Strikes !