March 13, 2006

Cats do the darnedest ...

This video arrived as an email attachment today and I thought it amusing enough to be worth passing along in a less server-resource-intensive manner. Judging from the laugh track, this is captured from some "funniest home videos" kind of television show.

The first segment will be familiar to anyone who's been visiting long enough to remember the "why sumo is better than karate" posting, but the rest of it was new to me. I think my favorite is the second-to-last segment; I can so imagine our own cats doing that.

If you've got some cute, or funny, or otherwise good video of cats, feel free to send it along. Obviously, I'm a glutton for this kind of thing, so I might as well admit it and get on with just enjoying it.

November 07, 2005

Why sumo is better than karate

From an entry on Kaja Foglio's blog, Diary of a Cartoon Girl, comes this tiny gem of a movie:

Anybody want to tell me what the Chinese subtitles say?

April 25, 2005

Cat Tracking 101

When I came home from work on the first day after we deployed our new cat-tracking gear, Kathleen informed me that I could already start playing with the receiver for real: Enterprise hadn't come home yet, and Zap had come home without his fancy new collar!

Of course, these collars are made for finding, so discovering Zap's collar out in the dog run behind the house was a piece of cake. Tracking down Enterprise was more interesting.

We, like most outdoor pet owners, had essentially no idea where our cats went during the day. Part of the terror of Zap's long disappearance was the uncertainty about where he might have gone: was he prone to wandering down in the greenbelt among the coyotes? With the radio collars, we could now finally answer the question. To my relief, Enterprise's signal was clearly detectable over in the next cul-de-sac (very close by cat trails, a short drive by car).

I parked at the end of that street and quickly determined that Enterprise was apparently behind one particular house. (Some friends are particularly amused by the mental picture of me, standing in the street, holding a weird electronic box, and calling out "Enterprise! Enterprise!") I didn't want to just go barging into a stranger's back yard without permission, so I rang their doorbell and, unfortunately, interrupted their dinner. I sort of showed the receiver box and explained that I thought my cat was in their back yard and asked if it was OK for me to go looking for him there. They impatiently agreed and went back to their dinner.

Now, radio waves are curious things, and they tend to bounce off of large, dense objects like houses. By the time I reached the back of their house, the signal had reversed on me; Enterprise wasn't in the back of the house at all! With a little more care, I triangulated his position more precisely and determined that the signal was coming from inside their garage. Oh dear...

I couldn't see any way around it, so I went back to the door of the house and rang the bell to interrupt their dinner again. They were none too pleased to see me, especially when I apologetically explained where I now thought Enterprise was. "How could he be in there? We only open that door to come and go!" I shrugged, waved the geeky box around, and weakly explained that that's where the signal was. Now showing some serious annoyance, they agreed to open the doors. Enterprise did not instantly emerge, of course; if anything, he probably hid more deeply. By this time, I was so intimidated by the homeowner's displeasure that I didn't even crouch down to look under their cars. I just apologized again, wrote our phone number on a card and gave it to them, asking them to call us if they saw a black and white cat. Dejected, embarrassed, and defeated, I went back home, without my cat.

Kathleen suggested we eat our own dinner and then go back over together. She reasoned that the neighbor might be more likely to help us if they'd finished their dinner and if there were two of us; face it, she said, you look a bit like a kook with the long hair and strange electronics.

After dinner, we got ready to go out but were stopped by the sudden appearance of Enterprise at the back door! We welcomed him in and I started enumerating the possibilities: (1) The homeowners had found and released him, but hadn't bothered to call us, (2) Enterprise had his own way in and out of the garage, or (3) Enterprise had never been inside the garage in the first place.

The last possibility concerned me the most: what if I'd been chasing the wrong signal? That would jeopardize our entire tracking strategy. I jumped back in the car, rode over to the other cul-de-sac and checked for the signal again. Nothing. Just a faint signal in the direction of our own house.

It wasn't so easy at first to distinguish between possibilities (1) and (2), but we have since tracked Enterprise to that same garage several times. I remember noticing, during my first reconnoitering, that there was a big bag of dog food in that garage, and Enterprise is our most food-obsessed kitty, so...

We now refer to that garage as Enterprise's "club", in the old English sense. Somehow, we've never gotten around to letting those homeowners know that he has a secret entrance.

April 24, 2005

Bad November, Part 4: Epilog

The morning after Zap came back, Kathleen said that there just had to be some technology to help us keep track of our cats' locations. I said I was sure there was, but it was probably pretty pricey.

"Do you know how much I would pay not to go through that again?" She replied quickly and emphatically, so I went Googling. I found a number of interesting hits, including one from a company that mostly sells to hunters for tracking their dogs, another one that uses GPS but is mostly for dogs and wasn't yet available, and finally something that looked more promising for us.

The LoCATor Pet Tracking System is made by a company that has for years supplied wildlife telemetry equipment and more recently made a move into the consumer space. Their cat collars are very friendly looking, unlike some of the other, more dog-oriented ones, with a small radio transmitter firmly attached. The round transmitter is roughly the diameter of a quarter and about 1/2-inch thick. It has a friction-fit plastic cover closing over a small circuit board and a flat round battery. The collars come in several bright colors and cost $50 each.

As consumer-friendly as the collars are, the radio receiver makes up for it in all-out geekiness. It's a simple rectangular metal box of the sort commonly used in electronics prototyping, about 8" by 4" by 2", with a speaker, a couple of switches that look like they escaped from the front of an oscilloscope, a meter, a potentiometer, and a push-button channel selector. The really striking thing about the receiver, though, is the large directional antenna, which is a squared-off figure eight about the size of a legal pad. A 30-channel receiver costs $200.

The transmitters simply send out an audible ping once a second on one of 30 radio channels. By setting the receiver to the correct channel and slowly turning in a circle, it's relatively easy to figure out which direction the cat (or at least the collar) is in. The pinging gets dramatically louder (and the meter needle swings more strongly) the closer you are to the transmitter, and one of the switches lets you select between long-, medium-, and close-range signal attenuation. On the long-range setting, in open country, you can pick up the signal from as much as a mile away; in our more hilly suburban area, we can detect the cats a healthy block away. On the close-range setting, a detectable ping indicates the transmitter is within about 10-15 feet. This ranging feature makes it quite straightforward to narrow the search for an errant cat from a neighborhood down to a particular shrub or hedge.

We ordered a transmitter and two collars (one for each of Enterprise and Zap, our two cats most inclined to roam), asked for UPS Red shipping, and took delivery the next afternoon, in time to put the collars on before letting Zap back out again. (We kept him indoors for a day or two after his return, just to give him—and us—some stability.)

The collars have afforded us enormous peace of mind. We now know that the cats spend most of their outside time in the next cul-de-sac over, not down in the coyote-laden greenbelt. When Zap and/or Enterprise don't come home before dark (and it's always one of those two who's truant), we know we can track them down should we decide to, and we've done so on several occasions.

Modulo a few glitches and adventures, the money spent on the receiver and four collars has been a negligible cost for the huge benefits in anxiety relief. Where once the dark was a mysterious cover for whatever cat dangers our imaginations could conjure, now it's an easily lifted veil over simple, harmless, wild kitty oats.

What a win.

January 20, 2005

Bad November, Part 3: Resolution

By now, it was Friday afternoon, some 2-1/2 days since we'd last seen Zap, our oldest cat. After making up the "Lost Cat" posters, Kathleen and I went out to cruise the neighborhood, putting them up on all of the communal mailboxes in the area.

In our neighborhood, like many places in this area but unlike any areas we'd seen in California, individual houses don't have mailboxes. Instead, for each cul-de-sac or section of street, there's a single, larger mailbox with many smaller, lockable compartments, one per house. Typically, there's one of these communal boxes for every 10-20 houses; this allows the mail delivery person to be more efficient, placing many houses' mail in a single stop.

After all of the boxes in our near neighborhood, we also hit a few that were a bit farther afield than we'd searched so far. As we were putting up one, we ran into our mail woman; after hearing our story, she seemed to have no hesitation in telling us that Zap was "probably coyote chow" by now. Very sensitive, our mail woman.

At another stop, we encountered a fellow raking his lawn. He came over and chatted for a while, telling us about several cats he'd owned over the years, one of whom had once disappeared for four days and then just shown up again, none the worse for wear. It was a hopeful story for us, even though I don't think either of us really believed it might apply to our situation.

After doing all of the reasonably close mailboxes, we headed off for the Humane Society. On the way, we stopped in at the Starbucks in the neighborhood shopping area and asked if we could put up a poster there, too. They were very nice about it, taking a poster and saying they'd put it up after clearing it with the manager. Then they refused to charge us for the coffees we ordered. Very kind, really, even though they never did actually put up the poster.

The Humane Society told us they didn't really take "found" pets, only donations by owners. They sent us on to the King County Animal Control shelter, a pretty dismal place. They have loose-leaf binders full of lost- and found-pet forms, mostly lost, mostly sad, sad reading. The person at the counter was very brusque, letting us know that in no uncertain terms that finding our pet wasn't his job; we could look through the binders, maybe add our own page, and check the cages in the back, but he wasn't getting any more deeply involved. He also made sure we knew that sometimes pets are found deceased, so...

Zap wasn't there, of course, either in the binders or in the back. As always, it was very tough for me to see so many cats and kittens sitting forlornly in little cages, mewing, staring at us with sad and hopeful eyes, knowing that we couldn't help by taking any of them home with us. On this occasion, with the added sadness of our own situation, it was pretty unbearable. We left after just a short while.

And the evening and the morning were the third day. Saturday morning came, still without Zap.

I'm not good at being sad. I'm generally a pretty upbeat person. Missing Zap like this was terrible, and I think I was made even unhappier by the very fact that I couldn't see how I was ever going to stop being sad about it.

Saturday dragged on and on, with just more of the same: searching, calling, sitting. Holding Kathleen while she cried, trying to help without knowing how, trying to hold out hope even though I felt less and less myself. Zap was still young, strong, and fast, I said. He could take care of himself, right? But if he was still alive, why hadn't he come home to us? Surely he wouldn't stay away if he had any choice, so what or who was keeping him from doing so? All of the scenarios other than "coyote chow" felt implausible, and getting moreso.

That night, we had an arrangement with some friends to go together to a special "Microsoft Night at Costco". At the time, it had seemed like it could be interesting, since we're not members. Now, it just seemed like something to do, something to keep our minds diverted a little, at least for a while. They were supposed to come by our place at 7pm to pick us up.

I microwaved myself a couple of frozen burritos for dinner. As I sat down to eat them, Kathleen called me from the den, I think to look at something odd on her computer; I don't really remember. I walked over to the den, passing the front door, and there he was. I honestly thought for a moment that I was dreaming, or confused, or seeing things. It actually took me a moment to put stimuli and reason together and to open to door so that Zap could come in. It took Kathleen even longer to understand what was happening, probably because all I could get to come out of my mouth was, "Oh, my god," over and over again.

Zap came right in and sat down on the entry hall carpet to be petted. After days of being the strong one, of holding Kathleen and keeping it all together, I just completely collapsed. I knelt there on the floor, hunched over Zap, stroking him in disbelief, and bawling in harsh, racking sobs, while Kathleen now held me.

Zap had no marks on him, no mud, no wounds, no sign of any trauma at all. He was quite high strung and skittery, but otherwise appeared completely fine. I, on the other hand, was utterly in shock. Our friends arrived some ten minutes later, and I was still incapable of coherent speech, sitting again at the kitchen table, chewing on my burritos without tasting them, still mumbling "Oh, my god" over and over.

I don't think I'd consciously realized it, but I'd more-or-less completely given up hope of ever seeing Zap again; I was already in mourning for him. Him showing up at the door was the closest thing to a miracle an atheist like me could conceive, and I'm just not ready for miracles.

Zap clearly was too freaked out to need anything from us but space, so after I eventually got myself back under control, we decided to go out to Costco with our friends anyway. We decided to go in one car, since Kathleen and I weren't planning to buy anything anyway, just look around. We were pretty impressed with ourselves later, when we managed to fit all three shopping carts full of stuff (the one our friends bought and the two we did), and ourselves, into the car for the ride home. I guess Kathleen and I were feeling just a bit, well, giddy...

January 19, 2005

Bad November, Part 2: Zap

A few days after Enterprise came back, just when we were beginning to settle down again, Zap stayed out all night.

He'd done this before, as I've described, but it was a bit scarier this time, given Enterprise's so recent, longer-than-usual absence. According to established habit, though, Zap appeared at the door the next morning and we breathed easier once again. Clearly, our boys were going through a bit of a "bad" stint. Hopefully, they'd snap out of it again soon. This was getting annoying.

The next Wednesday night, a week after Enterprise's return, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner out with some foodie friends. The restaurant was way up in Woodinville, and we got a somewhat late reservation, so we got home somewhat late, maybe around 11pm or so. Kathleen had managed to get everyone but Zap inside the house before leaving to come North, so we were anxiously hoping to see him waiting for us when we returned.

As you've guessed by now, he wasn't there. He didn't show up before we finally turned out the light to sleep, and he wasn't waiting at the door the next morning. At work, I was constantly distracted from the tasks at hand, wishing my phone would ring, Kathleen calling to let me know he'd finally come home. It didn't ring.

I came home early that night and, with a dread feeling of déjà vu, we again walked all over the neighborhood, peering under every bush, calling again and again. Nothing.

We considered, of course, printing up a new set of "Lost Cat" posters, but rejected the idea. It was ludicrous. We couldn't go around to all of the neighbors again so soon, it would be ridiculous; they'd think we were nuts, crying wolf, or at least pretty incompetent pet owners. With the experience of Enterprise's little jaunt so fresh in our memories, we headed home again to wait and hope for a full repeat of that happy ending.

November had it in for us, though, and wasn't about to let us off so easily. Zap didn't come back before lights-out, and he still wasn't home the next morning, by now some 48 hours since we'd last seen him.

I went out before breakfast and again walked the whole neighborhood, calling and calling, ignoring the stares of the workmen doing landscaping on a nearby house, explaining myself to the nice housecleaner arriving at a neighbor's house, hoping to see any sign of Zap. He was nowhere to be found. One the way back, I was thinking it'd be really great if my cell phone were to ring, with Kathleen telling me Zap had come home in my absence.

And then it did ring!

It was Kathleen, but my flash of cautious optimism was crushed: she was just asking how it was going. Zap wasn't back at all. We were still in pain, and it felt like nothing was going to help.

My team's offices at work were being moved that day, so there wasn't any point in going in. The team was instead doing a big bowling party, but I really didn't feel up for it, so I stayed home. Kathleen and I made several searches, including tramping down into the wild bushes of the green belt below our house, calling, hoping, crying, losing hope, and searching some more.

We talked about how stupid we were, to have continued to let the cats outside after Enterprise's episode. How could we not have seen this coming after Zap then stayed out overnight shortly thereafter? We cried a lot, and just felt miserable most of the rest of the time.

Eventually, we decided it was time to make some posters, regardless of what our neighbors might think of us. It went faster this time. I already had a template ready to go.

November 21, 2004

Bad November, Part I: Enterprise

About a week ago, while we were tramping around miserably in the green-belt area near our house, Kathleen pointed out that November was turning out to be a pretty awful month, and it wasn't even half over yet. I had to agree: it was sucking pretty badly so far.

It started, of course, on Tuesday evening the 2nd, but at least then, millions of other progressives were suffering along with us. We were out late that night, visiting with some friends, watching election returns, and playing a game so that at least something would be fun. We got back home at about 11:30pm or so, and were pleased to find that three of our four cats were already inside for the night. Zap and Voyager had come back in via the open cat door, while Maisie, who's never figured out how to use that door, had been inside when Kathleen had left, earlier that evening. That left only Enterprise to account for.

We live in one of the southeasternmost neighborhoods of Bellevue, an area we share with coyotes, cougars, and the occasional bear, so many people advise us to keep our cats indoors. But all of our cats are strongly oriented towards the outside world: they all beg to be let out each morning, go in and out all day long, pout for a while when we keep them in at night, and stare out the windows much of the rest of the time. We've decided that going outdoors is a quality-of-life issue for our cats. A long life is not necessarily the same as a good life, and we feel that we and they would prefer a shorter, more stimulating life to a longer, more boring one.

Easy beliefs in the abstract, eh?

Although we strive to get the cats in every night before we go to bed (ideally, by soon after it gets dark), we are not always completely successful in this. From time to time, a cat still hasn't shown up at the door by the time we finally give up and turn our lights out for sleep. On these occasions, we leave on the light over the balcony outside our bedroom and we leave the black-out shades partially open, so that we'll be able to see from the bed whether or not a cat is waiting on the rail out there. We then try to remember to look out the window each time we wake up during the night, to see if our Prodigal Son or Daughter has yet returned.

This strategy has worked out pretty well for us. Almost always, by the time our alarm goes off the next morning, the miscreant cat has reappeared; if not, they've always shown up by 10:30am or noon at the latest. If I'm going to work that day, I always ask Kathleen to call me as soon as the missing cat turns up, so that I can stop worrying about it.

As I said, Enterprise wasn't yet inside the house when we got home on election night, so we followed the routine described above, leaving a light on for him, and looking for him to have arrived by the next morning. He didn't show up during the night (or, at least, not that either of us noticed between dreams), so I had to go off to work grumbling about our "incorrigible little boy" and asking Kathleen to call when he came back.

Around 12:30, while eating lunch, I got the call from Kathleen. But this time, it wasn't good news: Enterprise still hadn't returned. This was getting more worrisome, for both of us, but we supported each other with as much optimism as we could muster: surely he'd be back shortly; he always came back, right?

By 5:30, neither of us were able to keep up the optimism so well. I came home early and we went out with flashlights to walk the neighborhood, looking under bushes and calling for him everywhere. We walked all the way into the next cul-de-sac and back, but there was no evidence of him at all. Now we were getting pretty scared.

We came back home and, while Kathleen continued calling for him from the front and back doors, I settled in for the emotionally difficult task of making up Lost Cat posters. I don't know if you've ever had to do this, but I found it really hard to go through our collected photographs, looking for the most representative shots of a beloved pet we might never see again. We printed up 20 or so posters and went out again, to spread the word.

We rang the doorbell of every single house on our cul-de-sac, in many cases meeting neighbors for the first time. Every time, we told them about Enterprise and left them with a copy of the poster. Every time, they promised to call us if they spotted him. In a couple of cases, we learned new things about our little "cow kittie". One woman told us about how Enterprise liked to sit outside a window of their house and look in, driving their dog crazy. A little girl instantly recognized him from the poster pictures and related how he was always going around the neighborhood trying to get people to feed him. Charming stories, sure, but hard for us to hear at that point.

It was pretty nippy that evening, so we decided to go back home and warm up before taking another batch of posters over to the next cul-de-sac. I sat at our breakfast table, reading the newspaper in an attempt to distract myself, but Kathleen, unable to be inactive, went out the back door to call once again, just in case.

And there he was!

Enterprise was sitting on the rail of the balcony outside our bedroom; at the sound of Kathleen's voice, he instantly jumped down and ran over. A moment later, he was inside again. Our relief was immense, as you'd expect, and poor Enterprise had to put up with being "double-teamed" with attention for quite a while. He was a pretty good sport about it.

Well, we thought, we really dodged the bullet on this one. That was a really scary little episode. Let's not do that again, OK?

But November was just getting started, wasn't it?