29 July 2002

If I had a witty heading, it would go here

Like everything in academic circles, even a set of talks at a meeting needs a proposal. That's why I spent a good part of today working on a proposal for a symposium that, if approved, would take place at next year's annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. The idea for the symposium is to review recent developments in the field of neurobiology that bear on what animal behaviourists think about.

Or, to put it more glibly, to line up a bunch of "neuro" types in front of the "etho" (or behavioural) types and see if I can get them to talk to each other (ha!).


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 250 -- the end of Chapter 3! (The book has 12 chapters.)

27 July 2002

Zen's Law of Time

I hate paperwork. I especially hate customs paperwork, which is what I spent a good part of the last two days dealing with. It's like this, see... I'm trying to buy scientific equipment from a U.K. company. I put in a purchase order for the equipment back in mid-May, and it's been held up over who's going to pay the customs fee. (At least, that's my understanding of what Purchasing told me.)

So they've got a customs broker involved. And now I have a set of government forms to get this stuff sent duty free. The forms ask a long series of questions like, "What is the research you plan to do? Why is this better than any domestic equivalent product? Did you contact domestic vendors? Did you ask for bids? Did you ask if they could modify their existing equipment to meet your needs?" And like that.

I thought this was a consumer society and that free trade was all the rage.

Anyhow, I'm going to keep trying to get the equipment I want, and hope I'm not committing the Concorde fallacy ("too much invested to quit;" a logical error a lot of gamblers fall prey to as well as British and French engineers).

Everything is following Zen's Law of Time: "Everything takes longer than you expect."


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 200. I expect to be finished by December. We'll see what my Law of Time does to that date...

25 July 2002

Ah, bureaucracy...

Got an e-mail today from one of the NSF directors about my recently submitted proposal. One of the things the proposal asks for is "Current and pending support." In other words, just how much cash do you have from other agencies, and how much time are you going to be spending on these other projects?

Being new to all this, I have none.

They want me to submit a page that says "None."

I guess I don't think enough like a civil servant.

In any case, I have to get some help from the NSF to figure out just how I'm going to do this. Although the director gave me permission to make this little addendum, it's not an easy thing to do. Let me rephrase that: I can't do it myself, because -- as I've mentioned previously -- the entire proposal process is electronic. After a proposal has been officially submitted, you normally can't go back and make changes, for obvious reasons.

Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 145 (1% of book).

24 July 2002


More equipment arrived (huzzah!), but still lacking bits necessary to perform an actual experiment.

Spent part of the afternoon starting to learn the many, many rules and regulations governing small purchase orders.

Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 133 (<1% of book).

23 July 2002

Common thread

Yesterday, two books arrived in my apartment that couldn't look much different physically.

The first is a magnum opus by Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It is massive. It's a book that should probably be measured by thickness or weight rather than page count. If you include the index and references and such, this sucker is well over 1,400 pages long.

I'm halfway through page 33. Wish me luck.

The other book to come in was a slim volume of poetry titled Eunoia by Christian Bök. I can't remember the exact page count, but even that's deceptive, since each page contains a single paragraph with a lot of white space. The concept of Eunoia is that each of the five chapters is written using only one vowel. You just gotta hear it read out loud; the effect is stunning.

What links these two books that look almost nothing alike? My favourite virtue: persistance. Gould mentions that he was working on his book for 20 years. (That he died so shortly after its publication makes you wonder if the desire to see the thing finally out in print was one of the things that kept him going against cancer.) Bök's task took seven years to finish. Bök probably invested more time per word than Gould!

And the moral of the story is: Do not stop and do not quit and do not give up.

22 July 2002

Still kicking

The sand crabs I collected way back at the start of the month (5 July) are still alive and well, as far as I can tell. A few have kicked the bucket (unsuccessful moults, and those that got clipped by a shovel when we were digging), but by and large, they seem to be doing all right. It's a little surprising, considering that I've pretty much just left them alone.

It bodes well for research, though: I'm not a big fan of research animals that require intensive care. I am in utter awe over the effort that some researchers have put into looking after their animals. An excellent example is Irene Pepperberg's outstanding work with her parrot Alex. Dr. Pepperberg has described the demands of her parrot as being akin to having a baby in the terrible twos for decades...

19 July 2002

Still writing

Spent an enjoyable day doing more research for the manuscript I'm working on. Actually went to the library, and took bound journals off the shelves to read the papers in them. It's a little unusual for me to do research with real paper in my hands now, because so many articles are available in PDF on the Web.

But it was quite and empty in the library's journal section, and I enjoyed getting out of my office.

And I'm finding all manner of interesting things to work into the article.

18 July 2002

Reflections and ideas

I consider myself a little lucky in that I enjoy writing, and I seem to be reasonably good at it. A lot of scientists don't like writing. And it shows.

Granted, technical writing is not easy, since reviewers tend to reject humour, colloquialisms, and pretty much every technique that writers in other fields use to engage a reader. But I still get the impression that for many researchers, the only reason they write their articles is because grant money would stop without them.

I was reminded today of one of the reasons I like writing, and consider it integral to my research. You're confronted with, "Just what the heck am I going to say?" While there have been some famous one and two page papers (the structure of DNA, by James Watson and Francis Crick, is one of biology's most famous: just over one printed page), most of us need to elaborate.

Filling blank pages gives you time to mull things over. While doing that today, I got a couple of nice ideas I hadn't thought of before. I doubt I'd've come up with them if I wasn't thinking, "This section has got to be more than two paragraphs!"


Also did some phoning around to see if anyone could convert some PAL video I brought back with me from Australia.

[Explanatory digression: there are a few TV formats in the world. PAL is used in most of Europe and Australia; it has higher resolution but lower frame rate. NTSC is used the North American standard: low resolution, higher frame rate, and colour values that are so loose that the ancient joke is that NTSC stands for "Never The Same Colour."]

This conversion may be trickier than I thought, because I not only have PAL videotape, I think I have PAL Super VHS (S-VHS) tape, which is not as popular a format as plain old VHS. I may have to bundle up the tape and send it through the post someplace far away.

On the plus side, I realized that when I converted the video, I could have it all burned onto a DVD. This would be fantastic for research. DVD images are still when you freeze-frame them, it's easier to jump from one place to another, and the images are already in digital format, so it should be easy to grab them for slides and publications.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I love living in the 21st century.

17 July 2002

Back to research, sort of

After having done a decent once over on my on-line class material, I'm now bored enough with it that I've decided to set it aside for a few days.

I'm currently revisiting a manuscript about research I did while in Australia. That's over a year ago now (shudder). The task at hand is to convert graphics into journal format, which is straight forward but tedious.

This will be at least the third time I've worked over these images. I've put them together once for a PowerPoint slide presentation, once for a poster to hang up at a conference, and now for print. The results are worth it, though. I've sat through too many talks where someone has taken a slide directly from a printed journal, and while it may look fine on the printed page, it looks like absolute rubbish on the screen.

12 July 2002

Time out from research

I've spent the last couple of days mostly working on revamping material for a course I'll be teaching this fall, which will be partially on-line. While I've used some on-line material before, this time I'll be taking it a little further. Instead of meeting with students three times a week, we'll meet twice a week, and the students will have assignments to do on-line the remaining day I'd normally lecture. This requires the on-line material to be a little more beefy than I've had before.

11 July 2002

Consumer choice

The latest drama slowing down the establishment of my lab is that I'm trying to order some equipment from a company in England, Cambridge Electronics. This is an order for many thousands of dollars (U.S. dollars, no less), and the purchasing department here and the company can't agree over who's going to pay the import duties and taxes, which amounts to a couple of hundred bucks.

I do have some options. I could look for equivalent equipment here in the U.S. Alternately, I can wait.

[Zen whistles to pass the time]

I have few virtues, but patience is one of them.

I mean, I'd already done my comparison shopping. I still think this stuff is the best suited to my needs. Considering that I'll be using this equipment for some years, a few extra weeks for what I want is not a big deal. Just an aggravating one.

If I'd known all the hurdles this process would throw up in front of me, I'd have started earlier. I bet if I were a private individual with a few thousand bucks in my pocket, I'd have my equipment by now.

10 July 2002


Good news: my colleague Hudson Deyoe informed me that the NSF will be funding a much-needed renovation of the seawater system at the Coastal Studies Lab, where I plan to do a fair amount of research. More details later.

08 July 2002

In the lab

I spent the end of last week on South Padre Island at the Coastal Studies Lab, enjoying the company of colleagues Virginia Scofield, Baruch ("Buki") Rinkevich, and new department hire Mike Persans. Lot of good conversation, and I successfully collected some sand crabs (mostly Lepidopa -- I'll explain what those are later) and brought them back to the lab. We all got to see the American Independence Day fireworks from the water, which was a definite bonus.

Today has been good too, as I've spent most of the day working in the lab. A few more equipment odds and ends arrived. I spent part of the day setting those up, checking on my sand crabs, and making a few things I'll need in the coming weeks. Also had a former student drop by with a couple more sand crabs for me, which was a nice surprise.

03 July 2002

One week early

My Office of Sponsored Research has informed me that they've now received all my paperwork. They helped me fix my last couple of mistakes and omissions, and the proposal is going to be signed off a full week before the deadline.

So let's talk money. Just how much am I asking for, and what are the biggest expenses?

The total, for a three year project, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Specifically? Let's say in the $200,000-300,000 range. Needless to say, I've never handled or been responsible for that much money in my life. Yes, it is a little intimidating. While I expected a difference in the dollar values you worry about when you're a graduate student or post-doc compared to a faculty member, the division is sharper than I expected.

The biggest expense? Each of the three years is a little different, but more than half of the budget for every year is one just one line item: salary. Equipment? Supplies? Purchasing animals? Small potatoes. You want a post-doc to help in the lab, now you're talking dollars.

Besides asking for funds for a post-doctoral research fellow, I can also ask for money for me. Because many academic institutions (like mine) do not appoint you for a full year, asking for a salary for yourself is an acceptable cost. In some cases, I believe, it is possible to "buy" your way out of teaching by having grant money salary that you'd normally earn in the academic year.

And people wonder why researchers are so gung ho to apply for grant money.

Yet more chemicals continue to arrive. Today's delivery: alcohol! Not stuff you'd want to drink, though: this is 100% ethanol.

Tomorrow, and possibly Friday, I will be on South Padre Island doing science. I'm going there to meet Doctors Virginia Scofield and Baruch Rinkevich, the latter visiting Texas from Israel (!). Both Virginia and Baruch work on small little animals known either as tunicates or ascidians. For most locals, they're probably just the bane of boat owners, because they're colonial animals that grow on exposed surfaces and will foul the bottom of boats. They're very interesting scientifically, though, and are actively being studied as a model connected with AIDS.

02 July 2002

Bits and pieces

Packages of chemicals and the like continue to arrive in dribs and drabs. My favourite this week so far has been a box that was probably 30 cm long by 10 cm high by 15 cm wide. When I opened it up and took out all the packaging, it had a single box of glass slides that fit in the palm of my hand.

And you thought the guy who packs your bags at the supermarket was bad.