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 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:

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 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 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 pudĂș.

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.


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.
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...


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+

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