Friday, March 16, 2018

A NO vote on the new Hildreth school

Why I will be voting NO on the new elementary school.

The whole discussion about the new school project can be broken down to two points. First, how many bells and whistles should we include in the project. Second, who should make the decision about what bells and whistles the town wants to pay for. Another point of contention, for me, is that a large number of the “pro” arguments have used rhetorical and logical fallacies to make their point. A little quote from Duke University: “Rhetorical fallacies, or fallacies of argument, don't allow for the open, two-way exchange of ideas upon which meaningful conversations depend. Instead, they distract the reader with various appeals instead of using sound reasoning. Logical fallacies depend upon faulty logic” ( These are techniques that are meant to persuade, with the appearance, but not actuality, of fact.
I believe in spending good money to take care of real problems. I like my tools, and my things, to last. I like to see the town share those practical New England values. Fix what needs fixing, and do it right. But don’t mortgage the farm for something you can’t afford.
The school building committee (SBC) took it upon themselves to include in this project a number of items that are desirable, but at an additional cost. The result is a very costly project. It is my opinion that the school building committee made decisions about the school building project costs that they should have left to the citizens. They certainly included items in the project that are more than is needful to fix the existing needful problems in our elementary school.
The committee took the four original proposals and whittled them down to two. The two proposals that were brought forward, one renovation, and the new building, both contained significant expenditures on “want” items. And at that point, the public debate centered around those two options, as though they were what we had to choose from, although they weren’t. When the SBC chose one project to bring to the town vote, they chose the most extravagant.
I am opposing this project on two counts. First, I believe it contains more bells and whistles than we, as a town, want to spend for this purpose. Second, I think the citizens, not the committee, should have been the ones to make the decision about which bells and whistles to include, if any.
Before I go on, a couple of bio notes on why I have some expertise on this topic.  I spent 15 of my career years in project controls for major infrastructure construction. The first six years of that time was in project cost control on a school capital improvement program in Memphis, TN. We were the project management team. That school project oversaw more than $500M in school renovations and construction, some 27 projects, if memory serves. For five of those years, I was the senior cost engineer –the guy who tracked and watched over project costs.

History of the Project

In 2014 the town had engineers and architects look at our elementary school buildings in order to make recommendations on action, and give an estimate. The end result was a renovation estimate for the K-wing, with construction of an additional building, for a cost of $4.6M. That renovation included complete abatement of the mold issues. The school supervisory personnel never followed through to carry this forward, so it died. To be replaced by a much larger and more expensive project.
In 2016, a new project was brought to life. This project started with the demolition of the K-wing as a minimum. Renovation of the K-wing was not in consideration. The initial estimates came in with the simplest estimate (“needs” only), which included a new building to replace the K-wing, at $11M. The next step up, a simple renovation plus a cafeteria upgrade, came in under $20M. That was total cost to the town. Now, in my professional opinion, based on my experience in the field, I don’t particularly have issues with subsequent estimates coming in somewhat higher. And they rapidly did. Those low end, “focus on needs” estimates quickly went up to $16 and $19M. In the few months to follow, they went up higher still. When estimates double, and more than double in size, it is a warning sign that either you have an incompetent estimator, or you have changed the ground rules for the estimate. And, indeed, “wanted” items were being moved into the “need focused” estimates. The low end estimates were quickly discarded, and the focus was on expensive projects that also bought items the school administration wanted.

Needed Fixes, Triggers, and Bells and Whistles:

That brings us up to today, and the current decision, because one of the problems being experienced, and the justification for a new building, are the roof problems in the 1988 building. In a nutshell, ice dams. There are other considerations in the 1988 building that are also needful, such as an update to the heating system.
The K-wing is the older building, and it has major issues on several fronts. The primary need for attention is the presence of mold, due to roof leaks (also due to ice dams and snow removal issues). This problem needs to be fixed, and it is the primary driver why all these changes are being looked at now. There are numerous other, issues in the K-wing that are truly needful. The K-wing needs major work. For more information about the condition of the K-wing, see the 2014 report: “Investigative & Assessment Report for Harvard Public Schools – Hildreth Elementary School – K-Wing, Blackstone Block Architects” (linked in the reference section).
Then, there are triggered items that need to be fixed when you fix the needed items. An example is ADA compliance. Then there are bells and whistles. These are items the school administration wants.
It is incontrovertible that the packages the committee forwarded contain MORE than is needful to resolve the problems. Those changes include work on the gym, the cafeteria, internal classroom redesigns, and additional office space. They represent investment beyond what is required to fix the problems in the school buildings.
So then the question becomes how much do we need, and how badly do we want these changes. There are pro arguments, for a new gym and new cafeteria, but I have to observe that the school supervision has been working with the current gym and cafeteria for decades, and that situation has been manageable.
You might ask if the changes are needed due to an increase in student enrollment, or overcrowding in the existing school. Our school population has been on a decrease over the past decade. Current forecasts do not predict a significant change from this. We don’t have overcrowding. School management stated, at a building project public meeting, that we already have very good pupil/teacher ratios in class size.
What the committee brought forward in this process of renovate or build new was the most expensive renovation option vs a new building. They included all kinds of changes above and beyond what was necessary to just fix the problems that exist. They voted, 9 to 1, to offer the citizens of Harvard only two options. Either a YES vote to a very large capital expenditure or a NO vote with the uncertainty of results that will entail.

The Building Quality of the 1988 Structure, and Suitability to Needs

One of the major pro-new arguments being bandied about is the projected lifetime of a renovation to the 1988 building. Another question has been to ask how sound the 1988 building is.
In the late 1980’s, the town of Harvard had two buildings for the elementary school. One was what is now called the K-wing, and the other was a wooden school building called the Brown School, dating to 1905. The town voted to tear down the Brown School, and build a new structure. The architect of that building designed a structure face that reflected the old Bromfield school (now the Harvard Public Library), and the old library. The 1987 school projects were a major capital expenditure, and as a result met with controversy. Some compromises were made in the design to reduce the cost. One change that was discussed, but decided against, was changes to the roof design to reduce cost. Some people, in Nextdoor comments, have indicated they believe the original roof was a compromise. But according to the Harvard Post reporting, the town did NOT compromise on the roof design or structure. [1]
To be honest, the answers that I see, that the renovation of the 1988 building is risky, and that it was a poorly constructed building in the first place, give me heartburn. The questions are good questions. The answers some are providing are not good answers. They are products of misinformation – logical fallacies (which I will look at again later).
Is the 1988 building sound? One of the early moves made by the building committee, and a proper move, was to order a wall penetration study be done to assess the unseen damage inside the walls. Engineers came to the school, made several observation penetrations at interior sites where it looked like one might expect damage to occur. What they found was very little damage. What is important about this is that the interior condition of the walls is not an unknown. Some people arguing pro would have us believe that renovation is highly risky because “anything can be found when you open a wall.” This is a scare tactic, predicting unrealistic consequences. Frankly, given the results of the penetration testing, this is the least of my worries. The 1988 building is basically still sound – it still has “good bones”. This was affirmed at the public meetings the school building committee held last year.
Are we going to have to repeat the renovation in a short time span, or is the “fix” not going to fix the problems? It has been said that we will have to repeat the renovation in 20 years. Think about this argument for a minute. The current roof has been in place for 30 years, and is still sound. It has leakage issues as a result of ice dams. So presuming that a renovation would only last 20 years sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? I don’t find it a credible argument. It is an exaggeration of the risk factors involved. The argument has touted a revisit of the fixes as “likely”, when I doubt that the experts involved – the engineers and architects of the project – would be willing to rate such risk as anything more than “possible”. Frankly, even new construction contains risk. Take, for example, our new police station. We’ve already taken the constructors of that project to court over HVAC issues. And we have already had to spend thousands of dollars replacing components that we should not have had to replace.
A good deal of the expense of the project, as the committee brought it forward, includes desired changes (“wants”) to the interior of the ’88 building. The 1988 building is sound and is serving the school well enough. I recognize that some things would be nice to have, but “nice to have” and needful are different things.

School Ranking

Ultimately, we have a school that gets exceptionally high ratings. It rates a 10 on The Harvard Public School system is ranked by Boston Magazine in the top 10 of 125 school districts that lie within, or partially within, I-495. And I know these are references that prospective home-buyers use for research: 10 years ago I was such a buyer, and Great Schools was the website I used to researching what was available. Boston Magazine has been described by other residents as the gold standard for school rankings in Massachusetts. By pretty much any measure, Hildreth ranks highly. Are these changes going to improve those school ratings? When you have a score of 10 out of 10, how do you improve it? Answer? You can’t.

Property Values

As far as I am concerned, an increase in property values as a result of the school construction is such a lightweight argument that I have called it “bogus” in conversation. We have many communities in the area who also have schools that rank highly. And we compete with them for the home-buyers dollar. We aren’t in a vacuum.
One argument quotes statistics equating increases in school spending with an increase in home values. And it just doesn’t apply. Trying to apply a statistical calculation to a single instance is the logical fallacy known as the “Gambler’s Fallacy”. In case you don’t remember your first semester in statistics (or you never took it), the example frequently given uses a coin toss question. “If you toss a coin 9 times, and it turns up heads each time, on the tenth toss, what are the odds that the coin will turn up tails?” And the answer is it’s still 50/50. There is no trick involved. The statistical average or likelihood does not apply to the individual case. In our case, additionally, we have a town where our schools are already ranked very highly, and a town where the average spending per pupil has historically been high. The likelihood that a large increase in spending on the school will be reflected in home values is small. We who are already citizens might know the difference between a new school and an old one, but home-buyers from out of town won’t.
Additionally, the obverse is also not true. If we only fix the problems, we won’t be hurting home values. The school building is what it is, and has been so for decades. 
On the other hand, an increase in property taxes COULD impact property values. And that would not be a positive impact.
So, projecting an increase in home value is possible, just as anything is possible. But I find it exceedingly unlikely.

Project Cost for Needs Only Fixes

There has been a number calculated ($28M) of what our town would spend on a renovation-only school project. I doubt the validity of that number for several reasons. First, it was “backed out” of an estimate that already contained a number of the “wants” – the improvements. Second, it is more than twice what the early estimates were – even the early revised estimates. As I mentioned previously, I don’t have an issue with an estimate going up as you get into the detail, but when it goes up as much as this, it is an indication that either the original was incompetent, or the work description changed. That is why I doubt that number, but this is my opinion, and offered as such.
Third, there is a procedure for staying in the MSBA (the state funding) “loop” should the SBC project (the new school) get voted down. Other districts have gotten voted down, continued with the process, and gotten MSBA funding. And some have not. But a “NO” vote is not a guarantee that we will be going it alone, as some have touted.
If we go with the new school, I am not confident that the new school cost will not go up again. Most recently, the BOS stated $54M as a not to exceed, but the current estimate is at $52M. After going up and up and up. It sounds to me like the BOS are not confident the cost will not go up – again. But let’s stick with the current numbers for a minute. Given the current estimate, the town will be spending $35M. That represents $7M more than the projected $28M “If we do it all ourselves” number. And that $7M difference could help cover other capital costs that we, the town of Harvard, know are coming soon.

Town Money Needs

Harvard has more capital expenditure requirements in the future. We can’t be considering the elementary school in a vacuum and also be considering our needs wisely. So let’s take a look at the spending vs needs. What possible major capital expenditures could come up in the next few years? Fire trucks have come into the town conversation recently. And moving, perhaps building new, the town fire station. What about Bromfield? Entirely possible that major spending could be needed there in the next 5 years or so. The Council on Aging is another area where we are expecting capital spending. And the Conservation Commission is looking at short funds, so they are already looking for more town funding. So, yeah, there are a lot of likely major capital expenditures. And what happens if we go all out for the new elementary school? Then either we ignore these other capital expenditure needs, or we raise taxes again.

Rhetorical and Logical Fallacies

One of the issues in this debate, for me, has been the widespread use of rhetorical twisting and logical fallacies. These are arguments that are meant to twist the truth, persuade the listeners, and divide our community. They are commonly used in advertising, and every election cycle I have seen has seemed to make them more common in the political arena. No one here is arguing to make our schools a lower priority. And no one is looking to “kick the can down the road” on this. Saying one “side” is doing so is divisive. Let’s stay focused on the real question here. That question is whether you, the town of Harvard, in addition to spending millions on fixing very real problems in our school buildings, also want to spend more millions on school improvements.


In one meeting, as we discussed the topic, a citizen applied the description “Cadillac” to the new school. Others then argued that it isn’t “a Cadillac”, and one even called it a “Toyota”. Ok, fine, whatever. But let me ask you this: what do you call something when it has bells and whistles?
My thoughts on this are conservative. The end result is that I believe the building committee took decisions on themselves that should have been left to the town. And, that we have been offered a project that is considerably more expensive, and of greater scope, than is necessary.


Investigative & Assessment Report for Harvard Public Schools – Hildreth Elementary School – K-Wing, Blackstone Block Architects, September 22, 2014 (accessed as an attachment to the 2016 NV5 Request for Services), available online at
Information Is Beautiful, Rhetological Fallacies;
May 2007, Harvard submission to MSBA
The School Committee, with the approval of the selectmen, submitted a packet of materials to the state School Building Authority applying for aid to fix deficiencies in the elementary school, primarily the mold trapped in the K-wing’s walls. But no further action was taken at that time. 2007 HES SOI:
The Harvard Post (for research on the 1988 project)
                From Post research notes, volumes not recorded. Copies available at the public library.
1987, Brick building renovation planned, “brown” building demolition planning
10-87, schematics
10-16-87, Hildreth new building design to reflect old Bromfield school architecture
                Computer wiring access built-in
Publication dates recorded
1-29-88, p. 1, 8, School Building Cuts Look Inevitable
2-5-88, p. 1, 20, Selectmen Nix More Money For Schools
2-12-88, p. 3, Planners Want $1.3M More
                p. 3, Why the Overruns? Board Asks
2-19-88, p. 3, Olsen Finds $2,000,000 in Cost Overrun
                p.3, New School Cost Now Set at $15,000,000
2-26-88, p. 5, Planners Will Wait till June to Ask for Additional Funds
6-3-88, p. 1, 16, School Bid Opening is Delayed Again
6-10-88, p. 4, Planners OK Site Plan
6-17-88, p. 1, 17, School Sub-Bids Are Lower than Expected
                p. 1, 17 & 19, Good News and Bad News
6-24-88, p. 1, 5 & 13, Again: It’s Good News and Bad News
7-8-88, p. 3, Asbestos Removal Will Cost $278K
7-29-88, p. 1, 11, School Project Gets Going
8-26-88, p. 1, No Septic Plan, No Permit for School Project
9-9-88, p. 1, 9, Schools Get Approval for Septic System
                p. 1, 9, Zoning Board approves elementary school septic system
9-16-88, p. 1, 15, Building permit for new elementary school issued.
                                , Contractor Annoyed at Delays, Uncooperative Boards
3-10-89, p. 1, Town, School Contractor Disagree
5-5-89, p. 11, School Building and renovation Project Picks up Steam; But worries Persist About Cost Overruns
2-9-90, p. 3, It’s Done at Last! New Building Opens Feb. 27

The Harvard Press
11/30/2012, School Committee drops request for kindergarten wing rebuild,
12/12/2014, School officials say K-wing is safe but must be rebuilt soon,
May 4, 2017, The K-wing’s troubled history shapes the HES renovation project,
Feb 15, 2018, What if? Repairing HES could top $28 million; state would pay nothing,

[1] Changes to the roof were discussed, as going with a flat roof would have been cheaper, but they decided not to compromise, as the town had been experiencing problems with roofs on other public buildings.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Forests and New England History

In his book "1491", Charles Mann puts an idea in prime time. He thinks that aboriginal Americans, prior to 1492, would create small "burns" in the forest, to control understory growth. Grandpa was a part of the first wave of people involved in forest control. Dad continued that tradition, and his generation saw a veritable shutdown of wildfires - the "Smokey the Bear" effort. Which, in retrospect, was remarkably successful.

I look around me today, at all the understory trash in our woods in Massachusetts (but you could go anywhere in the US - it is the same). If a fire got started here, there is enough tinder that a wildfire could be a monster. Fortunately, in the eastern US, there is enough moisture that wildfires are exceptional and rare. 

Hating winter

Oh, yup. I understand the loveliness of the pristine white coating of a snowstorm. But this winter I'm really hating it. 

One of the "secrets" of enjoying winter is being able to get outside and do stuff for fun, regardless of the weather. If you get shut inside, you end up hating the cold. Past few years, I've been out running my dogs about 360 days out of 365. I ride my bike, they run off leash. I've got the perfect space for that right next door - a large Cisco campus that has square miles of conservation land. 

On November 6 I wasn't paying enough attention and one of the dogs crossed up my front wheel and I went down, smashing  my kneecap. Ouch. Recovery has proceeded rapidly and well, but I am still unable to ride my all-purpose bike for these runs. Maybe another month. On top of that, I got tendinitis - "trigger finger" - on the middle digit of my right hand. Just in time for all the Christmas and holiday toasts, and New Year's salutes, right? Ahuh. The short story is more painful joints, less ability to get out and have fun. P.I.T.A. 

There's more: I'm boarding a 3rd dog for a neighbor in housing transition. Since this dog can't be entirely trusted off leash, this adds a couple of layers of complexity, but I won't belabor the point, eh? We won't talk about how it gets a little harder to recover as every year passes, eh?

Yup, the coating of white is pristine and beautiful. And I'd rather have the snow than the cold rain and wet conditions we get otherwise. There is a reason I've chosen Massachusetts over Seattle. Talk about hating weather! So, yeah, I'd rather have the snow. But I'm still hating it this year. 

Meh, today is sunny. And, I got my dogs out in the sunshine. I put their neon yellow safety vests on, and I drove away, for them to follow and get a run in. They cruise at 25 miles an hour, folks. Guest dog doesn't get this privilege, but we walked for a mile or so to get him some time in the fresh air. I am so glad that their is sunshine today. SO glad. 

BTW, lest you think I spend all my time hating on the nasty weather, fear not. Today, after I parked and on getting out of the car, I got the opportunity to watch our local leucistic hawk for a few minutes. That is a white red-tailed hawk. Obviously, not literally "red-tailed" in this case. We've been sighting this hawk for years, and we look for it always. Unusual, and beautiful. 

Another natural phenomenon of beauty, this past week, has been the moon. It has been waning, and last night was the new moon. However, for a few nights it was clear, and the moon was rising about 3-4 AM. The dogs typically get me up at least once in the middle of the night - to relieve themselves - to check for critters roaming in our vicinity - whatever. And I happened to be up between 3 and 4 AM on a couple of nights. 

And, the moon was stunningly beautiful. It was a silvery dish rising outside my window. I swear, the only thing that could have been better would have been for me to plop a bunch of fruit in that luminescent moon-dish, and we could have had the very picture of a still life with fruit!

Not all is lost to the tiresome drag of the cold and wet. Sometimes there is beauty, regardless.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Coppinger on dogs, their evolution, their behavior

Raymond Coppinger's thinking on the evolution of dogs, and on dog behavior

"If dogs disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, humans would survive the tragedy without much stress. But if humans disappeared tomorrow, dogs would likely become extinct shortly thereafter. "

A review of two books:
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution; Coppinger and Coppinger[1]
How Dogs Work; Coppinger and Feinstein

The value of a theory lies in whether one can use it to accurately predict what will happen. If you have to modify the theory, after the fact, to fit the facts as they become history, the theory is not of much use.

Raymond Coppinger's books contain a  number of ideas that work as useful theories. However, while quite a lot of Coppinger's writing is filled out with entertaining and enjoyable anecdotes, I found his ideas were often buried in obtuse and opaque writing technique. It took me some effort to tease out "what is your point?" One could miss the point fairly easily, and you could feel that the writing was technical and dry, if you weren't "just getting it".

Coppinger's primary concept in the first book, and the most transformational, in my opinion, is the nominal subject of that book (Dogs: A New Understanding . . .). The concept is simple. Mankind, at some point in history, made one of our "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" moves, when we began building semi-permanent communities. As an aside, did you know that cities are one of the greatest inventions of mankind, possibly the single greatest invention of all time? But the first thing that happened was villages. And villages created waste. That waste was a food source for other critters.

Some wolves evolved in ways that enabled them to use this food source, and they became dogs. Self-domesticated, if you will. Domestic cooperation as a survival technique. The old Aesop's fable about the dog and the wolf, where the wolf rejects servitude in favor of liberty - but that liberty leads to starvation - takes on a new meaning. The dog as evolved village wolf scenario is blindingly more simple, by far, than any scenario where man intentionally domesticates a wild wolf. As Coppinger says in the first chapter of "Dogs", " . . .It takes a herculean effort to get a wolf to develop in a way that makes it possible for the animal to be a tractable companion of humans. It's hard not to tame a dog".

Coppinger moves on to other concepts, more or less in support of his (supposedly) primary theory about dog evolution. He talks about how cross-breeding occurred, historically and naturally. My notes say something about the historically recorded types of dogs that we find in written history, as opposed to breeds: herding, guarding, etc.

He continues into the realm of behavior. And, even after reading two of his books, I am not entirely clear on why he thinks that what he describes is so significantly different from current thinking as he obviously wants us to believe. Here is one point I wrote down: 'behavior is not genetic, but it is inherited, and a dog can't learn anything that it doesn't inherit.'

Speaking of difficult, how self-contradictory and confusing is that?

But let's continue to some other ideas he presents.
behavior fits into pre-determined motor patterns
behavior is dependent on age and develops at certain ages
motor patterns (nature) can be suppressed, or encouraged, by age timing (nurture)
motor patterns are affected by breed
breed individuality is dependent on selection for certain motor patterns

What he has to say about the flexibility of physical attributes, and the flexibility of behavior (or lack of it), is, like the evolutionary bit, transformational, but to a lesser degree. What I think he says is that anatomy is not hard-coded. It is, instead, based on hard-coded points, around which the rest of the anatomy is adaptive. (E.G. Eyeball size is hard-coded. The eye socket development depends on the eyeball size. The palate is hard-coded. The rest of the jaw and the skull grows into place to fit that palate.) Behavior follows the same pattern. Some bits are hard-coded, others follow, or not, based on how everything else develops. Development is time-sensitive, and environment sensitive. I.e. Instinctual behavior can be (sometimes) extinguished if ignored during a certain period of a young dog's life. He argues that behavior is less flexible than is typically thought, but that it is still flexible, within certain parameters.

I believe the gist of what he wants to say on this topic is found in these two sentences:
" . . .a good way of beginning to understand the fundamental insight of ethology: that a behavior is a physical trait just like any other taxonomic character of a species (or a breed). "
" . . .behavior is always a synergistic result of both (nature and nurture) . . ."
And, these two sentences are a good example of why I am criticizing Coppinger's writing style. I had to get all the way to the end of his 2nd book to find those two simply stated points. They would have been far more useful to the reader had they been placed up front. And, while this topic is interesting by itself, I don't quite see how it relates to the thesis of his first book, or how it is particularly different in practice than more traditional concepts of instinctual behavior. The topic is relevant to the second book, where it is developed at greater length than in his first book.

The timing of onset behavior is a useful topic for breeders, trainers, and owners of young puppies. I am again, not quite sure here what is new, or different. However, I will say that Coppinger, in his rather difficult way, does set these points out more clearly than training volumes I've read over the past few years.

And, he pretty clearly sets out this point: there is a differentiation between classical reward conditioning, and instinct based behavior pattern training. Instinct based behavior training requires no reward because it is internally rewarding. Dunbar and Clothier have talked about this, mostly rather indirectly - but reading Coppinger I got it. Clearly. And, this point is an exceptionally useful one to understand when training dogs!

Another written bit that I found to be extremely useful for me, to understand my dogs behavior, is the instinctual predatory sequence. For Coppinger it is, I think, a minor tool, used to describe a larger concept, as a sidebar of his behavior arguments. However, I found this sequence to be another that is exceptionally useful.

Many breeders and working dog trainers will instantly recognize parts of the sequence, but I have found very little written directly about them elsewhere! (In spite of having been reading training books extensively over the past few years.) Take this sequence: ORIENT > EYE > STALK > CHASE > GRAB > KILL > DISSECT > CONSUME. Every predator has that sequence. Some of the details vary. GRAB can be GRAB-BITE , FOREFOOT-STAB, HEAD-SHAKE, FOREFOOT-SLAP, and others.

What makes a herding dog a herding dog is that they are bred for hyper-development of EYE > STALK > CHASE > GRAB. With little or no "KILL" and reduced "DISSECT". Livestock guarding dogs are bred to have nearly NONE of those. A livestock guarding dog should be incapable of even a low level "DISSECT " (and this is generally so). A pointer will have strong "EYE", but little "CHASE". Not all working dogs are created the same.

That sequence has been invaluable to me. Because I know that sequence, I can recognize "EYE" in a dog. And I can predict what is coming next. Experienced shepherds know these things, too, but I found little in writing that told me about these things. I had heard of "EYE" from reading about training herding dogs - but had no idea what they were talking about until I got the sequence. Then I knew exactly what they were talking about. What I found interesting is that I actually recognized this sequence on first reading what Coppinger wrote about it. I read about this sequence decades ago, but then it was a piece concerning the learning behavior of cats. It never occurred to me that the predatory sequence would be so much the same in dogs. But I knew a cat had to learn to stalk, and that was a separate learning from "catch", which was also separate from "kill", and ditto "consume".

Thus, as I was watching a training session last week, I could see that the dog exhibited no "EYE". The only "EYE" the dog exhibited was to watch its human, which is not really the same thing at all. While I could see this was a smart dog who will eventually "get" the tricks necessary (for him) to herd, that owner has a hard road ahead.

In his first book, Coppinger digresses from his main point early and often. I think the behavioral and genetics points are meant to be supportive, but I found them somewhat distracting. But perhaps he intended to discuss several points. His sections seem more like digressions than a contiguous whole. Example: at one point in the first book, he looks at the morality of adopting dogs - and when it might not be the moral answer some think it is. But, another idea, and I think it is another important idea, comes up when he discusses the importance of cross-breeding. It is clear from his writing that he thinks closed stud-books (lookin' at ya, AKC) are a mistake. That they inevitably lead to genetic, maladaptive issues. Like German Shepherd hips. Open stud books and cross-breeding leads to healthier, stronger dogs.

This same topic is also a prime example of why I found Coppinger's writing style annoying. I repeatedly found myself going back over a section trying to figure out what his point was. In the case of cross-breeding, it was buried in front of me, but still buried. He insists on using the word "transhumance". If you knew the meaning of that word before reading either this, or Coppinger, then more power to you. I know my vocabulary is highly exceptional, yet I had never heard the word. What he means is simply "seasonal herd (or livestock) migrations". The unfamiliar and little used word "transhumance" makes his meaning difficult to follow, because the word is so unfamiliar. If he had just used the far more readily understood phrase "seasonal livestock migrations", his meaning would come through far more quickly and clearly.

Coppinger has written a relevant book, with some very useful ideas. The evolution of dogs is a burgeoning area of study. The Coppingers were early to the field, and at this moment, may well be the most knowledgeable experts in existence. I notice that his ideas have created discussion, and blowback. However, similar to how Porter's ideas on competitive advantage transformed thinking for the fields of economics and business, Coppinger's ideas are transforming the nature of the discussion about dogs.

Separating the dog from the wolf means that looking at wolves as a yardstick to measure dog behavior (or eating habits) is ultimately not very productive, and certainly not worthy of the center stage position we today find the whole "dog as wolf" set of ideas. I've also noticed that some people want to cling to their Alpha-wolf alpha-dog concepts. I've never found the "you have to show the dog who is boss" idea to be particularly useful in training. Not that at times you don't have to use some discipline, but trying to teach a dog how to behave by being dominant doesn't make much progress. And taking the "wolf" out doesn't mean there isn't dominance. It just means that the patterns we should be looking for are less likely to be found in wolves. I also found some reviewers, who, having read the book, don't really understand some of Coppinger's points. Which could well be because Coppinger's presentation is difficult and opaque.

For further reading, pro and anti:

An interview with the Coppingers:

Another scientist's rather negative review. He seems to me to be more irritated by Coppinger's obtuse writing style and perhaps their manners vis-a-vis the scientific publishing world, than by the concepts Coppinger presents.

One in the anti-crowd, clinging to Alpha wolf (modifying the theory to fit the facts):

A recent review of Coppinger's latest book, which presents some of the best reasoning supporting the village dog as the original "super breed"

A recent study titled "Origin of mongrels", also supportive of the village dog as a "super-breed".

[1] The volume's title changed in later printings, dropping the use of the word "Startling" in the title. The copy I used is the 2001 Scribner printing. I have used a shortened version of the full title to refer to the book as a matter of convenience. Going from a one-word title to an eleven (or twelve) words, including sub-title, is a bit inconvenient.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

My election prediction

With the exception of one election, I have successfully predicted every presidential election since Nixon. I've often hated the result, but I've been able to successfully taste the atmosphere and predict the winner. The one exception was Bill Clinton's first win. Of course, I can't back this up, because I've never published any of these predictions, or in any way documented them for others to review. So you'll have to take my word for it.

At the moment I am writing this, on Super Tuesday, only the VA, GA, and VT polls have closed, and results predicted by the AP. In VA and GA H. Clinton won. In VT, Sanders won.

Sanders has been a bit of a wild card, because I did not think he would get anywhere near as far as he has gotten. He got a lot more support than I imagined possible. But, as of now, we have what I believe is a sufficient trend. Sanders will not be able to supplant Clinton as the Dem nominee.

The election will be Trump vs Clinton. If the Republicans had ANYBODY who could raise even a modest challenge to Trump, I am sure that dirty tricks would carry the day, and we would not see Trump run for Prez. But they don't. Nobody is coming close.

Clinton will win the general election by a tiny margin. Pretty much like Gore v. Bush.

Clinton's presidency will be exceptionally bad. It will be marred by extreme partisan division, and foreign policy mistakes. She won't do as badly as Bush 2 did, but she won't be very far off that either.

She will be a one-term president, and in the election in 2020 we will see a Republican win with a very solid majority, with a Reagan-style (i.e. long-term) change in direction.

On the other hand, I put Trump at a 40% chance to win. If Trump wins, he will either be the practical man that his moderate supporters believe him to be (in spite of his inflammatory rhetoric), or he will be an oddball prez, and another one-termer. There is a third possibility, although I do not think it is likely. Trump could become a demagogue prez, relying on mob approval to discrimate against emotionally persuasive target groups. Like ragheads. You get my drift.

There you have it. It's not news. Not yet. Just little ol' me, puttin' my 2 cents out there for all to see for once. If I have to eat crow at some point? Well, I guess I'll just have to buckle down and do it. But I'm not betting on it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The view from "over there"

I came across this little bit in the NY Times. It expresses so accurately what I have frequently observed: citizens of non-US countries often believe they see conspiracy-theory levels of manipulation. Well, actually, a lot of people everywhere seem to have that tendency, but it is particularly helpful to remember when looking at areas of the world where there is friction for the US.
I quote:
. . . The North Koreans may know a lot about the outside world, but they don’t know everything, even about the United States, their main adversary. In one meeting, an official asked, “Why do the president and secretary of state keep saying that the United States will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons when in fact you are not doing much to stop us?” He deduced that there must be a hidden agenda. “It’s because you want us to have nuclear weapons as an excuse to tighten your grip on South Korea and Japan, your two allies.” We responded that there was no hidden agenda and that the United States really did not want the North to have those weapons. I’m not sure we convinced him.
from  How ‘Crazy’ Are the North Koreans? by Joel Wit, who's been involved in gov't work like this for 25 years.

I would think the conclusion the North Korean negotiator reached sounds crazy. But to him it was rational.

My point is, though, that I see conclusions I think are irrational on a regular basis. I hear it more often as conspiracy/manipulation theories when the person is from a country where personal liberties are not regarded as highly as they are in most of the 1st world nations today.

We do certainly have plenty of such imagination right here in the US, no question. I won't get started about people seeing the FBI as the real power behind the Boston bombers. Or the belief that 9/11 was an "inside job".

It gets back to persuasion, and emotional reactions. Scott Adams explains that well:
If you have been following the Master Persuader series in this blog, you know that the influence stack goes like this:
Identity beats analogy
Analogy beats reason
Reason beats nothing
 . . .

Which has a lot to do with why folks here get worried about Syrian immigrants.  Many other places in the world look at us and see something we do not. And they get to see us that way on a regular basis. A friend of mine, a Russian immigrant, makes calls to old friends who are still in Russia. And to hear what they have been thinking and hearing, since the whole Ukraine business started, is nothing short of amazing (or appalling, depending on how you want to phrase it). Just like Trump, playing emotional identity themes here, powers over there are playing those emotional identity cards.

And I still find it jaw-dropping unbelievable, how people manage to look at the same world I see, and come to such different conclusions. Which is not really where I meant to take this thought. But it is where it ended up. Most things people do are not based on rational thought. Governments like North Korea and Cuba do not collapse of their own weight, even though we often have to wonder how they can survive, if what we read in the news is true. But there must be enough people who believe in those governments, for whatever reasons, to keep them operating.

The only conclusion I have is that one must keep this in mind when looking overseas. I'm certainly not sure that there is anything that can be done about it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Continued: Thoughts on Amy and Andy

Back to Amy and Andy, and their training.

Before we move on to that tho, given the long nights this time of year, and the fact that these two disappear in the dark? I sewed up a couple of safety vests for them. Cut one of my old work safety vests in two and sewed on some velcro. Absolutely increases their visibility on these dark winter nights. Pretty nice, huh?

But talking about training, and personality. All that jazz. I feel like I'm repeating myself a lot. My initial impressions of their personalities from the first weeks continue to be validated, and strengthened.

They both have a large resistance level to cooperating when they do not consider something fun. And a large level of resistance to performing some basic, but essential, obedience tasks. They are much happier when they can do what I want without me ever giving a command. The problem is, when they do this, I am no longer directing the action. It IS interesting, but I am not comfortable trying to utilize this ability. When there were just "farm collies", this kind of independence was prized. E.g. The "Lassie" or "Lad" who opened the gate in the morning, led the cows to pasture, brought them home, and then closed the gate - with no direction. But, when I allow it, it means I am trusting their judgement to act wisely and correctly. In today's non-farm world, this would only be acceptable if I were able to immediately halt any action they took, and redirect them to where I want them.

When I got in touch with the English Shepherd people, the first significant comment I got back, as I said before, was that they should have been adopted out separately. And, failing that, the way to train them was to do as much separately as possible.

I can see this. When I train them separately, I get small step results. Meaning you start with the best response you can get, and work on that, building it up an inch at a time if necessary. I put them together, and, as I said, they cue on each other, and sometimes the training goes out the window.

But I don't want to train them completely separately. It's no fun for me for one thing. It would mean making two trips out per day - and that is beyond what I want to do at the moment. Also, it means doing something to manage the dog who gets left behind.

They both show signs of fairly intense separation anxiety, both from me, and from their sibling. The one who is active shows only a little separation anxiety, but the one left behind? Intense.

I can not just leave them in the house, as, in their agitation, they will tear some things up and knock others over. Only trying to see us out the windows - but doing so constantly and energetically. When left in the house, Andy forgot himself, and ate the cat kibble that he had left alone for weeks. All kinds of stuff near windows was knocked over for both of them. So, the typical solution offered is to crate the one left behind. Andy, in the crate, barked continuously from the moment we left the house. Amy does not bark as much, but is equally agitated and nervous. And if she catches sight of us, she is extremely agitated, and vocal - barking a lot. They are both distressed by the experience. Some might say "they will live through it". And, yes, of course, yes, they would. But it is also a very negative experience. And certainly does not fit in the positive feedback training model. These two are NOT good at self-calming.

As I've said, I think I've repeated myself a lot in my descriptions of these two. This, I think, represents two things. First, I am very much trying to understand how to successfully train these two. Second, I am very much trying to understand exactly what is happening. The questions, for me, have been: 'what is breed instinct?'; 'what part is down to these dog's personal behavior?'  I have to answer those questions. I also have to figure out how to label their behavior patterns, so that I can communicate those patterns to others, so that I can understand the behavior and act to counter or encourage it.

So, let me see what we have. (This list is disorganized, more like train-of-thought.)
  • An ES trainer says they should have been separated, or 2nd best - train them separately - "a lot" 
  • An ES owner says that 75% recall (and working to get better) is not good enough. They need to "earn" the right to go off-leash or to otherwise do fun things.
  • The comment from the ES people was "they have each other, they don't need you". 
  • I think we can definitively label their separation behavior as separation anxiety. 
  • Ian Dunbar (famous trainer and training author) suggests two things: offering graduated rewards for behavior (higher value for better work), and points out that walks and runs themselves can be a reward, as the dog regards the value of each quite highly. 
  • Outside of food, my two pooches regard play time, and "free woods play time" as very high value activities. 
  • Amy is exceptionally delicate and sensitive to negative responses - even when it does not concern her. E.g. when Andy gets a "NO", Amy feels hurt. Amy is the emotionally delicate part of the team - the hyper-sensitive one.
  • Andy is exceptionally hard-headed, and resistant to negative responses. E.g. it takes a LOT of "NO" to get a reaction from Andy. He is also resistant to most positive rewards that I, as a trainer, can give. E.g. food. He responds well when the food is right there, and is the obvious reward. But we quickly get to the "no food, no correct behavior" syndrome there, when food treats are subsequently withheld. Andy is, relatively, the goofball, not the thinker, and not the emoter. Andy is the one, who, when faced with fresh cornbread put out on the holiday table, and no one around, got up on the table and started chowing down on the cornbread. Intelligent, on the goofball side.
  • I do not want to separate the two. We got the two because we wanted two dogs.
    • The bonding that is a negative in training is also a positive for them as a part of the family. Watching them play is incredibly entertaining.
    • The bonding that gets in the way of their training is one of their endearing points. 
    • Their bond it likely what got them through their first two years still "sane", in a doggy way. They revert to play to counter both boredom and stress, and this tool works well for them. I see them revert to play when they get excited due to a training accomplishment. If they were, indeed, essentially locked in a shed for most of their first two years, that play would have given them the exercise and mental stimulation they need to survive. 
  • They follow me constantly. They are my shadows. 

I don't explain all this particularly well. They are each very complex individuals, with many nuances in their behavior. Klinger and Sara were quite straightforward and simple in comparison. And my powers of description show themselves to be commonplace at best!

I've been focusing on making them do tasks separately, even though we are all doing things together. So they have to "down" (and stay) while the other takes their turn. This has been a difficult thing at times, but we are making progress.

I focus on doing tasks, for them, that build self-calming. I make them wait for their turn to get a reward. I make them down and stay while I go out-of-sight (particularly difficult), and WAIT before we go on a run. I'm using the run, and the play-time response, as rewards for good behavior.

Even though they do have each other, as the ES people said, they also have a strong need for human companionship and guidance. But, it is like what another trainer on my reading list wrote, "You have to make yourself fun to the dog" (paraphrased). They have a very strong desire to bond with a human. What I should do is try to make sure that whatever option I offer is more desirable than what they see as the alternative. E.g. "Which is more fun, running with Andy? Or doing tricks for Mark?" I have to make sure they understand that "running with Andy" only comes after they show responsibility and take care of tasks. And, I have to make sure that the activities I offer can compete with "running with Andy".

Even though it sounds harder, I CAN compete with "running with Andy". When I send these two on agility tasks, they have a BIG feeling of accomplishment. It may not be better than "running with Andy", but it is in the competition!