Eeeww: Farted fish tunes

Q. From a Hamilton, Ontario reader: "Is it only mammals that fart (oops, flatulate)? A rather exhaustive survey of people at work who keep snakes or fish as pets failed to find anyone who noticed a flatulation. I assume some difference in our digestive systems is behind this." ­P. Le Pew

 A. At least some cold-blooded animals do "pass gas" from the vent/cloaca/rectum, though the sounds won't be like a mammal breaking wind, says Barbara Shields, Ph.D., of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife of Oregon State University. But it can certainly smell just as bad, or worse!

In many species, this is part of the fecal evacuation process as ingested air escapes with the voiding. Pet fish fed dried pellets often pass a lot of gas. Digestive breakdown of foods by gut bacteria can result in the very smelly flatulence of reptiles, especially snakes.

"My boa and python were the worst, especially after a high-fat meal," says Shields. "There is usually a warning gurgling noise prior to release. In fact, my 22-year-old bullsnake Snippy is gurgling away right now on the 10 mice I fed her last week. A large buildup of gas can result in literally explosive defecation amid a blast of evil wind. I've moved her outside in anticipation of the coming event."

Most noteworthy, however, are fishes in the herring family (Clupeidae) that are able to expel air from the swim bladder through a unique rear duct. Via muscular alteration of duct size and anal aperture, they can control the size of the bubbles streaming out, and hence, control the pitch.

"In essence, these fish 'fart a tune,' used to confuse predators and communicate with conspecifics," Shields says, not at all snippily.

Q. It's probably the most interdisciplinary of subjects imaginable, embracing both the rational and irrational, social and cultural, trivial and profound. For some, it symbolizes freedom, independence, rebellion, for others oppression and subjugation. It can serve as occupation, status symbol, self-validation, or can make a statement about an alternative lifestyle, whether feminist, gay, transgender, military, religious. What is this busy something encompassing almost all of life's endeavors? ­ S. Freud

 A. Sex, answers Raymond J. Noonan in Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications, with choices including celibacy, monogamy, open marriage (mono, gay or bi), or simple uncommitment, or duplicity, the beat goes on.

Q. Common computer curiosity: Is a six-symbol password secure against hackers? Would more symbols help? ­T. Horse

A. When it comes to guessing a password, number of permutations is key. The possibilities with just six symbols are enormous: Each password character can be selected from, say, 26 letters, either upper or lower case, and 10 numerals, as well as non-alphanumeric @, $, and &, say Jeffrey O. Bennett et al. in Using and Understanding Mathematics: A Quantitative Reasoning Approach.

This yields 65 characters to choose from in each of the six slots, for a total of 65 x 65 x 65 x 65 x 65 x 65 permutations, or 75,418,890,625 (75 billion). So if someone automated a computer to guess a different random sequence at the rate of 100 every second, it would take an average of 12 years to chance upon the password!

Sounds pretty secure, but the problem is most people don't select passwords at random, since these are hard to remember, using instead only numerals and lower case letters. This cuts the search "space" to about 2.2 billion, and the 12 years down to four months. More cutting occurs when users draw on mnemonic ploys such as words, names, license numbers, dates, etc. Now a clever search strategy may locate such passwords surprisingly quickly.

Adding more symbols won't help much, but what will strengthen the firewall is users changing passwords frequently, as is recommended, and the common system limitation to number of login attempts in a given time period.

Q. At a business meeting of 30 strangers, you buttonhole the guy next to you: "Bet you 50 bucks at least two people here share the same birthday." Assuming he goes for it (and nobody cheated by checking out birthdays beforehand), how big a sucker is he? ­J. Madison

A. Surprisingly, in a group of 30 random people, odds are better than seven to three you'll win your bet, says John D. McGervey in Probabilities in Everyday Life. Make that a group of 40 and odds go to nine to one. Beyond 40, you'll rarely lose, though you won't find many takers.

One caution: Don't make the mistake of betting that somebody else will share your birthday or any other particular birthday picked in advance. That's an altogether different proposition, and a losing one. Odds on that are about 12 to 1 against you.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at