31 December 2003

2003: So long, baby!

The major task I've spending the last few days working with people on the revisions to the new redesigned website for the International Society for Neuroethology. If you click on the link and see a page with a red band down the left, that's the old site; the new site should be up later today or tomorrow.

You can't help but to be reflective on the last day of the year. As much for my own mental health as anything, here's a recap of some of the things I did this year besides goofing off.

Teaching: I taught my new class, Neurobiology (BIOL3310) the first time in the spring, and again in fall. Also had my first independent study students and Honours students. Got one small grant for a teaching technology pilot project.

Research: Wrote three external grant applications: two were rejected and one had the program killed before I could submit the letter. Got one small grants from within UTPA. Got one of my manuscripts from my post-doc in Australia accepted and in the pipeline for publication next year.

Service: Organized a symposium for the annual Animal Behavior Society meeting. Took over as chair of the Search Committee, and managed to attract somewhat more and better applicants than we had in previous years. And, as noted above, oversaw the redesign of neuroethology.org.

And is that enough? No! In 2004, I am really going to have to pick up the pace for getting grants and getting publications if I want to keep this job. Which I do. Most of the time.

29 December 2003

Article progress

I received some paperwork from the publisher in the U.K. for my most recent article today. Of course, the term "paperwork" is almost archaic now, since it arrived as a set of PDF files. But I did still have to use paper, as they required a signature. I had to print the files, sign them, then fax them back to the publisher.

This is the first paper that I've been completely responsible for getting it through. For my previous papers, I was working with a co-author, my supervisor for the work. It'll be interesting to see the process more close at hand. It'll also be the first paper I've published in a while (ugh -- not good), and I'm curious to see how email and the web are used in the publishing process.

25 December 2003

Happy holidays

No research today or work or trips to uni today. For the first time in a long while.

Merry Christmas.

Tomorrow, I'm back to writing my next NSF grant.

23 December 2003

Shot down again

My last grant proposal from the National Science Foundation was rejected tonight. Wheeeee.

22 December 2003

Even when it's cool, it's hot...

One of the things I dislike about my job is that it is located in a place that feels hot almost all the time. And now, close to Christmas, where the temperature outside is actually rather pleasant, the building I'm working in is really unpleasantly warm. The air conditioning is off. I even wonder if the heat is actually on?

Anyway, I spent much of the day dealing with committee business. On the one Search hand, I'm gearing up to bring in eight job candidates for campus visits in February. That's two per week, every week, for a month. On the Web hand, I'm working closely with a web design firm to develop a new look for the website for the International Society for Neuroethology, which should be up in the new year.

Still have lab equipment that I need to get running. Still have manuscripts to prepare. Still have grants to write. Unfortunately, a lot of those tasks kind of rely on other people being available to do their work, and at this time of year, that seems to be a tall order.

I wonder if people who know the physical act of juggling are any better than regular folks at juggling jobs?

16 December 2003

Coming up for air

Where have I been, might you ask? Nowhere special -- just very busy. Several things have happened on the research front since we last chatted.

First, the good news. I've got another paper from my work in Australia accepted and on its way into print. This one should see the light of day in Arthropod Structure & Development next year.

Then, the bad news. My second attempt to be allowed to write a proposal for the Whitehall Foundation was rejected.

29 November 2003

Map of the cyber-world

Among subjects that challenge the imagination for how to display it graphically, the Internet would certainly be a top contender for one of the most difficult.

I was intrigued by this story in New Scientist about a project to map the Internet. You can see a recent map here (a perfectly 700 x 700 pixel graphic). A much larger (as in, don't you even think of clicking without a very fast connection) map is here (this is a 4096 x 4096 pixel image). The homepage for this project is http://www.opte.org.

I'm not sure quite yet of how this adds to my knowledge of the Internet. It does change my view of the Internet, however, by making it beautiful visually, not just conceptually.

I do look forward to the project developing the ability to pinpoint your own website, so I can say, "Hey! I can see my webpage from here!"

25 November 2003

Where’d it go?!

So here it is, a day with very little teaching, one phone interview (done), so I went into my lab and started to set up to do an experiment. I went down the hall to get some ice...

And the flipping ice machine is gone! Blast it! Apparently, it was taken away this time because it was leaking.

I am persevering and trying to continue with the experiment.

16 November 2003

Approaching 40...

Not me... Well, me too, I suppose, but this entry’s title is in reference one of my favourite shows. Doctor Who debuted 23 November 1963. Doctor Who's 40th anniversary story is, perhaps appropriately, only on the internet. It’s called “Scream of the Shalka,” and you can watch it here. They’ve done animated stories on the ‘Net before for Doctor Who, but they’ve picked up the animation quality for this one. This time, the mouths actually move! And characters blink! Definitely worth a look.


Was planning on spending today in the lab trying to get equipment running, but the number I did on my lower back means that I’m largely reduced to sitting in one place quietly. Not conducive to lab work, which requires movement.

15 November 2003

Hopping mad

Still mad. You know how when you get really angry, you get a little more energetic than you should, because you really want to punch something but can’t? Well, yesterday, I was starting a lecture, and jumped down the stairs – and landed bad. I messed up my back, which is still sore and spasming a little today.

And the moral of the story is: Don’t get mad. (Unfortunately, I can’t get even, as I'm mad about something that’s happening to colleagues, rather than me.)

Despite that, I think I gave kick-butt lectures that morning. I was pretty energetic despite the bad back. I think the bad back was about the only thing keeping me from going ballistic yesterday.

13 November 2003

Very bad day

Bad day here. Very angry about something being done to a colleague. Ready to pick up chair and fling it at university administrators. Seriously considering looking for new gig.

And had a zit on my lip.

09 November 2003

Good night, Dr. Griffin, where ever you are...

One of researcher I never had a chance to meet, but wish I had, died Friday: Don Griffin. His primary claim to fame was that he discovered how bats are able to navigate in the dark: namely, through echolocation. Prior to that, I’ve heard that people seriously suggested that bats were clairvoyant, because they couldn't figure out how they did this.

Now, let me play James Burke and show the connections between that discovery and my own career. Don Griffin, working with Robert Galambos, discovers bat echolocation. Following this discovery, Ken Roeder observed that moths behaved differently when echolocating bats were around. Later, one of his students, one Dorothy Paul, published two papers in Journal of Insect Physiology on the nervous system of noctuid moths. Dorothy Paul was my supervisor for my doctoral work.

But there's a second connection. Having found that moths were specifically listening for echolocating bats, other insects were found to be able to hear those ultrasonic cries. Crickets were one of those species, and a large part of my first post-doctoral position (with Gerald Pollack) was researching some of the auditory interneurons in crickets that respond to bat-like ultrasound.

So, the late Don Griffin is sort of an intellectual great-grandfather.

Another reason Griffin was someone I wanted to meet was that he was a thoughtful writer. In the last couple of decades, he wrote many articles and books on the prospect that we could scientifically study the minds of other species. He was one of the founders of the field now called “cognitive ethology.” And I should note that he was doing this at a time when many scientists have retired.

If an afterlife existed, I would hope that Dr. Griffin would finally have a chance to enjoy retirement.

07 November 2003

The new catalogue in the post

My parents used to make a living selling as a distributor for Eaton’s, a Canadian retailer famous for their catalogues. The Christmas catalogue was particular fun to look forward to, as a kid, because there were all the cool toys. What was a little different from how many catalogues are done now is that you took a form to a local distributor who placed the order, which was then shipped back to the distributor. Very personal sort of interaction. Eaton’s had stores in big cities, but even in the big cities, people knew about Eaton’s catalogue.

Eaton’s had been in business for decades, and it was a real shock when they closed up shop. This precipitated one of many career changes for my parents, who were pioneers in life-long learning. Let me tell you, the idea of “you’ll have several careers in your lifetime” isn’t a new idea in my household.

Now, of course, the Internet has filled the niche that catalogues used to. But in case you needed living proof of just how far removed mailouts are from human involvement, read this short article here.

02 November 2003

Work in progress

Snapped this quick picture as I was walking into work the other morning of the big, big crane being used to build together the Regional Academic Health Center.

T’will be a lovely building. The question remains, though, as to who will work in it.

30 October 2003


There's a nice article here about the process of publishing scientific articles. (Those with Real Player can listen to the original radio piece by clicking here.)

It's a topic that I've talked about from time to time in this journal. I've definitely had some of the experiences that this person is talking about. And I particularly liked the poem near the end, which made me laugh out loud.

Actually, I should be talking about it more, because I should be submitting more journal articles.

28 October 2003

Can't talk now!

Busy writing lecture that needs finishing before tomorrow's class.

Have also been having fun dealing with application for the four jobs that are open in our Department. Review begins next week, so a lot of stuff is coming in.

25 October 2003

This sucks.

My new computer, which I thought was going to solve problems, has turned into a problem creator in a very emphatic manner. Why else does one blog at 1:17 a.m. on a Friday night / Saturday morning?

First, the hard drive was completely [rude word deleted] and needed to be replaced. Tonight, something has gone wonky with the video card (I think). It's definitely not right, whatever it is. Back to tech support...

21 October 2003

Fast times at SPI

South Padre Island, that is. Spent most of the day out there collecting animals, after I failed to gather any when I was out there for the weekend enjoying Sandcastle Days.

Meanwhile, the ice machine is back! Repaired in a record 8 days! I wonder who got leaned on, and how hard, to make a repair that fast this time. Of course, there's still the niggling question of how long it'll keep ticking. It's like some weird game of nerves -- man versus ice machine.

17 October 2003

May we recommend...

Here's an article that merits a trip to the library.

The pioneering team of Gert Holstege, Janniko R. Georgiadis, Anne M. J. Paans, Linda C. Meiners, Ferdinand H. C. E. van der Graaf, and A. A. T. Simone Reinders have just published their research findings, "Brain Activation during Human Male Ejaculation" in the most recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience (Volume 23, pages 9185-9193).

Their summary reads in part, "Brain mechanisms that control human sexual behavior in general, and ejaculation in particular, are poorly understood." (Ain't that the truth.)

I see great opportunities here to do a follow-up study on females.

Finagle's Law

I am not the first to note that life is unfair.

I worked at home yesterday, because I was expecting a new computer to arrive at home. My S.O. was out that day, so she wasn't around the apartment to make sure it was delivered, so I stayed home. I waited and watched... but nothing came until 6:42 pm. So I had stayed away from work all day for nothing, really. While the day wasn't completely a waste, it wasn't the most productive day I'd ever had.

Anyway, the computer finally arrives. Boo-yah! I'm psyched. I take my 4.5 year old laptop off the desk and plug the new machine in, turn it on... and am treated with the most gawdawful sound I have ever heard a computer make. (And I've owned many computers.) Two long whines, followed by a "put your teeth on edge" screech. A message comes up saying, "Hard drive not found." Bad sign.

I phoned technical service. After several back-and-forth diagnostic tests, the fellow I'm dealing with comes to the conclusion, "I think your hard drive's broken." Not exactly surprising news there. I'm now waiting arrival of a shipment of a new hard drive from the computer company.


Five days without ice. Round 2. The ice machine has been taken away for repair again.


Oh, the meaning of this entry's title? Click here.

13 October 2003

Normalcy reasserts itself

The ice machine lasted nine days.

Maybe eight.

It was working Friday afternoon. It was busted this Monday morning.


This is HESTEC week here at UTPA. All the classes in the science building were cancelled, so I spent the morning in a symposium. The first, on mathematics, was quite good, describing a system for choosing start lanes in BMX racing. The problem was that in BMX racing, some lanes are better than others, and the old system allowed a contestant a chance of getting the worst lane repeatedly, pretty much killing your chance of winning.

Second talk was on nanotechnology and how organic chemistry might be used to make very, very small computer chips...

The third talk was the worst of the lot. It described remote sensing, primarily satellite imaging. It was a bad talk because there were no actual ideas. It was more a grocery list of satellites that provide remote data. And the slides had way, way too much text on them.

The final talk really picked up, though. This was from Jeffrey Glassberg, who is one of the creators of DNA fingerprinting and the current President (founder, too, I think) of the North American Butterfly Association. Lots of great pictures. He made the very interesting point that in places like the lower Rio Grande Valley, which is something like 90% Hispanic, the local membership in wildlife organizations, like the butterfly organization, or birding organizations, is almost the opposite of the local demographics! About 90% of local members are not Hispanic. Why that should be so is an interesting and difficult question. Is it just that the tradition of natural history is really one that was strong in England, but less so in Spain, and has really carried through Anglo-Saxon culture?

08 October 2003

Life in the graveyard

Maybe I'm just a zombie.

Had my attention drawn to a couple of interesting articles (here and here) on the (short) life of "blogs" like this one. Interestingly, most are not like this one, because the majority never get a second entry! I feel somewhat proud in having kept this journal more or less up to date for almost a year and a half now. I've probably hit the survey's criteria for "abandonment" once or twice, though.

Otherwise how are things? I'm spending a lot of time trying to order stuff for my Honours students.

Got a letter of intent in to the Whitehall Foundation in on time, and received a confirmation from them.

The applications for the many jobs our department is hiring for are starting to trickle in. Hopefully, the trickle will turn to a river after our ad comes out in Science magazine this Friday (fingers crossed).

Also spent part of the morning trying to set up what classes I would teach next semester, finally confirming that I would be able to "reactivate" an old graduate class that hasn't been taught in some time.

It's five ice machine breakdown-free days so far, and counting. When we hit a month of continuous service, I'll be very happy.

04 October 2003

South Texas freezes over!

Incredibly, our ice machine is back and working!

It took 40 days to get it repaired, which is probably a record for repair in the last year. Of course, it's still about four times longer than it ought to be.

I will be taking down my "When will the ice machine be fixed?" count-up calendars, and replacing them with something more akin to the calendars they have in factories. You know, that say "23 accident free days." This one will say something like, "23 breakdown free days."

03 October 2003

How bad can it get?

Bad. Warning: this article on the worst jobs in science is not for those who has, as they might have said in Victorian England, "delicate sensibilities."

02 October 2003

Tomorrow's Friday! Already?!?

Where has this week gone?

I swear I'm not a stress junkie, but I always have problems reorienting myself when big projects come to a close, and I have to start new projects. Work sort of eased up on me like that last weekend; I was even able to clean out a lot of stuff in my office for the first time... well, since I got there two years ago. Literally! I threw out stuff that had been sitting in a pile for two years.

But it's been a weird week; I just haven't managed to make headway on anything for me. Today, for instance, I spent almost the entire day in meeting, after meeting, after meeting. The first meeting was the most fun, in a way. The University of Texas system has a consulting group (the "WAG" -- the "Washington Advisory Group") going around to 8 of the universities getting input on how to strengthen research.

Yes, I ranted about how we can't get an ice machine fixed. Oh, I think we're up to day 39 with no ice!

After that came a curriculum committee meeting, where I tried to pitch a new lab-based neurobiology class.

Finally, a meeting with several people in computer science who are looking for computational problems to apply their expertise to. Not sure I was able to give them anything they can sink their teeth into yet.

Hope to get refocused on my research projects over the weekend so I can crack in on them Monday.

26 September 2003

A role model returns

One of the reasons I wanted to be a scientist was because of fictional characters rather than real people. Mr. Spock, science officer? Cool. Buckaroo Banzai? I decided that I wanted to be him. Renaissance man, who was both brain surgeon and lead singer of a rock and roll band. Living life to the max, going in 20 directions and once, doing many things and excelling at all. That was my goal. To some degree, I’d like to think I succeeded. My career in science has taken me around the world, and I've got a chance to use lots of different skills. Still working on the rock and roll band, though.

One of my favourite science role models is making a return. Finally. Doctor Who is coming back to telly! (Okay, I never really say “telly,” but I'm going for that British feel, since Doctor Who is a British show.)

Dr. Who, for those who don't know, is the world's longest running science fiction show. This year is the 40th anniversary. I was introduced to the character in Starlog magazine around 1978. I saw my first episodes – The Seeds of Doom, parts 3 and 4 (yes, I am a such a geek) – on a family vacation in Texas (of all places) after a long night in... Houston? – where we'd spent rather more time than we expected trying to find a hotel. And I was lucky enough that one of the local PBS stations that broadcast into southern Alberta took up the cause to show the series routinely. I made lots of friends though watching Dr. Who, and wrote a feature article for The Meliorist when the show hit its silver 25th anniversary.

The Doctor represented so much of what I thought a scientist should be. Adept in solving problems of all sorts, whether it be preventing a Dalek invasion or a patching a piece of broken equipment. That “Renaissance man” aspect in particular is one I love (see comments about Buckaroo Banzai, above). Not taking the word of authority (scene from The Five Doctors: Soldier: “Sir, you’re not allowed in there.” Doctor: “Me? Not allowed? I'm allowed everywhere!”). Travelling the universe. Good companions. (And, incidentally, it is total coincidence that one of the longest running Dr. Who companions and my SO are both named Sarah. Though I do have a lot of fun when I get to say, “I'm the doctor, and this is my companion Sarah.”) And it's one reason why I sometimes suggest people call me “Doctor Zen” – it has the sort of same slightly cool ring as “Doctor Who.” At least it does to my vain ears.

I’m happy.

Oh yeah, I also got the revised version of a manuscript off in the post today. That also makes me happy (I’ve been working on getting this thing in print for two years and counting), but I’m holding off on any major celebrations until I get the thing accepted.

Big crusty

This news makes my crustacean-loving flesh tingle. Note, though, that what are typically called "crayfish" in Australia and New Zealand are known as "spiny lobsters" here. Although there are some Murray River freshwater crayfish that get pretty big, this beast would be a saltwater animal.

25 September 2003

Why was I...?

...standing in Staples, spending money out of my own pocket to photocopy the latest version of a manuscript I've been trying to get published for, oh, two years now?

Our department decided to get a new photocopier. The old one had served well, but apparently had reached the end of its usefulness. The photcopier came, and worked well... until the ink ran out.

The shelves next to the photcopier are filled to the proverbial brim with toner cartridges -- for the old machine. Apparently, nobody thought to order new toner cartridges at the same time they ordered the new photocopier.

Yet another case of a piece of equipment that we kind of need to do research -- but it's not working. Between this, the ice machine, trying to order anything in a timely fashion, I'm reminded of the old observation that even a lion can be eaten by ants.

Take this job...

One of my current tasks is running this year’s Search Committee. We have four shiny new positions here in UTPA Biology (see here for more details). It’s a challenge, but so far, I’d have to give ourselves a pat on the back, because I think we came up with a better job ad than this one.


Hey, I'm on the "Professors who blog" list! Actually, I think I asked to be put on that list back when the Chronicle of Higher Education article ran. Shameless self-promotion. It's the only way to go.

24 September 2003

Back from the brink

The topic of endangered animals is important and interesting to me, so I was heartened to read this article about a small mammal that's been rediscovered.


One month ice free! Whoo-hoo! What a milestone! Or it would be if we hadn't gone through this several times before...


Spent yesterday working mostly on search committee and other committee things. Have to get back to writing my own science. Off to do that now, with a letter of intent for the Whitehall Foundation.

20 September 2003

Movement on the ice front!

Hey, they've actually done something about the ice machine...

At this point, a copper pipe sticking out of the wall is a sign of progress. It only took us twenty-six days to get this far...

I freely admit this my obsession with this piece of equipment is a sad, sad commentary on me. But everyone needs a hobby.

19 September 2003

What would they do if it snowed?

They're closing the university today due to weather. Hurricane? No. Tornado? No. Tropical storm? No. Thunder and lightning? No.

It, uh, rained.

It's not even raining right now.

I did my first two classes, and they announced just as I was finishing my second class, that the university was cancelling classes for the rest of the day. Yeah, it is a little soggy outside, but there's no wind to speak of, and I found the outside air temperature to be quite pleasant. It's so nice not to have sweat forming when you walk outside! My students were still giving me a hard time for wearing shorts, though.

Sheesh. I though this was science, not a baseball game.

16 September 2003

The other side

Hey, my new computer wasn't stolen last night! Hoody hoo!

I was paranoid enough, though, that I took several steps to avoid getting it stolen. I didn’t just leave the boxes in the hall. I personally carried the boxes out away to the dumpster, so that there wouldn't be any hint that a new computer was in this office. Another advantage of this new computer is that it looks like just a flat screen monitor. All the computer “stuff” are located behind the screen. They’ve basically taken a laptop design, and stood it on end. I’m hoping that by leaving the old computer “box” and keyboard where it is for a while, a thief might just think, “Oh, he’s just got a new monitor.”


Day 22 with no ice. So, so hot...

The other side

Hey, my computer wasn't stolen last night! Hoody hoo!


Over 3 weeks with no ice.

15 September 2003

See you on the other side

This will be the last post journal entry made on my hand-me-down Pentium 2, 4 gig hard drive computer that I inherited from Dr. Ortega (who'd been the last to retire before I joined here). My new computer has finally arrived. And that's definitely been the best thing to happen in a day that has otherwise been riding on the edge of crisis from the word "go."

After I got out of my two early morning classes, I got back paperwork concerning the searches for new faculty positions. We were approved to search for four new faculty; paperwork came back listing only three. Bad. Apparently, some of the paperwork got "lost" between the Dean's office and the Provost's office.

Then, the editor for one of my manuscripts emailed me asking when I would have the revisions done. Ugh. I've got to do that pronto, or the whole process starts from scratch.

On the plus side, that revision will be much faster once I set up my shiny new computer.

Hm. On second thought, I should add one qualifier to my first paragraph. This will be the last journal entry on my old computer. I hope.

14 September 2003

Another working weekend

Spent both yesterday and today in my office. Of course, I wasn't the only one. Plenty of other tenure-track professors (and even a couple of tenured ones!) were in at various times, too (though I think I was there longest of anyone on the second floor).

Fred Zaidan was there. I was chatting to him about what he was doing (because he's not single like some of the other new guys. it's less typical for him to be in on weekends). He mentioned he'd spent the day working on his Faculty Research Council grant -- a small grant that's internal to UTPA. I'd planned to submit one, too. He commented, "I really hate the six page limit."

I look blankly and ask, "Six page limit?"

"Yeah, for the project description."

I rushed back to my computer and discovered that I'd filled in all the forms, but there wasn't any form for the project description -- you had to write it yourself on good ol' plain white paper. I'd completely and utterly missed it. I hastily retrieved my proposal from the department chair's mailbox and started writing. This proposal was due tomorrow, and I had to teach, so I had to finish it toute suite.

It was about 4 pm, and I had five pages done just before 7 pm. Whew! Luckily, a few things were in my favour. Those 6 pages had to be double spaced, and I needed to have references. I must remember to thank Fred for unwittingly pulling my fat out of the fire.

One of the interesting things about doing this proposal so quickly was that I finally got to use a software program I'd bought a few months back, EndNote.

Oh. My. God.

End Note is a bibliographic program. In order to really use it effectively, you have to enter all your references into the database, which I've been doing very slowly. The beauty of this thing -- which I'd known intellectually but hadn't really grasped in that "in your bones" kind of way -- is that all you have to do is select a database entry, and it creates your reference list automatically. In the format of your choice. This is fantastic, because every journal in the world wants references a different way. Some want a numbered list (so if you move one reference, you have to renumber everything), some want them alphabetical, some want the year behind the author's name, some want the year closer to the end... and so on. The reference list is an absolute time-killer, because it is so fiddly that it almost invariably generates a mistake somewhere.

Once I start to get more entries into the database, this software is going to save me so much time...
Rephrase: Once I start to get more entries into the database, and get my new office computer... My current computer is just about ready to enter a new and rewarding career as a doorstop, so I've been busily awaiting arrival of a replacement. Given the recent theft of Chris's computer, though, I'm really nervous that it'll be stolen before I have a chance to do anything with it. Hope I'm wrong.


OoooOOOOOoooh! Soon -- not yet, but soon -- it'll be three weeks with a busted ice machine!

12 September 2003

The Coolest Thing in the Universe

No, it's not an MP3 player. (Though those gizmos are pretty darn cool.)

No, it's not Chow Yun-Fat. (Though he is arguably the coolest man in the universe right now.)

No, it's not even a working ice machine. (Though it would be extremely cool if day 18 was the last ice free day on this floor.)

Nope, as of today, the coolest thing in the universe -- officially -- is a cloud of ultracold sodium atoms at MIT. They were cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. You can read about it here.

11 September 2003


My colleague Chris Little just had his "sweet" new iMac computer stolen from his lab this afternoon. Bugger. I gave him a hug, but was annoyed that there wasn't more that I could do except express sympathy. Was also worried. I heard about this as I was walking to my lab to check on some data for Anna S., and panicked for a moment. His lab is only four doors down from mine.

And what's worse is that he already had scientific data on that machine. Computers can be replaced. So can data, I suppose, but having to redo experiments is not something a tenure-track person wants to be wasting time on.

Unfortunately, his computer is the latest in a string of computers that have been stolen from this building. Several were taken from the Chemistry Department upstairs -- I think this is the first from Biology recently.

Keeping up with the ladies

I try to make it a policy not to ask others to do things that I wouldn't do myself. This is particularly true of my students. The downside is that when you have a really motivated student -- or colleague-- you have to keep up with them or risk looking bad.

Virginia (L) and Anna (R, who realized I was taking a picture)

My student Anna S. (blonde Anna) is pretty motivated. And so is my colleague Virginia Scofield. To finish up some tunicate development experiments they started yesterday in time for Anna to get to her classes, they decided that they should meet in my lab at 7:00 a.m. And considering that Anna was willing to drive to Edinburg from Harlingen, which is about 45 minutes away, I wasn't about to back out and not show up. And even with my short walk in, Anna was still in the lab before me!

In other good news, a set-up for a study Anna A. (brunette Anna) did yesterday with sand crabs also looks like it will work. We still need some fine tuning, but we're convinced it will work.

Meanwhile, my poor colleague Fred Zaidan borrowed an old Wal-Mart styrofoam cooler from my lab to take some things home last night. While he was walking in to return the eskie, someone stopped him and asked, "Are you selling tacos?" This rather took him aback. I think he had some problems grasping the idea that someone would be looking for a wandering taco salesman...

10 September 2003

Sometimes, it's a breeze

Today has been a good, but busy, day.

My colleague Virginia Scofield has been in working with my student Anna (blonde version) and myself running experiments, and we've getting very nice and clear results. I was joking with them, "So, you reckon we can have a letter to Nature out by, what, end of October?"

And I had my student Anna (brunette version) in setting up an experiment. And Gloria and Nisha in the lab were in doing things. too.

I had a bit of a concern this morning when my students started to tell me that there was a problem with one of the questions in their online quiz, but it turned out to be a relatively trivial issue.

Today definitely beats yesterday, when I got sidetracked several times before I got to do anything. First, I tried to put in my new contacts, and could barely see out of one eye. I wear monthly disposible contacts, and this was a new batch, so I was convinced they'd just given me the wrong prescription. Turned out not to be the case, but that took two hours to fix in the morning before I even stepped into my office. Then, I got email from the Dean concerning the job advertisement for the faculty positions we're hiring -- that took another hour. Then I had a meeting at lunch. That meant I really didn't get anything started until 1:00 pm, and I was expecting Virginia to arrive around 3:00 pm to start some experiments! Fortunately, I somehow managed to finish the major tasks (writing a quiz) I had to do by the time Virginia arrived.

So, as Stevie Nicks once sang, "Sometimes it's a bitch, sometimes it's a breeze."

Unless it's the ice machine. That's never a breeze. I saw service people looking at it today, but I'm quite sure that today is day 16 with no ice.

09 September 2003

A quick entry before bed

I'm up a little late tonight, working at home, getting a quiz ready for two of my General Biology classes to take Wednesday. My third class, Neurobiology, also has a quiz Wednesday, which I'll have to finish tomorrow -- in and around hosting a visit by my colleague Virginia Scofield, a graduate studies committee meeting at lunch (blast no, no noon workout again), meeting with students, writing budgets for students, writing an internal grant proposal, answering emails, marking off the calendar that will show we've been over a fortnight without a working ice machine, and I'm sure one or two other little tasks...

But now? Off to bed.

07 September 2003

Annual purgatory

I like my job, but I hate documenting it.

It's the time of year when I have to submit a big binder for my annual tenure-track review. While I appreciate that there needs to be mechanism to establish that someone is doing his or her job, the amount of documentation makes performing this task an absurd extravagance of time. And they couldn't find a better time to ask us to submit them than the start of the fall semester?

On the plus side, while I was in the office printing emails (more documentation), I was also running back and forth to my lab to work with blonde Anna on some simple little experiments we were doing. And whaddya know -- they worked! Still very preliminary, but it was a good sign nonetheless. Particularly since my colleague Virginia Scofield will be visiting Edinburg next week; Anna and I wanted to make sure we could get this experimental set-up working so we could take full advantage of Virginia's trip next week.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: we're up to day 13 with no ice. The ice machine is still sitting in its spot in the equipment corridor, immobile, empty, and, I'm sure, sad.

04 September 2003

My name on a T-shirt. Was bound to happen, really...

Yesterday I was talking to one of the seven (!) students I'm supervising this semester, one of my Annas. (I'm working with Anna A., who’s from here, I think, and Anna S., who’s from Germany). So we were happily discussing research plans, had been for several minutes, when I suddenly stopped, and said, “Does that shirt say, ‘Zen’?”

It was one of those bizarre, “A-ha!” moments. It was like how you sometimes you look at an optical illusion, and you suddenly see something that you didn’t see a second ago.

Her shirt was pink, with stylized clouds outline (at least, they looked liked cloud outlines to me) in slightly darker pink. Also in slightly darker pink was a sort of scaly ribbon, running and twisting around through the middle. At first, I first thought was a pink Chinese dragon. The shirt a slightly Asian feel – although the very definite pinkness of the shirt made it perhaps feel slightly less Asian than it would otherwise.

Anna hadn’t realized at all that her shirt said anything (“Doesn’t it say, ‘ZEM’?”), much less spelled out her supervisor’s name.


Today? I tracked down information I needed for my tenure folder, did some emailing regarding the International Society for Neuroethology website, made a trip out to the Coastal Studies lab to gather some tunicates, took care of the crayfish, introduced my student Anna S. to tunicates, and introduced my student Gloria to crayfish.
Oh yes, and wrote a blog entry. ;)

02 September 2003

Sympathy for the chemists

We in the Biology Department share our building with the Chemistry department. We take up the first two floors, they take up the third floor. We have a lot of shared interests, shared facilities... and shared problems.

Their ice machine's busted too.

Which sucks for us, because sometimes we in Biology have been known to nick a bit of the chilly stuff from the chemists.

In other news, I have several things vying for my attention besides getting things together for my students. I have tenure-track review and merit folders to put together. The annoying thing about the merit folder is that they're normally used to determine a merit-based raise -- but there is no such raise this year due to state budget cutbacks. Yet we go through this compilation of data anyway...

And there's also an internal faculty grant proposal that is going to be due in a couple of weeks. I'm going to try to pull something together for that, but it won't be easy. But at least it'll be easier than getting our ice machine fixed.

That's eight ice-free days in biology and counting.

29 August 2003

A distinct lack of chilliness

Today, we celebrate four glorious ice free days. And here's the photographic proof...

Busted ice machine

The light is low, so my little digital camera gives a fairly scratchy picture. But the cord dangling over the front, instead of being plugged into the socket, and the absence of anything white and frosty inside the bin is pretty much a dead giveaway.

28 August 2003

The lab grows...

How did I end up trying to supervise seven people? Four Honor's students, two students supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program at Louisina State University, and one entering first year student. It's all because I'm a big pushover who can't say no, that's why.

I met with all of them, except one of my Anna's, who I don't think is back from visiting her home in Germany. It was good to talk to all of them, although things are going to get really ratty really fast when I try to get their projects going.


The Ice Diaries, day 3: Ice machine still broken.

27 August 2003

Ice machine 2, biologists 0

If we have a symbol of the problems that new tenure track faculty at this university face when they try to get research done... it is our ice machine.

An ice machine is not exactly a high tech piece of kit. Freeze water. Break up frozen water into little pieces. That's about it. Not so very complicated. But various people in our department -- including me -- need that shaved ice to do research. I need it to quickly and properly anaesthetize various critters that I work on (cold knocks out crustaceans, you see). In short, the ice machine is a mundane but necessary piece of scientific equipment in our department.

Our ice machine is broken. It broke yesterday.

Now, here's the thing. It's been broken a hell of a lot more than it's been working for the last year. We shall soon have enough data to publish a bloody monograph on the subject of ice machine breakdown.

Over the last year, a distinct pattern has emerged. Ice machine breaks. Ice machine is taken away, leaving bare pipe sticking out of the wall where it should be sitting. My colleague Mike Persans (who is a self-admitted pushy New Yorker) keeps after the maintainence people, asking when it's going to be fixed.

Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months.

The ice machine finally returns. It works for about a week, and breaks again. Back to square one.

It's like some weird battle of nerves between the machine and maintenance versus the biologists. I think we biologists are going to be the first to break. Because as far as we've been able to determine, there seems to be absolutely no sense of urgency or comprehension on the part of almost anyone else that we scientists need this thing.

It's gotten to the point that when I go to scientific meetings, or talk to friends, or whatever, about how my job is, I almost inevitably tell them about the ice machine. I asked one of my colleagues, "How long does it take to get an ice machine fixed at Harvard?" He answered, "They never break."

Since I've already been telling my colleagues about these ice machine woes, I have now decided that I will turn to one of my few remaining weapons in this battle: satire. After all, when polite requests, earnest pleas, outright begging on bended knees, patience, threats, and bribes don't solve a problem, maybe it's time to turn to public ridicule.

Maybe I can turn a profit on this. I can start a betting pool. "I'm tipping four months, one week for the next repair. Who wants some of this action?"

The university I work for, UTPA, has the goal of becoming a bona fide research institution. Great goal. Would help my career a lot. But this whole bloody situation with the ice machine just goes to show that a lot of people here do not have a clue what it takes to do research. How are we supposed to conduct experiments when things don't get fixed? In the competitive field of research, comparing a department where equipment doesn't break versus where a campus where the equipment doesn't work isn't a competition, it's absolute black comedy. Or perhaps grim parody.

25 August 2003

Back to class

Not a bad first day. Only bad moment was in my neurobiology class, when someone pointed out that I had dates for last semester up instead of this semester. Whoops. Then, I discovered that some of the updates I had made to the class website were done too late before the class changed servers, so I had to redo some work.

22 August 2003

End of an era

The University of Texas - Pan American can no longer boast of having the longest serving university president in the U.S.A. Our current president, Miguel (Mike) Nevarez, announced that he was going to retire in a year. He's been president 22 years. Made me think, "Do they even remember how to select a new president?"

The question over cake today, of course, was, "Who's going to replace him?" Hopefully there will be a good slate of candidates. Because I can think of at least one person who, if elected president, would seriously make me think of looking for a new gig. I'm sure any of my colleagues in the University reading this will snicker in recognition when they read that last sentence.

21 August 2003

Class creep

...And by "creep," I mean "sneak up stealthily," not "reprehnsible individual."

The first day of the fall semester is this Monday. This means I'm spending the second half of this week preparing for classes. The tasks are routine and time consuming. Fortunately, they are not terribly mentally stressful, now that I'm teaching classes that I've done at least once before. It also means that with increased traffic around the university, I won't be able to skateboard into work any more.

I have discovered one thing this week that I'm pretty excited about, though. I'm a long time computer geek. To give you an idea of how long I've had a home computer, the first one I owned used cassette tapes for data storage. Awful. Slow and nothing remotely resembling reliable. The first 5.25" floppy drive I got was a revalation. Then came the 3.5" floppy diskette, which has had a surprisingly long lifespan in the computer age. Still pretty good for most thing, but they're definitely reaching the limits of their usefulness as filesizes invariably get bigger.

I'd had nothing but bad experiences with zip drives (every single one succumbed to "the click of death"). CDs had many great great, but were limited for a while because they were "read only," and still somewhat clunky. And while rewritable CD burners are common, they're still not everywhere. I need only look in front of me.

I think I've finally found the replacement for floppies, though. USB drives, a.k.a. flash drives or thumb drives. I got a small, cheap one this week to try it out. It's fantastic. You plug it into a USB port, and the computer automatically recognizes it and you can use it just like a floppy drive. They're solid state so don't seem to be susceptible to magnets, they're very small, and have good capacity. I got a 16 MB one for $10, but that's the real low end; 124 or 256 MB drives are available for more. Definitely my favourite new toy of the week.

16 August 2003


It's hard not to be a little disappointed. All the build-up, the warnings, the University shutting down, the forecast of 15 cm of rain...
And it's just a cloudy day out.

Not particularly windy. Not particularly wet. Nothing really out of the ordinary. I thought I vaguely heard some rain and thunder early in the morning, but that's about it. I guess the storm went a little further south; it seems Mexico is getting the bulk of the rain. Now, I do admit that some of the news footage taken overnight from nearby South Padre Island looked a little more like what you'd expect a storm to look like. And I certainly don't mean to trivialize the seriousness of a storm.

First, Claudette veers north and comes nowhere near this place. Then, Erika seems to dissipate into not very much. I can only hope all my hurricane experiences are like these...


Some pictures taken from my apartment balcony around lunchtime.

I think I'll be taking the opportunity to stay in today, maybe clean up a little. Give myself a mental health day after two rather frantic days in the lab. Speaking of which, the gods of science were rather stingy with me. It appears that not many of the stains I tried actually worked. Which isn't surprising, given that the tissue was decomposing as I was working on it. The last dead lobster of the day I dissected was so bad, I just gave up on it.

15 August 2003

Whoops, not yet

Ah, the rain stopped, so I guess the onset of Erika is not quite as near as I'd feared.

5:20 pm and Annette hasn't shown up.

The nick of time

I'm just about done processing my lobster samples. And it started raining about 5 minutes ago.

Place your bets

I'm betting my student Annette won't come in this afternoon to check on the ascidian experiment she started yesterday. Which would mean I'd have to check on it.

Bar the gates

Tropical storm Erika is threatening us to the point where they are closing the university tomorrow, and nobody is supposed to be allowed in. Not even us researchers. This puts the bash in my plans for doing half the of my experiment processing today and half tomorrow. I have to finish it all today.

Luckily, the techniques I'm using are pretty robust. "Robust" is code for, "You can take shortcuts and probably get away with it." Still, I've been having to "triage" the material I'm working with. Quick look to see how promising it looks; it gets the full treatment if it looks good, otherwise, it gets a shortcut.

Another irritation was that all this morning, they've been testing the alarms, so every little while, the siren would sound and lights would flash. This I could handle, except the fume hoods kept shutting off. I'm using some fairly nasty chemicals in processing the tissue I'm working with, so when the fume hood shuts off, it's noticeable. I made a comment to Nisha this morning that between the dead lobster smell first thing in the morning (which seems to be under control now that I've retightened the lid to the body bucket) and the chemical smell when the fume hood was off, the lab probably smelled like the Bog of Eternal Stench in the movie Labyrinth.

And if that weren't enough...

Tropical Storm Erika is supposed to hit tomorrow.

And I dropped my very fine, delicate dissecting scissors on the floor last night. Dang it. Those things are expensive.


Just walked into my lab, and it smells like a fishmarket. Another drawback of having almost a dozen lobsters die at once. I really wish there was a window I could open!


I finished the experiments a few minutes after midnight. I hope nothing was stolen last night, because I'd probably be the prime suspect! I can just hear it now: "There was a suspicious looking character leaving the building with a big backpack after midnight last night."

One of the advantages of leaving late, though, is you get new experiences. I left the building and saw three people rollerblading their dogs, which tickled me. (Incidentally, the people were on the rollerblades, not the dogs.)

But then, just to round off a dreary day, just as I was about to go to bed... I get hiccups. I'm tired but don't want to disturb Sarah's sleep, I stay up, waiting for them to go away. I think I finally crawled into bed about quarter to 2. Needless to say, I didn't have one of my earliest starts this morning.

14 August 2003


August hates me.

For some reason, for several years, it always seems something stressful happens to me in August. The end of July fills me with a slight sense of dread. “What’s it going to be this year?”

Tuesday and Wednesday were marked by a massive virus attack on the University, which resulted in us having no email or web in the Science building for large chunks of the last couple of days.

But that didn’t bother me, because I'd had lots of student in the lab working, and I’d just got in a shipment of spiny lobsters for the project of one of my students, Nisha. They all arrived well, so I did one experiment with one and left the rest.

I came in this morning and every single lobster had carked it.


I’ve spent the day dissecting the “recently deceased” remains of the lobsters, trying to get some basic anatomical information from them. Fortunately, some of the techniques I use are pretty robust and can be used if the tissue is in reasonably good shape, even some time after the animal dies. It's about 20 to 10 at night, and I'm not near done yet. I can only hope the gods of science see my small sacrifice of midnight oil and see fit to reward me with some useful information.

Still, it could be worse. My disaster only affects me and one student, and not really very much.

I could be living in Toronto, Ottawa, or much of eastern North America, who are suffering the world's biggest power outage... Hang tough, guys.

10 August 2003

The world is secretly run by turkeys

(A friend of mine sent me this, and I couldn't resist running it. It’s downright surigical in how precisely it exposes the loopy logic and argumentative style of conspiracy theorists. -ZF)

I realized this yesterday while looking at a turkey motif carved into the outer stone walls of the Hotel Vancouver. The motif serves a similar decorative function as the gryphon motif noted by Icke on his website, so it got me thinking about the possibility of a grand turkey conspiracy going back to ancient times. Let's consider the “facts”, shall we?

- Why is it that businessmen and other people in positions of POWER! call getting down to serious business “Talking Turkey”? Is this a reference to a SECRET! language known only by the INITIATED!?

- Benjamin Franklin, a MASON!, wanted the turkey to be the national bird of America. He wanted to put a turkey image on all American bills, his TEMPLE BROTHERS! decided to go with the eye-of-god/pyramid symbols instead. Was this because those symbols had already been “LEAKED!”, but as yet, the secret of the turkey was still SAFE!?

- Traces of cocaine have been found in a number of Egyptian mummies. Cocaine is native to the Americas, not Africa, as are... ; TURKEYS! This is PROOF! that ANCIENT! Egyptians were AWARE! of the turkey!

- How is it that there is a country called TURKEY! in a land where there are no turkeys? Because it was TURKISH! traders that introduced New World turkeys and guinea fowl to THE ENTIRE EUROPEAN CONTINENT and the MIDDLE EAST! Rather than try and pronounce the Amerindian and African names for the TURKEY!, the English took to calling them “turkeys” after the traders selling them - further PROOF! of the TURKEY CONSPIRACY!

- Turkish traders used the turkey as an INROAD! to the European CONSCIOUSNESS!, but the REAL MOTIVATION! behind the introduction of the fowl was to introduce Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and all sorts of other MYSTERY! CULTS! to the continent.

- Let’s not overlook the OBVIOUS! Turkish coffee connection. The Turks also introduced the DRUG! COFFEE! to the European continent at the SAME TIME! that they introduced TURKEYS! The connection between the oppressed masses and forced wakefulness through the POWER OF CAFFEINE!, which only the RICH AND POWERFUL! could afford, is clear evidence of the TURKEY CONSPIRACY! and the POWER OF THE BLOODLINES!

- And is it just a COINCIDENCE! that the country of Turkey contains the ancient city of CONSTANTINOPLE!, the portion of the ANCIENT! ROMAN EMPIRE! that PERSISTED! for a THOUSAND YEARS! after the fall of the western empire and was the REPOSITORY OF ANCIENT KNOWLEDGE! that was instrumental in sparking the RENAISSANCE!?

- Angel wings: ancient TURKEY SYMBOLISM!? In art throughout the ages, people in POSITIONS OF POWER! have been shown SURROUNDED! by these winged creatures. This is an *OBVIOUS!* reference to the TURKEY BLOODLINE! that runs through ALL! the prominent rich and powerful families.

- As if further evidence is required, why is it that people routinely refer to the rich and powerful as “A BUNCH OF TURKEYS!”?

- How come on the most HOLY! holidays we ritually SLAUGHTER! and CONSUME! this ONE BIRD!? In cannibal cultures, enemies are eaten in order to GAIN! their powers. Is our RITUAL CONSUMPTION! of TURKEY! a means of symbolically procuring the POWER OF THE TURKEY!?

- Is it mere coincidence that people GORGE! themselves on turkey leftovers, which then make them SLEEPY! and DOCILE!? Someone has to stop these turkeys from trying to TRICK! and CONTROL! us!

- The secrets of masonry are often referred to by ACTUAL MASONS! by the saying “thou hast kept well the BIRD! in thy BOSOM!.” This is very significant corroborating EVIDENCE!.

- That “G” in the Masonic logo... could it be that it stands for......... “GOBBLE!”? You be the judge!

These are my initial thoughts on the subject. I shall endeavour to report more “facts” about this ANCIENT CONSPIRACY! as I discover them. Unless, of course, some turkey gets on my case about it.

Remember folks, don’t let the turkeys GET INSIDE! of your genes! That is why I wear this SPECIAL HELMET! It deflects the MIND CONTROL RAYS! that these FOUL FOWL! transmit into our heads, which in turn mutate into powerful DNA from a FOREIGN! species that only wants to use the human race as a HOST! to carry out their EVIL DEEDS!

Geez, ;I left the tinfoil hat off for only an hour and look what happened.

The truth is out there.

I have to go baste myself now.

07 August 2003


When I got this job, I got hand-me down. The computer that I have in my office (and from which I post most of these journal entries) was recycled from the last faculty member who retired before I got here. As such, it's rather old, and has been showing signs of "computer Alzheimer's disease" for some time. Even as I type this, I get a little twitchy about opening up any other programs for fear of causing some odd little glithc. Like that one! (Okay, that was really my fault, not the computer's.) I finally got so annoyed that I asked the chair if I might be able to get a new computer... and it looks like it'll happen! Huzzah!

Meanwhile, after two years of having no students, I am veritably awash in inquiries from Honors students looking for research projects for their thesis. I think my current total is five students who have expressed interest in working with me in the fall. Nisha (continuing from an independent studies), Gloria, Maria, Anna, and Anna. I can just hear it now: "This is my student Anna, and this is my other student Anna."

The good news is that six people can do a lot more than one person can. The bad news is that it means I actually have to do things now so that my students can work, rather than getting to them "eventually."

Which is a very good thing, given my habit of tackling small, easily achievable tasks (lik ethis journal!) before the large, somewhat vague and nebulous ones.

06 August 2003

New colleague

Our latest new Biology faculty, Fred Zaidan, showed up in the department today. I wonder how many people are going to get him and me mixed up because of the presence of a "Z" in our names?

We also got a message about our first faculty meeting of the fall semester today. The start of classes is rolling up far too quickly.

Since getting back from Chicago, I seem to have been consumed by a whole mess of little tasks, mostly writing. Reports, forms, and the like have been chipping away at me. Unfortunately, while these things have to be done, they such niggling things that you don't feel like you've really accomplished anything.

Our webmaster, Luis Materon, dropped by this morning. He's done a spendid, major revision of our department website. So Luis stopped by my office to take my picture. Dang it. I asked him to use the third one.

04 August 2003

ISN EC and other letters

Wow. Almost a week since I posted last? Let's see what's happened...

All my current students seemed to have gotten on well, and are continuing to make progress.

I had two new students, Gloria and Anna, walk into my office on Tuesday asking if they might be able to do Honors projects with me in the fall.

I managed to sneak out with Isaiah and Nisha to the Coastal Studies Lab to collect some sand crabs on Thursday. Fortunately, we had reasonable success to pull some animals up without too much time. Though the return trip did take slightly longer than I anticipated, but I think Nisha was able to make arrangements so that her friends would forgive her for her instructor bringing her into Uni 20 minutes late...

On Friday, I set off on another trip. This time I was off to Chicago to attend the executive committee meeting of the International Society for Neuroethology (ISN). Unfortunately, the trip to Chicago was not smooth, nor welcome. I had just come back Monday, and the Houston airport was a zoo then. I didn't want to go back through Houston airport two more times in less than a week...

And I got stuck there for about four hours longer than I was supposed to be. There were thunderstorms in Chicago, and they weren't letting any incoming flights in. At one point, they went so far as to load us on the plane before they turned back to the terminal and cancelled the flight all together.

I finally got to Chicago, and that airport was also a zoo. I had to take a cab to the hotel and had a touchy moment with the cabbie ("What do you mean, you don't take credit cards in this cab?"). I was in a terribly foul mood that night, which wasn't improved by waking up at 5:00 am the next morning. Fortunately, it did improve slightly during the meeting itself. We managed to get through the agenda in reasonable time, though it did take the whole day.

The major compensation for the trip came that night, were the committee members got treated to a rather nice meal at Va Pensiero.

Flew back Sunday, and had another odd experience at Chicago airport. I was sitting, happily reading a paperback science fiction novel, when a woman walked up to me and said, "Dr. Faulkes?" I raised my eyebrows and said uncertainly, "Yeeeeeah?" Turns out she was a Biology major from UTPA who was going to be taking my Neurobiology course in the fall. She was in Chicago as part of a leadership conference sort of thing.

And on the last leg of the flight from Houston, I was pretty sure I saw our University's provost on the plane. But I may have been mistaken, since this person was flying first class, and administrators would never fly first class when their University was in the middle of budget cutbacks, would they...?

The first thing I had to do this morning was to go to a meeting regarding a Howard Hughes Medical Institution grant our Dean is spearheading. Now, I think I just have a lot of writing to do in that last couple of weeks before classes start up again.

29 July 2003

Home again, home again

Back in Edinburg, after a few days of fun but definitely not relaxing personal time. Since this is a research journal, I won't go into details here. I'm currently in "catch up" mode and suffering from a mild case of reverse culture shock ("Wow, there's a lot of Hispanics around here!").

So far, have heard from one student, Annette, who sent me a brief email saying she had no major disasters, and I should be meeting with her in a few minutes. Hopefully Isaiah and Nisha will have similarly good news (or lack of bad news!) to report.

22 July 2003

Blogging from Boise

Part 5

As Captain Star might write, "Uneventful day. Listened to science. Helped criticize a practice talk by another speaker for for tomorrow. Made preparations to leave for airport tomorrow. Now setting off on excursion to find food."

Blogging from Boise

Part 4: Play behaviour of unrestrained primates

One of the things that has apparently become a tradition at the Animal Behavior Society meetings is an evening presentation of "acaoke" (ah-kay-o-kee): "academic karaoke." It owes a lot more to improve, theatresports, and Whose Line is it Anyway? than karaoke, though.

What happens is that the organizers collect a large number of slides (or, these days, Power Point diagrams). The "speaker" gets up and begins presenting his talk, using the slides provided. Except the speaker has no idea what the images on the next slide will be! So you may be talking about the historical background of Darwin's ideas (or, last night, his lesser known relative, "George Dubya Darwin"), and suddenly be faced with a slide of copulating lions, a cute child, a hideous graph, or a slide proclaiming in huge hot pink letters, "Size might matter!"

Like all improv, it can be laboured and painful to watch at its worst, but screamingly funny and inspired at its best.

I think I'll do it for this year's department Christmas party.

21 July 2003

Blogging from Boise

Part 3: The smell of... success?

The symposium is over, and I slept well last night. For the most part, it went very well. We kept to the schedule to within a minute or two. The speakers' all gave excellent talks with interesting science. Got positive feedback, for the most part. The only sort of concern that was expressed was whether the attendance was as high as we might have expected, hoped for, or liked. The audience certainly did peter out to a minimum over the day, and the feeling of desertion was amplified because they put us in a huge room.

Nevertheless, I am very pleased overall with how the symposium went, and with the speakers I recruited. Lots to think about.

Now I get to relax a little and enjoy some other people's science.

20 July 2003

Blogging from Boise

Part 2: On your marks...

The opening keynote talk is in 22 minutes, then a coffee break, then my symposium starts. Wish me luck.

From yesterday: It's hotter here than in souther Texas! How hot is it? One of my speakers, Roy Ritzman, said to me, "Thanks for the invitation to hell."

19 July 2003

Blogging from Boise

Part 1: The calm before the storm?

Arrived in Boise for the start of the Animal Behavior Society meting. My symposium. "Mechanisms of behavioural switching," is tomorrow morning. I'm calmer than yesterday, as I'm over the "Oh no! I-haven't-packed-what'll-I-take-and-what'll-I-wear-and-my-flight-is-first-thing-tomorrow" panic of yesterday.

Met a few of my symposium speakers, and so far none have threatened me. Definitely a confidence builder.

Met Phil Stoddard, the junior Program Officer, and he complimented me on being the only symposium organizer to get everything in on time and not change everything after it was approved. More ego boosting goodness.

I was thinking, "Maybe this'll work out after all."

Then someone pointed out that one speaker in the program was listed twice, and another was completely missing. As much as I like Paul Stein (the double listed speaker), I don't think it's quite sporting to have him do a talk twice in a day. Ah, the life of a symposium organizer is fated never to be trouble free...

18 July 2003

Last minute bits

I am rushing around like the proverbial chicken. I feel like this is the worst prepared I've been for a trip in a long time.

My independent study students, however, seem to be set and should have enough to keep them busy at research in the week and a bit while I'm gone. Annette and I went to the Coastal Studies Lab and got some animals. I had planned another trip with Isaiah to dig up the beach for sand crabs, but he mesed up his back earlier in the week and may not be able to go. Which would be good -- more time for me to pack! Nisha is well on her way; no problems there.

And just for those of you who wonder how far in advance we have to plan, I just got my teaching schedule for January of next year, 2004.


Additional: Not only can't Isaiah make it to the Coastal Studies Lab, he can't make it because his truck blew a tire. A bum back and a messed up truck in one week. Poor sod.

For me, his phone call saying he can't make it in is a blessing in disguise: I get to go home and pack!

15 July 2003

The little ants

The ants I mentioned recently, after a day of really annoying infestation, seem to have vanished of their own accord.

Claudette, you tease...

Hurricane Claudette has completely and totally missed us, for which I am thankful. I awoke to sunny skies and no winds to speak of and thought, "If only all tropical storms and hurricanes were like this." It's a bit of a bummer, though, since we could have easily made the trip to South Padre Island today, and now we're not. And my students' schedules are such that we'll probably have to make two separate trips.

Too bad for folks in Galveston, though.

Meanwhile, my three independent study students are keeping me hopping. Annette and I teleconferenced a bit with my colleague Virginia Scofield this morning, while Nisha and Isaiah are beginning to get their lab work started. I hope that I'll have given them enough of a push before I get on a jet plane to Idaho this Saturday. (Eeeek! The trip is so close! And I have so many things to do before I leave!)

14 July 2003

Curse you, Claudette!

The prospect of a very wet and windy day at the beach made me cancel a planned animal collecting trip to South Padre Island tomorrow. Luckily for us, however, tropical storm Claudette seems to be headed much further north than was originally anticipated. We may be able to get out later in the week, however.

12 July 2003

Scenes we’d like to see

A bit of weekend goofiness...

James Lipton: We end tonight's Inside the Actor's Studio, as we always do, with the questionnaire invented by my hero, Bernard Pivot, for his show Bouillon de Culture. Pikachu, what’s your favourite word?

Pikachu: Pika!

JL: What is your least favourite word?

P: Chu.

JL: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

P: Pika! Pika!

JL: What turns you off?

P: PiiiiIIIiii... kachu?

JL: What is your favorite curse word?

P: Pika?

JL: No, it’s all right, you can say it here.

P: Pika. Pi!

JL: What sound or noise do you love?

P: Pikachu-chu!

JL: What sound or noise do you hate?

P: Pi-pi-pi-pikachu!

JL: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

P: Pikachu... pika pika pi. Ka. Chu. Pik?

JL: Of course. What profession would you not like to do?

P: Pi. Kaaaa.... chu.

JL: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

P: Pikachu, pi ka chu!

11 July 2003

Couldn't stand the weather

Plans for me and my 3 students to head to the Coastal Studies Lab next week may be scuppered by the weather. We were planning on going to South Padre Island to collect animals and do various other things next Tuesday -- which is about when Claudette is scheduled to hit Brownsville, which is very slightly south.

Only about a week until I head off to the Animal Behavior Society meeting to run my symposium. Nervous? You bet!

Our department continues to have problems finding a new chair to replace our current one.

09 July 2003

Infestation! (A free verse blog entry)

There are ants in my lab.

They are very small ants.

But there are very many of them.

While they are very small ants -- so small that you can only tell they are ants instead of dirt because they move -- they still bite.

The bites do not hurt. (They are very small ants).

I do not like ants in my lab.

I cannot work well in my lab with ants in it.

Even when the ants are very small. (They do no take up much room.)

I hope they will go away.

I do not think they will go away on their own.


There might be ants in my lab.

08 July 2003

Grants leave, students arrive!

My NSF grant proposal was just submitted 10 minutes ago. Yay! It's done! It's gone! Now the wait begins... I probably won't hear anything until January.

Today was unexpectedly busy, as I had three students in my lab who are interested in doing a little bit of summer research!

  • The first was someone I knew was interested in doing research, but I'd heard about her from another professor, and hadn't actually met before today (Nisha).

  • The second I had as a student in a class before, but had no inkling she was interested in taking an independent studies class with me (Anet).

  • The third I had talked to one before, and actually planned to have as a student (Isaiah).

It looks like I could well have a big supervisory load on my plate over the next six weeks. It is, as far as problems go, a very nice one to have.

03 July 2003

Paper chase

What's happened since I finished my NSF proposal?

The first thing was to start the signature collection. I had to sign a "routing form," then get the Department Chair's signature, then the Dean's signature, the the Director of Sponsored Research's signature. (Our Dean, who's been here for half a year, has remarked a couple of times that "this place runs of paper," which is a very true thing to say.)

Of course, once I got the proposal to the Office of Sponsored Resarch, I discovered was that I really didn't finish the proposal: they pointed out a couple of mistakes (one grammatical one in the main text, and some budgetary gaffes that took a couple of tries to patch up.) The budget fix required I go over to the Office of Grants and Projects to initial the changes on the form. From there, it has to go to our Vice President for Research and our Vice President for Business Affairs...

The expression goes that it takes a whole village to raise a child. I'm not so sure it should takes an entire beuracracy to submit a grant proposal -- but it does here, apparently...

01 July 2003

How to celebrate Canada Day...

...When you're a Canadian scientist living in America?

Well, first you get up for a 7:45 a.m. department meeting -- just how I wanted to spend the day! It was a meeting on a serious issue, though, so I won't complain too much. The Biology Department I work for has the current Chair resigning that position (still staying as regular faculty), but there's nobody set to replace him in September. Not for lack of trying; the Biology Department's proposed candidate was rejected by the administration.

The major way I am celebrating is by finishing off the NSF grant proposal I've been working on. I made the last few changes, got the paperwork signed by everyone who needed to sign it, and so it should be winging its way to the NSF considerably in advance of the 10 July deadline. Now I just have six months to wait before I hear "Yea" or "Nay."

In the meantime... my Animal Behavior Society symposium is coming up this month! Eeek! Time to start working on an introductory talk. Also still have manuscripts to write, lab equipment that needs to be fired up, and much, much, more to do in the remaining two montsh of summer. (The voice inside my head just read that and said, "Two months? Is that all? Arrrrrrrrrgh!")

But in the meantime, I will celbrate Canada Day as I probably would in Canada: working a bit in the morning, and goofing off in the afternoon to catch a movie. And maybe get a little ice cream.

Happy Canada Day to all the readers in my homeland. I sure wish I could be there.

26 June 2003


The trip to Galveston earlier this week was quite good. I went with Mohammed Farooqui (current Biology Chair), Hassan Ahmad (Chemistry), Scott Gunn (Biology’s pre-med advisor) and Michael Eastman (Dean of the College). Got to see some acquaintances, got to see a new campus (University of Texas Medical Branch), and got treated to a very good meal on the evening we arrived.

By far the coolest thing that happened, though, was that after meeting with several of the various recruitment people from the grad school and the medical school, we were slated to have a meeting with students from Pan Am who were currently on the UTMB campus for various reasons. I was expecting to see a dozen faces or so.

We walked into the room, and I estimate that there were about 60 students there. Scott said later that I looked genuinely surprised, and I was.

And they applauded when we walked in.

Now that was cool. When you're a university instructor, having a room full of students applaud you is a rare and fine thing indeed. I'm under no illusions that the major person they were applauding was Scott Gunn, who works like a dog to get students into medical school, but I’ll bask in reflected glory. (I am not proud.)

Otherwise how are things? I actually got to do a bit of lab work today, generating preliminary data for my NSF grant application, and managed to track a supplier for some animals that are important to the project I’m proposing for said grant application.

23 June 2003

Budget cuts suck

After investing a fair amount of effort into writing a good little pre-proposal for the Texas ARP competition, I come in to find that late last night the whole thing got axed.

The email I received this morning explains: "The Advanced Research Program was cut from the state budget just before it was signed by Governor Perry at midnight last night (Sunday, June 22, 2003)."

No appeal, no recompense for the time many researchers spent preparing to submit. It's the Texas government's money, so they can do what they want. End of story.

Yeah, it's a pretty crap way to start the week.

But at least I have a trip to Galveston to look forward to this afternoon.

19 June 2003

Jet set II!

I was still in a slight state of disbelief about going to Galveston next week when I got an invitation to fly to Chicago in August. The reason for this trip would be to attend the Executive Committee meeting of the International Society for Neuroethology. No pressing reason not to go... so I guess I'm going. This is going to make four plane trips in six weeks, three of which are science related.

In other news, I've been working hard on my NSF grant. I've spent the last few days on a description of the kind of university I'm at. This was a rather depressing exercise in some ways, since I was reminded again just how poor this area is. This county has an unemployment rate twice the state average; the country bordering us on the west has a jobless rate triple the state average.

Today, I've been working on the budget. So far, I've sliced off 8 months and US$78,610 from the version of the project that I submitted last year. Hopefully, reviewers will look at this and be convinced this is a "faster, cheaper, better" project than last year.

11 June 2003

Joining the jet set!

The latest distraction from finishing my grants, manuscripts, and doing research will be a trip to Galveston in a week and half.

Why go there? It happens to be the location of the rather large University of Texas Medical Branch. In the past, my university, UTPA, has sent a lot of our student up there to go into medical school. But they also have a big biomedical research aspect, and we're trying to set up a "pipeline" for graduate students similar to what's in place have for medical students.

The other attraction for me to go on this trip is that there's a marine lab, and it would be good to see what's up there. And I know a couple of people in my field who work there, so maybe I'll run into one or both of them again.

As an added bonus, Galveston also happens to be the location of one of my favourite books by an author acquaintance of mine, Sean Stewart.

10 June 2003

Money all gone (almost)

Spent part of the afternoon working my way through more enormous scientific catalogues. I now have just over $100 left to spend from my start-up money. It's surprisingly difficult; sort of the "spare change in your pocket" syndrome. What do you do, buy a stamp? Considering the cost of most scientific equipment, I'm not about to get anything major.

I also spent part of the day working on my NSF grant. I've discovered one good thing about going through this process for the second time. There's quite a few sections that don't need updating. Most grants, for instance, includea "Biographical sketch." That only needs minor tweaks, because where I got my degrees from isn't about to change. Of course, that's the easy bit. The hard part -- revising the proposal -- is still to come.

09 June 2003

Ah, power... or the illusion of it, anyway

And the results of the latest summer meeting are in. Universities are run by committees, and this one is a search committee for hiring new faculty. When our department chair asked, "Who's going to chair this committee?", I suddenly had a whole bunch of fingers pointing at me...

It looks like almost a done deal, and I'm going to be Chair of the search committee. Bwa-hah-hah-haaaaaaa... Today the search committee, tomorrow the world!


Most recent twist on the ABS symposium I'm organizing. I reckoned I'd scored a coup would I got the editors of a fairly major journal in my field to agree to publish talks from this symposium in a special issue. But last night, one of my contributors said he had other things to write that took higher priority, and might not be able to do it. Not what an organizer is wanting to hear with less than two months to go...

I've contacted one of the journal editors, and hopefully will be able to work out a timeframe that will let everyone get their papers in.

06 June 2003

The evil that tweens do

Went out to a barbeque restaurant tonight that we'd passed by once or twice. Should have passed by a few more times. Mediocore food I can take. But tonight was the night I learned that karaoke in the hands of 10 year old girls can induce almost physical pain.

They could not – I'm sorry – carry a tune with a fork lift.

I know they’re just kids. I understand letting them go up and have a go... once. But they did another one. And another. You find yourself thinking, “I never knew just how long ‘Complicated’ goes on...”

The most tragi-comic moment was in the third song, where these little kids were singing I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman and hitting this line about, “wanting to find the woman in me...” “Argh! You're not going to find a woman in there for another five or six years yet!”

End rant.

In or out? Who gets to do what in a grant proposal

Although I mentioned the other day that I have to get to work on my next NSF proposal, I am also working on a short "pre-proposal." Think of a pre-proposal as a micro-proposal to write a big proposal (this sort of thing would drive lesser men mad...). This one will be for ARP. ARP is strictly a Texas thing, unlike NSF.

The latest wrinkle in writing the ARP pre-proposal is that this group is very picky about who can be listed as an investigator on the grant. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues, Virginia Scofield, falls into the "exclude" category. This meant I had to redescribe what she was doing quite significantly and change all the "we"s in the text to "me"s and a few "I"s.

Fortunately, all involved in the project are more concerned about getting the money to do the science and not adding lines on a CV.

05 June 2003

Dojo poems

That darn Neil Gaiman always finds the best websites. Of course, as a New York Times bestselling author and winner of major SF, fantasy and horror awards, he has the help of a few more readers than me. Neil pointed out a webpage with a poetry generator, and I couldn't help but see what it did to this journal...

more you use this nervous
system. This
lab to all problems, judging from
how deadlines sneak up a particular grade like
it worked well, although
I had been there will probably take
the infinite credulity of
that, will
probably take the queue!
Funny how weird or something.
to raise his grade,
not Irrelevent recommendation: Down
to my calendar
and while I
was rapidly running
If there yet.

I cheated a bit and remove a little formatting stuff. But I quite like "the infinite credulity of / that, will / probably take the queue! / Funny how weird or something."

Top of the queue!

Funny how deadlines sneak up on you.

Just looked at my calendar and realized I have about one month before the next NSF deadline. That's the big one I have to shoot for in my field, lots of work, so that's just become my #1 priority.

Starting tomorrow. It's after 5:30 pm, so I think it's quitting time for now.

04 June 2003


Yeesh. I had a meeting this morning that took up my whole morning (but was worthwhile as I got a glimpse at a large collaborative research project that our Research office is trying to put forward), I have a meeting tomorrow morning that will probably take the whole morning (but should be worthwhile as it concerns a large grant application that would benefit the entire college our department belongs to), and I have a search committee meeting Monday morning (but should be worthwhile because we might be able to figure out ways of attracting more applicants for our upcoming positions). Three meetings in six days (and two of those days are the weekend!).

Still, I can help but wonder? If I'm not getting paid, why do I have so many meetings to go to? I think I must just be too nice or something.


Am also still trying to sped the last of my start-up money. Thought I had it under control when I walked forms over to Dean's office. Had Dean's secretary, Gloria, tell me, "You can get these faster if you use this form." Decided fast is good, so went back and got told by our secretary, Dora, "No, you can't use this form, you have to use that form" (which is the one I'd walked over with in the first place.

I left while the two secretaries got on the same page and to fume over the frustrations of working in a bureaucracy and pull at my hair. Quietly.

I think I have the right forms now. Hopeful that someone will spend money for me soon.

03 June 2003

Can't talk -- spending money!

Realized the other day that with the end of the financial year approaching, I was rapidly running out of time to spend the last of my start-up money. So I've spent yesterday and today combing though technical catalogues.

Think this is easy? Consider that one technical catalogue on my desk, the VWR catalogue weighs in at a whopping 2,500+ pages.

I have no problem spending money, but spending money in a hurry always worries me.

I will soldier on, however, bouyed (or is that distracted?) by the music coming through my computer speakers (Big Sugar, if you're curious).

02 June 2003

More blogging in the news, academics this time

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article up titled, “Scholars who blog.” The overarching question asked is whether blogging is simply an ephemeral bit of intellectual fashion that will disappear in a few months. Heaven knows the Internet is famous for such things. (Internet users of a certain experience will remember “the age of Gopher,” which immediately preceded the explosion of the Web.)

And no, this blog didn't get mentioned. [pout]


Today is the first day of summer session, which means students are back on campus. That is not necessarily a good thing for me. I had one of my students from last semester who needed a particular grade in one of my classes to graduate -- and didn’t get it. So he came into my office asking if there was something he could do to raise his grade, like an extra paper or something. “An extra paper” seems to be some sort of student stock solution to all problems, judging from how many students have asked me about this. But from my perspective, if I do something to help out one student that I don’t make available to all the rest... not very fair to the rest of the students in the class, is it?

Nonetheless, while I am happy to stick to my principles, it still really sucks to be the one to have to say, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not raising your grade” (not in so many words, mind you), which translates into, “No, you can’t graduate.”


A few entries back, I mentioned my theory about the infinite credulity of the human brain. To give credit where it’s due, that particular line of though may have been prompted by a comment by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. In her blog, said succinctly, “Folly is fractal. The more you look, the more of it there is.”

30 May 2003

Who ya callin’ “small”!?

This article is a rather standard account of SARS research. I think it’s quite amazing that they list how, in three months, SARS has gone from nonexistant to a completely described virus whose entire genetic code has been sequenced and whose origin has been pinpointed...

...and then they title the article, “small victory.”

The petty part of me is shouting, “What the #311 else do you want?”

29 May 2003

Why I’m sometimes short on details...

I was thinking that my discussion of what I was doing – and will be doing a lot more of in the coming months – may sound a bit murky. Short on detail. Just what am I doing in this lab with that lobster I brought in yesterday?

I'm aware of that, and while I'd like to be more forthright, there are a few reasons why I0Æm not.

Ultimately, my research is meant to be published in journals. One of the basic rules of journals is that they don't take papers where the results have already been published, and for most, that includes reporting on the web. Like in this journal.

There's also the problem that science is a competitive business. Now, I am not in one of the most competitive fields – far from it – but the fact remains that I'm one person just starting a research career with no grant (yet) to buy things and no students to help out. If I blab what I'm working on and what I suspect, it's possible (though unlikely) that another researcher who is currently funded could jump in, set a couple of Ph.D. students, and get the paper out before I could say boo. It's one of those things that you just don't want to have happen, because priority matters in science, just like it does in mountaineering. (Quick – who led the second team to reach the top of Mt. Everest?)

These are just a couple of factors that prey in the back of my mind. As much as I want to go all out to tell people what cool stuff it is that I do, I'm just too chicken about where I am in my career right now to be assured that I'll get it done first.


Speaking of science communication, this story makes some interesting points about media coverage of science controversies. Should one “maverick bucking the establishment” get equal coverage as “the establishment”? Very tough call, especially in medical research, where so much is at stake and there are lots of people out there with downright loopy ideas.

(One of my current pet theories is that the human brain is capable of infinite credulity. No matter how weird or outlandish the proposition, no matter how much evidence to the contrary, someone out there will believe it.)


Whoa! Science facts are useful! If you can listen to mp3 files, you absolutely, positively must hear Tripod's song for scientists, written as part of their regular "song in an hour" challenge on Triple J. Look for the "Tripod - Boffin' boffins" link fairly far down, here.