Friday, June 22, 2012

See no seagull

One advantage to living in the tallest building in town is that we can see who's sneaking around on the roofs of other buildings. That is in fact part of why our building was built so tall. Back when this was the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), this building was occupied mostly by the  Stasi (secret police) whose job it was to keep an eye on everyone all the time and their families. 

The building next to ours was the Stasi office building for the state. It has not only been taken over for university use, but there are Herring Gulls nesting on its roof. I spotted two big chicks wandering around yesterday. It is a great place for nesting: high up, with a rim so the chicks won't jump out, and fitted with the finest 1970's surveillance equipment. The roof is even roughly chick-colored, which is probably why until now I have seen no seagull.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


15C (59F) is quite cool for summer in New York and a normal summer day in Rostock.

25C (77F) is a normal summer day in New York, and a really hot day in Rostock.

35C (95F) is a really hot day in New York, and hotter than it has ever been measured in Rostock.

45C (113F) is hotter than it has ever been measured in New York and would kill half of Rostock.

As I pack for a trip, I am forced to wonder not only what the weather will be like in New York, but if 35C in  New York means the same thing to me now that I have been living in Rostock.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Field specific meanings

In demography, the phrase "historical demography" means studying the population processes of human populations of which we have historical records. In population genetics and other subfields of biology, it means trying to estimate past changes in population sizes based on the genetic patterns of current populations.

In demography, fecundity means capacity to produce babies and fertility means realized production of babies. In biology, these meanings are reversed.

In demography, EPC means European Population Conference, the largest yearly demography meeting in Europe. In biology, EPC means Extra-Pair Copulation.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Some people

So I was kvetching to a friend the other day, pointing out that I could make far more money and work fewer houes with less training and more job security in a country and state of my choice as a high-school biology teacher, when she was so rude as to ask me why I didn't do so. As though that was a realistic option!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Brusca and Brusca

My family is genetically Jewish and exercise the occasional fancy that we are in some important way culturally Jewish as well. We like bagels and go to relatives' houses for Matzo Ball Soup on Passover. We didn't have bar and bat mitzvohs or learn any Hebrew, but we learned enough Yiddish to insult each other and had large 13th birthday parties. When my 13th birthday party was approaching, people started asking my parents what they should get me, and my parents started asking me. I already had most every material object I wanted, and so I told them I wanted books about animals. I had decided several years earlier that I was going to be a zoologist, and I thought it would be nice to have some grown-up books about zoology. Well little did I know that I was going to get books like this:

Invertebrates, but Brusca and Brusca. And not the Second Edition (2003) with the nice color photos. Oh no, this was line drawings and black and white plates of everything from ciliates and amoebae to sea-squirts and squid. This was lists of the sub-classes within the classes within the sub-phyla within each Phylum. This was extended discussion of the bauplan concept, and pre-molecular phylogenetics. This was 1990.

I was simultaneously thrilled and offended. Why would anyone give a book like this to a 13 year old? Ridiculous! How could tardigrades possibly survive exposure to raw vacuum? Ridiculous!

Someone (I'm sure it came with a card, but I have no memory of who gave it to me.) had spent a fair chunk of money to give me a book that is really intended as a reference for invertebrate zoologists.

Now, let's skip forward 22 years and a few weeks, and we find me at my desk reading the Brusca and Brusca chapter on Phylum Porifera (sponges) as I prepare to write the outlines of a research proposal focusing on this group that I have no knowledge of. Of course the taxonomy has been changed 22 times since then as more and more molecular data have become available, but mostly it has changed back and forth, so Brusca and Brusca are still pretty much right. Most of the rest of the detail they give is still approximately true, and despite being a formulaic listing of facts, the writing is not too painful. Really very useful.

So whoever gave me the book, you probably never got a thank you card, and you probably don't read my blog, but thank you. This is turning out to be one of the most useful presents I've ever gotten.

Monday, June 11, 2012


When colleagues started telling me that what I was doing was brave, I knew I was in trouble. People tell you are brave as you march off to war, or volunteer to babysit multiple toddlers around bedtime, or (it seems), when you undertake the organizing of a new scientific society. They mean, "Man, you're going to end up unemployed, but I'm sure glad you are doing it instead of me."

I waited until they had a few drinks in them and had mostly finished going back for seconds on the salmon, then commandeered one of the cocktail tables as a podium. I proposed the formation of an society and then opened the floor for discussion.

The good news is that we now have about 50 members including many of the big names in the field. The bad news is that everyone seems to think I have an actual plan. How will we fund the first meeting? What kind of official and financial structure should we have? Will we take over that other, mostly defunct but somewhat related society for the benefit of their infrastructure and their resources, or will we start fresh? Do we need to incorporate? I don't know any of these things.

So here is what I am doing. I'm organizing the election of a board, and I'm making sure there are people who know what they are doing standing for election. I'm communicating with the people who will organize the first meeting next year. I want the society to exist, and I'm happy to help, but I certainly don't plan to run the thing by myself. That would be a little bit too brave.

Sleeze of sponges

The term of venery for sponges: a sleeze.

Example: The vessel must have rested there many years, as it was more than half covered in a sleeze of the most enormous sponges.

The dangers of autocorrect

I sat down to write a quick email at a computer I don't usually use. Autocorrect was not turned off because I don't usually use that computer. In an email to a senior colleague I tried to write, "I completely understand" but got out "I  completely undrestand." Autocorrect changed it to, "I am completely undressed." I am happy that I proofread my emails.