Wednesday afternoon notes

5 09 2007

Just a few quick notes;

1) I didn’t disappear entirely; expect a big essay on convergent and parallel evolution combining many of my recent posts on here lately (it’ll be old hat for regulars, but I still hope it’ll come off alright).

2) Working on a big post all about Tyrannosaurus, although I’m waiting on some books to make sure I get the details of its discovery right. I’m reading I Married a Dinosaur (click the image of Barnum Brown next to the AMNH T. rex) while I’m waiting for Bird’s Bones for Barnum Brown.

3) I finished A Fish Caught in Time and it’s a fair book. It starts off strong, chronicling the discovery of Latimeria, but the later chapters (those primarily dealing with conservation) fizzle out a bit, making more rather ambivalent towards the whole thing. Not a bad book to pass the afternoon with, but it’s no Beak of the Finch.

4) I started on The Antecedents of Man last night and it’s incredibly prescient for it’s time. It draws a lot on the mammal work of G.G. Simpson, but overall it anticipates the modern view of human evolution even though some modern authors have said that the book puts for the ladder-view of human evolution. Some of it can get a little dry (dental formulas aren’t for everyone), but I was quite surprised by how excellent it was.

5) I found out that I’m getting more money back from college than I first though. That might allow me (outside of paying off some debt) to finally replace the desktop computer that burnt out last fall, which could mean more (and better) posts for all of you (I don’t like working on the iBook we currently have).

6) Apparently I can win $10,000 if I enter this College Blogging Contest. I don’t know if I’ll win, but I’ll certainly give it a try (winning a $500 scholarship was how I got started in the first place). [Hat-tip to Terra Sigillata]

7) The buses at Rutgers are all Standing Room-Only, so I need to run if I’m going to catch a bus and not miss class. You would think with all I’m paying they’d provide adequate transportation between campuses, but then you’d be unfamiliar with the RU Screw.

Back to school, back to school…

4 09 2007

Today kicks off the fall semester here at Rutgers, and I just don’t know if I’m prepared for the overwhelming excitement that will be Soils and Society later this afternoon. As my friend John suggested, I could definitely get Darwin involved in the course by using his The Formation of Vegetable Mould Thhrough the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits as the basis for a paper if I must write one (I think there are just 3 exams, unfortunately), but geophagy is interesting and I’m sure I’ll get something from the course.

I also have recently received some more good news; I am not going to mention the details as yet, but it looks like I’ll once again have the opportunity to teach other students about evolution this semester. I’m also going to try and organize some Darwin Day lectures for February (it’s never too early to start), so I definitely have a lot to do at Rutgers in terms of evolution this year. I might give Darwin’s Beagles another shot, although it seems that there just isn’t enough of an undergraduate interest at this particular university. Even if most students don’t care, however, I’m still having fun with it, and so don’t expect the science writing to stop anytime soon.

School starts when?!

29 08 2007

Note: Thanks to the kind comments of people here and a relaxing evening reading some T.H. Huxley I’m feeling much better, although I’m sure putting out this little rant helped too. I’m going to try to make the best of the position I’ve found myself in, and hopefully I’ll move on to better things after I get my B.S. (both meanings apply) straightened out. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped in to show me some encouragement and support during this rough journey.

I’m not less than a week away from the start of the fall semester, and I’m definitely not done with summer yet (hell, I didn’t even go and get my first Rita’s gelati until Saturday). Still, I really need to buckle down and do well this semester as I’m essentially out of “last chances.”

Some of you might remember that I was considering switching into Evolutionary Anthropology. It appears that I cannot. Rutgers was recently restructured to consist of the School of Arts and Sciences (Busch, Livingston, Douglass, and College Avenue campuses) and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (Cook campus), and I have too low of a GPA and too many credits (121) to transfer into the program. Perhaps if things were as they have been for a number of years I could have made a case, but it appears that there’s a whole new set of rules and administrative B.S. and I do not have much hope for my appeal for a transfer. I stupidly painted myself into a corner academically, and now I don’t have much choice other than to finish up my current program and try to escape in one piece.

Indeed, the coming semester is not really going to be an enjoyable one, as many of the classes I have to take are basic courses that are required for students that I had not taken in my early years. This fall I’ll be taking;

Precalculus – I can’t put it off any longer; I must face the math demons and hope to come out in one piece. If I fail this course I’ll be prevented from taking other courses that are critical next spring and summer, and so the pressure is definitely on.

Computer Science 110 – Basic computers course on Excel, Word, etc. that everyone has to take. It’s not hard, but it’s mind-numbingly boring and I have little use for it. Still, it’s something I have to take care of.

Fundamentals of Ecological Modeling – I’m a few credits short of my requirement for ecological courses within my major, and this was the only one that fit in my schedule. The name just screams “Math!” at me though, and I don’t particularly have a good feeling about this one.

Soils and Society – I tried to take care of my “soils” requirement last semester, but I ultimately picked the wrong course. “Soils and Water” kicked my butt and now I have to take the easier version (which I wished I had found out about beforehand). I don’t think this one will be difficult, but I’d be lying if I said I was interested.

Living Primates – The one course I’m actually looking forward to. Even though I can’t major in Evolutionary Anthropology, at least I’ll have this one “fun” course to make things a bit more enjoyable and even out my GPA a bit (hopefully). I may have to drop this one though, especially if I’m struggling in more important courses or I need to work more in order to pay the rent.

I apologize for being such a sad-sack, but I simply am not looking forward to finishing out my degree. I need to have a degree in something, and past mistakes have led me down a path with no other choice. My wife opined that it would be wonderful if they just let me write a thesis and handed me a degree (you would figure I would have fulfilled the general requirements for some course of study by now), but such a fanciful notion will never come to pass.

What does this mean as far as blogging goes? I’ll still be on here, and I’ll still have something new up every day, but I don’t know how much I’ll be able to actually post. I actually usually don’t write during the evening as I read during that time, but even my reading is likely to be curtailed. I’m sure my attitude to this whole affair isn’t helping either, but in general I feel trapped into a course of study that doesn’t engage my interests during a time of year when I start to feel the effects of seasonal depression (I’m a warm-weather creature). Still, things as they are now are still better than the alternative of getting a minimum wage job at a retail store, and I’m not ever going to be happy or contribute anything if I don’t try and make it through this last year and a half of college.

Photo of the Day: Gorilla mother and babies

20 08 2007


I know I’ve posted this picture before, but it’s one of my favorites and I thought I would drag it back out to the top of the blog again. It probably has to do with my current dilemma of whether to stay the course in Ecology & Evolution to just “get it over with” or switch over to Evolutionary Anthropology to make the most out of my last year (as long as it won’t keep me back again). What to do, what to do…

Somtimes I feel like a geek, sometimes I don’t…

20 08 2007

This may shock some of you, but there was a time, not too long ago, when I didn’t read many books at all. I just wasn’t interested. I would pick up a novel every now and then (usually something by Peter Benchley) to read for fun, but filling my head with facts and figures wasn’t exactly my favored pastime for a bit. Within the last year that has drastically changed, and I spend most of my nights and weekends reading, usually at least 4 hours a day during the week and 8 hours on a weekend-day. My compulsive reading habit, however, has somewhat put me at odds with other people and makes it very difficult to make new friends at times.

Talking to a new acquaintance last night, I was run through the usual gamut of questions (“Where are you from? What’s your job? etc.), and the person who I was talking to was a bit shocked that I didn’t “go out” more. I like to take in a movie now and then, go for a drive, have dinner when it’s financially possible, but heading out to the bar and having a few drinks isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, especially when I’d have to do it alone (most of my friends live far away or are busy). Rather than blow $20 or so on drinks that I don’t really care for the taste of anyway, I’d rather sit at home, pour myself a glass of iced tea, and read until I start to go cross-eyed from fatigue. Thus, it’s hard to make new friends, or even to make “small talk.” Indeed, it’s hard to talk about the “big game” when I don’t care a whit for sports, nor do I feel that discussing what happened on last night’s episode of Lost at length is especially productive. While everyone else was doing that, I was reading about whether three-wattled bellbirds learn or inherit their impressive songs, or what E.D. Cope thought about evolution at the turn of the last century. Such topics are not easily injected into everyday conversation, and even when I do, I get tagged as a know-it-all or egghead.

All this isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a good time out with friends, or even just ordering some pizza and playing XBOX until 2 AM, but it’s definitely hard to connect with people who have no real interest in nature or science in general. When I learn something new, I find it exciting and want to share that with everyone, but to most people it’s equivalent to useless trivia that only ivory-tower academic types care about. I seriously am grateful that I have the wife that I do, a wife that I can argue about the mating/nesting/display habits of bowerbirds with over dinner and actually takes an interest when I try to convey a new idea, as I have no idea who else on this earth would take me (not to mention that my wife is a gorgeous, kind, and has just about every other type of virtue you’d care to name).

This may seem like an odd time to broach such a topic, but I guess I worry sometimes that I am a bit of a social shut-in. Rather than being anti-social, it’s just hard to connect with others my own age who don’t share the same interests, especially when I’m headed back for another semester of college and I’m 6 years older than the incoming class. Speaking of school, I’ve been playing around with my class schedule and I finally was able to fit in a “fun” course I wanted on living primates. Looking at the anthropology course listing, I actually have been starting to contemplate switching majors (yet again) as ecology & evolution has been a struggle and a disappointment, and there appears to be no room in it for a vertebrate zoologist. After looking through the whole course catalog I was able to find no course on vertebrate zoology, evolution, or even basic skeletal anatomy, the anthropology department being that only one (as far as I could tell) that connects different sciences in the way I’m interested in. The only problem is I have no idea what I’d do with a B.S. in human evolutionary science, but I have to say that at this point it holds much more appeal for me than “fundamentals of ecological/environmental modeling.” Don’t get me wrong, I still love ecology and would love to be a conservation biologist, but the Rutgers department doesn’t seem the place to go if you’re interested in vertebrates.

Anyway, I have also received some “good” news about an idea that I had involving hadrosaur crests. The only problem is that I’ll probably have to learn German and/or Russian to understand the best work done on the subject, but I have received a fair amount of encouragement on the subject, and if things work out I think I could definitely get a PhD trying to combine paleontology with physiology. We’ll have to see. In any case, this is incredibly sappy, but I do want to thank all my readers here for assuring me that I am not (as yet) entirely mad and for sharing ideas and helping me learn. Without this blog as an outlet, all my thoughts would be rattling around in my head and no one would really care what I had to say on the topic. Even though I’m writing this blog for myself primarily (it’s sort of a journal of my intellectual journey), without the constant kind comments and corrections I wouldn’t get as much out of it as I have, and I certainly appreciate all the discussions and help other more-experienced bloggers and scientists have offered me since I started writing here.

In a “publish or perish” world…

14 08 2007

Rich at evolgen has brought to everyone’s attention a very interesting opinion piece that has recently appeared in the journal Current Biology about how scientific research (and success) is all-too-often dependent on some rather arbitrary numerical statistics (Lawrence PA. 2007. The mismeasurement of science. Curr. Biol. 17: R583-R585. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.014). Should the number of citations a paper receives or the sheer number of papers an author’s name appears on determine who gets funding and who does not? While I am still on a very long and winding road to becoming a scientist, the amount of horror stories that I have heard have often made be dubious about a career in academia; I definitely have a deep desire to know more about nature, but I don’t know if I can handle all the bureaucratic B.S. that comes along with it. Fortunately for me that’s a choice that I don’t yet have to make, but I do have to wonder if the current system of publishing and becoming established are truly the best ways to advance our understanding. I may be wrong, but often it seems more about advancing the careers of certain individuals more than anything else.

As I stated, however, I’m a bit far removed from this being that I haven’t even tried to publish anything myself and I’m about as low on the academic totem-pole as one can get. (I have done some research “at the bench” this summer, although I have no idea whether my name will appear on the final product or not.) Still, I am going to try to write up a review paper based upon what I found in my evolution of human evolution post from the other day, although I don’t really know where to start. Gathering the information I need should be no problem at all (that’ll just take time), but as for the rules of writing such a paper, I don’t have the slightest clue.

The Rutgers University Parking Gestapo

13 07 2007

Update: Compared to NYC parking prices, I suppose I should count my blessings…

I am starting to really hate Rutgers University. Outside of problems I’ve had with administrators, professors, and the “RU Screw,” I’ve just been fleeced out of $300 by the most evil entity within the whole of the Rutgers bureaucracy: Parking and Transportation Services. You see, since 2005 I have occasionally been late to class and instead of waiting for the slow and overcrowded buses (RU being so overcrowded that some students had to be put up in hotel rooms within the past year) I decided to drive to campus and park in the Cook/Douglass Parking Deck. There were plenty of spaces left open (so I wasn’t depriving anyone of a spot who had a parking pass), although I knew the risk of getting a parking ticket. Between Fall 2005 and Fall 2006, I received 3 parking tickets at $50 each (if you get a ticket in the city of New Brunswick it’s only $20) and decided not to pay them until I absolutely had to. No notices came, I was allowed to register for classes, and all seemed to be right with the world. I did receive two tickets this past semester, but I would have no problem paying for those being that the notice came during the semester in which I had been ticketed. I had a little reason to hope that I had been forgotten as I had heard that ParkTran forgives the first ticket each semester, but I was greatly mistaken.

Indeed, just before I was about to register for my fall classes I received a letter from ParkTran; the demanded $300, and until I could pay it there would be a “hold” on my account. I didn’t even have a spare $150, much less the total sum they wanted, and apparently they decided that they were going to hold all “offenses” of semesters past against me. Did I park in a mostly-empty parking deck without a tag? Yes, but it should be the job of ParkTran to keep track of their tickets and promptly inform students if they owe money, not hit them with a huge bill years after the fact. This week, however, I finally had enough money to pay them off, and my wife kindly went to the new office to try and get the fine reduced. She was told that students could no longer fight tickets nor get fines reduced, and we would have to pay the full $300. I was hoping that I would now be able to finally register for classes, but ParkTran being a bureaucracy, the hold on my account will not be removed until Tuesday.

[I’m sure others have their own tales of woe relating to the Parking/Transportation offices. Check out the Connie Willis story In the Late Cretaceous; I’m sure many of us could relate to Dr. Robert Walker.]

I know Rutgers has been short on money due to budget cuts and the like, but establishing a “Parking Gestapo” that hits students with such massive bills that cannot be fought or even reduced is inexcusable. The parking officers have been getting more and more rabid every year. It seems as if the administration decided that their entire deficit is going to made up from parking tickets, hitting students especially hard.

Between changing the name of my school from Cook College to “The School of Environmental and Biological Sciences” (the school had only been known as Cook College since 1973, mind you, a great dishonor to the memory of George H. Cook), budget cuts, and all the (for lack of a better term) B.S. that I’ve had to go through in pursuing my degree, I can’t say I recommend Rutgers. I worked so hard and long to get back in, but now that I’m here, I just want it all to be over.