Tuesday, 29 June 2010

are crepuscular dogs active at sunset?

Crepuscular...I just came across this favorite word in a book about dogs. I've enjoyed the word since reading and loving the hilarious novels of P G Wodehouse about Bertie Wooster, who was crepuscular. (Maybe it was another of Wodehouse's wonderful characters who was crepuscular, but I think it was Bertie Wooster.)

I'm chuffed to see that someone else loves this word; it's number 26 on the BBC News Magazine's list of fifty favorite words. (I'm being tough with myself here. I will not, will not, will not get distracted by the other 49 wonderful words.)

The American Heritage Dictionary give two definitions, and the second one relates to zoology:

Becoming active at twilight or before sunrise, as do bats and certain insects and birds.

So, dogs are supposedly crepuscular...That may explain why my dog Penny happily lies around all day and becomes active at sunset. I had the impression it was the thought of dinner that got her going. As to sunrise...no way is she active at that hour!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

origin of the word 'cynic'

Since I've been living with a dog I've often thought about some of the things we humans take for granted - for instance our dependence on our sense of sight, our enjoyment of 'good manners', our constant worrying about the future. Dogs don't care about things like that and seem all the happier for it.

In Stanley Coren's book, 'How Dogs Think', he says:
Plato's contemporary Diogenes, another significant Greek philosopher, although more eccentric than most, became known for wandering the world with a lamp claiming to be "looking for an honest man." While he had his doubts about humans, Diogenes thought dogs were extremely moral and adopted the nickname "Cyon", which means "Dog". He would go on to found one of the great ancient schools of philosophy, and he and his followers would become known by his nickname as "Cynics" or "Dog Thinkers." Diogenes' own intelligence and wit were such that Alexander the Great, after meeting him in Corinth, went away saying, "If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes."

When Diogenes died, the people of Athens raised a great marble pillar in his memory. On top of the pillar was the image of a dog. Beneath the dog there was a long inscription that started with the following bit of conversation:
"Say, Dog, I pray, what guard you in that tomb?'
"A dog."
"His name?"
Coren presents this information as part of a discussion of humanity's changing attitudes over time to the question of the dog's intelligence and ability to feel emotion. In Coren's version, Diogenes adopted the name out of respect for the dog.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosopy, on the other hand, says
the term may have begun as an insult referring to Diogenes’ style of life, especially his proclivity to perform all of his activities in public. Shamelessness, which allowed Diogenes to use any space for any purpose, was primary in the invention of “Diogenes the Dog.”

The precise source of the term “Cynic” is, however, less important than the wholehearted appropriation of it. The first Cynics, beginning most clearly with Diogenes of Sinope, embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, spurned Athenian etiquette, and lived from nature. In other words, what may have originated as a disparaging label became the designation of a philosophical vocation.

Monday, 21 June 2010

black swan events

I've learned a new expression today, and with it a new concept. On ABC Radio's Counterpoint program this afternoon I was listening to three philosophers discuss Enlightenment Values in the Twenty- First Century , and one of the speakers referred to what I thought was a black swan effect.

Or maybe he referred to a black swan event.

It was immediately apparent that it meant a circumstance that wouldn't have been predicted, because no previous experience suggested such a thing was possible.

A quick look around the Net told me that it's a theory proposed by Nassim Taleb. Here's a brief quote from his work, posted on Wikipedia:
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.

Taleb says there's a 'nice summary' of his ideas at Arlene Goldbard's blog.

She finishes with these points:
Since we can’t control unpredictable events, we should accept uncertainty and seek to maximize our exposure to serendipity, as by putting ourselves in the way of new ideas.

Since there is such danger in accepting conclusions based on too little information simply because they confirm our beliefs, we should try to remain aware in the present of what we are doing, paying attention to what actually happens and refraining as far as possible from imposing theories on our experience.

We should recognize our poor record as a species in predicting the future, that we are much better at doing than knowing. Some things are more predictable than others: we are safe enough in expecting tomorrow’s sunrise to plan on breakfast. We can start noticing which situations are most susceptible to black swans, and when we encounter them, remember how little we truly know so our ignorance doesn’t lead us around by the nose.