Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘animal-rights’ Category

Pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh

Posted by metaphorical on 18 June 2008

Okay, there’s no evidence (yet) that pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh or vice versa. But they can tell them apart. How much evidence of sentience is enough, before we start to rethink the way we treat our fellow sentient creatures?

Self-recognition is found in large primates such as chimpanzees, and recent findings show that dolphins and elephants also have such intelligence. Proving that pigeons also have this ability show that such high intelligence as self-recognition can be seen in various animals, and are not limited to primates and dolphins that have large brains.

UPI has the story on the wires (thank you, Claire, for the heads-up), but more details can be found at Science Daily.

Pigeons Show Superior Self-recognition Abilities To Three Year Old Humans

ScienceDaily (Jun. 14, 2008) — Keio University scientists have shown that pigeons are able to discriminate video images of themselves even with a 5-7 second delay, thus having self-cognitive abilities higher than 3-year-old children who have difficulty recognizing their self-image with only a 2 second delay.

Prof. Shigeru Watanabe of the Graduate School of Human Relations of Keio University and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-image using mirrors as well as videotaped self-image, and proved that pigeons can recognize video images that reflect their movements as self-image.

We can argue over the details of how to prove self-cognition, but the article has a detailed discussion of the methods and functional definitions that studies like this one have been using for almost 40 years now.

The wire and other reports of this study make much of the fact that, using these functional definitions, pigeons do better at self-recognition than 3-year-old humans. Personally, I find at least as interesting a fact in the UPI story not even mentioned in Science Daily, that the pigeons can distinguish Chagall paintings from those of Van Gogh.

People with cats and dogs routinely ascribe to them motives, beliefs, preferences, fears, desires, and other complex mental states. People on farms, who spend as much time with cows and pigs and horses as we do with dogs and cats, talk about them in the same way.

Leaving aside the question of eating them for food, how can we confine them, keep them perpetually pregnant, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cement kiln dust, testosterone, progesterone, anabolic steroids, and chicken manure…. how can we hang a 1500-lb animal upside down by its ankle when it’s still conscious?

How can we treat an animal with cognitive abilities that can, at least in some ways, be favorably compared to a 3-year-old with wanton disregard for its obvious suffering?

Posted in animal-rights, language, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

It’s time to kill the USDA, before it kills us

Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2008


We haven’t talked yet about last week’s recall of 143 million pounds of beef, the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

As the BBC and others reported at the time, “It comes from a company in California, which officials said allowed meat from cattle unable to stand at the time of slaughter to enter the food chain.”

Today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the company, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., will almost certainly shut down for good.

The meatpacker voluntarily suspended operations in early February, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating how it treated animals.

What’s of particular interest, from a journalistic point of view, is the step before that – how the USDA came to investigate in the first place.

The USDA investigation began after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing workers at the Chino slaughterhouse trying to make sick or injured cows stand up with electrical-shock devices, fork lifts and high-pressure water hoses. State and federal animal-cruelty laws prohibit such activities.

Federal laws also prohibit the sale and distribution of so-called downer cattle because of the high risk of mad-cow disease. That risk isn’t taken seriously by consumers, in large part because they rely on the government to take it seriously. And the USDA doesn’t do the job its counterparts do in other countries, largely because it’s insufficiently independent of the industry it’s supposed to regulate.

In the days after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published, the need for government oversight must have seemed obvious, for the safety of the meat supply and of the meatpackers, if not for the short-lived well-being of the animals themselves. Unfortunately, if you read any of that book’s latter-day latter-day counterparts, like Fast Food Nation or Diet For a New America, it’s clear that, 102 years later, little if any progress has been made.

According to KCBS in Los Angeles and others, one-third of the recalled beef went to schools. (KCBS is also the source for the nice graphic at the top of this post.)

Basically, this was a bottom-of-the-market meatpacker that was probably on shaky ground until it got the federal contract to supply schools. Going back to the Wall Street Journal article for a moment,

Until the plant suspended operations, it was earning a modest profit on annual sales of roughly $100 million, he said. “It’s a low profit-margin business,” he said.

In the last government fiscal year, the Agriculture Department paid Hallmark/Westland about $39 million for ground beef for food nutrition programs, including the school-lunch program. Hallmark/Westland was honored by the department as its Supplier of the Year for the 2004-05 school year. It began supplying meat to the program in 2003 after a rigorous application process with the Agriculture Department, which has authorized about 10 meatpackers nationwide to compete for contracts to supply beef to the program.

Quite the rigorous testing if the Humane Society had to do the USDA’s job for them. It might be fair to paraphrase Groucho and say that we don’t want the schools to be supplied by any company that needs the work.

So maybe it’s time to think about the unintended consequences of having an agency like the USDA exist in the first place. Maybe it’s time to notice that inadequate oversight is in many ways worse than no oversight at all.

In a caveat-emptor world, consumers would be warier of what they let pass through their mouths. (The wording is deliberate there; even the most desparate hooker is more discriminating than the average hamburger consumer.) We would come to rely on brands, either of the distributor, or the restaurant or supermarket itself, and those brands would be on the line with every purchase. The A&Ps and Vons of the world would have to either police their food sources themselves or get out of the game. Perhaps third-party inspectors would emerge to do what the USDA can’t or won’t – rigorously examine the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

For as long as we’ve known about mad-cow disease, the USDA has done a poor job of protecting consumers from it. Take this summary report from 2006, for example:

USDA slammed for letting high-risk downer cattle reach consumers

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (Kyodo) U.S. beef inspectors have failed to fully comply with rules banning cattle that are unable to walk to safeguard consumers from mad cow disease, leading at least 29 such animals, including 20 high-risk “downers,” to reach the food chain, according to a recent government audit report.

The failure angered some activist groups in the United States, blasting the U.S. Department of Agriculture for putting consumers at risk of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, despite a no-downer policy maintained for more than two years as a protective firewall against BSE.

The first benefit to ending the USDA’s miserable existence would probably be the inspection of each and every slaughtered animal for mad-cow disease.

Japan tests every animal, and in 2003 halted imports of U.S. beef over mad-cow concerns – $1.7 billion worth in 2003, according to an MSNBC editorial in 2006. That was the year that Japan lifted the ban, only to have to quickly reinstate it.

How pure is the U.S. beef supply, really?
By Phil Lempert
“Today” Food Editor
Tues., Jan. 24, 2006.

[….] Last week, just a month after the Japanese government decided to allow the import of U.S. beef into that country, it has once again halted shipments of American beef into Japan because animal spines were found in three boxes of frozen beef being brought into the country.

When the two-year-old ban was lifted late last year, it was with the expressed condition that imported U.S. beef come from cattle no older than 20 months and that spinal cords, brains and other parts blamed for spreading the human variant of mad-cow disease be removed.

There are those who argue that the risks just aren’t high enough for us to mimic the paranoid Japanese. Let’s leave aside a multi-billion-dollar export opportunity for American business, and focus on our own health and safety.

Back in 2005, a California State Senator, Jeff Denham, tried to make the case that universal testing was unnecessary.

Since the first cow tested positive in 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tested over 400,000 cows and only one other tested positive. To put this in perspective, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning this year than a neighborhood cow testing positive for Mad Cow disease.

the USDA is testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease – not just a random sampling. Cattle with the highest likelihood of contracting Mad Cow include “downer cows,” that are unable to stand-up, die unexpectedly, or have other signs of illness are the ones that are tested. So those cattle that are healthy are even less likely to have Mad Cow disease.

Obviously, though, the USDA is not testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease, even though they’re supposed to be.

The cattle industry, and guys like Denham, think it’s just too expensive to test every head as it comes to slaughter.

Some will still argue that those odds are not good enough and that every head of cattle should be tested. With more than 95.8 million cows nationwide, it simply is not feasible and not cost effective.

So how expensive would it be?

As it happens, that calculation has been done, for 10 million head per year, the same as Denham argued against. As it happens, that’s not for the Japanese standard of testing every slaughtered animal, but the European standard of testing those over 30 months. An article here quotes a Wall Street Journal article from 2004 in which the calculation is pretty straightforward.

Test kits cost about $10 a pop…. Add in salaries of lab technicians, the cost of grinding up and delivering cattle brain samples for testing, and the tab would be $30 to $50 per animal, industry experts say. The average U.S. cow slaughtered for food yields meat with a retail value of $1,636.

Each year in the U.S., about 35 million cattle are slaughtered. About 10 million of these animals — those over 30 months of age — would be tested for BSE if the U.S. were to adopt European standards, because age is associated with infection.

The grand total to test about 10 million cows in the U.S. would be $300 to $500 million a year. Considering that Americans spend more than $50 billion on beef annually, that would add between six cents and 10 cents per pound.

I’m not too crazy about the 6-10 cents/lb. calculation, since it’s hard to know what the $50 billion figure refers to. It might include $30 entrees at Morton’s Steakhouse. So let’s look instead at the per-head stats: $50 out of $1686. If spread out per-dollar, instead of per-pound, in round numbers the testing adds 3%. If chopped meat is roughly $3.00/lb, we’re still in the same range, another 9 cents.

So there you have it. The cost to be ensure against mad-cow disease is 10 cents/lb. or less. That still doesn’t do anything about the harmful antibiotics in meat, the other chemicals, the hazardous working conditions in slaughterhouses, the inhumane ways that animals are reared and killed, the befouling of the nations drinking water, the erosion of its land, or any of the other problems of factory farming. But it would solve, or start to solve, the mad-cow disease.

Is the industry really afraid of adding 10 cents a pound to meat prices? Hardly. It’s afraid to find out the extent of the mad-cow problem. And it’s afraid of the costs that might be engendered by the changes needed in the way animals are reared and slaughtered, once the extent of the problem is known.

Basically, the meat industry doesn’t want to find out how many animals are infected. And it doesn’t want the extra work of keeping brains and spines out of the hamburgers we eat. And until we get rid of the USDA, or truly empower it with resources and independence, no one is going to make the industry do anything it doesn’t want.

Posted in animal-rights, food, Orwell, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Meat the enemy

Posted by metaphorical on 3 February 2008

The United States produces “nearly 10 billion farm animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.”

“An estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production”

“livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation”

Now imagine if global meat production doubles between now and 2050. That’s the scary scenario posed by an article in last Sunday’s NY Times, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” by Mark Bittman.

The title comes from the idea that “Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.”

Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Environmental, political, health, and moral concerns have all been the main reasons I gave up meat 18 years ago. Bittman hits all cylinders:

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.

About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption

Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams

Administration of antibiotics [in farm animals] is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes

There’s some faint — and in my opinion false — hope at the article’s end (One academic is quoted as saying, “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned”). More convincing are these depressing comments. One expert is quoted,

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption. There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some.”

Bittman says, if price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Perhaps, but it’s been going one for a long time with few people caring at all. John Robbins’s Diet For A New America, the foundational book to which Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma all owe an acknowledged debt, was published 21 years ago. In that same time, meat consumption in the developing world has doubled. What will the planet look like when it doubles again?

Posted in animal-rights, food, Orwell, politics, pop culture, Times-watch | Leave a Comment »

Fish I’s

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2008

Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.

I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.

Tuna Troubles

Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.


If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.

Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.

Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.

So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.

Until All the Fish Are Gone

Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.

Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.

The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.

If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.

The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)

Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”

Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.

James himself says,

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.

I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, philosophy, politics, pop culture, religion, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

Caution, dolphins at play

Posted by metaphorical on 20 January 2008

How do private experiences become public? How do we know what others are thinking? Mainly, we infer intentionality. We see things in the world as objects of an intention, and we see some activity as behavior directed toward a goal, as motivated by some desire or need.

Doing so seems impossible. We infer at once both the desire and the desirability, ignoring the Catch-22, chicken-and-egg nature of such an inference.

The problem is particularly acute when the activity is a game. Here, there is no obvious need or desire, such as food or sexual pleasure. Here, we need to discern as well as a desire, such as to win, the rules of the game itself, or at least to discern its nature as a game. Yet in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues that we do this successfully all the time, even as children.



How do we know what animals are thinking? The same way. Take a look at this video of dolphins playing (thanks, Paul, for the link) and see if the behavior depicted doesn’t seem intentional. We infer intentionality to mammals all the time, whether pets in our homes or animals on the farm.

Cats and cattle alike seem to have food preferences, and favorite places to lie down and enjoy the sunshine of a beautiful spring day. We build shelters for farm animals and expect them to use them on their own in bad weather. Cattle aren’t as smart, beautiful, and playful as these dolphins. But they still deserve our respect as fellow sentient creatures. How we make their lives miserable and kill them for profit and convenience is still a puzzle to me.

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Open season on idiots – at least in blogs

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

I don’t know how he hit a several-thousand-pound cow mistaking it for a coyote. — Rory Heckman, Benzie County undersheriff, UPI

According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which broke the story,

Richard Buckner, 42, allegedly downed a neighbor’s pregnant, 1,400-pound breeding cow on Nov. 17 at about 8:30 a.m.

Buckner allegedly told sheriff’s officials he was poaching coyotes in the woods near his home on Wooden Bridge Road when he shot what he believed to be a coyote, Benzie Undersheriff Rory Heckman said.

The cow, named Hannah, wandered away from a nearby farm before Buckner shot the pregnant bovine and attempted to drag it to his home, said DeAnn Mosher, Hannah’s owner.

“That is the part of his story he his holding to is he shot at a coyote. I don’t know how he hit a several thousand pound cow mistaking it for a coyote,” Heckman said. “You can’t even shoot at a coyote during the firearm deer season.”

Hunting is a sport that connects us with some of the most fundamental facts about being human. It needs no defense in principle. The problems with it have to with finding a place for it in an increasingly urbanized culture. Hunting today, in many parts of the U.S., is about as natural as a golf course.

People without the proper skills or ethics can stand side by side with those who do, indistinguishable from them, until they go off and shoot a cow — or a coyote, equally off-limits and only marginally less stupid during the deer hunting season. If I were a hunter I would wish, if only for a fleeting moment, that we could have an open season on Buckner and the other idiots who make hunting problematic for responsible hunters and for everyone else.

Posted in animal-rights, food, language, pop culture, sports | 6 Comments »

It wasn’t like he held a nail gun against the head of a cute little animal in front of the class

Posted by metaphorical on 14 November 2007

It’s hard to know what to like most about the story where a teacher kills a raccoon with a nailgun on school grounds, in preparation for giving his class a lesson on taxidermy.

The place is Huntsville, Ark. A student’s parent volunteered to provide the raccoon but brought it in a cage, without killing it. So the teacher took it out to his truck, where apparently he had a nailgun.

The school superintendent was quoted as saying:

“He used the nail gun to, as they say, to dispatch the animal,” Lievsay said. “It wasn’t like he held a nail gun against the head of a cute little animal in front of the class.”

Hutchinson used the dead raccoon to demonstrate how to skin the animal and to examine the contents of its stomach. Lievsay said only one student asked not to attend the skinning.

One thing I like about this story is that we’re not supposed to even question why there’s a taxidermy lesson in high school. But that’s just the start. What’s great is that this is no different in principle from any other pointless killing of an animal, it’s just more visibly pointless. There’s nothing that kids learn in high school from dissecting frogs, either.

Skinning a hog

The superintendent’s main concern was that the kids not actually see the nail shoot through the raccoon’s skull, just as the meat industry is careful to hide from the American public the horror of how it slaughters animals (often with the same method—a nailgun).

My suggestion for the high school in Huntsville is to have a club devoted to animal death. Students who want to kill animals can do it after classes end; teachers eager to teach kids how to kill, skin, or otherwise mutilate animals can, and students who aren’t interested don’t have to single themselves out by asking not to attend.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, pop culture | 4 Comments »

Smoking out the right to do animal research

Posted by metaphorical on 7 November 2007

The Association of American Universities has a new press statement (PDF) defending the “vital role” that animal testing plays in medicine. Of course it does nothing to answer questions about a lot of other animal testing done by the cosmetics and other industries, but more importantly, the statement does nothing more than reiterate the same tired claims such statements always have made.

The research, for example, is said to conform “with ethical, legal, and safety regulations but also maintains the highest standards of animal care and health.” Sure it does. But if exceptions weren’t carved out for research, the activities would violate the animal rights laws in every state that has them, even as minimal and inadequate as those laws are.

The occasion of the statement is almost surely an October attack by the Animal Liberation Front on a UCLA researcher, Edythe London, and her November 1st op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

Let me say all the things about the ALF attack that one ought to say. According to Prof. London, the organization “claimed responsibility for vandalism that caused between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of damage to my home after extremists broke a window and inserted a garden hose, flooding the interior.” That’s a ridiculous, inappropriate, and stupid response to whatever ALF perceives as London’s sins. The organization just shouldn’t support such attacks. There’s just no theory of moral action under which it’s justified. It’s wrong, period.

That said, let’s look at London’s work and how she defends it ethically. Basically, she studies “nicotine addition among adolescents” and “some of [her] research is done on primates.” She says, “I have devoted my career to understanding how nicotine, methamphetamine and other drugs can hijack brain chemistry and leave the affected individual at the mercy of his or her addiction.”

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care.

While monkeys receive drugs in the laboratory, they do not become “addicted” in the same sense that humans become addicted. Still, we are able to see how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works — knowledge that is vital to the design of effective medications.

London goes out of her way in the next paragraph to defend the fact that her research is sponsored, in part, by tobacco companies. But not a sentence, not a word, is offered to defend the implicit assumption that it’s okay to cage and experiment on monkeys.

It’s hard not to find this bewildering on other grounds as well. If monkeys don’t become addicted, then what reason is there to think that we’ll learn much from studying how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works. Maybe there’s reason to think so, maybe not. London doesn’t have enough respect for us or monkeys to include it. This is a problem that often comes up with animal testing. Either no justification is given at all for the assumption that the animals are similar enough, in key respects, to humans, or the justifications are perfunctory. In London’s case, all we get is a statement that the animals are dissimilar to humans in a key respect.

You have to have no respect for animal life whatsoever to think it’s okay to proceed anyway. And that’s, presumably, what has ALF so upset. It’s impossible to defend their response, but it’s easy to defend the impulse.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, Orwell | Leave a Comment »

A food conversion George Costanza could endorse

Posted by metaphorical on 18 September 2007

GEORGE: …So, anyway, if you think about it, manure is not really that bad a word. I mean, it’s ‘newer’, which is good, and a ‘ma’ in front of it, which is also good. Ma-newer , right?

MARISA TOMEI: (laughing) You’re so right. I never thought of it like that. Manure. ‘Ma’ and the ‘newer’.

Marisa laughs and George is smiling happily.

MARISA: Did you just make that up?

GEORGE: What, you think I’m doing material here?

MARISA: (laughs) No, no. It’s hard to believe anyone could be so spontaneously funny.

Okay, for the purposes of this post, only the first piece of dialogue was needed, but don’t you just love this whole scene?

University researchers in Idaho may have figured out how to ameliorate one of the worst environmental problems of the meat industries — the vast stores of manure produced by cattle, hogs, and chickens. As the AP reported last week:

University of Idaho and Idaho State University scientists are working on a new maggot-based feed capable of fattening rainbows for the dinner table, while simultaneously helping slash growing mounds of manure and fish entrails.

Idaho is America’s largest commercial producer of trout, with the industry bringing in more than $35 million annually. And with 500,000 cows, it’s surpassed Pennsylvania as the nation’s fourth-biggest dairy state.

That got Sophie St. Hilaire, an aquatic species veterinarian, thinking: Why couldn’t dairies use a slurry of cow dung and trout intestines to grow maggots rich in fatty acids that make fish so good for humans?

“Animal waste management engineer Ron Sheffield, of the University of Idaho, gathers manure in buckets, then seeds it with fly eggs imported from a commercial insect grower.” Later, fish guts are added. The maggots are captured, washed, ground up and frozen, and then shipped to a rainbow trout run at a Snake river test station. “The fish seem to have developed a taste for them,” the AP article says.

“It makes sense to me that the black soldier flies are closer to their natural food than corn and soybean meal,” said Sheffield, an avid angler.

Meanwhile, the environmental benefits are potentially huge.

Black soldier flies, already used in Asia to eat restaurant waste, can reduce manure by 50 percent, turning it quickly to insect biomass. In fact, they’re being studied in southern states including North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, whose big poultry and hog industries hope to harness the flies’ voracious appetite for manure.

They’re also a tropical species that can’t survive Idaho’s harsh winters, St. Hilaire said, making it unlikely adult flies that might escape could establish themselves and become pests. And though adult flies resemble wasps, they don’t bite.

The article cites some hurdles along the way toward commercialization of the idea.

Dairy farms would have to erect sizable facilities to raise the maggots. A distribution system must be developed. And after harvest, the maggots must be stored for long periods, then mixed seamlessly with other fish food ingredients in existing feed mills.

Still, that’s no different from the various other convoluted tendrils of the cattle culture’s manufacturing and distribution chains. Which, in turn, are not that different from those in many other industries, such as the manufacturing of concrete, which depends on an ash produced in coal-based electricity power plants.

This isn’t going to solve the animal cruelty issues, nor the health consequences of overconsumption of meat and dairy. And hard-core animal-rights people are going to have separate problems with anything that promotes the raising and harvesting of fish. But it does seem like a worthwhile measure to pursue, while waiting for the world to wake up to the other disastrous problems of exploiting animals for food.

Posted in animal-rights, technology | 4 Comments »

Throwing Marbury to the dogs

Posted by digglahhh on 1 September 2007

I want to address two comments about the Michael Vick incident that provoked much controversy and discussion. In reaction to the public’s response to Vick’s participation in a dogfighting ring, New York Knicks pointguard, Stephon Marbury made news by making the following statement.

“I think it’s tough, I think, you know, we don’t say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dogfighting is a sport. It’s just behind closed doors.”

First of all, the context of this quote was manipulated and many outlets just ran the “dogfighting is a sport” part. As a result, Marbury was portrayed as a supporter of Vick, or worse, of dogfighting. Given the media’s troubled relationship with Marbury, that was hardly a surprise. Marbury may not be the most eloquent speaker, but if you unpack his comments, there’s something that merits serious consideration.

It is important to note that Marbury did not claim that he believed that dogfighting is a sport. At least that’s not the way I interpreted his comment. If his intent was to proclaim dogfighitng as a sport, there would be no need to preface that opinion with the qualifier, “from what I hear.” Marbury was basically claiming that those involved in dogfighting see it as a sport. Assuredly, it is not, and as a defense for the Vick’s actions, claiming the participants view it as a sport is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps, gang members view drive-by shooting as a sport… I address this part of the quote only to establish that Marbury is not, as the media seemed to portray, supporting dogfighting or claiming it to be a “sport.”

The first part of the quote is interesting. One could interpret it as an implicit defense of Vick, or just as a general comment regarding society, double standards, and the context of Vick’s actions. As a defense of Vick, it would be the classic example of two wrongs not equaling a right, but on its own terms the comment has merit. There are many sets of standards by which society judges the infringement upon animal rights. Marbury’s example of hunting is probably the closest parallel to dogfighting. For one, a substantial segment of the population, even beyond hunters themselves, consider hunting to be a sport, or at least a sports-like activity. Assuredly, hunting is no more of a sport than dogfighting… or drive-by shooting. Still, there are hundreds of professional athletes who are avowed hunters, yet that hasn’t been seen as anything of a moral issue for professional sports leagues at all, despite strong efforts of anti-hunting activists in our country. One simple and logically consistent argument holds that the slaughter of animals for sport is immoral, period.

As you progress further along the spectrum of animal rights activism more issues arise. It might be easier to count the number of professional athletes who don’t own mink coats than the ones who do. At the fringes of the animal rights spectrum we encounter those who feel that a vegan diet is a moral responsibility, specifically for animal cruelty reasons. For society at large, some of these opinions seem to fall squarely in the arena of personal choice, as opposed to moral responsibility. It would be absurd for the NFL to mandate vegan diets for its players, but would it be inconceivable to voice a disapproval of hunting? Of, course, the fallback position is that hunting is legal, while dogfighting is illegal. Most people skirt these difficult debates by using legality as a moral loophole – as if our society has never legalized clearly immoral behavior…

At the very least, the isolation of and disproportionate public response to the Michael Vick situation, as compared to other animal rights issues, is evidence of the obvious tunnel vision through which we perceive the underlying morality issues of this case. And in that sense, Marbury’s point is correct.

The second comment I’d like to address was made by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, Paul Zeise. It was made on a sports roundtable discussion show, aired on a CBS affiliate, about a month ago – Zeise was not invited back to the show.

“It’s really a sad day in this country when somehow … Michael Vick would have been better off raping a woman if you look at the outcry of what happened. Had he done that, he probably would have been suspended for four games and he’d be back on the field. But because this has become a political issue, all of a sudden the commissioner has lost his stomach for it.”

I’m not going to defend this guy anymore than to say that it seemed as if he was speaking solely in terms of Vick’s football career. He did not say that rape was a less disgusting act than dogfighting. The fact is that Vick would have had a greater likelihood of settling out of court, or beating the case altogether were he to be accused of rape. That seems like a pretty grounded assessment of the situation given the outcry against Vick, compared with the record of athletes accused of various levels of sexual misconduct who have either walked or simply cut a check.

Zeise isn’t the only person to make this type of comment; this argument has been used in many slightly different forms, they all revolve around the claim that we are making too much of this because there are other, worse, evils going on in the world. That argument is terribly problematic.

Its initial hypocrisy is that there are always news stories that dominate the headlines, despite their scope being undeserving of the coverage. If these people are truly crying out for responsible news coverage that reflects the importance of the event, they’d be kicking and screaming everyday. Britney Spears has received exponentially more news coverage than Darfur. The selective application of this argument leads me to believe that it is disingenuous. But, let’s even assume for a second that it is not – there are several other grounds on which it fails.

The fact that other, more profound, wrongs exist does not preclude people from taking action and judging the said behavior as wrong. One can’t beat a misdemeanor by citing the extent of felonies committed. The perspective endorsed by the above argument ultimately leads to having to arbitrarily choose a specific degree of wrong at which the public, the authorities, or whoever, should begin to give a shit. Individually, one can certainly feel as if too much has been made of the case, but invoking a subjective, slippery slope argument as a standard to measure responsible collective behavior doesn’t seem like a legitimate criticism. In fact, ironically, it was this perspective that caused authorities to let dogfighting continue, virtually unabated, all this time.

Additionally, this is an apples to oranges comparison. There are many reasons why this issue pulls at people’s heartstrings, and galvanizes them to protest, making the dynamic of this scandal more complicated than an immorality pissing contest.. First and foremost, this is a type of scandal and depravity that is unfamiliar to the public; the shock-factor is huge. More subtlety, the comparison of “rape” is something of a strawman in this context. When a reporter says that Vick would have been better off raping a woman, the image we get is of a seedy character huddled in an alley waiting to snatch a victim and force sex upon her at the explicit threat of violence. This is not the “rape” that we are used to seeing athletes accused of.

Most cases involving rape and other forms of sexual misconduct involve aggressive coercion or fuzzy consent. We are less likely to vilify a celebrity who is accused of rape than we are of dogfighting because of the relative ambiguity of the nature of the indiscretion. We have seen money-hungry groupies disingenuously file lawsuits; we have seen people throw themselves at celebrities. We’ve seen the interminable confusion of the Duke athletes case. We’ve seen tell-all books by individuals whose identities were based around sleeping with as many athletes as possible. Simply put, it is conceivable and precedented that rape allegations could be false, disingenuous, or even a matter of miscommunication; one can understand how a celebrity may find him/herself in such a situation. Zeise’s critics are thinking of rape in the police sketch on the local news sense of the word, when he in fact meant that Michael Vick may have been better off, in strictly pragmatic terms, if he was accused of date-rape by a cheerleader.

You can kill a man in cold blood, so long as it’s done in a boxing ring. Rape is a code word for completely unacceptable conduct, and yet day-to-day life is not nearly so black-and-white. Dogfighitng, on the other hand, is a sadistic and foreign behavior; it is not something we civilized people can understand or fathom an appreciation of, or desire to participate in, even in the theoretical, or abstract. Dogs are cute and innocent; people can be cruel and manipulative. It’s pretty simple really. Of course, the blanket statement that human emotion need not follow some sort of linear reaction pattern that mirrors some sort of “objective reality” about what is reacting to, is also relevant to this discussion.

I find it hard to believe that arguments like Zeise’s can be taken as anything more than rhetorical or quizzical. And, I find it all too convenient to simply twist and dismiss comments like Marbury’s.

Posted in animal-rights, digglahhh, journalism, language, pop culture, sports | 10 Comments »

What’s humane about hunger, disease and cannibalism?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 August 2007

[Cage-free] eggs can cost an extra 60 cents a dozen on the wholesale market. But most chicken farmers are not ripping out cages and retrofitting their barns. They question whether the birds are really better off, saying that keeping thousands of hens in tight quarters on the floor of a building can lead to hunger, disease and cannibalism.
 —  “Suddenly, the Hunt Is On for Cage-Free Eggs, NY Times, 12 August 2007

The NY Times, of all publications, had an article yesterday on the fad of cage-free eggs, but really, all it takes is the one accompanying picture to tell the story.


The eggs, from chickens raised in large, open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages, have become the latest addition to menus at universities, hotel chains like Omni and cafeterias at companies like Google. The Whole Foods supermarket chain sells nothing else, and even Burger King is getting in on the trend.

All that demand has meant a rush on cage-free eggs and headaches in corporate kitchens as big buyers learn there may not be enough to go around.

Burger King is switching to cage-free eggs but expects only 5 percent to be by the end of this year. Ben & Jerry’s announced their switch earlier this year but said it will take 4 years. Then there’s Wolfgang Puck, operator of a large and growing chain of high-profile restaurants.

This year, the Humane Society convinced the chef Wolfgang Puck that cage-free chickens make better-tasting eggs. Although the look and taste of an egg are most affected by its age and the chicken’s diet, many chefs believe that cage-free eggs are of higher quality. But not all cage-free eggs are equal.

But the Times sang a very different tune in a 26 March editorial.

From time to time, consumers are reminded of the power they have, and the power of the choices they make. There is no better example than the rising popularity of organic food — a matter of conscience and of taste. More and more people are buying local, organic produce and trying to find meat and eggs and dairy products from farms that are not part of the horror of factory farming.

Not surprisingly, people who shop that way also like to dine out that way. That will now be easier thanks to Wolfgang Puck, the universal restaurateur. He has decided that his culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.

I accused them of “gullibility or extreme guile” in a blog entry at the time, and I’m still uncertain which of those faults they’re guilty of here. The meat and dairy industries, either directly or, particularly though supermarket advertising, indirectly, are essential to the Times’s profitability. Yet they want to come off as hip and humane. The current article lets them have it both ways, seeming to be supportive and yet skeptical of increased consumer awareness of the appalling conditions in which animals are manufactured for food.

Instead, the newspaper of record could simply support genuinely humane treatment of animals and accept nothing less in its editorials and advertisements. But that would be taking the bread out of its own corporate maw.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, politics, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

Random acts of kindness

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine. — L. J. Taylor, Wall’s Meat Company, Ltd., 2002

There’s been some good news on the animal front. What’s not clear is just how good the news is.

For example, what are we to make of the news that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant empire has decided to reduce its contribution to the gross cruelty quotient of animal husbandry? That’s an awkward way of putting things, but I don’t know how else to represent the nebulous commitment that Puck is making.

The NY Times thinks it knows, but it’s wrong. Either through gullibility or extreme guile, did its best to misrepresent the commitment at every turn in an editorial on 26 March.

From time to time, consumers are reminded of the power they have, and the power of the choices they make. There is no better example than the rising popularity of organic food – a matter of conscience and of taste. More and more people are buying local, organic produce and trying to find meat and eggs and dairy products from farms that are not part of the horror of factory farming.  

Not surprisingly, people who shop that way also like to dine out that way. That will now be easier thanks to Wolfgang Puck, the universal restaurateur. He has decided that his culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.

Let’s look at that phrase again: Puck’s culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards. It’s hard to assign a truth-value to that statement other than “false” when you learn, in looking at the fine print, that Puck’s commitment is only to meat, and not dairy, even though in point of fact the treatment of dairy cattle is abysmal, often worse than that of animals raised strictly for their meat. And if you go to one of Puck’s typical restaurants, such as the one outside American Airline’s enormous H and K wings of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, as I did back in January, it’s a lot easier to avoid meat than dairy. Not a single salad, for example, didn’t have cheese as its focal point.

Then there’s the question of what Puck actually is doing. Not only does the Times’s first paragraph make you think the commitment involves dairy, which it doesn’t, it uses the word “organic,” though the actual commitment does not. Worse, the phrase used to represent the actual commitment, “forgo factory-farmed meat and eggs,” might be essentially meaningless. For example, free-range meat and eggs seem to be by definition not factory-farmed, yet “free-range” is a phrase without any real meaning, legal or otherwise, let alone a term that ensures an absence of cruelty.

As “Compassion Over Cruelty” reports,

In many commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are crowded inside windowless sheds with little more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate all of the birds at once. 

Both battery cage and “free-range” egg hatcheries kill all male chicks shortly after birth. Since male chicks cannot lay eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, they are of no use to the egg industry. Standard killing methods, even among “free-range” producers, include grinding male chicks alive or throwing them into trash bags and leaving them to suffocate.

The Times concluded its editorial by saying, “Mr. Puck’s gift for showmanship will help advance Americans’ knowledge that they can eat well and do right all at the same time.” Actually, Mr Puck’s gift for showmanship will help the gullible Times and its readers feel good about what they do, and there’s a downside to that. While the changes being made are probably meaningful, the danger is that Puck’s diners will think that all the needed changes have now been made, making it even harder to insist on the big changes that are still needed.

Still, there’s no question that animal confinement is a big issue, maybe the biggest, and lately there’s been a lot more good news, however nebulous, along those lines.

Back in 2002, PETA went after Burger King, and Farm Sanctuary took on the big pork producers. In both cases, the issue was animal confinement. As Farm Sanctuary wrote back then,

It is not only breeding pigs that are confined. Their piglets, in a system that fattens them for meat, are crammed into small pens on hard, slatted floors, and this is where they spend their six months of life before slaughter. As with their mothers, the lack of movement ensures the calories from the pigs’ feed will not be used up during exercise, but converted into weight gain. The intensive confinement and unsuitable flooring of pig farms often leads to crippling deformities of these intelligent animals. This didn’t bother the editors of Farmer and Stockbreeder who stated, “The slatted floor of the hog factory farm seems to have more merit than disadvantage. The animal will usually be slaughtered before serious deformity sets in.”

So it was a big deal recently when both organizations were able to claim some success.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in animal-rights, food, journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

Think like a human

Posted by metaphorical on 3 April 2007

One of the things that drew me to being a tech writer was science, and the clever things scientists come up with to test hypotheses. A question that scientists have been working on for several years, according to an article in today’s NY Times’s science section, is whether animals have what psychologists call “episodic memory”:

Endel Tulving, a Canadian psychologist, defined episodic memory as the ability to recall the details of personal experiences: what happened, where it happened, when it happened and so on.

Episodic memory was also unique to our species, Dr. Tulving maintained. For one thing, he argued that episodic memory required self-awareness. You can’t remember yourself if you don’t know you exist. He also argued that there was no evidence animals could recollect experiences, even if those experiences left an impression on them.

Tulving seems to assume that animals have no self-awareness, though it’s hard to imagine how he would argue for it except by making unsubstantiated claims, for example that animals have no episodic memory. Perhaps that’s why the unique-to-humans claim rang false to Nicola Clayton, a comparative psychologist now at the University of Cambridge. The Times quotes her as thinking, “Hang on, that doesn’t make sense.” Next came the good part—she thought up an experiment that would show animal behavior inconsistent with Tulving’s belief.

Dr. Clayton began to test western scrub jays to see if they met any of the criteria for episodic memory. The jays can hide several thousand pieces of food each year and remember the location of each one. Dr. Clayton wondered if scrub jays simply remembered locations, or if they remembered the experience of hiding the food.

She ran an experiment using two kinds of food: moth larvae and peanuts. Scrub jays prefer larvae to peanuts while the larvae are still fresh. When the larvae are dead for a few hours, the jays prefer peanuts. Dr. Clayton gave the birds a chance to hide both kinds of food and then put them in another cage. She later returned the birds to their caches, in some cases after four hours and in other cases after five days.

The time the scrub jays spent away from their caches had a big effect on the type of food they looked for. The birds that waited four hours tended to dig up larvae, and the birds that had to wait for five days passed the larvae by and dug up peanuts instead. (To make sure they were not just picking up the smell of rotten larvae and avoiding those spots, Dr. Clayton dumped out the caches as soon as the birds had made them, and filled all of them with fresh sand.)

In 1998, Dr. Clayton and her colleagues published the results of their experiment, declaring that scrub jays met the standards for “episodic-like” memory.

Brain scan studies of episodic memory show a link between recollections of the past and thoughts of the future.

Daniel Schacter, a psychologist, and his colleagues at Harvard University recently studied how brains function as people think about past experiences and imagine future ones. Constructing an episodic memory causes a distinctive network of brain regions to become active. As a person then adds details to the memory, the network changes, as some regions quiet down and others fire up.

The researchers then had their subjects think about themselves in the future. Many parts of the episodic memory network became active again.

So Clayton and other researchers have been looking for evidence that animals plan for the future, and they’ve started to find it.

All this is a long way around toward pointing out an article in the current issue of Spectrum, “Think Like a Human,” by Jeff Hawkins, which I was fortunate enough to edit. One piece of fortune was meeting and spending time with Hawkins, who is a uniquely interesting guy. Both before and after he revolutionized the PDA industry at Palm Computing and then Handspring, he has been obsessed with the question of how the human brain works and whether we could make machines work more like it.

In 2002 Hawkins founded, and funded, the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, which is now attached to UC Berkeley, to push science’s understanding of neocortical anatomy and physiology. They came up with a key concept, that of a fundamental node, similar to a neuron, that can learn from observation. They call this key concept HTM, which stands for “hierarchical temporal memory.” Hawkins recounts:

A colleague of mine, Dileep George, was aware of my work and created the missing link. He showed how HTM could be modeled as a type of Bayesian network, a well-known technique for resolving ambiguity by assigning relative probabilities in problems with many conflicting variables. George also demonstrated that we could build machines based on HTM.

His prototype application was a vision system that recognized line drawings of 50 different objects, independent of size, position, distortion, and noise. Although it wasn’t designed to solve a practical problem, it was impressive, for it did what no other vision system we were aware of could do.

In 2005, with a theory of the neocortex, a mathematical expression of that theory, and a working prototype, George and I decided to start Numenta, in Menlo Park, Calif. Our experience in industry and academia taught us that people move more quickly in industry, especially if there is an opportunity to build exciting products and new businesses. Today, the RNI continues as the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. George and 15 other employees work at Numenta, and I split my time between Numenta and Palm.

In 2005 Hawkins formed a for-profit company, Numenta, to commercialize some of the discoveries made at RNI. Numenta has already had some success in visual pattern recognition—for example getting a computer to recognize pictures of dogs as dogs.

We have built and tested enough HTMs of sufficient complexity to know that they work. They work on at least some difficult and useful problems, such as handling distortion and variances in visual images. Thus we can identify dogs as such, in simple images, whether they face right or left, are big or small, are seen from the front or the rear, and even in grainy or partially occluded images.

It’s not hard to think of other applications, such as speech recognition and locomotion. If Numenta can create electronic brains that are good problem solvers, it would go a long way towards the creation of general-purpose robots.

One of RNI’s chief findings was that the process of learning is in a very fundamental way temporal.

Strange though it may seem, we cannot learn to recognize pictures without first training on moving images. You can see why in your own behavior. When you are confronted with a new and confusing object, you pick it up and move it about in front of your eyes. You look at it from different directions and top and bottom. As the object moves and the patterns on your retina change, your brain assumes that the unknown object is not changing. Nodes in a [computer model of the brain] assemble differing input patterns together under the assumption that two patterns that repeatedly occur close in time are likely to share a common cause. Time is the teacher.

The two senses of time, that of RNI’s dog-learning, and the one that’s involved in Clayton’s scrub-jay larvae-caching, and are quite different, of course, and it will be an interesting question to see whether a computer can be given episodic memory, and of what use it would be, especially in a robot.

The connection between the two sets of research is that both are coming at, from completely different directions, the idea of intelligent behavior. In each case as well, results from neurobiology—such as those brain scans of episodic memory—have been a starting point for, in the one case, animal psychology, and in the other, computer science and robotics.

We have an enormous amount still to learn. But science will get there, with new theories based on clever experiments that answer tough questions.

Posted in animal-rights, language, technology, writing | 1 Comment »

Cruel and usual punishment

Posted by metaphorical on 12 March 2007

Lancaster County Sportsmen’s Club Pleads ‘No Contest’ in Animal Cruelty Case

LANCASTER, Pa., March 9 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Elstonville Sportsmen’s Association, 3133 Pinch Rd., Manheim, Pa., today pleaded “no contest” to eight counts of cruelty to animals as a result of charges filed on Jan. 22, 2007, in District Court. Judge John C. Winters issued fines to the association of $50 for each count.

Charges were filed by Officer Keith Mohler of the Farm Sanctuary of Pennsylvania and stem from an event held at the club’s facility on Sept. 9, 2006, during which domestic turkeys were staked to straw bales and used as live targets for a bow and arrow shooting contest. The club was cited for eight violations of the Pennsylvania Cruelty to Animals Statutes including four counts of cruel ill treatment and four counts of offering live animals as prizes in a contest.

The thing I find puzzling about this case is that the acts of cruelty here occur every day, about 17,000 times a day in fact. They occur in every factory farm where, as ethicist Mylan Engel Jr. puts it:

Broiler chickens are warehoused in sheds containing anywhere from 10,000-50,000 birds; veal calves are kept in crates chained at the neck; pigs are confined in metal crates situated on concrete slatted floors with no straw or bedding; and beef cattle are housed in feedlots containing up to 100,000 animals,


To prevent chickens and turkeys from pecking each other to death, the birds are “debeaked” using a scalding hot blade which slices through the highly sensitive horn of the beak leaving blisters in the mouth;[24] to prevent them from “back ripping,”[25] their toes are amputated using the same hot knife machine.[26] Other routine mutilations include: tail docking, branding, dehorning, ear tagging, ear clipping, teeth pulling, castration, and ovariectomy. In the interest of cost efficiency, all of these excruciating procedures are performed without anaesthesia.

You can see 13 minutes of horrific depiction of it here, or you can take in some fast facts from Engel:

98% of all eggs and poultry are produced in factory farms, 90% of pigs are raised in confinement systems, half of the nation’s dairy cows are raised in confinement systems, virtually all veal calves are crate-raised, and 71% of beef cattle are confined in factory farm feedlots. To see just how many animals suffer the institutionalized cruelties of factory farming, consider the number slaughtered in the U.S. each day. According to The New York Times, 130,000 cattle, 7,000 calves, 360,000 pigs, and 24 million chickens are slaughtered every day. Extrapolation reveals that 8.94 billion animals are raised and slaughtered annually, not counting turkeys, ducks, sheep, emu, or fish. Consequently, over 17,000 animals are slaughtered per minute.

It’s good that these “sportsmen” were held responsible for their wanton cruelty, but when will the thousands of factory farms be held responsible for theirs?

Thanks to the NotMilkman for the pointer to the story about the “sportsmen” club, and to Terrible, Wonderful World for Engel’s page, from which I’ve removed the many footnote citations.

Posted in animal-rights, politics | 8 Comments »

Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and a porcine plague

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007

No news is bad news, and there’s lots of bad news regarding the health of animals raised to be food for humans. There’s also plenty of bad news in the no-news sense—the mainstream U.S. media resolutely refuses to write about this stuff.

I wrote the other day that overreporting bad news gives people a skewed impression of reality and risk. In this case, underreporting does the same thing, leaving people free to believe that the food supply is healthy and healthful, and that those who worry about this sort of thing are fringe cranks, the sort of people you see wearing hospital masks whenever they walk down a city street.

But first, the good news. “Kansas State study finds new vaccine effective against deadly viral disease affecting swine,” according to a press release from the school.

(PressZoom) – MANHATTAN, KAN. — Researchers from Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have completed a study showing that a newly-developed vaccine is effective against a deadly viral disease that is affecting swine herds in Kansas.

The disease, most widely known as porcine circovirus associated disease, was first recognized in Kansas swine herds in November 2005. The disease complex is an immunosuppressive condition associated with porcine circovirus type 2 or PCV2.

That’s particularly good news, because it seems the same plague has made its way into Iowa pig herds, via Canada.

Circovirus takes hold in Iowa 

By Kristin Danley-Greiner, Farm News staff

DES MOINES — Pork producers learned at the Iowa Pork Congress last week that a common swine disease plaguing Canada since the 1990s has reared its head in Iowa herds.

That’s not the only animal disease coming down from Canada, there’s our old friend, mad cow disease, as the Canada Press reports.

EDMONTON (CP) – Canada has confirmed its ninth case of mad cow disease since 2003, in an Alberta bull.  

… Eight previous cases of BSE have been detected in Canadian cattle since May 2003, when the discovery of an Alberta cow with the disease caused the United States to slam the border shut to cattle exports entirely.

The border reopened for Canadian beef from younger cattle within months of the original ban. But live cattle have only been allowed to move across the border since July 2005.

Five new cases were discovered in Canada in 2006, including one in a cow born five years after safeguards were adopted to prevent the spread of the disease.

And (to use the same segue twice in a row) that’s not all that’s plaguing cattle these days, according to this Associated Press story:

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Posted in animal-rights, food, journalism, politics | 1 Comment »

Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists

Posted by metaphorical on 7 February 2007

What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?

Most vegetarians have more than one reason for not eating meat. Two of them concern the rights of animals: killing animals is morally wrong, and the ways animals are reared are unjustifiably cruel. Other reasons aren’t about the animals so much as us; concerns range from health (meat is bad for you) to the environment (factory farming ruins land and water, it emits greenhouse gases, and by using 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, it wastes resources). Vegetarians may have other reasons as well, but they usually aren’t articulated.

Whenever a bunch of contingent concerns coalesce in one conclusion (“don’t eat meat”), there’s the possibility of new events or technologies to bifurcate them, forcing us to decide what’s really important. If scientists figure out a way to grow a slab of meat the way we grow a plant in a hothouse—without, that is, a sentient animal being involved, would any vegetarians eat it?

Popular Mechanics is reporting that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.”

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Posted in animal-rights, food, language, philosophy, politics | 24 Comments »

Arise, ye cattle, anoint the shield

Posted by metaphorical on 4 February 2007

It’s tempting to think that the answer to the oppressively cruel cattle culture is for the cows to kill their owners—at least it’s easy to think that when it happens on two farms thousands of miles apart, on successive days, in Ohio (“Farmer killed by cow”), and New South Wales (“Woman dies after cow rams gate”).

The fact is, though, that these were probably the Little-House-On-The-Prairie type farms that are the least objectionable. Factory farms are run like concentration camps and there’s little opportunity for the tattoo’d prisoners to rise up against the guards. Up-close-and-personal family farms, on the other hand, where cows lead generally happy lives between occasional moments of terror and cruelty, are rife with opportunities for insurrection. That it doesn’t happen more seems proof that life there is generally good for both man and beast.

I feel badly for these families, who surely care for the animals in their charge, even as they separate parents from young.

My thanks to the Notmilkman for the links, even as we draw opposite conclusions from them.

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The cattle culture and its long shadow

Posted by metaphorical on 10 January 2007

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the U.N. report, “Livestock’s long shadow,” that describes the horrific environmental consequences of what Jeremy Rifkin calls “the cattle culture.” I mentioned Rifkin in that post, but I don’t think his essential contribution to this debate is appreciated enough. Without Rifkin’s book, Beyond beef : the rise and fall of the cattle culture, I suspect there would have been no Howard Lyman on Oprah, no Fast Food Culture, no Supersize Me.

I hadn’t looked at the book much since I first read it, not long after it was published in 1992. Every year I chose one big summer nonfiction book. I would read it over a single long July weekend spent with my friends Chuck and Gretchen at the annual Winterhawk bluegrass festival in upstate New York, just west of where the Catskills give way to the Berkshires. Looking over the book, I shouldn’t be surprised at how well it holds up—how well Rifkin had already learned the lessons that the U.N. would try once again to teach, a decade and a half later.

Our picture of cattle is formed by images like the bucolic beasts grazing in fields alongside highways; the reality of industrial beef couldn’t be more different. I don’t think I can do better than to let Rifkin talk to us in his own words. Here then are just a few snippets from chapter 27, “Ecological Colonialism.”

Still, in all of the ongoing public debates around the global environmental crisis, a curious silence surrounds the issue of cattle, one of the most destructive environmental threats of the modern era. Domesticated cattle are responsible for much of the soil erosion in the temperate regions of the world. Cattle grazing is a primary cause of the spreading desertification process that is now enveloping whole continents. Cattle ranching is responsible for the destruction of much of the earth’s remaining tropical rain forests. Cattle raising is indirectly responsible for the rapid depletion of fresh water on the planet, with some reservoirs and aquifers now at their lowest levels since the end of the last Ice Age. Cattle are a chief source of organic pollution; cow dung is poisoning the freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams of the world.

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Livestock’s long shadow and the NY Times’ short attention span

Posted by metaphorical on 27 December 2006

“Livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of the global warming effect, more than transportation’s contribution.”

“At present, there are about 1.5 billion cattle and domestic buffalo and about 1.7 billion sheep and goats. With pigs and poultry, they form a critical part of our enormous biological footprint upon this planet.

 Just how enormous was not really apparent until the publication of a new report, called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.”

So far so good. The NY Times, inspired by a U.N. report, is actually noticing, probably for the newspaper’s first time ever, the devastating environmental consequences of meat and dairy consumption.

The editorial describes some of the report’s highlights, including its finding that “global livestock grazing and feed production use ’30 percent of the land surface of the planet.’ Livestock—which consume more food than they yield—also compete directly with humans for water. And the drive to expand grazing land destroys more biologically sensitive terrain, rain forests especially, than anything else.”

When I turned vegan, 16 years ago, it wasn’t because I’m opposed to killing animals for food (I’m not). It was for just these environmental reasons.

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