Guppies are smarter than I thought

Thursday, 30/09/2010 ≅17:29 ©brainycat

I've been "breeding" guppies for about five years now. I'm not a serious breeder, I'm doing it trailer-park style whereby I remove males that don't have traits I like and let the population adjust accordingly. I'm selecting for rainbow-shimmery bodies, and for a while the population was coming up with a lot of very beautiful fish. Unfortunately, I've been away from them for about 8 months and they weren't very well cared for. There's about a month's worth of 80% water changes ahead before they'll be healthy again. The fish born during this time are showing all kinds of odd congenital issues; most of the males have a "sword" at the bottom of their otherwise feminine-looking tales, and are very dull in coloration, with brown bodies and a few spots. Also, the plecostomus that was about 12cm long is suddenly 25cm long and has probably 3 times the mass it did last time I saw him. With all the nitrites and nitrates in the water, it's no surprise it's been able to eat well.

Also, they behave differently. I haven't had a lot of time to really gain any empirical data, but my impression is that these "feminized" males aren't dancing with the females as much as darting at them. I thought it was because the water was so bad, they either weren't able to breed or they were being aggressive as a result of being uncomfortable. Interestingly, ascientificnature just wrote up a post about a study that shows that male guppies are able to adjust their mating strategy based on their phenotype. Large, colorful males court females by dancing with them, while drab males actually rape the females by darting at them and copulating before the female can swim away. I had no idea guppies did this; I always thought the darting behavior was some kind of aggression (not that rape is act of love, but we're talking about fish, not primates) because the females always swam across the tank afterwords.

Once I've got the tank healthy again, I want to order some show guppies. Now, I'm not a big fan of breeding any species for shows - I think the criteria are entirely too subjective for anyone to empirically say a particular specimen is better than another specimen. As I've said before, it's populations and the way genes recombinate and express themselves across herds and schools that interests me. That said, there are some amazingly beautiful strains available for sale (at a price to match) and these will be the first "foreign" genetics introduced into the system for at least 3 years, maybe longer.

We have charts and graphs, what do you have?

Tuesday, 28/09/2010 ≅01:40 ©brainycat
Because numbers never lie, right?

Because numbers never lie, right?

From SciencePunk.

Everybody thinks they’re an expert on morality

Sunday, 26/09/2010 ≅01:49 ©brainycat

I read with some interest the guest column about the study of morality at The Thoughtful Animal. In this article, researcher Ravi Iyer describes a methodology for reducing "moral foundations" into five quantifiable axes: Harm/care, Fairness/reciprocity, Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect and Purity/sanctity. A quick glance at this list shows the clear bias in this methodology, as all but two are only relevant within social settings. Apparently, according to Ravi's working definition, morality cannot exist in an individual without a group to judge it by. I disagree with this view. I believe that an individual's morality is an internal compass that relates to the decision making process, but the actual behavior is mediated by societal concerns. How much someone is concerned about how the tribe feels about their behavior is a personality trait (perhaps "vanity"), not a moral virtue.

Ravi is part of a group of moralists (sorry, couldn't help it) who are trying to collect data in several experiments. If you have a few minutes to kill, you can do a lot worse for yourself than getting yourself over to and taking any of the nearly thirty quizzes. The quiz wherein they look for a basis for the axes described above is the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire". Registration is quick and painless, and asks you which of a handful of too-large-and-vague buckets you want to define yourself within (eg "liberal or conservative") and allows you to take the quizzes and review your results later.

Of course I took the test, thanks for asking. No surprise to anyone who's spent any time around me: I'm the odd duck out of the (self-selected) crowd that's participated. What's interesting about the questionnaire is that each scenario they post assumes no audience. In my own mind, that's the most important question related to the entire concept of morality - in what ways do people actually behave when people are watching versus what they say they'd do in a hypothetical situation. I answered the questions literally; since they didn't define the scenarios with any sort of possible legal ramification, I answered as though there couldn't be any. In reality, those are considerations that guide my behavior.

My results show that I place fairness as the most important "moral virtue". I agree with this, the words of Stephen Jay Gould ring true for me (paraphrased from The Mismeasure of Man "...a world where everyone is free to succeed or fail based only on their own merits, and not of any preconceived biases or bigotry...".

Absolutely unsurprisingly, I scored "0.0" in the purity axis. WTF is that about, anyway? I believe in clean drinking water. I believe in being the most Brainycat I can be. I believe in saying what I mean and meaning what I say. The bias in that axis is so tilted towards some nebulous cultural artifact related to superstitions inherited from middle-eastern goat-herders thousands of years ago. "Purity" is an attribute best suited for chemistry and materials science, and has no basis in any kind of rational thought about the fundamental pillars of the human mind.

Also not surprisingly, if due to some hypothetical circumstance you to hurt or die for the benefit of the majority - I hope your affairs are in order, because I'm not going to hesitate to ensure the greatest chance of survival for the greatest number of people. And I expect each of you to do the same for me, thank you very much. A more interesting way of posing the questions, I believe, would be to frame the scenarios that ask the value of a single life against the survival of a group with caveats like "there's no way to kill them painlessly" or "Their families are watching you". Again, the difference between what we believe internally and what we actually do in the world is the interesting question.

The loyalty axis I think is the most misleading. There is absolutely no room in the questionnaire for loyalty to yourself. If you are loyal to yourself and your beliefs, you score lower than even the "wishy-washy liberals". I think "loyalty" is a very poor choice of words, perhaps "obedience" would be better. The authority axis made no room for the difference between leading and following - and for someone who believes being loyal to one's true nature is a higher virtue than giving a damn what the Jones's think, and also believes that doing one's part for the (team, tribe, community) is a virtue, the axis gets totally screwed.

Skeptifem totally nailed the methodology to the wall, in the polite but scathing way that academicians have perfected to an art in online forums:

Not to mention how the lack of political systems outside of our species makes it pretty impossible to decide how such things evolved. Not only that, but this comparison is much too generous. It is a bit more like studying the evolution of sight while having no clue how eyes work, and making no inquiry into it, rather opting to give people quizzes about
their sight and pontificating about the unknown inner workings of other species eyes. All of the stuff listed (behavior and thought) has to do with happenings in the brain, and without the mechanisms or some kind of CLUE in that regard I cannot conclude ANYTHING from the work presented.

Ultimately, I have fun with these types of quizzes - I think they don't really say anything about how I relate to the world, or tell me anything new about myself, but they do help me explore my feelings about various topics that seem important to other people, as witnessed by some recent comments on a book review I did.

Moral Foundations Questionnaire results

Moral Foundations Questionnaire results

Richard Morgan nails it, again

Wednesday, 22/09/2010 ≅03:39 ©brainycat

Takeshi Kovacs may be my most favorite-ist protagonist ever. He's smart, capable, cynical and completely self-absorbed. Actually, he's a lot like me. In the second book in the Takeshi series by Richard K. Morgan, we meet Takeshi about 30 years after the first book. He's working as a mercenary, leading a company of soldiers during an uprising on a planet distant from Earth.

Richard's writing inspires me, he so effortlessly drops metaphor and simile that shimmer and illuminate the story without ever falling into long, drawn out sentences or comma strings. It's very reminiscent of William Gibson's earlier works.

In this passage, Takeshi is talking to a corporate executive, Hand, that is buying a priceless alien artifact from Takeshi. They'd recently been to a bazaar and Takeshi witnessed the people there absorbed in their religion, quoting proverbs and using arcane symbols:

"Really." I leaned forward, searching his face for some trace of irony. "You believe this shit, right? I mean, seriously?"

The Mandrake exec watched me for a moment, then tipped back his head and gestured at the sky above us.

"Look at that, Kovacs. We're drinking coffee so far from Earth you have to work hard to pick out Sol in the night sky. We were carried here on a wind that blows in a dimension we cannot see or touch. Stored as dreams in the mind of a machine that thinks in a fashion so far in advance of our own brains, it might as well carry the name of God. We have been resurrected into bodies not our own, grown in a secret garden without the body of any mortal woman. These are the facts of our existence, Kovacs. How, then, are they different, or any less mystical, than the belief that there is another realm where the dead live in the company of beings so far beyond us we must call them gods?"

I looked away, oddly embarrassed by the fervor in Hand's voice. Religion is funny stuff, and it has unpredictable effects on those who use it. I stubbed out my cigarette and chose my words with care.

"Well, the difference is that the facts of our existence weren't dreamed up by a bunch of ignorant priests centuries before anyone had left the Earth's surface or built anything resembling a machine. I'd say that on balance that makes them a better fit than your spirit realm for whatever reality we find out here."

Hand smiled, apparently unoffended. He seemed to be enjoying himself. "That is a local view, Kovacs. Of course, all the remaining churches have their origins in preindustrial times, but faith is metaphor, and who knows how the data behind these metaphors has traveled, from where and for how long. We walk amid the ruins of a civilization that apparently had godlike powers thousands of years before we could walk upright. Your own world, Kovacs, is encircled by angels with flaming swords”"

Whoa. I lifted my hands, palms out. "Let's damp down the metaphor core for a moment. Harlan's World has a system of orbital battle platforms that the Martians forgot to decommission when they left."

"Yes," Hand gestured impatiently, "Orbitals built of some substance that resists every attempt to scan it, orbitals with the power to strike down a city or a mountain, but who forbear to destroy anything save those vessels that try to ascend into the heavens. What else is that but an angel?"

"It's a fucking machine, Hand. With programmed parameters that probably have their basis in some kind of planetary conflict”"

"Can you be sure of that?"

He was leaning across the table now. I found myself mirroring his posture as my own intensity was stoked.

"Have you ever been to Harlan's World, Hand? No, I thought not. Well I grew up there and I'm telling you the orbitals are no more mystical than any other Martian artifact”"

"What, no more mystical than the songspires? His voice dropped to a hiss. Trees of stone that sing to the rising and setting sun? No more mystical than a gate that opens like a bedroom door onto”"

He stopped abruptly and glanced around, face flushing with the near indiscretion. I sat back and grinned at him.

Admirable passion, for someone in a suit that expensive. "So you're trying to sell me the Martians as voodoo gods. Is that it?"

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he muttered, straightening up. "And no, the Martians fit quite comfortably into this world. We don't need recourse to the places of origin to explain them. I'm just trying to show you how limited your worldview is without an acceptance of wonder."

I nodded.

"Very good of you." I stabbed a finger at him. "Just do me a favor, Hand. When we get where we're going, keep this shit stowed, will you? I'm going to have enough to worry about without you weirding out on me."

"I believe only what I have seen," he said stiffly. "I have seen Ghede and Carrefour walk among us in the flesh of men, I have heard their voices speak from the mouths of the hougan, I have summoned them."

"Yeah, right."

He looked at me searchingly, offended belief melting slowly into something else. His voice loosened and flowed down to a murmur. "This is strange, Kovacs. You have a faith as deep as mine. The only thing I wonder is why you need so badly not to believe."

That sat between us for almost a minute before I touched it. The noise from surrounding tables faded out and even the wind out of the north seemed to be holding its breath. Then I leaned forward, speaking less to communicate than to dispel the laser-lit recall in my head.

"You're wrong, Hand," I said quietly. "I'd love to have access to all this shit you believe. I'd love to be able to summon someone who's responsible for this fuckup of a creation. Because then I'd be able to kill them. Slowly."

- Richard K. Morgan, Broken Angels

This passage struck me, it's filled with Real Truth. And it's a perfect example of why I like Takeshi so much: he's just like me, only way smarter, capable, better looking and generally the perfect post-cyberpunk hero. I came to be an atheist from exactly this same place, and even as my vitriol at the world around me mellows with age, I still can't find any reason to need to believe in any kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. If there is some kind of god, I'd want to get my hands on it too. This book is to Takeshi what Quantum of Solace is to James Bond - the armor of years of cynical jadedness is wearing thin, and Takeshi's bitterness is beginning to lash out.

Review: Aces Abroad

Monday, 16/08/2010 ≅18:23 ©brainycat

Aces Abroad (Wild Cards, #4)Aces Abroad by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fourth installment of the Wild Cards series, and another great book. The premise of this book is the WHO sponsors a fact-finding jaunt around the globe to examine the status and needs of victims of the Wild Card virus around the world. Naturally, the people selected for the trip are all our favorite characters from the first three books. This is an excellent vehicle for each character to have a ministory within a sparse metaplot.

The book plays out as each character has a crisis of some sort somewhere on the trip - which, in true pulpy fashion, is neatly tied up just in time for the junket to get back on board their plane and head to their next destination. There is a bit of a metaplot, and there are some clearly loose ends that will undoubtedly show up in later books, but perhaps moreso than in the previous three volumes, each story works as a standalone.

Also, this is the first volume that feels very dated. The series was published in 1988, and it really shows. Maybe it's my own nostalgia, but it definitely captures the grim feeling and political dystopia of the eighties. Perhaps this is because so much has changed in the last thirty years in some of the places they visit that the differences are more vivid.

Also, I noticed for the first time in this book that none of the characters' powers affect technology at all. Computers are mentioned a few times, but only to indicate wealth and status. Again, that's probably something that only stands out to an old nerd like me.

View all my reviews >>

Does the left have a viable response to Fox News?

Tuesday, 11/08/2009 ≅12:03 ©brainycat

Being exposed to numerous sources of leftist memes, I find myself exposed to an inordinate number or links to a seeming never ending stream of asshatery from Fox News. The leftists decry the blatant bias and utterly ridiculous shenagigans that pass for journalism, get all self rightous about how The Media is shaping the debate to the right, and go then go on about our business until the next clip arrives.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we give this much attention to them? Why does every rational voter in the US know what a "birther" is? What if "death panels" meant Taliban-esque tribunals resulting in some poor schmuck getting decapitated? What if saying "...I read in the bible..." was as uncouth as farting during Larry King Live?

As long as eyeballs keep paying attention to the assinine antics of the left and their propoganda machine, they'll keep spewing out their sexist, racist, homophobic garbage. Each of us, in our daily lives, needs to treat people that far off of center with the same derision for any other willfully crazy person. There is no rational debate to engage them with; the facts have been published, the rest of the world has moved on. Anyone still stuck with their delusions needs to be treated as delusional. Ginger@large said everything that needs to be said about that.

I want to ask how do we move past the reactionary sense of futility and dismay, and make OUR voice the new center. We know our policies have a better cost benefit ratio for all but the richest. Where do we make that argument? How do we take our ideas out of the coffeeshops, and farmer's markets, nightclubs and daycares and put them on tv and in the papers? The right has done a fantastic job of convincing working class people that what's good for the bourgoise is good for us. They enlisted god, patriotism and stoked up the fear of the Other.

Even as an atheist, I see the value of supporting moderate and progressive churches. Not all theists are anti-choice homophobes. We must encourage them to enter the debate, even (gasp) relying on them to provide a counterbalance to the radicals. People need to know they can get their feelgood pie-in-the-sky fix without resorting to apocalyptic visions of an imminent rapture being brought on by encroaching numbers of unbelieving infidels single mindedly trying to destroy their world.

We need to call out the "moderate" media when they don't present the leftist viewpoint. To hell with Fox, but even CNN needs to hear a united voice from the public that we are sick of having the discussion being dominated by personalities that do not reflect the real world. Public tv is a battleground we MUST take the fight to, as well. Is a boycott a good tactic? The problem is, most of ARE boycotting those media, and that's why they've been able to shift rightward. The only people left watching are the people without the means to educate themselves via other mediums.

We need to stop the incursion into our schools by the reactionary right. We need to demand that our children have access to accurate, modern information about the world around us. They need accurate, unbiased information about history, science, mathmematics and especially their bodies and minds. It's hard enough growing up and dealing with puberty without the weight of politically motivated, religious guilt and misinformation.

Most importantly, we need to stand up and call out inanity when we see it. They'll say, "Everyone knows that" when you challenge their beliefs with established facts. Press them. Probe them until you make them admit their real intentions: to maintain a world of inequality and indifference to human suffering. Back them into intellectual corners from which they can only babble incoherent, disjointed "talking points" they picked up from Fox, then point them out for the unsustainable conjecture they are.

We can take back the national dialog. One asshat at a time.

Rain in Seattle

Monday, 10/08/2009 ≅22:34 ©brainycat

It rained for the first time in weeks tonight. Not a hard rain, this is nothing like the thunderstorms I grew up with in the midwest. A steady, gentle light rain that gradually got the ground wet. Just enough to raise the accumulated oil and rubber up off the pavement and make the streets good and slippery.

Seattle in the sunshine is like an overexposed snapshot. Or a crusty, dried flower dangling from a brown stalk. It's a parched shadow of itself; the colors are off by a few hues and the tone is wrong. It doesn't feel like my hometown. It feels like overcooked vegetables taste; wane and soft, lacking any real substance.

For me, the penultimate image of Seattle is at night. Drops shimmering like so many falling stars in the cone of light cast from a lonely streetlamp, the illumination barely catching a few leaves from the nearby trees. Wires drooping from the pole, arcing in every direction towards the houses. The rumble and splash of the occaisonal car passing by a couple of blocks away. The roiling, reddish grey cast to the grey blanket hanging so closely overhead you feel like it's just out of reach.

Rain in Seattle. Comforting, nourishing, cleansing. For a few moments, I can feel the drops gently landing on my face and feel like all is right in my world.

Twitter Survey: Science, not cash!

Monday, 10/08/2009 ≅11:58 ©brainycat

Someone, supposedly working on a master's thesis at Columbia University, is running a survey about your twitter use. Send your answers to:

  1. Do you use twitter?
  2. What do you use it to do?
  3. What types of twitter feeds do you choose to follow?
  4. Have you made new friends via twitter?
  5. What worries you about the service?
  6. Do you find that you communicate differently?
  7. Do you find that you communicate with different people via twitter than you do compared to other forms of communication (telephone, email, etc.)?
  8. Do you feel that twitter has had a positive influence on your ability to communicate?

My answers:

  1. Yes, I use twitter, unfortunately. Thank you for reminding me to go kick the ass of the motherfucker who got me hooked on it in the first place.
  2. I use twitter to not get a damn thing done. It's an insidious little app; it's not that it sucks chunks of time, but it makes it impossible to concentrate on anything else for more than a few minutes.
  3. I follow leftist, atheist, LGBT, local, industrial/goth, sex positive and not-produced-in-america world news. And some really cool people I've met via the preceeding.
  4. I have made new twitter friends (should that be "twiends"?). Is anyone you meet online really a friend in the same sense someone you spend time with in r/l? I've met people I respect and find interesting, to the extent that I've interacted with them. I don't know if any of them would ever help me hide a cadaver though.
  5. I'm worried that I'm losing my ability to write cogent thoughts with more than 140 consecutive characters. And that I'm losing a lot of productivity, because twitter is only slightly less addictive than videopoker that pays out in crack. Also, none of the porn spammers have taken me up on my offer to follow them if they send me a pic with "Owned by BrainyCat" written across a fully grown woman's breasts.
  6. I have reaffirmed my belief that brevity is, in fact, the mother of eloquence.
  7. I probably communicate with more people, and probably more often, but with less depth and substance than I do via email or IM. I haven't used the telephone to talk to non-work related people in forever, it's just not my style.
  8. The whole problem with twitter is that it makes it so easy to communicate, I can't get a godam thing done anymore!

It’s time for some new industrial, EBM, and even neue disco

Wednesday, 20/05/2009 ≅22:36 ©brainycat

About every 3 months or so I buy a pile of CDs (mostly used) and then that's what lives on my blackberry (in addition to the slowly rotating crop of oldies but goodies). What was life like before cheap, small sdcards? I don't remember too well, but I'm sure it sucked ass.

Oh now I remember. My first MP3 player was the "Rio", I splurged and spent the extra bucks for a whopping 256MB of RAM. It had a unique cable, meaning that I had to keep track of yet another damn cable and drag it between home and work everyday. Why did I need the cable all the time? Because it had a builtin battery that required constant charging. At the time, it was state of the art. I think it's collecting dust in a box of old gadgets in a closet right now. I don't know where the cable is.

The Blackberry 9000 Bold certainly has it's faults as a media player (namely the crappy battery life and primitive equalizer) but considering I get a wireless phone, all my email, contacts/calendar/tasks/memos, a web browser, a video player, a digital book reader, a digital photoalbum, a camera, a audio/video recorder, checkbook, a password keeper, a graphing calculator and a flashcard style learning aid attached to it, I think it's a fair tradeoff.

Anyways, in the interest of full disclosure here are the CDs I just bought this week, in no real order other than grouped by artist:

Curious As A Cat #167

Tuesday, 05/05/2009 ≅15:47 ©brainycat


...and a day late. Oh well. The new position at work actually entails doing some work now and then, unfortunately.

  • 1) What is the latest song or band/singer that you have discovered to be perfect for your life right now?

    I can't say I recently discovered them, but I recently bought Walking With Strangers by The Birthday Massacre, and it really fits my mood for the last few months. Bittersweet and melancholy, with catchy riffs and eighties inspired textured sound, it's really speaking to my feelings of malaise and overall disorientation.

  • 2) When do you find yourself the most politically incorrect?

    Generally, when I'm awake and running my mouth off ;) I'm not especially concerned with being "politically correct"; I'm such an outspoken fan of progressive policies that I feel secure in my godless commie credentials. At work I keep to myself, but out'n'about I'm not afraid to call out stupid people. The sad thing is, I kinda enjoy showing people how stupid they are.

  • 3) What book would you rather had never seen the light of day?

    Oh, this is a tossup between the bible and the koran. Hard to say which has inspired more intolerance, ignorance, violence and stupidity. Probably the bible, as it's been around in various incarnations for longer.


  • 4) Show and Tell. What comes to mind first when you see this picture? Or, tell a story if it reminds you of one.

    "Put your hands in the Air! Wave 'em like you just don't care!"