Monthly Archives: February 2007

Getting Acquainted

I’ve had two days in the new job. As with any new thing, there are a number of administrative things to take care of. At Michigan State University, pretty much the big initial thing is getting one’s “NetID”, the computer service identity for dealing with the campus information systems. Until you get that, you aren’t really a person at MSU. In order to get the NetID, you have to get a PIN number to go with the MSU identification number. (The first four digits of my MSU ID number are the same as the designation of a CMOS LSI quad switch chip, so that makes it easier to recall the remaining four digits.)

I met with Rob Pennock on Monday, and we talked a bit. He got me a key to the Avida-ED lab, where I can have a desk with some space for books and files. Avida-ED, by the way, is a project Rob is working on to provide a version of Avida suitable for use in classrooms to demonstrate evolutionary processes happening in real-time and graphically, a big plus for showing students what evolutionary science is all about. The rest of the day I spent in dealing with administrative stuff, like trying to get my NetID, actually getting my MSU photo ID card, parking permits, and trying to get the CD that the benefits office has for choosing benefits.

I met up with Rob again this morning, and we went to a Devolab (Digital Evolution Laboratory) meeting. The scheduled presenters were not actually present, so I was introduced to the group and then everyone took a turn saying who they were and what progress they were making on projects. There are some cool developments being made using the Avida platform, and in making the Avida software more widely available. A binary version for the Windows platform, for instance, is getting nearer to release. After the meeting, Brian Baer spent a while showing me where my desk in the Devolab is (easy; it’s the only one left, right by the door) and getting me set up to use the Beowulf cluster for running Avida. There are several accounts that have to be set up for new users, so that took some time.

Diane picked me up around lunch time, and we headed around to see some of the possible houses for rent. We filled out an application for a house near Laingsburg that looks promising. It is a 3 bedroom, 1.5 bath place on 2 acres in a rural setting. The landlord didn’t flinch on hearing about the dogs or hawks. There’s another possible house in DeWitt, but that one has more complexity in doing things like adding an outbuilding for the hawks, since it is included in a neighborhood association, and we would have to clear fencing and outbuildings with them as well as the landlord.

There is essentially no way that we can stay solvent in the long term if we only have my income from MSU. Postdoctoral positions are not noted for having high pay, and this one is no exception. We have debt from our graduate studies and from when I was ill in 2004. Diane is also looking for jobs, and we worked this evening on getting an application for her done for a position that is also at MSU. We are in a time crunch to get a rental house set up, since we can only stay where we are now until our friend returns from out-of-state this weekend. So in general, the househunting takes priority this week. However, the job Diane spotted had an application closing date of today, so we just needed to get it done in order for her to be considered.

On the Move, The Move’s End

We spent Friday night in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Weather Channel let us know that severe winter weather was headed into the area, so we hit the road in the morning to try to stay ahead of it. That worked. We made it into Lansing, Michigan around dusk on Saturday. Our choice was stark: offload the truck while we were tired from driving all day, or rest and offload the truck during the promised icy rain, snow, or sleet predicted for Sunday in Lansing. We decided to have a bit of dinner and offload it Saturday night.

We have a week such that we can stay at a friend’s house while she is out of town. That doesn’t leave us much time for househunting. After returning the rental truck on Sunday, we checked out rental houses down in Holt, in Lansing, and up in DeWitt and St. John’s. That left us pretty tired and we called it a day. The weather is bad, but we don’t have the luxury of waiting for better weather.

On the Move, Days 3, 4, and 5

Our travel across country continues. On Tuesday, we did make it to Albuquerque, where we were able to appreciate the hospitality of our friend, Janice, who works for Honeywell there. We spent Wednesday night at a rest area in Texas that commemorated Route 66. This has to be the fanciest rest area that I’ve seen in the USA, including interactive multimedia presentations and the complete art deco architecture and interior decoration. It is now Thursday evening, and we are in Vinita, Oklahoma, where the McDonald’s restaurant that spans I-44 proclaims itself to be the world’s largest. The trip odometer is currently a bit over 1,800 miles.

There is some bad weather expected moving in tomorrow evening, so we hope to make an early start and push on as far as we can go before that catches up with us. My parents think that we may reach Indianapolis tomorrow. We’ll see.

Why Deepak Chopra’s Critique of Evolutionary Biology is Bogus

Basically, Chopra doesn’t have a clue about what he chooses to critique. But even he halfway admits that at the end of his article. While a fisking of Deepak Chopra’s article (part 2) could be useful, I’ll just point out a rock-solid counter to his blithering: parasite-mediated control of host behavior. What you get in these systems are genetically-based programs that aren’t simply part of an organism’s phenotype, they do their real work by changing the behavior of the host organism. Maybe Chopra should spend a little remedial time reading up, starting with Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex Parasite Rex : Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures.

On the Move, Day 2

We rolled on across the rest of California on I-40 through Needles (we didn’t stop to see Spike). There was some rain going across that. In Arizona, we encountered heavier rain, then snow as we passed Williams and got to Flagstaff. Emily and Mike have gathered information from the Internet for us as we travel down the road, and they passed along the information that it was warmer further east, towards Winslow. We had originally wanted to make it to Albuquerque, but we settled for getting across the New Mexico border. The trip odometer reads over 800 miles so far.

There was some snow as we got ready for bed. So far, it doesn’t look like we have a hard freeze here.

On the Move, Day 1

We got on the road after getting our car loaded on a dolly this morning. This evening, we are about 422 miles along on the trip, a bit east of Barstow on I-40. The weather was good to start with, but we ran into a bit of rain around Bakersfield. We got to clear weather again before Barstow.

Packing News, Part 3

We admitted defeat earlier this week. After offloading a bunch of stuff, ditching the four-drawer file cabinets, and handing over the chest freezer, we took the trailer to get weighed again. It was about 3000 pounds heavier than we expected. So we have rented a truck after all. Glenn and Nick from NCSE came over to help us get stuff loaded, and they also helped us take down the hawk mews, a messy job that nevertheless needed doing.

What else could go wrong? Well, one of the family could get sick. Shelby, our male Harris’s hawk, had a large crop yesterday, and he had been fed the day before. Usually, they will have processed a cropful of food in a day. Diane noted that last night, and when we looked this morning, Shelby still had more in his crop than we thought he should. So Diane went off to an avian veterinary office in Oakley earlier today. The vet’s verdict: a mild case of “sour crop”. Shelby got subcutneous fluids and some antibiotics. We need to keep an eye on his progress as we travel. They also gave us the contact information for an avian vet in Albuquerque, New Mexico, if he does not seem to be getting better by the time we get that far.

We hope to finish up the loading in the morning. Then we can get our car loaded on a dolly to be towed behind the rental truck and start our cross-country trek. We have promises from both sets of parents and my sister to watch out for changes in weather forecasts along our route and road closure information.

I doubt that I will have time to do a raptor photo for this week. Sorry about that. I hope to be able to make it up to you next week.

Packing News, Part 2

We´ve been getting our trailer loaded with stuff with an eye to getting it weighed. Friday business hours went by with drizzle and rain, and we still had plenty more to do, so we found out about a place with a scale that was open on Saturday. Working to the deadline, we got the trailer loaded up, and touched up the tire inflation in pouring rain. We headed down the road with our combo, taking things carefully. A good thing, too, since the scales told us that we were a chunk overweight.

Our main target has been a set of four drawer file cabinets and their contents. This is where downsizing the household starts getting really painful and personal. Notes from past coursework? Time to go. Articles we´ve kept on file, but which could be gotten through a university library? Gone. We are toting up weights of stuff we are removing, and the progress is slow. Each box of paper we´ve taken out to recycle is about 50 pounds, and we have to get rid of a lot of those to cut down to meet our weight target.

Another issue Diane brought up adds to the stress… any item we buy in Michigan will have to be balanced by an equal weight of stuff discarded there, since we will be moving again the same way next year. This is a commitment not just to a momentary restriction in worldly possessions, but now is the leading edge of how we are going to be living for some time to come.

We have set aside a drawer of a file cabinet for things to be scanned. We can keep digital copies of things far more easily than the paper counterparts. That, though, also brings up a point, that for any item that we aren´t willing to spend the time needed to convert to digital, we will be having only a brief encounter with it.

Packing News

We’ve taken down almost all the fixtures at this point. We have the various
California-mandated disposal groups set: e-waste, batteries, other hazardous
materials. And the trailer is getting filled with about 40 “file totes”.

The Discovery Institute – Are They Telling the IRS the Truth?

Discovery Institute Funny Math

In order to portray themselves as the little guy or underdog, the DI is taking Flock of Dodos filmmaker to task for his statement in the film that the DI has an annual budget of about $5 million. Not so, says the DI; we only spent a little over $1 million on “intelligent design” in 2003, and have never had as much as $5 million in the annual budget.

The DI has a history of ambivalence concerning finances. In order to cast their bloated reflections in the mirror as “David” to “Goliaths” in opposition, they say they are poor. When it is convenient, they brag about how much money (“over $4 million”) they’ve spent in promoting “intelligent design”.

As I noted in an an article on Panda’s Thumb, finance is not just a he said, she said thing. Non-profit organizations like the DI file reports on finances with the IRS. So, while the DI is playing poor, poor pitiful me (only a little over $1 million to ID in 2003), what was it that they told the IRS for that year?

In 2003, the Discovery Institute reported $4,233,814.00 total revenue, $3,544,031.00 in end-of-year assets, and $2,499,077.00 total expenses. Of those expenses, $338,977.00 went to officers and directors, $627,285.00 went to other salaries and wages, and $122,809.00 went to travel. (In 2002, I noted that the DI could cut its travel budget in half and fund a research study. I’ll note that $60K is the level of funding for some NSF postdoctoral research fellowships.)

I’m not sure just how to juggle and cook those numbers, but the DI as an organization sure looks more like the $5 million institution Randy Olson talked about than the just over $1 million poor relation the DI would like to feign itself to be — at this particular moment in time. If they decided to overstate their financial resources to the IRS, that at least would be a refreshing change from the tax-evading branch of antievolution recently in the news.

Templeton Foundation Says: Stance is misconstrued on ‘intelligent design’

Stance is misconstrued on ‘intelligent design’ – Los Angeles Times

The Templeton Foundation, the deep pockets people for science and religion studies, takes another step away from the putrefying corpse of the “intelligent design” creationism movement.

Pamela Thompson says in her letter to the LA Times:

We do not believe that the science underpinning the intelligent-design movement is sound, we do not support research or programs that deny large areas of well-documented scientific knowledge, and the foundation is a nonpolitical entity and does not engage in or support political movements.

The statement is probably overdone a bit. The Templeton Foundation got taken for a ride early on with the “intelligent design” creationism movement. They should have to guts to admit that they were wrong, and not try to act as though their support of the IDCM never happened, or only happened by accident.

Ducks likely laughing at hungry interloper | 02/04/2007 | Ducks likely laughing at hungry interloper

Gary Bogue responds to a reader whose husband saw a hawk in the water with some ducks.

Dear Delta:

I think the hawk was diving down to grab itself a duck dinner … and missed. KER-SPLASH!

Could your husband tell if the ducks were laughing?

When we lived in Richland, Washington, Rusty, our female Harris’s hawk, discovered ducks. We rented a place just on the edge of the Yakima river floodplain. We would often walk the area down to the river there.

Where you have river, you get ducks. Now, ducks are no easy prey. They tend to move off once they notice the approach of humans. They are also used to falcons; they will stay firmly down on the water, and the falcons will not engage them there, preferring to knock the daylights out of ducks in flight. The other large hawk species in the area, the red-tailed hawk, might take a duck opportunistically, but they don’t generally even take note of ducks as prey. They are watching for rodents and lagomorphs by preference.

Rusty sized up the duck situation quickly on one of our walks. A group of ducks had paddled into a shallow branch of the river, where the water was no deeper than a foot. Rusty flew out over them, did a wingover, and dove down on a duck, slamming it where it had no way to dive out of reach or drag her under. She repeated that performance maybe twice more on following days, but then the duck grapevine seemed to have gotten the word out… don’t get stuck in shallow water over there! The ducks, on sighting Rusty approaching a perch near the river, would make a general exodus to deeper parts of the river.

Rusty doesn’t catch a duck everytime she makes a try for one. It’s probably the case that she has the usual raptor catch rate: out of twenty tries at something, she catches something once. So, the ducks can laugh themselves silly — nineteen times out of twenty.

Super Bowl?

OK, I was really, really into packing today. I hear there was a Super Bowl. So, what happened?

Student’s Recording of Teacher’s Views Leads to a Ban on Taping

Student’s Recording of Teacher’s Views Leads to a Ban on Taping – New York Times

The article notes that the school board has banned unauthorized taping or recording of class instruction at Kearny High School. This follows on the publicity garnered by video of a teacher proselytizing his classes:

A junior at Kearny High School in New Jersey, Matthew LaClair, 16, complained to his principal after the teacher in his American history class, David Paszkiewicz, told students that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark and that only Christians had a place in heaven. He started recording the comments in September because, he said, he was afraid school officials would not otherwise believe that the teacher had made them. Matthew said he was ridiculed and threatened after his criticism became public.

The school board’s justification for the ban were complaints from other students that their images and voices were published without their consent.

This one is a bit tricky to work out. The teacher, Paszkiewicz, first responded to LaClair’s complaint about comments in the classroom by denying that he had made them. In a battle of teacher vs. student credibility, the teacher usually is going to win. LaClair then produced his videotapes showing definitively that various exclusionary and proselytizing comments were made by Paszkiewicz. The video was an indispensible aid to truth in this case.

The solution provided by the school board amounts to prior restraint. They essentially want to put recourse to an intellectual property dispute under their own control. It simply is the wrong way to go. The courts have long upheld the right of news outlets to release the images, words, and names of people without permission in the interest of an informed public. The courts have also been quite clear about setting aside provisions made by various entities to attempt to exercise prior restraint.

How, then, to balance the concerns of LaClair’s schoolmates (the ones, I presume, who aren’t receiving death threats like LaClair has) and the need to avoid establishment clause violations? I don’t see any easy solution that works to everyone’s satisfaction. I tend to lean toward having the data in hand and dealing with the situation as that indicates than to leave things to error-prone testimonials. For public school teachers, there is an expectation that they will be accountable for their work and for their on-the-job behavior. Taking steps to make them less accountable is the wrong direction for a school board to go, in my opinion.