25 March 2006

Fieldwork 1: Packing

Preparation is absolutely essential to doing good fieldwork. Some of the preparation includes obvious tasks like figuring out where you are going to go, why you are going there, and how you are going to spend your time when you get there. Figuring out how you are getting there is usually a good idea, too, as is making sure that you have any and all paperwork that you will need. That's often a bit harder for scientists, becuase there are frequently extra permits and permissions to be obtained. There's also the matter of setting up your schedule once you get on site. Time is precious, and it's common to have to budget time tightly to make sure everything gets done.

Let's put it this way: fieldwork doesn't often happen on a moment's notice. When it does, it's usually because something extrordinary has happened somewhere in the world, creating a research opportunity that might not be available for long. (Most people refer to these as 'natural disasters'.)

It's also important to make sure that the logistics for the trip are lined up ahead of time. Food and shelter come under this category, of course, but I'm mostly talking about gear. You need stuff to do science, and there's nothing worse than finding out that you aren't going to be able to get all the data you need because you forgot to bring something important. That's why you'll find scientists (like me) who would ordinarily pack for a two-week vacation without using a list putting together detailed packing checklists for fieldwork. Putting together the checklist is usually followed by staring at it for a while to make sure you haven't forgotten anything, packing it all, unpacking it to make sure you haven't forgotten something, re-packing it, and wondering what you've forgotten.

Anyone want to take bets on what I'll forget?

Into the field

I've been trapped in the lab for the last few months, but that's about to change. I'm heading out into the field tomorrow morning, on a short trip to the Death Valley, California area.

The fieldwork I'm going to be doing isn't really related to my own research, but I'll take what I can get. Actually, it will be nice, because I'm going to be getting back to my roots. Back when I was first getting into science, I started out intending to be a paleontologist. Evolution interested me, and I was very interested in broad-scale, macroevolutionary events. But somewhere along the way I was seduced by the Dark Side, and was overcome by the lure of molecular techniques.

This week, I get to be a paleontologist again. A group of six grad students and two professors at UH, including myself, are working on a review paper. The topic of the review is the origins of animal life, and we thought it would be a good idea to get to get more familiar with the field. We're heading to Death Valley because it's a site that has some nice places to see the evidence for Precambrian animal life.

We'll be staying just south of the National Park, in a little town with a population of about 80. I've got a hunch that internet access will be a little hard to come by, so I probably won't be able to post too much before I get back on Thursday.

24 March 2006

Friday Random Ten

The Friday Random Ten is a blog meme of uncertain origins that's been around for years. I keep meaning to do one, and every week (until now) I forget.

Directions: Fire up the iPod, set to shuffle songs, hit play. List the first ten songs that come up. Don't cheat.

This week, my iPod seems to be a bit more random than usual.

1: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington
It Don't Mean A Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing
2: The Clash
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now
3: Pearl Jam and Neil Young
Rockin' In the Free World
4: Pete Seeger
The Erie Canal
5: Sean Na'auao
Fish and Poi
6: U2
Pride (In the Name of Love)
7: The Who
Baba O'Riley
8: Black 47
Living in America
9: Buffalo Springfield
For What It's Worth
10: The Muppets
The Muppet Show Theme

22 March 2006

Last Night

Somewhere around two this morning, I had to get up to take care of one of a father's most important duties: monster patrol.

I've done it before, but this time was different. For starters, it was both kids who woke me up. Usually it's just one. Second, the monster was hiding somewhere different. Usually, it's under the bed or in one of the bedroom closets. This time, for some strange reason, it seemed to be in the bathroom. That's what I could gather from the kids, anyway. When they're under the blankets, it can be hard to understand everything.

I wasn't really that surprised. We were having a hell of a thunderstorm last night, and I figured that was probably the cause. In the probably futile hope of reclaiming my bed from the kids, I dragged myself out of bed and staggered out to take a look at the bathroom.

Damn near pissed myself when I got there. There was this really freaky sound coming out of the bedroom. It's almost impossible to describe - it was sort of like a whimper, but with this strange echo effect, and something that sounded sort of like heavy breathing going on, too. I wasn't sure what it was, but it probably wasn't the pipes.

After taking a minute to recover, I mustered up my courage, turned on the lights, and lunged into the bathroom. And found the dog.

It turns out that the thunderphobic canine, banished from the master bedroom, had taken refuge, whimpering and panting, in the bathtub.

21 March 2006

If we can keep it.

As Ben Franklin left Independence Hall during the final day of deliberations during the Constitutional Convention, a woman is reported to have stopped him and asked:
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Franklin responded:
"A Republic, if you can keep it."
If we can keep it. There's the rub. Somehow, it seems like that just keeps getting harder to do.

The problem here, as in way too many other areas of American life, probably rests with the godawful state of our educational system. Far too many Americans seem to hold the mistaken view that we live in a democracy, and that the majority should be able to impose its will on the minority.

For example:
Who cares if there’s a “sizeable Mormon community”. They don’t have to sing Christmas songs if they don’t want to or they can ask that traditional Mormon pieces be added. This is America and Christmas along with Christmas carols are a longstanding tradition of a vast majority. Christmas is a national holiday and tragic as it is for the loony left it hasn’t been renamed Winter Solstice Celebration yet. Anyone that doesn’t like that is welcome to move to a country where they don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ll help them pack and pay for a one-way ticket on a banana boat out of here.
Here's another example, from a resolution currently on the floor in the Missouri State Legislature:
Now, therefore, be it resolved by the members of the House of Representatives of the Ninety-third General Assembly, Second Regular Session, the Senate concurring therein, that we stand with the majority of our constituents and exercise the common sense that voluntary prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property are not a coalition of church and state, but rather the justified recognition of the positive role that Christianity has played in this great nation of ours, the United States of America.
Way, way too many people, apparently including some legislators, just don't seem to understand why we have the system of government that we do.

We don't live in a democracy. We live in a republic. We live in a republic because many of the drafters of the Constitution were at least as afraid of democracy as they were of monarchy:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
James Madison, Federalist #10.
The Constitution was very intelligently designed to set up a system of government that protects the rights of the minority from the tyrany of the majority. That's why changing the Constitution is such a difficult process. It's not supposed to be something that the majority can do anytime they want. If it was otherwise, we would live in a very, very scary place - a place where the rights of the minority could be revoked by the majority at any time, for any reason.

I'm sorry to rant for so long on this, but it's important. The narrow-minded bigots who advocate for those kinds of "Christian Nation" and "if you don't like it, move" positions are attacking our fundamental values. They are trying to remake the country in their own twisted image, and they are trying to remake it as something far different from the Republic that the signers of the Constitution worked so hard and risked so much to establish.

Unfortunately, it really seems like those ignorant, jingoistic fools are becoming more common. At a minimum, they're becoming more vocal, and in our modern media world that can sometimes amount to the same thing. Franklin was right - we have a republic only as long as we can keep it.

We're going to need to work at that, I'm afraid. That's why groups, like the ACLU, that are willing to stand up for the rights of the minority are so critical right now. They provide a voice to people who are willing to fight the majority to protect their rights. Without them, it would be much, much easier for the majority to act like a tyrant.

Last Throws

It would seem that our vice-president's grasp on reality is about as good as his marksmanship. On Sunday, he did Face the Nation. During the interview, the following exchange took place:
SCHIEFFER: Mr. Vice President, all along the government has been very optimistic. You remain optimistic. But I remember when you were saying we'd be greeted as liberators, you played down the insurgency 10 months ago. You said it was in its last throes. Do you believe that these optimistic statements may be one of the reasons that people seem to be more skeptical in this country about whether we ought to be in Iraq?

CHENEY: No. I think it has less to do with the statements we've made, which I think were basically accurate and reflect reality, than it does with the fact that there's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq
That's right, he really said that his ten-month old claim that the insurgency is in its "last throes", and other similar claims, were "basically accurate and reflect reality".

I caught that on the air when it happened. One of my neighbors was there, too. I think he probably put it best when he said, "if you believe everything they say in Washington, the insurgents have had more last throes than a nymphomaniac in a frat house."