Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kraken goes down under (part 2) - I echinda you not

The Australian accent is basically an English one, after 6 pints of beer.  Try it. Get a British friend drunk enough that they start talking slowly and slurring their words, and you pretty much have the Australian accent. At least this is what we decided after several beers, a couple of bottles of wine, and a chronic lack of sleep.

Day two in Brisane was cool, but sunny. A very autumnal day. After a sumptuous, decadent breakfast that would make a hobbit happy, and a number of meetings about conference logistics we headed to Stradbroke Island, or '"Straddy" Island as the locals call it. We visited to inspect the marine biology station on the island, which if you are in the marine biology field I would highly recommend. It's run by Kevin and Cathy, a married Brit and Canadian couple, respectively. I noticed that when I first met Kevin he sounded Australian, but the more I talked to him, the more his northern, Lancastrian accent started to come out. The same happened with Martin the British chef yesterday - he started off sounding Australian, by the end if our tour of his kitchens he was talking like Ray Winstone. I guess I bring out people's inner Brit.

Stradebrooke Island is one of the largest sand islands in the world, whose entire economy is based on sand mining, tourism and conservation - the former and latter often at loggerheads. Humpback whales swim past on their migration to their breeding grounds and there are resident populations of dugongs, bottlenose dolphins and Indo- Pacific humpback dolphins, with the latter two species associating with each other in mixed groups when they feed. I read a lot about this area when I did my PhD, it was one of the first areas where my study species was researched, and so it was nice to actually see it in. There is a bit oft a problem with locals feeding the dolphins though - they are pretty smart, and essentially lazy - not unlike university students in many ways - and will do anything for a free lunch (dolphins that it not the locals). But locals and tourists have started feeding begging dolphins fishing bait (which is not the cleanest/healthiest of foods) and tourists have been caught feeding the dolphins hot dogs and other inappropriate foods. The animals are also getting more aggressive and are showing less fear towards fishing boats as a result, so there is inevitably going to be some conflict between the dolphins and humans in the near futures, and no doubt the dolphins will lose.

Kevin and Cathy took us on a tour and it was great to stand on a promontory looking out at the crashing waves and white sandy beaches, being blown by the salt sea air, after days of meetings or being cramped on a plane. We saw an echidna crossing the road - apparently it is really rare to sees this egg-laying porcupine- like creature, so that was very neat, even if we nearly ran the beast over. We also screeched to a halt when we saw a koala and baby by the side of the road - something that caused my colleague to squeal like a little girl. Seriously, koalas are ridiculously cute, but unfortunately are becoming endangered. However, developers are lobbying strongly against listing them as such, because it'll hamper their ability to build or deforest in many areas, and in Australia it seems like business pretty much wins out every time. On a final animal note, there's a population of kangaroos that live on the beach, and when it gets hit they go swimming in the sea to cool down. I would have loved to have seen that.

"Straddy" Island

In the evening we went to an organic restaurant to meet with some local scientists, and to drink more wine. This was the first restaurant I had been to on the trio that was not vegetarian friendly. The even the plate they gave me they had to modify. Even the vegetables were cooked in oyster sauce or meat juice. It was supposed to be famous because it was locally sourced and organic, but with sword fish, farmed salmon and wild caught, trawled shrimp in the menu, their environmental credentials weren't great to say the least. It was also host to one of the most bizarre deserts I've ever had "Deconstructed carrot cake". Literally the component parts of carrot cake on a plate - with entire baby carrots next to blobs of butter cream. It was ... Uh ... interesting, but an example of concept being cooler than the food was edible. In general presentation was better than the taste - I tried my colleagues chocolate brownie and it was one of the worst I have tasted - dry and stale, although it looked nicely arranged. I can't say I would recommend the restaurant to anyone - definitely more style and image than substance on many ways. A complete contrast to our lunch which was a little coffee shop/restaurant, full of hippy character with a great vegetarian menu, really tasty - and cheap - home made meals, and big slabs of cake like your momma used to make, and washed down with locally brewed ginger beer and delicious fresh coffee that was a life saver for our severely jet-lagged brains. If you're a Brit - it was a meal that would make the Famous Five happy. If you're not a Brit, trust me, that was a wholesome compliment.

Deconstructed carrot cake
Jet lag is playing merry hell with my sleep patterns - I keep waking at 2 am and 5 am, wide, wide awake and raring to go. Then crashing at various points during the day. Anyway it's nearly 5 now, and I really should try to get some sleep, even if my messed up biorhythms are resisting ...

Kraken goes down under

I've been away on travels so this blog's going to be a bit of a travelogue for a while.

I'm writing this in Brisbane, Australia, where I'm doing a three day whistle-stop tour of the area to assess it for a possible conference venue. As the city is quite keen for us to bring the conference here, there will hopefully be some wine-ing and dining. They've already given us a nice goodie bag of fifties which included practical items - sun block and a power adaptor, to the bizarre - zit cream. Anyway, I am writing while ensconced a hotel room - suite actually - which is bigger than most of my college apartments, highly enjoying the pampered decadent lifestyle. After seeing a certain X-files episode ( if you were a fan it's the one with a spilt screen where you see Mulder, Scully and director Skinner all taking bubble baths) - I've always indulged in a nice bubbly bath in nice hotels - ideally with a glass of wine or book. It might seem a bit girly but what's good enough for Fox Mulder is good enough for me ! Anyway, I deserve a good soak n' sip, the journey to Brisbane took 24 hours and I can't sleep on planes.

A bottle of wine and 6 movies made the flight a little more bearable. I have to hand it to Quantas that they treat their customers better than most US airlines. Of the movies I watched I should highlight the very bizarre "troll hunter" - a Norwegian film that is a little like the Blair Witch project meets Fraggle Rock. Also, "Big Miracle" is worth mentioning. For those that don't know the story, it's about a small group of gray whales that get trapped in the ice off of Barrow, Alaska and the attempts to free them. I usually avoid animal movies like the plague, especially marine animal movies - as a marine biologists, it's a bit like a doctor watching General Hospital and grimacing at all the things they do wrong. For example, I have never watched Free Willy despite having lived with one of the technical advisors for the original book. But although the gray whales kept singing humpback whale song ( which is only produced by males on the breeding grounds, not sung to calves on the feeding grounds like in the movie) and gray whales don't form nice mom, pop and baby social units, I quite enjoyed it. I do have to admit though that I blubbed like a baby in one emotional part of the movie (where Drew Barrymore cries too, so I'm not the only one). Although the movie is pretty closely based on something that actually happened, it's a bit sad to think how all of that publicity and attention and concern for the whales pretty much evaporated. The exercise itself cost the US government a huge amount of money ( and this was in the Ragen administration) - and to put it in perspective the amount was equivalent to entire the annual protected area (for wildlife) budget for Africa, for just a couple of whales. But now it's extremely difficult to scrape together even a few thousand now for whale and dolphin conservation.

I have to say that entering Australia, was a pleasure. And although that sentence sounds like I've just slept with a country (and she was a considerate, sensitive and quite feisty lover), it really was. I don't think I've encountered customs and immigration staff quite as friendly and  pleasant before. Quite a change from staff in DC who generally act like doormen as an excessive night clue who really don't want your sort sort of riff-raff in their establishment bringing the tone down (or perhaps that's just the attitude I invoke in them :-( ).

When Peter Cook (long-time comedy partner of Dudley Moore, the 70s version of Stephen Fry, for those not up on their British comedians) was asked by Australian immigration whether he had any criminal record, he famously said "I didn't think that was still compulsory any more". They wouldn't let him into the country, but it must have been worth it just for that one-liner. They still ask that question on the immigration for and it was sooooo tempting to write that on.

 My first day in Australia, was a succession of meetings which really won't be of terrible interest to anyone. But we were wined and dined (an excellent veggie lunch washed down with very decent Queensland wine) and had a great behind the scenes tour of the Brisane convention center and talked to their head chef about their sustainability practices - which are excellent. They have a policy of buying all their produce wherever possible from within a 100km radius, from suppliers that have a good sustainability record. The chef - a nice bloke called Martin, from Pinner, London -  wax lyrical about how he can tell you the agricultural practices of all their main suppliers from the animal welfare standards to the chemicals used in farming, how much mercury is in the fish and the type of gear used, and the strict standards they have on environmental contaminants and sustainable practices. Quite a nice change from hotels in the US gladly serving up mercury-laden sword fish. We also got treated to lots of tasters, local cheeses and fruit, cakes, fresh doughnuts, so much so we had to skip dinner, we were so stuffed. They had make their own chocolates - which were divine. They put pictures of dugongs on top them for us (if you don't know, a dugong is like an Indo-Pacific manatee, but with stubby tusks and a dolphin-like tail, and speaks manatee with a strong accent - actually their "voice" sounds like a big mouse squeaking "eek, eek, eek", so really more of a New Zealander accent). 

The wine is pretty good. Queensland hasn't got the wine reputation that other regions have, but it's getting better, partly because of climate change improving local conditions for grapes, so it's not that different from vineyards in Virginia. Good alcohol is going to be a feature of this conference - plans are afoot to include a wine tasting, and to see if we can get sponsorship from the local big brewery "XXXX" or "four X" (because the locals can't spell beer).

I've been awake now for 45 hours straight, and the caffeine and chocolate that has kept me functioning, and bouncing around like Tigger all day long, is wearing off, but the wine from our final meeting is kicking in, so g'night Australia, and stop hogging the duvet, you saucy minx of a country.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

What kind of job is that?!

"You know, we are going to have to start working soon," Joshua said. "I won't see you, once I'm working with my father."

"Joshua, look around you, do you see any trees?"


"And the trees we do have, olive trees - twisted, gnarly, knotted things, right?"


"But you're going to be a carpenter like your father?"

"There's a chance of it."

"One word, Josh: rocks."


"Look around. Rocks as far as the eye can see. Galilee is nothing but rocks, dirt, and more rocks. Be a stonemason like me and my father. We can build cities for the Romans."

"Actually, I was thinking about saving mankind."

"Forget that nonsense, Josh. Rocks, I tell you."

 (from Lamb by Christopher Moore)

When I was a teenager I announced to my family that I wanted to be a zoologist.  (I actually wanted to me Jaques Cousteau albeit without the Frenchness).They were dismayed. In their mind that meant I was going to spend my life in a zoo, shoveling elephant poop. My grandfather's suggestion was to either (a) put up telegraph poles or (b) be a gravedigger. Two careers he saw as being growth areas where there was"good money in that" to quote him. Luckily I never listened to his advice otherwise I'd be an unemployed telegraph pole erector in the days of mobile phones and shrinking landlines.

My sister was told that there was no point in her looking at A levels (= AP classes for US readers) or university because girls "get married and have babies" - and that was from her high school teachers! Our home town growing up was a little like a West Virginian coal mining town in many way - one big, dirty industry that everyone worked in, surrounded by rural redneck territory, which might explain some of e careers advice.

I was the first in my family, ever as far as I know, to go to university - it was something "our sorts don't do" again to quote my grandfather, and broke the glass ceiling for my siblings and cousins (all of whom went to college/university at least for some time). 

Luckily, in some respects, my family were as poor as church mice and I got scholarships and all my tuition paid for, so I could choose whatever course or university I wanted - but then again they were supportive of whatever I wanted to do - just happy for me to leave the town/villages our family had lived in since the doomsday book (written in he year 1086 for those not of a historical bent).

So why am I telling you this?

In my job I have to go to a lot of admission events, I'm effectively a recruiter for our undergraduate program. I get to see a lot of eager young students, and not so eager students I have to add, usually accompanied by their parents. A few weeks ago I was at such an event and was in a good mood because we were getting a lot of interest in our program, and the kids were generally enthusiastic and seemed bright. I had one student that I had a great conversation with about sharks, she really wanted to do marine biology, but then her mother dragged her away saying "come away from there, you're going to medical school." this depressed me in so many ways. Now the student may have the smarts to get the grades to get into medical school, but then that's your life, you will have nothing else. Our so-called "pre-med" students who complain about how tough their current classes are, and how little free time they have now, have no idea how their life is going to be a never-ending series of exams, lectures, practicals, followed by long hours and sleepless nights of hospital residency, if they do get into medical school. A schedule that will make their undergraduate days look like virtually nothing, a huge vacation with a couple of classes thrown in. It's not a step to be taken lightly. Your heart not only has to be "in it", but also your liver, lungs and spleen as well. I often hear parents say "I'm paying the tuition, so you're going to study what I tell you". To see a parent basically force a student into going into medical school when they don't want to, in my mind it's no different to a 17th century parent selling their child into indentured servitude. On the positive side though, I see a lot of mature students who come back to university - their family having forced them to try for medical school, or go into business or accounting - but now they have the independence to do what they want at last.

Last week I was at a prize giving event with one of my mature students. There is only a couple of years difference between us in age. He had gone into retail at his family's urging, but he had just finished his BS in conservation and we were at the event because he had won a prize for the best research project. Now he's going on to do graduate school, and study marine biology. It was a bittersweet moment -  he had spent decades doing a career that essentially bored him and left him unfulfilled, but now he finally got to do what he really wanted. But I guess I'm a sucker for a happy ending...

Things I hate …

NOTE: I originally wrote this to a friend. But as an environmentalist, I should really recycle whenever possible, and I hope that the chum in question doesn’t mind me posting something I’d sent them.

This rant arose because I was sitting in one of the airport bars watching a guy eat, and his lack of table manners really bugged me, and one thing led to another and I started writing a list of things that I really hate or drive me up the wall.
Starting with:
(1) Bad table manners. I'm British, and we are a bit particular about etiquette and such, but the table manners of some people... yuck. A student on the field trip recently drove me crazy tearing up his food with his fingers and grabbing meat from other people's plates, so much so that I actually moved tables. I used to live in Hong Kong and there it was considered polite to show you were enjoying you food by eating with your mouth open, slurping and gulping loudly and belching. It used to drive me crazy.
(2) This one is probably because I’m a scientist, but this is a pet peeve - equating a belief or an opinion with the same authority as evidence or facts. To some their belief aliens built the Rocky Mountains has the same value that they are formed by geological processes. Not that beliefs or values don't have their place, but there is a reason why trials are supposed to be based on evidence and not on gut feelings. Surely government decisions or, "shudder", high school curricula be based on the same. Too often these days scientific data is overruled by somebody's opinion of what the 'truth' is. For example, someone’s opinion that climate change or evolution is not happening is held with the same authority as overwhelming scientific evidence.
(3) Hypocrisy. John Stewart's Daily Show video vignettes of politicians contradicting their current strongly held opinions just a couple of year ago, well that really gets under my skin. For example, some of the politicians who recently ranted about religious freedoms for Catholic colleges and contraception, were equally vocal in their complaints about Islamic schools having dress codes and practicing their religious beliefs... This country is supposed to have freedom to practice religion, any religion, whether it be Islam, Judaism, or Wicca, not just Christianity. The daily hypocrisy of Fox news talking heads drives me up the wall. But it's not just hypocrisy in politics or on TV that I hate, but it is the most likely to frustrate me at the moment because it's so blatant and widespread.

(4) I’m a vegetarian. I have been the butt of dumbass comments I get whenever I say I'm a vegetarian e.g. "carrots have feelings too", or "humans are adapted to eat meat" (yeah because we have those 4 inch canines like carnivores do...), or anti-veggie things to get a rise out of me. Vegetarianism is a moral and ethical choice for me. It would be considered to be intolerable to make fun of a Jewish or Buddhist person for their dietary restrictions, but it's ok to give the vegetarians shit for their moral choices. Grrrrr.

(5) Cherry picking from the bible. Using biblical quotes to justify intolerance of homosexuality or other activities/ life choices, while conveniently ignoring adjacent text that also says that effectively women who wear pants, men who have their hair cut, anyone who has clothes made from two types of material, touches a pork scratching or even eating shellfish (Lev 19-16; 11:6-8, 12), are abominations. Getting high and mighty about certain Old Testament prohibitions while simultaneously disregarding Jesus's numerous statements about being kind to the poor, the sick and the ostracized, drives me nuts. It particularly irks me when I see (a) millionaire Christian right politicians trying to dismantle Obamacare and welfare, or justifying tax breaks or exclusions for the rich  - remember the bible also says something about rich men, camels and eyes of needles guys, but moreover St Paul says “If you owe taxes, pay taxes” ( Romans 13:5-7) and it doesn’t get much clearer than that; and (b) politicians or preachers who are on their third or fourth wife, talking about the sanctity of marriage being damaged if homosexuals are allowed to marry (this is a double whammy with hypocrisy above).

(6) Illogical, inflexible and incompetent beauracrats (or airline employees). The bane of my existence at the university - staff minions in the Dean's office who arbitrarily deny requests for course substitutions, which means that students don't graduate on time, or minions in the registrar’s office who rather then look up a course code, just delete the course from the student's transcript, and many, many more. I particularly loathe those that lie to cover up their incompetence, or even worse, who imply that they did everything correct and it is fact you who is incompetent. Linked to that, pretty much anyone who drops the ball and then lies to cover it up. If I drop a ball, or mess up, I try to fess up and apologize (if I have actually dropped the ball - I will dig me heels in if I know I did was what I was supposed to/ the right thing and ball droppage was nothing to do with me).

(7) Lack of perspective. Anyone who says we are in difficult times - we're not, we have it pretty damn good. What just within the last 100 years, in the 1910s, close to a quarter of all Scottish men died in World War 1; 1920s: in the US people were eating shoes because they were so hungry, the flu epidemic that killed more people than World War 1 (5% of the population); 1940s - the “Rape of Nanking”, the Blitz, the Holocaust; 1950s: Mississippi racism, Stalin's pogroms; 1960s: "the great leap forwards" and the "cultural revolution" killed millions. We have it pretty damn cushy. Also, anyone who comes in saying they had "the worst day" - really? Did you find a lump that you thought was cancerous and were rushed into hospital? Were you hit by a car? Did you find out the love of your life was cheating on you (thanks to photos you were sent)? Did you find your run over pet? Did one of your parents die? Those were just some of my "bad days". What about the work colleague who is in chemotherapy, or your friend who just lost their baby? Really shit things happen, and you have to deal with them. Be thankful these things aren’t happening to you, and don't make a drama out of the coffee machine running out of coffee or being 15 minutes late to work - to do so is to actually insult those who are really having a bad day. So yes, lack of perspective gets me hot under the collar. It's very frequent with our cosetted, indulged students at the unibversity. Although when I was a high school teacher, some of my students came from backgrounds and circumstances that involved a lot of really bad days, but they tended to be as stoic as anyone could be.
Linked to this, and although this is something that I don't actually hate, it nonetheless does drives me crazy - people who cannot assess risks properly. For example, people will go to crazy extremes to prevent, for example, the minute risk of a coyote or shark attack, or who refuse to let a child be inoculated, but who will gladly drunk-drive, leave a loaded firearm in the house, or who smokes. Linked to that politicians who put huge resources into minuscule threats due to terrorism (e.g. special anti-terrorist training centers in Noplace, Nebraska) but ignore, or even protect, companies dumping known carcinogens that are prematurely ending the lives of orders of magnitude more people than died in the 9/11 attacks.
That was all terribly therapeutic and cathartic … So what do you hate? What are your personal bugbears. Leave comments …

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What a wonderful world


Scooby-doo - where are you ?

A couple of days ago my sister emailed me - she's convinced that there are ghosts in her house. Now as a scientist I am often quite skeptical about things and typically tend to rationalize away things I see or experience that others might see to be supernatural, but I have always had a fascination with the idea of ghosts. It probably goes back to my youth when we lived in a big old Victorian house. There was one room in the house that used to terrify me. Just going into it would fill me with horror, and give me chills. If I had to go in the room, I ran in and out as fast as I could. Unfortunately in my pre-tween years my parents decided that this was to be my bedroom. There then followed months of sleepless nights and when I did sleep, I had horrible nightmares. My parents moved my brother into the room - but he was never affected in the same way I was. They eventually converted a storage room into a tiny box bedroom that I moved into - and the sleepless nights and nightmares immediately vanished. I was certain that there was something sinister  and nasty about that old bedroom. Where's Velma when I need her ?

But as a said, my sister is convinced that she's haunted. Certainly if you were to choose a haunted house location you probably could choose no better than my sister's place - a big rambling, isolated 17th century farmhouse - there is a ruined castle and monastery at the end of their garden. The spooky associations there date back a thousand years to ghostly sighting of monks, allegedly the phantoms of those murdered in Viking raids.
She says she's seen ghostly people in period clothes walk past and through walls, in locations where they later found out that doors used to be.
The house is a bit creepy though. I did have one spooky experience there, not in the main house itself, but in the small cottage that they own nearby. In the middle of the night I suddenly woke up freezing cold, panicking and unable to move my legs, it felt as if there was a heavy weight on them. I put this down to perhaps a bout of “sleep paralysis. I later told my sister that I didn't get a good night's sleep, to which she answered - "so did old Tom sit on your bed?". Apparently several people have reported being "sat on" as they slept and it was put down to "Tom" who was a long time resident of the cottage. Although spooky, I'm still not convinced, I still think there's a rational explanation.
Probably the single incident that spooked me most though was related to my mother's death. She used to say that she was "a little bit psychic". But a year before she died she did do some strange things - she had a conversation with my father about being OK if he remarried if she died and specifically mentioned a mutual friend (he subsequently did marry that person). But the spookiest thing was that we found after her death that she had gone from no life insurance to signing up for 5 policies in the year before her death (which as I said before was an accident and entirely unexpected) - as a result my father was financially secure after her death, could buy a house and invest the rest and live comfortably off the income.
Perhaps as a scientist I should not have a closed mind, but an open one - after all as Shakespeare says, there are far more things in heaven and earth… Just because we cannot explain something at the moment doesn't mean we never will.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bio-diversity - who cares ?

Tomorrow is the International Day for Biodiversity (22nd May). Do you care?

Well apparently the general public doesn't. The past couple of days I've been working on a paper (which is why I've been a bit quiet) with one of my graduate students on public concern about biodiversity. It seems that although two- thirds of the public have heard of the term, less than a third actually understand what it means, and likewise less than a third think that it's important to conserve. Luckily more than have of those surveyed thought that two of the most bio-diverse habitats (coral reefs and tropical rain forests) were in urgent need of conservation. It seems that the public was most concerned about big charismatic species like pandas, elephants and bottlenose dolphins than even these important habitats though. Few were concerned about the conservation of poor poison dart tree frogs, which is really troubling as amphibians are disappearing at an alarming rate because of habitat loss, pollution and climate change.

Only 2% of those surveyed had heard of the International Day for Biodiversity and 99.95% were not aware of the UN's International Year of Biodiversity - the survey was done right at the end of that year (2010) so it appears that environmental groups' big push to get the public concerned about biodiversity in that year failed spectacularly. So if environmental groups want to get the public concerned about biodiversity conservation they should unfortunately stop using the term biodiversity-  the public doesn't care about it. Instead they should focus on coral reefs and rain forests because they resonate more with the public. Or find some charismatic animals to champion the cause, such as jaguars, dolphins or turtles.
But tomorrow why don't you do your bit -  tell a couple of people that bio-diversity is important, that it should be conserved, and that the world would be a poorer, more impoverished place in so many ways without it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My kids done all growed up

As a professor who can't say no to students, the past month or so my life has been a whirl of exams, assignments, orals, grading, dissertation editing and thesis defences. But it's done ...

school's out for summer !

This won't mean much to those who aren't in academia but I managed to usher six PhD students through their comprehensive exams, 5 PhD students through thesis defences and 2 Masters students through theirs. I got to see most of the latter walk across the stage this past week in their academic gowns*, and I was bursting with paternal pride, and relief, to see them moving on to the next stage of their lives.

I'm also the director of our department's undergraduate program, and this week in addition to scores of students I taught and advised on course choices and career choices, I saw the very first graduate of our new BS degree in environmental science - that I designed and helped to set up - get her diploma. The degree was the culmination  of years of meetings, a small forest was sacrificed to produce the paperwork it entailed, but now it's done.** The fact that she was a delighful student to teach, made it even better.

I don't have children, and in many ways many of my students are like my surrogate kids, and so it's bitter sweet to see them graduate. They'll no longer be around the college halls popping in to ask for advice or to simply chat, no more field trips together and bonding over rainy afternoons in Scotland, sweaty hikes through jungles or lazy afternoons beachcoming on the coast. Or evening in the pub, after a hard days work, unwinding and putting the world to rights over a beer or three.*** But off they go into the big wide world, hopefully equipped with knowledge, skills and enthusiasm and perseverance, that I desperately tried to instill in them. Amany of my old students are still in touch and frequently accost me on facebook, and it's great to see that most of them are still in the field that their degrees set them on, and most doing well for themselves. I still worry about them nonetheless, even though they've flown the nest, and years after they've graduated it's still nice that some still come to me for advice or help.

Being a professor can be exhausting, with long hours of grading, and little thanks for your efforts, as well as incredibly frustrating and infuriating (those friends who have seen my griping on facebook about students cheating on exams/assignments will be able to atest to this). But weeks like this are definitely one of the real perks of the job.

*Sadly a bilious shade of green polyester, but few academic outfits are as trendy as mine - I look like Sevrus Snape when all dressed up in my regalia.
**I was just told this week, that new though the degree is, it's already got more students than the physics and maths departments put together!
***Those of legal drinking age, of course...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sage advice – senses and sensibility

Feedback from my first posting about the mysteries of the male was quite positive, and as a result of subsequent conversations over margueritas with female friends, here's the next installment of sage advice.

Despite the obvious biological differences between men and women, there are some more subtle ones that often lead to arguments or frustration. But they are real biological differences and it's unlikely your males will ever be able to overcome them. So don't argue or get frustrated, just deal with it. Otherwise you are just banging your head against a brick wall.

Men have less smell and taste receptors than women. From a biological perspective, it makes sense if you think that a mother ape needs to be extra careful with what she feeds her young apeling, as it could be more sensitive to unripe, spoiled or toxic food. Likewise womens’ color vision is better than that of men. Again, it makes sense when evaluating the ripeness of fruit or the possibly toxicity of a colored insect, as a mother ape.

As a result, womens' perfumes tend to be more complex than after shaves or male colognes. If a guy is buying something he likes, it's usually pretty straight forwards and unsubtle. Womens’ perfume is basically designed to appeal to women, men often can't distinguish the subtleties of the scents. So if you get given a perfume at Christmas that he's chosen for you, don't be surprised if it's got the sensual allure of week-old road kill - he simply can't tell. Likewise with taste - if men cook, they tend to lean towards spicy or strong flavored food, which their limited taste buds can detect. The subtlety of some flavors, may be lost on them, to such an extent that some men have very limited senses of taste, which has knock on effects for their ability to cook, or interest in doing so. I'm not saying that all men have poor senses of taste/smell, as with anything in nature there is a continuum, but on average these senses are poorer than womens’.

I mentioned color vision above. Color blindness is much more common in men than women, and the ability to discern shades. So when in Home Deport choosing paints for the bedroom, or posing with a new outfit, don't get frustrated when he doesn't show an interest in the shade of blue, he may not be able to see the difference. To him your dress in a subtle shade if aqua, to him may be just "blue", or even worse, “sorta greeny-grey”.

Also on vision, mens’ peripheral vision is also much worse than womens’. We have better depth and detail perception, on average than women directly in front (due to more light receptor cells in that area), but not so much to the side. So if you are standing next to a man and are gesturing, it’s possible he simply can’t see, even though you might. He may have to move his entire head to see something that you can catch out of your side vision. This certainly has been the cause of many arguments in my car, and a couple of near crashes. My peripheral vision is even worse than most men though, due to need in glasses, and being blind as a bad outside their field of view.

 Another interesting fact related to men on vision. When they are concentrating on something visually, they go deaf (well their ability to register the meaning of sounds decreases). This is related to neural wiring in the brain. It’s something that they cannot overcome, so there’s really no point trying to talk to him when he’s watching the game, or concentrating on the computer. He may grunt at you, but the likelihood is that he really didn’t hear you. But what are you doing talking to him during the game anyway !

 So some subtle but important biological differences between men and women. As I said above though, it is a continuum – not all men have bad peripheral vision etc. But on average, there is a significant difference between men and women in terms of senses. So don’t get angry at him because he doesn’t see the world in the same way you do, because literally, he doesn’t.

Frankly my dear, I don't give a (munch) (munch) (belch !)

OK, I’m going to be a bit of a curmudgeonly old bugger today.

I used to love going to the movies. There have been phases when I've gone every week, or done whole day marathons of back to back shows. I even used to love going to see obscure foreign films. Just a couple of blocks away from my house, is a great little artsy cinema, that usually shows one blockbuster and a nice muddle of indie films.

Over the weekend I went to see "The Avengers" (which I give two thumbs up by the way - although the plot is wafer thin, the characters and humor are worth it - you've got to hand it to Joss Whedon, with so any characters it could have been a mess, but he gave them all, well, character).

But then I remembered why I don't go any more. The people directly behind you crunching popcorn, ripping open and rustling cellophane, shaking snacks in boxes, noisily slurping the dregs of their drinks, and then belching with satisfaction. Invariably during the quiet, tense moments; the importance of a whispered plot line lost because my neighbor is chiding down on of bucket of popcorn larger than my entire torso.

What's worse are the patrons who insist on providing their own asinine commentary through the movie (and there was one such loudmouth during the Avengers showing I went to). Dude, I hardly ever listen to the directors’ commentaries on DVDs, because they are invariably dull and boring, I don't want to hear your brain dead opinions. If I wanted to hear moronic opinions I'd true into "Fox and Friends" (I'm pretty confident that few of my readers watch "Fox and Friends" because, well, (a) you obviously have taste as you are reading my blog and (b) you can read...).

The worst moment I had in a movie theater in the past few years was during a climactic scene - to be honest it was during the penultimate scene in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Darcy is striding purposefully towards Elizabeth Bennett over the misty moor, he grabs her in his arms, their eyes bore into each other, they lean forwards about to kiss  when .... A woman two rows behind me opens her phone and starts telling her other half where to pick her up outside. The final climatic moment ruined.

Maybe I'm getting mire intolerant in my old age, but I don't remember movie-goers being so self-centered, oblivious and ignorant. Perhaps it's because so many homes have huge TVs, and modern theaters have smaller screens, and movie goers feel more like they are in their living rooms. Maybe people in general are less able to make the distinction between behavior in private and in public.

Now I like eating popcorn as much as anyone, when watching a TV show or movie (I have a rather nice popcorn maker in fact) but that's in the privacy of my home. Not somewhere where I've paid nearly $20 watch a film.

Hollywood knows that movie audiences are in decline, and they know that unruly movie goers are an issue. But the theaters also want profits - so more expensive tickets, less staff being paid to monitor bad behavior in theaters, and more food being sold. So in my mind, a movie trip is costing more and more for a worse experience.

On some train services, customer annoyance at mobile phone users, or other chatter, when travelers wanted to work, read or nap on trains, led to the installation of "quiet cars". Maybe we can have "quiet screens" where loud food and talking is banned, and you can be thrown out if you break the rules. I'd certainly pay a little extra be able watch to Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett's first kiss when the only sound is that of my soppy sniffling, rather than slack jawed munching or an idiot on a phone.

Monday, May 14, 2012

My obsession with Anne of Green Gables

My first true love happened in my mid-teens, and it’s to her that all my girlfriends, or possible girlfriends, have been compared to since. One Christmas I saw the Anne of Green Gables mini-series with Megan Fellows, and she quite stole my heart – the character of Anne Shirley that is.

But what was it that I found so attractive? Well firstly, she was clever and not afraid to show it. She was witty and creative too - she became a writer which has always been a passion of mine. Moreover, she generally did not apologize for being who she was or the way she was. She was also feisty. I like feisty. Instead of accepting social norms, unflinching authority, or bowing down to convention, she went up against them. Plus, when Gilbert Bligh was being an idiot, she smashed a slate over his head.

I have a relatively strong personality, and sometimes need reining in or I can trample over people, or my exploits can get out of hand – I’ve always looked for an Anne Shirley who can keep up with me, who will challenge me, who will inspire me, but who will call me out when I’m being a doofus.

Admittedly Anne Shirley was somewhat whittery as a girl. In the mini-series this is toned down a bit compared to the books, and I definitely prefer the less babbling version.

Anne (with an “e”) went on to become a teacher, and a good one at that. This was another appeal, particularly in my later life. I’m a teacher myself (having taught elementary, high school, community college and now university classes). My mother, and sister both did teacher training, and my step-mother was a math teacher all her life. I naturally gravitate towards (good) teachers – they are my people, they share my values and much of my underlying motivation to spread enthusiasm for learning and discovery. In some way Anne Shirley may have even inspired me to get into education, but I think wanting to teach is something that has always been fundamentally part of me, part of my soul.

The slightly more worldly, Anne Shirley teacher and writer, was my dream woman from teenage years. Her and Sandra Bullock. And Velma from Scooby–doo … but that’s another story.

Monty Python and science

Having put up a bunch of more personal posts, here’s something in the way of a serious online article for the environmental/educational types. So you have been warned. The scientists among you should know this already, but if you do happen to teach science classes, feel free to steal, especially the last bit!

Demonstrating the scientific process

Science is fundementally a way of thinking, a way of approaching problems. It's this approach or process that basically what separates science as academic discipline from the others. Most people can see this way of approaching research in the laboratory sciences such as chemistry. But it's this approach to problem solving that puts "science" in the fields of social science (e.g. sociology, psychology), and separates it from the purely descriptive social fields (e.g. ethnography). Although both technically anthropologists in the broadest sense, it's adherance to this process that makes Temperance Brennan (a forensic anthropologist) on the TV show Bones a scientist, whereas, Indiana Jones is not.

What exactally is the scientific process?

The first stage is that scientists makes observations e.g. how a species behaves, where it’s found, when it’s found, where it reproduces etc. Scientists then use these observations to come to conclusions via induction or deduction.

INDUCTION – after making a variety of observations, the combination of the observations suggests a conclusion
            e.g. sharks, sailfish and tuna all have gills.
            →they are also all fish
            →therefore all fish have gills
DEDUCTION – the scientists makes a general statement (usually based on observations), then predicts what the result would be if this statement is correct

            e.g. sharks, sailfish and tuna all have gills.
            →they are all marine organisms
            →therefore all marine organisms may have gills
            →whales are a marine organism

So the deduction is that whales have gills.
Induction and deduction mean that scientists make statements that might be true, or a “hypothesis”.

            e.g.1: “fish have gills”
            e.g.2: “whales have gills”
To find out whether the hypothesis is correct it must then be tested (usually repeatedly). An important consideration for the scientific method is that a hypothesis must be testable
hypothesis: “somewhere in the ocean there are mermaids

This is not testable as if a scientist searched for mermaids and could not find them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist, he may just have been looking in the wrong place. Therefore, ‘scientific searches’ that search for bigfoot that you see on TV, are a lot of bollocks.

This is also why “intelligent design” is not a scientific hypothesis, it would be impossible to test and prove that there was a “designer”, therefore the hypothesis was not a scientific one. Whether humans can impact the environment and cause climate change, is, however, a scientific hypothesis, that has been tested repeatedly. In short, a scientific hypothesis must be capable (potentially) of being proven false.

But can a hypothesis really be proven to be “true” – as it is impossible to usually prove beyond any doubt that something is true, for example “all fish have gills”  because somewhere , e.g. in the deep sea, there may be an as yet unfound fish that has no gills. This is one of the problems that scientists face in the policy arena. It is really hard to show politicians (especially ones that don’t understand science). But policy makes want a cut and dried, black and white answer from scientists. Which is rather ironic as politicians so frequently work in shades of gray. To get around this scientists usually say that a hypothesis is accepted, if no test yet tried disproves the hypothesis, rather than saying a hypothesis is true. A hypothesis that stands up to repeated testing then it’s said to be a “theory” e.g. the theory of gravity, relativity and evolution. For all intents and purposes, this is the same as a “law”. Anti-evolutionists deliberately misunderstand the use of the word theory, equating it to a prediction that hasn’t been tested. We should really be saying the “law of evolution”.

As a final comment, this is one of the examples of scientific reasoning that I’ve found (I get my students to discuss this - are there examples of inductive and/or deductive reasoning? What is the hypothesis? Is this science?)

Sir Bedevere: There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
Peasant 1: Are there? Oh well, tell us.
Sir Bedevere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
Peasant 1: Burn them.
Sir Bedevere: And what do you burn, apart from witches?
Peasant 1: More witches.
Peasant 2: Wood.
Sir Bedevere: Good. Now, why do witches burn?
Peasant 3: ...because they're made of... wood?
Sir Bedevere: Good. So how do you tell whether she is made of wood?
Peasant 1: Build a bridge out of her.
Sir Bedevere: But can you not also build bridges out of stone?
Peasant 1: Oh yeah.
Sir Bedevere: Does wood sink in water?
Peasant 1:: No, no, it floats!... It floats! Throw her into the pond!
Sir Bedevere: No, no. What else floats in water?
Peasant 1: Bread.
Peasant 2: Apples.
Peasant 3: Very small rocks.
Peasant 1: Cider.
Peasant 2: Gravy.
Peasant 3: Cherries.
Peasant 1: Mud.
Peasant 2: Churches.
Peasant 3: Lead! Lead!
King Arthur: A Duck.
Sir Bedevere: ...Exactly. So, logically...
Peasant 1: If she weighed the same as a duck... she's made of wood.
Sir Bedevere: And therefore...
Peasant 2: ...A witch!
Crowd: Oooh.
Sir Bedevere: So, logically...,
Peasant 1: If … she… weighs the same as a duck, she's made of wood.
Sir Bedevere: And therefore--?
Peasant 1: A witch!
Crowd:  A witch!
Sir Bedevere: We shall use my larger scales! Right, remove the supports!

                    [the scales show that she weighs the same as a duck]

Crowd:  A witch!  A witch!
Witch:   It's a fair cop.
Crowd:  Burn her!  Burn her! 
Sir Bedevere: Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?
King Arthur: I am Arthur, King of the Britons.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sage advice: men are dogs (or chimps)

I have a lot of female friends (they probably outnumber my male friend by a factor of 3 or 4 to one). Many are former students who have hung around and still come to me for advice. As such, I often get to play the role of "big brother or "agony uncle", advising on relationships and whatever crisis they have at the moment. Now, although I am infamously blind and oblivious when it comes to my own personal relationships, I like to think that I've pretty perceptive about those of others. So here is same sage advice on men, for my female friends.

Men are simple. If you think they are complicated, you are over-thinking things. Sure we can be Machiavellian at times, but most of the time we're not. Stimulus - response, that's men for you. If you don't understand why a guy is acting certain way, chances our he really doesn't either. While some of us are very self-reflective, most aren't. A lot of our behavior boils down to basic drives. We're still basically chimpanzees, just sometimes more subtle and dress up our motivations more.

Firstly, if he doesn't call, if he doesn't get back in touch with you. He just isn't that interested in you. I assure you if he was interested, he would be in contact. Now there is a caveat - some guys may be very shy, they might be nervous that you don't feel the same way, that they might be rejected, because they don't know how you feel. I certainly need a 60' neon sign above a girl's head announcing her feelings before I'll act, otherwise I just assume they are just being friendly. So if you make it clear that you are interested, if he is, he will be in touch.

Of course he may get in touch not because he's particularly interested, but because he has nothing better to do, fancies getting some, and in lieu of anything better, you'll do in a pinch. To him you're just a convenient booty call. As I said above, we're chimpanzees. But he won't keep in contact. If he really likes you, as I said, he will keep in touch.

Don't, ever, ever, believe you can change a man. Mostly what you see is what you will always get. Now, that is not to say we cannot be trained out of bad habits, but fundemental change is nigh on impossible - a guy who's a bastard, will always be a bastard, a guy who's boring will always be boring.Think of us as dogs. You can train a dog to do many things with the appropriate techniques - clear unambiguous commands that are simple, and use positive reinforcement to get the message across. Eventually you'll get us to load the dishwasher the right way, or pick up our socks. Importantly ,we need to know why we have to do something - if we're told that by doing it will be more efficient and effective, or will lead to a positive result, we get it and will try to incorporate it into our general behavior. But doing something that seems illogical, or "because I said so" or even worse " if you loved me you'd do it", is unlikely to work.

Men fear failure and inadequacy. This is why nagging never works. You are telling him that he is doing something wrong, and therefore is inadequate, and instead of doing the right thing he's more likely to retreat into his "cave" with his tail between his legs. The more you nag, the worse it will get - and there will be a negative spiral. It's all about ego. If you tell him he looks really cool doing something, or that you are proud of him for a certain action, he will try to do that more frequently. If you tell him it disappoints you when he does something, he will get moody and sulky because in his mind you have said that he's a failure. If you want to destroy a relationship, belittle him, make him feel like he is not accomplishing what he could, imply that he is flawed, not providing for you, or is inadequate. As soon as you start on this path, it’s a helter-skelter to break up.

I’ll say again, it’s all about ego. Men want to feel that they are the alpha chimp, or at least high status in their own particular band of apes (it might be a group of friends, a club, the guys at the office), and that they are ‘good’ at many things. We’re generally not foolish enough to think that we are good at everything, but we certainly like to think we excel at something, even if it’s memorizing sports statistics or belching in tune.

Incidentally this is also, to some extent why men rarely ask for directions when in female company ... To admit that he does not understand the terrain, does not have intimate knowledge of his territory, does not know the most efficient way to find prey, is a failing as a chimpanzee.

Dogs are dogs, they can be trained, but they can't turn into cats. Same with men, they can be trained, but there are certain things they will never be able to do, because of basic biology. And that's what I'll be advising about in another post.

I hope that's useful. Now I just need someone to write a similar post to give me advice about the mysteries of my relationships with women ...

I been doing the interwebs since before you was born

Well, that’s pushing it a bit, but I have some undergrad students for whom this is true (which makes me feel frickin’ old). But, nonetheless, back in 1994, me and my friend Steven started an internet magazine (I say we, it was mostly Steven who worked on it, I just helped to write and threw ideas at him). At the time we were living in Hong Kong, and so it was imaginatively called “HK Zine”.  I think we initially did it so we could pretend to be movie reviewers and blag free tickets to see films. Which, in fact, we managed to do. Albeit we never got tickets for blockbusters, but we did get freebies for “Flipper” and “Cutthroat Island” and other B-list films. Now, I’m a big fan of all things piratical, but Cutthroat Island, even a free viewing, was bloody awful, and I remember we had fun keelhauling that one.

Mostly the magazine was kind of a proto-blog, however, we did do at least one bit of serious journalism that I was really proud of. Just before our little internet escapade, I had broken my foot (in a karate class if you must know, the latest in a series of breaks and injuries thanks to my martial arts classes) and a couple of weeks hobbling around Hong Kong made me realize what an unfriendly place it was for the disabled, and I thought it would make an interesting article - but we decided to take it a step further.  We borrowed a wheelchair from a facility for the disabled, and had an interview with the manager their, who warned us that we were going to find our little adventure difficult, but wished us luck with it nonetheless. So off we went for a jaunt around Hong Kong to find out what life was like for a handicapped person in this bustling city. In one word: crap. Most buildings did not have disabled access, and usually had steps at the entrance. We only found one doorman who would help us get the wheelchair inside. People often ‘tsk’ed or swore at us for holding them up. Pedestrian lights changed so fast that you couldn’t get across roads in time, especially seeing as there was no inclined kerb on either side of the pedestrian crossings, so we had to do several wheelies to get up onto the sidewalk. We also tried to navigate the underground system, which we found was more difficult than we expected. You had to find an underground employee to let you into the elevator (admittedly I remember them being very helpful), but there were only two stations with elevators, everywhere else had stairs/escalators, so you were pretty restricted as to where you went !
The cherry on the cake, however, was our visit to a high end hotel. We’d planned to have a couple of drinks to celebrate our journalistic endeavors. But we found that not only were the staff unhelpful in circumnavigating the revolving door into the hotel, but they didn’t want us to enter in case the rubber of the wheelchair tires marked their marble floor. The manager was surprise later to see my miraculous recovery after we’d had our drinks, and as we walked out we threw a snide comment about how helpful and generous they were to the disabled.  I won’t mention the name of the hotel, but it’s a big chain in the US (and in fact around the world). To this day I avoid that hotel if I can.
I was quite proud of our little piece. And taking imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, I was very gratified to see a similar piece (although not as witty or sarcastic as ours was) appear in a national newspaper shortly after. I felt that we’d got the message out, even if in a small way.
Incidentally, Steven went on to become a successful journalist (he’s been published in GQ, Esquire and the Financial Times amongst others), podcast producer and author, and an expert on blog and  e-book publishing. When I first met him, he was clueless about computers and used to call me up for advice, but went on to become a technology columnist and editor. Anyway, I like to smugly think that our little proto blog/e-magazine was the first step in launching his very successful career, and that if I get to bump into him again, he’ll owe me a drink or two…