Saturday, October 27, 2012

Seven Quick Takes: Spit-Take Edition

--- 1 ---
As it turns out, Mongkut is a bit of a mug. I was nervous of him a bit at first, because he was exhibiting a tendency to flare at the walls of his ten-gallon tank, and was reluctant to eat the food I was intent to feed him. Now he eats voraciously and is rather placid. I'm considering getting him some other tankmates once I solve a few small financial problems. 
In other fishy news, I'm pleased to announce that the test program has been a success, and that it seems highly likely I'll continue doing fish profiles on a semi-regular basis, with research time and writing time permitting. I have a small laundry-list of fish that I want to get through, all of which are common in the hobby but seem to be commonly misunderstood as well. Fish are alive too, and for some reason nobody is upset when a fish only lives "a year or two" as opposed to when a dog dies as a puppy. It's one of those things I've had a hard time understanding ever since I started to take the hobby seriously. I wonder if I can parlay my knowledge on the subject into a way to pay the rent?

--- 2 ---
Speaking of rent, a few of you have noticed the low post-count around here - for that, I obstinately apologize. I'm actually incredibly busy, between nearly full-time hours at one job, flagging hours at a second job, and trying to find a room-mate. By day's end, whether I get home early or not, I simply have no energy left to write with and very little left to say.

--- 3 ---
Yesterday (or maybe it was the day before, now. It's a blurr.), a man killed himself on a well-traveled overpass here in town. He jumped over the side-rail in an attempt to hang himself with some kind of a wire. It caused a five-car pile-up on a major thoroughfare and quite a bit of a stir, as you can imagine. Whenever I hear of news like this, I wonder what can be so serious as to push a person to suicide, and then I remember that it doesn't have to be serious. Brain chemistry just works like that, which makes these cases all the sadder. Nothing left to do but pray for the victims.

Please familiarize yourself with the suicide hotline for your area and be prepared to help your friends and family if they start showing signs of suicidal thought or behavior. Our lives are not remotely so dire that suicide is ever the only, or even the right, way out.

--- 4 ---
The F-35 fighter jet has been a matter of considerable consternation lately: whether or not DND followed proper procedure when deciding to purchase the jet has been a major thorn in the side for the ruling Conservative Party and is landing Defense Minister Peter McKay in quite a bit of trouble. It's actually rather amusing to watch. The latest development: Public Works is auctioning out a contract for a company to investigate whether or not there was wrongdoing.

Uh, guys? That's what we pay you to do. What's it say for Canada when I'm pretty certain Canadians are going to trust the company doing the investigation to do a better job than the people we actually pay to do the investigating would have?

Arctic Soveirgnty is a pretty big deal. We need those jets, or else the Americans (God alone knows why) and the Russians are going to carve up all points north of Alert for themselves. Not that I'm an expansionary thinker by any stretch, but there's expanding going on in my neighborhood and, well, Her Majesty deserves a slice.

--- 5 ---
A US study says that organic food does surprisingly little to help kids... perhaps that is because USDA organic, as a certification, only requires the absence of four chemicals. The EU certification requires (as I recall it) some 214 checks... I wonder if there's better results in Europe.

--- 6 ---
A few federal departments are hunting around for a place to store spent nuclear fuel. Being a bit of a nuke enthusiast given my fascination with physics and chemistry, I'm given to wonder... why not replace our old, messy coal plants with a few new Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors? The darned things run on waste, and I am almost sure a proper nuke engineer could make them just as safe as the current generation of CANDU reactors.

In the absence of widespread wind and tidal power generation in the Great White North, I will gladly take an increase of nuclear power and decrease of fossil-fuel fired power plants over the opposite. Nuclear power is safe so long as we are willing to spend on it properly. Chernobyl was poorly designed by the Soviets and Fukishima was inexplicably placed on the coastline in a country with frequent tsunamis.

--- 7 ---
On top of everything else that's going on, I'm going to have to replace my bathroom ceiling. That should make finding a room-mate super duper easy, nicht war?

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why I'm Still Not Voting Conservative

It's been a long-running joke with friends of mine that if the Defense Minster was elected separately from the Prime Minister (and that if we voted people into any office other than Minister of Parliament), I'd elect a conservative DM and a New Democrat or Green PM. My varied interests over the years have produced a political ethos that can't quite be encompassed by anybody's party line. The argument I get from people making the joke is usually something along the lines of "Zac would like to see a strong, draft-enforced military armed with soy-deisel tanks and rifles firing organic bullets".

It's not entirely true, mind you. I do typically tend to favour a well-funded, well-trained military in my discussions of the matter. I think leaning on any one country too firmly for our national defense causes long-term problems, and having the Canadian Armed Forces be able to defend Canada's arctic sovereignty and territorial waters seems to be a small thing to ask for. After we bungled Rwanda and after a full decade of infighting in Afghanistan I don't think it's a tall order to want to see Canada look inward and secure herself for a while. Our troops need the rest and the refit.

However, my views on the military are just about the only thing I share with the Cons, and even then, we only agree on the matter of needing better equipment - they want to fight wars and I want to get out of the ones we're in. When it comes to any of a number of other issues, I'm far more to the left of centre.

"Wow. Umm. They didn’t tell me I’d have to answer questions like that when I took this job. I think that it’s......I don’t know the total answer to that." – Bob Hamilton, Harper's newly appointed boss of Environment Canada when asked what he believes to be the cause of climate change.

Case very much in point.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fish Profile: Betta Splendens

A Crowntail Betta enjoys his garish
(and hastily-constructed) home.
After I made a snarky remark recently about Betta Splendens being the most abused pet in the hobby, I've been challenged by three separate people to explain myself. It helps a bit that I've just recently acquired a Betta of my own.

Bettas are the last "bowl fish" in the industry - they're the last fish that professional fish-keepers still consider appropriately-kept in unfiltered, unoxygenated water.  They are, in this respect, very useful from a commercial perspective as a good "introductory fish", since their needs are the simplest, their constitutions the heartiest, and their looks the most attractive. I've often contemplated a "desk betta" (I used to have a far larger desk), specifically because they do well in small volumes.

Saying a Betta will survive in a bowl is a lot like saying  a dog will survive in its kennel. Yes, the fish was shipped to the store from Shanghai in less water than you need between lunch and supper to stay healthy. Yes, it has survived weeks on the shelf in heavily-medicated water with no larger a container than a plastic cup. Yes, it can live for months in a well-maintained bowl.

Throw a betta into the ideal conditions, however, and it can live for up to 4 years. Now, that might not sound like much, but when you consider that a ballpark life-span for a betta in a litre of water is six or seven months (unless the casual aquarist is being meticulous about his water-changes), you're talking about improving that lifespan by a factor of eight.

Betta Splendens is a species name that refers both to a particular species, and to a species complex of a dozen or so other closely-related species from the same geographical area. For the purposes of this profile, I will be writing exclusively about the specific fish.

Chemically, Bettas are undemanding. This should not be surprising considering just how stale and inhospitable the water in those little cups you see can get. Ornamental Strains (the kinds you see in pet shops - such as my crowntail, or even the "basic" Betta) are very tolerant of pH and accept water ranging from 6.0 to 8.0; bear in mind that transitioning pH should be done slowly to avoid shocking the fish. Captive-bred fish are also highly tolerant of a range of water hardnesses, but in my experience, colors are best in relatively soft water. Unsurprisingly, they tolerate a range of temperatures from 71-82 Fahrenheit, but I prefer to keep mine (when alone) at 79.

An adult betta with its full pride on will have a length of 6-7 cm, which is a good couple of inches. They're also fairly active under dim lighting, and appreciate a good amount of plant cover, both in the water column and across the surface. For that reason, I find a ten-gallon tank with a base of a foot by a foot and a half to be the ideal for maintaining them.

Taking food can be a bit of a task. Pellets are the easiest to feed (no more than 3 of the nutrafin max pellets per day), though live food should be supplemented often to get the best colour and condition out of the fish.

While there is a certain amount of myth behind the idea that the males fight to the death, keeping males together in anything other than the largest and most well-planted of aquaria is the poor choice. That being said, keeping a male with a small group (colloquially, a harem) of females is a good way to have the energy of a community tank without the difficulty of finding suitable tank-mates for the beta.

These fish also tend to live in standing water that becomes discoloured by decomposition (in the wild), and appreciate additional organic compounds in the water as a result. Treatments containing the extract of beech, oak, or ketapang almond leaves are available. Hagen manufactures such a treatment called Tropical Extracts, under their Nutrafin brand. It's also possible (though energy consuming), to find dry leaves of the mentioned types and litter them across the bottom of the tank.

Let me give an example tank setup, based on the way I intend to retrofit my current betta tank to better suit the poor guy's needs.

Mongkut's Palace
Mongkut, meaning "crown" in Thai, is a fitting name for a fine crowntail Betta. After being rescued from an unfortunate heater-burn accident, Mongkut could not have been expecting to move into such an attractive new home!

Tank Parameters:
   pH: Stable at 7.0
  Temp: 79 degress Fahrenheit 
  Volume: 10 Gallon (Hagen Marina "10" Kit Tank)

Filtration: Hagen Aquaclear 20 HOB, lowest setting, with wonderfully-scrungy foam sponge for media
Lighting: Stock hood with Life-Glo fluorescent tube (I believe it's 14W)

Plantation and Decoration: "Valley" design with tank sides planted in with Vesuvius Swords and back lined with Green Cabomba. Bare natural-gravel substrate with a bit of driftwood for a visual contrast. Duckweed as a floating plant to provide some top-cover.

Maintenance: 10% biweekly water changes and occasional removal of duckweed. Plant-Gro dosed regularly with water changes. Use of small amounts of aquarium salt and Tropical Extracts, respectively.

Feedings: Monday, Wednesday, Friday - 2 pellets in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday - Pinhead crickets or Bloodworm (as available). Sunday - Fast.

Tank "Difficulty": The main difficulty here will be keeping biological filtration powerful while keeping the water flow as low as is practical. Ideally this would be done with an air-powered sponge filter, but having no experience in constructing or running these devices, I'm sticking with what I know. Apart from that, this tank is about as simple as they come.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Something I've been hearing surprisingly frequently lately is the question of "why". I hear it from myself just as often as I hear it from others - my mental dialogue usually takes the form of question and response, for those curious.

Now, the thing I need to justify is sometimes genuinely something that needs justifying. 'Why should I steep Silver Yin Zhen Pearls at 79C for 4 minutes when all of the other whites steep for two?', or, 'Why should I be considering adding Tropical Extracts to this next tank when I've never used them before?'. More often than not, the answer comes out to some variation of the stated course of action being the right thing to do.

Not to mention that I still have to
find the fried component.
Well... why? Sometimes the things I do are genuinely justifiable. Sometimes, they're whims. Take, for example, my latest set of projects. At the moment, I'm writing this blog post on the desktop, while I mull over details for an upcoming Dungeons and Dragons adventure, trying to remember where I put my Microsoft Office install disks, and waiting for a sixth youtube video to render so that I can move it to the laptop to upload. There's laundry to do and dishes to scrub, but at the moment I'm taking what I have determined to be a well-deserved break from working. Tomorrow will be a new day, the dishes are at least rinsed off and will keep until morning, and I work the night shift, so at least I'll have the morning to do some laundry.

As it happens, that's not the most justifiable course of action. It's also not the most interesting why. I get some pretty interesting whys. People make all sorts of assumptions.

"Hey Zac, why do you let yourself get covered to the elbows in crickets and count out super-worms by hand when you hate bugs?"

Well, to be perfectly honest, I'm really only doing it because they pay me. Having said that, if my financial circumstances allowed it, I'd probably still do the same job for less. I essentially care for a couple of hundred pets now. Some of those pets need to eat insects to live. Therefore, I handle insects. I'm not especially fond of insects, and indeed, not particularly happy with some of the animals that eat them, but they deserve at least the care I can give them.

"Hey Zac... why are you all about the tea?" (This one, to be fair, I ask myself almost as often as I get asked.)

I like tea. For one thing, I like drinking it as much as I like juice and pop, and since I rarely sweeten my teas, it's a damn sight healthier than the latter to drink mostly tea. Back in the era of thinking I had money, I acquired a pretty good collection of Teavana teas. By the way, I'm still a paid teavana employee, but don't let that get in the way of a good opinion. I have a very nice water heater, a tatara pot, and all the time in the world (usually) to drink a cup. I have terrible luck with travel mugs, but that's beside the point.

I like tea for different reasons on different days. For the last few weeks it's been that a hot cup of green or white (usually with various herbs and fruits mixed in) was a real boon for a sore throat and slight congestion that shows up at the equinox and usually hangs around at least until Christmas. When I'm working hard, it's that a nice cup of iced tea is just as refreshing as a can of root beer and has the added benefit of not destroying my tooth enamel any more than it already is. I'm excited about tea because it's food. Food's something we have to do every day, but it should never be boring.

Selling Blair is gonna suck
"Ew, why would you let yourself get tangled up by a four-foot boa."

I really need to get a picture of that. Frankly, it's because the boas are affectionate. So's the skink. I like pets that show affection because most, frankly, don't. I don't have a pet right now. I'd like to, but money's a little tight with an empty room in the house, so I have to wait. So I like to handle the boas. I like to handle all of the lizards, really, except the tegus.

Plus, the Hog Islands'll go feral if they're not handled regularly, and then you can't really handle them at all, so it's nice to get them the exercise.

"Why fish?"
Well, the same reason some people like to keep conures. I find fish interesting. I find their biology alien, and any psychology such simple-minded creatures can have must be thoroughly inhuman. Keeping fish is an adventure in applied chemistry and (at obsessive levels of the hobby) fluid dynamics. Rearing and breeding fish is an exciting experience, and an often illuminating one as well. Some fish live no longer than a hamster or rabbit - a hand-count of years - but others, like goldfish, can live for decades. What's more, one can get into studies of genetics when it comes to breeding - I once tried to isolate the blue gene in a colony of mix-coloured Bettas, admittedly without success.

Fish are interesting. Fish are pretty. And once you've gotten past the set-up costs, fish are, frankly, cheap, even when cared for properly. They make no mess and require relatively little space.

"Why ask?"
Well, to be honest, you should always be able to answer the question of why you are doing something. Otherwise, it's hard to remember precisely why it matters to do it well.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tank Design 102: Population Selection

Junior Gorski's very attractive, very large African Cichlid tank. Aquahobby's July '12 tank of the month.
I noticed an awful lot of hits coming my way on the tank selection page, so I figured I might do a second fish-related article. I also have a tea-related article for later in the day, too, but I can't spend all morning writing as there is some very real housework that I need to get done.

Today we'll be talking about designing stocking lists for freshwater community aquariums - that is, ordinary aquariums of the household variety, containing more than one species of fish. There's an awful lot of thought on the subject, and I've seen everything from united-nations like assemblies of fish from the world over to small, painstakingly-crafted slices of the amazon (the latter is a special sort of tank I'll get to at the end).

As always, research is key, and I point hobbyists to and for their extensive listing of fish care sheets. There are, however, a few generalities I've picked up that aren't immediately obvious from care sheets, which I wanted to share.

Law of Shared Space
One of the things you'll notice on Seriously Fish's care sheets is that the tank capacity required for an ordinary group (or sometimes a single) fish of that species is always given. It is important to note that the fish in question does not need that much space all unto itself (or themselves), but that this is the appropriate amount of space for them to get the right amount of activity to reach adult size and still be comfortable in their environment.

With exceptions made for notedly solitary fish (which aren't suitable to the community tank), this space can still be shared. At that point, the hard limit becomes more a study in filtration capacity. As a general rule, once tank size requirements are met, I allow one square-inch of fish surface area per gallon. Usually, though, the fish will so signs of stress when overcrowded. Use your own best judgement.

Law of Gradient
Different fish occupy different depths in the tank. Loricariidae and corydoras catfish, for example, prefer to be closer to the bottom, as do many species of barb. By comparison, stately gouramis prefer to occupy the area near the surface. Plenty of fish prefer the middle. The Law of Gradient is an adjunct to the Law of Shared Space that specifies the law most applies to cases where fish sharing an overlap in tank capacity occupy different depths. The design equivalent of the Law of Gradient is the Pesciphile Law of Thirds which states that an odd number of species should occupy each of the top, middle, and bottom depth slots.
T. Trichopterus var. "Opaline" - my first feature fish.

Step One: Feature Fish
A feature fish is a fish, often a single specimen, intended to be the focus of the tank. In many, but not all cases, it is a larger, visually-striking focal-fish, such as an angel, discus, or larger-species gourami. Feature fish are a common feature in increasingly-larger tank size categories because they catch the eye and bring attention in for the smaller fish that they cohabit.

Since the feature fish is often a favourite, almost always getting named, and frequently the focus of the owner's affection, I usually advise people to start selecting their tank stock based on that one feature fish. 

Step Two: Apply Bounds
My favourite tool for making stock lists is a digital spreadsheet (I use Microsoft Excel, to the chagrin of my linux/open-source circle of friends) - a template can be found here. The reason for that is that combining fish makes the acceptable water condition balance more and more specific with each new species you add. Essentially, the tank's pH and Hardness should be as close to the middle of the overlap of the range of all the fish as possible.

If you picture each range as overlapping lines, you want to be as close to the middle of the segment where every range overlaps as possible. In general, this is not difficult to do, though a few species will make it difficult.

Step Three: Introduction
I introduce fish according to size and numbers. I try never to introduce more than a half-dozen fish at a time to give the tank time to adjust to their bioload, and I start with the smallest first, which is more a matter of preference than anything. Always acclimate fish to your new tank conditions and always keep an eye on new fish for undue aggression or stress. I advise people who have the room to have a second tank available as a quarantine, and to introduce new fish only after the quarantine fish have been shown healthy for a few days. Where I work, we do a pretty good job of quarantining sick fish ourselves, but we're not always perfect, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

On Utility Fish
There are a few fish that seem doomed to be kept in inhospitable conditions - the loricarridae - specifically because they are known to eat awfuchs, the buildup of algae and biofilm on glass and tank contents that many consider unsightly. The Loricarids are particularly popular for this purpose, supposedly because they are among the only species to clean glass itself. Unfortunately, your average aquarist doesn't have the tank capacity to care for one of these fish properly, and so these fish wind up being stunted and die prematurely.
Ancistrus spp. The common Bristle-Nose

For those with very small tanks I recommend snails as the most effective and simplest-kept solution for cleaning glass. If you're anything like me, though, snails are about as boring as they come, breed too easily, and are too difficult to be rid of. If you absolutely must insist on using a fish in a smaller (sub-0 gallon) tank in the role of an "algae-eater", focus on Otocinculus spp. (the so-called "midget suckermouth catfishes") or Ancistrus spp. (the Bristle-Nose Plecos). These are fish that stay small naturally, eat awfuchs voraciously, and are much better suited to small tanks.

Establishing a Theme
When I go for a theme, I usually go for contrasting colours, though an increasingly popular (and, in my opinion, much nicer) trend is to build a biotope aquarium. A biotope as closely resembles the conditions of a given body of water as much as humanly possible - Amazonian is a popular example. Biotope tanks are a challenge, because sourcing aquatic plants endemic to a specific region is much harder than selecting fish. It is, however, considered rewarding by many.

In point of fact, I know of a few species of fish that can only be kept safely in conditions so specific as to force the owner to create a biotope tank for them. These are all very visually-interesting fish as well, and it's an option worth considering.

There Oughta be a Law

B. Splendens of a veil-tail trope. (c) Athena Slater
Bettas are easily the most abused species of freshwater pet.
Preventing animal abuse is one of those things everyone says they support whether they mean it or not. In that respect it's a lot like a few other issues I can name.

For some reason, at least in my experience, fish seem to be the most abused pets in the western world. It might have something to do with the fact that fish are relatively cheap, and they're perceived as a relatively easy pet. This unfortunate consequence of economics and perception has lead those who are passionate about the subject to shake their head and quietly mutter about the need for a law.

Now, I could go on and on about the different common abuses of fish I see or hear about on a day to day basis but that matter less than the story I actually came to tell.  As we all well know, thoughts are circular and so tangents are common, and very often the lesson in one field is imparted by an experience in a totally different field. But now I'm getting ahead of myself; let me tell the story.

One of my fellow fish and reptile experts is a guy with a real fondness for snakes, skinks, monitors, and arachnids but possessed of no real affection for fish. I can't say I blame him, as all of the pets I just mentioned are more interesting and the first two certainly more friendly than fish, but even then he knows a thing or two by virtue of having to work directly with fish. Now, he came to me today to ask me about a customer he had in the fish room a few days before. This person was looking for a plecostomus, which are the armoured catfish commonly called "algae eaters".

One of the many plecostomus loricariidae seen in the hobby.
Now, plecos are unfortunately the first most abused fish in the hobby after goldfish. They're usually ill-bred, and the ones unlucky enough not to get picked out by enthusiasts of their genus often get pressed into service as janitors in tanks too small, warm, cold, acidic, basic, or heavily stocked for them. As a result, many die prematurely. With the dwarf "bushynose" species being too new to the local hobby they are often ignored despite being better suited for the average aquarist's tank, which means that I'm constantly having to hunt down a sufficiently small pleco to face a slow and agonizing death-by-stunting because there's obviously no good reason to pay an extra two dollars for the right fish for the aquarium. There's no law against stunting fish, corporate has no problem with it because they consider the fish a step above feeder animals, and I have surprisingly little wiggle-room when it comes to telling people they cannot adopt a pet they're obviously not suited for.

The reason this particular customer stuck in my partner's mind (and mine, now), is that they asked for a pleco in this way:

"I want an algae eater. Give me the cheapest one possible because it's just going to die in two weeks anyway."

My coworker did the right thing - he followed up with questions about tank conditions, all of which should (in my opinion) proceed every fish sale, and all of which were met with assertions that the tank was perfectly fine (which it obviously couldn't be) and that the tank conditions weren't any of my co-worker's business.

In the end, as I recall, she wound up getting frustrated and didn't get her fish, but I'm certain she'll be back when someone less inclined to be troublesome isn't working, and likely wind up with another plecostomus.

All of this, however, sounds like another issue. See, my friends and I get mad about bad fishkeeping because it's an abuse. Most of the fish we carry are captive-bred, but there's always exceptions to the rule, and in either case, I can't think of a single species of fish that didn't at least have its roots in the wild. Even if that weren't the case, it would still be true that we as keepers owe these fish the best possible shot at a long, reasonably happy, and reasonably healthy life. After all, fish, perhaps moreso than any pet, experience a reality totally dictated by their owner.. An aquarist has the last word on every aspect of tank layout, water conditions, food availability, and tankmates. Even the feeder insects at work get better treatment than many of the fish I've seen in private aquaria. In this respect I'm no saint and I've been the unwitting abuser of plenty of fish in my day.

The point of realization, though, was that quiet shaking of the head, and the muttering of "there oughta be a law" that usually follows such encounters. Interestingly enough, the epiphany actually had nothing to do with animal abuse, though it did have to do with another form of human cruelty.

For those who missed it, I managed to wade hip-deep in the mirky soup of abortion debates (however briefly) over at Cam's blog. It's one of those sleek and sexy issues that seems attractive before someone's had their tea but which should have, frankly, been resolved well before I was born. As I recall it, I had expressed the idea that one can be personally opposed to abortion but still be in favour of its legality as a mechanism of personal choice.

Bear in mind that this is an extremely nuanced subject. We're dealing with layers and layers of consequences which must all be considered from every angle. The reason that I never seem to express a concrete position on it is that the subject is simply too complicated to encompass with a short-form answer. 

So far as it goes, though, I understant the pro-life argument quite a bit better standing over here. If I can get teed  up over people abusing fish, people being needlessly cruel to human fetuses should bother me too, I would expect.

The idea of where life begins is complex and varied. At the moment, I'm leaning toward conception. Ask me again tomorrow.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Prison Inmate's Life Threatened with Unassisted Birth

Well, what I really wanted to write was actually a fish profile, but real stuff happens from time to time, and since writing about events seems to work in my style, I thought I'd keep doing what I was accustomed to doing.

The CBC reported recently that a woman being held awaiting trial at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre gave birth under some "less than ideal" circumstances. It seems that the woman went into labour in detention, and guards removed her to what's called a segregation cell, believing her labour to be counterfeit, or else false. As it happens, her son was breech-born, and he was born without assistance.

Now, holding aside that the woman was yet to be convicted and the rather obvious issue of the fitness of felons to be parents, we have a rather serious problem here.  I know for a fact that there will be people out there who disagree with this assertion, but we have a moral duty to properly care for prison inmates. Canada's legal system does not legitimize a death penalty, nor cruel or unusual punishment. We're not Finland, but we do have fairly forward-thinking ideas about prisoner rights.

I'm shocked to learn that "prison hospitals for female detention centers should be used in the event of labour" isn't one of those ideas. A breech birth is not a little thing -  it has real risks for the health of both the mother and the child.

How can this happen?

Of Police, Character, and Education

For the average person, there are about three kinds of people: those remembered fondly, those remembered negatively, and those not remembered at all. At least in my experience, the majority fall certainly into the majority while the other categories vie over the remainder, but that might have more to do with my memory having more in to do with an index than an actual publication. It happens that the thing that makes you rise above the crowd, out of obscurity, is also typically the thing that decides whether you stand out in a good or bad way - sort of like the difference between the star pupil and the class clown.

Sometimes though, when a person belongs to a specific group (in my case, usually defined by an occupation), the one memorable experience supercedes all the forgettable ones. That's the nature of memory and of impressions, and in cases where your profession is the kind I only deal with once in a blue moon, that experience can shape my percieved reality of your entire occupation. I know this isn't the wisest course of action, and it's certainly not fair, but I also know I'm not alone in making the characterization.

Recently a friend of mine, who I used to work with, posted a video from LiveLeak on his facebook timeline. Like many Canadians I spend a greater than average part of my time browsing facebook, and while I usually ignore videos, I remember that this person is a pretty lively conversationalist - one of those rare conspiracy theorists who is worth talking to, because he demands actual proof as opposed to absence of discussion of the idea. Since I tend to be fairly mainstream in my ideas of what the world is like, talking with him is always fun and informative, and I figured having a little insight into where he gets his information would be a fun time.

I'm not going to link the video, because I find it to be largely without merit, and this particular thought is about the comments section more than the video itself. The NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk program (if it even exists) has absolutely no bearing on my day to day life. The lesson for me was in reading the comments, which were predominated by statements like:
All cops are crooked. I've been stopped 4 or 5 times in my life and even convicted for things I wasn't actually doing.
At which point the commenter invariably alludes to his visible minority status as the reason for the arrests and convictions.

As it happens, I've only ever interacted directly with police once. There are exceptions, like being the car when one parent or the other gets pulled over for the moving violation flavour of the month, but my one story goes something like this.

In what I'm pretty sure was August 2010, I received a phone call from my brother while at the movies, asking me to come home at once because we had been robbed. The stupid part was that not less than an hour beforehand I had been at the house and not noticed anything missing, but I also ran through it in the dark to pick one item up out of my bedroom and run back out. Regardless, the police were called, and arrived rather sluggishly, though I realize a crime already having happened is outranked in triage by crimes in progress. This isn't the biggest of cities and it seems absurd to me that the crime rate could be so high as to justify the delay.

When the officer finally did arrive, he decided that the crime was no big deal. A screen for my bedroom window had been slashed open with some kind of knife, but a spider web was constructed over the window. The officer insisted that a web takes 12 hours to form when I know for a fact a web of that size and species of spider really takes closer to two or three, but that didn't matter at the time. At the time, you see, my brother worked in retail, and a big part of his job was unloading and shelving stock, so he had a boxcutter. What was more, the cop was convinced by the spider web that the people who robbed us must have come in through the front door, and since there was no sign of the lock being forced, it must have been someone with a key. He basically did everything short of accusing us of fraud. We filed for our insurance, and got it, but then the policy was cancelled in the following June. To this day I believe the contents of the police report to have had some small hand in cancelling the policy. Insurance companies are suspicious and cautious by nature, however, so until I see the report, I'll accept they simply saw us as a liability.

In the years that followed I've taken a pretty narrow view of the police officers I don't know personally, largely because of my one experience with that one guy. Now though, I'm a couple years wiser, and the comments on the video got me thinking about my own preconceived idea of police corruption. Being bad at your job doesn't really mean you're corrupt. I'm a bad salesman, but it's not because I'm on the take with various competing companies.

I've had a few jobs since then. I'm a little ashamed to admit precisely how many, but I can do a resume on the last two years alone if that gives anyone an idea. I've worked now in every industrial sector except for manufacturing or public service, and in every job I've ever had, there's been precisely three kinds of coworkers: the good, the bad, and the not-so-memorable. With the jobs I've had, where you don't have to work particularly hard to get into the industry, or jump through all that many hoops, I've figured that this was par for the course, and no matter how lazy a co-worker was, I was always happier to see a lazy person working than a healthy person not.

I'm kind of a prick, but you get used to that.

I always assumed, that the "real" jobs, the education-heavy jobs, or the "classical" jobs, only attracted those that best suited them. I don't know why, but I figured that police departments were rather selective about who they allowed in. This was ignoring a lesson from my childhood, and my constant frustration with the cadets that just didn't care.

In every occupation, you're going to get people who are working only to get paid. Now, it's still an open question as to whether or not there are more police in Saint John who are working to get paid or who are working because it is their duty. I can't get too high on a horse about duty when I still haven't signed on to the CIC program in spite of having felt, basically since I graduated high school, that I had some small obligation to give back to a program that was, whether I completed it or not, a formative part of my childhood.

See, one of the things about the Royal Canadian Army Cadets that attracted the most eye-rolling was what we could loosely call character education (I believe the internal term was leadership). I know there's been some debate lately in the US over whether or not public schools should engage in character education. And while the small, christian part of me remembers I should show charity to all around me, I can't help but look at the vast majority of people my age and younger whose parents seemed not to bother with the effort. Since the only argument against character education has been that it belongs in the home, I find this to be a pretty compelling argument in favour.

See, I live in a town that, unfortunately, can't catch a break. We burst a bubble back in the eighties and can't climb out of it - lately we've been in the grips of a full-on-recession. We have a correspondingly high proportion of people on welfare. I'm actually happy when I get one of the forms to sign off on, to state that someone did, in fact, apply for a job here. Sometimes I mark the resume for special consideration by the people who actually make that decision.

The reason is that I spent a lot of my time with childhood friends, both parents of whom often collected welfare. The only way this is actually possible is to fraudulently claim living separately. What lesson is that to children? You do not need to work for a living; the government will hand you money, and you can defraud them for even more if you aren't making enough?

I think schools should teach leadership. I know my old high-school did, but they did it oddly. Physical education was a pre-requisite course and so only a few dedicated people (most of whom were already in one of the three branches of cadet service or active in scout programs) actually took it.

Build it into social studies. We spend so much time hearing about our civic duty to vote in those classes, but nobody votes because nobody understands why civic duty is important. If I didn't think that I was the last person I wanted patrolling the streets, I'd halfway consider joining the force myself. If I didn't think that I was the last person I wanted to share a foxhole with, I'd consider joining the Regular Force or the Reserves. If I didn't think I was the last person I wanted practicing medicine (given my horrible memory), I'd be a doctor or an EMT.

Government exists to serve the safety and welfare of the people, to guide a society forward and safeguard its progress. It can't do that without a generation of conscientious adults, at least not properly. It can't do that with soldiers who become soldiers to go to war, and it can't do that with cops who become cops to have job security. For the object of the standing army is not to be ready for war but to stand on guard for peace, and the objective of the police is not to safeguard oneself but to safeguard others.

My favourite verse of any bit of writing has always been;

God keep our land,
glorious and free,
O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Introductory Fishkeeping: Tank Selection and Setup

Jewel Cichlid Female (H. Bimaculatus) with Fry photo
It occurred to me that even after running the Fish Cave blog for quite a while I've never actually gotten around to compiling a guide on taking care of fish. As it happens, taking care of fish is something of a passion of mine - one I don't mind doing for hours and hours on end. Of the various species it is possible to keep as pets, fish are possibly the most alien to our considerably powerful mammalian brains, and under the right care conditions, I've yet to find a fish in the hobby that wasn't gorgeous in some way, shape, or form. From the grace of a shoal of Dojo Loaches to the visual flattery of Discus, there are very few fishes that inspire a "bleh" reaction from me, and there's certainly the right fish out there for anyone.

Firstly, if you're reading this guide without having bought anything at all yet: great! Research, particularly when it comes to living things, is a great thing. Kudos to you. Hopefully this guide will help, just a little bit, in choosing your build and getting it going. In this article I take it as a given that we're discussing a freshwater, planted aquarium.

Size Matters
There are, frankly, three things to consider when selecting the size of the aquarium itself:

  • The Fish you're planning on keeping,
  • How well it will fit in the room, and,
  • Cycler's Law - larger tanks are chemically more stable than smaller ones.
If you already know what sort of fish you want, it's a good idea to check out sources like or in order to determine what they require in terms of water volume and tank base size. If you don't know, feel free to ignore that rule, but remember in general that a larger tank will leave more doors open in the future than a smaller one.

Tanks are More than Size
There's more to selecting a tank than what size they are. What sort of lighting are you going to need? Do you need a cover? What substrate should you use? What sort of filter will be best for your fish and your tank size?

The Filter: Your Tank's Beating Heart
Your filter is perhaps the single most important component of an aquarium after the glass itself. A proper filter is going to be circulating your tankwater, converting ammonia to safer compounds, adding motion to the water, and in many cases, oxygenating it. Whether you choose to go with a high-end canister filter or a hang-on-back variety, there are a few general tips I can give:
  • Always choose a Hagen product. Both the aquaclear HOB filter and the Fluval canisters are the most resilient  enduring, and practical filters I've ever worked with
  • Ditch activated carbon on the first media change. Seriously, whenever you finally have to change the filter media, replace your activated carbon package with foam media or a biological substrate like Biomax. I'll explain why in the following section.
  • Ensure that your tank size is within the limits of the filter you are choosing, and ensure that all intake and output passages are inaccessible to fish.
A canister is, by design, always more effective than the corresponding grade of Hang On Back filters, but for some well-behaved (read: low-waste) fish, an HOB is more than sufficient for all but the most diehard aquarist.

Concept: Nitrogen Cycle
If you're anything like me, your first thought after hearing the words "nitro-cycle" will be to remember the motorcycle-like penny farthing from Wild Wild West. Unfortunately, the real thing is invisible to the naked eye, but it should not be ignored. If the filter is the beating heart of the tank, than the nitrogen cycle is the circulation it drives.

As fish excrete waste, and as uneaten food and dead plants decay, they give off ammonia (a nitrogen compound), which is toxic to fish. In a properly "cycled" tank, bacteria called nitrosomona actually digest this ammonia and produce Nitrites. Nitrites are less toxic than ammonia, but still pose a risk to fish, and another bacteria, nitrospira, further digest the Nitrites into nitrates, which is (mostly) harmless to fish and actually serves as nutrients for the aquarium's plants. Nitrates do, however, continue to build up, but this problem is corrected with partial water changes.

This cycle can be encouraged with the use of a Nutrafin product called, unimaginatively, Cycle, which is little more than a cocktail of nitrosomona and nitrospira. Even still, establishing a nitrogen cycle takes time, as we will see below.

An important part of choosing lighting is going to be staying within the bounds of what your canopy will support. Whether you have a simple light-bar or an actual enclosed tank-top, it's going to be set up for a certain length, type, and wattage of bulb. In general, I try to encourage people to stay away from incandescent bulbs and favor longer-lived (and more versatile) florescent ones... choose your canopy accordingly.

With the exception of some fish which prefer low-light, it's hard to overdo lighting, but it does take some tuning. You need to adjust for the level of plantation, particularly with the Plant-Gro bulb, because unused nutrients are almost always hanging around a tank and an unused amount of energy could result in an inadvertent algae bloom (which is also why we try to keep our tanks out of direct sunlight). These blooms are both ugly and potentially dangerous to fish, but easily averted and easily-enough corrected.

As it happens, I do maintain a few tanks in direct sunlight. I keep the algae level down using what's called a UV filter. The filter sucks water through and zaps it with high-energy UV, killing the algae, which then get eaten up by the proper filter. Between a Fluval canister and this UV filter, one tank under direct sunlight went from being an opaque green to being almost perfectly clear essentially overnight.

Most of us are familiar with gravel-bottomed tanks. For many fish this is actually ideal as it prevents them from swallowing up substrate and becoming impacted, but for many other fish gravel is too rough and too large-grained for their purposes. Do your research on your fish, and don't be afraid to mix and match. Personally, I like sandy substrates with "islands" of natural-coloured gravel; I find it looks more natural.

Always make sure you have a heater rated for the tank size you are using. This should be sufficient to reach any temperature you need, comfortably, and such heating is essential for all but three species of fish that I can think of which are commonly available in the hobby.

As I mentioned in the section on the nitrogen cycle section, you're going to find that the most important parameters of your tank are all going to be absent of your senses and you'll need some help figuring them out and getting them working properly.

The first chemical we need to talk about is a water conditioner - I use AquaPlus - which is for dechlorination of water and usually does a few other things too, like neutralize heavy metals. As a general rule I dose this whenever I add water to a tank, add fish to a tank, or even when I seem to be having white clouds (which is an issue with phosphate content of the water). Early signs of disease? Give it a squirt. Packaging fish for a move? Bet your bottom dollar they get a dose.

We already talked about cycle - a good off-label use for that particular chemical is in attempting to clear up the afforementioned white cloudiness issue, before moving on to an actual phosphate remover. Since this usually works I almost never keep the latter at home and I rarely have to open it at work.

Next comes your test kit. The hard part is selecting one, since not every keeper needs every test, or needs it often enough to have it be part of the main kit rather than an addon. In this respect Hagen makes a very nice range of tests under the Nutrafin brand. At minimum, everyone should be able to test for pH, ammonia (NH3/NH4) and hardness (KH). If you're going to be wandering beyond Swords, Anubias, and Java Fern/Moss by way of planting, having tests for the other two nitrogen-cycle compounds as well as iron and phosphates isn't a bad idea. Test regularly and often. pH adjustment chemicals are encouraged but unnecessary to those with a fundamental understanding of chemistry and suitable caution. Keep the books around, too - some tests are more complicated than you would think, and even without that, you need the charts on the back of the book to reliably interpret the results.

The last chemical we need to talk about right now is salt. Believe it or not, even the freshest setups require a little aquarium salt, and many tropicals we consider to be "freshwater" are actually brackish and require a little marine salt. If you're working with the latter, you'll also need a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the water-marine solution.

Putting it All Together
Now that we have what we need, it's time to start putting together the tank. The first step will be to rinse everything in warm water to clear it of dust. At no time should you use surfactants like soap or detergent on anything going in your tank. Wash all components with warm water before construction and wash all decorations before adding them (any "found" decorations like rocks or driftwood should be vigorously boiled to sterilize them).

Assembly is going to vary according to specific parts, so in that respect I defer you to the manuals, with the strong caution not to add water until the tank is positioned exactly as you want it. Add room-temperature, conditioned water (and do so slowly in order to avoid disturbing your substrate and requiring you to wet-rescape). Allow the filter to run the water through overnight, which should eliminate the clouds caused by stirring everything up.

Now the waiting begins. A nitrogen cycle can take a few weeks to establish, during which you should still feed the empty tank. Watch the ammonia go up daily and wait for it to crash back down to zero. During this time, it's also possible to adjust the salinity and acidity of the water to suit the tastes of the fish you're considering. If you still aren't sure what fish you want, steer toward 7.0 pH, with as low a hardness (KH) as you can managed, at a temperature of 76-78 Fahrenheit. This is a "neutral" starting point for most species of tropical and a common set of water parameters for community tanks. Obviously, if you have fish picked out already, now's a good time to get the parameters down to what they like.

After the nitrogen crash, begin planting, which will start the nitrates being eaten up. It is now okay to begin slowly introducing fish to their new home. As a general rule I try never to add more than 10 "small" fish at once (such as tetras, livebearers, etc) and I usually count feature fish (sharks, discus, cichlids, large tetras, labyrinth fishes, and so forth) as two or three depending on their size.

Allowing the full time to elapse between first adding the water and establishing the nitrogen cycle should keep your fish as happy as possible and minimize your losses. Always remember that some pet salespeople are salespeople first and pet-keepers second, and that nobody knows every animal; cycle your tank. If someone tells you that a given fish could handle living through the cycle, remember two things: they might actually be right, and that's a bad thing.

You're more than a haver of fish. You're a fish-keeper, responsible for their wellbeing and longevity. I can't think of an aquarium fish with a captive life of less than three years and I can think of at least five species I know of that live longer than 20, in the proper conditions. Fish are alive, and just like how you would never abuse a dog or abuse a baby, you should never abuse a fish.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Sore Throat

In my last post, I took the opportunity of having both a willingness to write and the time to do so to slam the product of one of my employers' new teas for containing food additives like maltodextrin, which those who know me know was neither an especially gutsy move (by my usual standards) nor a move that was long in coming. The potential risk, knowing that the only member of that company's staff who has the address to this blog or the inclination to investigate my online habits, was very low, as was the potential gain. While that person did suggest that I make a retraction, I think that the reaction of a few clients in person to the ingredient listing is justification enough of the argument myself, and so it stands.

The point isn't that we're now marketing teas with synthetically-derived sugars and sodium-free salts (such as calcium chloride); I eat such products fairly regularly under the guise of soft drinks, fast food, and even in some middle-run restaurants. The point of contention is that we're doing so without dropping our usual reliance on the "tea benefits" (always careful to avoid sounding like medical advice), benefits which might not be undermined by the presence of artificial sugars but should certainly have them taken into account.

It seems to me to be a variation of the marketing for homeopathy at this point. While I do not deny that heavy consumption of various teas has specific health benefits to the drinker, there are other questions to be asked, which often include "so, what else is in your tea?". Just as homeopathic medicines are often in solutions so weak it is probable that no amount of the indicated "cure" is present in the given dosage, your tea, no matter the grade, is not going to do you that much good if it is primarily a vehicle for the delivery of milk and sugar.

Does that mean I never take sugar in my teas? No, but I have never stood upon the teas I usually sweeten as barriers against anything but acute dehydration (in the worst case) or as anything more than a palate-stimulant (in the best case). While I have always placed some small credit on herbalist cures for minor ailments and as treatment of specific symptoms, I have also remembered that one of the best treatments for inflammation is Asprin, which is itself derived from willow-bark, with the active ingredient in higher concentration. 

While I find a cup of herbal tea often enough to soothe whatever problem I am having, the herbals I lean on are always the ones with the greatest concentration of the ingredient I actually want. Today I am feeling headachey. I have a sore throat from sleeping with my mouth open and I am heavily congested. A bad habit of swallowing a certain amount of the product of my presently over-active sinus is leaving me feeling slightly nauseous.

I therefore want, primarily, two things: ginger, and lemon. Ginger is noted in cases of both nausea and congestion as a mild expectorant and a means of settling the stomach. It is of such utility that even people who stand against the concept of natural remedies accept ginger tea with a bit of lemon as a way to stave off a forming cold, which is what I probably have. Lemon is itself noted in the culinary world for cutting grease (which is the reason deep-fried or breaded foods are often better with a squeeze of it) and this affect, I find, works on mucous as well.

I do, however, find ginger and lemon exceedingly boring in the strengths at which it can be infused - a lemon-ginger sauce would be another story - and so I have chosen to use it as an additive for a green tea. The green I chosen, I am told, has anti-inflamitory properties.

Yesterday, I could drink enough of this tea, regularly enough, to stave off the effects of my cold and feel relatively productive, if not downright okay with the way my life was going. Today, however, I am feeling somewhat more ill. I am instead drinking a heavily-spiced tea with lots of cinnamon and cloves (Teavana's Mahraja Chai Oolong) and leaving the treatment of my symptoms up to the judicious use of Strepsils and chemical decongestants.