27 November 2002

Role reversal!

Today's top in Edinburg, Texas: 9 degrees C. (Felt like 5 degrees C, according to the meteorologists.)

Today's top in Calgary, Alberta: About 14 degrees C.

26 November 2002

What's on the plate?

This comic pretty much says it all.

Otherwise, how are things? I'm in the last two weeks of classes. Luckily, by having my classes taught partly online, and using weekly quizzes instead of huge tests, there's no massive rush to finish things at the end of the semester.

I'm now getting more worried about next semester's classes, when I'm supposed to teach my new Neurobiology class and redo a graduate student class in Advanced Cell Biology. Two new classes in one semester. Could be... interesting... in the Chinese sense of the word.

Just sent off a revised proposal for the Animal Behavior Society symposium I've been toiling away on. It's one of a whole slew of little things I've been meaning to get to that I think I'll get done this week. This week may hold a holiday for all these Americans around me, but for me, it's just a chance to work in my office without interruptions...

22 November 2002


Walked into my second lecture this morning, and was puzzled to see men in uniform with microphones attached to their shoulders. Turns out they were police, and they had a warrant for the arrest of one of my students. Said student was not in the class, which I was rather happy about, as it avoided any potentially awkward situations.

Makes the computer in the lecture theatre not working seems kind of a small in comparison.

20 November 2002

Ad busting

A few entries back, I mentioned that I had an ad appear in the middle of one of my classes. The ad was for a university diploma, as it happened.

To see the exact irksome ad I was talking about, and -- more importantly -- how to prevent these stupid things, check this article.

16 November 2002


On Thursday and Friday, spent some time with a consultant. Some branch of the University has hired him to help people turn in more competetive grant applications. I was a little disappointed by one of his last comments, which was basically, "Change your research interests to something funding agencies are interested in, so you can get some money."

I hope it won't come to that. Ever.

I also had some very interesting words with our VP Research, Wendy Lawrence-Fowler, when I went by her office for something totally unrelated. Seems the University is investigating research partnerships with universities in Vietnam. Lot of interesting animals in Vietnam, I'll bet.

14 November 2002

Equipment arrives!

A delivery man finally rolled into my office with two packages from the U.K. Specifically, two packages from CED: my analogue/digitial board, an amplifier, and a lot of bits of cord and documentation and styrofoam. It all seems to be in good working order. Or at least, the little lights in the front went on when I plugged them in, which is a step in the right direction.

It all puts me a step closer to getting my first nerve cell recordings. I'm pretty excited about it.

It almost makes up for my voice being scratchy, my throat feeling congested, and this stupid ache in my right hip. I've felt better...

13 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002, Part 5

Tuesday, 5 November: SFN 3
We have a late afternoon flight, which means I get to spend half a day at this meeting. I bring Sarah along just to have a peek at the vast huge expanse of science. She's a good sport and pretends to be mildly interested before running off and doing other things.

While walking around with Sarah, I come across my favourite quote of the meeting:

"If the brain were (sic) so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't." - Lyell Watson.

(I saw this written under a quickly sketched human brain on a white board in the History and Teaching posters).

It's good to see that even in a room full of people with many, many advanced degrees, the fate of a stray piece of paper isn't much different than elementary school...

paper plane

But even though there are still two days left in this meeting, some people are already worn out. But if you've spent too long in front of posters talking science, it's good to know you can get someone to give you a quick rubdown.

massage stand

Though I did overhear some other members attending comment, "It'd be weird to have a stranger massage your feet..."

We get back to the hotel, spend a lot of time waiting for the shuttle to the airport. We have enough time to look through all the airport stores, then spend a fair amount of time waiting around in the airport lobby. We get back late, and the process of catching up begins...

Hm. Now that I'm all caught up with my web journal (only took me a week), I may be caught up on everything. Or at least as caught up as I ever get...

Tracking equipment

No, I'm not talking about equipment for tracking, I'm talking about tracking equipment that's coming to me. One of the last major pieces of equipment I need for my lab -- which I ordered back in June or July -- is finally on its way here. According to FedEx, my analogue/digital board and amplifier from Cambridge Electronic Devices is in Memphis.

What is this equipment for? It takes an electrical recording (from a nerve, neuron, or muscle) and converts it to a signal that my desktop computer can understand, store, and manipulate. Physiologists used to (and probably some still do!) use reel-to-reel tape recorders to store their recordings. I did much of my doctoral work that way, but I'm thoroughly pleased to be past that point.

Of course, how long it'll be before I physically touch this equipment. I had two phone calls about its entry into the country yesterday, so who knows how long U.S Customs will hang on to it.

12 November 2002

Caption contest!

"And a little of this applied once a day will remove wrinkles virtually overnight!"

Maybe that what's the goof in the center is thinking.

I was a little surprised when a student showed me the new graduate catalogue, since I wasn't expecting to be in it. I did know my picture was being taken in front of our Coastal Studies Lab. They had a professional photographer taking publicity pictures with a bunch of volunteer students. The photographer asked if I had any equipment that we could pose the students with, and I said, "I have a shovel." Not quite what he had in mind, I think.

So we went out to the beach and I dug for my sand crabs. I'm pretty sure I hadn't found any when this picture was taken. So I just had to pretend that the sand I was pulling up was mighty interesting...

I eventually did find some crabs, but they didn't use that picture.

11 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002, Part 4

Monday, 4 November: SFN 2

One of the fun things about a meeting like this is stumbling across little creative touches in posters.

poster logo

I spend the day looking at people's posters and talking to folks. Lots of interesting conversations. One is so interesting, I miss a scheduled meeting with Paul Stein, a possible speakers for "my" Animal Behavior Society symposium. Fortunately, I run into him that evening at a social and do a few mea culpas for missing him.

social sign

Socials are another fun thing about the Society for Neuroscience meeting, and is another way to make the meeting feel smaller and more intimate.

Notice the motto in the upper right corner of the sign? "It's about the science." I'm a little relieved by this. Last year's motto bugged me: it was, "Unraveling the mysteries, delivering the cures." Maybe I wasn't the only person a little put off by a slogan that seemed to ignore (or maybe even alienate) people not doing medical research.


After the social, Sarah and I went out to dinner at a place called Jungle Jim's. Good food, excellent service. Sarah tries a burger called "Peanut Butter Bet." Yes, it's a burger with peanut butter, and if you don't like it, they scratch it off the bill and don't charge you for it. Waitress Aurora says the peanut butter reminds her of a Thai peanut sauce. Aurora rocked; we have fun being her customers. She's intrigued by my job description, and practices saying "invertebrate neuroethology." When she reads my credit card ID, we get to commune about our weird names.


Spam. Every time you think it couldn't get more annoying, somebody proves you wrong.

I was in the middle of a General Biology lecture on genetics. I use PowerPoint as part of my lectures, so the computer is on and projecting on a screen.

Suddenly, a window appears spontaneously, advertising university degrees. You know the pitch. For a low price, you can get a degree from a "prestigious non-accredited institution." (Now there's a contradiction in terms!) "No one turned down!" "Degrees based on life experience..."

Yeah, like this is a message I want thrown up in the middle of a lecture to a bunch of first-year students. You might as well make up a degree in your own graphics program, print it and tape it to the wall -- it has about the same value.

I wasn't surfing the net (though the computer was connected) or using any program that is advertising supported. I reckoned some sort of adware is on the computer. These annoying little programs are often bundled and installed -- without warning -- as part of a larger program you want.

After the lecture, I downloaded Ad-Aware, software designed to get rid of ad software. Sure enough, it found an ad program installed on the computer. I took great pleasure in getting rid of it. I hope that solves the problem.


Society for Neuroscience reports coming back soon.

10 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002, Part 3

Sunday, 3 November: SFN 1

The main event gets cracking on Sunday in the Orlando Convention Center, where the privilege of having a medium bottle of pop will only set you back... $2.50?!

vending machine

The same sized bottles are 80 cents outside my office. The sad thing is, there are obviously people who pay that much, or those wouldn't still be there.

The thing that invariably impresses me about the Society for Neuroscience meeting is its sheer size. Non-biologists are always stunned when I tell them how many people come to this. They keep a running tally near one of the entranceways.

Tally board

And remember, this is only a single branch of biology... (And students still don't think you can get a job in biology besides teaching and being a physician.)

I'm always forced to compare the main poster session room to an aircraft hangar, because I don't really know of any other building that has the same sort of proportions as these massive convention centers that the SFN meetings are held in.

main room

There are scientific posters and vendors in this room all the way to the back. And the posters change twice a day. And there are presentations in tens of rooms outside of this one.

And yet, paradoxially, despite this meeting being so big (or perhaps because of it), you run into people you know very often. Because you simply can't even begin to hope to see even a fraction of the work on display, people are very focused about what papers they want to see. You begin to learn who's in your field of research because you keep seeing in front of the same posters you're interested in.

Note to new students in neuroscience: This is prime networking territory! Ask questions of the poster presenters, and strike up as many conversations around these posters as you can. These are the people who will be looking at your job applications and reviewing your grant proposals.

Society for Neuroscience 2002 Report, Part 2

Saturday, 2 November: Hookey and ISN Executive

The main item on my agenda, the ISN Executive Committee meeting, doesn't start until 2 pm, so Sarah and I go to Universal Studios for a while.

We have great fun. Sarah kicks butt in the Men in Black: Alien Attack ride. You get to shoot at rogue aliens in that ride and earn a score. Sarah was easily first in our car (160,000 points!), more than double my score (and I was in second place of four; over 60,000). If you ever take that ride, my tip is: pay attention to the dialogue!

I have to leave midway through the day, but Sarah stays and has a blast.

I make my way back to the ISN meeting, in my role as Chair of the Web Committee. This is the first time I've been in any meeting like this, so I find it all quite interesting. I get a lot of good suggestions about the Society webpage, some of which I've already started to put into motion.

Midway through the meeting, we go out to a very nice steak and seafood restaurant. It's so good and there's so much that I don't order dessert (which is pretty unusual for me!).

After that, my contribution to the meeting is done, so I go back to the social of the J.B. Johnston Club and chat to a few more researchers about things, particularly my planned ABS symposium.

While I'm at the J.B. Johnston Club social, I get to see Mary Sue Northcutt (a founding member of the club and super lady) take a jump into the pool -- completely clothed -- to raise money for student researchers.

09 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002 Report, Part 1

31 October: Travel.

Air travel is fast and efficient... once you're in the air, that is. We spent a lot of time hanging around in airports, most particularly waiting for a shuttle in Orlando to take us to our hotel. Still, Hallowe'en is always fun, and we saw a few staff in the Houston and Orlando airports in a little makeup.


1 November: Karger Workshop

The Karger Workshop is an annual symposium held by the J.B. Johnston Cub, and sponsored by the Karger publishing company. This year workshop was titled something like, "The Comparative Evolution of Cognition." I thought the title was a bit of a misnomer, because most of the meeting focused on only one topic: spatial memory. It was a much narrower symposium than the title indicated.

I have lunch with Phil Stoddard, the junior Program Committee for the Animal Behaviour Society, to discuss the symposium I'm hoping to hold next year. Phil is a thin, intense invididual, and I often think he's more gung ho to hold this symposium than I am. He talks about wanting people to leave the symposium thinking, "That's how I want to be studying behaviour!" While I think convincing behaviourists to go back to their labs and pick up microelectrodes is a tall order, I do appreciate Phil's enthusiasm and support.

Lunch with Phil is a good push to one of my major goals for this meeting: to find speakers and topics for my symposium.

To be continued...

06 November 2002

Back to the grindstone...

I’m back in Texas, and catching up on the pile of work the accumulated in my absence. It was definitely worth it, though, as I had many interesting and useful conversations. I’ll talk a bit more about some of these in days to come.

One conversation of personal interest was that I talked to someone who belonged to a department which got one of my 40-50 job applications. When I was doing a post-doc in Australia, I applied for many positions, and always worried that I would tend to be written off early because of the cost of my traveling to North America. I found out that I almost got short-listed for a job, but I didn’t make the final cut mainly because I was in Australia.

It’s unfortunate that overseas applicants are at a disadvantage, especially given how small the job market is for specialized research.

03 November 2002

Update from Florida

The J.B. Johnston Club meeting and the executive committee meeting of the International Society for Neuroethology are behind me, and today was the first day of the Society for Neuroscience proper. Attendence is down a little from last year... as of 1:00 pm today, "only" 20,000 odd people have attended.


During the J.B. Johnston Club meeting, one talk mentioned Stephen Jay Gould, whose last major work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, I just finished. When I mentioned in a question after the talk that I had just finished the 1,349 pages of the book... someone applauded.