Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dubious headlines

From the Tundra Drums:
Troopers: Villages grateful for recent crime-sweep

Published on December 29th, 2010 12:20 pm

By MEGAN A. PETERS, ALASKA STATE TROOPERS SPOKESWOMAN
In other news, the IRS says that tax payers love them, and are grateful for audits.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't have law enforcement, but you can't have an objective story on police action if the story is written by the police. Objectivity doesn't work like that. 

Shame on Tundra Drums.

Pictures

Monday, 27 December 2010

A little bit of history on UAF campus

I had skied out to the outdoor rifle range on Rifle Range Road at UAF, as a group I'm with has been using it for some competitions. I'd asked one of them I was with what this blue building - decrepit, boarded and chained up, and littered with sheds and ATCOs.  It seemed like a strange building for the University to keep around.

After a while, I finally got around to asking some of the other people if they had any idea what it was, and one of the people who had been around Fairbanks a little longer said, "Oh, that's where they first heard Sputnik." Well, that's too interesting for me to just leave alone! I got what few details I could out of him at the time, and went home. After which, I did some digging around online. It turns out not only was Fairbanks the first place to hear Sputnik... but the first person to see it, to boot. And where and how did that person see them? Where else but on the outhouse:
As Davis reports in his book "Alaska Science Nuggets," Dexter Stegemeyer was the first Fairbanksan known to have seen Sputnik just clearing the western horizon, which was where it entered the view through his open outhouse doorway. Stegemeyer knew he'd seen something unusual, but only realized what it was after he heard a description of the satellite.)
That's from the GI's write up about hearing Sputnik, an Alaskan first. It's a great read, and barely tops a page. Definitely worth the read!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Thwarted!

If you don't work with them, you'll be thwarted at all turns in your quest to pet a muskox. At the farm and at LARS, you're not allowed to pet them (for obvious reasons), and even once one's dead...


There's no winning!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Happy Solstice!

Don't worry everyone, we'll be right back to this in no time flat:


Happy solstice!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Does conservation have an impact?

ResearchBlogging.orgFor good or for ill, humans massively modify the world around them. From the perspective of other species, the majority of our modifications are "for ill." Some individuals realized that humans might irrevocably alter their favourite places, and thus was born the conservation movement out of local concerns. It wasn't until the 20th century that conservation of entire species really took off as a movement, and not until much later that the concept of protecting ecosystems and ecosystem services emerged. Biodiversity has continued to decline, however, leading to a period of mass-extinction that is unseen since the K-Pg extinction event (extinction event formerly known as prince. Er, K-T). Conservation biologists have truly emerged in the last 60 years to attempt to preserve some of this threatened biodiversity, but their over-all impact has been generally unevaluated.

In the latest issue of Science, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has published a systematic review of the current conservation status of vertebrates (verts), and whether conservation has had an impact on the status of those species. Before I get much further, this paper does two things I hate. The first is it has an insanely long list of authors. There's no way that 100+ list of individuals all contributed written material to the paper, and the list of author affiliations literally takes up over a page. That's just ridiculous. Secondly, much of the paper is in the supplementary material - which is seriously abusing the definition of "supplementary."

Now that I've got that off of my chest, the consortium of authors compiled the conservation for 25,780 species of verts -  this comprises all described mammals, birds, cartilaginous fish and amphibians, and a sample of reptiles (herps) and bon fish. Why they didn't do a complete enumeration of herps is beyond me. They only used ~ 19% of modern species (by my off-the-cuff estimation), and adding about 6500 more species doesn't seem like it would have been a huge amount of work. Perhaps there's a good reason that I'm missing. Broadly, the IUCN uses three major categories, which are broken down into sub-categories. Threatened species can be either Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN) or Vulnerable (VU). They found that around 1 in 5 vert is classified as threatened, with a gradually increasing trend in risk since the 1980s. Amphibians are far and away the most threatened taxa, with over 600 species of them moving a category closer to extinction (e.g., changing from VU to EN). Generally, this was all known though it's nice to see it reiterated.

Next, the consortium of authors evaluated the impact of conservation efforts on this decline. They argue that of all the 'status' changes, 7% were improvements in status (e.g., CR to EN), and only 4 of these were not due to conservation efforts. Taking a digression here, the consortium do not really define what they mean by conservation. Conservation can be everything from highly intensive captive breeding to mostly laissez-faire restrictions on hunting or killing. It can describe setting aside habitat, or re-introducing a species actively. In short, it covers an awful lot of ground from "doing nothing" to "doing a whole lot." So when they say 64 of 68 improvements is due to conservation, it doesn't say anything about conservation effort. Indeed, some of that improvement could be due to factors not related to the conservation effort at all.

This is not a trivial point. The very title of the paper is "The impact of conservation on the status of the world's vertebrates." This merely confuses correlation of conservation activities with a causal agent in species improvement. When they next compare species status to what they would be, they implicitly bias the equation by assuming that absent conservation, species status would remain unchanged. While it is true that in most instances, threatened species would deteriorate without some degree of conservation, the only way they couldn't find that conservation leads to species improvement is if every species showed a decline. It precludes a species improving due non-conservation related reasons.

There's good reason think that a species wouldn't continuously diminish if left to its own. As species become rare, it becomes difficult for predators to effectively target them. Disease doesn't have as many hosts, so absolute rates can often drop. And species with small home ranges are difficult to stamp out from habitat loss. In rare cases, there have been evidence that some threatened populations have evolved to resist threats posed by invasives. They would be vulnerable to extinction from purely stochastic events (such as the odd harsh winter), but the time frame we're talking about (30 years) is not long enough to really capture that in its entirety.

I would argue that the proof that our current conservation is not as effective as we'd hope it would be is in the universally worsening Red List Index. To the right, there's a map of the net-change, and it's almost universally bad. By congratulating conservation for the cases of conservation, it ignores the cases where conservation has been applied and no improvement has resulted. I wouldn't argue that conservation has no impact. However, if I stated that my method of healing a bleeding patient caused individuals to improve 7% of the time, no one in their right mind would let me treat so much as a papercut. Conservation effort needs to improve, and seriously, if we're going to stem the global declines in biodiversity. But talk and criticism is cheap; I offer no plausible way through which we can do better. I just hope it isn't status quo.

Hoffmann, M., Hilton-Taylor, C., Angulo, A., Bohm, M., Brooks, T., Butchart, S., Carpenter, K., Chanson, J., Collen, B., Cox, N., Darwall, W., Dulvy, N., Harrison, L., Katariya, V., Pollock, C., Quader, S., Richman, N., Rodrigues, A., Tognelli, M., Vie, J., Aguiar, J., Allen, D., Allen, G., Amori, G., Ananjeva, N., Andreone, F., Andrew, P., Ortiz, A., Baillie, J., Baldi, R., Bell, B., Biju, S., Bird, J., Black-Decima, P., Blanc, J., Bolanos, F., Bolivar-G., W., Burfield, I., Burton, J., Capper, D., Castro, F., Catullo, G., Cavanagh, R., Channing, A., Chao, N., Chenery, A., Chiozza, F., Clausnitzer, V., Collar, N., Collett, L., Collette, B., Fernandez, C., Craig, M., Crosby, M., Cumberlidge, N., Cuttelod, A., Derocher, A., Diesmos, A., Donaldson, J., Duckworth, J., Dutson, G., Dutta, S., Emslie, R., Farjon, A., Fowler, S., Freyhof, J., Garshelis, D., Gerlach, J., Gower, D., Grant, T., Hammerson, G., Harris, R., Heaney, L., Hedges, S., Hero, J., Hughes, B., Hussain, S., Icochea M., J., Inger, R., Ishii, N., Iskandar, D., Jenkins, R., Kaneko, Y., Kottelat, M., Kovacs, K., Kuzmin, S., La Marca, E., Lamoreux, J., Lau, M., Lavilla, E., Leus, K., Lewison, R., Lichtenstein, G., Livingstone, S., Lukoschek, V., Mallon, D., McGowan, P., McIvor, A., Moehlman, P., Molur, S., Alonso, A., Musick, J., Nowell, K., Nussbaum, R., Olech, W., Orlov, N., Papenfuss, T., Parra-Olea, G., Perrin, W., Polidoro, B., Pourkazemi, M., Racey, P., Ragle, J., Ram, M., Rathbun, G., Reynolds, R., Rhodin, A., Richards, S., Rodriguez, L., Ron, S., Rondinini, C., Rylands, A., Sadovy de Mitcheson, Y., Sanciangco, J., Sanders, K., Santos-Barrera, G., Schipper, J., Self-Sullivan, C., Shi, Y., Shoemaker, A., Short, F., Sillero-Zubiri, C., Silvano, D., Smith, K., Smith, A., Snoeks, J., Stattersfield, A., Symes, A., Taber, A., Talukdar, B., Temple, H., Timmins, R., Tobias, J., Tsytsulina, K., Tweddle, D., Ubeda, C., Valenti, S., Paul van Dijk, P., Veiga, L., Veloso, A., Wege, D., Wilkinson, M., Williamson, E., Xie, F., Young, B., Akcakaya, H., Bennun, L., Blackburn, T., Boitani, L., Dublin, H., da Fonseca, G., Gascon, C., Lacher, T., Mace, G., Mainka, S., McNeely, J., Mittermeier, R., Reid, G., Rodriguez, J., Rosenberg, A., Samways, M., Smart, J., Stein, B., & Stuart, S. (2010). The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World's Vertebrates Science, 330 (6010), 1503-1509 DOI: 10.1126/science.1194442

Figure reproduced from the paper under fair use rationale.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The snowshoe hare-coyote-Dall's sheep cycle?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen we teach our students predator-prey relationships, we tend to tell them a very basic story that have come from a few very good studies. It's not that all we have are simple models, but but we like to build up the basics before we dive into the complexities. Because when you get down to the complexities, a lot of counter-intuitive things happen which don't follow "common-sense" relationships.

At the last Alaska chapter of the Wildlife Society meeting, Steve Arthur presented one such study, which I had previously mentioned here by flinging out the abstract. Now the full paper by him and Laura Prugh is out in the Journal of Wildlife Management, and so I want to spend a little more time on the study.

They studied snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) and Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli) in the central portion of the Alaska Range, illustrated by the figure to the right. It's worth noting that though both species are in the Alaska range, they have differing habitat requirements. Whereas hares are happy in the lower foresty areas, the sheep decidedly prefer the rocky hills where they can can try to avoid predators. However, while adult survival among sheep is fairly high, lamb survival is generally lower, as predators (lynx, coyotes, eagles, wolverines) can still prey on them.

They used road-side counts to index hare abundance, which they double checked against pellet count data - it's little things like that which make a good paper. For the sheep end, they collared a variety of ewes and fitted them with collars, as well as lambs. They re-located them about 3-5 times a week, and the collars were fitted with mortality sensors. On death, they went and determined cause of death of the individuals. One nit-pick here - scavenging is probably represented somewhat in the mortality data, but the two authors admit that. Still, you wouldn't expect scavanging and predation to vary independently of mortality, and survival is what they wanted to get at. Finally, they used surveys to index the total population of Dall's sheep through the period.

When they analysed the adult data, they found that the year really didn't have a major effect on their survival, and that survival was either modeled best as age-specific, or just constant. However, for lambs, the best explanations for the changes in survival were either a three year time lag in hare abundance, positively, or a negative relationship between survival and hare abundance with a one year time lag. The mechanism for changing survival appears to be changes in predation - primarily coyote and golden eagle predation. Accidents and disease seem to remain at a constant low-level throughout all years, whereas predation seems to vary among years. Eagles are best predators early on, whereas coyotes appeared to kill several months after ewes dropped their lambs. As I mentioned before, snowshoe hares and sheep share those predators.

This seems to suggest that although there's a positive relationship between abundance of hares and sheep, it is not, in fact, a mutualistic relationship. If they had just limited their study to abundance, they would have never seen the change in lamb survival. At that point, we would be led to incorrectly believe that snowshoe hares and sheep benefit from each-other's presence. It doesn't appear to be mediated by a functional response in predation - first, a previous study found that coyotes don't switch to sheep when they're low, but secondly, it would mean there would be a positive relationship between hare abundance and sheep survival, not negative.

It's a messy story, one that depends on the sort of data you gather, and, this simplified version I'm presenting here is leaving out further complications itself. The effects of predation can be complex, leading to strange results when all is said and done. Here, the population dynamics of Dall's sheep seem at first blush to be driven by a species that isn't even in the same habitat as them. It's only though diligent data collection the true picture comes out.


Arthur, S., & Prugh, L. (2010). Predator-Mediated Indirect Effects of Snowshoe Hares on Dall's Sheep in Alaska Journal of Wildlife Management, 74 (8), 1709-1721 DOI: 10.2193/2009-322


All figures from Arthur & Prugh 2010, used under fair-use rationale. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Dragon has flown!

As much as I prefer NASA to own its own orbital fleet of rockets, this is really, really great news - the Dragon, a privately built rocket and space capsule built by SpaceX, has successfully achieved orbit and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean! This marks the first private craft that successfully achieved this feat. This is fantastic news, because it means that the day that I can take a vacation on Saturn's moons is a little bit closer. And, more practically, it means the ISS will probably have a little more life left in it.

Go to the link and check out the videos! It's neat!

Photocredit: NASA TV

Pictures

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

One good move

In a move welcomed by educated people the world-over, Google plans on eliminating the capslock from their keyboards. I, for one, welcome this wholeheartedly. While I like having the option of having a capslock on my keyboard, I know that most people out there aren't ready for the awesome power that the capslock brings. I've lost count of the number of office emails I have got that SHOUT AT EVERYONE THROUGHTOUT THE MESSAGE BECAUSE SOMEONE DOESN'T REALIZE THAT TYPING IN ALL CAPS IS NOT COOL.

Next up, we need to invent a keyboard that forces people to use punctuation and capitalization. im really tired of all lowercase emails that dont have any punctuation people seem to think you can tell where sentences begin and end well theyre right but i have better things to do with my time why they think its appropriate is beyond me

The other thing I'd like to see go (mentioned in the article) is getting rid of excessive punctuation. I'm really????????? tired of all of this!!!!!!! Yes, I get you're excited, but is there really a need for 15 of these ??????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm not claiming my grammar is perfect. But it seems like some people don't even make an effort.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Vik'ipitiyamun igarluten!

There's now a yup'ik language wikipedia over at http://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/esu/Main_Page It's still in the early stages, and is in need of content - most of what's up there are single lines with a picture or two. Alngaksaitua im'umun mernurama.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Complexity and evolution

Here's a neat little video that explains how complexity can come about in through evolution. The animations on this are very well done! I enjoyed the bit about the sundew.


Pictures

Monday, 29 November 2010

A sense of history

Aside from being known as, in the words of Grounds Keeper Willey, "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys," the French also have a considerable reputation for sloth. Not only do they insist on an extraordinary amount of time off for vacation (or extraordinary for Americans, who get practically none), not only do they tend to take long lunches, not only do they retire rather early, but their work week capped at 35 hours! Unheard of, in the United States, to be sure.

Without discussion of the economic benefits and costs of such behaviour, there might be a good historical explanation for the French national attitude towards work. Such ethic might be explained by the fact that up until the mid 19th century, the rural French spent much of their time hibernating. Oh, it isn't true hibernation - it doesn't even qualify as torpor - but the French seemed to spend much of their time napping away the winter. Consider this:

But the French seem to have been particularly sleepy. They "hibernated" even in temperate zones. In Burgundy, after the wine harvest, the workers burned the vine stocks, repaired their tools and left the land to the wolves. A civil servant who investigated the region's economic activity in 1844 found that he was almost the only living presence in the landscape: "These vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately."
When put like that, I have a hard time finding fault with the French work week. After all, they're just keeping a proud French tradition alive. There are some downsides to sleeping the winter away, however. Recent evidence points to increases in sleep being related to decreases in life expectancy. The magic number is 'less than eight hours,' it seems. Which is a shame, because I like to get 9 hours of rest. Clearly, I'll need to change that habit...

Interestingly, despite the fact that France seems to work so little, they command a respectable per-capita GDP. Obviously, it hasn't torpedoed their economy that badly. And that's a 35 hours work week before you take away all the non-work spend striking.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

PSA: UAF open tomorrow, Wed. No Classes

Nov. 23, 2010

To: UAF community

From: Brian Rogers, Chancellor

Re: Classes canceled Nov. 24, university to remain open

Classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks main campus and all UAF Community and Technical College locations will be canceled for Wednesday, Nov. 24, due to continued hazardous weather conditions.

The university will remain open for business on Wednesday. Because road conditions vary throughout the region, employees should use their own discretion as to whether or not to come in to work. University buildings and services may have adjusted business hours due to staff availability. Please contact departments directly for more information.

Those employees who choose not to come in to work should check with their supervisors to determine which leave options are available to them. Supervisors should remain flexible during these unusual circumstances. The following options are available:

• Employees can take annual leave for all or part of the day.
• Employees may work all or part of the day from home if workload and department needs allow this option. This work can also include taking SkillSoft or other online training from home. Supervisor approval is required.
• With supervisor approval, employees who do not have adequate leave may stay home and use flex time to make up some or all of their missed hours.
• Employees who do not have adequate leave may stay home on Nov. 24 and work on Friday, Nov. 26 to make up missed time. Friday, Nov. 26 is a regularly scheduled campus holiday closure.
• Employees may elect to take leave without pay.

Please call your HR consultant at 474-7700 if you have questions about how to handle leave time; HR will be checking phone messages during the closure.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for their patience and flexibility during these highly unusual circumstances. Like the school district, the state and every other agency/business in town, it has greatly impacted the way we do business this week. Our decisions on what to do have been based, first and foremost, on the safety of our students and employees.

Please check uafalert.alaska.edu or call 474-7UAF(7823) for the most current information about closures and class cancellations.

Monday, 22 November 2010

How Icy is Fairbanks?

Just how icy is Fairbanks right now? Here's a gem that I found via Alaskan Dave (who is not dead, judging by his twitter account) Down Under: http://yfrog.com/mgyv5pj

Goldstream is better than that. Marginally. Just stay away from Ballaine.

PSA: UAF closed tomorrow, Tuesday.

In case you hadn't noticed, Fairbanks is worse than a skating rink right now. When you add copious rain to freezing ground temperatures, you get sheets of ice and zero traction. I tried to get to work today, before getting as far as halfway through Goldstream and deciding that getting to work wasn't worth dying for. UAF has decided to do what they almost never do, and that's to close down tomorrow due to weather. Here's the email I got.


Nov. 22, 2010

TO:     UAF faculty and staff

FROM: Chancellor Brian Rogers

RE: Campus closed Tuesday, Nov. 23 due to weather hazards

The University of Alaska Fairbanks main campus and all UAF Community and Technical College locations will be closed Tuesday, Nov. 23, due to hazardous weather conditions. All classes are canceled for the day.

The fire and police departments will remain in operation. There will be limited staffing in departments that provide other critical functions, such as Facilities Services and OIT. The Student Recreation Center, residence halls and food service for on-campus residents will remain open as well. Please visit uafalert.alaska.edu for more information regarding specific hours.

Employees should check with their supervisors to determine which leave options are available to them. Administrative leave is not an option on Nov. 23.  Supervisors should remain flexible during these unusual circumstances and consider whether employee attendance is necessary to perform critical or essential functions. The following options are available during the emergency closure:

• If employees can travel from home to work safely and have access to their workspace, they can work a normal day.
• Employees can take annual leave for all or part of the day.
• Employees may work all or part of the day from home if workload and department needs allow this option. Supervisor approval is required.
• With supervisor approval, employees who do not have adequate leave, may stay home and use flex time to make up some or all of their missed hours.
• Employees who do not have adequate leave may stay home on Nov. 23 and work on Friday, Nov. 26 to make up missed time. Friday, Nov. 26 is a regularly scheduled campus holiday closure.
• Employees may elect to take leave without pay.

Please call your HR consultant at 474-7700 if you have questions about how to handle leave time during this emergency closure; HR will be checking phone messages during the closure.

We will be evaluating weather conditions throughout the day on Tuesday to determine whether additional closures are necessary. Our top concern is the safety of our students and employees.

Please check uafalert.alaska.edu or call 474-7UAF(7823) for the most current information about closures and class cancellations.

Massive duststorms... in Alaska?

When you think of a massive dust storm, if you're like me, you probably don't think about South-East Alaska. I'm more likely to think of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait than Alaska's Banana Belt. And yet, there it is:
That's a photo from NASA. So, what on earth are those massive plumes streaming off the coast from? Give it a guess, and then check out Phil Plait's answer. :) NASA does an awful lot of Earth observing, and generates a whole bunch of critical data. That's not bad for an agency who's entire budget costs us much less than one percent of the federal budget.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

An even smaller deer.

If you think the Sitka black-tailed deer is small, you should see some other, world-wide ungulates. Compared to the rest of its family, it's quite midsized! Don't believe me? I present to you, the pudú.


See if you can spot the pre-orbital glands on the males.
This actually makes the SBTD a pretty good proxy for other species, since the majority of deer species are of roughly equal size (or smaller) and frequently live in environments as topographically and vegetatively complex as the SBTD. It just so happens that most of the other North American cervids (deer) are big animals in comparably simple environments.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

New Freds West

I swung by Fred's West this morning to grab some gas and odds and ends I needed, and finally saw what all the construction was about - two massive foyers on the north and east side, for containing shopping carts. I'm not sure what the heck they're supposed to accomplish, aside from looking very impressive.

And then it occured to me... Freds is now heating a massive, two story, glass lined foyer that's constantly opening and closing as people enter and leave the store. Is it just me, or is this a massively bad idea? The energy required to keep that volume of air toasty warm must be staggering. The surface area to volume ratio has got to be massive, especially with their tall, pointy roof. It's a grotesque waste of heating and perhaps the single worst design you could have for anywhere in Alaska, never mind Interior Alaska.

Fred's:

Monday, 15 November 2010

Cellphones and Cancer again?

There's a book out there by the name of "Disconnect" by Dr. Devra Davis, of U. Pittsburgh, that has been making rounds in the lay print due to the sensationalist claims it makes about cellphones and cancer. You've all probably heard about the alleged link between cellphones and cancer where people claim, on the thinnest of mechanistic argument, that cell phones can cause brain tumours. Various research groups have then been looking at whether or not there's a cancer risk primarily through observational studies, since it's very difficult to tell someone how much they should talk on their cellphone for the next x years, and the results have been the messy mix of results that you typically find if either there is no real effect, or if the effect is so subtle as to be nearly negligible.

Personally, I'm inclined to the "No Effect" camp a little more. Here's why: It's all about mechanism. It sounds dangerous when you hear about EM radiation and all that, but realize your toaster gives off EM radiation. So does the sun. And light bulbs. And... well, about everything in the office, these days. You, right now, are giving off radiation! But it really, really doesn't matter. The wavelength of the EM radiation needs to be the right length to excite chemical bonds and cause them to break, form, etc. We'd call such wavelengths "ionizing radiation," and cellphones do not give off ionizing radiation. The best they could do is make your head slightly warmer. This is in contrast with something we know gives off ionizing radiation - the Sun.

The Dr. Davis harps on how "Industry Knows," like there's some massive cover-up of the topic, and points to disclaimers in the fine print of cell phone manuals warning not to keep the phones too close. Ever heard of a CYA? The legal evidence of effect in a law suit is a far lower bar than the rigour demanded by scientist. Companies can be, and have been, sued for things that were later shown to be totally harmless upon actual study. All Nokia needs is to be sued for an ungodly amount by someone who has a brain tumour from another source to really ruin their day, and the fine print lets them say, "Well you didn't use the phone as we instructed."

One other thing I would like to note - the news stories are coming off making Dr. Davis look like some sort of cancer expert. This is interesting, because to the best of my google scholar abilities, as well as looking at her public CV, I can one peer reviewed paper on cell phones and cancer. It looks like she's spent most of her time recently tilting at aspartame (which to be honest, sends up a whole lot of red flags in my mind). Now, I won't begrudge her the right to write a book - I have zero publications on cell phones and cancer - but the Times and other journalists should know that one study does not an expert make.

Photo credit.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Winterize yourself

It's starting to get cold over here, although we haven't really plumbed the sub-zero °Fs yet. But with the days getting shorter, and the temperature going down, winter is definitely here for the season. This much really hit me Saturday when I woke up after sleeping for nearly 12 hours. Don't bother me, I'm hibernating! In that vein, I want to share this surprisingly accurate list of ways to winterize yourself from lifehacker. Just like you winterize your truck, and pull your boat out for the season, you should take good care of yourself, too!

My two cents would be "don't feel the need to hold onto your really warm gear until later." Lots of people are walking around campus in light jackets like they're in denial, and they're clearly shivering. Well that's silly! Just put on your warm stuff when you feel cold. Don't over dress or you'll get hot, but it's the opposite that's the bigger problem.

Also, "Get out an do something!" So many new students here hole up for the coldest months, which is precisely when they should be getting out and being active. Being active helps with the mood, and you also get more sun exposure. Keeping the indoors brightly lit helps too.

This one will be counter intuitive, but "turn down your thermostat." If you keep your home slightly cool, your body will better acclimate to the cold. There's good science to back this up, too. I see tiny cabins with massive woodstoves, and I have to shake my head. Some of them get so hot, you'd think we were in the jungle!

What are your tips for staying winterized?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The most ominous words ever written

Campbell saw no scenario where Miller would concede before the hand count. Lawyers are on their way to Alaska to help Miller battle over the numbers, he said.
http://www.adn.com/2010/11/02/1532963/senate-drama-could-just-be-beginning.html#ixzz14F3iaARc
 
Three predictions. 1) This will be tied up in litigation for at least 4 months. 2) The state supreme court will have to step in at some point to arbitrate what "the intent of the voter" actually means. 3) We're all going to be really tired of the election fight in less than 2 months.

You thought things were down and dirty so far...

Pictures

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Your vote doesn't matter (redux)

It's that time of year again, when we scribble in bits of paper and then complain about how other people scribbled in their bits of paper for the next two years. Yes, it's time to vote! Alaska's had a wild and crazy senate race which most people are sick to death of at this point, but all signs point to it not being over. If Lisa comes close to the percents she's polling at, she'll be tired up in court for the next decade as Miller and McAdams sue eachother silly. Much like Minnesota spent eons wrangling over votes, except with the extra joy of write in ballots.

So, with that cheery note, it's my turn to remind everyone that their vote doesn't matter, unless they're feeling lucky. Most economists would tell you that your vote is useless, and you'd be better off earning extra wages and donating the money to a political group in the time it takes to vote. You can watch this wonderful video where a talented GMU professor outlines why democracy is fundamentally flawed anyhow (Spoiler alert: It's bundling, and the illusion of consensus). So stay home! Have a nice glass of tea. Especially if you plan on voting against me. :)

Me? I'm feeling lucky. ;)

Monday, 1 November 2010

Isle Royal Lessons: Predation Risk v. Dinner

ResearchBlogging.orgIt's been a while since I've written a science blog post, and not because I haven't been reading papers. On the contrary, I've had the exact opposite problem! I'd like to revisit some work done on moose on Isle Royal, Michigan, one of the best studied ecosystems in the US. Reading about the Isle Royal studies was part of what got me into biology to begin with.

Isle Royal is an island in Lake Superior, north of the tip of the Upper peninsula, and not far from the coast of Canada. It's around 70x15 km in size, and almost all of it is encompassed in Isle Royale National Park. The island is the result of geologic tilting, which results in long ridges and islets that all run in the same north-east sort of direction. It's a wonderfully beautiful area,  and the site of much study between wolves and moose. There used to be caribou there as well, but they were expatriated. I would love to see them reintroduced there, but I'm a tad biased towards Caribou, aren't I?

Joan Edwards, now at Williams Collage, did regular surveys of the location of moose sightings. They patrolled moose trails, and did coastal surveys using a boat, and recording whether it was a bull, cow, whether it was alone, whether it had a calf, and so forth. Additionally, she surveyed the diet through observation, recording bouts greater than 10 minutes.

What she'd found is that there were quite the change in locations between cows with calves and all other moose. Bulls and cows without calves tended  towards the ridges on the main island for the beginning of the growing season, before meandering their way towards the shoreline and the aforementioned small islets in July-Sept. This is to contrast with cows with calves, whom were very strongly associated with shoreline, or islets, from May through the remainder of the season. Moreover, they showed that the cows with calves had a very poor quality diet when compared to those without. I've reproduced a figure showing their distribution in various seasons, and you can really see that the cows with calves really had a strong association with those non-interior sites.

Now cow moose have a large investment in calves. It's not the pregnancy so much, but the lactation afterwards that really kicks them in their behinds. Whereas a male's fitness tends to come from its ability to cover multiple females, a females fitness comes from its ability to successfully bring the offspring to independence. Thus, a male is limited by its ability to snarf down forage and become large enough to be dominant, and a female is limited by her ability to trade off predation risk and her basic needs in terms of body condition. Additionally, you could infer that the variance in reproductive success in bulls (either they have a ton of success, or very very little) would lead them to very different risk-benefit calculations as to whether they want to eat in food-rich but predator heavy areas. 

Put into this context, Joan Edwards' research makes quite a bit of sense. Each class appears to be trying to maximize their fitness. She throws out Calves are likely to imitate their mothers as an alternate explanation, but I think she's right to dismiss this alternative fairly easily, since they could just as easily find the same assemblage of forage elsewhere, and at greater quantities. Addationally, I haven't seen the behavioural patterning work go very far with moose, and it's quite possible that that hypothesis petered out in the intervening decades.

However, I do have some general criticisms. First, the study is dependant on sightings, but I saw no estimation of sightability. Supposedly the long duration of observation could rectify that, but in such a dense, closed forest, opportunities for missing animals are rife. Secondly, the sightings could have been systematically biased by one of two ways. First, the lowest predation risk areas for cows with calves on the mainland could have been the hardest to get to, due to terrain, vegetation cover, and other factors. Human bias in these studies can be sizeable, as no one likes to hang around in a hard to reach boggy area looking for moose. Secondly, the mere act of moving about could have scared the cows with calves off in the mainland, because of their heightened concern as to predators. Really, the way to do this sort of study the best would be through radio telemetry, aka collaring and fallering. All that said, I think the effect is generally a real one, albeit not as strong as Dr Edwards suggests.

Edwards, J. (1983). Diet shifts in moose due to predator avoidance Oecologia, 60 (2), 185-189 DOI: 10.1007/BF00379520

Beer notes on Alaskan Baltic Porter ale.

I had no idea there was such a thing as a Baltic Porter as a beer style - this is pretty dang good. As @T said, there are more beer styles than beers... if this is a Baltic porter, I must have more Baltic porters!

Alaskan Baltic Porter Ale by Alaskan Brewing Company.
65.1 cL bottle - that's a strange volume. Still, a dark purple label with the vintage clearly noted. There's no head, just the thinnest of tan rings around this dark, opaque beer. It smells of vinella and cherries, a rich sweet smell which just barely masks the alcohol smell. It smells a bit like molassass - potentially the brown sugar used in making this. The smoky oak flavour and the brown sugar really carry through the drink. If you let it linger, the cherries really come through on the finish. It's a tad dry, and the alcohol content periodically comes through. There's a bit of bitterness, like cross between licorice and dark chocolate, that's hard to place. Eminently drinkable, this is a phenomenal brew.

4.65 out of 5. A+

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Picturesque Copper River

Here's a picture of the copper river outside of chitna, when I went down there this year supposedly to fish. I never really did get a chance, since the water level was all wrong, and I had to go home soon after. But Chitna is a great place. The Chitnites are easy to get along with, there's a great little bar in 'town' (Uncle Tom's), and when things aren't so crowded, its easy to get to talking to people from all over the state. Soon after I took this, I was passed by a guy on a bike who was out sheep hunting south of there, and we got to talking about his trip - he also was unsuccessful in getting any meat that day. For all you transplants to AK, as soon as you're legal, you should go give dipnetting at Chitna a try. It's an experience and a half for most people, and even I find it a whole lot of fun.

I heard it called "Subsistence for College Students" once, and I had to laugh because that isn't so far from the truth!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Yugcetun demonstratives

A friend of mine went to Montana for graduate studies in linguistics - she's studying to be a speech pathologist - and was apparently in a conversation with someone down there about Yup'ik. She'd told him that Yup'ik has an incredibly elaborate set of demonstratives (ways of saying "This" or "That"), and when she told him that there were 30+ demonstratives, he refused to believe her. :p

But it's true! There are over 30 demonstratives in Yup'ik, not counting all the positional words. Why so many? Well, I got told this explanation about how the tundra is confusing to navigate on, and so the system gets elaborated to work out where things are. I'm not sure if I believe that - I think it's more likely that it's complicated because it's complicated. English has a very complicated and irregular system of plurals, like Goose-Geese, Cow-Cattle, Moose-Moose, Dog-Dogs, and so on. Over time, we lose a lot of the complication in English (the irregular forms are purged), and the same is true with Yup'ik - people use a smaller selection of demonstratives than before. But no one would argue that in English's primordial environment, people had to be very good at quantifying animals. It's just a silly argument.

In grammar person talk, Yugcetun demonstratives can be either 'extended,' 'restricted,' or 'obscured'. That is, they can refer to something at one spot, not moving (restricted), something spread out or moving (extended) or something we can only infer is there (obscured). For example, we have man'a, which is by me (the speaker) in the spread out sort of way. Or unegna, which would translate so elegantly as "that downriver one that is spread out." Pamna would be "that one upslope that you can't see." The translations don't really roll off the tongue in English!

In a simple sentence, I could say "Kan'a Angsaq cukaituq." Which would be "That boat (down below) is slow." With nouns you use them pretty normally, except the plurals get funny. If I wanted to say boats, I'd say Kankut angsat cukaitut... so instead of just changing the ending like most words (Kavirliq->kavirlit) you have to strip it down, add on a -ku- and then you get to end it. Adverbs are even more different.

I've wondered if inupiaq has a similar system of demonstratives, or if it's different. The languages borrow a lot of vocab from each-other, but I'm told the grammar of inupiaq is different in ways. If someone knows, I'd be very curious to hear.

Here's a really cool shirt my friend made for yup'ik demonstratives. He gave me one, and I've worn it around town! :)


Friday, 22 October 2010

Using Physics to save a life

There's this wonderful story making the rounds about how an engineer in Washington used a basic knowledge of physics to save the life of an elderly driver passed out behind the wheel. You can read all about it at the Seattle Times. Mr. Innes saw the driver of a truck was passed out and heading for a busy intersection, but the vehicle was still going. So he took his van, got ahead of the truck and matched the speed. Then, decelerating, he let the truck rear-end him, and then used that contact to slow down the truck. The trick here is that while both vehicles were travelling fast, they were both travelling in the same direction, so at the time of the crash, the difference in speed was only a few miles per hour. This resulted in a much less dramatic crash, after which he could slow presumably by breaking thus avoiding a crash with a larger difference in speed (like 80+ mph).

In a bizarre show of humanity, Mr. Innes was told that he wouldn't have to cover damages for the collision. The Insurance Company promises not to act humanely twice.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Egg eating Snakes

While I'm 'nomming' my lunch (As the cool kids say), I was reading about this interesting group of critters. See, I learnt a rule in college that says you should never eat anything bigger than your head. Clearly, these egg eating snakes have never heard of this rule.

You can read more about them over at Jerry Coyne's blog, WEIT. While mammals have a reasonably diverse group of modes of feeding, I can't think of anything as outlandish as this in the species I study. No one who owns a dog will be impressed by how fast a wolf can eat, and moose and caribou have comparatively boring feeding ecology. It's days like this I'm envious of other scientists for working on really crazy weird critters. :P

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Does your doctor have a conflict of interest?

This morning, I was listening to KUAC when I heard a story about Doctors who had been disciplined in the past, but were now receiving money from pharmaceutical companies. You can read the original ProPublica story here. I think most people are vaguely familiar with this happening - or at least I hope most people are - but along with that story came a wonderful utility to find out if your doctor had reported income from the drug companies. Immediately, I checked for a doctor that had behaved very strange and found that their strange behaviour was all their own (or is hiding their pharmaceutical income). But perhaps you'd like to check your own too; I've gone ahead and linked the entry on Alaskan doctors here.


I should hasten to add that I'm not against pharmaceutical companies per se, as I'm a huge fan of new and modern drugs. I'll take a refined and purified analgesic over some willow bark and mashed up porcupine quills any day of the week (or at least those days where I need an analgesic). I am slightly leery of their marketing arms though, which can get up to some... morally dubious things. What really surprises me is that the amount that Doctors have received is so small; 257 million since 2009 seems like chump change. We're talking about 7 massive companies what have far more than that to throw around...

Monday, 18 October 2010

Beer Notes from Sunday

Jubelale by Deschutes, Oregon.

The bottle is a typical 12 oz Deschutes bottle, with a purple label that informs me that Jubelale is a "festive winter ale," and little else. There's a best by date stamped by the UPC, but no indication when it was bottled. You can smell the hops before you've even poured; the beer is a dark oak colour, just edging on transparent, with little evident carbonation. The head is down to a thin ring in short order.

The aroma is dominated by hops, with just the faintest hint of caramelized sugar. The flavour is more balanced, with the smoky coffee flavour that Deschutes does so well blended with hops and something malty. The beer finishes dry, with just a slight bitter aftertaste. It seems to improve as it warms, the flavours becoming more distinct. Not terribly drinkable for for my money, though - just a touch too dry. 3.7 out of 5. B.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Was hiring Mike Modano a good call?

About 70 days ago, the big question for the Detroit Red Wings was whether or not Mike Modano would sign on with the team for a year contract. Modano is an amazing player, and one of the all-time goal leaders. He is also a local boy, having been raised in Michigan. But Modano is also old for an athlete, having turned 40 in June. And his season average goals has been on the decline for some time. So when Modano agreed to sign a contract about 67 days ago, the question quickly became "is this a good idea?"

The idea is that Babcock will use Modano as a centre on the third line, with Jiri Hudler and Dan Cleary. Nominally, this is to provide third-line depth that most people don't have, but that's not the real reason he's there. The real reason is so that Datsyuk, Zetterberg and to a lesser extent Holmstrom can be put on the same line. It's all about getting the Eurotwins back together and hoping Zetterberg's Swedish Magic™ will come out in his pairing with Datsyuk.

By the way: Thank god for Sweden. :) And anyone else notice how few Russians there are on the team right now? Bizarre.

But. This is all predicated on the idea that Modano will keep the third line strong enough to shuffle things around. And while Modano has had a nice first few games, I'm going to point out the obvious - He's old. Even in a club like the Red Wings, which has been at times jokingly called the senior centre on ice. He doesn't have many years of good hockey left in him, if he has any at all. Yes, his first shot in his first game was a goal. But long-term, will he have the staying power? In the regular season they can just idle him down for a game or two, but in the playoffs, what then?  There's no nap time in the play offs, when Modano will be expected to consistently bring his A-Game. So while the experts are saying good things about Modano and the Red Wings, I remain cautiously optimistic at best. I'm often wrong, and I look forward to being wrong about this too.

If life was like a political debate...

I can't resist sharing this comic from the always funny, though sometimes NSFW, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Wing-bat envy

Here in Alaska, we only get senate candidates who 
  • go on unemployment, and then argue unemployment should get removed, 
  • lie about why they won't release their records, 
  • fail to pay their taxes, 
  • apply for low-income resident hunting licenses that they aren't qualified for, 
  • want to abolish the federal minimum wage,
  • apply for medicare money, which they're vehemently against,
  • accept farm subsidies which they're vehemently against,
  • and who think that the 17th amendment was just a crummy idea because really, what to voters know anyhow?
Well, that and Lisa Murkowski, who should really have her name legally changed to something like "Lisa Smith" for her write in campaign, if she wants any chance in heck. But let's be honest, how boring is that? There's no style. It's just boring old rank-hypocrisy from a self-important group of blowhards who lust after power like I lust after a big bowl of ice cream. There's nothing new or exciting there. We have Palin going around talking about Death Panels, and other forms of verbal diarrhoea, but she's pretty much gone national now. She's the 'States' problem now (sorry guys). Oh, and I've heard rumours we got some other guy running, too.

But Delaware? They have candidates who say that although they dabbled in witch-craft once upon a time, that honestly, they've stopped being a witch. She also denies evolution, and has a strange obsession with... well... topics that are really none of her business. And honestly, that makes our craziest candidates look sane and well adjusted. I guess when people say we should go back to the root of what makes this country great, they mean going back to the 1600s:

Friday, 8 October 2010

Can we agree F-st has run its course?

ResearchBlogging.orgOther scientists out there! Hi. Can we agree that Fst, as wonderful as it's been, has run its course? It was a good idea - a great first crack at population genetics. When Wright came up with it, it was a wonderful idea. And for some applications - those where heterozygosity is generally low (I'm looking at you allozymes) - it works quite nicely. But once you're outside the Hs of .4 to .6, your Fst value starts becoming highly constrained. Fst = (Ht - Hs)/Ht. If Hs is large, it doesn't matter how much skewed your heterozygostity partitioning is, Fst will be small. There may be a way around this in Jost's D. I'm not a math biologist, so I'm not qualified to review his equations. But Fst is deader than a door nail. It's been a good run

Not convinced? Fair enough. Consider this figure from Gerlach et al 2010.

Why should diversity have any effect on population sub-structure? This makes no sense. Imagine two herds of caribou, one in Alaska, and the other in Quebec. All the herds between them are wiped out by Caribou flu (and you thought pig flu was bad!), so there's no gene flow. They both diversify, generating new genotypes - Alaska generates Alleles A, B, [...] L, M. Quebec generates alleles N, O, L [...] Y, Z. Both populations lose their ancestral form. All alleles are represented at equal frequencies. Neither population has a single allele in common. Divergence is total. And Fst is only 0.04* for this population pair. Fst will only get lower as you add more unique alleles to each population. This is absurd. Adding alleles does nothing to alter the fact that there is no gene flow from Quebec to Alaska in my example.

Jost's D would calculate differentiation as 1.0, which I think is a more accurate reflection of the fact that they have no diversity in common. But, IANAMB**.

Two reasons I bring this up. First, because I'm reading Gerlach et al 2010, which took the approach of using a variety of datasets to show that Fst*** does not reflect true levels of differentiation. It's a heap of data that show that when corrected, Jost's D neatly tracks true population divergence while Fst... well, it's flogging a dead horse at this point. The second reason will become clear in a moment.

I propose the following. You're allowed to use Fst in your publications for one more year. But at the end of 2011, that's it. Either move to other metrics, or take up under-water basket weaving. I've got two manuscripts I've got in prep. that I really hate having to report both Fst and Jost's D within. And in my case, Fst is awful because my species have high heterozygosity all around. I'm to be told that subspecies on different continents have an Fst of ≥0.05. If I were to take the most simpleminded, naïve interpretation of this, I would be to believe that I have around 4 migrants successfully swimming the arctic ocean to Eurasia each generation.

How about not?

*If I got my exact math wrong, you have permission to beat me with a stick. My point stands, though.**I am not a math biologist, so I'm not sure if Jost D's derivation is completely correct.
***Technically Gst, but Fst and Gst are used interchangeably, so 'nuff said.

GERLACH, G., JUETERBOCK, A., KRAEMER, P., DEPPERMANN, J., & HARMAND, P. (2010). Calculations of population differentiation based on GST and D: forget GST but not all of statistics! Molecular Ecology, 19 (18), 3845-3852 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04784.x

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Good oppertunity for the sciency people!

I'm on a few professional mailing lists, which are good for various questions, finding out about conferences, new journals, and so forth. One of which is Evol-Dir, one of the oldest biology mailing lists on the internet. This morning, I got a very interesting announcement from Evol-Dir. While I can't take advantage of it myself, perhaps someone of you can. The prize is a free trip to North Carolina! In the middle of Jan, a trip to the tropics-that-are-the-states would be niiiiice. I'll reproduce the email here:

Win a travel award for best evolution-themed blog
Application deadline: December 1, 2010

Are you a blogger who is interested in evolution? The National
Evolutionary Synthesis Center is offering two travel awards to attend
ScienceOnline2011, a science communication conference to be held January
13-15, 2011, in North Carolina¢s Research Triangle Park.

The awards offer the opportunity to travel to North Carolina to meet with
several hundred researchers, writers, editors and educators to explore how
online tools are changing the way science is done and communicated to the
public. Each winner will receive $750 to cover travel and lodging expenses
to attend the conference. For more information about ScienceOnline2011,
visit http://scienceonline2011.com/.

To apply for an award, writers should submit a blog post that highlights
current or emerging evolutionary research. In order to be valid, posts
must deal with research appearing in the peer-reviewed literature within
the last five years.  Posts should be 500-1000 words, and should mention
the NESCent contest. Two recipients will be chosen by a panel of judges
from both NESCent and the science blogging community.  Please send your
name, contact information, the title and date of your blog post, and a
URL to travel.award@nescent.org.

Winners will be notified by December 15th, 2010.

For the results of last year's contest, visit http://bit.ly/a5wtbt

For more information contact Craig McClain at cmcclain@nescent.org,
or Robin Smith at rsmith@nescent.org.

Pictures

Monday, 4 October 2010

Coming to theatres soon

I just read that there's serious talk about there being a Myst movie. For those of you who haven't wasted as much time on computers as me, Myst is a puzzle solving game where you wander around an island pulling levers, getting inside a tree, and trying to unsink a ship. It's actually far less boring than you think, and is a great, non-violent puzzely game for getting the kids to think. But it's the absolutely worst material to make into a movie.

What's next? "Tetris 2: Revenge of the Z Shaped Block." Of course, everyone will agree that Tetris 2 was no where as good as Tetris 1: Crazy Blocks Falling From the Sky.

Don't worry people! I've got a biology post ruminating in my brain. I just need to plot it out on paper.

Friday, 1 October 2010

New Toys

Yeah, I know I've been hiding for a bit. Hopefully my situation will change soon, but until then, here's something neat I saw in the Tundra Drums: Someone modified a Polaris 6 wheeler to act as a mini-ambulance. I'm surprised no one thought of the idea sooner - now that I see it, it's pretty obvious. The problem is that ambulances can't really work in most villages because of poor roads, or often no roads at all. How do you get a seriously unwell person to the clinic?
Previously, you'd stick someone in the back of a gator or argo, or in the seat of a bigger ATV. If you can run a truck, maybe that might help out, but that's hit and miss. But this, converting a 6 wheeler into an ambulance? It might have some problems in snow, but this is pretty brilliant.

Okay, speaking of ambulances, I can't help but think of a mildly NSFW monologue by Tim Minchin on the subject of ambulances, taking a cab in London, and lipsycing.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Little Bobby Tables strikes again And Intertidal Neatness

For you code geeks out there, this is too funny to pass up. Amid all the stupid that happened in the Swedish Elections viz. nazis (sorry Sweden. :( ), some more anarchical voters subbmited votes for... well, they did a write in vote for an SQL injection attack. :P They were counting on people compiling their vote and entering it as written, so when the vote 'software' hit it, it would think it was a code and treat it as such. Sweden clearly has an educational system that works. ;)

For you non-code geeks, here's some intertidal neatness. :)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

More Economics of Drugs (It's the incentives, stupid)

I've been reading a lot about the economics of drugs lately (again, I don't touch the stuff myself, but this stuff is fascinating!), and it was very interesting to see a blog post by Marginal Revolutions, a wonderful economics blog, discuss the groups most actively lobbying against the legalization of marijuana. Before you click, care to guess?

...

It's the Police and beer distributors. At first you might think there's a crime watch aspect from the police - good health and safety and all that. Instead, the cause turns out to be far more banal:
[...] Police forces are entitled to keep property seized as part of drug raids and the revenue stream that comes from waging the drug war has become a significant source of support for local law enforcement. Federal and state funding of the drug war is also a significant supplement to local forces' budgets.

Legalization means a cut in budget, and less material seized. Any economist would say that life is all about incentives, and in this case all the incentives are for police to oppose legalization. They must have done some form of calculus to find that the amount of money garnered for police budgets through taxation would be less than the amount they achieve from property seized. This is presumably because they would have to share tax revenue with other departments. This raises the question of whether incentives could be reworked to favour police departments (And that, of course, raises the issue of should incentives be re-worked at all, which is an entirely different question).

Friday, 17 September 2010

Croudsourcing consumer expenses.

Very particular consumer expenses. Since I'm apparently in a controversial mood today, there's a neat link I found called priceofweed.com. You can probably guess what it's about. While I don't do them, I find drug economics very interesting. The products are illegal, expensive, and in some cases dangerous to acquire, and yet according to the Author of Freakanomics, crack dealing has much the same business organization as McDonalds.

Anyhow, back to weed pricing: you can't trust police estimates of drug worth, since they have a vested interest in exaggerating the prices both to dissuade use and to make them look like they've accomplished something. When you spent several hundred thousand dollars, you need to justify it by saying you stopped some equal or greater amount of illegal activity, and the greater the estimate of the activity stopped, the more cost effective you can claim to be. "You should fund me, because for every one dollar, we can stop six thousand dollars of drugs." It gets so absurd that on the TV, I once heard police claim they had interdicted something along the lines of 1% of the US's GDP in drugs. 100 Billion dollars worth of drugs is... well... in 2008, it would have been the equivalent of trying to smuggle in the net worth of IBM. I imagined somewhere, an economist saw that on TV and promptly choked in his own spittal over the absurdity of the claim.
What happens when someone performs an act that's entirely legal in a majority of countries including the one they're in, causing no material harm to any person, through making an artistic political statement?

They have to change their identity and hide from death. That's exactly what happened to Molly Norris, of Draw Mohammed Day. Now, I won't pretend like the situation is not a bit more complex than a cut and dry instance of freedom of speech trumping all, but dangit it shouldn't be. Even granting that it is an "insult" just for a moment, well adjusted human beings should not react to insults with murder. This whole thing is like Salman Rushdie all over again.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

He's not anti-science. He's just anti-science.

Here's a gambit you might recognize:
"Just because you are anti-evolution doesn’t mean you are anti-science," [John May] said. "I deeply respect science [...]"
It's a similar gambit to the "I have tons of black friends" gambit, or sentences that go "I'm not a homophobe, but I'm about to say they sleep with Satan himself." Sure he deeply respects science... as long as you're not talking about palaeontology, biology, zoology, phylogeography, or any of the other fields that don't make a lick of sense without invoking evolution. Normally, it's easy enough to ignore a crank, or point out he is a crank - and John May is a crank - but the problem comes from the fact that he has backing from Ireland's science minister.

Well, there's a rub.

Mister Lenihan backed out after it came out that John May ran some torrid magazine at some point. To be honest, I have less problems with that than he was backing this vacuous crap to begin with. After all, politicians are always in some sex-scandal or another. But a Science Minister who endorses creationism is a bit like a pacifist general, or a minister for finance who never really could do the sums, and thinks poplar leaves are accepted as a form of currency. It's a sign you might have problems.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

*Tap Tap* Is this thing on?

Hello!

You might have noticed I've been absent for a little bit again. I was out in the field again, wrapping up the season with some various and sundry work. I've run into a tiny snag in my personal life, and although I'll try to have some posts out, it'll definitely be fewer and longer between posts until everything is peachy again.

In the interim, here's a moose staring at you.

Friday, 27 August 2010

A newly old brand of crazy?

I was going to write about the big behav-ecol kerfluffle that's stemming from E.O. Wilson's decision to go off the deep end (gee, I wonder where Tuuk stands?), but time has conspired against me. I didn't have enough time to write it up today, and probably want to put it off so I have a chance to re-read the paper. It's familiar - I was there for a lecture previewing the arguments about 6 years ago (?) at the University of Utah.

Instead, here's a brand of crazy I had no clue existed. There are people out there who dispute germ theory? Seriously? Are we going back to the witch based theory of disease?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The other Air Force Falcons.

Birds and Aircraft don't mix. Just ask Sullenberger about how well his plane dealt with the multiple bird-strikes. This is even more the case in high performance military jets, which are even more expensive to fix. So, what's an Air Force base to do? In the latest issue of "The Wildlife Professional" there was an article (p. 52) with a great number of approaches laid out a bunch of approaches, from Habitat modification to Non-lethal dispersal, and capture and translocation. Well, an Air Force base has an idea I think stands out because it's neat - they're fighting falcons with falcons.

More likely, they're using them to harass prey. Falconry has been around for thousands of years now, and I've always been fond of it. Although there's occasional bird smuggling (primarily to the Middle East), on the whole falconers are a force for good, in terms of outreach and education about bird of prey conservation. Many of them volunteer at wildlife rehab centres. So the idea of using falconry to limit other human-wildlife conflict is appealing to me.

Side note - anyone else notice the B-2s flying around Fairbanks about a week ago? I can definitely see how those could be mistaken for alien spaceships! If you didn't know what you were looking at, you could easily say "That's not from this planet."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Think like an Economist

My BiL  linked a really neat talk about how incentives matter (or don't) that had a neat animation to go with it. I'm not going to link it, because I'm mean like that. I'm not even going to link what I clicked on after that, which is an animation of another talk by Dan Levitt. Instead, I want to share the full version of the talk. It's a talk that's been in social psychology and economics circles for ages: is there such a thing as altruism?

Originally, my training is as a behavioural ecologist. Not as a geneticist, or population ecologist, or whatever. I studied behaviour. From a biological standpoint, altruism doesn't make much sense. Give away what you've worked to earn? If there's a gene for that behaviour, that gene will quickly go away as sure as a gene that results in an animal that tears holes in its side. In fact, for a long time, altruism was raised as an issue against evolution. Well, some very clever solutions show that you can have altruistic like behaviour, where you help your relatives (who have a copy of a gene for helping relatives), thereby increasing your own gene's fitness. An alternative solution, no less clever involves "I help you today, but you help me tomorrow." We call that reciprocal altruism. There's a number of other solutions to apparent altruism, where the giver is really getting something in return.

There's the rub. Is it possible to envision a situation where someone gets absolutely nothing in return? Or their family? Even feeling good about giving something is a benefit (although then you need to explain why one feels good about it). I think there probably is true altruism, but it's a mistake. It's a behaviour that goes off in the wrong context - we express the 'care for family' behaviour towards a total stranger because it miss-fires. But just because it's evolutionarily a mistake doesn't make it bad. After all, some of my favourite body parts don't have any function at all in one gender or another (I'll keep this blog pg-13 by not listing them. ;) ). Mistakes and misfires can be beautiful, wonderful. But that's not to say the whole problem of altruism is foxier than you'd think.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The end all of Traffic Jams

I don't deal with heavy traffic well. I avoid driving in Anchorage or downtown Fairbanks because I find it a mix of scary and infuriating that's hard to describe - When I briefly lived in Utah, the traffic was a bit of a nightmare, and I took the train 9 times out of 10. So, when I read about a 9 day, 100km long traffic jam in China...

I'm very glad I consider College Road "heavy traffic!"