31 March 2003

Showing off the place

Spent a good part of the day showing off our Coastal Studies Lab to a job candidate. Our department is in the market for a “Vertebrate Physiological Ecologist,” and we have two candidates who will be visiting for an on-site interview for a couple of days. (I can't mention the candidate's name, because there are laws prohibiting candidates from knowing who else is being interviewed for the position.)

I probably could have used the time at the office to mark papers or something, but what the heck. I worked all weekend, and I’m on the Search Committee.

Plus! While the major point was to show off some of our university resources to our candidate, the trip was also fortuitous. I discovered that there were some animals in the CSL’s aquaria that I want to film: young spiny lobsters. I’m hoping I can get back before something happens to them.


Some things are just a delight. Fireflies are one.

They are fireflies in the grass around the university, and when I walk home a little late around this time of year (like tonight), there they are, quietly blinking on and off in their slow, pacifying intervals. If I ever get tired of them, buy me a coffin, ‘cause I'll have obviously lost my taste for life.

28 March 2003

Where two cultures meet...

Being a Canadian living in the southern most tip of Texas, this makes my heart feel good as much as it makes my brain confused:

This October, the Rio Grande Valley will have its own professional hockey team: the Killer Bees. (Pro sports is all about the logo.)

I'm hoping cricket and Aussie rules football teams will soon follow, seeing how they have about as much history in southern Texas as hockey.

A look in the lab

Here's the infamous microscope that took an inordinately long time to purchase (partly due to delays in getting start-ups funds, partly due to my misunderstandings of the purchasing process, partly due to... oh, you get the idea.)

Isn't it pretty? I've joked more than once that I don't actually plan to look at anything through it, I just need a scope for show to impress the visitors.

You'll notice a camera attachment on the left; it's a nice digital camera. A camera lucida (a.k. drawing tube) is on the right. It's a device for looking at the material under the scope through one eye, and looking at a piece of paper through the other so that you can trace what you see. It's excellent for making records of material that isn't flat, which can't be easily photographed because of depth of field problems.

That's about $8K worth of microscope you're looking at there. It's probably the single most expensive thing in the lab.

Here's the runner-up in expense (would tie if you included the software asscoiated with it).

That little "bruise-coloured" box (i.e., black and blue!) on top of the silver one cost over $6K. It's an analog-digital board: it converts continuously variable electric signals into digital signals that my computer can understand.

But enough tech for now. Let's turn to a more green and pleasant thoughts...

The view out my lab window. There used to be a baseball field (right picture), which was ripped down last year. I've heard various things about what is going in there. It might be a new building. Or it might be a parking lot (I'm kind of hoping not). But at least I have some green plants and blue sky to view when I look up from my scope.

26 March 2003

Biology myths of our time

Heard on television commercial currently playing locally:

"I can't concentrate. Could I be pregnant?"

Somehow, I doubt that an inability to concentrate is the first clue women use to detect a pregnancy. And if the makes of this pregnancy test don't know that, would you really trust them on some of the other details...?

24 March 2003

The power of blogging

Anyone who still doubts the power of blogs (“web logs” like this journal) to be effective at reaching a wide audience will probably not be able to have those doubts for much longer. A blog from Bagdhad is now receiving international attention.

Another piece of the lab puzzle

My new microscope is now assembled and ready for action. I'm not sure when I'm going to be able to get much use out of it, but I feel so much better just seeing in the lab. I'll take a picture of it later.

I should be getting my second microscope in a couple of weeks, which will be the last major piece of equipment I'll be buying from my start-up funds. Anything I need after that (and I do need some stuff) wil have to come from a successful grant application.

Good thing I ain't too proud to beg.

22 March 2003

And... Action!

One best momentary distractions I've come across lately is the Action Film Trailer Generator. The visit is enhanced if you can either imagine the voice of the man who does so many of these movie previews -- or, better yet, have a friend who'se good at mimicry read them aloud in his best "Coming attractions" voice.

My most recent visit to the page rewarded me with entries that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing ("In an infernal empire, four fighters hope to avert the apocalypse.") to the goofy ("In an infernal city, two nuns hope to participate in the greatest fighting tournament of history...")

Which got me thinking: What would the "action movie preview" for me (and this journal) be? Maybe something like...

"In a foreign land, in a confusing beuracracy, one scientist fights to triumph over ignorance..."

I could keep at this all day. But I probably shouldn't...


Quote of the week: See Neil Gaiman's second entry for 20 March 2003.

20 March 2003


Back to teaching, preparing for teaching, and pretty much nothing else.

Like most others, my mind has been very much on the conflict in Iraq. I was thinking about what lessons a biological researcher's training might be able to bring to bear on such an event. The one question that I've learned to ask as a scientist that seems appropriate in this instance is this.

What is the evidence?

In such situations, assertions and claims are made back and forth in furious successions. "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." "Saddam Hussein poses an immediate threat to the security of [insert name of country here]." "Weapons inspections are working." (Ooops. Suppose that should be "...were working.) And so on.

What is the evidence?

When my brain is working well (which it doesn't always), few things trigger my radar like such flat statements. Unfortunately, politics and much current news reporting does not always do a good job of presenting evidence, nor do many people take the time to look deeply at available evidence (and I'm sure not excluding myself here). Instead, factors like fear and trust come into play in a big way.

What is the evidence?

Who gathered it? How did they get it? What tools did they use? Are there numbers specifying quantity? How about confidence intervals, or the possibility of measurement error? Can it be confirmed by other independent sources? (This is a big one in science, where it gets the technical name of "replication.")

What is the evidence?

Of course, many people outside research seem to have little patience for scientists' insistance on looking at evidence all the time. This may have been what led Cecil Marice Bowra (1898-1971) to comment, "Scientists are treacherous allies on committees, for they are apt to change their minds in response to arguments."

13 March 2003

Scope it out

Oh joyous day! Two big boxes arrived today, containing within them the components for one of my microscopes. Now I just have to put it all together.

I also managed to get the paperwork off my desk for my second major microscope. I'm hoping that will go through channels quickly, as it's under the $ value where it has to go out for bids.

In other news...

This week is the infamous American "spring break," a time synonymous with drunken debauchery. (In Canada, we have "reading break," just to show how studious we all are.) A local radio station was referring today to nearby resort South Padre Island as "South Party Island." I've had no classes to teach, but a surprising amount of other things keep vying for my attention. Because so many faculty left (meetings, etc.), I got left holding the bag for several tasks this week, mostly related to the Search Committee.


I couldn't wait for last week to end. Now I'm terrified over how soon this week is going to end!

07 March 2003

A long standing bugbear resolved

Was so run off my feet yesterday that I didn't have time to report a piece of good news. I have finally been given the go-ahead to spend the last 1/8th of my start-up funding. This should give me the last crucial item or two, and a lot of minor bits, needed to get my research lab ready to do actual research this summer.

This was far and away the best news I’ve had all week. This has definitely been one of “those” weeks, where every time I turned around I had new things to do. I was getting behind on preparing lectures, I was running to prepare labs, I had to schedule meetings on short notice, I have to undergo Sexual Harassment Training. (I keep wishing they could call it something else; it sounds too much like a “How to” course. “Have you taken the Sexual Harrassment Training session?” “Have I? Watch me make a pass at that cute first year student...” Ick.)

I am so ready for this week to end. Not the least reason is that next week is break here, so I won’t have any classes to teach. A little uninterrupted time to get ahead, caught up, and so on will be highly welcome.

But back to the subject of start up: I should have my first research microscope delivered in two weeks.

Odd spot: It’s cold in here! The outside is pleasant and warm, but the air conditioning is needlessly belting it out in many rooms in the building. Apparently there’s a problem with the Central Scheduling, and they can't turn off the air con in several buildings. I find it bit hard to believe that the “Off” switch is broken...

Odder spot: A front page story on the campus newspaper, The Pan American describes a controversy over an article in Vanity Fair over comments on Hispanics made by Dame Edna Everage.

What someone might not realize from some of the commentary is that Dame Edna is a fictional character. Criticizing Dame Edna for making a joke in poor taste is like criticising Sherlock Holmes for being a drug addict...

03 March 2003


Not much to report here, but who can resist the urge of making a post on 03/03/03?

Hm. I wonder how many doomsayers will appear just before 6 June 2006?

Actually, I'm doing a bit of everything today: a bit of grant writing, some lecture writing, and more administration than I bargained for (I'm on a Departmental Search Committee for hiring new staff and faculty, and the searches have not gone well).

Back to the grindstone...

01 March 2003

Grants; screensaver needed!

The major research thing I'm working on these days? A draft of another grant proposal for the National Science Foundation, this time working with my colleague Virginia Scofield. I originally planned this to be a C-RUI proposal, but we may not make the deadline.

Outside the lab... My television went on the blink Monday. Got a chip in the windscreen of my car on Friday. And this morning, the screen on my computer laptop suddenly turned black. It is stubbornly refusing to show anything. Fortunately, the computer itself is fine (I think); simply running a cable from the laptop to a new screen should solve the problem.