The Casual Blog

Tag: cats

Animal friends and victims

Emu at Sylvan Heights

This week I visited the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in the little town of Scotland Neck, NC.  There were a lot of them, doing pretty much what we do — eating, cleaning, preening, playing, mating, fighting, resting, exploring.  The emu (the second largest bird on the planet) took a strong interest in me, pressing against the fence as though wanting to be petted, or perhaps to kick or peck me.  The sandhill cranes also seemed affectionate — so much so that it was hard to get far enough away to photograph them.  Several of the birds seemed to like it when I talked with them softly.   

Sandhill crane

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, was featured in the NY Times last week discussing his cats.  I like Ai’s art and his courage, and I like cats as well (though they should not be loose near birds, which they will kill). 

Ai said:

I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life. 

I’m with Ai on learning from cats, though I think he may overestimate the overestimate how rational (as opposed to emotional) humans are.  Our little cat, Rita, is both a friend and a teacher.  I’m sorry she dislikes being photographed, since she’s also strangely cute, and quite a good dasher and leaper for a 13-year-old.  

In other animal news, Ezra Klein’s new piece proposes that we include as part of the big Biden technology and jobs plan a program to speed the development and bring down the price of artificial meat.  This idea has merit.  As Klein’s points out, some of our biggest problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus pandemic, and antibiotic-resistant disease, are in significant part the work of industrialized agriculture, and especially the meat industry.  There’s also the massive cruelty, which could be stopped or reduced by substituting meat grown from animal cells, rather than hacked from slaughtered animals.  

Of course, it’s possible right now, without a new government program, to replace the meat we eat with plant-based food.  But most of us have been taught from a young age that we need to eat meat to be healthy, and the lesson got lodged deep.  There’s plenty of evidence that it simply isn’t true.  Indeed, it’s widely accepted that eating meat is not necessary to get adequate protein and other nutrients, but it increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses.  

It is both sad and bizarre that the right wing has spun up a lie that the Biden administration wants to outlaw hamburgers. But the quick spread of the hamburger lie in the right-wing subculture is also telling.  Our early intensive training in meat eating, constantly reinforced by advertising, rituals, and habit, makes it hard to change how we nourish ourselves, or even to think about changing.  Indeed, even raising the subject of such change causes some to experience anger, fear, confusion, and detachment from reality. 

An irony of the new hamburger lie is that historically, and still today, the US government has subsidized and actively promoted raising and consuming animal products.  This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought by, among others, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one of my favorite charities.  The suit challenges the US Department of Agriculture for its dietary guidelines encouraging heavy consumption of dairy products, which cause health problems for the significant part of the US population that is lactose intolerant.  (The complaint apparently does not discuss other health risks from dairy products, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.)

The government’s guidelines require that schools offer children cow’s milk, and generally forbid offering them plant-based alternatives.  The lesson that children or others need cow’s milk for calcium and other nutrients has been thoroughly debunked by science.  Even those unwilling to think about the dairy industry’s torturing of cows may be disturbed to learn that, to increase agribusiness profits, the government is endangering the health of many schoolchildren.   This is not right.

Izzie the cat, questionable executions, and ballet love

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Izzie the cat took her last trip to the vet this week. After almost 14 years together, we were sad. Our pets enrich our lives and make us better, more loving humans, even the ones with mercurial moods like Izzie. One minute, she would be seeking affection, angelically purring, and hissing like a little demon the next. Of course, we probably seemed strange to her.

From time to time I tried to get her to do some modeling for me and my camera, but she never cared much for that. I cannot say that any of my photos quite got her essence. White with black splotches and wings, she was a strange, pretty thing. It will be a slightly different world without her.

Deciding to put down a beloved pet is a hard decision. We considered for a while the evidence of Izzie’s diminishing capacities and increasing behavioral problems, and balanced as best we could the pros and the cons. In the end, we decided it was a good time for her death. But there remains a little nagging discomfort, along with sadness. To actively take on the choice of life or death is unsettling, which it should be.
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This week U.S. fighter planes reportedly blew up several dozen people in a Libyan terrorist training camp. The target was a single Tunisian individual I’d never heard of, Noureddine Chouchane, based on his participation in terrorist attacks in Tunisia. I found this disturbing. Assuming Noureddine Chouchane was a thoroughly evil person who committed heinous acts (we couldn’t possibly get that wrong, could we?), should we be the judges and executioners for all terrorist acts, no matter how far removed from the U.S.? And even if we can justify that, how to justify taking the lives of dozens of other people who, so far as we know, committed no crimes? Do we really think it’s OK to kill all potential terrorists (who are, after all, also potential future non-terrorists)?

The Times had a story this week headlined (in the print edition) “Scars Left by American Bombs Resist Fading, 25 Years Later.” The particular scar in issue was damage from our bombing of civilians in 1991 at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. We dropped an especially powerful bunker busting bomb on a shelter in a middle class Baghdad neighborhood and killed 408 people, most of whom were burned alive.

I can see how ordinary Iraqis could find this a moral outrage. Wouldn’t anyone? Yet I had never heard of the incident before, and after digging through 25 years of Times coverage on Iraq, couldn’t find an earlier story about it. It makes you wonder whether there are some other military atrocities that even faithful Times readers have not heard about.
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The Atlantic has a good piece by Peter Beinart titled “Why Attacking ISIS Won’t Make America Safer.” Beinart notes that most Americans favor attacking ISIS, but argues that history shows that our military actions in the Middle East have resulted in inceased, not decreased, terrorist attacks. He calls it “the terror trap”: the more terrorists we kill, the more terrorists there are trying to kill us. Beinart doesn’t say this, but I will: the military solution will not work.

On a lighter note: Saturday night we went to the new Carolina Ballet show, Love Speaks. It was delightful! The theme of romantic love never gets old, and it’s right in the sweet spot of this wonderfully talented company. Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new work has a narrator providing some poetry of Shakespeare, and a sort of Elizabethan look, but also kind of jazzy, with quickly developing flirtations, fascinations, and jealousies. I really liked it. I also particularly enjoyed Jan Burkhard and Richard Krusch in the balcony scene of Weiss’s Romeo and Juliet. It was profoundly romantic.
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More cute cats (sorry), improving vision, getting fitter, web retail news, and tech trends

Isabel -- the mysterious one


This week Sally spotted this bumper sticker: Life is a little better with a cat. That isn’t a very grand claim, which is what makes it appealing. “A little” seems about right. Our three (Phoebe, Isabel, and Rita) have been good sports in serving as my models.



I’m happy to report that my vision, while still blurry in the left eye, really improved this week. That eye is actually providing some useful signals for the first time in a long time. Also, my eye doc cleared me to resume normal exercise, and I happily did so.



After consultation with the ski friends, we agreed this week that the big ski event of 2014 would be a return to Telluride, Colorado, in February, where I’ll try to keep up, or semi-keep up, with young Gabe. And so at my early morning gym sessions I began focusing on some ski-oriented activities – lunges, side lunges, side kneel lunches, squats, with weights one-legged extension balances, duck walk with two big bands, step up onto medium table and balance, and jump up (landing softly) on the medium table.

I bought a speed jump rope and doing a few dozen speedy jumps between these activities, then worked on core matters with various species of crunches, reverse crunches, planks, and side planks. Finally, half an hour of straight cardio. I’ve been doing 10 minutes on the treadmill (with an incline), a few minutes on the ski (sideways push) machine, a few on the stairs (escalator type), and then some intervals on the elliptical. If there’s time after that, I’ll do 10 minutes of stretching and foam rolling.

I like using a heart rate monitor during work outs, which can confirm that I’m working hard, or at times show I’m not working as hard as I think. I got one when I began going to spinning classes, when I worried that keeping up with super fit young teachers could cause me to drive my poor heart into an extreme and dangerous state. But it’s gratifying to take it up into the red zone from time to time, which for me is in the 160s. I usually feel great afterwards.

My Polar heart rate monitor finally wore out this week For some months it had been behaving erratically, but I didn’t feel good about throwing it out while it was still sometimes working, so I was glad when it finally quit. I immediately went Googling to vet the options. I had some interest in finding a model that didn’t require a band around the chest, but learned that such models are not as accurate and do not give continuous read outs. I settled on a relatively cheap one, a Timex T5K541Personal Trainer, that did the two basic functions that I needed (tell the time and tell how fast my heart is going). I bought on Amazon, where as a Prime member I get free shipping, and had it two days later.

This isn’t quite instant gratification, but it’s close. I put this type of Internet retail plus efficient delivery in the pantheon of life-sweeting innovations, right up there with pay-at-the-pump gas, cash machines, and the lickless stamp. Amazon is now familiar, but we tried a similar new service for the first time last week called

It does exactly what you’d expect. It has most of our preferred consumer products at normal drugstore prices, and can get them to us in two days. Shipping is free for orders of $35 or more. A bottle of Crew shampoo that I ordered had leaked a little in transit, but everything else arrived in a proper and timely manner. Ordering online made me realize I don’t particularly like chain drugstores, with all their household goods, toys, cards, and snack food. I’m perfectly happy to stay out of those places and just send out for the stuff. (For actual medical stuff, I do like my little neighborhood drugstore, Hayes Barton Pharmacy, where you still get the personal touch.)

Speaking of the constantly new, there’s a piece in the current New Yorker about the young tech entrepreneur scene in San Francisco. For those interested in tech business trends, this is a must read. (This link worked for me, but I’m afraid that non-subscribers will not be able to get it without paying.) The piece, by Nathan Heller, describes people who are starting one new business after another and working with a rock band, doing something arty, or going on meditation retreats in between their ventures. The very shape of business and finance is being transformed, getting smaller and faster. At the same time, the entrepreneurs are not only making money, but also having fun, and asking good questions about what makes life meaningful.

Stuart -- the best dog

Stuart — the best dog

Cats and curiosity, humans and dishonesty

Isabelle, a/k/a Izzie, "The Wild One"

Isabelle, a/k/a Izzie, “The Wild One”

There was an amazing story in the NY Times last week about a house cat that got lost 200 miles from home and somehow found its way over unfamiliar territory to its human family. It sounds impossible, but apparently there was adequate proof, including a computer chip in the cat.

Sally dearly loves our cats — Phoebe, Isabelle, and Rita. She buys them toys, speaks babytalk to them, and lets them sleep on top of her. They make her laugh and coo. I admit they are beautiful, but I have never been as smitten. They shed hair everywhere. They periodically throw up hairballs and other sundries, usually at a prominent spot on a nice rug, and sneakily try to steal food from our plates. But for the last several years, most of the time I paid them little attention, and they did the same to me.

Phoebe ('Feed Me")

Phoebe (‘Feed Me”)

Lately, though, they’ve been wooing me. Rita wants to cuddle with me in the easy chair. Isabelle follows me to the bathroom and nuzzles my leg. Phoebe likes to get into my lap when I’m eating. They’ve gotten me to pet them more. They purr more. They haven’t tried to bite me in quite some time. It’s nice.

I tend to think of our cats as not very bright, even for cats, and mainly enjoy their grace. But they do have skills. They are wonderful at rapid acceleration and deceleration, and do amazing leaps. They seem at times to concentrate completely and at other times to relax completely. And they are extremely curious about anything new. They’ll thoroughly explore every new paper bag and box.

Rita, the sweet one

Rita, the sweet one

They’re getting older. Phoebe is now 12, Isabelle is 10, and Rita is 6. Perhaps age has a mellowing effect and accounts for their increased affectionateness. Perhaps they detected some change in me. There’s no doubt but they are working on me, and making some changes.

Still curious about how humans work and why we do do so many silly things, I finished reading Predictably Irrational, the Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke. His style is a bit chatty, but some of the substance is fascinating. Working along some of the lines of Kahneman and Tvesky, he examines such problems as our difficulties in managing our money or avoiding unhealthy food and our inability to foresee the bad decisions we may make when sexually aroused.

One of the most interesting chapters describes an experiment designed to examine cheating. A control group took a simple knowledge test, and other groups took the same test with the answers “accidentally” provided to subjects. The basic finding was that a majority of those given a bit of temptation and opportunity to cheat did so. But Ariely found that the cheaters didn’t cheat as much as they could have. Instead, most cheated only a modest amount. There seemed to be some threshold beneath which the dishonest behavior was not particularly troubling, and above which it was.

There was an interesting essay by James Nortz in the current Docket, the magazine of the Association of Corporate Counsel, which describes some more of Ariely’s work on honest and cheating from his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves. Nortz proposes that we view dishonesty as a universal human trait, but one which manifests itself according to varying circumstances. He suggests that facing up to these disturbing realities could help us design better compliance and ethics programs.

Stuart, still the greatest

Stuart, still the greatest