18 January 2017

WELFARE - Will Ending Dog Breed Identification Increase Adoptions?

What kind of dog is that?

It’s a question that dog owners, shelter and rescue workers, animal control and veterinarians are asked all the time.

Often the answer is an educated guess.

Visual identification of dog breeds is often inaccurate and even the most educated can disagree when looking at a specific canine.

Dogs can now be identified using DNA, and studies comparing visual identification with DNA results show the two rarely match.

At the same time there is a struggle determining the breeds in mixed canines, the public is inundated with information about how to choose the right dog for them based on breed characteristics.

Often the way a dog is labeled can impact how quickly - or slowly - they get adopted.

This is particularly true for dogs with large, blocky heads who can have the biggest challenge finding a home.

So, what is a shelter, rescue or animal control to do?

Some believe it is time to stop playing the breed identification guessing game in order to increase adoptions and make better matches between people and pets.

This may be a challenge to human nature that loves to label things in order to understand them better.

And how can an adopter know how big a puppy is going to get if they don’t know the breed?

To help this evolution, Maddie’s Fund is presenting a free webinar tomorrow - January 19th - featuring Kristen Auerbach of Austin Animal Center, in Austin, TX, and Caitlin Quinn, Director of Operations at HeARTs Speak.

The 90 minute webinar will cover:
  • The genetic science of dog breeds
  • The inaccuracy of breed guessing
  • How choosing a companion based on an accurate personality profile is a better approach than guessing at breed
  • What research tells us about behavioural variability of individuals within all dog breeds
  • How breed labels affect all dogs
  • The consequences of breed labeling dogs of unknown origin
  • How guessing at breed causes confusion and false expectations
  • What to do about shelter software that requires a breed label
  • And more.

The webinar includes time for Q&A.

17 January 2017

WELFARE - New Regulation Aims to End Horse Soring

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has announced the final version of a rule that will help protect horses from the practice of soring.

(Soring image and x-ray, USDA)
Soring has been viewed as a controversial practice by people within and outside of the horse world.

The Humane Society of the United States says, “Soring involves the intentional infliction of pain to a horse's legs or hooves in order to force the horse to perform an artificial, exaggerated gait. Caustic chemicals—blistering agents like mustard oil, diesel fuel and kerosene—are applied to the horse's limbs, causing extreme pain and suffering.”

They go on to describe a particularly egregious form of soring, known as pressure shoeing, that involves cutting a horse's hoof almost to the quick and tightly nailing on a shoe, or standing a horse for hours with the sensitive part of his soles on a block or other raised object. This causes pressure and pain whenever the horse puts weight on the hoof.

The final rule, which is part of the Horse Protection Act, will be published soon in the Federal Register and become effective by next January.

It will ban many of the devices used for soring, such as stacked shoes, ankle chains, foreign substances and other “action devices,” and force horse industry inspectors to become trained and licensed through the USDA.

The horse industry is currently responsible for training its own inspectors.

Under the final regulation:
  • APHIS will license, train, and oversee independent, third party inspectors, known as Horse Protection Inspectors (HPIs), and establish the licensing eligibility requirements to reduce conflicts of interest.
  • To allow sufficient time to train and license HPIs and ensure an adequate number before the start of the 2018 show season, current Designated Qualified Person (DQP) licenses will remain valid until January 1, 2018.  Beginning January 1, 2018, management of horse shows, exhibitions, sales, and auctions that elect to use inspection services, must appoint and retain a HPI to inspect horses.
  • Beginning January 1, 2018, the regulatory provisions applicable to Horse Industry Organization and Associations are removed and are no longer effective.
  • Beginning 30 days after the publication of the final rule, all action devices, except for certain boots, are prohibited on any Tennessee Walking Horse or racking horse at any horse show, exhibition, sale, or auction.  All pads and wedges are prohibited on any Tennessee Walking Horse or racking horse at any horse show, exhibition, sale, or auction on or after January 1, 2018, unless such horse has been prescribed and is receiving therapeutic, veterinary treatment using pads or wedges.  This delayed implementation allows ample time to both gradually reduce the size of pads to minimize any potential physiological stress to the horses and prepare horses to compete in other classes.
  • Beginning January 1, 2018, management of HPA-covered events must, among other things, submit certain information records to APHIS, provide HPIs with access, space, and facilities to conduct inspections, and have a farrier physically present to assist HPIs at horse shows, exhibitions, sales, and auctions that allow Tennessee Walking Horses or racking horses to participate in therapeutic pads and wedges if more than 150 horses are entered, and have a farrier on call if 150 or fewer horses are entered.

“Horse soring is a stain on Tennessee’s reputation, and (Friday’s) move by the USDA begins to wipe that stain away,” Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in a statement.

“Hurting horses so severely for mere entertainment is disgraceful, and I put this abuse in the same category as dogfighting or cockfighting - practices that betray our humanity and that cannot stand the light of day.”

Not everyone is on board with the new legislation, however.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) believes the new rules are overreaching, stating in a release, “I am in favor of wiping out the contemptible and illegal practice of horse soring, not wiping out the century old tradition of showing Tennessee Walking Horses as this rule could do.”

“I would hope the new Secretary of Agriculture will not concur with this overreaching rule announced during the last few days of the Obama administration and instead will work with Congress to enact legislation that punishes trainers, owners and riders who abuse horses while preserving the opportunity for law abiding horse enthusiasts to participate in competitions that are the basis of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.”

Mike Inman, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, said he plans to challenge the regulatory action. The Celebration is the largest Tennessee walking horse show in the nation.

16 January 2017

FUTURE TRENDS - The Rise of the Virtual Assistant

Increasingly, the term “virtual assistant” refers to two entirely separate ideas.

On the one hand are the Virtalent and Zirtual assistants – remote human help that can, according to many, be the “secret weapon” busy people need in order to find those few extra hours that can make a huge difference in productivity and work-life balance.

The market for these virtual assistants has hit a significant boom in the last few years, and is tied in with the gig economy.

Virtual assistants are enabling anyone to access their own personal assistant, in a similar fashion to Uber allowing anyone to hire their own valet.

The gig economy opens up potential for both service providers and users, although it has definite limitations and drawbacks.

Zirtual is an interesting exception to the gig focus of most virtual assistants – CEO Maren Kate Donovan was committed to an employment model rather than a gig model, and all Zirtual assistants were employees with benefits.

But the cost of an employee is 20-30% higher than the cost of an independent contractor, and Zirtual wasn’t able to keep up.

The company is back up and running, but the business model has changed.

Although the goal of hiring employees rather than contractors is arguably more effective at providing a living wage to support a sustainable workforce, the gig economy challenges that model.

As the market for human virtual assistants continues to grow, the term now also, and perhaps more commonly, refers to the Siris, Alexas, and Cortanas that are virtual not because they are remote, but because they are digital.

With the arrival of Amazon’s Alexa on the Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA) scene, it’s clear that IVA’s are just beginning to make an impact.

The global market is changing as users become more comfortable engaging in conversations with computers, and IVA technology continues to improve.

There are a wide variety of Intelligent Virtual Assistants currently available.

Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are the most well-established, but Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Voice Search/Google Now are gaining traction.

And there are new technologies on the horizon, with Viv, from the creator of Siri, promising a much more seamless conversational interaction and a wider variety of services.

These new iterations of the current IVA technology have the potential to once again change the way humans interact with their computers.

Voice activation and voice control, particularly when paired with a responsive interface, could free up a significant amount of time for users.

The ability to ask questions in a natural and conversational flow, and get answers that are relevant and precise, would cut out a lot of piece-by-piece information assembly on the human side.

Artificial intelligence is already disrupting the economy, and is just one part of the move towards automation.

It will impact job creation and job availability for more than just the human virtual assistants who may be replaced by IVA devices and services.

However, humans have adapted to new technology before.

This new wave of advancement is coming faster than previous waves, but there is hope

Manual, creative, and interpersonal roles will remain in the hands of humans for the foreseeable future.

And although IVAs represent an exciting and accessible new technology to save time and provide useful services, it’s unlikely that even a service like Viv could replace human virtual assistants in every instance.

Not only has this technology not caught up to humans when it comes to interactivity and intuition, there are also ongoing mishaps, such as Alexa’s recent dollhouse purchasing spree (and the security and privacy issues that this highlights).

The gig economy and the rise of automation are already intersecting, not only with virtual assistants and Intelligent Virtual Assistants, but also with Uber and their flagship fleet of self-driving cars, and in other areas.

It’s an intersection of technology and economics that is, and will continue to be, important to watch.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

15 January 2017

FUTURE TRENDS - Decrypting the Pros and Cons of Cryptocurrency

Although one of the greatest values of cryptocurrency is its transparency, it is notoriously difficult to get a good theoretical grasp on.

You might even call it cryptic, if you were inclined to puns.

In fact, the name points to the fact that the currency is generated using cryptography and sophisticated encryption algorithms.

The transparency that makes cryptocurrency so attractive to some financiers has to do with the blockchain, which is how cryptocurrency is tracked.

Each transaction is logged automatically, anonymously, and in an open-source and freely available ledger. This removes the need for a third party, such as a bank.

But what is cryptocurrency?

At its core, it’s money. But it’s not money like most people are used to.

Instead, cryptocurrency is generated, tracked, and stored entirely digitally. It is BitCoins, LitCoins, and Ether.

It has the potential to be the next evolution in global finance.

The move from gold to paper money was largely driven by portability, and led to the creation of fiat currency managed by banks.

The move from fiat currency to cryptocurrency, if and when it happens, will be a similar evolution.

Digital currency has some significant benefits.

It is less susceptible to fraud because it can’t be counterfeited, offers lower fees to users, is available to everyone with access to connected devices, and allows you to fully own your currency.

Apart from cash under a mattress, no current systems allow that same level of ownership.

But cryptocurrency has drawbacks, as well.

Not least of which is the fact that it’s a challenging concept to understand, and therefore it’s difficult to get widespread public backing.

When even cryptocurrency experts say that “Bitcoin’s value cannot be reduced to one single element or feature,” and require lengthy articles to define its value in various forms, it’s going to be a challenge for non-experts to grasp.

Beyond that initial difficulty, cryptocurrencies may be safer when it comes to certain kinds of fraud or theft, but they are at significant risk of loss due to technical glitches, human error in choosing weak passwords, and exchange businesses failing without reimbursing customers.

Cryptocurrency represents another technology that has the potential to radically disrupt current business practices.

It is a currency for a digital age – created online, tracked online, stored online.

But even in Kenya, the world’s leading adopter and innovator in mobile commerce, cryptocurrency is struggling to gain traction because of a lack of business adoption and available apps.

However, despite these early struggles, cryptocurrency is likely to continue making market gains.

In a destabilized global economy, cryptocurrency offers the potential for greater transparency and security than banks can currently offer, and as cryptocurrency is adopted, governments will increase regulation.

Increased regulation, although in many ways antithetical to some of the core values of cryptocurrency (with its roots in libertarianism) will offer stability and public trust.

And, once established, some writers believe cryptocurrency could offer a viable delivery system for a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

As technological disruption in the form of automation continues to threaten the current concept of work, the idea of a UBI has surfaced repeatedly as one possible solution.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.