Chronicles of Athena – 42 Weeks

Oh the freedom you feel on a Sunday when you also have the Monday off. I am going to live the life of a short girl on the internet and hem some cute dresses and fix a seam on a kimono I got from a vintage shop. It’s all going to be very pinterest, with a little kitten sitting beside a sewing machine and a freshly made caramel latte (from a machine – I am the definition of bourgeois bohemian).

But of course, the photos I post to instagram will not fully represent what’s happening as I repeatedly shout “Athena! Theena! Drop it! Don’t eat that. Here have this.” and obsessively count glass headed pins and picture perforated intestines. But social media isn’t really for reality, is it?

Several people have commented lately that Athena appears to know her name. I’ve been meditating on this from a scientific point of view. You can certainly catch Athena’s attention with her name, or the ‘Theenie/Theena’ variants of it. But does she know that those words specifically mean ‘small fluffy thing that is me’, or do they mean ‘there might be food or toys or love over there’, or more simply ‘pay attention now’.

But she also has certain chirrups that I fancy mean ‘mum’ or at the least ‘two legged cat who feeds me’. Even if it just means ‘pay attention now’, it gets the job done, right?

Somehow, with different brain structures, an evolutionary history giving us very different social structures, Athena and I can reliably draw one another’s attention with certain vocalisations. Pets are freaky.

Implicit Bias – Representation Matters

Our tea breaks (and a certain someone’s 30th birthday) last week was abuzz about a seminar we got from @fatwhitebloke who was talking about implicit bias.

STEM has a problem with women, and the UK in general has a problem with immigrants, so the talk was very relevant to us. Dr Jones was talking to us about implicit bias, and how our subconscious mind makes decisions that our conscious minds would not. Jones was very explicit about his own implicit biases, which I appreciated. Having a bias does not make you a bad person, but allowing that bias to control your decisions, and being unwilling to change that, does.

They have a little youtube vid about it here:

But one of the things Jones said really stuck out to me, because I spend a lot of time on places like Tumblr and seeing ‘representation matters‘. I ‘know’ this on an instinctive level, I know that Gadget and Captain Janeway are part of the reason I’m here today. When I was little, I identified with the women, and I know that I’m very happy with my life and where I’ve ended. Representation matters to me.

But I’d never thought of it as Dr Jones explained it – and he did this off the cuff, noting to us that this one audience where he didn’t need to explain ‘mylenation of the neurons’.

It certainly sparked some of mine.

You know that electricity is messy. You may have seen electricity jump before (though perhaps not so spectacularly), and you know that electrical wires must be insulated with plastic. Our brains are collections of neurons, a kind of cell that can transmit electrical energy – just like a wire. When babies are young, unable to walk, or to coordinate their movements, all these neurons are ‘firing’ and the electricity is going everywhere. The important neurons coordinating where hands go need to be insulated to keep that signal going along the right path, so with us, those neurons become insulated with a fatty sheath that does not conduct electricity. We call this myelination.

Important pathways in the brain (like the parts that help you to touch your finger to your nose) get well insulated.

Jones asked us to imagine we were walking into an office and we saw the receptionist – who is the receptionist? What are they wearing? How do they compose themselves? Don’t cheat – like most of us you probably saw an attractive (white?) woman, well (sexily?) dressed. It’s how we see secretaries in the media, it’s not necessarily what we know of secretaries from our own personal experience. And our conscious mind doesn’t believe it, but our conscious mind often passes off those decisions to the part of our mind that made all of those connections.

And when you reinforced those connections, what happened? The more we see that, the more those connections get insulated. They become easier to reach next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. And then as we get older, they become our go-to position.

Now there might be one more argument here – that  hey, perhaps a lot of secretaries ARE sexily dressed white women so what’s the problem?

Here we have two choices. This person is a secretary. This person is a secretary who is a sexy woman. Most people will choose the second option with more detail, because humans are terrible at probability. We see that extra information and say “yes, that fits with what I think about secretaries”, forgetting that the subpopulation of sexy female secretaries will ALWAYS be smaller than the larger population just described by ‘secretary’. (See the io9 post on the fallacy here).

Our implicit biases make assumptions and decisions for us. Representation matters because it can stop the insulation of the connections – it makes us less likely to jump to that conclusion. Which leads me to the amazing Guillermo del Toro quote:

I think that every choice is political. When you decide that a woman can be a character of her own and not have to fall in love with the f***ing guy, that’s a political choice. When you choose that they can speak in their own language and be subtitled, that’s a political choice. I think it’s very important for us to understand that we are all — the whole world — in the same robot. It’s this f***ing planet. No matter who you are, what you like to do, whatever your race or whatever your religion, we’re all human. And I think it’s really great to make a movie that celebrates that diversity.

So yes, representation matters. And science agrees.

Chronicles of Athena – 41 Weeks

I’m the kind of person who likes rules (rules control the fun) so Athena should take it as a little victory that she broke me this week.

You see, Athena is a fussy eater.  Athena likes dry food, and treats. Athena will tolerate poultry based foods if it’s grilled and lightly covered in jelly (‘meaty chunks’ are not appropriate, and the richness of gravy based foods gives Athena what we will delicately call ‘the runs’ in large quantities). She will just about accept salmon or sardine if she’s hungry. She won’t eat cod or tuna regardless of how it’s prepared. She won’t even take mackerel off my plate, and if I’m eating salad she’ll try to steal a rocket leaf instead of a piece of a crab.

All of this means that of the range of kitten food available (which the box says ‘feed up until 1 year), there’s only one box where she will reliably eat about 75% of the sachets. For months now, when browsing the shelves I’ve been eyeing up one of the adult boxes of cat food, grilled, with jelly, chicken, turkey, duck, lamb and beef flavours. Just think, I would tell myself. Come July, I’ll be able to buy that box, and my one year old kitten would eat everything I put in front of her.

Well this month, after accidentally picking up a non-grilled box of food that contained BOTH tuna and cod (Athena is so against cod that she won’t even ask for more food when it’s on her plate for fear she might get cod again), I gave up and bought the grown up box 12 weeks early.

Thankfully, Athena didn’t immediately die from being given the wrong kind of food, so that’s a plus. She’s also added beef to her repertoire of nice things to eat.

Although she still has a day or so a week where she’d prefer not to eat. I have no idea where she gets this from. I’ve been on the 5:2 fad diet since Christmas and I still want to kill people when I’m stuffing my face with salad and pickle. Athena daintily turns her nose up and says “No thank you, I’m not hungry today”

Little bitch.

Teaching to Pass the Exam

When I was at school, I was taught to pass exams.

This is viewed very critically in the press – just take a look at these Google returns. But this is not the education I recognise in myself. From day 1 in my education, I was taught how to answer questions, how to tease a question apart into its component pieces (back in my day it was Knowledge & Understanding and Skills & Problem Solving, and every question featured both components).

I was taught how to game marking schemes, how to exploit a question’s structure to give me the most to talk about, how to use my skills when my knowledge failed me.

In news reports, we often hear that ‘teaching to pass exams’ means that university lecturers are having to re-teach the basics.

I never learned grammar at school – that might be obvious. I did poorly in the classes that drilled me on facts (I still only remember the first line of the German definitive articles, der, die, das, der, despite staring at the poster for two years straight). Even now, I ‘know’ the answer to very little. I don’t remember how many dairy cows are in the UK, or what her average milk yield is. That knowledge I outsource to Google. If you wanted a critical evaluation of dairy trends, I have the skills to deliver that, very quickly.

You might say my education was ‘curriculum led’ versus ‘item-teaching’, where I learned a subject thoroughly instead of being taught what was coming up in the test. I don’t think this is entirely true to be honest. My Highers (the big Scottish high school exam) were done way back in 2003. To prepare for my History exam, I tried my hand at answering the questions on the time frames I hadn’t been taught. I passed them. Not well, but I did pass. There was enough Skill and Problem Solving demonstrated to pass the answers.

I rely on those old exam techniques a lot as an academic. I don’t want to beat my breast and say that students aren’t being taught right any more – but I will say there the skills animal behaviour and welfare science uses to interrogate a question are not so different from the skills an English student will use to critique a piece of work, or a History student to draw up some conclusions. Animal behaviour and welfare is a science that demands a lot of evaluative thought alongside its experimental design.

And that’s not easy to teach

Chronicles of Athena – 40 Weeks

This week a man came into the house and played about with Athena’s favourite window. He even stood on her beautiful window sill with his boots on. I am sure you can imagine just how upset she was by the whole event.

Our new flat has the most beautiful light and I couldn’t resist taking advantage of it yesterday to demonstrate a cool little quirk of feline physiology. You might have seen this demonstrated on the BBC’s wonderful ‘Secret Life of Cats‘ but hopefully this video will show you how you can demonstrate this as a teacher or parent (or just to other people if you have a cat on hand!)

Watch how, despite no change in the light levels, Athena’s pupil size changes drastically before she pounces on Mr Ducky. She opens her pupils as wide as she can before pouncing so she can take in as much information as possible. It’s very obvious once you start looking for it, and would supplement a lesson on the physiology of the eye really well.

 

 

Animal science and behaviour science isn’t always easy to demonstrate, unlike chemistry or physics where you can set up experiments with a lot of household objects. I keep meaning to collect small examples of animal behaviour that work like this, so if you think this  kind of thing is useful, do let me know.

Get a Man To Help You!

This post was going to be an introduction to another blog run by a fellow knowledge transfer enthusiast,  Cultured Primate, but I got completely sidetracked by the last thing Lewis retweeted (but do check him out, he’s awesome):

 

Peer review is still broken, corrupt and outdated. In other news, the sky is blue and Athena needs more cuddles.

There’s really nothing to say to this. Not only did a peer reviewer think this was an acceptable thing to say, but an editorial team thought this was an acceptable thing to hand over to authors. Oi vay.

Chronicles of Athena – 39 Weeks

After what’s been a rough few weeks, we’re in need of some family time. So I’ve packed Athena up and brought her to mum’s. The rest of my family is distinctly more theatrical than me so I’ll be spending tonight dressed in forties gear watching their production of Allo Allo, which is very exciting.

Athena is coping very well with the temporary change in venue (and was even extremely well behaved in the car). An ulterior motive for this little bit of family time is to get Athena used to other people looking after her. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that she might have to come here for a week if I’m off at a conference (or, unlikely having just bought a flat, an actual holiday).

It’s a sign of how I overthink every little part of Athena’s care that I very carefully weighed up the pros and cons of taking Athena (who has been here before as a kitten, who has moved house three times, and who has never shown much in the way of nervousness around new environments), before I agreed to the plan. While I’m much more confident with her than I was thirty weeks ago, I still find myself second guessing sometimes.

Is she happy?

Does she have everything she needs?

Am I doing a good job?

When we arrived last night, she found herself a high spot in the kitchen to perch. When I came over she gave me a big kitty kiss, rubbing her jaw over cheek, and after five minutes she was off exploring. As ever, Athena is much more confident about life than I am.

So I take that as a compliment. Over the last thirty weeks I still haven’t irreparably broken the little life I have taken responsibility for. Gold star for me. And for Athena.

Learning Objects and Politics

I’m a big fan of learning objects, as I’m sure we can probably all agree on. They’re a great way to teach, giving the user a lot of flexibility and the ones that give a result you can share online are particularly cool.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we have a general election coming up. I’ve seen some great learning objects in the lead up:

The BBC’s Create Your Own Manifesto

What works about this one is the roleplay aspect. If you were one of these waffling politicians, how would you waffle? I love the puzzle piece aspect to it and the way you can pick and choose your key issues. Makes it a very flexible object that you can take a lot of time over, or just fly through if you want to see where various parties stand on the issues that matter to you.

Unlock Democracy’s Vote Match

This is more like a standard ‘personality test’ style quiz, and it’s the sharing aspect that really works, as well as the level of detail they’ve gone into. Splitting the quiz into the four home nations is so important in this post-devolution, post-referendum world. It immediately saves people from turning off, but still allows the full range of political views to be expressed. I particularly like the neutrality in this one (not that you’d expect anything less from Unlock Democracy). Unfortunately you are required to give an email address and they do collect data on you.

ThoughtPlay’s Who Should You Vote For?

This is like a simplified version of Unlock Democracy’s LO, and I do think it’s simplification hurts it’s appeal. It’s not as glossy or good looking as the others, and the unwieldy ‘Choose England vs Scotland’ drop down menu is an irritant. That being said, their results do reflect your personal politics (even if at the expense of any tactical voting you have in mind).

As for accuracy, I felt the pick-and-mix BBC option expressed my feelings best of all, Vote Match got something VERY wrong, or perhaps I should have added another party to the “I would never vote for this party” line up, and one thing I felt all three lacked was the element of trust. How much do you trust the politicians?

 

And then as a bonus extra, the BBC have a ‘Form Your Own Coalition

Depending on random (within a margin) election results, you can choose your own coalition government. Almost all options equally depressing!

 

All in all, though, it’s nice to see learning objects get out there. I always use the BBC as an example of good practice in producing learning objects, and if there’s any topic that needs being made accessible, it’s politics!

Anatomy of a Break – Part Two

This is a post I have tried to put off writing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bobo, who had badly broken a leg. This was missed by a vet, and so poor Bobo had spent time in pain, and now was faced with a complicated operation to save the leg.

Almost unbelievably, Bobo died under general anaesthetic last Friday.

I wrote up a case study on the subject, and I’ve had the chance to explain it to her old owner Sophie in person, thanks to a helpfully timed genetics conference. And I’ve talked about it to mum over and over. I won’t go into the detail again here. Suffice to say, the operation to save her leg didn’t work. When she was brought back under anaesthetic to amputate her leg, she suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived.

It’s incredibly unusual to lose a cat under general anaesthetic these days, even one who has been through several with some infections. The staff were shocked, and have been very kind to my mum, sending her a card and Forget-Me-Not seeds.

In a horrible echo, Mum’s new neighbour found her own cat returning home with a half-severed tongue. It appears as though there’s something in the area attacking cats, be it another cat in the area, or a dog, or whatever.

And I have just submitted my old MSc project for publication, about how online pet obituaries can help shine a light on successful human-animal bonds. One of the interesting little results we found in that project was the preponderance of people justifying their choice to euthanise, if that’s what they did. People recite clinical information, talk about lack of pain, the need for a ‘good death’. I find myself doing this too, going over the advice I gave, analysing where I could have saved Bobo. And I know that Mum has been doing the exact same.

Some theories suggest we have companion animals because the short nature of those bonds prepare us for what happens in human-human bonds. It prepares us to look after children, it prepares us to grieve, it prepares us to have someone depending on us. The nature of our bond with our pets is unique, though.  When Athena was moaning at me this week I was able to say to her “You know, some other little cats are dead, how would you like that?” which you would never say to a human, child or adult, but you can completely say to an animal. When Athena was trying to upturn her water fountain on Friday night, I sang, to the tune of ‘Maria’, a song about a kitten who got wet paws.

The nature of the human-pet bond is such that we can be brutally honest with them, exposing a part of ourselves that we wouldn’t normally expose to other humans. The loss of a companion animal does not just encompass the loss of something you love, but a specific and unique loss – the loss of a confidant, the loss of a proxy family member, the loss of a little extension of yourself.

Hug your babies close, if they’ll let you, and tell them you love them, which they might not fully understand. What we have with our pets is special, and when it’s unexpectedly robbed from you, that is a break that is hard to heal.

Goodbye Bobo, you will be very much missed.