Anatomy of a Break – Chronicles of Bobo Part One

The black and white cat you sometimes see in the Fluffy Sciences banner is called Bobo.

I met Bobo in January 2010, back when she was called Bono, and was my friend Sophie’s cat. Only six months earlier I had sat with my little tuxedo cat, Posie, in the vet’s office while we overdosed her with pentobarbitol, and let her slip away from her days wracked with arthritic pain, liver failure and dementia. Bono was a very different cat to Posie, confident where Posie would hide . . . slightly dimmer than Posie which really said something because Posie once got a fright when she thought a tree sneaked up behind her.

Come December 2011 and life has intervened, Bobo needs somewhere to stay for Christmas. I know, as friends do, that this isn’t just somewhere to stay for Christmas really, and so I begin some political machinations.

Mum, I say, poor Sophie doesn’t know what to do with her cat over Christmas, I was wondering if I should take her . . .

Sophie, I say, poor Mum misses our old cat so much, she’s been thinking about getting a new one, I think if she looks after Bono for Christmas .

One Christmas stay later, in 2012 Bono moves to my mum’s for good and after a little while becomes Bobo. I feel like a master manipulator. In 2013, my little sister moves out and Bobo becomes surrogate daughter for someone with empty nest syndrome. She is spoiled rotten, and Athena should recognise that her Aunty Bobo was instrumental in making me realise I needed another cat.

But I’m talking about Bobo for a reason. Two weeks ago now I got a frantic phonecall from my mum, on a girly weekend in York, and panicked because Bobo had been found in the hall howling and unable to walk. My stepdad assumed she’d been hit by a car and took her to the vet’s.

A vet, late on a Friday afternoon. A vet who removed my stepdad from the examination room and returned a verdict of cat bites. Prescribed antibiotics and sent her home.

When you work in a vet school, when you work with vet students, you feel a lot of sympathy for vets. I have little sympathy for this one. I cannot understand why this vet didn’t prescribe pain meds, when behaviourally the cat was so distressed the owner had to be sent from the room, when the owner assumed a car accident because of the levels of pain being shown. I can’t understand that.

I also can’t understand how in such an examination, the vet could miss a dislocated leg and a fracture at the ankle.

This week, because Bobo was still in pain, she was taken back to the vets to see her regular vet, who immediately prescribed more antibiotics, steroids and scheduled her for a general anaesthetic for a thorough examination and x-ray. 13 days after the injury, the break was discovered. Bobo’s options were a transfer to Vet’s Now in Glasgow for a risky surgery which might save the leg, or an amputation.

Which would you do?

The surgery carries risk and a prolonged period of recovery, where Bobo will need to be caged for at least six weeks. The amputation carries long term behavioural limitation. Which would you choose?

In an attempt to give my mum the best advice I could I surveyed as many vets as I could find on Friday afternoon, and the answers are mixed. There’s no clear answer here at all, and I couldn’t help but ask for photos and videos to use in teaching. What do you do?

Bobo is currently in hospital, waiting for the surgery that might save her leg. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll talk about her instead of Athena.

Athena’s grudgingly allowed this.

What Doesn’t Kill You . . .

In the words of Bernard Black, this is fantastic.

There’s a great article on Vox.com talking about science reporting and why most news reports claiming there’s a new cure for X, or that Z causes cancer, are wrong.

And I use Bernard Black specifically here for an important reason – he’s smoking and drinking. We [that’s the scientist we] are pretty clear that we know causes cancer. And drinking wine, which we [again, the scientist we] are less clear about.

The article includes a great visualisation for thinking about cancer risk – studies which show an increased and reduced risk of cancer.

I love this graphic so much. I think it communicates so much – but if I’ve learned anything in the last few years it’s that science literacy can’t be taken for granted.

So while I think this is a great example of science communication, I want to know from you guys – what do you think? Is this informative?

Will you remember this next week?

Just how, exactly, do our interventions work?

Chronicles of Athena – 34 Weeks

While Athena is not my first cat, she is the first cat who is wholly mine, who would absolutely not survive without me. My last family cat, Posie, was euthanised in late 2009, and I went to get Athena on a sunny September morning in 2014.

While Posie had four caretakers who loved her, and Athena has only me, these aren’t the biggest differences in my relationships between the two cats. In many ways, they’re very similar. They both get very excited by cuddle time, they both put up with my restless sleeping by taking up position on my legs, they both chirrup when they say hello and they both have a fondness for crab pate.

But I find myself saying things to Athena that I’ve never had to say to cats before, and I every time I do I can’t help but roll my eyes at how much changes in five short years. For example:

  • “No, lattes are not for kittens”
  • “Take your head out of that gin and tonic”
  • “Please don’t hit YouTube with your nose, now it has paused”
  • “No baby, you can’t text with me, you text gibberish”
  • “The phone is not your toy”
  • “Okay, well, yes, when it’s got your app on it it becomes your toy”
  • “No, kitten, I was talking to the XBox, not to you, you go back to sleep, XBOX ON!”

However, one thing I say hasn’t changed “THAT FOOD IS MINE YOU HAVE YOUR OWN AND IT’S FULL!”

The Utilitarian Suffering

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

This is a simplistic understanding of utilitarianism – the ethical stance which we more formally say ‘maximises utility’. That is, we do what is best for the largest number of people (or animals). The greatest benefit with the smallest cost.

Utilitarians will tolerate the suffering of mice in a cancer research trial, for example, because the benefit of being a step closer to curing cancer is greater than the suffering of the mice, especially if we actively try to guarantee those animal a good quality of life through environmental enrichment, etc.

Of course life is never quite that straightforward. We call this kind of thinking ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The benefit is worth the cost. But who puts value on the cost, and who puts value on the benefit? Economics is a notoriously elastic thing – driven by motivation, need and demand. The utilitarian shopper may buy free range organic eggs at the start of the month, and barn eggs at the end of the month (and I should probably do a post on that conundrum later because the shopper, and most people, tend not to have the right welfare assumptions in these situations).

Most western societies are utilitarian, in countries where we consider animal welfare and have animal welfare laws, we allow animal use because it benefits most of us. But one of our MSc students asked a very interesting question recently that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

Does the utilitarian accept that there will always be suffering?

 

This is a philsophical, thinky kind of question. The kind that I, as a scientist, am not good at but that I, as an animal welfare scientist, need to consider.

If you are a utilitarian, like myself, and you accept that animals are used (i.e. will be farmed, etc.) for human good. You  might accept different levels of this. For example, you might accept the use of animals for cancer research, but not the use of animals for beefburgers. Or you might accept the use of cows for beefburgers but think it’s wrong to make kebabs from dogs. We all have differing ideas on what it acceptable and why.

I don’t think this is a question that can be answered by debating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Instead I think you need to turn to the assumptions in that statement.

 

Always Is a Very Long Time

What is ‘always’ in this statement? I expect I’ll be eating lab grown meat in my old age, and with the reduction of food animals and the increase in replacement and reduction of laboratory animals, there will be less suffering of animals in the system we currently live in. But I also foresee a future where the system we currently live in is no more, there will be other animals, unimaginable to us, and we ourselves will no longer exist in our present form. What is the ‘always’ we discuss?

If we consider it in terms of recognisable ecosystems, so a world where humans aim to maintain or improve this standard of living, but are recognisably human with recognisably human needs and failings. We need the biological machine to test biological pathways for drugs, to produce organic materials that we like – but does that biological machine have to be attached to a system that can perceive its environment, process that, and come out with emotions? Does the sentient part of the biological machine have to be there?

I am a sci-fi nerd, as we know, and I can see a possible future where we are able to create biological machines that have no sentience, and therefore animal welfare is completely circumvented. They have no suffering because they are not sentient. Some people, people who have a strong respect for nature, will find that abhorrent.

But the ‘always’ in this statement isn’t very helpful, is it?

 

The Suffering

So what is ‘suffering’? Some people say that it was advertisers who invented this belief that humans should always be happy. I often find myself thinking about this. As a scientist, I believe in the Normal Distribution. That is to say, the average is a good description of the population.

I believe the average height of a woman in the UK is a pretty good description of the height of women in the UK. Most women will be around 5″9. Now I’m 5″2. I am ‘noticeably’ short, according to my friends, so I already know that there are fewer people of my height than the average, but I also see people shorter than me. When I see someone very much shorter than me, say by a foot, I’m surprised, because they are at the very tail end of the normal distribution.

I think emotional state follows the same normal distribution. Most of us are ‘ok’. We have moments of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, but for the most part we’re floating around in the ‘ok’ feelings. In any normal system, the normal distribution appears.

What about suffering? What we’re really trying to do is make the tail end of ‘extreme suffering’ shorter, and to push the overall feeling closer to ‘good’. This is the whole idea of the Quality of Life concept of animal welfare – we want animals to have a life worth living, where the good things outweigh the bad things. The animal’s average emotional state is pushed closer to good, so there are fewer bad times.

The Scottish Government recently went a step further and said they wanted animals in Scotland to have a Good Life, not just a life worth living. They want to push that whole normal distribution further towards ‘good’ feelings.

But even if they are successful, that tail end will still exist. The capacity for suffering will still exist and where the capacity exists, it will occur – even if only in very small incidences.

 

 

The Utilitarian Suffering

So, yes. I think the Utilitarian accepts that there will always be suffering within a given system. What we’re trying to do is move the average up, and make the animals happier in general. HOW we do this is an entirely different question – and that’s where the ‘rights’ and the ‘wrongs’ come into play.

Ethics is a messy, messy subject. So I’m going to go have a cup of tea and discuss it with Athena.

Cool Cat

It’s been another busy week so it’s just a short post today. io9 have written an interesting article about a paper looking at whether or not cats enjoy music specifically written for them.

You can listen to some of the tracks here.

For once I really like io9’s reporting on this. So I took the opportunity to sample this with Athena.

You can see it on our Facebook page.

 

Chronicles of Athena – the ensuite

People like to say that Athena is spoiled. This is plainly ridiculous. All 32 week old kittens need a water fountain to drink from. And a fluffy window pillow. And new toys every week.

 

And a custom made toilet . . .

 

I’m a big pinterest addict, but I have a welfare scientist’s interest in the cat litter box hidden solutions you see all around the web. While I love the idea of hiding an ugly litter box, a lot of these are too small, poorly ventilated, or difficult to fully clean. In our old flat, Athena’s litter box was in the bathroom, but the humidity wasn’t ideal. In this new flat, it’s been in the hall as the bathroom’s too small . . . Until today . . .

 

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I’m a Tetrachromat – And Other Tales of Bad Science

I have some wonderful news, readers – my amazing skill at being able to see both colours in the dress is down to the fact I’m a tetrachromat – a marketer says so.

Firstly I’ve always known I was special. When everyone else said I had poor colour vision, I just knew I was discerning subtle differences in colours that they couldn’t even perceive. When people said how much they loved spring green, I knew how tasteless they truly were. When nobody believed in me, I would look at the glorious colours that surrounded me and quietly comforted myself in their glory.

A rainbow of colour nuances . . . apparently

 

The LinkedIn article discusses some truly groundbreaking new research. View the above rainbow, seemingly created by Professor Diana Derval who’s an expert in neuromarketing. Crazily enough, she uses something very like Articulate Storyline to build her website – we are clearly bound by fate! Derval asks you to count how many colour nuances you see in this rainbow. I see 36 on this screen, 38 on my phone and 34 on my screen at work. Let’s take an average of 36.

If you see less than 20 colours, Derval suggests you are a dichromat, like dogs, which would be red-green colour blind typically. You would struggle to see the ’57’ in this image.

If you see between 21 and 32 colours, Derval suggests you at trichromat, like . . .well . . . the majority of humans.

If you see between 33 and 39 colors, Derval calls you a tetrachromat. Still not as cool as a mantis shrimp, but apparently you’re more able to see purple (?) and you’ll be irritated by yellow. I’m irritated by spring green tinged yellows, and lemon yellows wash out my skin tone, but a golden yellows are everywhere in my wardrobe because I fricking love yellow.

In her article, Derval points to a paper by Jameson et al (2001) which investigated the genes linked to tetrachromaticity and colour perception in 64 people (38 women and 26 men, all based in California if that influences your thinking any).

First Jameson et al investigate the genetic sequence that’s responsible for the light-sensitive parts inside our eyes. First for a short physics lesson: the rainbow is made up of what we call a spectrum of light, and each colour has its own wavelength. We say humans are trichromats because we have cells in our eyes that can pick up three broad wavelength bands: red, green and blue. Because light is a wave (at least for the purposes of this blog post)  – we can see the rainbow as its the overlapping wavelengths. We can see orange because it sits in the overlap of red and green.

 

The parts of the human genetic code that make all the light sensitive parts of the eyes are complicated. Our genetics hold more possibilities than our eyes actually come out with – which makes figuring out how people see very complicated!

If a human has two different amino acids  (amino acids are basically important things the help the body do its body stuff) coded on a particular gene – there’s a possibility they could be tetrachromat. That is to say that as well as the three light wave frequencies ‘normal’ humans can see, they have another which is sensitive to a fourth.

Of the 64 subjects they had 23 women had these two amino acids on the gene (possibly genetically tetrachromat), 37 people who were trichromats (or ‘normally’ sighted), and 4 men who were dichromat (or red-green colourblind).

After checking the genes, the researchers investigated what these 64 people saw. To do this, they didn’t use a computer screen. Instead they shone a light through a prism, like the old school experiment, and asked the subjects to draw lines demarking where they saw ‘colour partitions’.

What’s different between this methodology and the LinkedIn article? Firstly – no computer screens, or monitors of any type. The subjects were looking at pure light – light scattered through a prism – which is different from a computer attempting to display colours based on RGB numbers (or worse, html). The computer also has to be told what colours to display, there are only 39 colours in Derval’s rainbow (each one a fixed width apart so we ‘know’ where a colour demarkation should be, even if we observe it as a broader band. This is very poor design as well, you could at least randomise colour band width to stop people from assuming they should see a colour difference. For the record, I’m positive this is why I’m scoring so highly because my colour vision really is poor), and so we’re not really choosing what colours we see – not like the subjects were in Jameson’s experiment.

So what were the results? The genetic tetrachromat women (n = 23) saw on average 10 spectral delineations, the 15 trichromat women saw 7.6 on average. This was significantly different at the P<0.01 level, though it’s very important to recognise the small sample sizes and also that the tetrachromat women were very variable (e.g. one tetrachromat woman might see 7, another might see 13). The trichromat people in general (n=37) saw 7.3 delineations on average, and dichromat men (n=4) saw 5.3. This was also significantly different.

Jameson et al concluded these results demonstrated that their rainbow test was a good, non invasive indicator of whether someone is tetrachromat or trichromat. They also suggested that we aren’t very good at detecting tetrachromats with our traditional colour testing, which I more than agree with.

I disagree, strongly, that Derval’s method has any chance of trying to identify who these people are. The methodology is not sufficient. But more than anything else, Derval suggests that tetrachromats are not tricked by the dress. This tells me that not only is a professor of marketing cashing in on a phenomenon to plug her book (and more power to her – I use search engine optimisation to do the exact same thing), but that she doesn’t understand how the Dress illusion works because it has nothing to do with how good your colour vision and everything to do with how your brain is primed to interpret images.

These kind of internet tests are fun – but for heavens’ sakes, don’t trust them! They are as precious as the paper they’re printed on.

 

And I promise I will stop talking about the dress.

Fluffy Friday – Citizen Science Tackles The Dress

So there’s this dress right . . .

Last night I was doing some stand up science in the pub with Eu:Sci which was a huge amount of fun (thanks for the invite guys!) and then I may possibly have had some beers afterwards. When I was scrolling through tumblr on the way home, I noticed a blue and black dress . . .

http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112166688660/bellasfault-swiked-katze-geht-meow


This morning, while promoting #StreetDog (if you haven’t watched it – go watch it, it’s amazing) and preparing for our Friday HangOut, I saw that the little blue and black dress had taken the internet by storm, and also it was now white and gold.

ASAPScience does a great video on just why we perceive the dress differently: 

And then Buzzfeed (who are really running with this whole thing) have found that younger people are more likely to find the dress to be white and gold. They also made the link between the phenomenon and autism (a somewhat tenuous link, no matter how ‘profound’ they want to call it).

I love it. I love, first of all, that the internet can run with something so silly. (If only they could run with #StreetDog!) And I love how the illusion changes. Throughout the day I have perceived the dress differently, it’s currently blue and black again, but spent most of the day white and gold. This makes me wonder if there’s also a time of day effect affecting the way we perceive the illusion – if we’re more primed to see blue lights (and therefore white and gold dresses) during the day, but yellow lights (and therefore blue and black dresses) in the evening when we expect to see more artificial lighting.

And I think it does say something interesting about sentience – or being able to perceive the world around you. There’s a common philosophy question: “is your green my green?” As we can never perceive the world through another’s person’s neurobiology, we have no real guarantee that the green I see is the same green you see. We were taught that colour was green, but what I view as green, may look red through your eyes. We have no real common reference point.

With the sad news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, I’m reminded of the undershirts the DS9 and Voyager crews wore on Star Trek. To me those are, and always will be, lilac. My friend still insists they’re grey. I have pretty poor colour vision anyway, and a photographer’s understanding of the awful things fluorescent lighting and auto white balance can do to a picture –  I wonder if this is why I can force my brain to perceive it both ways.

When I look at the picture and am able to comprehend both colour sets, it feels odd. Almost like the beginning of a migraine’s visual aura, where things start to glitter and take on visual properties they don’t have. Our brains are really rubbish sometimes, especially when they’re trying to parse information they don’t understand. Ever wondered why stomach pain is so pervasive and nagging? Your brain isn’t very good at figuring out where that pain is coming from, so it just gives a general “the stomach” feeling to you. If I was to ask you “How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” you would promptly answer “two“, because your brain had decided that it’s not important to remember that it was Noah on the ark, not Moses, even though that information is there and readily accessible. If I was to to tell you to find the flaw in tihs sentence, you might struggle. Your brain would edit out the superfluous ‘to’ and rearrange the letters in ‘this’.

So yes – our brains are deeply imperfect, cobbled together by evolution to create something that half way functions. We compare our brains to one another, and to other animals, and are left with nothing. I wonder, if I get migraines, can Athena? If I see the dress as white, does she see it as blue? When she stares at a spot on the wall, is there something happening between her eyes and her brain tricking her?

If you’re annoyed about the dress, just smile – it’s pretty cool. And it’s not the only one…

I see both

Chronicles of Athena – 30 Weeks

Those of you who have been following Athena from the beginning will remember she has a strong predilection for chewing wires. I used to be one of these pinterest addicts with fairy lights everywhere, the mood lighting in my life has been considerably reduced in the last twenty one weeks of my life.

Well no longer! View below my newest attempt to reintroduce fairy lights into my life, this time without the scent of lemon and pepper cat deterrent.

image

Not the small Yankee Candle currently being used a dead match repository to keep kitten from eating them all. She does love the taste of charcoal . . .

In the grand scheme of things, my life hasn’t changed so much since getting Athena. I’m less likely to stay late at work (a very good thing, really!) and more likely to catch up with work in the evenings (wait …), and I can no longer leave food lying out in the open. Oh, and I’m covered in scratches. The little things though, like the fact she’s sneaked up behind me to steal half the blanket and is kneading both it and my cardigan with a very smug purr, are very different.

She doesn’t change much from week to week any more, although she is firmly establishing her fussiness for food. So I may post more Fluffy Fridays vs Chronicles of Athena in the next few months. Rest assured, she’s still doing well.

Check out our MOOC’s hangout this week . . .