Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dust and Shimmering Heat

A friend asked me tonight if we were going to keep in touch with each other after we left this place. And it turns out to be a harder question to answer than you might think.

A couple of weeks ago the same friend and I were shaking our heads over the fact that our friends and family back home (hers in the UK, mine in the US) never call us here--it is always us who do the calling. We manage to mentally reconcile the two work weeks, our Saturday to Wednesday, theirs Monday to Friday. We figure they have access to the same global time calculation methods that we do so they can't use the excuse of not knowing what time it is here. Many of us have some form of VOIP that provides our friends and family with a local number to call so they don't have to make an expensive call to a Saudi number. Yet they never call. Is it a case of "out of sight, out of mind"? Or do we suddenly become foreign for simply living in a foreign place, so foreign that normal modes of communication don't apply anymore?

We admit that here in Dhahran we live life according to a different pattern and at a very different pace. There is little reward and often active discouragement for us to put in extra hours on the evenings and weekends (possibly because it makes the Saudis look bad, but that's not where I want to go with this). We have to travel to a different country (Bahrain) with a full immigration and customs procedure both ways to purchase items as basic as tennis shoes and bacon. We have limited freedom of movement within this country but are given many days of vacation in which to go somewhere else. But the sidewalks pretty much roll up here with the sunset and most debaucheries are kept discreetly behind doors. Living in Dhahran was described to me as being like living in a small town, which I suppose is true if the small towns you've lived in are surrounded by electrified and razor-wired fences with 24-hour cameras and guards at gates with bullet-proof vests, sidearms, and automatic weapons. There is a veritable army, literally thousands, of small brown men to take care of the lawns, pick up the trash, clean the houses, wash and drive the cars. There are few places in the world where this lifestyle could be replicated, if it is even moral to want to do so.

We all know people who are very good friends with us who simply disappear from our view when they leave. That's our perspective, of course, that they disappear. From our friends' perspectives, I wonder if it isn't us who disappear in the dust and the shimmering heat. Even if they thought Dhahran was a paradise when they were here, it can hardly compete with the heaving, gleaming, colorful world that they now occupy on the other side.

Good intentions don't seem to be able to survive once you make that final trip across the desert.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fun House Ride

Whenever I get a mid-morning phone call from Upul, I always feel a tiny flutter of anxiety because my morbid imagination immediately takes over with visions of various disasters. His calls usually turn out to be more amusing than alarming, though, and this morning was no different.

It rained in Dhahran today (a whopping 2.2 mm but that still counts as rain). Upul rides a scooter so he of course has a rain coat, a bright yellow one. He called me to tell me that when he arrived to walk the dogs and came in the house in his yellow rain coat, Azza lost her shit (my words, not his). She lunged at him, bit at her crate walls and door, barked and growled. I think that response meets the standard of "losing one's shit." Of course Mimi and Harry offered their usual joyous greetings. Upul said that he went back outside and left the coat with his helmet. When he came back inside and spoke to Azza, she was more or less normal. But he said that when he let her out of her crate, "every hair was straight out!"

I've seen her in a state of extreme fear arousal before and she can indeed puff up like a cat. This enormous puff of hair forms over her shoulders, along her back, and across her hips. Even her tail gets fuzzier. She can vaguely resemble a poodle with a formal show cut, little puffs and balls of fur here and there, since the rest of her coat is so short and flat (but much softer than the terriers).

I told him to bring the coat into the house and put it on the stool and let her approach it and sniff it on her own terms. He did this while we were talking and reported that she puffed up again ("every hair is straight out, ma'am!"), approaching his coat only once then backing away growling. I told him to ignore her and let her get used to it, and to walk her only if it wasn't raining too hard. I didn't get a second call so he either walked her successfully or decided not to walk her at all.

Loosely related to these events was the walk that MW and Boodle and the dogs and I took this evening. It's very cloudy today and the normal dusk became rather gloomy with the early sunset. I think MW set us all off when she started and gasped at what at peripheral glance could have been a large cat but turned out to be a piece of wood next to the path. Things went downhill quickly.

There were indeed very real cats around every corner, crouched beside every palm tree, perched on top of every can and bucket. It was like being in a cheap fun house ride where shrieking clowns and moaning skeletons randomly fly at your head while bright lights sear your eyes.

Mimi's first response upon sight of a strange cat is to bite the dog that is closest to her, which is usually Harry. When prevented from doing that, she goes for Azza, who is usually looking for something to bite herself. I've gotten quite good at separately cinching up Mimi's leash and Azza's leash with one hand while leaving Harry's leash untouched and simultaneously herding each bitch to opposite sides of me with my other hand. I can do this in a fraction of a second because I've had a lot of practice at it. To get the full flavor, you also have to add in Azza's 100-decibel barking and Mimi's weird trilling bark, more like a bird than a dog. MW has her own issues with Boodle who does plenty of his own barking and lunging. Harry remains oblivious to all of this as he simply can't see or hear well enough anymore to get involved.

Once the dogs were all nicely on edge, we happened to see a guy walking his dog on the other side of the street. Good grief, the dogs just lost it entirely. That was like the part of the cheesy fun house ride where the little car you are riding in takes a dip then a sharp turn to the right, slamming you into the cold metal side.

CircusK9: the fun house ride that keeps going and going!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Scientific Illiteracy

I've ranted about this before (I think that I have although I can't find the particular post) but it is always a topic worth revisiting. Modern humans live in a world filled with amazing technology: tablets, mobile phones, satellites, GPS, digital books, microwaves. Nearly all of us use these things daily, either directly or indirectly, without any understanding at all of how they work, how they are built, the physics that control their functioning.

Americans are my usual target as they are particularly scientifically illiterate for a country that consumes a big chunk of the world's technology resources. However, it turns out that pretty much everybody is fair game to be lumped into the "scientific idiot" group.

Two weeks ago at work an email was circulated around by the secretary network. Quite a few of the executive secretaries maintain large, informal mailing lists to which they send bcc announcements of yard sales, ads for air fare promotions, and other relatively useful but benign bits of information. But sometimes things a bit more insidious make their way into this informal network.

The email said that people in the area were receiving mysterious "hang up" calls from numbers with Lithuanian and Ukrainian country codes and warned us to not call the mystery number back under any circumstances or immediate doom would befall us. If the call was returned, all of the contact info on our phone would be stripped, and the bad guys would get our credit card info and huge charges would suddenly appear on our account.

Nonsense. Utter nonsense. Cell phones don't work that way. You might incur a per-minute charge for calling that weird number but unless you gave the scammers on the other end your contact info or your credit card number, they certainly couldn't get it automatically.

I copied a web page debunking the scam from a hoax buster site and emailed it to the secretary of my area, suggesting that she might not want to forward emails without checking their veracity first.

Then last week another email made the rounds of the secretary network. This one had an internal forward claiming that it came from a manager over in Aramco's Fire Department. Well, it must be true then, right? It's got that stamp of authenticity right there in the email header!

The email told a story (undated and without mention of source) of a woman who had been driving in the rain with cruise control on in her car. When she stepped on the brakes, her car "took off like an airplane"! The story had lots of detail, like her name and the city where this was supposed to have occurred, but nothing that could be substantiated. These are all characteristics of hoaxes or "urban myths."

Of course, this story is total nonsense as well. People that believe it are basically making a public announcement that they drive two-ton-plus weapons on a daily basis and have no fucking idea how they work.

I typed "car hydroplane hoax" into Google and got over 170,000 hits. I snipped the main search page and forwarded it to my local area secretary without comment.

What's the take home here? First, basic concepts of science, math, and engineering are not being taught to everyone even though everyone needs them. I'm not talking about elite concepts reserved only for specialists but basic principles of physics, algebra, electricity, kinetics, etc.

And second, the ability to read and logically analyze information is a skill that has been lost now for a couple of generations. Very few of my peers are able to present coherent arguments for or against a particular view without resorting to tautologies or ad hominem attacks (it is because it is, or you are wrong because you're a poopyhead). Almost no young people I interact with can present linear narratives (A happened yesterday which caused B today which will result in C tomorrow). And yes, I am aware that I just presented two pseudo-anecdotes in support of my argument and anecdotes do not prove anything either. Sure, my blog, my soapbox. But hopefully I will spur you to research these ideas yourself instead of taking my word for it.

There is good evidence in the geological and biological records that most Cenozoic species (that have existed in the last 65 million years or so) generally endure between 1 and 5 million years before disappearing. There are plenty of days when I am quite sure that Homo sapiens won't even make it to half a million.


I don't suffer from writer's block: I usually always have plenty to say (putting it more bluntly, I rarely lack for an opinion on things). However, I am not able to write about things going on with me these past few weeks. Not to worry, nobody is in imminent danger. I'm not writing in code about looming disaster. But I've been a bit consumed with issues of life and work and I can't write about them here.

Many of you may have heard that Aramco was the victim of a successful cyberattack back in August. It was well timed, taking place right before the eid holiday started when staffing levels across Aramco's admin areas were rather low. Rumors continue to swirl about who did it and why. I don't pay much attention to them because we'll probably never know the truth.

As a result of this attack, Aramco's monitoring of all email and internet activities has dramatically increased, including activities on home internet. Maybe you think I'm being too cautious? My answer to that is that you would perhaps make the same decisions I'm making if you lived here too.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Training Contacts: Old Dog, New Trick

This past week was the eid holiday. I didn’t have any travel plans but spent half days at work instead (got a lot of projects going at the moment and I needed to make some progress on one of them).

I also started a new training project with the dogs. Last fall I obtained a nice, stiff oak plank that is about 10 feet long and about 12 inches wide. Oak plank for dog training, you are thinking, wasn’t that expensive? And perhaps a bit excessive? Not by the standards of this place. Pine planks are nearly impossible to come by. And pieces of wood cut in standard sizes are simply not to be found. I'm not insisting on typical American wood size standard but any kind of standard at all. You can take any ten pieces of wood and they may look similar but when measured you’ll find their dimensions are random. No cheap pine, no standard dimensions. While out with friends in Dammam, I ran across this piece of oak that was more or less the size I wanted; it suited my purposes well so I bought it.

The plank is for training contacts. I of course don’t have any contact equipment for the agility classes and will never have any. I have no place to store the equipment and no way to transport it even if by some trick I magically conjured up a garage for myself (in that case, why stop at a garage? Why not a back yard too?).

But I thought that I could still introduce the basic concepts of contacts to our little agility group with the plank. The progression is to put the plank flat on the ground and teach the dog to keep all four paws on it. Then you teach the dog to run along the plank. Then you teach the dog some sort of contact behavior at the ends. I’m going to stick with a two-on two-off behavior because it is easy for novice handlers to recognize when the dog executes it properly. It is a behavior that can be clearly marked and rewarded since the dog comes to a complete stop with his front paws on the ground and his hind paws still on the plank. Finally, I plan to lean the plank on my table, raised up to 12 inches with the spiffy PVC platform I built for it, to create a low-angle ramp. 

Agility purists might scoff and say, well, running contacts are all the rage now because they shave hundredths of seconds off your course time. And I'd counter that speed is hardly the point since we don't actually have real contact equipment. Some of you might sniff and say, well, this or that method is better than a contact plank. And I'd counter that I'm making do with what I have, which ain't much! In a way, it’s like I've regressed back to the early 1990's when the sport was getting started.

I bought some bright blue and yellow paint. After a primer and one color coat, I added my homemade sand/paint coating to give the plank a grippy feel. It looks super!

It’s been years since I thought about teaching contacts and I’ve never used the plank method. So I decided to spend my eid holiday developing a training protocol that I could use in class. The protocol needs to be flexible to accommodate all the variations of dog and handler that I have to work with in class. But of course it also needs to produce some positive, reliable results.

Since Mimi already understands contacts, she grasped the idea of the plank right away. She’ll be helpful in demonstrating the final product but I needed more of a blank slate to work with.

Azza of course would be the obvious choice to work with if she was a normal dog. Given her overwhelming, paralyzing fear of new things (behavior which is far beyond the pale of normal), it has been quite a struggle just to get her to put one or two paws on the plank. Forget walking along it. She could barely be dragged past it. However, we have been making progress since I installed the flat plank as a permanent part of my living room. After missing most of two meals, she figured out that she had to put a paw on it and keep that paw there or she was going to be pretty hungry! In short, she is not a very good model for normal behaviors that I might encounter during contact training with the plank. Azza is a "special needs" dog.

It turns out that I’m doing most of my exploration of this training problem with Harry. Yes, that’s right. I’m teaching a 14 year old smooth fox terrier a two-on two-off contact behavior from scratch. He’s going deaf, his eyes are cloudy with cataracts, and he’s pretty stiff in the mornings, but he’s definitely up for a new training game, especially if it involves a clicker and treats!

The first task was to teach him that the placement of his feet mattered: four paws on the plank, not three, not two, and dancing over the plank didn’t count either. He picked that up in two training sessions.

The next task was to get him to stay on the plank as he walked/ran up and down it. He’s still a bit fuzzy on this concept but I can tell he’s trying.

At the end of the plank, he usually runs off and turns around to face me for his treat. So I’m starting his training sessions with half a dozen or so “get ready” commands to remind him that sitting by my side is the rewarding place to be. Using plastic targets really helps with this. He runs to the end, sees the target, slams his paws down on it then looks at me for his treat. He still twists his body quite a bit, in the process coming off the plank, so I’m using jump wings on either side of one end to help keep him straight.

I'll continue working with Harry for the next couple of weeks until I am sure I can teach someone else and their dog how to manage the contact trainer. And I'll be sure to tell our little agility group about Harry's contribution to their class!

Friday, November 02, 2012

What?! I Was Just Looking At It!

Mimi, new toy, and Azza.

Agility in KSA! Week 5

The eid holiday was this past week and a lot of people are still out on leave so only four handlers showed up in class this morning besides me and CJ. I knew this was going to be the case so I decided to put out three challenges and give a prize to the handler who managed each one the best. An agility friend (A in Portland) donated a bag full of small plush toys for this very purpose--generous and thoughtful and definitely put to good use! The handlers loved the idea of winning prizes!

CJ and Webster working the third challenge: serpentine handling in a ring of jumps.
 The challenges were five jumps in a straight line, two straight tunnels side by side, and a ring made of six jumps.

For the first challenge, it was my plan to have the handlers send their dogs away from them over the jumps to see how far their dogs would go. The handler was not supposed to cross the plane of the first jump. However, two of the dogs had no reliable send so instead we had their handlers call them over the jumps. The rest of the handlers got to use a plastic lid baited with food as a target. I had everyone backchain the sequence, doing two jumps, then three, then four, then finally five.

HD's desert dog (mostly Canaan dog in origin) Savvy has never been off leash in class. HD is worried about her running off or even attacking another dog. But with such a small class, it was easy to get everyone to stuff their dog in their crate when it was Savvy's turn so she had as calm a working space as possible. Savvy has never been sent over a jump so it was clear that HD was going to have to do a recall with her.

To our amazement, Savvy nailed this exercise. She sailed over the jumps and ran right to HD who had the biggest grin on her face. I was holding Savvy by the collar (another huge step forward for this dog who was so mistrustful of everyone when she started) and she was pulling pretty hard to get going over those jumps. I was so proud to see this lovely dog completely absorbed in doing some agility with her handler. Savvy has come a long way since she started back in January.

Look at Savvy go! HD at the end of the jumps calling her dog.
MW's Boodle has always been a reluctant jumper and he does not like to be sent over jumps. He is 12 years old so this isn't a problem that I have spent a lot of energy trying to fix. So I let her do a recall with him too. It must have been the cooler weather because he did a wonderful job too!

JW sending Jack over all of the jumps after a complete set of backchaining. CJ is guarding the target, ready to cover the food with her foot if the dog goes around any of the jumps.
HD and Savvy won the first challenge because of the tremendous leap forward both of them made but I let MW take a toy for Boodle too because he showed so much more commitment and enthusiasm than usual.

For the second challenge, it was my plan to have the handlers send their dog into one tunnel then turn them into the second tunnel without going between the two tunnels. I demonstrated it with Mimi and I could tell all of them were thinking, yeah, sure, they make it look easy--my dog will never do that. Even though I expected that all of the handlers would have to move forward between the tunnels at least a little bit, I knew that with a bit of coaching they would all be successful. And that proved to be true.

MW and Boodle working the tunnels.
Savvy again surprised us. She doesn't like tunnels (finds them pretty scary) and will only go into straight, shortened tunnels. I wasn't even sure she'd do this particular challenge at all. But I let HD and her daughter have a go, again with Savvy off the leash, and Savvy managed to slowly make her way through the tunnels three times in a row! That's more tunnels than she's ever done before.

The real star of this exercise was LF with her golden Amira. Amira has become quite the tunnel sucker and after a bit of coaching and practice, LF was able to handle the challenge as I intended. It was pretty awesome to see a novice handler pulling off nice distance handling.

In one tunnel...

...and out the other! LF and Amira.
There are quite a few handling options for a ring made from six jumps but I chose to set the third challenge as a serpentine: over the first jump away from the handler, back towards the handler for the second jump, etc. This would give me an opportunity to introduce RFP (or false turn) handling to the new handlers. Doing serpentine handling in a circle instead of a line of three jumps is considerably harder, but I don't like to make things too easy. It makes for lazy handlers.

Me and Mimi demonstrating serpentine handling.
Back Mimi goes over another jump.
Another handler and dog rose to the top for this challenge: JW and her mix Jack. She is so serious (I have to constantly remind her not to tell Jack "no" when she, JW, makes a handling error, and to praise him at the end of a sequence with love and treats) but she tried really hard and absolutely nailed the serpentine after a bit of practice with the RFP handling.

HD using perfect serpentine handling--look at Savvy's focus and lovely turn over the jump.
JW and Jack nailed this exercise quite nicely.
Another week of agility in KSA and great fun was had by all!