Scaring hens for science

25 06 2014

This chicken is wearing a backpack to assess how forcefully she jumps when scared with a bullhorn.

Bit of an ironic thing to do in the name of welfare, but for her summer project, Coursework Masters student Elyse Germaine (working with me and Tina) is investigating whether startle responses — well validated as indicators of affective state for mammals — are useful indicators of avian well-being too. If she’s right, then happy hens (fed treats, with companions & given peatmoss to dustbathe in) will startle less than birds in a negative state (isolated & roughly handled). We hope to know by the end of August…

Hen with backpack

Durian and rosewater

24 06 2014

A slight screw up in planning Laura‘s project on the social transmission of food preferences: the mice aren’t allowed to smell on human breath any  flavour that we might use … …  and that’s any time since they arrived in the lab last December!  This means avoiding any food or drink that I, Laura, Mike, Carole and Maka (who’s from Georgia and cooks exotically), or even the weekend CAF staff, have eaten in the last seven months — so ruling out coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, cumin, peppermint and many of the usual suspects. Ooops.

Durian and rosewater are now top of the list, along with cat food.

Wheel-running in the wild: not that revolutionary

24 06 2014

Just submitted a reply to this recent paper, with Hanno. Fingers crossed now.

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“Your brain on porn”

24 06 2014

Just found this great website, weirdly while looking for some last references on wheel-running for a reply Hanno and I are writing to Proc. Roy Soc. (on how that recent ‘wild animals wheel run‘ paper was little more than spin…).

I already use junk food and recreational drugs in my undergrad lecture on supernormal stimuli (as examples, not live on stage in front of 100 20 year olds), but porn needs to go in there too.

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Simplicity and parsimony

19 06 2014

Three or four weeks ago we decided to tackle “parsimony” for our weekly logic discussion. Why does everyone hold it up as a golden guiding principle, and what exactly is it anyway? For example, if I say “The Universe and all the life forms in it were created by God” is that beautifully parsimonious because it  invokes just one explanation, or wildly non-parsimonious because the proposed explanation centres on a complicated, uncertain and probably non-existent construct?

It was my turn to choose the readings and I overdid it, choosing too many things blindly rather than reading first and pulling out the best:

It was interesting to read about Morgan’s Canon (BTW how can I get something I think turned into a ‘canon’? If I decree something Mason’s Canon, think it’ll get adopted?) — in part to read again the reasonable view that where a phenomenon can be accounted for via simple or complex psychological processes, then the simple ones should be regarded as the default. However, it was also good to be reminded of the problems of calling animals or psychological processes “higher” and “lower” (his original, terrible terms); to learn that Morgan actually believed that any form of learning was evidence of consciousness (!); and to clarify that of course Morgan’s Canon does not mean one should never test hypotheses about cooler, complex psychological processes just because boring ones could suffice as explanations. (Thus the fact that allegedly empathic rats‘ behaviour could be explained more simply does not mean that they aren’t empathic — it just means that the ’empathy hypothesis’ has not been tested properly yet).

The Stanford Encyclopedia article was most challenging, but in some ways the most interesting, and so we tackled it again today. I probably still need to read it a few more times to really understand everything in it (it’s written for philosophers, and since we have to look up what ‘epistemology’ and ‘ontology’ mean every single time we encounter these words [not to mention not getting the knowing side references to ‘grue and bleen‘], it’s hard work). The usable take home messages for me were that there are different forms of simplicity; that these different forms often trade off against each other (an elegant explanation may not be parsimonious because it invokes new or complex phenomena; while a parsimonious explanation may be inelegant because it involves lots of clunky steps); that simplicity can come at the expense of accuracy or richness of information (think of a simple curve being driven through a mess of datapoints that it only partially explains); and that the very reasons why simple explanations are held up as best are actually rather cloudy… they may even be aesthetic as much as anything.


‘Knots’ conference in Kobe

19 06 2014

Wish I was going to this. I went four years ago and it was fascinating (in part because so very cat-and-dog focussed: absolutely nothing on the poor animals used to make cat-and-dog food…). Plus how many other conferences have their own gods?

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The journal ‘Symmetry’…

19 06 2014

… (who knew there was such a thing?) is publishing a special edition on …. Asymmetry. For some reason I find this hysterical. How did they pick that topic, from the vast and dizzying array of options in front of them?

It came with a kind invitation to contribute, but as MDPI has been added to a recent list of suspect publishers, I think the answer is no.


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