30 May 2008

Voice of fire, shrimp style

Shrimp antenna
I was working on some images for a poster this afternoon, and I liked this one, so I thought I'd share it. It's a shrimp antenna magnified 50 times under a dissecting microscope. The title of the post is a reference to a well-known Barnett Newman abstract painting.

This is a nice object lesson in the lure of photomanipulation, though, as the previous post mentioned.

The top image has been rotated, the out of focus dots in the background removed by a little cloning, and the overall image sharpened. The original raw image is shown at right. I would say the top one is more attractive, but is it equally honest?

The line between beautifying and falsifying

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about the problems of digital image manipulation. It's a very tough thing. I've had several pictures that are clear through the microscope, but the subtleties are hard to capture on film. A little contrast enhancement makes it more visible, but have you changed the data in a way that changes the interpretation?

I'm going to have to think about whether and how to talk about his in my biological writing class this fall.

If you want to see professional retouching in a way that will make you look twice at images for a while, try looking at this professional retoucher's web page.

29 May 2008

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 28

Several sources are reporting that The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is petitioning the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to reverse its ruling, citing "viewpoint discrimination." The wire articles note that this opens the way for ICR to sue the Board, which has been a strategy the Institute has taken before.

I am trying to read about what "viewpoint discrimination" entails legally. My initial skimming suggests to me that ICR is going to have a very hard case to make that this is viewpoint discrimination (which is apparently a legal no-no) and not content discrimination (which is legally okay).

26 May 2008

Sea squirt myths busted

AscidiansI bust another invertebrate neurobiology myth on the All In The Mind blog that crops up in a post about cars, of all things. What follows is a slightly edited version of my comment on the post.
It’s widely thought that sea squirts (also known as tunicates or ascidians), once they’ve found the place where they'll spend the rest of their lives, have no further need of their brain and eat it.

The punchline is, “It’s rather like getting tenure.”

The facts should never get in the way of a great joke, but the truth is more complicated. The swimming tadpoles are only about a millimeter long, and there are only a few hundred neurons in the entire tadpole (Meinertzhagen and Okamura 2001), of which the “brain” is only a small part. Tadpoles have miniaturized brains.

Sea squirt larvae do undergo metamorphosis into a adult with a small brains, but it's not the vestigial little thing that the “eat your own brain” story suggests. “In fact, adult ascidians have perfectly good brains, an order of magnitude larger than those of their larvae, and their behaviour is as finely adapted to sessility as that of the larvae to motility” (Mackie and Burighel, 2005).

We’ve learned a lot about how brains work from invertebrates, and their complexity is often underrated.


Meinertzhagen IA, Okamura Y. 2001. The larval ascidian nervous system: the chordate brain from its small beginnings. Trends in Neurosciences 24(7): 401-410. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0166-2236(00)01851-8

Mackie GO, Burighel P. 2005. The nervous system in adult tunicates: current research directions. Canadian Journal of Zoology 83(1): 151-183. http://pubs.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/cgi-bin/rp/rp2_abst_e?cjz_z04-177_

24 May 2008

Bad signs on Texas education standards

Houston Chronicle logoThe Texas State Board of Education is reviewing and approving standards for lots of subjects this year, and it's not pretty. The Houston Chronicle reports:
"I find it's really wild that we can work for three years on a project and then the board is so qualified they can pull it out of their hat overnight," said board member Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican who, like other board members, received the substituted document when it was slipped under her hotel door less than an hour before their meeting was set to convene Friday morning.
I personally can't comment on the English standards that have been passed, but guess what's next?
Science curriculum, which includes the divisive teaching of evolution, is next up for review by the board.

"It does not bode well for any of us with the science (curriculum) review coming up," Canaday said. "Everyone I spoke to about this week's meetings asked me why on earth would English be considered a controversial subject. If it's this difficult to change the English curriculum, it's just going to be a war when it comes time for them to try to agree on science standards."

The internet is full!

Or could be in a few years. Seriously, check out this article.
As of this month 85 per cent of the 4.3 billion available Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which identify devices connected to the net, are already in use. Within three years they will all be used up, according to a report by the OECD.

22 May 2008

When in doubt, which is most of the time

I'd never heard about Miller-McCune magazine until just now, but they have an important article about how "doubt" is abused in public debates. It focuses on the well-documented strategy of the tobacco industry to pick at research findings that were bad for business: that is, smoking was bad for you.
"Eventually, the science wins," Michaels says. "But at what cost?"

21 May 2008

Budget administration

I spent the bulk of the day on a long, long overdue review of the budget of my REU program. I think I've worked through all the research supply issues. And it's still not done! Tomorrow, I work through the travel budget, which should be a bit easier.

Maybe next week I'll do research.

14 May 2008

In which embarrasment is averted

The Law of Maximum Inconvenience states that when you remember something kind of important that you forgot in the lab, you''ll remember it at quarter to one in the morning while you're trying to get to sleep.

I had brought back some shrimp from the Coastal Studies Lab yesterday. Unfortunately, the mortality rate when I do so is invariably pretty high. So I had quite a few corpses to dispose of.

Except that I forgot to dispose of them.

And I knew I had to get up and walk down to the lab in the middle of the night to get those dead shrimp into a waste container. Because nothing stinks like dead marine things, and they would probably be pretty stinky by morning.

So I trudged over to the lab in the middle of the night.

It was fairly depressing to see all the lights on in a lot of university buildings, though. Middle of the night. Between spring and summer sessions. Who's around? Janitors, yes, but do they need to have the entire building lit up, even floors and rooms where they're not working? Lights cost money, you know...

13 May 2008

What will it take to change behaviour?

The first time gas was edging up towards $3 a gallon locally, I got into a conversation with colleagues about how high prices would have to go before people started changing their driving behaviour. I estimated that people would continue to complain, but wouldn't start to seriously change their driving habits until gas prices reached $6 or $7 a gallon.

Gas is now well over $3.50 and edging towards $4. But I have to say, prayer doesn't count as changing your behaviour.

I'm still waiting to see evidence of people doing something different in how they drive. I'm terribly disappointed my university has done nothing to encourage carpooling, say.

I'm thinking about this quite a bit, as I want to make more trips to the Coastal Studies Lab for research this summer, and there's a meeting of The Crustacean Society in Galveston that I'll be attending. Luckily, I'll be driving the friendliest car in the world which gets good highway mileage, but suddenly these in-state trips take on more significance.

08 May 2008

Things you notice when entering grades

"Look at how conveniently close the C, D, and F keys are on the keyboard."

(Oh yeah, a lot of students did not do well this semester... I was using those keys a lot.)

07 May 2008

Questions I dislike, May edition

"Are you going away for summer?" and all its variations.

What with the two summer classes I'm teaching, two manuscripts I'm revising, two grants I'm managing, multiple students I'm supervising, and tasks backlogged out the wazoo...


06 May 2008

Punished for loyalty

We've had a couple of campus-wide faculty meetings over the last week, concerning salaries. Only a small fraction of the faculty were there, which is perhaps surprising given that everyone gets paid. It is exam week, I suppose.

The topic at hand was salary compression and inversion. This is a nation-wide problem. Basically, across the country, the wages of faculty members are going up about 3% per year. The starting salaries of new hires are going up substantially higher -- I think I heard an estimate of something like 10% a year.

Consequently, new faculty are making relative more than senior faculty (compression). In extreme cases, new faculty make more in real dollars starting out than senior faculty (inversion).

The best strategy if you want a raise? Quit your job and get a job at another institution.

In which I discover how many deadlines I've missed

It's the end of the semester. Most of my colleagues are frantically grading. I am frantically trying to go back and get to the many tasks that have been getting stuck in cracks. Some have fallen through and cannot be retrieved. For instance...

I had a workshop application form that has been sitting on my desk. I didn't get to it right away, because it needed a CV. My CV was out of date (stuck in the crack), so I didn't finish and ship the application. I picked it up again today, googled the time of the workshop (which wasn't on the application form), and found out that the workshop was happening... yesterday through tomorrow.

Nope, can't make that one.

Also just discovered that I missed the early registration deadline for a meeting. That was yesterday.

It will be interesting to see how many things have slipped through the cracks and how many are merely stuck there.

03 May 2008

Bruise watch, May edition

It's looking a lot better than last time.

The nail on the right side reached a point where it got loose and I had to trim it off. It's now grown back out to the edge of the finger on the right side, but not so much that I've been able to trim it, hence the slightly rough appearance you can see. The left side wasn't hit as hard originally, and you can clearly see dividing line where I trimmed back the loose nail on the right.

Then, behind the remains of the actual bruise, there's a section where the nail growth seems a little swollen. But it's flattened out further. So I'm expecting all traces of the bruise to be gone maybe in July or August, and the entire fingernail tp be back to normal in, say, October.

02 May 2008

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 27

The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is predictably upset about not being allowed to offer Master's degrees in science education.

They have now issued a press release announcing that they have put their entire application on-line. The title of this press release?

"Academic freedom in the balance."

I'm going to give a serious answer before tossing off a one-liner.

Academic freedom is an absolutely essential part of academic life, much discussed, but it is easily misinterpreted. In the United States, pretty much the gold standard for defining academic freedom was made back in 1940. My own institution still refers to it in our handbook of operating procedures. It's a statement from the American Association of University Professors. It's short, readable, and online here.

The statement is all about protecting teachers. It describes academic freedom in terms of a relationship between individuals and their institutions. Everything concerns what an individual is allowed to say without risk of losing her job.

This is substantially different from what ICR is talking about, which is a relationship between an institution and an accrediting agency. Accreditation is a very different matter than tenure. So really, crying "foul" about academic freedom misses the mark.

That's the serious answer.

The one-liner is that "academic freedom" is not code for, "Validation of any random idea that you happen to have have."

Worth a trip to the library

de Bruyn PJN, Tosh CA, Bester MN. 2008. Sexual harassment of a king penguin by an Antarctic fur seal. Journal of Ethology 26(2): 295-297. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10164-007-0073-9

"We report a case of interspecific sexual harassment bridging the rank of vertebrate class."

A seal. A penguin.

You can't make this stuff up.

You could, however, make endless jokes about it. But I won't, since this could devolve oh so quickly.

Unfortunately, our library doesn't have a subscription, so I can't comment in more detail. More commentary, however, can be found in the Zooillogix blog, which had this one first.

01 May 2008

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 26

Over in the Waco Tribune, there's an funny column titled, "Religion in fake mustache." It points out the apparent split between the the THECB's rejection of the ICR proposal and the upcoming revision of the state's K-12 science standards:
Not that their functions intersect, but this development signals a clash of intentions between the coordinating board and some members of the State Board of Education.

With state science standards coming up for approval, some members of the board want to make room in them for intelligent design or outright creation theory.
The column notes that the ICR is threatening to sue THECB.