Dogs, Guard Dogs & Toblerones

As is usually the case this blog post started life through a totally off topic conversation about whether stereotypes are always negative. My fianceé is currently taking a language degree and part of the course relates to languages & culture. When at first challenged with this question initially you DO think that stereotypes are negative; then you start to delve just a little deeper and you start to realise they are not always negative. Moreover they are actually an essential part of life as well as being an innate component of the learning process. We are born pretty much a blank slate and slowly over time our brain fills with experiences, observations and nuggets of information, it is these that inform our world view. One of the most amazing things about the human being is our adaptability, it is innate within us and allows us to hit the ground running in any of the different cultural situations we find ourselves in. There are some medical conditions that from a very early age prevent us from assimilating within a social group but in the main we are all able to cope with whatever the crucible of life throws at us. It is my belief that the blank slate approach is critical, if we had some level of pre-programming that allowed us to ‘fit in’ culturally I believe that our adaptability would be severely compromised, culture is also constantly evolving. I also believe that it would hamper our learning model to a huge degree.

When I was about 2 or 3 years ago I was of course impossibly cute, but even then I had a liking for chocolate; the only difference was I had a metabolism that could offset my interest. The following short vignette is one of my earliest memories and in the past it has always perfectly summed up my second memorable experience of disappointment. I was in the bath (cue sniggers from the back row…) and left to my own devices I seem to recall (don’t judge… it was the 70’s, kids bounced really well back then). I remember that by the side of the bath towards the tap end was a triangular package, cream coloured and looking almost familiar to my dopamine receptors. I remember taking the package and opening it expecting to find a Toblerone and instead finding some sort of hair care product (I think it was Clairol but I am not sure some 4o odd years later!). As I have already said until fairly recently I have in the past always associated this story with disappointment. I have now come to realise that there was also a critical part of the learning process  in play here, ‘Generalisation’ a form of stereotyping.

At that tender point in my life I had not got all of the tools that I needed to make a reliable informed guess as to what this object was but that didn’t stop 3 year old me from trying did it?  I had not, at this age, acquired the necessary linguistic skills to read the label; sure I may have been able to read the letters but I’m guessing that THE THING with a Toblerone to a 3 year old is that it is triangular…That alone at this early stage informed my choice. I also had no parent with me at that point in time to ask whether the sacred object was chocolate and more to the point… could I have some. Sure, there was probably a picture of a woman with nice hair on the wrapper but then again in our society, especially back then, packaging can often display attractive men/women to help  sell any product. The context of the bathroom also never came into my mind, I may have thought

"Chocolate?    In the bath?"

But then… as now, I can see no down side to that! The most important and informing thing was THAT triangular package. With hindsight my brain was performing a fairly fundamental skill inherent in our ability to learn, it was generalising and using ‘the available’ data to make an assumption about the world it found itself in… Preferably a chocolate rich one. That it was not, was a learning experience to me; In retrospect I would have learnt a few things:-

  1. Not all triangular packets are Toblerone.
  2. Toblerones are probably not found in the bathroom, unless you take them there.
  3. Toblerone wrappers probably don’t have women on them.

As with much that happened in earlier life after this point I have no idea what happened but it was certainly not an educational dead end. My generalisations with regard to confectionery would have been honed still further and over time as I encountered distinctive wrappers in a strange place I would have paid more heed to the context. The experience would have have further informed my world.

The Dogtor

This behaviour is not of course limited to humans, the animal world has exactly the same principles as anyone with a dog would testify too. Yes they can be happy as anything but their experience informs their world view. We have a beautiful chocolate labrador called Tris, slightly obsessed with water, walks and dragging towels around…. when there is no food at hand of course. If I am to don my trapper hat, and am not competing with <insert any food here>  she will quite correctly, in general, draw the conclusion that walking is in her immediate future. That is her world view informed by all the experience that living has taught her. Similarly a couple of the older girls are keen, as girls of a certain age are, to experiment with how they wear their hair. On a few occasions upon doing so and emerging from the black holes of their teenage universes’ Tris will bark at them confused by these strange people. For a split-second she does not ‘know’ who they are. Her informed world does not contain teenage girls with mad hair, it just doesn’t, and for a split-second she can’t read the faces either. Maybe they are pulling a slightly different face and maybe of course, being a dog, she just does not have quite the same complex ‘face software’ that we have.

Labouring the point yet further and in the same vein, my Dad once had a big German Shepherd called General who was not a family dog at all. At around about the same time he also had a Jensen Interceptor which if you have never heard one has a very distinctive engine tone. This was sleepy Shropshire in the 1970’s and  7.2 Chrysler V8’s were in verrrry short supply. There were in fact at that time a grand total of two Jensens in Shrewsbury, my Dads being one and my ‘Uncle Jacks’ being the other. General thus became used to the engine tone of the car and as you could hear it from quite a distance above the general noise of the area he would know a long time before you arrived that you were coming. At some point General’s services were no longer required and so he was sold on to a local(ish) scrapyard. That’s where this story could have ended and the punchline for my story would never have existed…. However cars being cars, we use them. Some unspecified time later, my Dad had occasion to be in the area of this scrapyard late one night driving the Jensen, loving his shepherds as he does he drove slowly past the scrapyard looking to see if he could see General; The sound of the car spooked all of the dogs on guard that night with the result that they were all giving it some with the woof woof noise….. all except one that is, who just sat there with his head cocked to one side listening to the engine tone. It was, of course, General; he had generalised and correctly so on this occasion, that the engine tone heralded the return of his old master. With the available data that HE had, he saw no threat, the other dogs obviously did not have this generalisation built in to their experience(s) and so without further data THEY could only surmise that a threat was both imminent and unknown. Remember this was a scrapyard and so they must have heard cars of all sorts coming and going all the time, one engine tone probably sounded like every other….. and more importantly  the engine tones were probably not attached to any important memories.

Generalisation is, of course, a thing in software too,  albeit slightly different and much more focused. We use interfaces to describe and encapsulate a common problem and to generalise behaviours, programmers then implement shared behaviours using abstractions and finally using a concrete class will define the specific behaviours of an entity. The core of the code will neither know nor care exactly how these concrete classes work, but it can generalise and rely on them adhering to a certain behavioural pattern defined by the base interfaces. Let’s say for instance we have an IEmployee interface which our core system exposes, this interface could define one method called CalculateWageSlip which the system would call once a month in order to populate a WagesDue database table. External processes could then query this data table in order to generate the necessary banking records to effect salary payments. In essence, this sounds simple, the wages preparation system iterates over all of the Employee Objects and instructs them to prepare their due salary. The system though, here has generalised away the real complexities…

  1. ProductionEmployees may be paid according to how many hours they worked during the week and at what rates those hours were chargeable at.
  2. ExecutiveEmployees may be paid on Salary regardless of performance or actual hours worked
  3. SalesEmployees may be paid (in part, or full) on results within a timeframe and according to complex commission structures which may vary according to length of service, sales levels and responsibilities.

In the above instance we  have three different ‘concrete’ employee types who are ‘generally’ all paid in the same way (by calling CalculateWageSlip). The logic within these three different classes would be very different though and each object type encapsulates its own rules. The point is that the rest of the system has been able to generalise (through design) that employees are paid without needing to know HOW that pay is calculated. I guess that Milton from Office Space would attract his own rules…. If you don’t know who Milton is, you’re probably not a techie.