31 December 2006

Auld Lang Syne

This final post of the year comes to you live from my favorite place: Lopez Island. Looking back, I can unhestitatingly say that this has been the most ambiguous year of my life. It would not be a huge stretch to say that the very best and the very worst moments of my life happened in the last twelve months. Since I have so few readers, I don't want to scare any away with excessive negativity, so I'll just focus on the positives. First of all, I spend most of the year in Britain, which for an anglophile such as myself is pretty sweet. I also love traveling, and I set a record for countries visited (7; 9 if you count Wales and Scotland as separate from England) that I doubt I'll ever break. Of course, it's not all about quantity, but let me assure you that these were quality trips as well: paleontology in Ottawa, art in Madrid, Easter in Germany, Viking ships in Denmark, finding the England that I thought existed only in fiction in Cambridge. Of course, best of all was my acceptance into Oregon: there's just nothing quite as wonderful as knowing that I'll get to spend the foreseeable future "at home" in the Northwest. For those of you who I've known for a long time, and for those that I've just gotten to know since last January, Happy New Year!

24 December 2006

Lovely Weather for a Fish Hunt Together with You

Of course, one of the things we all love about Christmas is that it's the time of year when people are more likely to work together for the greater good. Once again, though, mankind has been one-upped by nature: fish work together throughout year. A recent study of groupers and moray eels in the Red Sea has shown that these two totally unrelated fish regularly hunt together, to the benefit of each. Truly cooperative hunting requires two species with complex brains, as both must be able to communicate with the other, and the behavior has previously been observed only in birds and mammals. For more on the fairly major implications of this study, see the well-written (if somewhat overstated) response by Frans de Waal. Also be sure to check out the original article, particularly the videos of hunting groupers and eels. So, there you go, the spirit of the season embodied by fish. Merry Christmas!

17 December 2006

Call to Arms

Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed my time in Britain, and I firmly believe they do many, if not most, things better than we do. That said, they have to be the only developed country that can compete with us in being ignorant about the rest of the world. I'm not the only person who thinks this: a group of concerned geographers has recently put together the Geography Cup, an online contest pitting the US versus the UK. Of course, by definition, the readers of this blog are highly educated, geographically literate people, and I strongly recommend that you go to that site right now and give the quiz a shot. It's really very simple: you have to identify 10 randomly selected countries and answer three questions. Sadly, the average score for both Britain and America are just over 50%. So please, rather you're from the US or the UK, do your part to up those scores and show the rest of the world that we're really not complete idiots.

11 December 2006

Joy to the World

This, my friends, is a red-letter day (and not just because I'm going increasingly broke). First, I finished grading the enormous pile of exams from "my" Geology of Oregon class (90 copies of a ten page exam - you do the math to get a sense of just how big a job that was). Then, as I was bringing a load of laundry out to my washer this evening, I ran into my duplex-mate. He's moving out and was looking to unload things, including...a microwave! Those of you that have microwaves may think it's a little weird to get excited about them, but imagine how much more convoluted the cooking process would become without one. Reheating things becomes a balancing act in the broiler, to say the least. I'm probably overreacting to this, but I just can't say how great it is to have a microwave again. I celebrated by having my first hot chocolate in a very long while. Mmmm, warm milk...

08 December 2006

One Down...

...and who knows how many more to go? Part of the fun of being a PhD student is that I really have no idea how much longer I'll be here. However long it's to be, you can subtract one quarter from it. This morning, I finished my first and last final of the term. I have to admit that this has been about the least stressful Finals Week I have ever endured. I had a short presentation on my research to give on Tuesday (which, at the risk of tooting my own horn, has gotten rave reviews from the other students in the class), a research proposal on the same topic, and today's ecology exam. It's certainly a far cry from the frantic, no-sleep-for-days Finals Week that I had the displeasure of going through every quarter at Chicago (not, of course, that I would ever complain). After I finish up grading exams for the class I'm TA-ing, it's clear sailing until next quarter. And what do I have on my plate then, you may ask? For one thing, I go from TA-ing a 90 student, non-major class to a (so far) 3 student upper level geology course, Geobiology. I'm actually looking forward to that quite a bit, and I'll admit I feel a bit smug that I'm the best-qualified grad student in the department to help teach it (what with the biology BA and all). I'm also taking classes, of course: the follow-up to my current ecology class, an introduction to GIS, and (the somewhat intimidating) Sedimentary Petrology. Stay tuned for all my wacky misadventures starting in January...

01 December 2006

Deck the Halls

I will never be one of those people that starts celebrating Christmas the minute the Thanksgiving dishes are off the table. That said, a few conversations I've had in the past week have convinced me that the old tradition that I'd slavishly followed my whole life of waiting until the 7th to break out the decorations, string up the lights, and switch my iTunes over to the "Christmas" playlist just didn't make any sense. So, weird as it seems, I'm ringing the season in now, at the beginning of Advent (which, if you follow the actual church calendar does not necessarily begin on the 1st, but I was never one to get hung up on church doctrines, to say the least). I may have changed the date, but I'm observing the event in the same way I do every year: staying up until midnight to listen to Duke Ellington's jazz Nutcracker. Yes, I lead a thrilling life. Make fun of me if you want. It won't bug me. It's Christmas!

20 November 2006

Why, America? Why?

In what has to be a first for me, I was part of two completely separate conversations about turduckens today (neither of which was started by me, I might add). If you don't know what a turducken is, where have you been these last few years? Obviously not listening to John Madden broadcasting football games, that's for sure. At any rate, the long and short of it is that it's a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. I like turkey and chicken, and duck is fine when prepared right, but all three together seems perhaps a bit much. My biggest concern is that it's all meat with no room left over for stuffing, which is really the best part of a Thanksgiving turkey. Could anything be more emblematic of our gluttonous culture? Yes, it turns out. Check out this Wikipedia article to see not only a picture of a truly horrifying bacon-covered turducken (which propriety forbids me from posting here), but to read about variations that involve birds ranging in size from quails to ostriches. You can also learn that like so many unwanted things in American culture, the blame for the turducken can be placed squarely on - you guessed it - the South.

18 November 2006

Mighty Oregon

I went to my first Oregon football game today. As a student, I get free tickets, and as this was the last home game of the season, I figured I really ought to head up to Autzen Stadium and experience the cultural phenomenon that is Ducks football. Don't think I'm lapsing into hyperbole when I use the phrase "cultural phenomenon:" the city of Eugene effectively shuts down each Saturday during the season. People who you would never think of as sports fans will move mountains to attend home games and scream at the top of their lungs for three hours. I've never been to a school that took football this seriously before, and I have to say it's pretty fun (I thought I knew what a big deal college football could be from growing up near Husky Stadium, but sorry UW: Oregon fans have you beat hands-down on enthusiasm and sportsmanship, though I do think you have the edge stadium-wise). I'm also glad to say that while football is a big deal here, people don't lose sight of the fact that it really is just a game and means almost nothing in the real world (unlike some of the fans you encounter in the Midwest, who are prone to suicide if their team doesn't perform to expectations). They're also civil - even friendly - to visiting fans, which in my opinion is the way things ought to be. Finally, how can you not love a team that has a duck as a mascot (and once had a player whose last name was Mallard)? Sadly, the game today ended in an embarrassing loss to a mediocre Arizona team, once more proving that it's true what they say about where nice guys finish.

13 November 2006

What's in a Name?

My homework load has taken a sudden, and no doubt temporary, downtown these last few days, so I went ahead and did something I've been meaning to do for a while: I made a name plate for my office door, which had formerly only had my officemate's name on it. That's it at left; pretty wicked awesome, eh? Bonus points to anyone who can name all of the animals on it...

11 November 2006

'Neath the Mistletoe

Do you think of mistletoe as a nice bit of Christmas greenery and an opportunity to steal a kiss? If so, you really should learn more about it. It's a nasty parasite that leaches water and nutrients from host trees; you might just as well be kissing under a tapeworm. What, you may be wondering, prompted this odd little discourse? I spent all morning with my Population Ecology class clambering around the soggy slopes of Mount Pisgah monitoring the population of Phoradendron mistletoe for our final project. We tramped through both poison oak (which, thankfully, has largely died back by this time of year) and blackberries (which are a pain at any time of year) and wound up collecting far less data than we'd hoped. For all that, it was still a good time. The sun managed to break through once or twice, there was still some Fall color left on the trees, and the knoll on which we stopped for lunch had a pretty stunning view of the south end of the Willamette Valley. There was also a swing hung from an oak branch at the edge of the cliff that made you feel like you were flying - great if you like cheap thrills. How do I follow up such a busy morning? By writing this, eating pickled okra, washing my poison oak-ridden clothes, and watching Oregon play USC. Hey, not every hour of every day can be eventful...

06 November 2006


George W. Bush has been an unmitigated disaster for our country, and at the risk of sounding self-righteous, I don't know how any rational person could disagree with that. He has consistently spat in the face of the ideals that made this country what it is, and he has made us pariahs throughout the world. That said, we all have a chance tomorrow to go to the polls and do something about it. My old jazz teacher, of all people, once likened every national election to an organized revolution, and that really sums it up marvelously well. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they wrote the Constitution (which, if you haven't read it, you really should). Jingoistic as it may sound, the US system of government is the best out there. All of us have probably been frustrated by its bureaucracy and inefficiency in the past, but efficient governments tend to lie frighteningly far down the road to despotism. I think that the greatest testimonial to the foresight of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest of their cohort is that a would-be despot like George Bush has been able to get away with relatively little. It's sometimes hard for those of us of the liberal persuasion to find things about the US to be proud of anymore, but the fact that we have a chance to go to the polls tomorrow and affect the course of world history should be enough to make us all feel optimistic.

03 November 2006

Turning Japanese

Konichiwa, and Happy Godzilla Day! Yes, according to my "this day in history" calendar, this is the 52nd birthday of everyone's favorite giant radioactive lizard/dinosaur. I'm particularly grateful to the creators of Godzilla (or Gojira, for those of us in the know) for supplying me with the only Japanese phrase I know ("Godzilla is eating Tokyo"). Japanese things have been on my mind quite a bit lately, and not just because of Engrish.com. After pumping a couple of thousand dollars into repairing my Taurus last month, I've just learned that I need to pay another four-figure bill to repair my radiator system. The upshot is that I'm selling the Ford as soon as the repairs are finished and swearing off American cars. So, if anyone knows anybody who a) wants to buy a recently-repaired Taurus or b) is selling a decently-priced Japanese car, please do let me know. Sayonara!

31 October 2006

Happy Halloween?

Remember when we were kids and the streets were alive with trick-or-treating children on Halloween evening? At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, what happened to those times? Not only did I not see any trick-or-treaters on my way back from the university today, I didn't get any coming to my door either. What gives? It's not as though I live in a particularly crime-ridden neighborhood; in fact, it's really pretty nice. Have we really become such a bitter and distrustful country? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for misanthropy, but to ruin every kid's favorite night of the year? That just seems wrong. On the plus side, I have a large bowl full of Three Musketeers and Milky Way bars now, as well as a carved pumpkin and a spare candle. Those will all come in handy, I'm sure...

29 October 2006

Fall Color

Some people wax ecstatic about the brilliantly colored Autumns out East, but let me tell you, there's nothing quite like a nice Fall day on the Oregon Coast. I was there this weekend, doing a geological mapping activity on the rocky shore along the town of Yachats to make up for a field trip I missed while in Ottawa. That section of the coast is riddled with surge channels and spouting horns, and the wind and tide were both at just the right levels to make the surf put on quite a show, without being so strong as to make me feel as if I were in imminent danger of getting swept out to sea. Since it wasn't the middle of summer, the only people I was sharing the park with were locals (nice both for the solitude and because I would have gotten extremely tired of answering questions about what I was doing with a compass, a notebook, and a weather-beaten aerial photograph of Yachats). Even in that fairly built-up part of the coast, I saw my share of wildlife as well, best of all a line of pelicans scaling above the breakers not fifty feet from where I stood. It's no secret I love coasts - the Northwest Coast most of all - at any time of year; they give me an oddly comforting sense of human insignificance in the face of nature. Days like this Saturday just remind me how lucky I am to be living in the greatest part of the world, somewhere where I can drive an hour and find myself in wonderful Fall weather on one of the most sublimely beautiful coasts anywhere. The Easterners can keep their colorful leaves: we've got the better end of the bargain by far.

24 October 2006

Oh, Canada

First off, let me say how nice it is that people (you know who you are) are actually complaining when I don't post for a while. Honestly, it's nice to know that at least some of you actually look forward to reading this thing. That said, there's a good reason there haven't been many updates lately: I've been in Canada. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was having its 66th annual meeting in Ottawa, and being back on this side of the Atlantic, I just couldn't pass it up. I'll admit I had my doubts when I first signed up, but in retrospect it was an excellent decision.
It turns out Ottawa is a really interesting place. It's not very large, and the vast majority of the city is extremely nondescript. That said, the area around the Parliament building is nothing short of gorgeous. First of all, there's Parliament itself. I've seen my share of world capitals, and Canada's just about takes the cake. As far as location (a bluff above the Ottawa River) goes, I don't think it could get much better. The building itself is something of a mix between Westminster and a French chateau (I'll admit that my first impression upon seeing it at night was that it looked like a haunted house, but maybe I'm just being influenced by the season). Actually, the English/French conglomeration makes a great deal of sense in Ottawa, which is just about the only truly bilingual city I've ever visited. If you cross the bridge a few blocks from the B&B in which I stayed (the Auberge du Marché, which I very highly recommend if you ever find yourself traveling to Ottawa), you're in Quebec. I'm told that many tourists do just that to brag about having visited the Francophone world, and I'll admit I did as well. I had a good excuse, though: I wanted to visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It's really a great place, especially if you like Northwest Coast Indian art. In fact, Ottawa has a disproportionately high number of really outstanding museums, making it a far more interesting place than most cities its size would be.
The reopening of one of those museums, the Canadian Museum of Nature, was what brought the SVP meeting to Ottawa in the first place. They have what has to be one of the world's great dinosaur collections, and we got to be the first to see all those fossils in their brand new gallery. That was one of the highlights of the trip, but the best part was getting to see old friends from Seattle, Chicago, and Bristol. I also got a chance to meet some of the big names in paleontology, including John Alroy and Mark Norrell (meaningless names to most of you, I realize, but an honor for me). All that was great, but I think the most important thing to come out of this meeting for me was the fact that I've gotten excited about paleontology again. I'll admit I may have gotten a bit apathetic in the last few months, but after Ottawa, all I can seem to think about is what I can do to guarantee that I get to present something at next year's meeting (well, I'll admit I think about the World Series also). Thanks, Canada: it's nice to be enthusiastic about something again.

14 October 2006

Hey, hey, BooBoo!

Well, I've gone and made a friend. Turns out that if I leave either door to my house open, my neighbor's cat BooBoo invites herself in. In fact, since my neighbor seems to be gone much of the time, even if both doors are closed, BooBoo will often climb up on the outside window sill and meow until you open one. I probably shouldn't encourage her, but I've always been a sucker for animals, as you all no doubt know, and it is nice to have at least some sort of company while you're spending all day working on projects (this is a lost weekend for me, I'm afraid, as I scramble to get things in order in advance of my big trip to Ottawa next week). Besides, there are two definite advantages to having a cat around the house. First, after finding a suspicious hole in a bag of pasta the other day, I'm beginning to think I may be harboring mice or other rodents of an unsavory nature, and this saves me the trouble of looking for a cat of my own and of paying the extra pet deposit. Second, while I would never voluntarily give any animal a name like BooBoo, it does give me a chance to practice my Yogi imitation every time she wanders in. So I guess the cat is welcome, as long as she stays out of my pic-a-nic basket.

12 October 2006

Indiana John

As with so many things in life, I have my very definite opinions about research. I believe real science is done in the lab and the library, while field work is just data collection. Still, it can't be denied that field work can be a very fun time, especially in paleontology. Heading to wide-open spaces to unearth the remains of organisms that haven't seen the light of day for millions of years does have a certain romance to it, it can't be denied. The powers that be at the U of O gave a group of us from the Geology Department a chance to experience that romance today, though in place of the wide-open spaces, we got an enormous hole in the ground in the middle of campus. The university is in the process of building a new integrative science facility, and at this stage all they've done is dug down to begin work on the foundation. Turns out that if you dig anywhere in Eugene, you wind up in the aptly (if unimaginatively) named Eugene Formation, which was seabed in the Eocene. So, while it wasn't the Gobi Desert of Mongolia or the sculpted red rocks of the Chinle Formation (see, I do know a little geology), there were certainly lots of fossils to be found. In fact, pretty much any rock you picked up was filled with fossils. There were three main types: "regular-looking" clams, shells that looked very much like razor clams, and much rarer snail shells. I found some very nice specimens of each type (which I would include a photo of, but apparently my camera has decided that life isn't worth living anymore), though some will require a bit of gluing after some overzealous chisel work on my part. We didn't advance paleontology one iota, but I think it's fair to say a good time was had by all. Tomorrow, back to the real science...

07 October 2006

Requiem for Buck O'Neil

I don't think I've ever used a blog to opine about baseball or baseball players before, but I feel obliged to now. I imagine that a) there aren't too many people out there reading this blog just yet, and b) most of you aren't big enough baseball nuts to know who Buck O'Neil was, let alone that he died yesterday. I won't bore people with his biography, but his life's story does make interesting reading if you have the time. Suffice it to say, he embodied everything that I like about the game, and nothing that I don't. In fact, I always thought of him as living proof that, at its best, baseball can be uplifting in a much more profound way than most other American institutions. Above all else, he saw baseball not as a showcase for overpaid, steroid-abusing primadonnas, but as something that could be a common ground for people from all walks of life. I saw him at a Mariners game once, where he had been invited to throw out the first pitch, and it was clear even from that one little glimpse that he relished and enjoyed every moment of his life in baseball. Now more than ever, baseball - and, to be fair, sports in general - could use more people like Buck O'Neil.
On a less serious, but still baseball-related, note, I was happy to see that the playoff team with the lowest payroll (the Oakland Athletics) advanced to the next round, and that the team with far and away the highest payroll in the game (the New York Yankees) flopped embarrassingly. For the sake of baseball fans everywhere, let's hope this trend continues.

06 October 2006

Blogging Again, Naturally

Only a month here at the U of O, and I'm already feeling like I need to blog again; it's addictive like that. This time, though, I've learned from my Avon Stream mistakes (I hope). I'm not making any foolish promises about updating this daily; I'll try to wait until I actually have something interesting to say (needless to remark, entries may be few and far between).
How's this for a starter: I'm in Nature! Those of you who have known me for a while also know that I spent the summer or 2003 on the Olympic Peninsula working as an ecology field assistant. I had figured that getting to spend time on Tatoosh Island (which has to be the coolest place I've ever been - just check out the photos here and on my Flickr site) and wandering around the forests along the Pysht River were their own rewards, but a few years down the road it turns out that there was one more job perk in store. One of my supervisors, Tim Wootton, published a Nature article earlier this year, and who's listed in the Acknowledgments section? J. Orcutt, that's who! I know the fact that I'm so excited over just an acknowledgment is a clear sign that I'm still very much a student, but really, how would you react of you saw your name in Nature?
Ahh, it's good to be blogging again...