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.