Autotomy: Nature's "FUCK YOU" to Predators

Autotomy is cool shit. There is no denying the fact. If you're a prey animal (as most species on the planet are) and something gets in the mood to snack on you, you're in trouble. If that something gets a hold of you, you're pretty much screwed. Animals which practice autotomy, however, have learned that sometimes giving the finger to your would be diner can be a brilliant ploy.

Stealing Good Ideas

After excitedly relaying the concept of Drunk History to Karen, she came back with perhaps the greatest idea ever: Drunk Biology.

Here's the concept: I drink an excessive amount, Karen is on standby with a video camera. When I've imbibed enough alcohol to shame a pirate we turn on a camera and I do my best to extol the wonders of a particular critter which I find fascinating. Starter ideas include tarantulas, cephalopods, various feeder insects, and guinea pigs (I am not a fan of guinea pigs).

Unfortunately we're lacking famous actors to portray the species of choice. Karen's thought is crummy animation, but I suspect that neither of us possess the ability to make even crummy animation. We may have to settle with props and pics.

I am excited for this. Expect it to start sometime over the next few months.

Dispelling Bug Myths: Daddy Longlegs

Daddy Longlegs are not the most venomous (NOT POISONOUS. Pet peeve of mine. Venom is injected, poison is ingested, unless you're just using layman's terms, but please don't) spider. Most of the time, when people say "Daddy Longlegs", they aren't even talking about spiders.

Two different species of arachnids go by the common name "Daddy Longlegs", as does the crane fly. We'll ignore the crane fly for now, but no, it also has no deadly venom.

The first oft misunderstood arachnid is the Harvestman, belonging to the order Opiliones. These are delicate-looking arachnids that are easily distinguished from spiders, despite their matching number of legs. Harvestmen have a fused prosoma and opisthisoma (cephalothorax and abdomen), which makes them seem like a small oval with hairs for legs. They also have no venom whatsoever (or even proper fangs, instead possessing chelicerae more akin to a scorpions); lack spinnerettes; are capable of eating particulate food (not just liquid as spiders); and have true genitalia rather than relying on sperm packets. These are just the most interesting of their differences, and they truly deserve a post all their own.

The other poor victim of wide slander is the cellar spider. These belong to the order I adore so much, Aranea,  with their family being Pholcidae. They are also rather gangly fellows, although their legs do not share the same hair-resemblance of the Opiliones. Pholcidae opisthosomas are rice-grain shaped, although the entire body length of the spider is only about 3/4 the size of a grain of rice, typically.
These "daddy longlegs" have webs resembling a mess of silk and are usually found in places like your basement or in dark corners of your shed. They make a habit of devouring other spiders who typically share their space such as the dreaded Brown Recluse (itself not nearly so horrible as it is made out to be) as well as members of Latrodectus (a family that includes the black widow).  Pholcids are, therefore, a great asset to have in your home. Oh, and their venom has been found to be no more toxic than most spiders.

Now go forth and inform your friends!

James Randi Speaks Homeopathy Week 2010

Randi sums up homeopathy (once again).

We came up with the same acronym pun! Same idea, anyway.

The Supernatural vs the Theoretical

The blog Starts With A Bang has an interesting post about some of the theorised potential of black holes. It is nifty.

More than just nifty, this presents me with an excellent opportunity to highlight the difference between trusting science and believing in the supernatural -aside from the obvious (ie: medicine works, homeopathy doesn't :P And no, I haven't forgotten about WHA?? Week, but crap it's draining to write about that garbage).

Some critics of scientific thinking put forward that trusting in information such as the above blog presents is akin to believing in god. They assume this makes science-minded folk just big hypocrites who have a vendetta against religion (I'm sticking with religion as a comparison, as it's more often where this argument comes from. Feel free to substitute ghost-chasers or psychics).

The difference is glaring once you're aware of it: when theories like the one mentioned in Starts With A Bang are presented, they are taken with a grain of salt (to use a phrase that is completely incomprehensible to me). They are nifty thought-experiments that mathematicians put together using formulae that test out, even while the actual physical testing remains an impossibility. They remain an intellectual curiosity until the day that they are refuted by further mathematical proofs or verified by actual testing. On that day reasoned, informed people change their minds.

Religion, meanwhile, maintains a strict dogma, budging as little as it can afford to while still remaining an influential power in society. For fucks sake, there are people who still believe the earth is less than 6000 years old! There are demonologists working for the vatican! Exorcists! Faith-Healers! These people refuse to let scientific evidence influence their beliefs, instead holding to outmoded codes of self- and other-repression.

What it boils down to is that science admits its mistakes, even if not all scientists do. Religion and the supernatural turn a blind eye to any evidence that does not support their view.

WHA?? Week continued

Sunday and Monday have come and gone without the WHA??? Week posts I promised. Well, that's moving for you. I will not be attempting to make up for the missed posts, as writing about this garbage is stressful enough without doing multiple posts on it per day.

Today I'm going to be addressing what I think is arguably the largest problem with homeopathy: the indifference of the majority. While speaking with my father, who is a pretty good sceptic for someone who doesn't work at it (this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. People who work at it, like myself, are likely putting too much thought into it, obsessing if you will), a major misconception was aired.

It goes something like this: if some people find homeopathy works for them, then what's the harm, and why should we get upset over it?

Anyone who's talked to me on this subject knows what I'm about to say, but I don't think they've heard it without the cursing and fuming that usually surrounds me at this point.

The problem is that homeopathy is not a harmless practice. One of homeopathy's tenets is that modern medicine is going about healing all wrong; in the majority of the large homeopathic websites this is presented subtly, but conversations with homeopathic supporters often reveal a more vitriolic opinion.

This opinion leads easily deluded individuals to scorning medicine in favour of witch-doctory -a practice that could get them killed. Even worse, parents deceived by even well-meaning homeopaths attempt to medicate their children with nothing more than water. Within the last few years a good example of this has been anti-malarial homeopathic remedies: pills supposedly effective at completely eliminating any chance of contracting malaria. Anyone with a basic knowledge of what homeopathy is should be appalled by this. Homeopaths are selling water pills to people who will be travelling to malaria-prone areas of the world. They are risking these peoples' lives.
For more wonderful examples of the immediate, physical harm homeopathy can have, check out one of my favourite websites:

In addition to the direct harm to the consumers of homeopathic "remedies", there is a more subtle effect on the nature of medicine itself. Homeopathic practitioners' views on medicine undermine the work that real doctors have been doing for the last hundred years -namely convincing people that this whole "medicine" thing is a good idea. Homeopaths (and other CHNWoo adherents) instil a fear and distrust into the common person by claiming that doctors are only out for their money, or that medicine is ineffective by treating only the "symptoms and not the cause" (a misconception that I think deserves its own post).

That is the harm. When they are not outright killing their patients, homeopaths are bilking them out of their money for useless vials of water and sugar pills.

[get it? WHA??? Week... I thought it was clever]

WHAW: Introduction to Homeopathy

As claimed, I attempted to write a breakdown of just what homeopathy is, but do you know what? I can't stomach it. Check out wikipedia for a nice, reasoned detailing. You can also look up pretty much any homeopathic institute, college, or centre to find the same information in a more masturbatory tone.

Here's the breakdown of what homeopaths believe:
  • Law of Similars: Treat ailments with substances which cause said ailment (coffee for insomnia, poison ivy for itching, etc).
Wondering why on earth anyone would think drinking coffee would make them sleepy? Well, it's because... 
  • Dilution unlocks the power: Homeopaths believe that a substance must be diluted several times at a 1:100 dilution. To illustrate: a homeopath takes 1mL (millilitre) of coffee and mixes it with 100mL of water, making a 1:100 solution coffee:water. Then they do that again, so for every 10 000mL of water, there is one lonely mL of coffee. They do this to excess, usually to the point where not a single molecule of the original substance remains, wikipedia claims this is 24 times at a 1:100 dilution. Oh, and you have to shake, or "potentise" it properly, using specific motions and actions.
How could people buy this? Well:
  • Water has a memory: Their theory is that, since there's obviously no real reason for this to work in science, water must have a memory. Of course, to unlock the memory one must prepare the solution with serial dilutions and proper shaking techniques.
On top of this, homeopaths dump a truckload of "we look at the whole body, not just the symptom", implying that real medicine focuses only on symptoms. Homeopathy is a repulsive practice that not only does no benefit, but does immense harm in its condescension of necessary medical practices such as vaccines, antibiotics, and other treatments which are actually based in reality. As to the true harm this deplorable practice is capable of... well, I'll save that so I have something to write about another day this week.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week

Sometimes I think the homeopaths are out to get me. They've scheduled their awareness week to start the first weekend of my move, and continue through to the 16th. This is terribly inconvenient.

Well, in honour of their absurd remedy, I'm going to be taking part in their awareness week as best I can with a daily short post on the science behind homeopathy. Like I said, short posts. I'll start tomorrow with a rundown of how it is claimed to work, and address on Sunday why it doesn't. Following that I have no idea, but I imagine the rest of the week I'll focus on particular points the homeopaths push, and maybe highlight a few studies as well.

Perhaps this will finally have me getting off my ass and presenting a properly cited report to my boss as to why we should eliminate that crap from the clinic entirely, instead of just ignoring it.


With moving being my top priority this week, and general existence getting in the way of any posts since March, the ol' attempt at blogging is pretty much falling into last place. I'm still not giving up entirely on this, though.

Next week is going to present problems of its own which will likely continue into the end of May. I'll be starting anaesthesia courses for work, and given that the only available online course before September is May 01, and it's an advance course, I have a bit of cramming to do before then.The material isn't overly difficult, plus it's interesting and (key point) short. A short course means that, in theory, it will end before I lose interest.

So a moving date is set for Saturday. I have a fair amount of packing to do before then -around my work schedule- which you'll note I am not currently doing. Sunday I will be reassembling my life in a new apartment, and likely cleaning cat vomit as Wicker freaks the hell out. Monday I will be back at work and free time from that point will likely revolve around learning how to properly administer anaesthesia to small animals without having them croak.

Note of interest: Dogs, along with most small mammals, have open "C" ring tracheae, like us. This is why people can be choked so easily. Because of these open rings of cartilage it is generally best to use an endo-tracheal tube that has an inflatable cuff. The cuff both holds the tube in place as well as prevents the escape of gas that should be going into the patient's lungs. Cats, birds and ferrets, meanwhile, have closed ring tracheae. Their tracheae are much stronger and this allows us to safely hold them around the neck without risk of choking them. Unfortunately, it also means that using inflatable E-T tubes risks damaging the sensitive tissue of the trachea, meaning we cannot use the inflatable tubes, and must rely on near-perfect sizing of the tube, and a general less-effective anaesthesia. Except that we still use the inflatable cuff in cats. No, I don't know why.