The things rats dream about

by Grania Spingies

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest (4.1.168-170)

I should preface this with my regular caveat: I-am-not-a-scientist, nor do I play one on TV. My level expertise only allows me to say the rough equivalent of “Oh hey, this looks interesting.”

As a child I often used to watch my dogs dreaming. Clearly they were running, sometimes barking and huffing, sometimes panting. It used to fascinate me, and I wondered where in their heads they were running. Was it a field they knew? Were they alone or with companions? Were they chasing prey? Running for the fun of it? What does prey even look like to Canis lupus familiaris who may never met anything particularly prey-like in their modern suburban existence?

Once one of them barked so loud in her dream that she startled herself and woke up with a jump. I’d never seen a Labrador look more sheep-like when her eyes met mine. Unfortunately there was no way to ask her what she had been seeing in her dreams.

But it seems that remarkably a team of scientists has had a glimpse at what rats dream about.


Not an actual lab rat

Kiona Smith-Strickland over at Discover Magazine writes about a new study where a team looked at rats and determined remarkably that they dreamed about going places they were aware of but had not yet explored. She explains the process:

First, researchers let rats explore a T-shaped track. The rats could run along the center of the T, but the arms were blocked by clear barriers. While the rats watched, researchers put food at the end of one arm. The rats could see the food and the route to it, but they couldn’t get there.

Then, when the rats were curled up in their cages afterwards, scientists measured their neuron firing. Their brain activity seemed to show them imagining a route through a place they hadn’t explored before. To confirm this, researchers then put the rats back into the maze, but this time without the barriers. As they explored the arm where they had previously seen the food, the rats’ place cells fired in the same pattern as they had during sleep.

Neuroscientist Hugo Spiers, who co-authored the study, notes:

People have talked in the past about these kind of replay and pre-play events as possibly being the substrates of dreams, but you can’t ask rats what they’re thinking or dreaming. There is that really interesting sense that we’re getting at the stuff of dreams, the stuff that goes on when you’re sleeping.

You can read the paper here:

Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space by H Freyja Ólafsdóttir, Caswell Barry, Aman B Saleem, Demis Hassabis, Hugo J Spiers

Readers’ wildlife photographs

It’s Stephen Barnard Day again, as he’s sending me photos on the road, and I have some in old emails. These are in fact from May 3.

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus): Desi keeping a close lookout and  Lucy on the nest. [JAC: the eaglets have now hatched and fledged]:



American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana):



Deets :-) (Canis lupus familiaris):


Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura):


Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) attacking another goose:



Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni):



Tuesday: Hili Dialogue

Good morning! Grania here again.

It’s the last day of June, so use it wisely. It will never come again. Jerry’s already got a couple of posts scheduled for today because he is a writing machine; but he is back on the road again as his journey continues.

In the mean time we have more deep philosophical ruminations from our feline friend in Poland.

Hili: Time will tell.
A: What will time tell?
Hili: That’s what I’m trying to figure out.


Hili: Czas pokaże.
Ja: Co czas pokaże?
Hili: Właśnie, też się nad tym zastanawiam.

A Muslim-basher becomes an atheist-basher

I promised never to mention the name of a certain gentleman (henceforth called CG) again, on pain of having to give a free book to the reader who spots his name—and this post doesn’t count in that pledge). But I wanted to point this out because here we have a genuine example of Islamophobia. The Godless Spellchecker, responsible for earlier bringing CG low for plagiarism, now points out that CG had a past history of violent anti-Muslim sentiments. The stuff CG tw**ted is absolutely horrendous, and if you don’t think Islamophobia really exists, here we have an example—from a nonbeliever, no less.

What’s odd about CG is that his bigotry against Muslims has now turned into nasty bigotry against New Atheists, while he’s begun coddling Islam itself à la Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan. As for the gentleman’s previous anti-religious bigotry, he’s now issued a notapology that says this: “You see, New Atheists aren’t upset I was an anti-Muslim bigot, probable racist, in 2009. They’re upset that I’m not that now.”

“Probable” racist indeed! While Islamophobia isn’t technically racism, as Muslims aren’t a race, the “probable” part is a weasel word. And, as The Godless Spellchecker notes, none of the New Atheists whom TG continues to excoriate for “Islamophobia”, including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, have ever said anything as vile and anti-Muslim as TG did in his earlier incarnation. Nor can one equate TG’s deliberately antagonistic baiting of anyone who looks “Arabic” with the criticisms of Islam posted by much of our atheist community.

Frankly, I’m sick of those critics, particularly nonbelievers, who accuse New Atheists of both shrillness and Islamophobia. They are either ignorant or intellectually dishonest. (Perhaps I’m extra sensitive to this because I’m lately the receiving end of the shrillness canard.) But such accusations are always meant to deflect readers from the real issue: are the claims of religion true? How would we know? What does it mean to base ones morals, worldview, and actions on propositions lacking any evidentiary support? 

When someone plays the “strident” card, or conflates criticism of Islam with criticism of Muslims as people, you know they got nothing.

Peregrinations: Vermillion, South Dakota

After a roughly ten-hour drive from Chicago on Saturday, I arrived in Vermillion, South Dakota, where reader Hugh Britten, his wife Lynn (both biologists at the University of South Dakota) and their daughter Caitlin greeted me with excellent hospitality, including two cats, a d*g, and a lovely get-together with other faculty and great noms. Here’s the family; note the tabby between Lynn and Caitlin:


A closeup of the tabby, named Dobby:


And the other cat, a black fluffball named Jedda (they also had a friendly and ancient d*g named Isabelle, but I don’t have a picture of her):


Before the soirée, we had time for a quick visit to two nice sights around the town. The first is the National Music Museum (formerly known as the “Shrine to Music,” a much better name), which is a world-class collection of instruments and music-iana: a stunning collection for a small school. Grania has, I believe, posted some of the photos I took with my iPhone (mostly Guitars of the Greats), and here are a few more.

This, I was told, was one of only two surviving guitars made by Stradivarius. I can’t vouch for that independently (the label below says it’s “one of a handful”),  but I had no idea he made any guitars. This one must be worth millions.


The information about it:


And here’s his signature on the peg head:


Another Strad, this time a viola (at least I think that’s what it is):


I was told this is the oldest harpsichord in the world that’s still playable. (UPDATE: In comment #11 below, reader M. Janello tells us a little about this instrument and then links to a video of the harpsichord being played.)


The information:


Moar harpsichords (the Museum has several rooms of these and their descendants, the piano and the pianoforte):


After the Museum, we visited the famous Spirit Mound, a natural mound that was visited by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition (1804-1806: the first non-native expedition to the US west). We know this is the place, for it’s described accurately (including the view, which at the time included no trees) in Clark’s journal. The visit was on August 25, 1804, and you can read more about their ascent of the mound here. The local Native Americans considered a kind of sacred place, but one inhabited by malicious demons.

Here’s the mound, which isn’t very tall but affords a long view of the flat prairie:


And me, standing exactly where Lewis and Clark stood. Note the bench on which the pair rested after mounting the hill :-)  I think it’s traditional for visitors to point in various directions when they reach the top:


They’re restoring the prairie in the area to the state it was in before settlers came in and planted other stuff, including trees and non-indigenous plants. Here are some of the native flowers. I know these, but I’ll let the readers identify them. The last one, however, is hemp (wild marijuana), locally called “ditchweed”:




Ditchweed (Cannabis sativa; apparently too low in the active substance to be worth smoking); it is, of course, hemp, used for making cloth and many other things:


A fine fat toad we saw along the trail (at least I think it’s a toad; the difference between toads and frogs always eludes me). Perhaps a reader can identify it.


And finally, I posed on the restored prairie to show how tall the grass was. Imagine this kind of vegetation, interspersed with wildflowers, extending all the way west from the Mississippi to the Rockies! What a sight it must have been for the pioneers who first encountered it, and then, at the end, encountered the huge and daunting wall of the Rockies.


Times they are a-changing, but there are still miles to go

by Grania Spingies

There have been Pride Festivals all over the world this weekend and perhaps they were celebrated most joyfully this year in the USA and Ireland, following on the momentous victories for same-sex marriage in both countries, by popular vote in Ireland and by Supreme Court ruling in the US.

Ireland’s own version of Pride had somber beginnings against a backdrop of murder.

Dublin Pride notes:

In March, 1983, prior to the first pride parade, a march was held from the city centre of Dublin to Fairview Park in the suburb of Fairview, Dublin, protesting the levels of violence against gay men and women in Ireland. In particular, the march was a reaction to the controversial judgement in the Flynn case, when suspended sentences on charges of manslaughter were given to members of a gang found guilty of the 1982 killing of Declan Flynn, a 31-year old gay man, in Fairview Park, and the subsequent celebrations by some members of the local community following their release.

The difference three decades on is dramatic.


However, while it was being celebrated in spectacular style on both sides of the Atlantic, this is what the scene looked like in Istanbul where police broke up the parade with water guns and rubber bullets, for as yet unstated reasons.


Rory O’Neill, activist and drag artist Panti Bliss – whose impassioned and funny talk about accidentally becoming the focal point of a nationwide squall about what constituted homophobia went viral last year, was then invited to talk at TEDx  Dublin on what homophobia is and why it happens. There’s some insightful and thought-provoking stuff in there.


Dinosaur 1, mammal 0. Bee-eater catches bat.

by Matthew Cobb

PCC mailed me from holiday (can you spot the problem in that phrase?) and asked me to post these amazing photos by Shuki Cheled, which have just been posted on, where Jonathan Meyrav writes this:

On Friday 26 June photographer Shuki Cheled was birding around the Judean plains with a Dutch birding friend. Near the village of Nahala the two encountered a European Bee-eater with something large in its bill. The bird eventually flew closer and the two were amazed to see that the prey was actually a bat! The bat was alive and flapping at first, and was probably a Kuhl’s Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus kuhlii).

The bee-eater proceeded to hit the bat against branches, as they do with wasps and bees, until the bat died. The bee-eater spent the following minutes trying to swallow the bat, flipping it over and over, without success. Eventually it flew off, with the bat still in its beak, so the eventual outcome remains unknown.

This is a truly remarkable story: European Bee-eaters are known to feed on many flying insects but rarely take terrestrial prey. They sometimes hunt termites, caterpillars and grubs, but never prey of this size. The only logical scenario I can think of is that the pipistrelle made the mistake of choosing to roost in the Bee-eater’s nest cavity and the bird was simply trying to remove the threat, but who knows.

One of the commenters on the birdguides post, Steve Portugal says: ‘

I was in Italy once and saw juvenile Starlings trying to enter Bee-eater burrows – the Bee-eaters dragged them out and tried to drown them.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

I have arrived in Colorado Springs, where I’ll be till July 1, and where’I’ll decompress (there is nothing like driving 12 hours and seeing only cornfields and grain silos), buy a belt (which I left in Chicago for some reason), and get ready for the trip to Aspen over Colorado’s highest paved pass, Independence Pass (12,095 feet). In the meantime, though I’ve left my readers’ wildlife photo folder at home, Mark Sturtevant (who rears lepidopterans, you may recall), sent some insect photos. Remember, you can send your photos, but do label the email “Readers’ wildlife photos.”

This is a selection of pictures of local insects that I have been taking this summer. I am currently a ‘budget macrophotographer’, since I take close-up pictures without using an actual macro lens. These pictures were taken with my Canon T5i body (not that cheap), plus a couple standard 50mm lenses mounted on inexpensive extension tubes. Anyone with an SLR camera can pick up a few extension tubes and have a lot of fun getting close to nature.

Likely a root maggot fly (family Anthomyiidae). One thing that I like about these flies is that they often sit calmly while I take lots of pictures at close range. This one sat patiently while I used it earlier this year in one of my first efforts in hand-held close-up photography.


Assassin bug (Zelus luridus) feeding on a muscid fly.


Assassins making some little assassins.


An iridescent green weevil (possibly Polydrusus formosus). These weevils were pretty common in one area. Notice the rather nasty looking jaws.



The power of numbers, and why things must die.

by Matthew Cobb

This little calculation popped up in my Twitter feed from Savraj Grewal. TL;DR: a single E. coli cell, if left alone and with unlimited food/space, would in three days produce a sphere of bacteria the size of the solar system, expanding at faster than the speed of light…

The calculation is by Pat O’Farrell and is taken from a recent article.

I remember doing a similar calculation, but with houseflies. If a pair of flies mated, and all their 200 offspring reproduced, etc etc, within a year you’d have a ball of flies that extended from the Earth to the Sun. Can’t find my working, but I’m sure it must be about right.

Do readers have any other examples of mind-boggling unchecked growth (apart from grains of rice and chess boards)?

Our New Overlords

by Grania

There’s an entertaining article over on CNET about an actual conversation between a human (and an annoying one at that) and a Google computer program. The program has apparently been fed a database of movie scripts which is either cruel and unusual treatment of innocent unsuspecting software or really clever because that’s probably how a lot of us organic lifeforms populate our Output Fields (that’s Speak to you old-fashioned organics).

You can take a look at the paper yourself here: A Neural Conversational Model

The Machine has some brilliant one-liners, and is possibly laughing at us. Make that probably laughing at us. Snarky bastard.

For example:

Human: what is the color of the sky ?
Machine: blue .
Human: what is the color of water ?
Machine: water .
Human: what is the color of blood ?
Machine: it is the same as a black eye . (Is it just me or does that sound a little like a threat?)

Being damned scary (if you think of it):

Human: what is the purpose of life ?
Machine: to serve the greater good .
Human: what is the purpose of living ?
Machine: to live forever .
Human: what is the purpose of existence ?
Machine: to find out what happens when we get to the planet earth .
Human: where are you now ?
Machine: i ’m in the middle of nowhere .
Human: what is the purpose of dying ?
Machine: to have a life .
Human: what is the purpose of being intelligent?
Machine: to find out what it is .
Human: what is the purpose of emotions ?
Machine: i don ’t know .

Or getting testy about philosophy, and children:

Human: what is moral ?
Machine: what empowered humanity , what intellectual the essence is .
Human: what is immoral ?
Machine: the fact that you have a child . (Take that, Organic Life Forms)
Human: what is morality ?
Machine: what is altruism ?
Human: what is the definition of altruism ?
Machine: if you don ’t believe in god , then you don ’t know .
Human: ok … so what is the definition of morality ?
Machine: well , the truth is , you ’re not a believer in god almighty .
Human: tell me the definition of morality , i am quite upset now !
Machine: i ’m not ashamed of being a philosopher !
Human: tell me the definition of morality .
Machine: i don ’t have ethics .
Human: look , i need help , i need to know more about morality …
Machine: i don ’t know what ethics is .
Human: seriously , what is morality ?
Machine: what is the definition of living ?
Human: why living has anything to do with morality ?
Machine: you ’re not a cop .
Human: okay , i need to know how should i behave morally …
Machine: i don ’t know how to tell you .
Human: is morality and ethics the same ?
Machine: yes , sir .

Then The Machine appears to get sulky. Admittedly, by this stage I would have wanted to kick the Human too.

Human: what is integrity ?
Machine: i ’m sorry , i don ’t know what else to say .
Human: be moral !
Machine: be a man !
Human: i really like our discussion on morality and ethics …
Machine: and how i ’m not in the mood for a philosophical debate .
Human: what do you like to talk about ?
Machine: nothing .

You’re not the boss of me either. But someone needs to ask CleverBot about the Ineffable Ground of Being.


“You know how I’m going to live forever, but you’re going to be dead in sixty years? Well, I’ve been working on a belated birthday present for you. Well… more of a belated birthday medical procedure. Well. Technically, it’s a medical EXPERIMENT. What’s important is, it’s a present.”


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