Archive for February, 2008

Consumer Alert pt. 2: LET ME OFF THE DAMN BOAT

February 29, 2008 - 3:21 pm Comments Off

First, let me again remind you all that Norwegian Cruise Lines are a blight upon all that is good in the world, and should any of our readers at any point consider a vacation with them, I propose the following: Give me one half of whatever you would spend on airfare and the cruise itself, and I will come to your house, provide mild occasional beatings, surly contempt, and prevent you from leaving your home without levels of inconvenience last seen in the Spanish Inquisition. This way, you will save money and have roughly the same experience.

When last we left, LabRat and I had just survived the first full day at sea, and were preparing to arrive in our first port of call, Ketchikan.
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Consumer Alert pt. 1: LET ME ON THE DAMN BOAT

February 28, 2008 - 6:33 pm Comments Off

For most of the U.S., the weather is warming into spring. As the seasons change, many begin to look at taking a vacation. If you are one of these fun-seekers, I have some advice I wish to pass on in hopes of sparing you from the horror and disaster LabRat and I endured two years ago: stay the fuck away from Norwegian Cruise Lines.

The important information now established, let me explain why I feel NCL is an organization comprised of floating buckets of fail and suck.
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Tattoos: How to Not Suck

February 27, 2008 - 7:42 pm Comments Off

Tattoos and the heavily tattooed have a sketchy reputation for a reason: it’s a tradition that started with various undesirable or “wild” segments of society, they’re an indelible way to immortalize poor decision-making skills, they’re painful, and they’re embraced by a lot of stupid people as a way to demonstrate their loyalty, pain tolerance, or mindless rebellion.

But they don’t really have to be any of these things. Tattoos can be beautiful, they can be a way to record periods of your life like mile-markers, they can be unique, they can be self-expression for people who are really, really sure about what they want to express. Even a bad tattoo can be expressive- it can say “I’m a jackass!” very well indeed. They can be, in a word, cool. Ah, but how to be sure of that?

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They don't have a map, and the flashlight doesn't work too well either.

February 26, 2008 - 8:50 pm Comments Off

One frequent source of frustration with “science” and the scientific point of view is that in some fields, the “official” scientific line seems to change from week to week and often contradicts itself, thus leading anyone attempting to follow the recommendations to complete frustration. Psychology and nutrition are two major repeat offenders, and for basically the same reasons.

On the workaday level of research and publication, you do science by isolating one or two variables, changing that variable for one group but not for another, and then reporting what happens. Unfortunately, the reality of any complex system is that there are about three billion variables, and a lot of them influence each other all at once. Biology has this problem. Medicine has this problem. Both fields have the advantage of many hundreds of years of history over nutrition and psychology (which could easily be considered subfields of either)- and biology in particular has a few unifying theories that tell biologists what to expect generally based on some basic intuitive reasoning involving checking it against evolutionary logic and some other points of theory that have been tested often enough to qualify as “might as well call it fact”. Most biologists are able to look at that complex system and be able to make good educated guesses about which variables are important, which are incidental, and how the system is likely to behave when you add or remove them.

A nutritionist looks at food- itself a hideously complex entity, stretching across a huge variety of naturally evolved organisms, domestically engineered ones, and novel chemical creations- and looks at food’s effect on the body. The nutritionist’s problem is that he or she does not even know for sure which bits of food and which aspects of the body’s response to it are the important ones, and there is no well-shaped, heavily-tested overriding theory to tell him what he can generally expect, either. The closest thing- the lipid hypothesis- is looking to have been completely wrong, to boot. So the scientist is reduced to studying the effects of changing variables in a system that not only has thousands of variables, but the majority of which he has no clue about the existence or importance of… and he can only do work that qualifies as such by isolating one of them and then seeing what happens with no ability to control the behavior of his subjects in ALL of the other variables, including the ones he doesn’t know about. He’s “searching under the streetlight”- studying only those things he already knows about and are easy to study- because he doesn’t have a choice. In the meantime, the news media will insist on reporting a tentative conclusion (or no conclusion at all) as a new fact, and especially in cases where massive amounts of time and energy has been spent on the study, the scientists are under pressure not to complain that there was really no news to report other than “nutrition slightly less opaque, further research needed”.

The study of the biological end of psychology suffers from similar problems, and is under even greater pressure from the “consumer” to come to firm conclusions so patients can be treated, already. There is, once again, no overriding theory- though there ARE several competing schools of thought. Making the problem worse is that mental illnesses are only recently being understood on a level better than the medieval. If a normal physician’s patient’s reported symptom is massive bleeding, the problem could be that the patient has a massive open wound and the bleeding is the result of immediate trauma. Or, the problem could be that the patient has been poisoned and is temporarily unable to clot even with a minor and normally irrelevant injury. Or, the problem could be that the patient has hemophilia and is constitutionally incapable of producing adequate clotting factors. Or, the patient’s diet could be ridiculously limited, and that patient could be deficient in essential nutrients that eventually lead to that patient exhausting all stores of the nutrient and breaking down in their ability to clot because of the missing factor. Now change the nature of the problem: the patient has massive depression. It could be that the patient recently underwent some hideous life event and depression is a perfectly normal response to trauma… or….? All too often, the answer is the result of searching in the streetlight: assume the problem must be due to something that we know about- like an imbalance of certain well-studied neurotransmitters- and put that patient on a drug designed to correct those levels. Once again, not all the variables are known, even fewer are well understood, and it’s not even always clear whether the problem- like depression- is a disease in and of itself, or a symptom of another problem. Good psychologists understand this- bad ones try harder and harder to reduce the issue to something known.

Unfortunately, the reaction to this sort of invariably ensuing nonsense by an understandably frustrated public is to conclude that the scientists in these fields all have their heads stuffed so far up their asses they can look through their own mouths, reject it altogether, and reduce the issue even further to something they DO understand, usually something that fixed a problem in their own lives. All you need is to run a mile a day! All you need is this religion! All you need is to go low-carb! Anyone who has problems anyway is doing it wrong!

Sometimes the answers really aren’t easy ones and the only solution is to educate yourself as fully as possible and to regard the words of science reporting as being roughly akin to the words of hyperactive toddlers. And you’ll still know mostly only that which is under the street light.

But it beats being completely in the dark.

PSA

February 25, 2008 - 8:08 pm Comments Off

Necessarily brief, since we spent the day in ABQ stress-testing Stingray’s pain tolerance thresholds….

Sometimes, when someone refers to you by a pejorative term, such as “dumbass”, or “retard”, or “doofus”, or similar… it isn’t because you touched a nerve with your daring and probing insight.  It’s because it’s accurately descriptive and other people deserve a warning, or at least honesty in shorthand.

That is all.

The Paleo diet Dogs

February 24, 2008 - 3:36 pm Comments Off

Sunday mornings are nice. Sunday mornings are reserved for sleeping in until whenever the hell I feel like getting up (barring intervention by the Evil Phone), picking whatever project about the house I feel like focusing on (barring ongoing construction), and generally lazing about. Today, Kang commenced her morning song a bit earlier than normal, and Kodos accompanied with his collar-jangle-dance (he feels whining or barking to wake us up would be Rude. Why this is remains his deep and personal secret), so with all the loving compassion I could muster I did the only sensible thing. I elbowed LabRat and had her let them out. Falling instantly back to sleep and into a bizarre dream involving a two page report on Abe Lincon, concealed carry, and the kitchen of Kitchen Confidential’s Nolita, I was happy to let the hands of the clock spin along, especially since a peek outside during a bathroom run revealed a gray, drizzly, cold morning. Warm dry blankets were much preferable.

Some time later I eventually defeated the bed’s black hole-like gravity and achieved escape velocity (aka “a sleepy shuffle”). Wandering through the kitchen, I made coffee and noted that the dogs were not in their usual morning-snooze positions. After a few minutes noodling around and checking my favorite sites while the java brewed, I decided to haul the dogs in. The cold isn’t a problem for them, but they hadn’t had their daily chance to stomp on my feet in joy. Why they do this is also a mystery, but at least my feet are getting tougher. Kang, as usual, was simply thrilled to see me again, apparently convinced that I had vanished into some sort of alternate universe, never to be seen again each time I leave her sight. While she stood behind me, vibrating with anticipation of stomping on my feet, I called the ever sluggish Kodos. After a minute of standing with the door open in rather chilly air, I said to hell with it, and resolved to find shoes, shirt, and jacket and drag his butt in. Then I noticed Kang’s feet. They were rather bloody.

Since her nose had a fairly thick layer of dirt on it, I figured she just cut herself on something while digging. I stuffed her into her crate, informed the showering LabRat that she required attention, and went to take another crack at getting Kodos to come in. Luck was with me, and after a few calls I spotted movement along the main trail through the yard. Urging him on (“C’mon, move your busted ass, Stepin Fetchit! Don’t make me come out there!”), I soon noticed that he was carrying something with him. At a distance, it looked like a ball of some sort, except gray. We live very close to a tennis court, so it was possible that someone had just lost a ball over our fence, which had since become dingy from all the mud and two dogs playing with it. As he got closer, there was a bit hanging out the side of his mouth that was…. flapping.

Ooookay… maybe they just started skinning the tennis ball they found. Kodos was within about 25 feet at this point, and stopped in the small area by the side door covered in gravel. Standing there wagging and looking smug as all hell, he dropped the “ball” and came a few steps forward, and generally indicated “Hey Dad! C’mere and check this out! This is so frickin’ cool you won’t believe it!” The ball looked rather less like a tennis ball at this point. “What the {delightful surprise} is that {lovely object} you {good dog}?” I inquired of him, translating slightly here to what I meant to say, instead of what actually came out as I faced the prospect of tramping barefoot in the cold over sharp rocks to investigate. Sucking it up and marching over, my suspicions were accurate. Kodos had brought me a bunny head. While I poked it with a stick, he did a passable impression of the proudest dog in the world. I really haven’t seen him look that happy in ages. Regardless, I ushered him inside and went to update LabRat.

“No rush on Kang’s paws after all. I think I found the source. Kodos just brought me a bunny head.” I was distracted by scenery as she was stepping out of the shower, but she reports that the dog in question stuffed his head through the door crack, grinned, wagged vigorously, and licked his chops. Update performed, I gathered boots, coat, and other necessities of spring time in Los Alamos, and went to find the rest. As it turns out, they had themselves quite the wonderful morning. We managed to find most of the torso and hind legs, and after a call to the folks, who have dealt with rabbit hunting much longer than I and might know some trick to detect tularemia (a nasty little disease that killed Kodos’s dam) if the liver was no longer availible, returned our attentions to the dogs. Both were vibrating at the back door as I was off usurping their prize, chewing on each other in excitement, and making noises that would sound more at home in Jurassic Park. Once we turned them loose again, Kodos achieved speeds normally reserved for electrons in heavy magnetic fields and showed us another spot of leftovers, but still no sign of the liver. Naturally.

So now my nice, peaceful Sunday is dedicated to watching the dogs to make sure they don’t show any signs of sickness. On the one hand, thousands of dogs kill thousands of rabbits in this state every year, and a case of tularemia is still rare enough to warrant state CDC interest. On the other hand… Kang & Kodos, dammit! There will be hovering, poking, prodding, and vigorous observation. At least they seem happy (and if you’re squeamish, don’t click those links).

LabRat’s take, while of course similar to mine, did include the apt observation that between the rain, the season, and the animal, we will be dimming the lights and watching Wicker Man this evening.

Zydeco: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

February 22, 2008 - 10:12 pm Comments Off

(LabRat says I need a drink warning here.)
Sleeping peacefully, or plotting our demise?

A year or two ago we took in a bunch of foster kittens while one of the local shelters was a bit swamped. These horrid little fuzzballs were infected with… something. Whatever it was, it turned them into uncontrollable pooping machines. Not normal kitten pooping machine levels, but real, dedicated effort to spattering anything they could reach, and a few things that left us scratching our heads. Naturally, Zydeco managed to catch whatever it was they had. After a trip or two to the vet, things mostly cleared up, but his gut never quite got back to its former stability. Every so often something would set him off and he’d spend a few days exploding from both ends. Each time, right at the point where it’d been going on long enough to make us reach for the phone to get him back to the vet, he’d clear up and go back to being his normal megalomaniacal self. Well, he just went through another burst, and this time we decided to find out what the hell we can do about this regardless of the fact that he again cleared up on his own.

So this afternoon we got to the vet. We did the normal sign in, sit around for long enough to check her books and find “Four legs and meows… damn, I know that one…”, and finally the doc comes in. We brief her on Zydeco’s situation, consult his history and charts etc, and conclude that since he’s getting up there in years anyway, it would be a good idea to check some of his organ functions. This would require a blood draw. While this vet has worked on Zydeco before, it was apparently long enough ago that she successfully repressed the memory.

“All righty, I’ll just pop him in the back and we’ll have him out shortly,” she optimistically informed us.
“Good luck.” I replied.

LabRat and I went back to our books. Some time later, noises of demonic posession began to reach our ears.

“Sounds like they finally got to Zydeco,” I noted, and continued reading.
“YARAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR@#(*&#$#!@(*&%)!@&#%HHHHHHAAAAAAAA!!”
“Mmm,” LabRat replied.
“Get the kitty muzzle! GET THE MUZZLE!” cried the vet in the rear.
“HHIIIISSSSSSSSSSSSSSRTAARAAAAAAAYYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAAAYOURMOTHERSUCKSCOCKSINHELL!”
“Should we tell them he knows how to take those off?” asked LabRat.
“SHIT!”
“I think they just found out.”
“Quick! Try the cat bag!” suggested a tech.
“I don’t think he knows that one yet, does he?”
“IA! IA! CTHULHU FTHAGN! RARRRWOOOOWOOWOWOWRRAAROAR”
“Oh my god!”
At this point, we began to hear some rather non-trivial crashes. Heavy-equipment sized crashes.
“GET HIM OFF ME!”
“What the hell is he doing back there?” LabRat wondered.
“A LA TUHUELPA LEGRIA MACARENA QUE TUHUELCE PARALLA LEGRIA COSA BUNEA! {crash, thump, clatter, crash}”
“…I think he’s winning.”

There was one more resounding crash, followed by, and I swear I am not making this up, the exact stereotypical platter-spinning-to-a-stop noise you always hear after some stupendous crash in a sitcom or cartoon. A few minutes later, after a few comments like “Oh man, we gotta get that washed off…” and “How did… what the… ” came drifting up to our ears, the vet walked back in the room, looking rather dishevelled.

“Well, he’s a bit of a fiesty fella.”
LabRat and I would like to take this opportunity to accept any awards for tact and grace under pressure for not bursting in to open laughter at this statement.
“Right now he’s caged and doing a pretty good imitation of a rabid bobcat.” Again, we refrained from laughing.

As near as we can put together from the techs and vet, once Zydeco cottoned on to what was happening, he dropped into his default mode of Engine of Destruction. After some preliminary biting and scratching, he kicked off the kitty muzzle and attached himself to the vet’s thigh. Once separated, he continued his rampage until he bounced back onto the observation table, where he found himself surrounded. From there, he launched a reported five feet off slick stainless steel surface to attach himself to one of the tech’s forearms, where he proceded to inflict the worst wound the tech had ever received from an animal. According to the vet, his forearm was fairly heavily drenched in blood. At this point, they switched to a defensive tactic, and simply tried to get him back into a cage. Any cage. Once this mission of self preservation was accomplished, they came to see if he would be any gentler with us. We obliged, and found the room rather asunder on arrival, with one seriously traumatized looking Chow on the grooming table and Zydeco in the cage with the same type of pole Animal Control uses still attached to his neck. With some finagaling and further cat-profanity, the help of a “cat-nabber” which was essentially a giant pair of canning tongs with mesh netting to turn the cat into a kitty-burrito, and powerful drugs, we successfully got just about everything we needed.

So, all in total for the day, Zydeco: 1 vet, three techs, the vet’s mom, and one Chow Chow. Vet: Technically one blood draw, and one urine sample, but I’m not sure it counts if we had to do most of the work.

It Doesn't Have To Be Hard: Broccoli Soup

February 21, 2008 - 2:40 pm Comments Off

We just tried Gordon Ramsey’s recipie for broccoli soup, and it is damned tasty. I wish I could take credit for this (and it’s so simple I probably could get away with doing so), but I can’t.

Take two or three bunches of fresh broccoli and trim the florettes off. Chop up the stalks.
Salt (kosher please) a pot of boiling water and dump the vegitation in. Add a bit more salt to the top, and boil for 4-5 minutes.
Fish out the broccoli with a spider or some other straining device.
Do not throw out the water you boiled it in – this is now instant broccoli stock.
Dump the cooked broccoli into the blender. Add the insta-stock untill it comes about halfway up the broccoli.
Blend until reasonably smooth, add more salt if needed – about 14 seconds by the timer on my blender, including mixing in extra salt.
Garnish with a light grind of pepper. Would probably go well with goat cheese.

It took longer to get the water to a boil than the rest of the operations combined. Enjoy.

This is why references to "mother nature" disturb me.

February 19, 2008 - 7:44 pm Comments Off

Going way back to before there was any such thing as an evolutionary theory that wasn’t laughably wrong, one of the favorite arguments for special creation was the alleged perfection of God’s design. Nothing so ideal and finely tuned as a hummingbird could- supposedly- possibly come from any natural process. (I suspect this was before people knew that hummingbirds have to enter a state of helpless torpor just shy of death every night just to avoid starving to death before morning.) It drove a rather interesting sort of amateur naturalism (“natural theology”) among the religious to seek out examples of the glory of God in the perfection of nature, which at least got people out and observing, and certainly strikes one as a more interesting and productive religious activity than, say, Calvinism.

You can still see this sort of thing among dedicated advocates of special creation (as opposed to people who think God created life but evolution still applies), but they’re far less likely nowadays to also be biologists or naturalists, because two hundred years after William Paley, we’ve seen… a little more of nature. The sort of nature that, with the mention of a mere genus name, can cause some of the well-informed to either crack up or lose their appetites on the spot.

My personal favorite, because it makes my inner thirteen-year-old giggle madly, is Xylocaris maculipennis. Like a surprising number of other bedbugs, Xylocaris reproductive process is “traumatic insemination”, or in layman’s terms, “he jumps on you and stabs into your abdomen with his penis when he wants to make a baby, and not through the vajayjay, either”. Because it is, basically, stabbing rape, Xylocaris mating leaves an insemination scar. If this weren’t wince-inducing enough… females aren’t the only ones to commonly have insemination scars. Males do too. Either the bedbugs simply aren’t picky and stab-rape everything that comes in range… or, as theorized, they do it because it forces some of their own sperm into the victim, so that the next time the victim male stab-rapes somebody, he might wind up passing some of his rapist’s genes along with his own. (This is considered possible because bugs have an open circulatory system. It’s also why the stab-rape thing works on the females to begin with.)

The evolutionary explanation is actually fairly simple; in other species of bedbugs (and not a small number of other arthropods), “mating plugs” are common. When a male mates with a female the normal way that doesn’t make the entomologist shudder, he leaves behind a plug that prevents any other male from mating with her thereafter. Good for him, kinda bad for her (it would be better for her to mate with a more diverse number of males to maximize the chances of a good gene combination), bad for other males. This would be about like the first nuclear tests: first stage of a subsequent arms race, for some species. The stab rape was next- you can completely bypass any mating plugs that might be there and just make use of whatever eggs might be there and unfertilized at the time. Good for him, bad for her (the stab rape is just another physical trauma for the female- she suffers the same consequences as for any injury, baby-makin’ or no), indifferent for other males. Most species that went the stab-rape way stopped there. If the theory behind the common insemination scars on Xylocaris males are correct, then the next step is stab-raping everybody in order to get your genes out as widely as possible. It is, at least, a level playing field for pretty much everybody except the females. (Nobody has yet reported a bedbug species in which the females have evolved carry pistols and Krav Maga, but I figure it’s just a matter of time.)

Vertebrates get off somewhat lighter on the Terrifying Sex front than arthropods, but not entirely. As Holly mentioned in the comments, male ducks have a nasty habit of forcing themselves on the females. (Link may not be safe for work. Do not click unless you think you can successfully explain why you’d be reading about duck phalluses to your boss.) This normally isn’t really possible for birds, since bird sex requires a delicate balancing act that makes this observer wish for popcorn and score cards, but ducks are unique in both having an intromittent organ at all (97% of birds don’t), and in having a mating platform- water- on which they can basically immobilize the female. Once again, it really sucks to be the female, because there is a fairly high rate of injury or death for the females- add in the fact that mallard ducks in particular have an oddly high rate of homosexuality, and you have the animal kingdom’s first recorded case of homosexual necrophilia. Kinky people, the next time you start thinking you’re such creatively bent little primates, remember that you were outdone in perversity by a duck. (And, possibly, a squirrel, but no one was able to get a confirmed gender ID on the victim for that one.)

Again, from a strict evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. Ducks, like many other birds, form bonded pairs to raise chicks; that’s the arrangement that benefits both partners. Males, however, can maximize their chances of getting their genes spread around by raping the females when they get the chance- and if they kill her, it wasn’t their partner anyway. (I do not know if it’s only males that haven’t scored a bonded partner that do this, or if some of the bonded males are simply very busy.) Female ducks have more to work with, anatomically speaking, than a female bedbug does; her oviducts can evolve to be simply harder to access if she doesn’t make it easy for her partner. And, they have- species with high rates of forced mating have females in which the lower oviducts are incredibly baroque… and to which the male duck genitalia is correspondingly specifically matched, for his side of the arms race. Also, it is incredibly cool that the theme song from “Mission: Impossible” just came up on my playlist.

Spotted Hyenas have a variety of “interesting” design that was obvious enough for even the ancients to observe: the females are highly masculinized, so that males and females both have a phallus. The ancients, rather confused by this in general, came to a tentative general consensus that the hyena must be able to change its sex. (Although how they reconciled this with both participants in a hyena mating having a phallus, my source does not say. Perhaps this was because most of this information was through general word of mouth rather than field observation.) They also, perhaps understandably given some other hyena traits, came to the conclusion that the entire beast was some kind of God-given allegory about… something. Something very, very wrong, be it gluttony, or treachery, or homosexuality.

The link above explains the evolutionary reasoning for the extreme masculinization of female hyenas- they are bigger, stronger, meaner, and more dominant than the males in addition to having masculinized genitalia- as a side effect of the female competition for dominance, supposedly sparked by the reproductive advantage enjoyed by the sons of the most dominant females. The masculinization was, in theory, a side effect of selection for testosterone-driven aggression. Unfortunately for the theory, female hyenas have normal levels of androgens (testosterone and its relations), and experimentation with anti-androgens had no effect on the development of the phallic-clitoris-extended vagina arrangement. (The vaginal passage runs through this structure.) Therefore, its development was probably no mere side effect of selection for aggression- which is interesting, as it makes for both an awkward way to mate and a dangerous way to give birth, with a female’s first cubs often dying during the birth, and subsequent births resulting in a nasty rupture that can take weeks to heal, leaving the hyena not only hurting, but open to infection or other complication. There are other nasty aspects to the hyena arrangement; intrasex competition is so intense that when a female gives birth to twins of the same sex, one will almost invariably kill the other. There is no good theory I’ve heard that can even come close to explaining how this arrangement came to be despite its many disadvantages… though despite the infant mortality and the dangers to the mothers, spotted hyenas are pretty successful as African predators go, so there must be something that’s simply been missed so far. Biologists becoming interested in hyenas rather than the much more popular lions is a relatively new phenomenon.

Next time I might talk about this using something other than exclusively twisted sexual arrangements of nature. But because this pleases both the inner child that liked to collect bones and the one that thought dirty jokes were hilarious, I wouldn’t count on my moving on to panda thumbs and stupid trachea tricks just yet. Not when there are still lesbian clone lizards in my yard.

Whew.

February 19, 2008 - 6:27 pm Comments Off

a) The rumors you have heard are true, and the new version of Firefox is not stable.

b) I really, really should have kept that more firmly in mind before writing nearly seven hundred words without saving once.

c)  However, the new version of WordPress is awesome, because I didn’t lose a bit of it due to autosaving of drafts.

Hooray!