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.

Beware the crocoshark!

Tuesday, 28/09/2010 ≅01:23 ©brainycat

Laelaps tells us about another good reason to be alive during the holocene epoch - crocosharks are already extinct! It's things like this that make me stand firm behind my rule of "no swimming in the ocean". I like being up near the top of the food chain, thank you very much, and I see no reason to remand myself to the "large, slow and tasty" category.

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

Everything you need to know about science in the news

Sunday, 31/05/2009 ≅16:21 ©brainycat

The Science News Cycle

This is courtesy of the always entertaining and enlightening Mental Indigestion blog. It seems like everytime I see something interesting in mainstream media, the reality of the alleged research isn't as definitive as they would have you believe. But the reality of the reseach is also vastly more interesting, nuanced and ultimately enlightening. No wonder it doesn't make it into the pablum they spew into our tvs and all over our internets.

How to prepare for swine flu

Thursday, 30/04/2009 ≅16:09 ©brainycat

These are the most cogent, accurate and thoughtful websites I've found that deal with the H1N1 "swine flu" outbreak. The most important thing you can do for yourself and your household is to prepare yourself with knowledge. Epidemics don't work in the real world like they do in fiction (see The Stand, for example). Just because most patients recover and the bodies aren't piling up on your street does not mean this is "just another flu".

The Flu Wiki - A wiki brought to you by leaders in virology, epidemiology and health care

Effect Measure - A blog by an epidemiologist involved with federal efforts to track and prepare for pandemics

CDC swine flu information site

How to prepare your household for pandemic flu

Homeopathic "Medicine" Scam Alert - Print a copy and distribute widely

WHO - What "level 5 pandemic" means

CDC - pandemics occur in waves, don't be lulled by a reduction of new cases

Tips and strategies for your workplace

What’s the big deal about swine flu?

Monday, 27/04/2009 ≅13:22 ©brainycat

You've no doubt heard about the latest swine flu outbreak. If you're like me, you found yourself curious why this particular outbreak is worth so much attention. I poked around teh intertubes for awhile, and found out why swine flu is such a big deal.

Swine flu is a generic name for a class of viri that was responsible for the 1918-1919 pandemic that killed 2.5% of the world's known population. This latest variety of H1N1 is believed to have killed anywhere from 60 to 100 people in Mexico already, and cases have been reported around the globe already. This variant includes some proteins also found on the SARS virus H5N1. It is unclear at this time if this has any effects on it's communicability or lethality. The death rate in Mexico is not definitively known, but reports indicate it's about 7%, plus or minus a point or two. This, I believe, is an inflated rate, as it only counts the number of diagnosed survivors. No doubt quite a number of people got sick but did not seek hospitilization.

While "normal" flu viri kill less than one half of one percent of flu patients a year, these pandemic flus kill several orders of magnitude more. Being healthy is somewhat of a liablity, as the stronger the immunological response you can muster, the more phlegm is developed, which can drown the patient or invite massive secondary bacterial infections. Of course, immunocomprimised patients are always at risk.

Fifteen percent of the diagnosed patients in the US had taken the flu vaccine. The vaccine is tailored every year to strains that are expected to spread, but these projections are made months before flu season and prognosticating plague is a less than exact science. Personally, I wound up in the hospital with life-threatening intestinal flu the year I tried the vaccine, so I haven't touched it since.

This flu is probably more dangerous than H5N1, the famous avian flu. It's spreading faster, and has at least the same lethality if not more. Fortunately, we have drugs to combat it. Or rather, some people do:

The article went on to state that only up to a quarter of a given Western nation population (except Great Britain at fifty percent) can be treated with antiviral drugs from government stockpiles during the first pandemic wave. This would mean, as Australia's Dr. Buddhima Lokuge states (see eMJA article), Australian government stockpiled antivirals "will be limited and reserved for those on a confidential rationing list." The United States public are in the same boat and face an identical government policy situation -- selective rationing:*)

In economic news, analysts indicate that for the most part the scare has had a negative impact on the markets, but Roche (the manufacturer of Tamifil, manufacturer of the drug that the flu responds to the best) has gone up.

Will 2009 be remembered as the year the epidemic started? Will history's recollection overshadow the first non-white president for a submicroscopic sliver of protein and RNA? Will the wildly disparate availability of medicine and medical care be the catalyst for worldwide revolution? Hopefully not the former, hopefully the latter.

EDIT 4/29/2009
It appears the H1N1 swine flu has arrived in Seattle.

Chimps: it’s so not about meat for sex

Wednesday, 15/04/2009 ≅13:19 ©brainycat

You've probably seen the headlines saying that wild male chimpanzees have been observed sharing meat with females in exchange for sexual favors. While certainly appealing to the sexist "common sense" endemic to our culture, the reality doesn't show this at all. Research by Cristina Gomes and Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute show that males who share meat with females aren't any more likely to get some action when the females go into estrus. Instead, as The Primate Diaries explains:

Rather than such hackneyed cliches as “Sex sells, even in the rainforest” (Cosmos) or “The way to a chimp’s heart is through her stomach” (both Wired and the Chicago Sun-Times) the real story was that female chimpanzees demonstrate flexible and opportunistic strategies to maximize reproductive success. Furthermore, because the sharing of meat was primarily with anestrous females, and because there was no relationship between the amount of meat provided and the number of copulations, suggesting that this had any connection to prostitution or buying someone an expensive meal in order to “get lucky” was to completely miss the point. In all likelihood, females were using these exchanges to determine who would be the best potential father for her offspring over the long term.

Oddly enough, these conclusions don't make it into the popular press. Personally, I think the idea that women may be wired not just to be attracted to males of high status, but also to males who are more likely to share their resources makes more sense. Is it better to get a fraction of more food, or all of a smaller total? I believe western ideals tend toward the latter.

Additionally, the study clearly showed that males shared way more meat with their hunting partners than with females. Where were the "bromance" jokes?

NASA poll: Biggest Hits for the Home Planet

Tuesday, 14/04/2009 ≅14:10 ©brainycat

In line with the recent post about the validity of online polling, NASA is sponsoring a poll celebrating Earth Day where we get to vote for the 3 most important advances in terrestrial observation that NASA has provided in the last 50 years. At the landing page is a list of major achievements, complete with links to spectacular imagery. Vote on the second page. Javascript required to vote.

I miss fireflies

Sunday, 12/04/2009 ≅19:44 ©brainycat

found at Bug Girls Blog There's very, very little I miss about living in the midwest. I was born, not raised, a west coast kind of guy. Besides proper thunderstorms, decent BBQ, and lazy float trips down warm rivers the only thing I miss are fireflies. Lightening bugs, as we called them as kids, don't live on this side of the Rockies in North America and when I decided to move out here I didn't think I'd miss them.

I was wrong. I miss fireflies terribly. Not the insects themselves per se, but all the good times that happened along with them. Fireflies came out during the last grainy minutes of daylight, as the temperature dropped from "searing" to "merely uncomfortable", and the evening breeze would come up and finally provide some relief from the broiling humidity. Emerging from underneath shade, out of doors and willing to venture a few feet away from sources of fresh water, people kids would emerge and congregate as they are wont to do at those ages.

Embued with the cruelty common to all children, I was the undispusted master Firefly Swatter as a young lad. This was a competion the neighborhood kids would do every few nights or so. We'd get our trusty wiffle bats and see how much glowy guts we could smear on them, one bug at a time. The winner had the glowiest bat by the time the fireflies settled down for the night.

Later, fireflies became synonomous with hanging out with girls, clumsily fumbling through the rituals of attraction: signal and response, just like the insects floating around us. Cool damp air, the warm earth, the drone of countless insects, fireflies twinkling about, and the soft moans of pleasure are and forever will be indelibly inked upon some primitive part of my brain.

Shortly after the wonderfulness that is girls became known to me, so did booze. Drinking with my friends, picking up on girls, listening to music out at the edge of the county are about the only parts of my highschool years that I remember fondly. Then I grew up, and got my own place to live, and a job, and suddenly there just wasn't time for sitting around for a few hours doing almost nothing.

Why the sudden melancholic introspection? Because I missed firefly day. Not that I have a lot to contribute to this study headed by the Boston Museum of Science, but if you live in a firefly zone you can still sign up to participate. It appears, that like bats, frogs and several other creatures of the summer night, their numbers are inexplicably dropping. Thanks to Bug Girl for the headsup and brief trip down memory lane.

How Much Are You Worth?

Friday, 10/04/2009 ≅13:39 ©brainycat

First, they started siphoning gas out of cars. Then they started stealing copper cables and plumbing. Let's hope they don't get a chance to see this chart: (all cred to Science Punk)