Dogs feel Okay about Robots

Turns out, dogs like robots – if we let they know they’re okay. This is according to a new study from Germany that set out to test how animals would react to robotic helpers. To do this, the researchers put the dogs in a room with a human and a robot, watched, and waited.

As their study concludes, it turns out that the dogs mostly take their cues from us.

If the humans acted like the machines were, well, machines – ignoring it, typing on its keyboard, etc – the dogs weren’t that interested in the robot. Even if it started making noises or using one of it’s insanely creepy mechanical claw-hands to try to point at various dog treats hidden in the room. But if the person acted friendly towards it – talked to it, shook it’s (creepy, fake, monstrous) hand – the dog was much more keen on it. The dogs spent much more time around “friendly” robots and were better at finding hidden food.

These were not good-looking machines, by the way. The dogs were definitely not working off sight. Imagine the front bit of a treadmill on wheels if you taped hospital gloves to it and gave it sentience. And, while the robot was never as successful as a human along was, the researches did show that there was a clear difference.

I’m not sure what the application of this technology is, but it’s pretty cool to think about. Maybe it’s just practice for when robots take over the world. After all, just because we’re all either dead or subjugated doesn’t mean our pets should have to suffer.

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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in Modernity


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Explaining the Chili’s Heat (While Eating One)


This is a follow-up to this article I posted in June 2012.

I am not always smart.

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Posted by on September 13, 2013 in Natural History


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Do Rhinos Put Out Fires?

I actually first heard about this myth on The Simpsons. There was one episode where Marge saves Homer from a rampaging rhino by setting their car on fire. The rhino immediately abandons its attack and puts out the fire. Day is saved.

Funny joke. Thought it was just random humor.

Actually, though, it’s not just a stupid joke. I mean, it is a stupid joke, but, whatever. I found out later that it was really a spoof of two scenes from the excellent 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazya comedy set in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. You can watch them below.

But this just creates further questions. If I got it from The Simpsons, and The Simpsons got it from The Gods Must Be Crazy, where did they get it from? It is a myth, right?

Turns out the myth dates back a ways. And it is a myth. Fire can make a rhino panic, but its first instinct is to run from the fire, not try to fight it. Also, in an interesting twist, although the myth always references African rhinos, the myth doesn’t seem to come from Africa! No native cultures in Africa ever had a story about fire-fighting rhinos.

So why is it there?

It’s actually a weird artifact of colonialism. There are myths about fiery rhinos, but they start over 7000 kilometers way in southeast Asia, near the countries of Malaysia and Myanmar. Now, Africa’s black and white rhinoceroses don’t live in Asia, but those two countries do have their own flavor of rhino, the Sumatran rhinocerous. It is smaller than its African cousins and lives in the jungle, instead of the savannah.

It’s also hairy sometimes. Which looks kind of weird.

Two Sumatran rhinos at the Cincinatti Zoo.

N. J. Van Strien notes in his study of Sumatran rhinos: “Rhinos… are said to be attracted by campfires or smoke. Whenever it sees a fire it runs up and tramples and devours it, causing a lot of damage and panic in the camp (F. Mason 1882).” The locals even have a specific name for these creatures, Badak Api, literally fire rhinos. It’s not known what they do with the fire after they eat it.

Perhaps they breathe it. That’d be scary. Fire-breathing rhinos. Or their horns could be made of fire. Maybe they’d run on propane.

Either way, the European naturalists heard these myths and brought them back to the Western world, accidentally confusing some of the details along the way. Hence fire-eating Asian rhinos became fire-hating African rhinos. Which stuck around long enough to make it to Hollywood.

And, eventually, The Simpsons.


Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Natural History


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Mickey Finn

Mickey Finn. Local business owner, bartender. Lived in Chicago. Ran the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden from 1896 to 1903. Famous for his drinks. Not a good man – in trouble with the law more than once. Liked to be on the slip. It was said that you could find things at his place – money, girls, goods. Mickey was a fence. From what the underworld would tell you, a successful one.

Apocryphal story. Good one though. Goes like this. Mickey Finn liked to add special ingredients to his drinks. Called it the “white stuff”. Probably chloral hydrate. Very bad for you. Sedative. Put it in alcohol – even worse. Knocks you out cold. Gives you amnesia. Later used in Jonestown.

Once victim was anaesthetized Mickey would carry them to the back room. Rob them. Dump the body in an alley. Victim wouldn’t remember what happened. Finn paid off cops to keep them off his back. Not enough though. Eventually shut down.

Story continued though. Stayed in the loop. People liked it. Origin of the phrase “slip a mickey“. Possibly. Either way. People like stories. They like having a villian. Attach a face to a name – story lives on.

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Posted by on August 15, 2013 in Medicine, Modernity


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Seafood Menus a Treasure Trove of Oceanic Information

A tuna steak at the Pike Place Market was more expensive than their halibut. Halibut was more expensive than cod. Cod was more expensive than rockfish. Rockfish was the cheapest. Therefore, I ate rockfish. I only dreamt of tuna. Fish prices are largely determined by rarity and as tuna and other species become overfished and expensive, it makes sense to start eating other, more abundant kinds.

Meanwhile, three researchers from Duke University wanted to know what fish populations in Hawaii used to look like. But government data and market surveys failed to provide enough information. So they hit on another market proxy – seafood restaurant menus.

The team analyzed over 300 menus from more than 100 restaurants dating back to at least the 1940’s. Most of the menus had been kept as souvenirs or art and were donated from private collections. The menus revealed that back in the 1940’s many restaurants were still offering local or reef-dwelling species, but as time wore on these were slowly replaced by larger, oceanic fish such as tuna and swordfish. By 1970, most restaurants had stopped offering reef fish altogether.

This sudden decline was striking, but the numbers seemed trustworthy.“Historical ecology typically focuses on supply side information,” said Loren McClenachan, who co-authored the study. “Restaurant menus are an available but often overlooked source of information on the demand side, perhaps a modern equivalent to archeological middens, in that they document seafood consumption, availability and even value over time.”

Population studies are important tools for both ecological studies and the fishing industry as a whole.

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Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Modernity


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A New, Unique Treatment for Snakebites

Over one-hundred thousand people die every year from snake bites. Antivenoms can save your life, but only if you can get to them. Most people who die from snakebite never make it to a hospital.

And you have to get to a hospital – field treatments aren’t very reliable. Antivenoms are tricky. They’re expensive, you kind of have to be trained to use them correctly, and, worst of all, you have to keep them refridgerated. If you’re a farmer in rural India, a researcher in the middle of the Outback, or a hiker way out in the rockies, well, they might as well have never have been invented. They’re too far away.

But a new, experimental treatment from the California Academy of Sciences led by Dr. Matt Lewin may have solved some of these problems.

One of the major dangers of snakebite is paralysis. A rush of venom, then cramps, stiffness, and, if it spreads to your diaphragm, suffocation. We actually have some very good anti-paralysis drugs – called anticholinesterases – and these are often used in hospitals to help treat snakebites. And they’re much cheaper and hardier too. But, like antivenoms, you have to be very careful when administering them.

Dr. Lewin’s teams’ innovation was finding an easy way to administer anticholinesterases – instead of needing to get to a doctor or inject yourself, Dr. Lewin’s team put them into a nasal spray. It’s easier to administer, works quickly, and doesn’t involve stabbing yourself with a needle. The treatment is a long way from manufacture – the team just finished their proof-of-concept experiments. But results look promising.

It’s not foolproof – you’ll still need hospitalization and the treatment would only work against neurotoxins – get bit by a hemotoxic rattler and that may (read: will) still be a problematic situation. But against a cobra – a black mamba – a tiger snake – this new treatment could buy you the time you need.


Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Medicine


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Hero Shrew has an Unbreakable Spine

The hero shrew – a big name for a small animal. The animal is small, nondescript. It looks like any other shrew in the world. It lives in the forests of central Africa, mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a relatively recent find for western science –  Europeans first heard of it in 1910 and a sister species was only discovered this year. The following account is from the field notes of one Herbert Lang, published by J. A. Allen in 1917:

“The natives of these regions, especially the Mangbetu, who are well acquainted with this shrew, first called our attention to its abnormally strengthened back-bone by their performances upon captive specimens. These people feel convinced that its charred body or even its heart, when prepared by their medicine-men, transmit truly invincible qualities, if worn as a talisman or taken like a medicine. Perhaps this mystic reputation has often contributed to make of a brave man a real hero, wherefore the Mangbetu gave it a name meaning ‘hero shrew.’ Those engaging in warfare or setting out upon an equally dangerous enterprise such as hunting elephants are anxious to carry along even a fraction of the ashes of this shrew. Though only worn somewhere about their body, they believe that neither spears nor arrows, nor any kind of attack can seriously injure them, much less bear them down. One can easily imaging that by the removal of the inhibitory influence of fear their courage, cunning and cleverness are set free for the best possible achievements.

Whenever they have a chance they take great delight in showing to the easily fascinated crowd its extraordinary resistance to weight and pressure. After the usual hubbub of various invocations, a full-grown man weighing some 160 pounds steps barefooted upon the shrew. Steadily trying to balance himself upon one leg, he continues to vociferate several minutes. The poor creature seems certainly to be doomed. But as soon as his tormentor jumps off, the shrew after a few shivering movements tries to escape, none the worse for this mad experience and apparently in no need of the wild applause and exhortations of the throng.”

An animal that only weighs 100 grams supporting a fully grown man! That’s would be like a soldier getting run over by an M1 Abrams tank!

Hero shrews can support this kind of weight because of their spines. Instead of 5 lumbar (lower-back) vertebrae which are loosely connected, like in humans, the hero shrew has 11 densely-packed inter-connected bones. These are in turn supported by enhanced muscles and chest bones.

The hero shrew is on top. A normal shrew is on the bottom.

The hero shrew is on top. A normal shrew is on the bottom.

The evolutionary benefit of this massive spine is still unclear, but a promising theory suggests that this adaptation helps the shrew hunt for invertebrates. The thinking goes that maybe the shrew can use it’s back like a hydraulic jack to lift up large rocks or logs, exposing the bugs and worms hiding underneath. This hasn’t been proven, but anecdotal evidence seems to support it.

Body of a mouse. Spine of steel.

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Posted by on July 27, 2013 in Natural History


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