Category Archives: Cats

Fear of Flying: Statistics, Probability and a Shameless Distortion of Schrödinger’s Cat

If you have a mental image of a contorted feline, all twisted limbs, shoved in a box and mighty pissed off about its current status – stop right there. That’s not what’s this is about. I will however will be playing fast and loose with various theories (probability, quantum but probably not statistics).

I’ve struggled with a fear of flying since 2004. Shortly after Amberleigh House won the Grand National for Ginger McCain, I boarded a flight from Kingston, Jamaica back to London. It may have been Heathrow, it could have been Gatwick – I can’t remember which. It may be that you think that detail doesn’t matter, but actually it does, because did you know Gatwick ONLY HAS ONE RUNWAY? The difficulty with this arrangement at Gatwick is that if something goes wrong on the sole landing strip – those aircraft waiting to land there are fucked. And, as the World’s Busiest single runway that’s a lot of planes stacking up in the air…

Anyway, I digress. Back in Jamaica the plane took off, night fell, turbulence started. The seat belt sign was on for most of that flight, so much so that going to use the toilet felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands – which in a sense it was. Unsecured people’s heads smashing through the ceiling of the cabin didn’t happen on that flight, but it can and does happen – notably recently on a plane from Singapore to London. Sadly, turbulence does cause injuries when you aren’t strapped to the seat and god alone knows how the pilot and first officer actually fly the plane at the same time…

Anyway, flying back from the Caribbean I was a six months pregnant woman so utilising some sort of secret industrial bladder strength wasn’t an option and I had to unbelt myself to literally brave the trip to the loo. I am not sure I have ever felt so vulnerable. Irresponsible too. I was travelling with my partner and two year old daughter. As I perched on the terrible toilet seat to pee, suspended 30,000 plus feet in the air over the Atlantic I was metaphorically shitting myself.

I learned a lot about humans that night (mostly that we are dully sheeplike in extremis) and since then I’ve found out a lot more about aviation generally in a bid to overcome my fear. One rule of those doing the actual flying is:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

This maxim explains the deafening silence from the flight deck and the interminable illumination of the seat belt sign nearly all the way from Jamaica. The Captain didn’t communicate anything to us the passengers, because he was too busy flying the damn plane through god knows what. I also now know that thunderstorms, despite the widely-touted claims about the robust nature of modern aircraft, are dangerous to planes and all who fly in them and, where possible, flight crew aim to give them a ten mile wide berth.

That night the plane plummeted up and down more than once. It was awful. And it seemed endless. I have since wondered if we were in a series of storms or if it was the plain old turbulence. What’s no comfort in these situations are statistics. Statistics allow us to rationalise the danger we feel that we might be in. One such statistic might be: of every 100 million people that fly every year, only 2 will die in an airplane accident. That statistic does nothing to reassure my overactive amygdala because it doesn’t make sense. After all, common sense not statistics dictate that if a jumbo jet goes down, more than 2 people out of around only 300 on board are going to die. I’m no math genius but numerically 300 is nowhere near 100 million. It’s simple common sense that tells us that in each individual disaster just about everyone is going to die. And over the Atlantic, in the middle of the night, you are all going to die. That’s a fact. Statistics just can’t help with any of that.

So when I board a plane then, I draw zero comfort from statistics. Instead I am focused on probability which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Statistics based on what has happened across the history of aviation tell me the plane will safely convey me from A to B and that my current chances of death on any flight are 1 in 50 million – good odds. Probability tells me that the proposition is more nuanced than that. Probability factors in all kinds of other things like: drunk, suicidal, over-tired, hungover, unhealthy or even one-armed pilots; maintenance crews missing important mechanical things that I don’t know the word for, the weather, ice, sand storms, volcanic eruptions, birdstrike, clear air turbulence that the airplane radar can’t detect, terrorists, plane flaws like those fires on the Dreamliners or metal fatigue in DC10s (I am a child of the 1960s – just) and hijackers. Probability will need to take into consideration the training the flight crew have and have not had, the amount of fuel that the plane has taken on, the nature of the route, and all the other planes that might be out there. It will also have to figure out how likely it is that a whole national Air Traffic Control system can go down, like the UK’s did towards the end of last year. I can’t do the math to say what probability theory tells me about my chances on any given flight are – the variables are difficult to quantify and, well just too variable.

Which brings me to the cat thing. As far as I am concerned, and now I have typed this up I have a horrible feeling that I have written this post before, when I board a plane it’s an either or situation. Like Schrödinger’s cat in the box, in the metal belly of the plane, I enter state of two possibilities – alive or dead – and no-one, including me, will know which possibility will have the upper hand until someone opens the box.

This post has obviously been occasioned by recent events over the Java Sea. It is also mindful that only yesterday a 7 year old girl knocked at the door of a house in Kentucky. She was bleeding and barefoot and the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed all the other four people on board, including her parents. Statistics and probability are no help to her – they only truly inform insurance companies and gamblers and aren’t so much applicable to the indivdual human condition.

Number crunching has it’s place, but we can learn a lot more from cats.

Can it be Gate IV already?

Or how to kill your blog in just five days.

I thought I’d double-check with myself that I am not taking liberties with the admittedly fragile concept, but no – so far every photo has fulfilled the criteria for gate, the definition of which I have ‘helpfully’ posted beneath to save confusion, plus that of door.

Gate (noun)  A hinged barrier used to close an opening in a wall, fence, or hedge

Door (also a noun) A hinged, sliding, or revolving barrier at the entrance to a building, room, or vehicle, or in the framework of a cupboard

I am beginning to think I might have quite lost it.  If I were to take up a recumbent position on the psychoanalyst’s couch they would have a field day with me.  That is such an awful pun that really do think I have lost it.  Perhaps it lies on the other side of these gates.

Today’s post is not really a gate, but it’s not a door either.  Still it’s got a Portugese cat in it, so you can’t complain.  There were kittens hiding in the shadows.  I saw one white and silver tabby one that was momentarily brave enough to poke its nose round the broken shaft of wood before disappearing once more.

All these gates?  It strikes me that, rather like the coffee machine in the song Calling You from the film Baghdad Cafe, they also need some fixing…

cat viana

A postscript to yesterday’s offering

Yesterday I rambled on about the consciousness of cats.

Then I broke the blog. Sorry, if you were the reader affected.

The cat came and fixed it for me and then went back to eating her dinner and reading a book.

Not only is the cat possessed of consciousness, she can also multitask.

Coming to sort the blog out

Coming to sort the blog out

P.P.S. She tells me it’s a good read

The Consciousness of Cats

Look, it’s Sunday morning, and I am not about to attempt a definition of consciousness of my own because that would be like… hard work. So, lazy like Sunday morning, let’s just use this one below as the working one, for the purposes of this morning’s post at least. I’ve lifted it directly from Wikipedia, obviously.

Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”

I was lying in bed thinking that, in the current fuss about horse meat in the food chain, do we in the West have a problem with eating animals that we commonly keep as pets – I include horses in this because as anyone has kept a horse can tell you there is plenty of time spent in that mode with them. Then I thought about the animals we have invited into our homes, or at least our lives, and I suppose the driver for the most common of these species was that they served some useful function for man. Cats catch vermin (in theory, some can be most indolent as we know), dogs can protect us, horses used to act as transport and still do in certain cultural rituals (weddings, funerals) and for recreational purposes. So then I was thinking, do we shy away from eating cats, dogs and horses not just because they are pets, but because as we have lived in close proximity with these animals that we have observed aspects of these animals’ consciousness? How much harder it is to eat an animal that you strongly suspect thinks about things. An animal that might, at some cognitive level, have an opinion if you were to entertain the notion of setting about it with a knife and fork…

So, having thought all that, I had to attempt to test the concept of animal consciousness. I can only do that through the observation of my own pets, which to me is preferable to a bunch of animals in a lab and perhaps equally empirically useful on a micro scale. All scientists have to start somewhere – Jean Piaget’s studies of his own children informed his hugely influential theory of child development, Darwin kept chickens or pigeons or something whilst writing the Origin of the Species and there will be many, many more. The first pet that sprang to mind this morning was not the dog, with whom I have the closer relationship, it was in fact the cat. The cat and I are not particularly close; mutual respect might be as far as it goes – after all I mainly buy her food. It is however the children’s father who feeds her the most important meal of the day: breakfast and based on that function I have had a chance to observe her behaviour which is as follows.

The cat likes to break her fast somewhere between 5 and 5.30 a.m. She’s greedy, what can I say? The alarm goes off about 5.30 but often he is up and about before then. The cat has developed a number of behaviours based on what I can only imagine are based on some internal concepts – probably hunger more than being able to tell the time. A hungry cat might miaow, or wait by the bowl, that would be instinct not consciousness. This cat, comes upstairs, walks into the room, walks round the bed ignoring the nearest human which is me, sits round the other side of the bed and miaows. When this does not get an immediate response she starts clawing at the sheet that covers the side of the bed. This more assertive claw-based approach normally gets her breakfast order sorted, pronto.

There are a few aspects of this behaviour that make me think she is actually not merely conditioned as per a Pavlovian dog.

1. She doesn’t always do it (fair enough maybe she’s not always hungry)

2. If the alarm does go off before she’s been in the room, she then acts as an extra get-out-of-bed alarm, miaowing away

3. That she doesn’t go straight to clawing the sheet – she tries the miaow first

None of this is conclusive though, that this particular cat has consciousness, that she is thinking about how to get the same person out of bed to feed her. It could be reasonably argued that she is simply hungry and her behaviour is driven by instinct. However, what utterly confounds this theory is what she does at weekends, when there is no alarm and no-one gets out of bed at 5.30 a.m.

On weekends she does not come in the bedroom at all. Her breakfast is served at the human’s convenience. Sometimes as late as 7.30 a.m.

Never.

For me, this knocks the behaviour based on a hunger instinct out of the water.

Whilst writing this I have been thinking too. Do we only notice a form of consciousness in animals that we closely share our lives with? If I was to share my house with a few cows would I notice some form of consciousness in them? I suspect, yes. Certainly cows that are ready to return from the field to the farm to be milked might congregate by the gate. Instinct and classical conditioning – certainly, but if we lived in closer proximity to all manner of beasts I am sure we would notice a deeper consciousness of some kind. The outstanding question for me is whether the cat’s consciousness is developed by living in close contact with humans, or whether it just gives us a better opportunity to notice it?

What lies behind those eyes

What lies behind those eyes

Brotherly Love

We have featured Kevin (common cat) and Stan (Irish Wolfhound) on the blog before and it is a winter-warming visual pleasure to do so again. Last time I think they were idling by the fire reading Heat magazine. This time they are contemplating Life, The Universe and Everything.
I can see that age has made philosophers of them both. Stan has been really ill this year so it’s good to see the back of his head looking in such fine fettle *insert smiley*

We are spending Christmas with them both if all goes to plan; it looks like there’s going to be a fight for a space round the hearth…

Disembowelling poetry

Mine, you understand, not other people’s, that would just be rude.

For me trying to edit poetry is the most messy process. I start off with what I think are some respectable enough poems, that might be built upon somewhat, or improved.

I go back with fresh eyes and consider rhythm, metre and form.
I look at the words and imagery and see whether it works.
I speak aloud and see how it sounds and feels.

Then what I do is awful. After a few hours, or days, I end up with sentences pulled apart, words all over the floor, ideas stuffed into forms that don’t suit and generally get to the point where I have most certainly lost the itness of the original; that elusive essence of anything that makes us what we are, life what is and a simple poem work, or not. Don’t ask me what that essence is though, because if I knew, perhaps I wouldn’t lose it in the first place.

The whole process becomes a traumatic incident in my head. Instead of a couple of poems I end up having a whole heap of tangled thoughts and words in all the wrong places, and I have only two choices. One is to go further into the torture of the poor poem, the other is to shove the pile under the carpet and pretend it never happened. I have done the former before. Today I did the latter. It was like being a butcher.

I hung, drew and quartered, I disembowelled. I burnt whole sentences on the stake and pressed others to a slow and painful death. I dragged verbs through the street until they cried out in pain. I walled up sonnets and I stuck the heads of villanelles on stakes on the bridge. It was a bloody and brutal exercise and nothing like the one I expected which would have been something like a neat little back and sides and a bit of a trim up.

All this bloodshed and torture only goes to show me that I have probably never done the job properly before. Living and learning I suppose, for now.

Here’s someone who has done a proper job.

The cats of Greece

The cats of Greece have
eyes grey as plague.
Their voices are limpid,
all hunger.
As they dodge in the gutters
Their bones clack.
Dogs run from them.
In tavernas they sit
at tableside and
watch you eat.
Their moonpale cries
hurl themselves
against your full spoon.
If you touch one gently
it goes crazy.
Its eyes turn up.
It wraps itself
around your ankle
and purrs a rusty millenium,
you liar,
you tourist.

by Marge Piercy, from Eight Chambers of the Heart

Kevin & Stan

Kevin is the rather idiosyncratic cat and Stan is the Irish Wolfhound. They live with my step-sister in Suffolk.

I am not sure what they are reading there.

Gedankenexperiment 2: Schrödinger’s Cat

The blog seems to be drawn only to thought experiments that involve cats. I suspect there is not an infinite supply of these (thought experiments involving cats, not cats, of which there may well be).

When I run out, I will have to think up my own.

Schrödinger’s cat explores the interpretation of quantum mechanics through the possibilities for the fate of the cat in the box, before the box is opened and observed.

It’s a good mental warm-up on a Sunday for the woman thinking of cooking an unobserved roast dinner.

07.10 Walk to School

The butcher sets out red flesh on stainless steel trays
I notice he has grown a beard.
It’s too early for the delivery lorry
with its pig carcasses,
split lengthways.
The bookseller has cleared out his van
I can see the wheelchair hoist
Once covered in cardboard boxes.
Strange that he walks everywhere –
Without a dog
In school the parent grills the Maths teacher
In gentle Canadian
They both wear jeans
A carer lets himself into the one-legged woman’s house
His wrist is strapped up
An industrial injury?
Someone is missing their b&w cat, Mouse
A one hundred pound reward
Look in your sheds
Please?

Feeding the cat – an epilogue

I returned the neighbours keys yesterday. I hope your cat is alright I said, I never saw it once. By the way is it a he or a she?

Oh, he’s a he. And you wouldn’t have seen it because it was shut in the wardrobe. We heard it miaowing and let it out when we got home. He was very grateful and ate three packets of food.

Oh dear, I said. I must have been feeding a fox with all that cat food I left outside. I think it was a fox because when I wasn’t leaving cat food outside in a bowl the creature was ripping into the black bags of rubbish that I kindly meant to leave out for the dustman in my neighbours absence… After all who wants to come home to a smelly heap of rubbish torn out of your black bags? Not me.

Then the neighbours gave me the ‘thank you’ gift for taking good care of their cat and said that being on holiday with the dog was a bit restricting. I obviously then volunteered to take care of the dog as well next time they are away. Hopefully they’ve got double wardrobes.

It’s not funny though, is it?

It's a disgrace says Kevin