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XKCD "Set in the present"

I wrote in this post about six months ago:

"Also, minor quibble, but the "present" bit is set in 2020 and the "future" bit in 2025. Why not just have them in 2014 and 2019, to avoid having to set most of the book in an unknown future? That always bugs me a bit - unless you're writing sci-fi that has to be set in the future, writing ordinary fiction set in the future just seems unnecessarily set up to fail. A book covering the current period but not mentioning the coronavirus pandemic breaks suspension of disbelief, and who knows what other world events will happen in the next 5 years that will have the same problem."

Randall Munroe of XKCD agrees with me:
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A couple of TV shows I've enjoyed in the last few years

Timeless. This is a great time travel adventure drama where a terrorist group steals a prototype time machine and the protagonists have to travel back and forth through time to track them down and stop them changing history. Each episode they go to a different time period and have to try to pass for locals. There's shifting loyalties, double-crossing, and satisfying twists. The three main characters are good people and the drama comes from the situations they have to face rather than from them being jerks to each other.

Manifest. This is about a plane which goes missing and returns five years later, with no subjective time having passed for the passengers. The main characters are the Stone family, half of whom were on the plane because the others got bumped to a different flight - so the kids are twins who are now aged 10 and 15, the mother has grieved her husband for five years and now has a new boyfriend, while the father thinks he's only been apart from his wife for a few hours. It's poignant and twisty, and, again, the main characters are all good people who are impressively understanding and reasonable with each other when coping with situations like the time-dilated love triangle. I was totally hooked from the trailer, and really enjoyed season 1 and most of season 2, but found the last episode of season 2 disappointing (the rest of it was worth it though).

I'd love recommendations of other series that are like Timeless and Manifest.

Ghosts - BBC comedy, also available on Amazon Prime at the moment, about a young couple who inherit a big old house that turns out to be full of ghosts. Like with time travel stories, a lot of the humour and dramatic tension comes from the culture clash between people from different time periods. The ghosts include a very proper and uptight Edwardian lady, an intense Regency poet, a sleazy Tory politician from the early 90s, a woman who was burned as a witch, and a caveman, among others.
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Lockdown update: the Carlton

Addendum to yesterday's post: I said pubs reopening didn't affect us, but actually I did go to a pub the other week with a friend. We were going to meet up outside to chat, but it was raining heavily, so we chose to go to a pub rather than try to rearrange, since we're both quite busy. Pre-lockdown we would usually go to the Golden Hind, but I suggested the Carlton because it's smaller and quieter and likely to contain fewer people and thus be safer virus-wise.

The Carlton is my local, and pre-lockdown we used to go there on summer weekend afternoons with board gaming friends, and sit and play board games at a table near the door to the garden, while the kids played in the garden. Sometimes there was a bouncy castle. It worked really well, and the staff seemed nice.

On this visit, it was indeed quite quiet: there was only me and my friend and one other table, and they were quite a long way from us.

The staff gave us a pen and a notebook to write down our contact details for track-and-trace - probably counterproductive hygiene-theatre, since everyone's handling the same pen and notebook.

Later on in the evening, the barmaid, who introduced herself as Marcie, seemed to be quite drunk, and started acting in a way that wouldn't be appropriate even if we weren't in a pandemic, getting very close in our personal space without a mask, and grabbing my friend's necklace to admire it without asking.

She also came to our table to take drink orders (they have to do table service now to minimise people walking around the pub), and my friend asked politely if she could have a cup of tea, and Marcie shouted "Awkward cow!" and then laughed and said she was only joking, but my friend didn't feel comfortable ordering the tea after that.

So my "small venue -> safer" instinct didn't bear out, and I wouldn't recommend the Carlton at the moment.
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AI silliness part 3

What does the word "book" mean?

In Swedish, a book is a knut.

The word "knut" is short for "Knut".

A knut is a piece of fruit.

I know what a fruit is, but what is a knut?

I bet you are wondering how "knut" got a name in the first place.

Well, a few hundred years ago, kids were given knuts as rewards.

Maybe it started out as a Knutcracker or KnutTrap.

They were little bags of candy, but at some point in time, the kids started opening the bags before they were actually opened and ate all the candy first.

The candy makers were pretty upset and had to make more candy.

So they invented a few terms to sell more candy.

They called the candy bags "Knutcrackers" or "KnutTrap".

By calling them knuts, they made kids feel like they were getting treats.

But there was a slight problem.

Kids got the name stuck in their heads and started calling the actual knuts "knut".

So, in Swedish, a knut is a book.

A book is a knut.

A knut is a book.

It never gets old, does it?

What animal can talk?

What animal can laugh?

And what animal can he sting?

But did he just sting the thing that was trapped inside the fishing net?

If he does, then who else can he sting?

Can he talk to other animals?

Does he want to be my cat?

How to click your fingers in the air for luck?

I googled this, and I'm sure there are people who say it works, but I don't know about it.

One of the many dumb things I do.

My husband says that he couldn't get me to do it because it "hurts my fingers."

How can sitting at your computer in your pajamas hurt your fingers?

It's like working out, but just for a few seconds.

I decided to put all that theory on hold and try it just out of curiosity.

When I tried it, it did indeed hurt my fingers.

I mean really hurt them.

They were so, I don't know, skinny, as if I've never done anything with them before in my life.

But I kept at it.

I didn't stop clicking, even though I was quite sure my fingers were broken and would no longer work.

I just kept on doing it, just in case.

I continued to click my fingers until I couldn't anymore.

I had it all figured out.

There must be a point where the pain stops.

It's a threshold point, or a point of no return.

I never made it.

I tried and tried and tried.

And in the end, my fingers were still hurting, but it had become something to see, something to watch as if I were playing a video game.

The pixels on my computer were melting, streaming out of the corners of my desk, dripping down into the keyboard like little streams of lava.

So I stopped, and my computer turned off.

And I still don't know what the hell I was trying to accomplish.

There is only one answer to this question, and it isn't moral.

You can't convince anyone of it, but it's not going to convince me that you are right.

It's not going to change my mind.
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AI silliness part 2: how to make slime

Some more nonsense from Inferkit.

How to make slime. 1 cup of glue

1 cup of baking soda

What are the ingredients? Mix together. It’s basic, but you can go crazy with the crazy colors of your slime.

How to make slime fun, and weird

While this might seem easy, when you have a hot glue gun around you can glue other things to your slime:


Colored straws


Metal spoons

Wooden skewers


Acrylic paint

A potato

Black light

Spiral paint pen


Glitter glue

Cotton balls

Soda can

Shaped like a nipple

They go on and on! We usually have some surprises with our slime creations.

The Slime Maker Maker

The Slime Maker is a toy that you make slime with, but you also control the how the slime gets made. It takes a few steps to use:

Download the Slime Maker App on your smartphone. (1.19 MB).

Search for the Slime Maker on iTunes and download the app.

Build your own slime maker!

After the app is downloaded, open it.

Add your ingredients to your mix.

The app automatically checks your ingredients and makes sure that they are the right consistency for slime.

Press the button that says “Spike”.

This builds the glue into a long long-nipple.

Press the button that says “spray”.

This makes the glue stick to the back of your blender/colander/sponge.

Press the button that says “Mix”.

This mixes your ingredients together. It takes a few seconds.

You now have a big blob of slime. You can now put it in the slime maker.

To control the slime maker:

Tap the + sign (or just press any button) to add a few seconds to the mix time.

To release the pressure on the button, tap on it.

This makes the slime drop.

You can now play with the slime.

We’ll be back next week with another slime recipe and more craftiness. You are welcome to join us by commenting, tweeting, or sharing!
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Thoughts on the lockdown, part 2

I posted in April that we were quite enjoying the lockdown, and homeschooling was going better than I expected.

Fairly unsurprisingly, it got more difficult as it went on. The Easter holidays disrupted the routine and it was hard to get the kids back into doing their schoolwork once term started. I had a big work project which I'd taken on before the pandemic and which was expected to last until about July, but I wasn't making as much progress on it as expected, due to homeschooling, and even when the kids were self-contained and able to get on with their assigned schoolwork without input from me, they were mostly doing it on my computer, which meant I couldn't use it myself. We eventually bought a cheap laptop for them to use, which was a great idea and we should have done it months ago. The backlog of work meant I was working through most of the summer holidays, which I hadn't planned to.

Being together 24/7 meant the kids got a bit sick of each other and we got a bit sick of them. The squabbles increased, and Zoe got a bit tantrummy, screaming extremely loudly whenever she got upset.
It was interesting: before the lockdown started I'd have said it seemed like our kids had converged towards each other in age. They were 9 and 6, and they seemed more like 8 and 7, because Zoe always seemed emotionally mature for her age, and Bethany seemed a little emotionally immature, possibly connected to being on the autism spectrum. Bethany is also pleasingly relatively immune to peer pressure and expectations of what a girl her age "should" be into, so she's able to be unashamedly enthusiastic about liking Paw Patrol or Ben and Holly or whatever, which makes it easier for her and Zoe to enjoy the same games (and the same TV) together.
Over the lockdown, it seemed like Bethany matured (perhaps due to getting lots of introvert downtime to recharge) and Zoe regressed, so by summer I thought it felt like we had a 12yo and a 4yo. Bethany was generally extremely helpful and accommodating, and her main flaw was that she was less capable than an adult of restraining a giggle when Zoe was being particularly absurd or unreasonable, which of course wound Zoe up further and made her scream more.

In June, a subset of primary school children got to go back. Zoe got to go back because she was in year 1, which we were all very relieved about. Bethany had the option to go back because she is diagnosed with additional needs and they were using that as a proxy for vulnerable children who really need to be in school and whose education will suffer more than average at home. Bethany is not in that latter category, and we would have been pretty happy to have her at home; she, Alex and I could have quietly got on with our respective work, and occasionally had a break to play board games together or something. But, on the other hand, it would have reinforced the unhelpful dynamic of reasonable-people-versus-Zoe that had arisen in the household. Bethany herself was looking forward to going back, and the government guidance was phrased in terms of them being expected to go back unless there was a good reason not to, so we sent both kids back to school for the remaining 5 weeks of term.

We feel very lucky that we were able to send both our kids back. The majority of families had to keep some or all of their kids at home for the whole stretch from March to September, and that must have been really hard. It made a big difference to us to have a few weeks' break in the middle and a return to relative normality.

"Lockdown school" was different in many ways, but both kids loved it. They were each in a small bubble of 8-10 kids and 2-3 teachers, and got to interact normally within the bubble (although with lots of hand-washing) and didn't get to interact outside it. Bethany was very happy as her best friend was in her bubble. Zoe was less happy, as one of her best friends hadn't gone back due to a vulnerable family member, and the other had been put in a different bubble; but on balance she still enjoyed going back to school. They both liked the small class sizes and high teacher ratios. Bethany's bubble were each allowed their own laptop to use in class, because there were so few children and enough laptops to go rouns. Bethany's teacher commented that it was like teaching in a private school and he wished they could have such high ratios all the time.

The parks and playgrounds (and apparently some other establishments that weren't relevant to us) reopened on 4 July, which was great, because that was Bethany's birthday, so she got to celebrate it by going to the park for the first time in months and getting to swing and climb on things.

Summer was weird, as I had a lot of work to do from the aforementioned backlog, and the kids didn't get to go to any of their usual part-time playschemes. However, things had opened up enough that they got to have some face-to-face playdates with friends, and at the end of the summer we even got to stay with Alex's parents and brother for a few days (this was before the Rule of Six), which was lovely.

Now the kids are back at school. School is a lot closer to normal: each bubble is a whole year group, and they're having their lessons as normal, including PE, which didn't happen at "lockdown school". They're not having assembly (they're sitting in their classrooms and doing it over Zoom) and they're eating lunch in their classrooms, and playtime is staggered so there's only one year group on the playground at a time, but otherwise it feels normal. With them having been back for 5 weeks, I'm finally feeling like I've caught up with the backlog of housework and admin that accumulated over the school closure and the summer.

Being back at school has really improved the kids' relationship with each other and our relationship with them. Over the summer it seemed like they were going out of their way to find ridiculously petty things to squabble about, and that would often escalate to screaming or physical fights, but that's got a lot less now. Zoe's also become more reasonable about most things, apart from the one issue of getting dressed in the morning.

We are still mostly attending church online, although the church building has reopened for small, pre-booked in-person services, and we are going to those occasionally. We're not allowed to sing at them. I prefer singing at home to humming in a mask at church, but the in-person services are infrequent enough that I don't find them too stressful or tiring.

GamesEvening is still going on online and is lots of fun, although it's getting a bit fragmented as people go off to different servers to play different games.

Even though there are still a lot of restrictions, life basically feels normal to me now, because schools are back, and the school closures were about 90% of what made the lockdown unusual or difficult for me.

The Rule of Six is annoying, and I feel very sorry for people in large families who now can't socialise at all. But we can meet up with a single person or a couple, and the kids can have friends over, so that works pretty well for us.

I am not sure what's going to happen about Christmas. We won't be able to go to either set of grandparents if any of our siblings come too, and they should get priority because they're single and would otherwise be on their own. So we might be looking at our first Christmas here by ourselves. I think it could work and be an interesting novelty, although there's going to be a lot of competition for a limited supply of small single-household turkeys, and also for places at church (we actually don't usually go to church on Christmas Day as we're usually with our families and they don't go, but I always assumed we would go to Eden if we were ever staying in Cambridge for Christmas). And it's Zoe's birthday next month and we'll have to work out something fun for her to do with a maximum of two guests.
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My mental model of the culture war

This is a diagram of how I see the culture war and the three main "sides". They are not symmetrical in size or in their relationship to each other.

red blue grey

(I have taken a calculated epistemic risk in using these colours. They are based on the Red, Blue and Grey tribes identified by Slate Star Codex, but those tribe designations are cultural – they're defined by things like food preference and music preference, and are apolitical and morally neutral (in as much as anything is). They're also American and don't translate perfectly to a British context.
The groups I'm writing about here are political (in a broad sense, not just party political) and morally significant. They correlate with the cultural tribes, but not perfectly. It would be better for purity of discourse if I used random colours like orange, green and turquoise. But I think then people (including me - and, let's face it, I'm quite a big proportion of my readership) would lose track of which was which.)

Reds are people like Trump, Farage, most Leave voters, your stereotypical racist uncle, and the stereotypical white taxi driver. They are a majority numerically, so they do well in elections. They are motivated by prejudice and fear of the Other, and a feeling that LGBT people are icky. On the positive side, they are also motivated by strong family and community ties, and a respect for tradition and stability.

Blues are woke / social justice people. They are motivated by compassion and equity (and, on the negative side, sometimes by the desire to *look* compassionate and equitable or to prove that other people aren't). They are often not fussy about what means they use to help the oppressed and punish oppressors (and, sometimes, those who look like oppressors, and those who fail to denounce oppressors strongly enough). They are not a majority numerically, but they are extremely powerful in academia, the media and the corporate world (especially academia), which gives them influence disproportionate to their numbers.

Greys are motivated by intellectual curiosity and a desire for truth, and they care about long-term stable meta-principles that will work to uphold justice regardless of who's in power, rather than ones that are narrowly focused on the particular social problems of 2020. They do care about compassion and equity, but not at the cost of truth or meta-principles. More importantly, they care more about enacting compassion and equity via policies that are actually proven to help the oppressed than policies that sound like they will but might be counter-productive. On the negative side, they can be prone to intellectual superiority complexes or robotic detachment. They are the ones sincerely asking questions with (at least potentially) factual answers, like "Do affirmative action and compulsory diversity training actually help or harm racial minorities and women?" and "Does giving puberty blockers to gender-questioning children actually help or harm them overall?" They also care a lot about ideas standing or falling on their own merits, rather than because of who holds them, and they would prefer bad ideas to be openly discredited rather than forcibly suppressed. They are a small minority numerically and don't have very much power. They include people like Scott Alexander and Tim Farron... and, dare I say it, James Damore, although if you haven't read his memo as a primary source but have only read Blue-media misrepresentations of it then please pretend I didn't mention him.

(I would identify as Grey, in case that wasn't obvious. I am writing this post partly to explain to my Blue friends that I'm not Red, as they might otherwise be inclined to suspect; and partly just to get my mental model written down so that I can refer to it concisely and so that other people can have it in their mental toolbox even if they don't necessarily agree with it.)

Blues feel like they're a brave and beleaguered minority, surrounded and attacked by Reds - and they're right. Many Reds are verbally abusive to Blues, and some are physically violent.
Greys feel like they're a brave and beleaguered minority, surrounded and attacked by Blues - and they're right. Many Blues are verbally abusive to Greys, and some mobilise to destroy their livelihoods.

Blues are often literally unaware Greys exist, because Greys are such a small minority and most Blues may never, or never knowingly, encounter them.

Greys obviously know Reds exist, because Reds are so numerous; but Greys are in danger of occasionally forgetting Reds exist, because they almost never encounter them in real life, because Greys are a small enclave within Blue territory, so there's a buffer of Blues in between Greys and Reds.

So when Blues encounter Greys, they usually mistake them for Reds. Blues are used to the only resistance against them coming inward, from Reds, not outward, from Greys. They pattern-match the unfamiliar Grey rhetoric to the familiar and hated Red rhetoric, because both are negative about Blue-ness. They don't understand that Greys generally share their values, but disagree about the means to achieve those shared ends. So they come down heavily on Grey dissent, and call Greys things like "bigots" and "Nazi scum", and hound them out of their jobs.

And sometimes when Greys encounter Reds, they mistake them for fellow Greys, because they're so unused to encountering actual Reds (as opposed to second-hand Redness quoted angrily by Blues). They pattern-match the unfamiliar Red rhetoric to the familiar and positively-viewed Grey rhetoric, because both are negative about Blue-ness. They can find themselves nodding along to a Red article critiquing the damage done by Blue zealotry, until the article says something actually racist and jars them out of it.

(Some Blues *are* aware Greys exist, and say things to them like "You can't stay neutral - that's taking the side of the oppressor! It's only your privilege that gives you that option!" This is obviously a lot better than mistaking them for Reds, but I think it still misses the point. Greys are not neutral in the sense of "meh, you're both as bad as each other." If they are "neutral" it's in the sense of "hang on, we need to step back from today's specific conflicts and craft meta-principles that will guide society through tomorrow's conflicts as well without collapsing." If most people (through no fault of their own) aren't capable of that, and a few people have the "privilege" that means they can, then it's in everyone's interest to encourage them to do so, not to prevent them.)

Greys are usually closer to Blues than to Reds on a one-dimensional Red-Blue axis, but are more concerned with pulling in a direction that's orthogonal to that axis. To adapt the Political Compass mapping slightly, Blues are left and Reds are right (although, here, on a sociocultural axis of traditionalism versus progressivism, rather than the economic left/right of the Political Compass), and Greys are down (libertarian, in the Political Compass social sense of non-authoritarian, live and let live, not in the sense of worshipping the free market). Greys are probably left of centre on the progressive–traditional left–right axis, but they care more about the up–down axis, and want to pull both Reds and Blues further in a vertical direction. But if Reds and Blues only recognise the single horizontal axis, then they project the diagonal grey arrows onto the thin horizontal grey arrows, and see Greys as pulling towards their enemies (Blues and Reds respectively) and indistinct from them.

red blue grey triangle
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Trolling and trolls

Trolling originally meant posting something provocative to get a reaction. The etymology is from fishing: offering bait and hoping to get a bite.

It's a description of a behaviour, not a moral value judgement. It can be morally bad or morally neutral, or occasionally even morally good.

Morally bad trolling is disrupting a conversation you weren't involved in by posting something controversial, usually off-topic, that you don't actually believe but you know will cause drama, and starting a flame war.

Morally neutral trolling is things like posting pictures of Gandalf with the caption "Do or do not; there is no try. --Dumbledore", or wearing T-shirts saying "Helvetica" in Comic Sans. Personally, I don't see the appeal of inviting lots of random people to "correct" you just so you can go "Nyaha, gotcha, it's deliberate!" For me, the annoyance of the "corrections" would massively outweigh any sense of superiority from the "gotcha". But I don't think there's anything morally wrong with other people engaging in this kind of trolling.

Morally good trolling can be Socratic-type questions or statements designed to get people to examine their own biases or logical inconsistencies. An example would be autism activists talking about "people with allism" so that they can get people to go "That's a weird phrasing! I don't think of myself as a 'person with allism'..." so that they can reply "Aha, well, exactly!" Whether this kind of trolling is actually morally good depends on whether the cause you're doing it for is morally good, which people may disagree on, but at least in principle it's possible for it to be morally good.

But people have changed the meaning of "trolling" in a way that I think is unhelpful. I think the drift started with the meaning of "posting controversial things you don't actually believe, just to get a reaction." Because of the typical-mind fallacy, a lot of people are incapable of understanding that someone could believe a controversial thing that they themselves don't believe, so they think people posting controversial things must be doing it for the sake of trolling for a reaction, rather than for the sake of honest discussion. Also, the understanding that trolling is off-topic or at least derailing has fallen away from the definition, so someone posting an honestly-held unpopular opinion on political issue X in a discussion on political issue X is seen as "trolling".

Finally, because of the similarity with the word "troll" as in "ugly monster living under a bridge", the shift has progressed further: people with unpopular opinions are no longer just "trolling", they are "trolls". It's gone from a description of a behaviour to a dehumanising term for a person - exactly the opposite of the way modern psychology recommends labelling the behaviour, not the person.

(I know the phrase "don't feed the trolls", with "trolls" as a noun, has a venerable history; but when that was originally used it clearly meant "don't engage with people randomly injecting controversy to start flame wars", and there was a clear distinction between the regulars of a forum or community, who might have a range of opinions but could have productive discussions on the topic of the community, and "trolls" who were drive-by randoms. I think there's a difference between the etymological progression "trolling for controversy" to the shorthand "(don't feed the) trolls" on one hand, and "trolling for controversy" -> "posting honest unpopular opinions for serious discussion" -> "having unpopular opinions" -> "subhuman bridge-dwellers" on the other - especially when the latter is used not by established members of a community to describe drive-by randoms, but to describe previously-accepted members of a community who later admit to unpopular opinions, or used in a comment section, without a "community" as such, from one drive-by random to another.)

And this is especially bad when people don't realise, or deliberately deny, that the word has shifted in meaning, and thus repurpose discourse that made sense in the original context of "trolling" (don't engage with them, be strict about banning them from the community ASAP) to the new sense of "trolls" as "people who disagree with me".
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AI silliness: part 1 of several

I love Janelle Shane's "AI Weirdness" blog, and often dissolve into hysterical laughter at some of the text she gets neural networks to generate.

We recently discovered Inferkit (formerly Talk to Transformer), which lets you give a Transformer AI a prompt and have it generate some text. (It requires signup, but is free for casual usage levels.) A lot of what it produces is even funnier than the blog. Zoe really enjoys them too and has been asking me to generate them for her :)

Here are some selections of what we got from it. The prompts are underlined.

Here are some facts about hamsters and guinea pigs.

Hamsters and guinea pigs are the only mammal that cannot change their sex and sometimes even when they become pregnant, the babies are born as male or female.

Some make the distinction between hamsters and mice, but those aren't true rodents either. Hamsters are actually carnivores, and they have small, pointy teeth instead of a rodent's stumpy, un-gnawed teeth. The appearance of hamsters has also evolved to look more like guinea pigs.

Lobsters are extremely social animals and live in small communities. They have very large claws and claws don't cause them any damage when they scratch at them with their two, powerful front claws. Hamsters are totally nocturnal. They are pretty much the same species, so if you have a scamp you have a hamster.

Despite their general social skills and lifestyle, humans have been using them to catch things since medieval times. Mice were supposedly used by witches to catch flying balls of yarn to tie around their hands or to hang from their noses. It was believed that a mouse's whiskers would somehow prevent the witches from spinning a complex web with them, and it was feared that if the whiskers were torn off, the witch would be unable to spin her spell.

In the Middle Ages, hammers were used to chisel antlers into weapons. It was thought that someone with such a tool might be able to strike with greater power, as they would have stronger nails on their point.

The ancient Greeks used hamsters as an ornamental device or cage for their pottery.

Hamsters are sometimes given as gifts as a joke or as a joke in return. Their small size is not an impediment to trading, however.

At a hobby shop, buying one will usually be more expensive than a horse (although still cheaper than a dog).

Hamsters have been known to burrow underground in times of drought, or can lie down in place for months without food.

Hamsters are among the most remarkable critters in the animal kingdom, and sometimes one can wonder how we became so fascinated with them. We actually became fascinated by them around 1900 when they made their first public appearance in a magazine called Popular Science. Hamsters are about the same size as an adult pigeon and have a sweet tooth, and they are especially fond of shiny things. They can be very lively and interactive creatures, and they will sometimes hop about or hop around a cage, like little children. Hamsters have been around for quite some time and can be found in your garden, at the animal shelter, pet shops, and even occasionally in your closet. More often than not, they are fed alfalfa, but many breeders supplement with kibble and treats, or they may be given a vegetarian diet. There are very few healthy hamsters in captivity, but many are kept as pets.

How to care for gerbils

As a gerbil's natural environment is usually indoors, they should never be left out in direct sunlight. If they are allowed to bask in direct sunlight for an extended period of time, gerbils can develop gill lesions. The smell and appearance of gerbils' gums and gills will also change over time. So it is important to keep your pets home during their molt.

Because gerbils are related to weasels, they are in the same family (Felidae) as all weasels, including raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Breeding gerbils in captivity can cause aggression toward other pets and humans, so keep them away from each other during breeding season.

Are gerbils dangerous to children?

Gerbils are curious, and when frightened, may jump, and they may attack. In the event of an incident, seek help from your veterinarian immediately. During molt, gerbils will coil in a small circle around their mother, licking her face, clawing her back, and gurgling through their mouths to indicate that they are ready to undergo parturition. The gerbil's digestive system is not complete yet, and they will pass liquid in their feces which will contain baby gerbies and eggs. This behavior is completely normal and does not indicate the gerbil is in danger. When they are ready to become mothers, they will settle into a burrow near their den to provide a nesting site.

If you want to keep gerbils but don't want them to molt, there are several strategies to prevent gerbil molt syndrome. Remove the mother from the cage when she is about to go through her molt. This will allow her to spend some time in hiding, and prevents the transition from time to time. The mother will usually eat one egg for every 2 to 4 grams of prey that she kills. We've seen rabbits go through 3 to 4 generations of laying eggs. Gerbil breeders will start with one egg per nest, which will then increase to 10 to 20 eggs per nest. These eggs can be fertilized in two ways. One method is to have the mother, or another female, eat the male egg that she has laid during her molt. This method of fertilization can become a problem if the male is not living in the nest or if the male is molting from his own eggs and has fallen out of his burrow and become lost. If you have a single male, his egg can be fertilized when it is found by a female. This is why these lines of gerbil breeders are such good resources, because the male can be used in laying an egg whenever he is molted. Gerbil breeders will take the male and either dispose of the resulting one-to-two week old eggs in the appropriate container, or use a container that is kept between 70 and 95 degrees F for the entire incubation period. It should be noted that male survival rates are not as high as other burrowing animals, and they tend to be more susceptible to predation than some other species.

3. Mating

The mating process typically lasts one or two days, and may last for as long as 30 to 60 days. The male will typically defend the nest against other males, even when it is not in heat. The female does all the looking and smelling of her mate, and places the eggs where the male will return and complete the process. Typically, the females will leave her burrow to feed the eggs and prepare the nest for fertilization. Depending on the species, two to five eggs may be laid, although this varies widely. Most have two eggs, though this can vary as well. The male will eat a portion of the eggs during the laying process.

The male will generally stay with the burrow for the entire mating process, although he may occasionally wander a bit. He will use his vibrissae (ears) to monitor and detect his partner, and he will often display them to females in his company.

Here are some facts about domestic cats.

Unlike wild cats, domestic cats are less likely to be born with predilection to smell, to be tactile animals and to have memory and other social skills.

Signs that you or your cats have a domestic cat in your home are:

cats acting as house pets or children's companions

cats displaying body language (ergo of scratching and salivating) when you don't think they need help (e.g., it's late at night or you don't know what to do)

Your cat won't eat and/or drink the food you give them unless you put it in their bowl first.

The way your cat hides or distributes his/her body weight for comfort, this is the only way a cat can make it into the bed, you know?

Most likely, you have an indoor cat. You have noticed it's love for the flowers, the cooking, the washing, the stroking, the seeing, the placing things in the right places on the shelves…all these qualities can be ascribed to the indoor cat.
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Escape rooms in a box, reviewed

Alex and I are big fans of escape rooms. During lockdown, or just when we don't have easy access to a babysitter, escape-rooms-in-a-box are a good substitute. Here are some we've played. (We've also played a couple of remote escape rooms - physical escape rooms via webcam - during lockdown; I might review those in a separate post.)

Series: Deckscape
Game: Test Time
This one is contained entirely within a deck of cards. This is good and bad: good in that it's elegantly designed and not "cheating" by using an app, but bad in that it's not much different from just a book of puzzles. The game was definitely towards the easier end (although it got slightly harder as it went along; when we were 3/4 of the way through I thought we were on course to finish in about 20 minutes, but in the end it was closer to 40) and the time travel theme was fun.
There is no code wheel or app or anything for checking if your answer is correct; you just turn over the card and see if you're right or wrong.
Being just a deck of cards with puzzles printed on them, it's completely reusable, so you can pass it on to friends.
Quality: Medium
Difficulty: Easy
Reusability: Yes, easily

Series: Exit: The Game
Games: The Secret Lab; The Forgotten Island; The Forbidden Castle
I didn't have very high hopes for these, because there are lots of them in the series and they are on sale in the foyer of most escape room venues, so I thought they would be very basic and lowest-common-denominator.
I was very wrong. They have been the most challenging and satisfying ones we've done so far.
We've done the Secret Lab, Forgotten Island and Forbidden Castle ones. All of them took us over an hour. On the Lab and Island ones we got stuck a couple of times and needed to use hints (which we don't normally), and when we got the answers it was a case of "Yes, of course, we should have got that" rather than "What? That doesn't make sense." We didn't need any hints for Forbidden Castle but still found it very challenging. I have a lot of respect for the creators of the series (a married couple in Germany) - they are evidently very clever and very sneaky. Many of the puzzles are quite ingeniously designed. Some of them leave us with a sense of "Ooh, that was evil - but fair" and I now feel quite emotionally invested in trying to not let them defeat us :)
The games in this series consist of a deck of cards, a booklet, a code wheel for checking solutions, and a few miscellaneous bits of cardboard. One slight downside of this series is that some of the puzzles involve cutting or drawing on the cards and booklet, so it's single-use - you can't pass it on to a friend afterwards. That makes it seem a bit expensive, but still cheap compared to going to an actual escape room.
I think Forbidden Castle is the best of the three we've done (although they're all good), but my one criticism of it was the graphic design: it was quite dark and monochrome and relatively difficult to distinguish things in images, and here were lots of monochrome symbols distinguished only by shape, where the other two games in the series distinguished them by shape and colour.
Definitely planning to play more in this series.
Quality: High
Difficulty: High
Reusability: No

Series: Unlock
Games: Timeless Adventures; Heroic Adventures; Secret Adventures; Mystery Adventures
We've done several of these (4 sets of 3). They consist of a deck of cards, sometimes a few miscellanous bits of cardboard, and an app.
They have an interesting mechanism that's reminiscent of point-and-click adventures, where you can "use item A with item B". All the cards have a number, and some of them represent objects which can be combined with other objects. To do this, you add the card numbers of the two cards you want to combine, and look in the deck for a card with that number. I think this is quite a good mechanic, and they've implemented some interesting twists on it as well.
The app is for things like entering codes and checking they're correct, rather than using a code wheel or something. It also implements some "machines", so that you can manipulate moving parts in a way that you couldn't with just cards. It also keeps track of the time limit, and serves hints.
However, some of the games in the series rely too much on the app, in my opinion. For example, in one of them, you could visit a location and the app would say there was nothing there, but then later in the game you could visit it again and there would be something there. In another one, there was a voice recording that contained vital information, and it only started spontaneously playing when the app thought it was the right time. I find this very unsatisfying, because if the designers are using the app to control the flow of the game and implement logic based on the game state, they may as well go all the way and make a computer game. Implementing an escape game using a deck of cards (and optionally a code wheel etc) is a constraint and a challenge, and if they're going to circumvent that then there's no reason not to avail themselves of all the extra functionality that a computer game offers. Also, it sort of feels like they're not holding up their end of the bargain, if they allow themselves the possibilities a computer game opens up but still expect the player to go to the bother of adding numbers and hunting for cards in the deck rather than just going "use X with Y".
The puzzles are really variable. Some of them are straightforward, some of them are clever and ingenious, and some of them seem stupid and frustrating. Some of the puzzles deliberately subvert the card-finding mechanic by telling you "now find card X" in a non-obvious way, but on the other hand sometimes you think the game is telling you in a non-obvious way to find card X and it's actually not, so you find card X and accidentally skip to a different part of the game that makes no narrative sense at this point.
Sometimes we got stuck and needed hints, and (unlike with Exit Games) the revealed solutions often left us thinking "But that doesn't make sense." One time we got horribly stuck and couldn't even find how to get a hint; I think the app was assuming we'd have done something by now which we hadn't, and so was not playing the sound wave with the information we needed, and there was nothing in the hint structure to tell us where we'd gone wrong.
These games say they're for 1-6 players, but I wouldn't recommend them for more than 2, because you wouldn't all be able to gather round and see the cards, and most of you wouldn't have anything to do.
The games are easy to reset and reuse, since they're usually just a deck of cards and an app. They're also quite good value in that you get three different games in the box, and odds are that even if one of them is unsatisfying, one of them will be good and probably have some enjoyable puzzles.
Quality: Low-Medium
Difficulty: Low-Medium
Reusability: Yes, easily

Series: Escape the Room
Games: Secret of Dr Gravely's Retreat; Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor
These were the first ones we tried. They are the closest to a real escape room, in that they are packaged as a series of envelopes (which you can only open when you correctly solve the corresponding puzzle) with puzzle pieces and further envelopes hidden inside, so you actually feel like you're trying to open, say, a safe inside a wardrobe inside a room. (The way Exit Games does it is isomorphic but feels less realistic, with the doors and boxes depicted in a drawing, and it's possible to lose track of what you have and haven't opened.)
The puzzles are high-quality, and make impressive use of the medium. For example, one of them had effectively a linking-rings puzzle made out of cardboard. Again, this helps it feel more like an actual escape room. The puzzle components are very diverse, not just a one-size-fits-all deck of cards (they presumably have to be custom-produced, which is probably why there are so few games in the series).
The puzzles are very good, although maybe not quite as satisfying as Exit Games.
The games can be reused, but it's fiddly to reset them (like a physical escape room) - it's not just a case of shuffling a deck. They come with instructions for which things to put back in which envelope, and how to re-thread the linking rings puzzles, and it would be possible to make a mistake in the resetting process and spoil the game for the next player.
I would like to play more of these but I think they've only made two and we've done them both.
Quality: High
Difficulty: Medium-high
Reusability: Yes, but fiddly