Archive for the 'Critters' category

On the apparent impossibility of having dispassionate arguments about dogs or guns.

Mar 03 2013 Published by under Communication, Critters, Politics

I have been following the discussions at DrugMonkey's and PhysioProf's blogs (here, here, here, here, and here) about apparent parallels between arguments offered to defend gun-ownership and arguments offered to defend dog-ownership, particularly when it comes to dogs of breeds that have been identified (rightly or wrongly) as "more dangerous" or at least capable of inflicting more harm in a hurry (like, perhaps, assault weapons or guns with big clips). The back-and-forth in these discussions has been heated, as you might imagine. There's at least the appearance of lots of people talking past each other, disagreeing about what should be counted as credible sources of evidence, even disagreeing about what questions are relevant to the central thing they thing they're discussing (and, on account of that disagreement, either pressing for answers or refusing to answer).

It's the kind of back-and-forth where you might hope (if you're optimistic about the power of rationality, and about people's commitment to arguing in good faith, and that smart people are open to the possibility of critically examining their own stands and changing those stands when the facts warrant it) that someone could come in and lay out the logical structure of what's in dispute, with Ps and Qs (rather than pitbulls and assault rifles) and everyone could step back and say, "Hmm, I'm not sure I'm as committed to that stance as I thought I was," or, "OK, when you put it that way, I see your point," or, "Now I see what's wrong with that analogy." If you're an optimist with training in analytic philosophy, you might even roll up your sleeves and try to reconstruct the logic of the arguments yourself, including pinning down the implicit premises on both sides, and then try to offer a diagnosis for why the sides are talking past each other.

Yeah, I was going to try to do this. In fact, I've tried to dig into it half a dozen times already.

But honestly, every time I attempt to pull back to a position at a sufficient critical distance to offer a clear, analytic view, my brain hits me with the equivalent of the spinning beach ball of death. (I am really not kidding about having serious Mac neural patterning.)

And, it's not that I don't think there are logical arguments being offered on each side. It's not that I don't think it would be possible to reconstruct the claims with Ps and Qs, nor to tease out implicit premises and ask folks whether they endorse them or not. It's not even that I have a dog (or a gun) in the race myself. I just have this strong hunch that none of it would actually make any difference to the people having the argument, so why bother doing all that work?

But, as you might imagine, this puts a dent in my optimism.

As a practical matter, we need to figure out how to share a world with people whose sentiments about dogs, or guns, or personal freedoms, or the importance of minimizing harms to others differ from our own. Figuring out how to discuss this stuff productively with each other might help us. But somehow our sentiments, especially when it comes to dogs, and guns, and personal freedoms, and the importance of minimizing harms to others, are really strong and resistant to critical examination, to the point of making us fighty.

Is this just how humans are (and analytic philosophers have been misled by their Vulcan mentors)? Or is there something particular about dogs, guns, personal freedoms, and the potential for harm to others that throttles our brains and puts us in the fighty place?

11 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: paleozoic poetry

A little early this year, the elder Free-Ride offspring wrote these "sci-kus" for science class. They're like haikus, except with a few more syllables per line (7-9-7* rather than 5-7-5), because the names of geological periods require more syllables.

* * * * *

Cambrian oceans were full
Of sponges, trilobites, and snails
Invertebrate paradise

Ordovician fishes
Were the first, and coexisted with
Crinoids and cephalopods

Silurian plants survive
On land, and in the seas, fish with jaws
Have made themselves known to us

Devonian forests
Made up of ferns and conifers
Situated on land

Tree ferns, amphibians,
And insects in Carboniferous
Became the coal of today

At the end of Permian
Mass extinction of the sea's creatures
Farewell, sweet amphibians

*Two of these are actually 7-8-7. I'm guessing poetic license (or perhaps poetic learner's permit).

Wouldn't it be cool if they had the equivalent of driver's ed for poetry? What would they show instead of Red Asphalt to scare the kids off reckless poetry?

6 responses so far

Tuesday Sprog Blogging: #scio12 storytelling and critters not imagined by my offspring.

So, Friday was busy here. Spring semester classes started on Wednesday, people want add codes to add my courses, students are making sure they know where everything is in the online section of my "Ethics in Science" course -- the usual. But, I was also dealing with a larger than usual portion of ScienceOnline in my bloodstream* (as in the past it's been about a week earlier in the calendar than it was this year).

Anyway. As usual, the Free-Ride offspring met my return to Casa Free-Ride and normal life (such as it is) with a barrage of questions about the conference. What did you see? What did you do? What did you learn? Who was there? What did you bring us? (More on that last question in the next Sprog Blogging installment.)

Among other things, I told the sprogs about the storytelling event at the Friday banquet, organized by The Monti. The sprogs dig a good story; it's probably part of what got them interested in science. And, I decided they might enjoy listening to the podcast of two of the stories that we heard at the banquet, Ben Lillie's and Bug Girl's.

I'll admit, I recognized that maybe Bug Girl's story was on the edge of age-appropriate for my offspring (currently 10.5 and 12.5 years of age). However, they have always had a healthy interest in entomology and in parasites of various sorts. So, I threw caution to the wind.

In the process, I discovered that even though my offspring are well aware that humans approaching adulthood grow hair in a number of places that are not the head -- and even though they each have more than theoretical knowledge of the habits of Pediculus humanus capitis (thank you, afterschool program!) -- neither one of my worldly children had ever imagined that there might exist a critter that would regard a not-on-the-head tract of follicles as a hospitable environment. Indeed, the looks of sheer horror on their faces when they learned that there is such a thing as "pubic lice" was worth the price of conference registration.

Ours is a universe of wonders. Some of those wonders are exotic (and maybe gross) enough that they are hard to anticipate, until some intrepid explorer brings back reports of them, changing our sense of where we are and what we might encounter -- and, of how squicked out we might be in that encounter.

I did mention to the Free-Ride offspring that I told one of the stories at the banquet. The younger Free-Ride offspring especially has been trying to get me to disclose details of the story I told. My answer has been, "When the podcast of it goes up, I'll let you listen to it."

I expect that after the sprogs listen to my story, there may be a discussion on which I'll report here. Stay tuned.

*Also, as it turns out, in my hair shafts -- not at all faded from ScienceOnline violet to almost normal beginning of the semester brown. One hopes my students won't infer from my current hair color that I'm cooler than I actually am.

One response so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: I hugged ... hey, that's not Bora!

Jan 20 2012 Published by under Critters, Kids and science

An image from the elder Free-Ride offspring:

Hug a Tarantula. They Appreciate it Too.

So far at ScienceOnline 2012 I have not noticed any tarantulas, let alone sized them up for hugging. Should you encounter a tarantula in your immediate environment, use your own judgment on the hugs.

One response so far

Holiday repost: words of advice about caroling mice.

Dec 24 2011 Published by under Critters, Passing thoughts, Personal

This was originally posted in December of 2007, when the elder Free-Ride offspring was eight years old. How the years fly.

Today I stumbled upon a story the elder Free-Ride offspring wrote. Possibly intended to strike a Charles Dickens-like tone, I think it ended up a bit closer to Dostoevsky.

Of course, I have to share it:


When Mice Go Caroling



When mice go caroling, you better watch out.
When they're done, they will ask for cookies.

OK, so at this point I'm expecting a plot arc of the sort found in the classic book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Likely there will be some unforeseen consequence -- or some elaborate chain of unforeseen consequences -- following upon this innocent act of generosity. Hilarious hijinks will ensue.



If you don't give them cookies, they will kill you and eat you and eat your cookies.

Uhh ... I'm guessing, then, that the smart think to do would be to give the caroling mice your cookies?


If you give them cookies, they tell other animals.
Soon you'll be dead broke and starve.
The end

Reading between the lines, I'd have to say the very best thing to do if you see or hear caroling mice approaching your door would be to kill the lights and call animal control.

Don't say we didn't warn you.

2 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: science fair research in progress.

We're less than two weeks out from our elementary school science fair, which means that both Free-Ride offspring are in serious data collection mode. As they look ahead to having enough data to present and "analyze" (you lose points if there's not some kind of computing of a mean, preferably accompanied by bar graphs -- heaven help the child exploring a question which yields qualitative results), I figured we should check in with some notes from the experimental trenches.

The younger Free-Ride offspring has been studying mold-growth on a selection of breads under various conditions (including exposure to light, air flow, moisture, and temperature).

Mold has grown (and on some but not all of the samples -- so there will be differences to explain). Quantifying the amount of mold that has grown on a sample (either by counting wee spots or by using a ruler to measure moldy regions) and recording those data in the lab notebook takes rather longer than the younger Free-Ride offspring had anticipated. Also, while the younger Free-Ride offspring digs wearing the powdered latex gloves to handle the bread samples, the fact that the moldy bread has a distinctive (and unpleasant) odor was a complete surprise.

Dr. Free-Ride's better half is concerned that this is evidence that we have sheltered our kids from the normal operations of the natural world.

The elder Free-Ride offspring's study of whether a rabbit (this rabbit) relies more on sight or smell to locate treats hit a little bit of a snag. The original experiment involved putting treats (or non-treats) in hard plastic vessels --some of them clear, others not, some with slots in them (making it possible to smell what's inside the container), others completely sealed up -- and to observe and record Snowflake's reaction.

From those early trials, we learned that Snowflake was pretty quick in her assessment that she couldn't get inside those containers herself. Secure in that knowledge, she would give up and start munching the timothy hay in her run. Moreover, she discovered that within about 15 minutes of her giving up, the elder Free-Ride offspring would also give up and remove those annoyingly impossible containers from the run -- often giving the rabbit one of the treats when the containers were extracted.

Clearly, the rabbit was too smart for the original experimental design.

However, within the last week the elder Free-Ride offspring has been constructing mini bales of timothy hay, some with treats in them and some not, and has observed Snowflake's differential reaction to them. Ultimately, the data analysis here may require coming up with a scale of smelliness (i.e., of how easy or hard particular treats are to smell). We'll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, I'm making sure both Free-Ride offspring consult literature relevant to the systems they are studying. And I'm getting a new can of spray adhesive so that the display-board assembly proceed without incident.

One response so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: ecological concepts in pictures.

Mar 18 2011 Published by under Critters, Environment, Kids and science

It's been another busy week, but I managed to intercept (on their path from backpack to recycling bin) a couple pages of what looks to be school work in which the elder Free-Ride offspring has illustrated various concepts from ecology in drawings.

The elder offspring represents ecological concepts in pictures

The elder offspring represents more ecological concepts in pictures

A closer look at the concepts (with a wee bit of commentary) below.
Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: science fair experimental design.

Feb 11 2011 Published by under Critters, Kids and science, Methodology

The elder Free-Ride offspring is thinking about a project studying the behavior of Snowflake Free-Ride, the rabbit in residence at Casa Free-Ride. While finding interesting questions to ask about the bunny is pretty easy, working out reasonable ways to get data that might help answer those questions is somewhat harder:

Elder offspring: I want to see whether Snowflake finds food with her eyes or her nose.

Dr. Free-Ride: What are your thoughts on how to do that?

Elder offspring: Well, we need a room ...

Dr. Free-Ride: ... OK. Tell me more.

Elder offspring: We need a room with a fan up at the top.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why do we need a fan up at the top?

Elder offspring: To blow away the smells.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. So you're looking for some mechanism to mask smells and see if she can still find the food.

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess I'm not totally convinced a fan is the best way to mask a smell. Also, I worry that it might freak her out.

Elder offspring: Oh.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, your hypothesis is that she's either finding the food by smell or by sight. So how would you tell if sight is what she's using?

Elder offspring: We start the fan and put the food there and if she can find it ... We may also need to use a clothespin, like in those cartoons --

Dr. Free-Ride: We're totally not putting a clothespin on the rabbit's nose, smart aleck!

Elder offspring: (snickering) I know.

Dr. Free-Ride: Let's back up a little bit. We're talking about two possible ways you think the rabbit could locate food -- one is by vision, one is by smell. Masking smell means we have to figure out a way to get the volatile stuff that the nose detects away from her. But my own hunch is that masking sight might be easier. Do you have any thoughts on how to mask --

Elder offspring: Blindfolds.

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh, no. You'll have to be more clever, since you can't blindfold the bunny.

Elder offspring: Put her in a dark room.

Dr. Free-Ride: I don't know how good her night vision is. (Or how good your night vision is if you're in the dark room trying to observe her.)

Elder offspring: If we hear munching ...

Dr. Free-Ride: Isn't she always munching on something?

Elder offspring: We'd use a food where the munching sounds like crunching.

Dr. Free-Ride: Aside from utter darkness, can you think of any other way to mask visual contact with the food?

Elder offspring: What if we surround a carrot by things that are visually distracting?

Dr. Free-Ride: Does that really test whether she's using vision to find the carrot, or whether she can pick it out visually amongst a bunch of visually distracting things? Maybe you need to think about whether there's some way to disguise it looking like a carrot, but it would still be there for her to smell.

Elder offspring: How about we put it behind a curtain or something?

Dr. Free-Ride: Ah, a barrier that keeps her from seeing it. Then, with the carrot out of sight but in smelling range, you'd see if she reacted like, "Where's the carrot. GIMME THE CARROT!"

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, that seems like a key part of your experimental design: how exactly are you going to mask the carrot's visibility but not its smell?

Elder offspring: Invisibility cloak!

Dr. Free-Ride: You don't get to use things that don't exist in your science fair project. Unless you can successfully invent them, in which case -- if you can successfully invent an invisibility cloak, I submit to you that that would probably be a more impressive science fair project than this information on rabbit behavior that you obtain using the invisibility cloak.

Elder offspring: Yeah, OK.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, is it going to be a problem that you have exactly one rabbit to study?

Elder offspring: Nah.

Dr. Free-Ride: What's that going to do to the conclusions you can draw.

Elder offspring: I probably can't say that all rabbits are like this based on the behavior of this one rabbit. But, she's a pretty typical rabbit.

Dr. Free-Ride: How do you know she's pretty typical?

Elder offspring: Because, she's a breed [New Zealand white] that's raised for lab use, and they want typical animals for lab use.

Dr. Free-Ride: Which means you would be surprised if she were very weird, as rabbits go?

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: Of course, she's been living with you for almost a year now. That might be enough to make a rabbit weird.

Elder offspring: Hey!

Dr. Free-Ride: I'm just saying. So, back to your experimental design, since Snowflake is a smart rabbit -- she learns stuff -- what if you make a curtain or some other barrier and she starts associating it with carrots?

Elder offspring: Maybe sometimes we could just put a rock behind it instead of a carrot.

Dr. Free-Ride: Good call -- something that isn't edible and doesn't smell like a treat.

7 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: Dinosaurs Life Size.

Nov 05 2010 Published by under Book review, Critters, Kids and science

Dinosaurs Life Size

This week, the sprogs had a look at Dinosaurs Life Size by Darren Naish.

The Free-Ride offspring are, at eleven and nine, some years past maximum dinosaur enthusiasm.

Still, they have an appreciation for arresting pictures, interesting facts, and the scientific detective work that goes into reconstructing the details of dinosaurs' anatomies and ways of life from the clues lurking in fossil remains.

The younger Free-Ride offspring says:

There are a lot of fossils in this book. How do you get those life size photos of dinosaurs?

I think it's really cool how Liopleurodons left bite marks in fossils.

Dino Eye

Sauroposeidon has huge eyes because of a huge face. And its name means "earthquake god lizard."

My four-year-old cousin would enjoy a lot of these dinosaurs. He'd like how huge they are. And, he'd learn lots of facts about them. He'd learn where they were found in the world and how big they were.

The elder Free-Ride offspring says:

I found this book a bit monotonous and repetitive, mostly because I think it was written for a much younger audience. I think a 6-year-old or 7-year-old would really enjoy this book.

Dino Fold Out Flap

They would like the fold out flaps.

The book doesn't really show skeletons, maybe because little kids would find them "scary".

Dino with Kid for Scale

The book has nice computer generated pictures of dinosaurs. There are also photos of little kids making faces placed with the dinosaur pictures, creating the illusion of dinosaurs still being alive today.

The book has an interesting way of demonstrating the size of the dinosaurs, picking a body part to show "life size".

There are lots of cool facts (like the fact that Iguanodon's thumb was a remarkable weapon).

There's also a dinosaur quiz in the back of the book (but it's WAY to easy for a sixth grader).

2 responses so far

National Chemistry Week repost: How does salt melt snails?

Oct 19 2010 Published by under Basic concepts, Chemistry, Critters, Garden

It should be noted that for some of us, nearly the whole world comes to us through the lens of chemistry, every week of the year. Here's another post from the back-catalogue that brings my chemical sensibilities to the garden:

In light of our recent snail eradication project:

Why does salt "melt" snails and slugs? (And how do people manage to prepare escargot without ending up with a big pot of goo?)

To answer this question, let us consider the snail as seen by the chemist:


Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

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