An almost automated fish farm (but not for Minecraft)

I was following @upulie on Twitter, when I saw that she was using this app, Periscope, to give a demo of what she does in the lab. Hey, I thought, I could do that, so I tried it, and gave a tour of my cheapass zebrafish facility (you don’t need the app to watch it). This is not my fish facility.


That’s the big boys’ and girls’ system at the University of Oregon. So be warned: I just have a single small rack with 8 populated tanks. Also, it’s got nonstop water gurgling and bubbling, so it’s hard to hear me over the pleasant, soothing sounds. My students and I built it out of a plastic rack from Lowe’s, a bunch of PVC pipe, some hydroponics widgets, a big pump, and a cow trough. Our tanks are plastic Kritter Keepers bought from Amazon. The whole thing cost less than $500, and it’s grossly over-engineered. We were basically collecting from two tanks at a time all summer long, and it produced 50-100+ eggs every day, routinely. We’d only need a handful for observations and experiments, and the rest got thrown into an incubator (or down the drain), and the survivors were raised to produce another generation that will be ready to pump out eggs for us next summer. Or I could collect eggs every day during the school year, except that I’m expected to teach, not just play with the fishies.

I should mention that this is also a low-maintenance system. I feed the fish twice a day — you know, the usual sprinkling of a few tasty bits of ground-up invertebrates on the surface — and top off the reservoir and check the water quality once a week. It just keeps going, and would grow and grow if I let it. Zebrafish are so easy.

Periscope is also really easy. I’ll probably try it again later this week; I thought I’d give another tour, this time of my nice Leica scope with epifluorescence and DIC and a Jenoptik cooled CCD camera, which is also a little farther away from the gurgling water system, so maybe I’ll be more audible. Later still maybe I’ll set up some embryos/cells on the scope and give a close-up look at how baby fish are made.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to try some small scale zebrafish production, there are lots of sources. I stole many of the ideas from my pal, Don Kane, who has instructions for a similar little system for zebrafish. Or you can read Lawrence and Mason, who give an overview of basic principles. Kim et al. also published a detailed description of their homebuilt system. Or, if you have lots and lots of money, there are companies that build specialized racks and water systems just for zebrafish, and you don’t even have to get your hands wet or sniff PVC solvent or buy a bunch of interesting valves and widgets that will put you on a DEA list somewhere.

I guess I’m going to have to believe it now

Some people say we’re all standing on a giant rocky ball, which is spinning around — a ludicrously silly claim. But now I guess I have to accept it, because someone actually made a video recording showing it, by stabilizing the image to the stars. When you do that, you can actually see the earth moving.

You know what else is silly? The idea that I evolved from a rock. LaughingSquid is going to have to meet the creationist standard of evidence and show me a movie of that happening.

I know, this happened a long long time ago, which makes it more difficult, but I still have a VHS tape player, so I’ll even accept that antique medium.

Hey, I think my mother still has my grandfather’s old 8mm movie projector, so I’m willing to go even that far back. Checkmate, evilutionists.

Creationists skittering about in the background

Would you believe an angry creationist tried to get Jeffrey Shallit fired for critically reviewing some creationist books? Of course you would. It’s what they do. I’ve had a couple of loons do the same thing, rifling through my university’s faculty list to get all the email addresses they could, and then send off bulk email to everyone documenting my crimes. It’s annoying, but it’s also incredibly stupid; every time it has happened, there’s a bit of a laugh among the people targeted, and it’s an uncomfortable laugh at these sad people with their weird delusions.

It doesn’t help their case that their arguments are always so awful. Here’s another example: David Klinghoffer, the Discovery Institute hack, is claiming that Proxima B calls evolution into question. How? I don’t know. But as Matthew points out, the logic is ridiculous.

If life is common, that’s evidence for intelligent design. But if life is rare, that’s evidence for intelligent design. Everything is evidence of your theory when you haven’t internalized the concept of falsifiability.

It doesn’t help that the Proxima B story is an example of ridiculously over-hyped nonsense: the observation that there’s a big rock orbiting a star almost 5 light years away does not imply that it is habitable or that anyone will be colonizing it soon. It doesn’t help that Klinghoffer quotes Mr Indiscriminate Hype himself, Michio Kaku.

It’s a “game changer,” the “holy grail,” only a “hop, skip, and a jump” away, physicist Michio Kaku tells CBS, which characterizes the planet as a possible “Earth 2.0.”

Jebus, but that guy is a pandering twit — it’s gotten to the point where, if I see his face appearing on the television, I turn it off, confidently secure that I’ve spared myself another trickle of bullshit. And really, life is contingent on a set of circumstances that we haven’t mapped out yet, so discovering that another planet either has no life on it or has independently evolved it (and neither of these things are known for Proxima B) says absolutely nothing about the validity of evolutionary theory.

Field scientists get all the fun

Here’s a series of illustrations of funny mistakes by scientists.

​Jim Jourdane

​Jim Jourdane

They all seem to be about awkward things that occurred while doing field work, and I’m feeling left out. I sit in a lab with air conditioning and fluorescent lights, staring into a microscope. Nothing amusing ever happens to me.

Maybe I need to bring in a few crocodiles or let a troop of monkeys loose.

Dangerous business

SpaceX blew up on the launch pad this morning. There were no casualties, at least, and we do get a spectacular explosion video out of it, but this is an unfortunate setback.

Human beings sometimes sit on top of those kinds of infernal devices? I don’t think I could do that.

Deliver us from the fury of the cyborgs and grant us the peace of cyberspace, O Lord

David Brin reviews some recent books on the future of artificial intelligence. He’s more optimistic than I am. For one, I think most of the AI pundits are little better than glib con men, so any survey of the literature should consist mostly of culling all the garbage. No, really, please don’t bring up Kurzweil again. Also, any obscenely rich Silicon Valley pundit who predicts a glorious future of infinite wealth because technology can just fuck right off.

But there’s also some stuff I agree with. People who authoritatively declare that this is how the future will be, and that is how people will respond to it, are not actually being authoritative, because they won’t be there, but are being authoritarian. We set the wheel rolling, and we hope that we aren’t setting it on a path to future destruction, but we don’t get to dictate to future generations how they should deal with it. To announce that we’ve created a disaster and that our grandchildren will react by creating a dystopian nightmare world sells them short, and pretending that they’ll use the tools we have generously given them to create a glorious bright utopia is stealing all the credit. People will be people. Finger-wagging from the distant past will have zero or negative influence.

Across all of those harsh millennia, people could sense that something was wrong. Cruelty and savagery, tyranny and unfairness vastly amplified the already unsupportable misery of disease and grinding poverty. Hence, well-meaning men and women donned priestly robes and… preached!

They lectured and chided. They threatened damnation and offered heavenly rewards. Their intellectual cream concocted incantations of either faith or reason, or moral suasion. From Hindu and Buddhist sutras to polytheistic pantheons to Judeao-Christian-Muslim laws and rituals, we have been urged to behave better by sincere finger-waggers since time immemorial. Until finally, a couple of hundred years ago, some bright guys turned to all the priests and prescribers and asked a simple question:

“How’s that working out for you?”

In fact, while moralistic lecturing might sway normal people a bit toward better behavior, it never affects the worst human predators, parasites and abusers –– just as it won’t divert the most malignant machines. Indeed, moralizing often empowers them, offering ways to rationalize exploiting others.

Beyond artificial intelligence, a better example might be climate change — that’s one monstrous juggernaut we’ve set rolling into the future. The very worst thing we can do is start lecturing posterity about how they should deal with it, since we don’t really know all the consequences that are going to arise, and it’s rather presumptuous for us to create the problem, and then tell our grandchildren how they should fix it. It’s better that we set an example and address the problems that emerge now, do our best to minimize foreseeable consequences, and trust the competence of future generations to cope with their situations, as driven by necessities we have created.

They’re probably not going to thank us for any advice, no matter how well-meaning, and are more likely to curse us for our neglect and laziness and exploitation of the environment. If you really care about the welfare of future generations, you’ll do what you can now, not tell them how they’re supposed to be.

The AI literature comes across as extremely silly, too.

What will happen as we enter the era of human augmentation, artificial intelligence and government-by-algorithm? James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention, said: “Coexisting safely and ethically with intelligent machines is the central challenge of the twenty-first century.”

Jesus. We don’t have these “intelligent machines” yet, and may not — I think AI researchers always exaggerate the imminence of their breakthroughs, and the simplicity of intelligence. So this guy is declaring that the big concern of this century, which is already 1/6th over, is an ethical crisis in dealing with non-existent entities? The comparison with religious authorities is even more apt.

I tell you what. Once we figure out how to coexist safely and ethically with our fellow human beings, then you can pontificate on how to coexist safely and ethically with imaginary androids.