Friday, 19 August 2011

How do you whip procrastination?

Over the summer, while I was in the field, I was listening to a book called "Predictably Irrational." It was a great book about behavioural economics, a sort of wedding between the findings of psychology, and what it should tell us about economic decision making by individuals and large groups of people. It's a very good book, and a very practical book, because it's full of gems about how to use innate human tendencies against themselves so we can do what we actually want to do - exercise more, save more money, be more honest, and so on. Here's a great example from the author himself, explaining how procrastination can be gamed.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bear safety while hunting

Some sage advice from Rick Sinnott summarizing the research on bear attacks on Alaskans, and the best defence against them:

Is a firearm better protection than bear spray? Bear spray -- a concoction of propellants and capsaicin (from red pepper) that burns the eyes and mucous membranes -- is effective up to about 30-35 feet. Dr. Tom Smith, Herrero and others assessed the effectiveness of bear spray in 72 incidents in Alaska where someone used it in defense. Bear spray was effective in 92 percent of the 50 cases involving grizzlies and 90 percent of the 20 cases involving black bears. No one who used bear spray was killed. In the nine instances where a grizzly charged a person, the bear broke off the encounter after it was sprayed, and only one person was injured. The injury was relatively minor, deep scratches requiring stitches. Eventually, someone who uses bear spray will be severely injured or killed by the bear. But it seems clear that bear spray promises to be at least as effective at preventing maulings as a firearm.
I would actually go further than he would, and say that despite my earlier critique of of research on the subject, bear spray is more effective than firearms. I've been sprayed before, and even with my puny human nose, it was incapacitatingly painful. And I only got a short burst. When I hunt, I always carry bear spray too, despite the fact that I obviously have a gun, and have it at the ready.

Of course, the best deterrent is the one you actually use. Bear spray is uesless if it's at the bottom of your pack, or you don't spray the bear...

Friday, 13 May 2011

Things that have always been issues

Here are some things that have always been issues, except for when they haven't been an issue at all. I'd first like to show the google timeline that I'm using is a generally good representation of what's important at a given time.
The search I did was for 'War' You can pick out the major wars on this ol' graph. Bigger bars mean more was written about it at the time. A bar twice as big is twice as written about. The bars don't scale to the same height, so what might be a blip on one graph, if plotted on another graph would be massive.

Interestingly, we're less interested in war these days than we were back in WW1 and WW2. Then again, in the WWs, the whole country was effectively mobilized to fight it.

Here's something that was a major point of contention in the 2000 election, but no one talks about anymore.
Here's something from the 2000 election that has periodically cropped up, but is mostly ignored between long stretches of the US nationally fixating on it.

I cropped all these timelines so they covered 1900 to today, but it's interesting to know that the last one was also a major issue periodically in the 1800s. Somehow, the nation avoided collapse then.

Here's something that was major in the 2008 election, that we were told was a brand spanking new issue that we must tackle now. Does the 80s count as new?

And here are two issues that I've been told have always been important, and people have always cared deeply about it, and they must be addressed now. 

And here's Hanging Chad. The most important thing of its time, and something we really don't care about now.
And here's a pet rock.
Not a very scientific analysis, but I guess what I'm saying is that there sure is a lot of what looks like fads in politics. Most of which never reach any form of resolution. And yet the world doesn't come quite to an end, like the politicians predicted if we didn't do what they wanted to do, right that moment..

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Moose on the loose

A moose decided to check out UAA's student union. Some suggested captions:
  1. Hey buddy, aren't you a little young to be taking college classes?
  2. More proof the university doesn't really care about the students: there's not even a sprig of willow in any of dining halls! You have to go off campus for some decent food!
  3. UAA decides to hedge their bets against UAF next hockey season by recruiting a new netminder who can simply sit down in front of the goal.
  4. Yes, UAA's admission standards have slipped a little bit. Still, he had an impressive list of extra curriculars.
  5. Yes, I am a bit fuzzy from the lack of sleep. Why do you ask?
  6. A moose looks for biologists to netgun and radio collar. 

This is what you get from me when I'm running caffeine and old episodes of Top Gear in the background while I scramble to get everything done in the next two weeks. What would you caption it with?

[Photo Credit]

Monday, 2 May 2011

Pilot bread gets serious

Pilot bread is practically a staple in the bush, and it's pretty common to offer it to folks along with some coffee when they come by visiting.  It's also quintessential outdoor food for backpackers, hunters, rafters, and so forth, because the stuff is just indestructible. It's also incredibly calorie dense, and something like a 100 and change per cracker. You need a big chunk of club crackers to come close to that many calories (Though, IMO, club crackers are tastier than pilot bread).
Now my idea of a pilot bread recipe involves taking a chunk and either slathering it with mayo (mmm, mayo) or making a tiny pizza out of it. If I'm feeling really creative, I'll crumble it for use in mooseloaf (two eggs. 1/2 milk-like-substance. 2 lbs ground moose. 5ish crumbled biscuits. Garlic powder, parsley, oregano, and basil to taste. Bacon if you got it) or make a salmon casserole (crumbled biscuits, bowtie noodles, a can of cream of mushroom, salmon, and hunks of Velveeta).

These, people, though, take pilot bread way too seriously. Sundaes made from pilot bread? I'm not sure if that's brilliance, or if down that path lay pure madness. The blackened salmon dish sounds very tasty though - I wish ADN would post the actual recipes!

I love the short story at the end, though,

When [Elsie Pavil Mather] was growing up in Kwigillingok, Pilot Bread was one of the few non-Native foods, she wrote. People used to say the crackers first showed up after a shipwreck and villagers, unaware they were edible, tossed them around like a toy.

"Do not play Frisbee with crackers!" wrote Mather, who lives in Anchorage now. "We are supposed to respect all our food."

Thursday, 21 April 2011


Yes, I know the photo is on the wrong day! Photos on a Thursday? Why, it's unthinkable!
I actually have photography block. I haven't seen anything and though, `wow, that's pretty` lately, and that's unsurprising. After all, we're in full-on melt-down mode here in Fairbanks. The snow is nasty, mud is getting all over, and ice is building up on any depression or level surface. Add to that the fact that most of westridge on campus is being dug up right now, and you got yourself a pretty ugly place. Luckily, soon it'll be warm enough for foliage to start coming out, and the place will be greener than you can shake a stick at.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

You could have picked a worse locale...

... Paul could have tried to set up shop in Ester. That's my attitude towards the Goldstream General Store. About two years ago, you may recall there was a stink about the employees going on strike. The store used to be owned by some nice folks who decided to sell it quietly. So quietly that almost no one knew about it until it was done. The problem was the new owner had strong opinions about tattoos, religion, politics, and just about everything else. And they were 100% to the right of right. And he was rather vocal about them. Well, that's fine - that's anyone's right - but you have to question the business savvy of starting an outwardly conservative business in what's basically a valley full of hippies, dilettante dog mushers, unwashed students and university staff. The valley isn't as liberal as Ester, but it's pretty close. 

The problem, and the reason this  is back in the news, was because the new owner tended to talk to his employees about religion. A lot. In a hostile manner. Leaving aside the wisdom of talking about religion at work (there's a time and place, and that's neither), the employees thought the content of the conversation amounted to harassment at the least. Things to the effect of `Catholics are the root of all evil` and how they would go to hell. At least two employees have sued over this, and thus far, one has won. I'm surprised it's taken two years for the case to worm its way through the courts - this was about as open and shut as it gets, given the amount of evidence that Paul was saying those things. Getting redress for being obviously wronged through the courts is an incredibly slow process. I might have just said `forget it` and dropped the case myself.

What really gets me is the guy's business plan. It's terrible, to be blunt. This is Goldstream we're talking about here, no one wants to buy stuff they picked up at safeway, brought to the general store and slapped a mark-up on. You want to make bank in the area, open a store that sells local foods, or organic food, or anything of that sort. Make it a pick up location for those organic farm distributors that are so popular on campus. Sell to the clientele you can get,  not the one you wish you had. If they had even a little bit of local goods there, they would have many more customers than they actually do.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Fairbanks is looking for a bioinformatics guru!

Here's an announcement that was recently sent out over evol-dir:

University of Alaska Fairbanks seeks a Unit Manager for the Life
Science Informatics/ Epidemiology Biostatistics cores. These cores
provide technical computing services, such as database development and
management, data dissemination services, optimization of technical
software, custom data analysis pipelining, maintenance of
computational clusters, and user training workshops to facilitate the
growth and maintenance of a diverse user group. This position is
jointly supported by campus-wide research groups, including the Center
for Alaska Native Health Research (CANHR), the IDeA Network of
Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), the IAB Spatial Ecology
Laboratory, and grants to individual researchers.

The position requires significant attention to both substance and
detail and a commitment to working collaboratively with faculty and
staff involved in the Institute of Arctic Biology, as well as at other
UA campuses. The Manager will interact with up to 150 researchers on a
regular basis, and oversee the work of programmers and system analysts
with an operational budget of approximately $750,000/yr.  Experience
with computer hardware including networks, clusters and servers, as
well as an understanding of programming and scripting are also
required. Capability in Red Hat or any Linux is required, while
familiarity with SQL, PHP and/or Perl are strong pluses.
Additionally, experiences in any field of bioinformatics are pluses.

Also desired are strong communication skills; human resource skills
for management of the work flow for a small highly skilled and
professional team, including direct supervision, budget authority and
planning responsibilities.
Typical education should include a graduate degree in bioinformatics,
biology, medical science or a related field with strong computational
aspects, or information technology/mathematics/statistics or related
field with demonstrated biology underpinnings.

To apply, go to UAKJOBS.COM.

More information about the supporting programs can be found here:

Life Science Informatics

University of Alaska Fairbanks is the flagship
university of Alaska with more than 10,000 students.  There are active
research programs in Biology as well as in
Chemistry and Biochemistry .  LSI also
provides the support to researchers in UA Anchorage

Additional information about Fairbanks, Alaska:
Fairbanks, Alaska is an exciting place for many people.  This job
offers a life-time opportunity for you to experience vibrant, diverse,
and adventurous life with the comfort of medium-sized city.  It is
conveniently located and the direct flight from Seattle WA takes only
3.5 hours.  It takes about 2 hours of driving to the magnificent
Denali National Park, which offers unparalleled wilderness experience.
For more adventurous, Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge or
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

can be easily accessed.  You can enjoy the midnight sun during the
summer.  Even in the winter, we have a lot of fun things to do.  The
shortest day is about 4 hours, but there are plenty of light before
the sun rise and after the sun set.  We generally do not have wind, so
it does not feel as cold as Chicago in the winter.   We have lots of
cultural activities such as active music community and arts, film and
music festivals, too (e.g., ).

A lot of us did not know how high the quality of life is in Fairbanks
until we moved here, and most of us fell in love with the "Last
Frontier" State.  I hope you'll take up this opportunity and join us.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

What are you supposed to get out of college, anyhow?

The most excellent Dr. Palmer has written an interesting post on how she views many biology graduate students shoot themselves in the foot through focusing on the wrong skills in their tenure as students. While on whole I would agree with what she's written, especially the bits about non-transferable skills, I think the focus on `soft skills,` things such as lit reviews and public speaking, is slightly misguided.

While soft skills might help you get a job in the future (potentially one goal of a Ph.D. student), I'm not convinced they're the major determinant of your ability to get hired. You see, I've just suffered through a hiring committee - I wasn't actually on it, but everyone even tangentially affiliated with me was, which meant I might as well have been on it given how often I was caught up in conversations about it. While quite a few of the candidates were highly polished presenters, with style and panache, that didn't necessarily correlate with  getting into the final list of candidates.

What's more important, I would argue, is not the technical skills - those will vary over time. Learning R now is like learning SAS 15 years ago. Sure, it gives you a temporary window of relevance, but unless you're constantly chasing your tail picking up the latest technical skills, you'll quickly become irrelevant (Yes, I am arguing SAS is passé). But nor is it the soft skills - Billy Mayes would not be a top candidate in any academic job search, should he still be alive, no matter how much useless junk he can convince people to buy. The important things to get out of a Ph.D. education is an integrated worldview and conceptual framework upon which to hang your hat. It's raw knowledge.

Don't forget you're at an institute of higher learning. While there's just a bit more to a job search than being bright, in academia we tend to be awfully capitalistic in how we pick professors. Results matters, and to generate really good results, you either need to be a) lucky or b) good. Since you generally can't count on a lucky career path falling in your lap, it's better to focus on being good. And the most important aspect of conducting good research is not methodological prowess, or your ability to communicate your results to the public, but your ability to have the conceptual framework to conduct robust, appropriately nuanced research.

Here's a question I've found really reveals the strengths and weaknesses of any graduate, be it Ph.D. or B.S. Ask them, quite simply, "What do you think the big, unanswered questions in your field are?" If they start prattling on about P52 protein structure, it's clear they don't have the right conceptual framework, or they're hopelessly mired in the details. Likewise, if they feel there aren't any big parts of the map with "Here Be Dragons" written on it, they haven't thought critically about their field either.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Beer notes from last week

I had this written up last week, but for some reason never sat down at the computer and typed it up. I've been emptying out all those bottles I've been hanging on to with the intention of trying. Hopefully I have a Japanese beer in the queue, and an Aussie (Sorry, it's not Boag's Premium). I'm hoping to crack them open in the next week, once I'm done with this great pomegranate juice I found...

Alaskan Barley Wine Ale, Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau AK
Wrapped in the typical Alaskan Brewing Company 65cl bottle, I can't find any indication of the date of origin for this particular bottle. When I pour it out, the beer looks smooth and thick, a deep burgundy who's head dissipates into a thin white ring while I'm still smelling the beer. The hops are incredibly floral, and leaps out after fragrance of the grains. There are subtle hints of something malty lurking underneath that I can't quite put my finger on, with how strong the other two odours are. When I sip it, the Barely Wine Ale opens up with a bitter taste, followed by a mere whiff of the grains involved, and ending with a crisp and bitter aftertaste. How can something so thick be so crisp? It's like drinking oil, it's so thick, and yet there's a distinct bite at the end. It's a paradox, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a beer.

There's something underneath the hops that feels almost oaky, but it's hard to work it out from the power of the rest of the beer. It's vaguely disappointing, because Alaskan seems to do better balancing their beers than they've done with their Barley Wine Ale. The end effect is that the beer tastes too simple, and too heavy on the hops for my tastes. That's not to say I couldn't finish the bottle - you barely realize there's alcohol in this beer at all, it's so well hidden. Still, one bottle is a bit much for one person, and it might be best split between friends over dinner.

3.8 out of 5. B+

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Alaska Census changes, 2000 to 2010

Data time, people! Behold, tables:

Borough or Census area 2000 estimate 2010 estimate % change
Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area 6,551 5,588 -14.70%
Ketchikan Gateway Borough 14,070 13,477 -4.21%
Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area 6,146 5,559 -9.55%
Valdez-Cordova Census Area 10,195 9,636 -5.48%
Kodiak Island Borough 13,913 13,592 -2.31%
Bristol Bay Borough 1,258 997 -20.75%
Lake and Peninsula Borough 1,823 1,631 -10.53%
Yakutat City and Borough 808 662 -18.07%
Dillingham Census Area 4,922 4,847 -1.52%
Denali Borough 1,893 1,826 -3.54%
Sitka City and Borough 8,835 8,881 0.52%
Aleutians West Census Area 5,465 5,561 1.76%
Haines Borough 2,392 2,508 4.85%
Nome Census Area 9,196 9,492 3.22%
Northwest Arctic Borough 7,208 7,523 4.37%
Wade Hampton Census Area 7,028 7,459 6.13%
Aleutians East Borough 2,697 3,141 16.46%
Juneau City and Borough 30,711 31,275 1.84%
Southeast Fairbanks Census Area 6,174 7,029 13.85%
Bethel Census Area 16,006 17,013 6.29%
North Slope Borough 7,385 9,430 27.69%
Kenai Peninsula Borough 49,691 55,400 11.49%
Fairbanks North Star Borough 82,840 97,581 17.79%
Matanuska-Susitna Borough 59,322 88,995 50.02%
Anchorage Municipality 260,283 291,826 12.12%
Hoonah-Angoon Census Area 3,436 2,150 -14.79%
Skagway Municipality 968
Wrangell City and Borough 6,684 2,369 -21.11%
Petersburg Census Area 3,815
Statewide 626,932 710,231 13.29%

I have the table organized by the number of citizens gained or lost. Note that Hoonah/Skagway and Wrangell/Petersberg is reported differently between 2010 and 2000, so they take up two lines (Only one value in 2000 per either pair). What leaps out at me is most of the change comes from the MatSu - a wopping 50% change in population! Yikes! Fairbanks has also grown at an accelerated rate, but not nearly as much. I was wrong about the North Slope - it has a greater % change than the North West Borough. I was correct about the YK, but too conservative about the rate of growth since both major census districts topped 6% growth. I was too conservative about how horribly hard SE is getting hammered. Aside from Bristol Bay, the biggest percent changes were in SE. The biggest absolute change, though, was in the Yukon-Koyukuk area:

Borough or Census area Absolute Change Percent of State Change
Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area -963 -1.16%
Ketchikan Gateway Borough -593 -0.71%
Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area -587 -0.70%
Valdez-Cordova Census Area -559 -0.67%
Kodiak Island Borough -321 -0.39%
Bristol Bay Borough -261 -0.31%
Lake and Peninsula Borough -192 -0.23%
Yakutat City and Borough -146 -0.18%
Dillingham Census Area -75 -0.09%
Denali Borough -67 -0.08%
Sitka City and Borough 46 0.06%
Aleutians West Census Area 96 0.12%
Haines Borough 116 0.14%
Nome Census Area 296 0.36%
Northwest Arctic Borough 315 0.38%
Wade Hampton Census Area 431 0.52%
Aleutians East Borough 444 0.53%
Juneau City and Borough 564 0.68%
Southeast Fairbanks Census Area 855 1.03%
Bethel Census Area 1,007 1.21%
North Slope Borough 2,045 2.46%
Kenai Peninsula Borough 5,709 6.85%
Fairbanks North Star Borough 14,741 17.70%
Matanuska-Susitna Borough 29,673 35.62%
Anchorage Municipality 31,543 37.87%
Hoonah-Angoon Census Area -318 -0.38%
Skagway Municipality
Wrangell City and Borough -500 -0.60%
Petersburg Census Area
Statewide 83,299 n/a

Anchorage had the greatest growth (Gold star for me) followed by MatSu and Fairbanks and the Kenai. Juneau, as I anticipated, remains essentially flat. I might have to double back on the Rural-to-Urban migration idea. There's 214 more rural residents than there were in 2010, which is a minuscule increase. Either there's more immigration than emigration, but elevated death to compensate, or births are higher than deaths, and there's a net emigration. The second scenario seems more likely.

Why didn't this show up in the school enrolment records in Anchorage? Well, it could be that people more likely to move don't have children yet, or maybe they're not all moving to Anchorage. Or, what I think is most likely - there's serious flaws in how we calculate enrolment in schools, where students from the bush are more likely to skip classes (true) and therefore not be reflected in the annual counts. This downward biases the enrolment numbers, and therefore funding, of schools with the students who need the most help.

But, that's navel gazing and guesswork. The real way to address this is to follow individuals, not counts of individuals. Census summaries we have access to can't show that that +1 person in the Kenai came from Juneau as opposed to Kansas. You need to do a more detailed breakdown than that to find those sorts of trends.

Finally, on the diversity front, diversity increased slightly (69% White to 66% White descent) mostly to an additional 1 percent more people of Asian descent, and a grab-bag of other.

There's a lot of information here, and I've barely played around with it. Hopefully, I'll get more time to dig deep into this well of information in the next little bit.

Before the AK census data

The AK census data will be posted today at 10am, AKDT.  Before they post it, I want to make some minor predictions about what the data will show.

This is like the Nenana ice classic, except I don't get anything if I'm right.  ;)

Big winners - Anchorage and Fairbanks. Juneau will remain relatively flat (less than 2% growth if any). In South East, some of the islands in the Alexander archipelago will show a decline; I'd be surprised if it's more than 5%. The YK will show flat to moderate growth (the couple of districts will show 1-5% growth). North-West (Kotz area etc) will show some minor growth, while North Slope will shrink slightly.

I'm torn - I know the nation, as a whole, is diversifying. But the big drivers in state population are migrants to Fairbanks and Anchorage/Matsu, who are predominantly white. So whether the state follows the trend and becomes more diverse depends on the exact balance between internal growth and migration.

I strongly think the data will not reflect a rural to urban migration like people (including me) were suggesting a few years back. I think the preliminary data in the form of enrolment makes that dubious - total rural migration will be small, or zero.

And, as a wild card prediction, Anvik will become the new state capital, stunning the rest of the state. In your face, Juneau!


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