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The Astrophysicist and the Napkin

7 Sep

Found this story while going through old files on my computer. I wrote it back in 2012, and it still makes me happy. As this is a rare thing, I thought I’d share.



It began like any other day. I awoke in a fog, the remnants of an equation that promised to unify string theory, or at least solve our current propulsion problems, threatening to dart back into my unconscious. I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower. I spun the dial into the arctic zone, trying to shock my mind into clarity, but only succeeded in shocking my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive.
Shivering uncontrollably, I cut the shower short. It’s not like I had a job where my coworkers cared about my personal hygiene. Actually, considering how my coworkers were all mainframe computers, if they started caring about my personal hygiene, I’d have bigger problems than unwashed hair. Three unknown variables buzzed around my head, but I couldn’t get them to land in the proper order.

I’d already started the coffee maker and the toaster before I noticed anything odd. Those three variables had been joined by a host of integers, all taunting my mental ambiguity with their significance. I grabbed the grocery list off the fridge, intending to ink those little alphanumeric buggers into some sort of permanence, pulled a chair out, and realized said chair already had an occupant.

“Miss Grabau, is it?” the woman said, smiling calmly despite my recent attempt to unseat her.

“Uh, yes.” I said. I then noticed the other chair also had an occupant- a man in a red flannel shirt.

My toast popped up with its usual, and somewhat disturbing, clang. Despite the dark sunglasses they wore, I could tell the pair regarded my modified toaster with mild alarm.

“May I offer you some toast?” I asked.

“No, thank you. But you could offer us a tour of your marvelous lab.” The woman said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, turning to retrieve my breakfast before it burned.

“Oh, let’s not play games.” The woman said. “The university may have fired you last year, but you’re still in touch with Dr. Ellis, aren’t you?”

I calculated the probability that the woman was bluffing. It was possible, given that Derrick Ellis was widely regarded in the scientific community as being off his nut, but the hint of danger in her voice led me to err on the side of caution. I kept my mouth shut and pretended to fight the toaster for my precious last slice of bread.

“She’s not going to give it up.” I heard the man say. Even with my back turned, I could feel the heat of the glare he got in response.

“Fine, Miss Grabau. You show me mine, and I’ll show you yours.”

When someone says something like that, it is very difficult not to respond. “What?” I asked.

“You show me where you’ve hidden my computers, and I’ll give you this.” The woman held up a napkin. Scrawled on it was the equation that had been haunting me for weeks, in full and completely balanced.

“Huh. Would you look at that.” I said.

“Now,” said the woman. “About that tour.”

I shoved my now-burned breakfast into my mouth and placed my palm on the concealed switch behind the blender. The wall behind me slid away smoothly. I could hear the soft whirl and hum of my many mechanical coworkers far below.
The pair rose and peered into the darkness. Red flannel shirt man took a step down, his hand groping the wall in search of a light switch. The woman braced herself on the door jamb with her right hand. Her left hand held the napkin loosely, like it was a simple bar sketch rather than the key to my more than twenty years of research. If I reached out now, I could grab it.

So, that’s what I did. I grabbed the napkin, watched the woman spin around and take an involuntary step backward into the stairwell, and removed my hand from the pressure switch. The panel slid back into place silently, just as I had designed it to do.

I could hear the pair scuffling behind the wall. They’d probably find the light switch soon. Then they would walk down the spiral staircase, take in the majesty of my beautiful lab, and have exactly 42 seconds to appreciate what I’d done with their computers.

After all, the toaster wasn’t the only machine I’d modified.

Dallas Developments: Day 23

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It’s been just over 3 weeks since Dallas arrived, and what a 3 weeks it’s been. There have been territory disputes, arguments with neighbors, disagreements over feeding schedules, two days without central air conditioning, a slew of new faces, and on top of it all- a whole new training program to learn. Despite it all, he’s shown that he is still capable of joy and silliness.

3 weeks ago, Dallas was moody, aggressive, territorial, vocal, and prone to bolting in random directions out of fear.

Today, Dallas is only aggressive when overwhemed, only territorial over his food bowl, much less vocal, and only ever bolts towards his safe space. He’s also far more prone to binkies and dead bunny flops.

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Case in point

He’s also far more social. Visitors to his pen are now more likely to get a boop on the foot instead of a nibble on their toes. He’ll accept treats from strangers about 70% of the time, and he’ll eat his prize immediately instead of running off with it. When he’s feeling especially calm, he’ll accept a few nose rubs or ear scritches.

The main hurdle is that Dallas is very in-tune to his environment, and so the key is in calmness and patience. In addition to loud or sudden noises (which all bunnies have problems with), he can read emotions. If I’m on edge about something, so is he. But if I’m relaxed or happy, then he is as well. It’s the same with any person he meets- it doesn’t matter their age or height, it’s all in how they approach him. His future forever home will need to be a calm one, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason it can’t also have kids.

He does like to be around people, and adapts to new faces pretty easily. He had two pet sitters recently, and got along with both. He loves to able to see what’s going on, and he gets moody if I leave the door to his room closed for too long. When he’s out to explore, he pops into my office every 10 minutes or so. He’ll poke around my feet for a moment or two, and then head back out on his patrols of the kitchen and hallway. It’s his way of making sure everything is still OK before resuming his adventures.

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Case in point, part 2

In terms of continued work, Dallas is learning how to target this week. For him, his target is touching his nose to my finger. The goal is to be able to use that behavior to distract him from otherwise triggering events. For example, targeting while his bowl is being filled in the morning means he’s not able to lunge or otherwise be territorial. That’s safer for both him and the feeder, and he’ll learn that he doesn’t have to fight to be fed.

Targeting may also help break some of the aggression. When Dallas gets overwhelmed by noise or people, he ether bolts for his box or turns aggressive. If he can be distracted from a spiral into aggression, he can be trained to always go to his box to escape. He may never lose the instinct to react, but he can learn the best way to react.

The BunnyFest for the Georgia House Rabbit Society is coming up on the 26th. Alice and Hatter are signed up for the Hoppy Hour there. While Dallas isn’t up for that (mostly because of his on-going feud with Alice and Hatter), I’m hoping that he’ll be up for at least coming with us. It’ll be a good test of his reaction to a new environment, and maybe even a chance to meet some potential adopters.

(I’ll be sure to bring his box, just in case.)

Remember that you can follow the #DallasDevelopments hashtag on instagram to see more pictures and videos of Dallas in between posts here on the blog.

Dallas Developments: Day #4

22 May

Today was a big day for Dallas. Before going into his room every morning for breakfast, I measure out all his food into separate containers. There’s a cup of his pellets, a tablespoon of the Kaytee Exact blend, and 1/2 a Probios treat (which he may or may not eat, depending on his mood. Alice & Hatter will literally stand on each other to get theirs. Dallas couldn’t care less.) I do this because it gives me three opportunities to pair a click with receiving food, and therefore three more chances for Dallas to learn the connection.

However, when I went into his room today, something was immediately different. Usually Dallas is in his hidey box, staring at me from the far corner of his pen with wary eyes. Today, he was at the front of his pen, in full periscope mode. (For the non-bunny crowd, “periscoping” is when a bunny balances on their hind legs to get a better look at their surroundings. Some call it “prairie-dogging,” because it’s the same behavior.) He knew what was coming, which shows that he’s adjusted to the daily schedule here. That’s a good sign.

Even more exciting, as soon as I hit the first click, he ran to his food bowl and looked back at me. He knew what that click meant- FOOD! I poured in his pellets, and waited for him to get a few bites in. Dallas dives on his food like a football player after a fumble, and it’s best not to try to interfere with that. Then I gave a second click, to signal that the Exact was coming. He didn’t stop eating, but for the first time, he didn’t grunt at me when I put a scoop near his face. He didn’t even flinch- just kept eating whatever he could get his little teeth around. He wasn’t interested in the third click and the Probios treat, but he didn’t grunt or flinch when that was offered either.

Based on this, Dallas has likely learned to associate a click with the arrival of food. He knows to expect food when he hears the click, so he doesn’t feel threatened when it is immediately offered. This is a huge step in his training. It’s not the end of the pairing, as he needs to show the same reaction for a couple more days to be sure that he really understands, but he’s on the right track.

It’s important to note that even though there was a success today, Dallas still has a long way to go before he’s ready to be adopted. When I went into his room this evening, I took a few treat options with me. As you can see in the videos below, he was very social at first. He even put his front paws on me to get at his preferred treat faster. It may be hard to hear in the video, but he got a double click for that, to signal a “jackpot” reward for such a social and trusting behavior. He did take his treat and run off, though, showing that while he’s willing to climb on me to get the treat, he’s not trusting enough to assume I won’t try to steal it back.

 

A few minutes later, he was at his food bowl. I wanted to see how he’d react to my hand entering his “space,” even after a click. As you can see, he didn’t like it at all. He grunted and lunged at me. While he didn’t make contact, he made it very clear that I wasn’t welcome around him at that moment. That’s a territorial display, and it was a reversal from this morning’s behavior.

 

In this third video, taken about 10 minutes after the second one, Dallas approaches me again. He even allows a quick few seconds of petting. This is the first time he’s allowed me to touch him, and he got another jackpot reward for that- double clicks and a new Timothy hay twist chew.

 

I ended the training session at that point, as it’s always good to end on a high note. I closed up his pen, said good night, and turned off the light on my way out the door. We’ll see what tomorrow morning brings. When it comes to Dallas, anything is possible.

Dallas Developments: Day #3

21 May

It’s Saturday, which means cleaning day at the Anderson Used Book Emporium & Rabbit Salon. For Alice & Hatter, this is nothing new. Every Saturday morning, they get fed, they get released from their pen, and then they sit at the edge of the kitchen and supervise me while I clean out the pen. Even though today was the first Saturday in the new house, they stuck to their schedule. Those two are nothing if not punctual.

Dallas, however, was a completely different story. It’s day 3, which means he’s just getting used to the schedule around here. Cleaning day predictably threw him into a tailspin of territorial behavior and general unhappiness. He’s still learning to associate the clicker with a reward, but his mood today meant that he wasn’t interested in any extra pairing sessions, or with having me anywhere near him at all. Instead, I left the door open to his bedroom so he could see me moving around the house, but otherwise let him be. He hung out by the door for a bit a few times, but kept pretty close to the back of his pen most of the day.

As there are no training updates to report, I thought I’d talk a bit more about how clicker training works. Basically, it replaces an actual reward, such as a piece of food, with the sound of a click. The reward and the click are paired together repeatedly until the animal learns to associate the sound of the click with the happiness of getting that reward. Once that’s been learned, the reward is offered less and less often with each click, until just the click is reward enough to reinforce a good behavior. This makes it easier to train an animal, as over-feeding or distraction from another reward isn’t a concern.

Dallas, as a VERY food-motivated bunny, is learning to associate a click with a food reward. He hears a click every time he is given food- breakfast, greens, hay fills, night-night treats, and anything else he is given during the day. If it’s edible, he hears a click before it. He’s starting to get it, but he’ll need a couple more days at least for the lesson to really sink in. Once he starts looking for food every time he hears the click, he’ll be ready to move onto the next step.

Clickers come in all sizes and sounds. I use a small one with a very quiet click, so that it can be hidden in a hand and not startle Dallas. I used it previously on Alice, and it worked very well. The problem now is that she remembers the sound and keeps hanging around the outside of Dallas’s room, waiting for her treats. Hatter didn’t respond well to clicker training at first, and as he didn’t need any behaviors modified, I didn’t pursue it with him. He hangs around with Alice, though, so it’ll be interesting to see if he ever picks up on the connection between click and food.

Here are some pictures of Dallas’s pen. He has the guest bedroom to himself, and has about half the room to play in when his pen is opened. At some point, I’ll run out of other boxes to unpack and will have to tackle setting up that room for human guests. Until then, he seems to think it’s a pretty nice bachelor pad. I agree, now that it’s all clean.🙂

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You can see more pictures on Instagram on the #DallasDevelopments hashtag, or by searching my username- @zombiesandbunnies.

 

Dallas Developments: Day #1

19 May

I’ve taken on a summer project, y’all. His name is Dallas.

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He’s a year and a half old, and he’s a Georgia House Rabbit Society bunny. He was rescued from living outdoors (likely after being dumped by a previous owner), and he’s got some issues that he needs to work out before he can find his forever home. My job this summer is to teach him just that, via clicker training and a whole lot of patience. Here’s where we’re starting from.

Dallas currently:

  • Gets spooked randomly by unseen things and bolts. He will bolt in whatever direction he is currently facing. This means it’s not always away from whatever spooks him. It’s called the “Dallas Dash.”
  • Is territorial. He doesn’t like humans or other bunnies in his space. He’ll grunt or charge, or just plain bolt whenever he feels threatened. This includes feeding time. He also leaves a poop trail to mark his territory, but is otherwise very litter-trained.
  • Is very food-motivated. Dallas loves to eat. Pellets, hay, greens, treats- you name it, he’ll munch on it. This is actually a good thing for training.
  • Is not a fan of loud noises or sudden movements. Either of those will result in an immediate Dallas Dash. Unfortunately for him, he’s living in a house with Hatter & Alice- the King and Queen of Rabbit Mischief. Dallas now has his own bedroom for this reason.
  • Has a silly personality underneath all that fear & aggression. He’s been here less than a day, and is already binking and flopping around his play area when he’s not Dashing. He seems to prefer soft places, and is currently dozing on a pile of baby blankets as I type this.

Dallas needs to learn:

  • To not spook at unseen things. It makes his behavior unpredictable, and his tendency to bolt in any direction could be dangerous for him in an unsecured environment.
  • To share his space, to an extent. All bunnies need a safe space, where no humans or other animals are allowed. However, a bunny shouldn’t grunt or charge during feeding time. Dallas will have to learn to tolerate hands in his pen at least twice a day.
  • Where his safe space is. It’s perfectly reasonable for a bunny to spook at loud noises or sudden movements- after all, they’re a prey species. It’s what they do. However, Dallas will need to learn where he should run when he gets scared, so that he doesn’t hurt himself.
  • How to let his silly self shine. He looks like he may be a New Zealand White rabbit, which is a breed known for being silly and sociable. If he can learn that it’s OK to play around the humans, he’ll have no trouble finding a forever home.

I’ll post regular updates on his progress over the next couple of months. You can also follow along on my Instagram (@zombiesandbunnies) for photos and videos of Dallas’s progress.

But Wait, There’s More!

9 Feb

I blame Alice.

Because of her, I spent 30 minutes explaining basic economic theory to an AT&T rep this morning, and only got $10 for my time.

You see, Alice chewed the power cable to the wireless access point last night, effectively taking down the main cable receiver and TV just an hour before the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead. That’s an executable offense in some households. Luckily for her, I have the first world excess of having two receivers and DVRs, so I didn’t miss a minute of last night’s *SPOILER REDACTED*.

Don't let those furry ears fool you. She's malicious.

Look at that furry little face. There’s not a hint of remorse in those soulless black-rimmed eyes.

So this morning, I logged onto my Uverse account to request a new wireless access point so I can rewatch *SPOILER REDACTED* and various other slightly horrifying shows from the part of the apartment where the heat actually works. (This is an actual issue that I whine about a lot on Facebook, so I’ll spare you all the repeat. Just know that, while aesthetically charming, part of my apartment has 3 exterior walls and no heat.) 

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Although, watching The Walking Dead in a dark room made entirely out of brick walls with only a fleece blanket for warmth is an experience I cannot put a price on.

As with most days when I open up the internet, I got a bit sidetracked. This time, it was by my monthly bill, which had gone up $4 unexpectedly. $4 may not seem like a fight worth having with a company, but longtime readers know that I plan my budget down to the last dollar every month. I know where every cent goes, and nothing frustrates me more than when someone takes more cents than I allotted them. Uverse does this quite often, but they’ve been getting away with it because my health insurance company was being even more greedy.

But that health insurance plan was cancelled on December 31st. Which means I have the time for Uverse now. So instead of calling the support number, I called the billing department.

The representative quickly confirmed that the price for TV and internet had gone up, and that these were the new monthly costs. My explanation that there had been no notice given about the increase (which by contract should have come 60 days ago) was met with a genuine apology and a $10 bill credit for this month. 10 minutes in, and everything was going well.

But these calls never end well. At least not for me.

The rep then asked if I’d like to explore options for lowering my monthly bill. Like any sane person, I said yes. After all, I’d already gotten $10 off them this month with surprisingly little effort. Why not press my luck?

Little-known fact- AT&T legally adopted all villainous game show cartoons in the late 80s. They now work in the billing department.

Little-known fact- AT&T legally adopted all villainous game show cartoons in the late 80s. They now work in the billing department.

The sales rep then launched into a detailed explanation of just how upgrading my services could save me money each month. He threw out phrases like, “3 months free!,” “No fees until just prior to the promotion’s expiration!” and “Think of the savings!” His enthusiasm was almost contagious. I found myself starting to imagine a life with faster internet and more on-demand movies that I’d never actually watch. I ran potential bundle discount scenarios in my head, trying to determine how much and for how long I’d save by upgrading.

And then he used the magic letters: HBO.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to watch Game of Thrones legally. Suddenly, the opportunity was right in front of me. I could join the hundreds of people who actually subscribe to the channel, and leave behind the millions who just use their friends’ logins or torrent sites. I could be one of the elite.

With a rush of anticipation, I asked the question. “How much would my bill be each month?”

“Absolutely not a cent more than you’re paying now!” he gleefully replied.

And just like that, the spell was broken.

“Wait, you mean there’s no benefit to upgrading?” I asked.

“Oh no, there are so many benefits! Faster internet, more channels, more movies! it’s a much better experience!” he said.

“But there’s no financial benefit?” I repeated.

The rep seemed to sense that he was losing me. “There is. You’ll get upgraded experiences for no additional cost. It’s a savings of over $100 each month.”

“But my bill, which I called you about because it was too high, will remain at the current level.” I reminded him.

“But think of the enhanced speeds and channels.” the rep said, a note of pleading creeping into his voice. He could see his commission slowly slipping away.

“For 3 months. And then we’ll be having this same chat over unexpected fee increases again. It’ll end with me demanding to be downgraded and you offering me more billing credits. It’s not a good value to either of us if I’m just delaying unhappiness for 3 months. I’d rather stick with what I have now.” I said.

There was a short pause on the other end of the line. “Well Ms. Anderson,” said the rep who’d been calling me Katherine up to this point, “I certainly respect your decision to remain with your current un-upgraded services.”

You could hear the barely-concealed heartache in his voice. This guy was good.

You could hear the heartbreak in his words.

“It’s ok that you broke my heart. I’ll just get some tape on my way home. Alone. On foot. Because I can’t afford a car anymore.”

But it takes more than 12 free weeks of HBO to sway my cold financial-oriented heart. It’s a TV package, not electro-shock therapy for a rabbit with uncontrollable chewing urges. Although as I learned last night, I can probably get that for free around here.

Which reminds me. I still need to call tech support.

Fire Engine Red

26 Jan

Tonight, as I stood in the 39-degree evening wearing only pajamas and a bathrobe, watching smoke pour out of the next building and taking stock of the pocketful of items I’d grabbed on my way out admist the alarms and strobe lights, I found myself deeply frustrated that I hadn’t grabbed my Walker Stalker Con Disability Services binder.

Not that I was woefully underdressed. Not that I’d spent 10 valuable minutes chasing two panicked rabbits around the apartment while visions of smoke and flames filled my imagination. Not even that I’d left my external hard drive with my entire digital life on it sitting on the desk. No, I regretted not grabbing that blue binder.

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My life in page protector form

This is what Con life has done to me. However, it did give me an opportunity for another awkwardly empowering moment.

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