31 August 2020

New beginnings

Today is my last day as a tenured full professor at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

This is going to be a tough post to write.

Since starting at The University of Texas Pan-American, I’ve made no secret to people here that I would love a reason to move back to Canada. But it’s always been a low-level, “Wouldn’t it be nice if...?” wish. I had been looking and occasionally applying for years.

But this year, a new word kept forming in my head:


I kept wondering throughout the summer, “Is it time to go, regardless of the job I have now?” At one point, I took out a lot of cash from my bank account in case I needed to leave immediately. The sort of money that many people call the “Fuck you” fund in case they have to leave an abusive partner. Things have felt that bad.

Living in the United States in 2020 has broken my belief in this country. 

And I don’t think an election and a vaccine is going to fix it.

It’s not just that the current administration is awful (though it surely is). It’s how so many people have embraced the awfulness. It’s about how the US can’t address its chronic problems. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create these problems but it sure as hell threw them into sharp relief.

Over at the Better Posters blog, I’ve been compiling pictures of 2020 events in the United States. They are probably more powerful than anything I might write. 

I accepted a new position at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. And doing so was the most brutal professional decision of my life. That is the only word I have to describe the decision. Brutal. There was some crying on the couch with me holding my wife in one arm and my dog in the other arm.

Giving up a tenured professorship? I mean, that is the thing that you are just not supposed to do. I like being a professor. I like doing research. I still have questions about those sand crabs and crayfish that I want to answer. It hurts to think that for all I know, I’ll never be able to hold one of those little Lepidopa in my hands again. I like my department colleagues. I like the students I work with.

But this job offer seemed to come at a “now or never” moment. Between taking the time to focus writing the Better Posters book, followed by a global COVID-19 pandemic making both field and lab research difficult, my biological data collection had practically ground to a halt. It looks like 2020 may be the first year in well over a decade that I haven’t published something. I’m not abandoning projects in mid-stream. I don’t have any graduate students who are counting on me to finish their degree. No mortgage I’m stuck with.

McMaster is teaching remotely this semester, so I will still be in Texas for a while at least. But the plan is to move back to Canada. I am anticipating massive reverse culture shock. I know that Canada is not perfect, but Canada at least looks like functioning democracy and not like a collapsing empire.

I am not sure what this move will mean for me professionally. But I am convinced that this move will result in a better quality of life for me, my wife, and family. I want to look after myself and them. This is not just me wanting to move home.

But I am not kidding myself. There is a big leap of faith here. And in any leap of faith, you have to ask what do you believe? Do I believe I am smart enough and hard working enough and resilient enough to make this okay for me, my wife, and family?

Leaps of faith are scary.

As I mentioned a while ago, I have recently rediscovered the music of The Alarm and Big Country (both bands connected by frontman Mike Peters). And as so often happens, music helps.

There will be hurt, there will be pain
There will be a lot of tears, a lot of joy
What we have left cannot be destroyed

Time to move on, to let it bleed
What will be, will be

There is a land, there is a sea
There is a place where we can be
There is a hope, there is a dream

You gotta make the journey with me

The Journey”, Big Country, 2013

Mike Peters: “Sometimes, you’ve got to make the journey. We have to make that leap of faith. We have to cross that line to embrace what is happening now. We’ve crossed that line, and this is a song that lyrically encourages everybody to cross that line. And it acknowledges, ‘Yes, it’s gonna be a tough journey. There will be pain, there will be joy, there will be tears.’ Everything associated in life comes into making this particular journey.”

30 August 2020

He was a king

The death of actor Chadwick Boseman is unexpectedly hard.

Chadwick Boseman in Captain America: Civil War

It was bad enough that he died young, but it was seeing the tributes and reaction on Twitter that brought it home. What he brought with his performances meant so much to so many people – especially his work as T’Challa, the Black Panther, in four movies.

People had wanted to see a hero like him for so long.

Losing a hero is hard. Even (maybe especially) a fictitious one. 

Before I saw Captain America: Civil War, I read an interview with one of the filmmakers, who nailed what Boseman brought to the role of T’Challa. Boseman’s performance didn’t blow you away: it made you lean in. When I saw the movie, that was exactly it. It wasn’t a showy performance, but it was intense and magnetic and compelling.

And what else has been clear in the last few days was that he was so much more than his acting roles and much more than T’Challa. By all accounts, he was just a decent human being.

In one of the most famous scenes in Black Panther, Killmonger says, “Is this y’all’s king?!”

Yes. Yes, he was.

24 August 2020

Thank you, MC Hammer!

Cover to "DanceJam the Music" album
One of the few delights of 2020 has been finding out that rapper MC Hammer is an amazing fan and booster of science.

If there is any academic society that is not trying to line up MC Hammer to give a keynote at their next annual meeting, they are missing out.

Society for Neuroscience, this man is your absolute perfect person to give the “Science and Society” lecture.

Thank you, Hammer, for your support! 

Update, 5 October 2020: Plot twist. Hammer’s also a Christian. Not a fan of evolutionary biology.

21 August 2020

Age is irrelevant to bad research papers

Despite its decisive drubbing in Kitzmiller v. Dover, intelligent design just keeps showing up like the proverbial bad penny. The latest poking of the intelligent design helmet out of the foxhole is a paper in the PNAS, spotted on Twitter.

I don’t like that an intelligent design paper was published in a journal. But nor do I like comments about the age of the author.

Guess that’s what happens when a paper about evolution by an 87-year-old physicist is reviewed by another physicist and a complex systems theorist. (here)


Author is 87. (here)

That the author is in his 80s is trotted out as though it’s an explanation. How? How is the author’s age at all relevant? I don’t know of any data that show people slide into intelligent design beliefs as they get older.

Don’t judge work by the age of authors. That’s ageist.

18 August 2020

Today’s task

“It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”

Tuesday Crustie: It’s good to be king

This is the happiest spiny lobster ever. And why not? He’s a king!

This is Ise Ebi-daio, mascot of Shima City in Japan. Spotted on Mondo Mascots., a Twitter account that is like potato chips. You can’t have just one. Addictive and always kind of delightful to look at. I learned about this account from the 99% Invisible podcast on yokai.

There are mascots for towns, aquariums, dentists’ offices, even prisons. There are mascots in cities that tell people not to litter or remind them to be quiet on the train. Everything has a mascot and anything can be a mascot.


17 August 2020

New Zealand and lobster welfare

Jasus edwardsii
Oh, is it that time again? When I review a news story about crustacean welfare where someone wants to change policy around treatment of crustaceans who claims to be backed by scientific evidence? Which, upon review, turns out to be a cursory and / or one-sided view of that scientific evidence?

Yes, it’s that time.

New Zealand’s regulations for lobster welfare have been subject to a complaint from the New Zealand Animal Law Society, as reported here. They charge that the current regulations, which require making a lobster “insensible” by cooling, are not met. They argue that chilling causes lobsters “pain.”

I looked at the complaint and am unimpressed with the level of scientific evidence it brings to the table.

First, they argue that any finding on decapod crustaceans apply to lobsters. This is often a reasonable thing to do, but I am hesitant here. 

1. Lobsters are big crustaceans. And when you are talking about cooling, the size of the animals is important because of thermal inertia. A small animal will cool faster than a large one, and that could be highly relevant to the response.

2. Different crustacean species are adapted to different temperature. Colleagues of mine who usually chilled crustaceans to do experiments found chilling didn’t work at all on Anaspides. Not surprising if you know it lives in cold waters in Tasmania.

In “Part 4 – The Code is not based on current scientific knowledge,” the document repeatedly quotes the work of Robert Elwood and colleagues, citing “personal communication” with Elwood. Elwood claims his position is not controversial, but not all crustacean biologists agree with Elwood’s interpretations (Diggles 2018).

Elwood says there is “substantial” research on this topic.

There are still many very basic questions about crustacean neurobiology that are not answered. Do crustaceans have neurons tuned to tissue damage? It looks plausible (Puri and Faulkes 2015), but those neurons hasn’t been fully characterized. There is work to do.

They document cites one that tested the response of crustaceans to low temperature (Roth and Øines 2010) which is the entire subject of the complaint. But there more papers that address responses of crustaceans to low temperature directly (Weineck et al. 2018; Puri and Faulkes 2015). Not mentioning those papers indicates their literature review is either cursory or cherry-picked.

There are so many little things that are asserted with minimal evidence. The document says they have “complex” brains. That’s subjective. The document says that some crustaceans have more neurons than vertebrates – but does not give an example. Sure, I suspect that a fully grown adult lobster has more neurons than a larval zebrafish, say. That sort of claim needs a lot more context to show how it is relevant to the question.

I don’t have any particular opinion about whether lobsters “feel pain.” I want good animal welfare laws. But I do not want policies based on small slivers of the scientific literature coming from a small number of labs.


Diggles BK. 2018. Review of some scientific issues related to crustacean welfare. ICES Journal of Marine Science: fsy058. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy058

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2015. Can crayfish take the heat? Procambarus clarkii show nociceptive behaviour to high temperature stimuli, but not low temperature or chemical stimuli. Biology Open 4(4): 441-448. https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.20149654

Roth B, Øines S. 2010. Stunning and killing of edible crabs (Cancer pagurus). Animal Welfare 19(3): 287-294. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ufaw/aw/2010/00000019/00000003/art00009

Weineck K, Ray A, Fleckenstein L, Medley M, Dzubuk N, Piana E, Cooper R. 2018. Physiological changes as a measure of crustacean welfare under different standardized stunning techniques: cooling and electroshock. Animals 8(9): 158. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani8090158

Related posts

Crustacean pain is still a complicated issue, despite the headlines

What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy

External links

Lobster slaughter methods causing significant pain and distress, Animal Law Society says

Notes from a pandemic: An important academic hoax

Stinging the Predators 15.0

Over the weekend, I added two new hoax papers to my Stinging the Predators anthology. Having spent a few years curating this thing (it’s one of those little side projects that never seems to end), I have often thought while putting in a new entry, “Another sting paper to show there are bad journals? That’s been done. Do more than your predecessors.”

One of the new entries is interesting because it does more than other stings, and vindicates a lot of previous stings in the process.

The story is laid out in some detail by Michaël, a.k.a. MimiRyudo, on his blog. (If your French is not up to snuff, Google Translate may help.) Here is a very short synopsis.

Certain French politicians and physicians promoted the suggestion that there was a drug that could treat COVID-19. The evidence kept rolling in that this suggestion was not a very good one. But several of the drug enthusiasts wrote a paper about the matter and published it in the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health.

Let me pause here before I continue the narrative. This is the first reason this hoax is interesting, because it is a reaction to exactly the sort of scenario that previous hoaxers have said they were trying to warn us about: someone using a low quality journal to push out dubious information that could have serious public health risks. Global pandemic, politicians writing journal articles, journalists jumping on it and publicizing it, because hey, one of the authors is a nationally recognized person.

(I had always considered this scenario unlikely. But then, 2020 is unlikely in many ways. )

The authors of this paper actually compared the review process at Asian Journal of Medicine and Health to The Lancet. For anyone remotely familiar with medical research, this is a jaw drop claim of false equivalence.

A group of people on Twitter decide to prove that Asian Journal of Medicine and Health is not like The Lancet and that the former will take literally anything. So they write a paper that is as absurd and ridiculous as they can be at every possible turn.

Their absurd paper is, of course, published.

This is the second reason this hoax is interesting. It’s not a generic “some journals take anything” hoax. It’s a hoax with a very clear target: the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health – which published a paper being used to fuel a potentially dangerous drug narrative during a public health crisis – can’t be trusted.

That specificity is what, I think, makes this hoax valuable in a way previous hoaxes of poor journals were not. It’s not a hand-waving hypothetical warning. It’s a specific response of actions that could pose real risk to real people. It undercuts the original paper in a way that mere criticism would not.

External links

Le meilleur article de tous les temps (loosely, "The best paper of all time")

Stinging the Predators

10 August 2020

New home page

DoctorZen.net viewed on phone

I’ve been thinking about making my personal website more mobile phone friendly for a while now. After all, more and more people browse the web on their phones. But I have been writing the HTML for my personal home page by hand, and the coding to get something that works for either a desktop or a mobile phone was beyond my skill.

Then I got an email reminder that I had once tinkered with Google Sites. Google is revamping the service, and sent me an email saying, “Hey, you better migrate your page over to the new service.”

I hadn’t touched it in years and had never really gotten anywhere with it. But it did get me to look at the new service and try it.

I’m pretty impressed. 

I had tinkered with automatic website builders before, especially Wix. I got some nice results with Wix, but the interface was so fiddly it drove me crazy. Google Sites was much more straightforward. 

But the big selling point was that the site finally looked good on a mobile phone!

There are many things that bug me about the Google Sites interface. You can’t even look at the underlying HTML, never mind fiddle with it. (You can still look at and edit your HTML in Blogger, which also recently got an overhaul.) You can used the “Embed” button to put in some custom HTML code, but the embedded section is “walled off” from the rest of the page. I’ve figured out how to add script to add Altmetric badges, but they don’t appear the way I want yet. 

It is, of course, very easy to add anything that Google owns and hard to add anything from anywhere else. Putting in a YouTube video has its own dedicated button and plays nice with the layout, but a Vimeo video is a very different, trickier job.

There are currently some deep limits on how much you can adjust the look of the site. You have a very limited set of typefaces, in particular. I am hoping that as this service matures that the options will expand.

I will keep updating my existing, made by hand with love website for the time being, but I decided for now to have my easy-to-remember URL, DoctorZen.net, point to the new site. It’s definitely a work in progress at the moment, and I will be getting

As far as I know, all you need for this service is a plain old Gmail / Google account.

03 August 2020

The Zen of Presentations, Part 73: Seven tips for crushing your Zoom presentation

Last week, I gave a live online presentation for Plant Biology and watched a lot of recorded presentations at the Animal Behavior Society virtual meeting. Based on those experiences, here are some suggestions for how to crush your next Zoom presentation.

1. Don’t use the keyboard to advance slides. Many presenters are recording themselves talking with their device's built in microphone. These mics are very sensitive to sound transmitted through the computer, like keystrokes. I heard many presentations where audible “ka-thunk” sounds punctuated the talk every time a slide advanced. It is both distracting and can obscure what the presenter is saying.

If you must use a keyboard for some reason, use the lightest tough possible. But using a mouse or setting up your slides to auto advance is much better.

2. Place your camera carefully. Most laptop cameras are wide angle and are placed so low that viewers seeing your ceiling more than you. Some people are so close, or the camera is so poorly positioned, that viewers can’t even see all of the face. You get better images by placing a laptop on a couple of thick books (textbooks are about the right height) or a thin cardboard box, and pushing it back further from you than your usual typing distance. (When you’re the featured speaker in a Zoom presentation, you shouldn’t be typing anyway.)

Comparing images captured with laptop on table at typing distance to laptop on box where you have to reach

3. Look at the camera, not the screen – especially when presenting. Humans are insanely good at judging where other people are looking. To create that sense of personal connection, you want people to feel like you are looking straight at them. You can’t get the when you are looking down at the other participants’ images.

My laptop has a little light that comes on when the camera is recording, so I just look at the light. If your camera does not light up, put a sticky note next to the camera with a note that says, “Look here!”

4. Keep your energy levels up. There are so many distractions when people are online. A low key, “drawn people in” approach can be very effective in person, but will probably fail in an online setting. You need to be one step shy of bouncing off the walls to keep viewers watching you and not checking their email.

5. Gesture beside your head, not in front of it. Cameras love movement. Zoom is a visual medium, like television. But unlike television, webcams in computers are (as mentioned) very wide-angle, and anything that approaches the camera – like your hands – shows up huge, like looking through a door security lens. You don’t want your fingertips bigger than your face.

Comparing images where speaker has hand near camera and where speaker has hand next to head

If you want to use your hands for emphasis, which is a good idea, raise them up by the side of your face so that they look the right size. This can feel weird at first, but with a bit of practice, brings a lot of visual interest to a presentation.

(I think I might have first heard this tip from Carin Bondar.)

6. Make a custom Zoom background. This is what slides in my PowerPoint deck looked like:

Slide with blue and white colours scheme, with handwritten heading font. How long do you want to spend at a poster? Most people vote 5 minutes.

Blues and whites. Hand-written font (Ready for Anything from Blambot) for headings and Corbel font for body.

I made a Zoom background specifically for the presentation, using the same colours and fonts, and added my Twitter handle and conference hashtag. (In retrospect, the hashtag might be a bit bigger.) It is just a nice touch to tie everything together.

Slide with blue and white colours scheme, with handwritten heading font. Shows Twitter handle and conference hashtag.
I got quite a few new followers after the talk, so maybe the background helped. I had my Twitter handle on my first and last slides, too, so hard to say what was most effective.

If you do this, remember you will be roughly in the center and any video of other speakers will most likely be on the right. A background with the focal point right in the middle is kind of a waste, because your face will cover it.

7. Wear headphones. I am surprised that after so many months, I am still hearing feedback and audio howlaround from people in a Zoom meeting not wearing headphones. If you are not wearing headphones, the computer plays the sound through the speakers, which is picked up by your mic, broadcast to the meeting, then played through your speakers and picked up by the mic again. If you are the only one speaking and nobody will ask you questions, this might not happen. But if you’re not taking questions, why are you having a Zoom meeting instead of recording a YouTube video?

If it’s just a regular old meeting, you probably don’t need to take these steps. But if you are the invited speaker at a conference, you want to class it up and do more than the bare minimum.