Archive for December, 2012

Slow And Steady Does Not Always Win The Race

I confess to finding this article somewhat disturbing:

The student in question put a realistic rubber turtle on the road to see what would happen. Over the next hour seven drivers swerved in order to deliberately hit it, while several more tried to hit it but missed. As Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor said, “Sometimes humans feel a need to prove they are the dominant species on this planet by taking a two-ton metal vehicle and squishing a defenseless creature under the tires.” This activity has been credited with being at least partially responsible for the slow decline in box turtles, who can take 10 minutes to get across a road.

According to the article these turtles take “seven or eight years to become mature enough to reproduce, and in that time, they might make several trips across the road to get from one pond to another, looking for food or a place to lay eggs. A female turtle that lives 50 years might lay over 100 eggs, but just two or three are likely to survive to reproduce.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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All A Bit Rank

My son has just completed Year 12 and received his Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). Because it is such an incomprehensible system it came with an equally incomprehensible pamphlet that failed to adequately explain how it works or the rationale behind it. In my day you sat your exams, received your marks and that was that. Apparently that is not good enough for the twenty-first century. Now you receive a ranking rather than an actual result. If, for example, I get an ATAR of 78, this does not mean I received a mark of 78. That would be too simple. Instead 78 is my ranking against all the other students, meaning I am in the top 22%. The obvious problem with this system is that if this particular year was full of highly intelligent students, while my marks would not change, my ranking would drop. If the year was full of completely stupid students my ranking would rise. In either case my actual score remains the same but my ranking, and how I am perceived by prospective tertiary institutions or employers, changes depending on the results of my cohorts. Does that seem fair?

The other problem is that subjects are scaled. If some arbitrary member of the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC), who had trouble with maths when they were at school, decides maths is a difficult subject then a student’s ATAR will be adjusted upwards. If, however, they thought physics was a doddle then it will be adjusted downwards. I am not convinced of the premise that some subjects are inherently more difficult than others. Maths was, in fact, my best subject in Year 12, while I was kicked out of art at the end of Year 9. Had I taken both subjects in Year 12 the “difficult” one would have been adjusted upwards while the “easy” one would have been adjusted downwards. Because the government is trying to encourage students to take languages these are massively scaled upwards. One of my son’s friends scored 28 for French. This was adjusted upwards to 40! That must have annoyed all the students who actually scored 40 on their own merits.

This seems to be an incredibly subjective system open to prejudice and abuse. As an employer I would be much more interested in a student’s actual result rather than a ranking against their peers. Apparently it is now also impossible to actually fail Year 12. Our educators are presumably too afraid of lawsuits. Unfortunately all we appear to be doing is creating a culture of mediocrity.

Dr. F. Bunny

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All Creatures Great And Small

As Christmas approaches spare a thought for your long suffering veterinarian. Of all the times over the years that I have been called to emergencies perhaps 10% were genuine. A dog that has been coughing for three weeks probably does not need to be seen at 11 o’clock at night. If you have a bitch on heat and your male dog is whining and has a whitish discharge from the end of his penis, he is probably behaving like a normal dog. Unfortunately it is hard to determine over the phone if you are dealing with a genuine emergency or not. The one time you successfully put off a client will probably be the one time you have a dead animal the next day.

For genuine emergencies we will of course drop the Christmas turkey and attend to it. Genuine emergencies usually come on suddenly e.g. snake bite, hit by car or a twisted stomach because someone took their large dog for a run right after a big meal. Non-genuine emergencies tend to have been grumbling along for some time, such as our dog with a cough. That is not to say that something that has been dragging on for a while could not now have become a genuine emergency, but it would have been better to have had it seen to before it reached that stage.

And don’t even think about grumbling over the bill after you have dragged your veterinarian out of bed or away from Christmas dinner. Veterinary medicine has an incredibly high attrition rate (and suicide rate) attributable, at least in part, to working long hours (try finding a mechanic that is open at 7 pm, or even a GP) along with the relentless stress of making life and death decisions, all for relatively little remuneration. A 1996 North American survey found that the average income of an experienced veterinarian aged between 40 and 49 was $53,500, compared with $110,000 for dentists, $124,100 for physicians and $101,700 for lawyers ( Consider your average GP whose overheads comprise an office and a stethoscope and compare that with a veterinarian who has to pay off the $20,000 X-ray machine, the $5,000 anaesthetic machine and a few thousand dollars worth of cages. Consider also that human medical procedures are heavily subsidised by the government. While repair of the anterior cruciate ligament in a dog may set you back $2000, the equivalent surgery in a human can cost up to $50,000. As the government subsidises these sorts of procedures and many people have private health care the actual out of pocket expense for the surgery on a human is about $2000 ( So please stop complaining about vet bills and use some common sense when deciding if Fido needs to be seen before or after the turkey.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Well Blow Me Down

In a world of climate change we are all (well, maybe not the coal and oil companies) looking for alternative ways to generate energy that do not produce greenhouse gases. It seems ironic that the nuclear industry has seen this as a potential opportunity to appear green and a viable alternative to coal power. Apart from the fact that plutonium is still deadly for 250,000 years and countries like Germany appear to be winding their nuclear programs down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear is no more sustainable than coal or oil. Uranium will run out just like all the fossil fuels, so why go down a potentially lethal path for the sake of a few years of power? Forget the nuclear nonsense and head straight to the technologies that will keep my computer alive and active long after I’ve nourished a few thousand worms.

Which brings me to wind farms and turbines. As usual, a lot of nonsense is being spouted by both sides. One memorable newspaper article described opposition to turbines because they would negatively affect the migrating orange-bellied parrot, with a lovely full colour photo of the parrot accompanying the article ( Interestingly these turbines were destined for a site east of Melbourne, in an area not visited by OBPs, who prefer the saltmarshes west of Melbourne for their overwintering grounds.

Nevertheless turbines do kill birds and bats, 100,000 to 440,000 birds each year according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (, generally through direct collisions. This is, however, considerably fewer than are killed by cars (60-80 million), building strikes (100,000 to 1 billion), power lines (up to 175 million) and our old friend, the pussy cat (365 million to 1 billion). Very rubbery figures to be sure, but significant nonetheless.

Bats, however, die in a more interesting way. The movement of the propellers generates a significant area of low pressure behind the turbine (five to 10 kilopascals less than the surrounding air). As nature abhors inequality, when the unsuspecting bat flies into this low pressure region the relatively higher pressure inside its body attempts to equalise with the lower pressure outside its body. It does this by expanding outwards, which leads to ruptured blood vessels and lungs filled with blood ( I can certainly attest to this, having necropsied affected bats. There are no external signs of damage but their chests are certainly full of blood, caused by this barotrauma.

What to do? Do we sacrifice some birds and bats on the altar of climate change, because none of us want to return to pre-electricity days but we also don’t want our planet to heat up? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and all that. Rather than scrap a potentially important source of sustainable power one suggestion is to be smarter about placing wind turbines away from bird and bat flight paths in the first place. While this is sensible in principle we don’t know enough about their pathways to make this work reliably.

What shows more promise is redesigning the turbines themselves. On a recent ski trip to Copper Mountain in Colorado I saw some wind turbines on the very top of the mountain. But these turbines were different to the traditional horizontal axis turbines we are all familiar with. They were vertical axis turbines. Instead of having a big propeller spinning on a pole, they had vertically orientated blades which spun around the central pole. I had never seen this design before, but it could be the answer. According to a report these vertical turbines are less dangerous than the horizontal ones because they don’t use propeller-like blades to capture the wind, but rotating open-framed cylinders ( The downside is that they don’t generate as much electricity as the traditional turbines. However, according to the article, “putting windmills upright and spacing them more tightly together can generate more electricity on less land, and kill fewer birds or bats than traditional horizontal rotating wind turbines.” These vertical turbines are also only 30 feet high, which is below the migratory level for birds and bats.

It is amazing how resourceful we can be when we have to. It’s just a shame that resourcefulness only materializes when we are faced with a catastrophe. But that is how we operate, I guess. Why waste time on things that might happen, like Y2K, when there are so many things that are happening to worry about? It does make preventative medicine particularly hard to sell, however.

Dr. F. Bunny

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