Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My First Trilobites!!

It looks like I moved from the Jurassic Coast to the Silurian Shore. Here are pictures of my first trilobite fossil finds. Growing up in Oregon, I am used to tripping over fossils all over the place with the exception of the big basaltic lava flows around the Columbia River Gorge. The rocks around Lake Champlain are very different. They are some of the oldest in North America with some dating from the mid Cambrian and most not more recent than around 450 million years old. This means there are very few fossils compared to Oregon, even in what is obviously ocean floor layered sediment. To my eyes the layers of grey rocks look like they are missing something. The Cambrian must have been a very lonely time or composed of some very squishy critters that did not fossilize. Last weekend however we were checking out Point Au Roche and I came across these two impressions along the lake that can only be trilobites. I had never found trilobite fossils before so I am probably more excited than I should be. Theese are not spectacular specimens but they are my first (also added a Scarlet Tanager to my life list on the trail back). Trilobites were fascinating animals that went from being very common and diverse sea creatures to completely extinct. They had some of the fundamental segmentation patterns associated with modern arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, millipedes etc) and the first compound eyes. If The Doctor ever offered me a ride in his blue box I think a trilobite collecting trip would be close to the top of my list of things to do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Our Third Foreign Country (part three)

In an earlier post I talked about the honeymoon period one gets when moving to a new country. Well, the love in with Plattsburgh has begun!!! Here is my list of things I love about this place:

1) It is stunningly beautiful. The lake, river and country side is amazing. There are lots of outdoor activities and you can be in the middle of nowhere with a short drive out of town.

2) The people still have the small town friendliness and openness about them.

3) Humongous parking spaces, wide roads and the town is small enough that traffic is never bad.
4) The University is right on the Saranac River and river trail.

5) It's summer! Even this heat wave has been a huge relief compared to the weather we left behind.

6) They speak American English. Awesome!

7) The Koffee Kat coffee shop. I had the most AWESOME raspberry coffee milkshake ever.

8) Good Mexican food (at Pepper's Restaurant)

9) The wildlife, we have already seen a woodchuck (ground hog) behind the hotel and a beaver during a test drive while car shopping. A giant raccoon scared Karen nearly to death when we went for a walk a few mornings ago. Never know what is going to pop up next.

10) We are near our old friends Ken and Sara, Ken barbeques like a pro and his homemade beer number 17 is so good it would sell well in a British pub.

11) The birds, I have seen Cardinals, Blue Jays, Ospreys, Gold Finches and many other old favorites. I even have two new ones for my life list, the Common Grackle (the iridescent blue head is amazing in the right light) and Eastern Blue Bird. I can't wait to hit the major birding sites in the area!

12) Riding the ferry across Lake Champlain.

13) There is a mall and nice grocery stores with an awesome range of choices.

14) Cheap gas. Americans don't appreciate that anything under $8 a gallon is a steal where we were living.

15) Common sense seems to rule at the university. Very little bureaucracy at work compared to Britain and a senior management that so far is more interested in the practicalities of making things work than with appearances.

16) Lot's of free parking downtown.

17) I might actually be able to practice my French giving lost Canadians directions to the Wallmart.

18) They don't drive too fast here like they do in Britain. 

19) Poptarts on sale 2 boxes for $4.

20) In Southampton the Ford Focus was everywhere, in Plattsburgh it's the Ford Mustang. I think that pretty much says it all.

Note that I decided to skip part 2 because whining about cell phone companies, cable companies and the DMV is predictable and boring.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Our Third Foreign Country (part 1)

We are in the throes of our third move across international borders, moving back to the United States. My wife is calling it “our third foreign country”. We have arrived and surprisingly what has struck us most strongly isn’t what has changed, but what has remained the same and unappreciated before our European adventure began almost 13 years ago.
I have read in several guide books about the key characteristics of pioneer societies like the US that differ from Europe. The biggest one is how new comers are treated. In Europe, with its history of invasions by neighbors, newcomers were historically greeted with suspicion and left alone. The walled cities of the past and the heavy security shutters on most houses in Europe are the architectural expression of this sentiment. In stark contrast, the next immigrant coming into a frontier society on the edge of existence is a boon and needs help to survive. This historical artifact is why Americans are so friendly, helpful and for Europeans, annoyingly too interested in other people’s business. Since arriving in Plattsburgh, we have been greeted and offered extensive assistance and advice from everyone from the university, to total strangers we have encounter while getting set up. The level of aid is beyond anything imaginable that one would get in a European nation. This has left us sometimes surprised and feeling a bit uncomfortable at times until we remember that we were like that too before we left. Indeed, I think we went out of our way to make new arrivals feel welcome and offered aid to several new comers in Lausanne and Southampton. It is simply something Americans tend to do, particularly those from the west and from small town rural areas. There were one or two locals who helped us out with our moves to Switzerland and to England, but we never experienced the grand welcome and genuine aid from so many that we are getting here from nearly everyone we interact with on and off campus. There are always exceptions, and oddly they tend to occur in certain organizations across all countries. I will save that for part 2 and just give a big thank you to everyone in Plattsburgh who has been so helpful.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Academic Declaration of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for academic scholars to openly defy the generous patrons of their arts and sciences, it is necessary for our own integrity that we declare the causes of our dissent. 

We hold these aims to be self-evident, that all persons have an equal right to access truth, that the pursuit of knowledge is necessary to secure a decent standard of living, and that a free society can only exist based on truth. To secure these goods, members of higher education institutions (hence forth the academy) depend upon the support of the enlightened wealthiest classes and our governments. When any group or government becomes destructive of these ends through direct or indirect manipulation of the academy to the detriment of the public good, to the extent of hindering the pursuit of knowledge, eroding the future of our arts and sciences, and threatening every citizens’ liberty by supressing truth and blocking social mobility, it is the right and responsibility of the academy to openly question and defy our benefactors.

Such has been the suffering and demands placed on the academy by Her Majesty’s government.

Her government is effectively dictating academy membership by forcing universities to hire, retain and promote staff based on government imposed fiscal pressures (the REF) rather than on overall scholarly contribution to the academy.

Her government has required the academy to prostrate itself and compromise its integrity by compelling it's members to write insincere “impact statements” when requesting support, thus attempting to divert academics from the unfettered pursuit of knowledge to the end of validating partisan political goals.

Her government has cut all funding for teaching of non-STEM subjects effectively pressuring universities to eliminate and retain disciplines on fiscal rather than academic grounds, thus effectively restricting access to the history, knowledge and language of power to the privileged upper classes.

Her government has imposed a system requiring excessive student fees suddenly and without proper planning denying equal access for qualified students and making responsible long term decision making about the fiscal management of universities impossible.

Her government imposes excessive state regulations in the name of standards that are effectively stifling teaching innovation under the guise of maintaining quality and equality of degrees across the university sector thus impinging on the academy’s freedom to educate the next generation of our respective discipline’s academy members.  

Much of this government attack on the academy is a part of an ideological and economically motivated attack on liberty, equality and freedom being waged by the wealthiest of the priviledged upper classes who believe that no one should arise above their station

This culture of profiteering is working to corrupt the senior management of our universities through outrageous salaries as a reward for dutifully imposing her majesties government’s destructive anti-scholarly policies. If these managers can earn the same in industry then public charities like universities should not be keeping them from helping the private economy in these dire times.

Profiteers have succeeded in diverting public research money to subsidize for profit industry research and development through ring fencing co-funded industry/university training schemes.

Profiteers are demanding that universities make up for under-funded school systems, diverting resources from discovery and higher education, to remedial training in transferable skills. This effectively converts higher education from supporting social and economic mobility to maintaining servitude to the wealthiest leaders of industry by setting employability as the highest aspirtion.

These attacks on our academic and public freedom and the resulting damage they will cause to the academy’s ability to pursue the truth and produce the discoveries necessary for the long term public good require strong response.  

The British academy should unite across the university sector and refuse to participate in the REF by not submitting any returns or paperwork, refuse to assess or participate in research council impact statements by boycotting those sections of grant applications and refusing to provide reviews based on impact, ignore HEFCE and QAA regulations and rules imposed on their teaching and degree programs, and the people of Britain should choose to support their young people in the hopeful pursuit of knowledge instead of condemning them to training for a lifetime of indefinite servitude punctuated by periods of unemployment.

As it does not appear to be in the nature of the British academy to defy their class system or their government pay masters, even in light of these egregious assaults on academic freedom and threat of destruction of all they say they should be working for, I have  left for the United States, where although rumours indicate an academy moving in similar direction, a revolutionary tradition of standing up for truth, the public good, and academic freedom may yet prevail.

Monday, June 25, 2012

On Moving to a Foreign Country.

This one I have been meaning to write for a while now. I have learned a few things having moved to new countries twice (to Switzerland and to Great Britain) and we are now about to move back to the US. There is an emotional pattern that everyone seems to experience when dealing with culture shock from such big moves. For the first month from arrival you will experience euphoria of the exciting and new place. Everything appears wonderful and you only see the positives. After this, you slowly begin to notice the negatives one by one. This intensifies bottoming out at about three months. At this point some people will break and run home screaming. Reality then begins to take over and you will slowly gain the proper perspective over time by around month six. This is when you can decide with a clear head whether to stay or go. I read about this common response to culture shock somewhere in  tour book about France, and this is exactly what I experienced in my Swiss move. Here is my twelve point advice list on dealing with such moves.

1)      You will feel lost, exposed, ignorant and vulnerable. If you cannot handle the feeling of being lost then you will not like travelling to foreign countries. No matter how much you prepare or how much support you have in place, there is no way around feeling fear of the unknown. You’ll get lost, be blindsided by banking, immigration and health care issues, but you will muddle through. Playing the dumb foreigner card can work well here. Just accept the fact that you are going to feel stupid more often than you would like and get on with it.
2)      Always try to get some local information about a country before you visit or move there. Key ones include: how to say please and thank you and the basic numbers, how the mass transit system works, in a restaurant do you ask for the tab or is it automatically brought to you after the meal, how to order drinks and food in a pub, do the locals form orderly cues or not. Knowing these simple things avoids much unnecessary tension. The phrase "ce n'est pas grave" will go along way to making your host calm down in a French area. It is sometimes hard to anticipate these little things that grease the social machinery so watch for them and learn them
3)      Either learn the language or plan on it being a temporary but educational period of your life. There is no way you will ever be comfortable living in another county without learning the local language. I had a terrible time with French and was constantly bailed out by my wife and friends. I was in a French speaking area of Switzerland which made it harder because of the cultural significance French speakers attach to their language. There was no way I was ever going to fit in or have a friendly chat with the people living around me unless I learned French. It is not a tolerable nor healthy way to live being so isolated from the people around you. It was telling that we never met an expat living in Lausanne permanently that did not learn the language.
4)      The hardest catch-22 of our foreign moves has been needing a resident address to get a bank account but needing a bank account to rent. Find a sympathetic banker who will let you use your work address. If you can’t get a bank account set up from abroad then bring lots of cash with you (travellers checks saved us with our Swiss more). The paper work will always be a pain so just plod on through it. If you are going to convert a lot of money, use a currency trader and not the bank. This last trick is saving us thousands of pounds on our move to the states.
5)      Save everything addressed to your residence. DO NOT SIGN UP FOR ELECTRONIC UTILITY BILLS OR BANK STATEMENTS!!!! Many government agencies and companies require proof of address for various amounts of time. Get some folders and keep all of your bank statements and utility bills that are mailed to your residence. These rules and time periods are always changing so it is best to just keep everything. Also be sure to bring original birth certificates, marriage certificate and at least scans of degrees earned.
6)      Get a local driving license as soon as possible. Most places let you drive on a foreign license for a while and it is tempting to put this one off. Don’t. If if you let it go to long it might not be as easy to get a new license as the rules can change  when the grace period ends from giving the foreigner a break to strictly applying the local requirements.  You might have to take driving lessons and pass a test. Such lessons are highly recommended for US drivers moving to anyplace with left hand side of the road driving and roundabouts. The trap here is that it will likely take much longer and cost a lot more to get a license than you might think.
7)      Cultural differences are all about trade-offs. The strict Swiss rules might seem stifling, but everyone knows where they stand and the buses and trains run on time.  The Brits are great at being tough and just getting on with it but end up blindly enduring more abuse through regulations and red tape than any American would ever tolerate. Americans are genuinely friendly and helpful, but when Europeans act that way it really means much more than being polite. Everything that annoys you about a foreign culture has some benefit or they would not do things that way. And the way you do things will sometimes annoy them because they will not clearly see the benefit.
8)      Your home country is not as important to the residents of your new country as you think. This is really hard for Americans to understand. The US is about 10% of the world and that is about how important US affairs are to everyone else in the world, except when we are dragging someone into a war. The world does not revolve around the US and everyone in the world does not want to be like the US. So don’t run around telling everyone how much smarter or better your homeland does things. Like I said above, it’s all about trade-offs. Humility and holding your tongue is sometimes advisable.
9)      One trick to avoid home sickness is to revel in the positives of the place you are living that are not available in your homeland. In Switzerland it was the awesome food and wine and beauty of the place, in England the pubs, the social gardening (our allotment), and history. Travelling and vacationing in places you would not have access to from your homeland is another big plus that makes it worthwhile.
10)  The internet is the key to staying in touch with your family back home. Email, Facebook and Skype are the only reason I have any idea at all what my parents, siblings and nieces are up to. Make it a priority to stay connected.
11)  Recognize that the times when the distance will feel greatest will be when your family and friends are sick or hurting. Always have an emergency plane ticket fund or enough on your credit card for emergency trips home. I once flew home for my mother’s breast cancer surgery and I think it made a huge difference for everyone that we were all there together.
12)  Don’t be a finicky eater. The local cuisine is there because the locals know how to cook best with what is regionally available. It might seem weird and unappetizing, but at least give it all a try with an open mind. If you don’t like it then don’t eat it again. This worked really well for me as I won’t order snails or organ meats again, but discovered spatzel, squid ink pasta, mussels, wild boar, mushy peas and parsnips. And the French are absolutely right, day old bread is for the ducks!

I do count my time as an expat as being one of the most best and amazing times of my life. It is hard sometimes, but I never would have understood the world or my own country as well as I do now without that outside experience and point of view. We are now moving back to the US (east coast, so not really going home) and given the changes of the last 12 and a half years my wife is calling it “our third foreign country”.  More on this in a coming post.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Prometheus is a Creationist Trojan Horse.

The movie Prometheus is a subtle piece of intelligently designed anti-evolution propaganda. From the seeding of earth by an angelic alien with a human image to portrayal of creationism’s worse enemies (the biologist and the geologist) as cowardly buffoons, the film attacks evolution and makes out evolution as something to be feared. I do realize that much science fiction is based on asking what might happen if something we know is true is not, but in this case it seems to go beyond just being a plot device to manipulative propaganda.

WARNING SPOILERS: If you have not yet seen the movie you might not want to read beyond this point until you have. I will be revealing plot twists below.

Right from the beginning warning flags pop up as the earth is seeded by a human like life form, on a melting glacier. My first thought was that is probably not what the earth looked like 4.5 billion years ago but this is more like the end of an ice age, hmm. . . I let it slide. A little later we find out the main character is a cross wearing creationist, which is not in itself a problem. This could make for an interesting twist I thought. We learn this when she shouts down the team biologist with a lame intelligent design statement, who then caves in with a weak argument about 300 years of Darwinism. It is the way this biologist and the rude, ill kept geologist are portrayed that finally gave away the creationist agenda. Can it be coincidence that the most threatening enemies of creationism, biologists and geologists who have amassed most of the convincing evidence for evolution are the ones portrayed as the cowards and fools? The biologist in particular is presented as an unbelievable object of ridicule. First he is shown wanting to run away from an alien without even taking a close look at it. This is patently unbelievable. Then to add insult to injury, when the two boffin buffoons encounter an alien life form the biologist pushes aside the geologist and says say I’m a biologist let me deal this and then promptly employs that sophisticated biology technique of using baby talk. I am not kidding, no grab the camera or even grab the creature with ill-advised enthusiasm; just baby talk. I must have missed something in graduate school. When the organism makes what any biologist and all animals would recognize as a universal warning gesture (making itself look big) our expert biologist takes this an invitation stick his finger in its mouth. My only relief was that both boffins were promptly and vigorously removed from the movie before the writer could make any more fun of them. This is pure targeted caricature that one does not expect to see in smart Sci-Fi. The next reference that made my sphincter clench in my seat was a discussion where one of the crew members said all you need to make life was a “some DNA and half a brain” as if it was obvious. Maybe I was being a bit over sensitive by then but all of the evidence so far suggests that it takes a lot less than that and certainly no brains at all.

At the deepest level the real monster in Prometheus is Dawkin’s selfish gene. It is the uncontrolled evolution of life that provides the main threat in the movie. Evolution itself is the uncontrollable power and only the intelligently designed life forms can hope to contain it. Instead of unguided natural evolution being accurately shown as the well spring of all life and humanity it is portrayed as a dark corrupting process that is threatening to destroy everything. Every horror movie needs something real behind the monster. The irony here is that what make the movie scary at all is that evolution is true and individual level selection is the rule despite creationist and intelligent design dribble. Unfortunately, even the portrayal of change over time as the monster “evolves” shows a progression with nothing to do with natural selection and instead appears as some sort of directed unexplained advancement occurring with each incarnation. The movie makers can’t even get that right, nor do I suspect that they wanted to.  Ridley Scott and the other makers of the film should be ashamed of themselves for mistaking suspended disbelief with promoting belief in creationism at the expense of evolution.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Office workers of the world unite!

I recently had a go at someone (@suebecks) on Twitter for posting a link to an article favourable to open offices and hotdesking in the workplace. Although this person was just highlighting a new trend, this trend needs to be stopped.
Flying over MY office cubicle.
In the name of full disclosure I work in a university open office in a 3 x 3 meter personal cubicle. The floor contains some closed offices, some open cubicles and mostly open desks used by graduate students and post docs. My grad student can literally lean sideways and see what I am doing on my computer. The office lay out was forced upon us by management with a beautiful new building (not being facetious, it really is gorgeous to look at). I tried to have an open mind when I moved in almost two years ago, but it simply does not work. It is noisy, distracting and I cannot have private and confidential conversations on the phone or in my office. The latter point is especially important as I need to talk to students, and talk about student problems on a regular basis. The new design has also placed locked doors between staff (faculty in the US) and our students in order to prevent public access to our floors.
The article in question takes this diabolical trend towards open offices another step farther by proposing hotdesking within open offices. Why is this diabolical? The answer has to do with human nature. Humans are social animals and as such, we always form hierarchies and need to assert our individuality and place within the group by claiming space and status. Primate social hierarchies are as much part of our nature as two legs and two arms and opposable thumbs. These hierarchical instincts simply cannot be suppressed without consequences. Indeed, they may not be suppressible at all as I can think of no successful examples of a social or political system of perfect equality and communal property ever working in all of human history. In fact the best analogy for the complete removal of all personal space from the work place is the way old style communism does away with private property where the individual is no longer valued in favour of the collective. History has proven that in such a system, only the privileged party rulers have power and that the masses are inevitably abused.
Part of the propaganda used to justify hotdesking in open offices is the lie that more creative work results from groups than from individuals. Creativity always springs from individuals who dare to question the accepted premises of the group. Destroying a sense of individuality can only promote derivative group thinking by suppressing the individual and making it harder to question the group. Short sighted senior managers might feel more secure with such a group think attitude but those with vision should see the long term risk to productivity. Part of me suspects that the real motive behind these moves towards stripping workers of ownership in the work place is to make mid-level office workers feel less valued so as to keep them living in fear. What better way to communicate that you are expendable than to make sure you have no physical presence in the office? This way workers can be intimidated into working more while fear keeps them demanding less. It is a long term cost cutting exercise to relegate mid-level workers to the factory floor, and factory floor wages. Open offices and hotdesking are simply tools of tyranny and oppression at the business level. So stand up for freedom, and fight the un-American trend toward the communist take-over of our business work spaces!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cheers from Bolonia!

One of the perks of living and working in foreign country is that you occasionally get to do something that would get you fired and thrown into prison in your native land. I recently participated in such a felonious act while teaching a field course in Spain. One night, I did a Rioja wine tasting for the students after dinner. Before anyone starts to condemn me, this was perfectly legal as the students were all over 18 (legal drinking age in the UK and in Spain) and officially off the university clock during the tasting.
One important aspect of our outstanding  ten day field course is that the students have to travel to and live in Bolonia Spain for the duration.  In an effort to keep the students busy and away from the drinking opportunities, we try to have some after dinner activities that are either cultural or just plain fun. This year we did a quiz night, salsa dancing lessons, a very silly game that I have no idea what to call from one of our graduate student demonstrators, and I did a Rioja tasting.  In past years Sherry tastings were done so I was breaking from tradition. Unfortunately, I lacked the personal funds to get the really good Riojas but did manage a set of three different reds (the one white available at the local shop was so cheap it scared me). I covered the very basics from why one smells the cork, how to visually judge the age, showed them the effects of aging in oak, to some of the specific terminology around Rioja wines. Of course the harsher tasting red wines were lost on the sugar loving pallet of many of these students. However, some of them were very interested and asked good questions during and after which is how I usually judge my teaching performances.  At the end, I certainly did not feel any harm was done and that on the contrary most learned something and were delayed from their nightly cheap pitchers of Sangria for half an hour.
It was not until the next morning when it occurred to me just how much trouble I would have been in if I did this with a freshman class of 18 year olds in the states. I can imagine the headline; “University professor gives 18 year olds alcohol with lesson on how to drink on university field trip”.  Obviously I would NEVER do this state side, but it does highlight the big cultural differences between the US and Europe with alcohol. I didn’t realize what it meant that the US was founded by puritans until living in Switzerland. In Lausanne, the break room recycle box was full of wine bottles and even hard liqueur could be bought from the student cafeteria. Alcohol, especially wine, was at every social and official function. Europe must be one of the hardest places for an alcoholic to live given the way alcohol so permeates every aspect of social life. In England it is different in that the English have a real binge drinking problem. Where the Swiss and French drink because that is just what you do over meals and snacks, the English go out and get clobbered to have stories to tell about it should they survive. Our 18 - 19 year old students on the field course were all hardened veterans well trained in Southampton’s night clubs and bars before they arrive to very cheap Sangrias at the hostals where we stay. There would be no way to police a ban on drinking. A ban would only make it impossible to know when they got out of hand because they would just hide away in their rooms or on the beach. Throw in the fact that they are technically adults and we basically have no other way to control the level of binge drinking except by scheduling late dinners, early breakfast roll call, and tests in such a way as to minimize excess drinking. We consciously do this and it actually works to a great extent. The rest of the time we hold our breath and hope they look after each other which they usually do.
Cultural context seems to be the overriding lesson here when it comes to alcohol. What is right in one time and place can be wrong in another and vice versa. From the US perspective public lashing for drinking (in Saudi Arabia) seems extreme: from Europe, the US sometimes looks just as extreme.  Living in another culture really does cause one to re-evaluate ones preconceptions and definition of right and wrong in various situations. This deeper perspective on morality is one the great advantages of getting out your own culture for a time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Webmaster and Commander (part 2)

As promised, installment two of my website adventure. To start the process of setting up my own website I first had to overcome the fear of screwing up. I knew I was going to make amateur mistakes and end up spending more money than necessary. It’s the same thing for any new hobby, so I decided to accept that fact and just do it.
First, I wanted a good domain name. I decided on some variant of Joel Parcouer (explained on the contact page of my website). I looked at then The latter was cheaper so I whipped out my credit card, spent about £10 and bought the domain for several years. Now that I had the address I now needed some place to put my website. I poked around with Google’s web hosting and the templates there, but they seemed to be proprietary and I really wanted complete control so I decided against Google. After searching around and reading reviews and such I decided to go with Bluehost. Here I suspect they saw me coming. I misinterpreted the fee structure (yearly for three years or for three years) and bought it with the extra security costing a whopping £160 for three years. Yikes! It is a learning process and this might be a good deal for all I know. I honestly have no idea how much it should cost.
The first thing I did on Bluehost was to assign my domain name to the account. It was so easy I have forgotten how I did it. I do remember that they led me through it by my nose. The next thing Bluehost wanted me to do was to manage 100 free email accounts as if that was some great perk. It may be for businesses, but not for me. The last thing I want to do is to manage spam filters for an email system I do not need, so I skipped setting that up and went onto the control panel. I might reconsider the email account if Google becomes genuinely evil someday. The Bluehost control panel contains many files and programs that I have never heard of. I have some experience playing around with HTML and was able to find the error files that are displayed when things go wrong.  I then deduced the folder where the website needs to go by trial and error with a dummy HTML index file (index.html is the first file a browser open).
 I obviously lack the experience to code a quality site from scratch so I Googled free webpage templates. The free part was important as I had already blown my budget of £100. WordPress kept coming up so I tried that only to discover blog templates and more proprietary structure and code. The one thing I hate are programs like Frontpage that try to lock you into their program forever by making the code so complicated that you can never tweak it with any other program. I have always suspected that software engineers deliberately make computer languages and code just complicated enough to prevent common people writing their own programs and websites, thus protecting programmer jobs.  So moving on down the Google search list I came across a website by Andreas Vicklund. This guy is a genius. His templates are so simple and clear that even I could look at the HTML code and see how the HTML pages work. I even figured out big pieces of the CSS style sheet that came with it. The best part is that he posts a set of completely free high quality templates that you can use for anything as long as you leave the “designed by line” at the bottom of the page with his link. I chose the winter variant. Compare that to my version and you will begin to see how you can take a basic template and make it your own. You just copy and paste substituting your own text and  images and then tweak parts to come up with your own site. I even replaced his stylised mountains with my own picture of the Alps that I took from my balcony while living in Switzerland. To do this I had to modify the CSS style sheet. This really is not as scary as it sounds once you realize that a CSS sheet is just a set of instructions for named elements shared between HTML files in your website.
I have mentioned HTML code a few times. For those who don’t know, HTML provides your web browser with instructions on what and how to present the stuff you see on a webpage. It is probably the simplest form of computer programming that anyone can do.  You can pretty much become a functional programmer with HTML by reading one of the “For Dummies” books. To see a websites code most browsers have a function called view source. To actually play with an HTML file you need to open it with a text editor. My favourites are Crimson Editor for Windows and TextWrangler for my Mac. I always save a version of any HTML file before messing with it so that I can go back when I screw it up. The editing procedure was to change the code, save the file, then open it (or refresh) with my browser to see what happened. I thus figured out how to do things by trial and error and Googling. I easily found HTML examples on the web by googling HTML and the tag name. The process was no more intellectually demanding than working a puzzle or computer game. I used the free program Seamonkey on both Windows and my Mac to get some of the fancier things in. This free web design program is about as simple and clean as they come. It’s a WYSYG editor. The only problem is that it sometimes puts in extra spacing and some odd redundant code; including stuff like <small></small> with nothing in between.  I ended up proof reading and editing out these redundant statements in the text editor.
After about a month of working on this in my spare and free time, I finally got enough together to post a new website. Loading it was trivial with one of the programs on the Bluehost control panel. Now the problem is that I see so much more that I want to do to improve it. All I need is the time.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cracks appear in another aging paradigm. Dietary restriction is dependent on genetic background.

First the free radical theory, then sirtuins, and now the ability of dietary restriction to extend lifespan is being thrown into question.  Are there any universal biochemical aging pathways left?  A recent paper in Ageing Research Reviews (sorry, its  Elsevier .  .  .  .) gives the results of a meta-analysis of the evidence for genetic effects on aging under DR. What Swindell found  is that the lifespan extending effects of dietary restriction (DR) depend on genetic back ground and DR may not even work in wild type populations. I have been hearing rumblings behind the scenes that DR was in trouble and now the story might be coming out.  The new study is written such that the contradictory data sets are not emphasised, but here is a quote from the discussion:
“An implication of these findings is that connections between DR and basic aging mechanisms may lack a universal character, and that greater attention to species-and genotype-specific effects will be valuable for developing a nuanced model of how DR impacts aging and longevity.”
 In the last decade pretty much everything researchers in aging took for granted has been discredited. The bottom line is that research into aging is going through a period of overturning most of what we thought we knew making it the most exciting time to be a researcher in this field for the last several decades. If anyone is trying to tell you aging is almost solved, they are most likely selling snake oil. If you are curious what I think is going on then see my review in Myrmecology News (or here).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Webmaster and Commander (part 1)

Today I switched my professional website from our university system to my own domain on a private hosting service ( This was not as difficult as I thought it would be. There are many reasons for why I made this move, none of which are related to the quality of our own university web designers.
There are several strong reasons for taking over management of my own website. Joan Strassmann pointed out many of these in a recent blog that tipped me over the edge to actually going through with it. First and foremost, my web presence is too important to place into someone else’s hands who does not have my interests as their number one priority. My website is vital for recruiting graduate students and post docs and serves as the most easily accessible reference for anyone reviewing my papers and grant applications. It also provides a face to the media, a resource for students and acts as a vital platform to help my graduate students and post docs gain employment. I will go so far as to say that academics without a web presence are pretty much the 21st  century definition of deadwood. One might think that a university would be able to set up and maintain a better website than doing your own, but after some thought, I have come to the conclusion that this is impossible. The fact that institutions, and not the individual academic, pays the web designers means that we academics are always left with a suboptimal web presence unless we take matters into our own hands. This is not to disparage any university as the collective will always act in the collective interest.
The university website is set up to showcase the university and the centre’s within it. The result is emphasis on connections within the university. It is designed in such a way as to show case institutional activities and achievements. When individuals are featured it is usually for a short time and only a carefully selected few are allowed the spotlight. This would fine if I was always the one in the spot light whenever anyone visited the university website, but that is not possible. The way our university describes active research projects provides an excellent example of this conflict of perspective. At our university website, a visitor will get exactly the same description of a research project (from the same page the collaborators all link to) regardless of which collaborator’s website they are coming from. This makes sense from a management and university based perspective. However, from my perspective, I want to describe the project from the point of view of my contribution, targeting my peers, and those who I expect to be visiting my site. Thus, the university wants continuity and efficiency with single project descriptions, where as individuals need to emphasize their unique contributions and perspective. The individual ideal leads to replication of material in various forms and makes it difficult for media or other bodies to scrape the university websites for institutional information.  Individuals will always come out second in this conflict in point of view because our web designers serve the university first  for  the simple reason that the university signs the pay checks.
One other practical problem is the amount of effort it takes to update the information on an institutional webpage. The official website always requires one to go through an official IT person who then posts it in the proper format. In theory, it should be easy but anyone who has ever done this knows that it is a game of postman with the IT person between the website and yourself. You cannot make a change, see how it looks, then make another change, see what happens, then change your mind and go back on something etc. These sorts of iterations, coupled with inevitable misunderstandings, drive the poor IT person (and yourself) crazy with frustration and acrimony. What ends up happening is that updating becomes such an unpleasant and time consuming chore that the official site can languish unchanged for years.
Perhaps most importantly, the institutional perspective almost always side lines the large majority of junior personal. The provisioning of websites tends to be prioritized or delegated from top to bottom with post doc, graduate students and technicians frequently left up to lab leaders to take care of. These pages are especially important for international researchers where the internet may be the only easily accessed public source of information for recruitment purposes. We are given a space to post these pages, but internal links are always directed to the university version of our official pages first. The links to the personally managed pages are almost always buried by hiding them in the research or contact sections of the official page. 
The other reason for owning your webpage is for the sake of continuity. On at least one occasion a university reconfigured our IT system and moved all of our personal web spaces, breaking the links to our webpages by changing the URLs. This undid the Google ranking and broke the links in my publications.  In addition, academics are notoriously mobile and moving your web address means all of the links from other people and sites and those in your published work will end up dead unless your institutions is willing to maintain pages indefinitely. Fortunately for me, my former post doc institution (UNIL) does. I am now convinced that it is most prudent to build a website with one permanent domain name that you can own for your entire career.
Finally, a large part of my motivation for my setting up my own website was to learn how to setup a webpage and to manage a web domain. As an ignorant amateur at html, I stumbled through the process with much trial and error, but I think ended up with a pretty nice webpage (mostly to discovering the amazing world of free templates, thank you Andreas Viklund). That adventure will be covered in part 2.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Where are the Dorian Gray’s?

I recently watched a movie adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray and realized that there are no examples of human mutants who do not age in the manner of Dorian Gray. There are examples of old people doing well into their 100’s and rare young children with the bodies of 70 year olds who do the opposite, but I am unaware of any records of any 75 year olds who could pass for 20. Why is that?

First, for those who have not read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, the important point here is that the main character does not age while retaining the body of 20 year old until his final demise in his 70's. Evolution seems to have no trouble pulling off this trick in some animals like sea urchins and seed harvester ants. This is called negligible senescence. The lack of specific cases in humans suggests that there are no single mutations or even pathways that are master controls of aging. If such a simple mechanism existed, then by chance someone should have been born with a modified version of this pathway and would have never aged.  I cannot imagine that such a person could have passed unnoticed in history.

People do not technically begin to age until around thirty when our age specific mortality rate begins to double about every eight and a half years. In the figure, the flat line between twenty and thirty means that one’s probability of dying is constant over time. Around thirty, something happens and we begin to age in the sense that our probability of dying increases exponentially with time (the straight increasing part of the curve). Dorian Gray, and animals with negligible senescence, simply continue with the constant flat level trajectory indefinitely. This transition around thirty is the area that evolution must act on to evolve longer life spans. All of the genes that worsen or improve health after this point are just random noise because they work after most offspring have been born and therefore do not affect fitness. The key to unlocking aging then would seem to be asking what is the difference between a 25 year old and 35 year old as opposed to worrying about why some people live to 100 and others don’t. Given the complete lack of any humans mutating to a permanent flat mortality rate all at once, and that there are many examples of evolution of longer life span, there must be human variants out there who transition a little later into their 30’s before crashing into the next problem causing exponential mortality increase. Perhaps by identifying people who seem to prolong youth slightly into their 30’s, we can pick off the first step by understanding their physiological trick, then look for the next set of people who seem to look young for their age and so on.  .  .  .