Saturday, December 31, 2005

The 2005 Rhosgobel index

[Warning: a very long and self-indulgent post follows; click here to skip to the end.]

In the spirit of trying to make things more usable here at Rhosgobel, here's an organized list of posts from 2005. This isn't a comprehensive index to everything I wrote, but the vast majority of my 2005 posts are linked to here (a few items are duplicated between categories, but not many).

I've broken the index into a number of categories:

Professional life / teaching
Hurricane Katrina
Recurring features


FSU attempted to start a chiropractic school (post 1, post 2), then gave up.

Despite CNN's article to the contrary, I determined that no, fruit juice will not make your children fat, and after CNN posted a second article, I fired back a second volley.

I wrote about inaccuracies in the art of the Nasonex bee, which became one of my most-commented-on posts ever.

I wrote about appendices and caeca.

I examined the (still in-development) game Spore from a biological perspective.

I summarized a study showing how antibiotics might directly influence bacterial evolution rates.

I looked at how the Bush administration was whitewashing the environmental impact of grazing.

I looked at mad cow disease in US cattle.

I talked about ending discrimination against rats.

I found some swallowtail caterpillars on my parsley, and let them pupate (they're still pupae, by the way).

I got frustrated by Michael Behe.

I looked at why echinoderms are important.

I wrote a review of our mouse cages.

I talked, in more detail than most people wanted to see, about why most insects are not bugs, and then saw "bugs" everywhere during Christmas.

I also linked to a number of neat sites and studies, including fast plants, the anatomical atlas of flies, plants photosynthesizing without the sun, a prosthetic limb that allows its wearer to feel what the limb is touching, an article skeptically analyzing exercise equipment, flying insect photographs, footage of a live giant squid, baby feeding myths, 4.4-billion-year-old zircons, singing mice, AAAS media awards, how intelligent design should be taught, and the Dover decision.

Back to the top

Professional life / teaching:

I enjoyed reading about Jill/txt becoming department chair in February, then became department chair myself in September and wrote a bit about it.

I lamented the lack of pedagogical training for university faculty.

I discussed my justifications for posting my PowerPoint slides online after I give my lectures.

I showed that I was an administration mole by detailing why I like student evaluations.

I was on a hiring committee in the spring semester, and based on that experience wrote a 9-post series on how to apply for a community college teaching job.

I started a wiki for a research class I taught over the summer; the wiki ended up being a huge success (with thousands of edits over its lifetime).

My spring was filled with committee work blues, which kept on going.

My SO generated a scarily accurate portrait of me teaching.

I submitted an NSF grant with a few colleagues, only to have it rejected in October.

As happens every semester, I found more plagiarizers (I found more in the fall, too, but didn't bother to post on it), and got to deal with begging students.

I had at least one very uplifting day that reminded me of the spirit of science.

I worked most of my summer away by teaching a field course.

I had tales from a not-so-fun start to the fall semester, wherein (among other things) one of my lab sections was cancelled.

I reminded folks that in-class response systems are not for attendance, quizzes, or tests.

I completed the last steps required for me to obtain tenure.

I ran into bureaucratic problems with a fundraiser.

Back to the top


I posted on why I started blogging on politics.

I made lots of posts on prisoner abuse throughout the year (1 - January; 2, 3 , & 4 - May; 5 & 6 - June; 7 - September; 8 - October; and posts 9, 10, and 11 on the McCain anti-torture amendment).

I posted a lot on events surrounding the Downing Street Minutes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, including Conyers's letter to Bush and Conyers's hearings 1, 2, 3, 4.

US Count Votes released a report on election fraud in the 2004 presidential election, Conyers talked about election fraud too, and then the GAO released a report on electronic voting security (or, rather, the lack thereof).

I posted about community college budget problems in March (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), April (1, 2), May (1, 2), and June (1).

I posted on issues related to the special elections in California, including a lot on Prop 76, and some on Gov. Schwarzenegger's record 1, 2, 3.

I suggested people donate to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.

Tom Ridge reminded us that terror levels weren't changed because the department of Homeland Security was concerned.

A Republican candidate photoshopped a picture from Dean's presidential campaign.

Some members of the Iraq parliament explicitly asked the US military to leave Iraq.

There were reports of Halliburton wasting money in Iraq, along with US military contractors exploiting poor foreign workers, and the US military planting stories in the Iraq media.

I did a sole post on the Plame/Wilson/Rove/Libby scandal.

I linked to a number of things by the EFF, including end user license agreement terms, protecting public weather data, and a legal guide for bloggers.

I started to look at privacy on the web (the series will be finished some day; the posts are even written).

I noted that a draft Indiana law prevents many unmarried people from reproducing via assisted reproduction.

We found that the US has higher rates of medical errors than other countries.

And, near the end of the year I posted that Bush's bin Laden satellite phone leak story was a myth, and linked to Conyers's response to Bush's justification for NSA wiretapping.

Back to the top

Hurricane Katrina:

A national disgrace

A historical comparison

More outrage in the aftermath of Katrina

Louisiana governor requested federal emergency assistance on Aug. 27

Donating to Louisiana

Escape for a select few

Doing everything possible to help Katrina victims ...

Daily show clips

Police blocked bridge out of New Orleans

Prisoners left to die

If true, a terrifying tale

Back to the top

Recurring features:

By far the most frequently-posted on topic this year was food: for links to all food posts see my recipe archives, organized either chronologically or by topic (the topic archive is much easier to use).

I made a number of posts on our mice, though sadly most of them were obituaries, as all seven of our mice died this year. All mouse-related posts are linked to on the mouse archive page.

I made a lot of posts on using Debian/Linux; they're all linked to on the Debian/Linux archive page.

I wrote a 9-post series on how to apply for a community college teaching job (see the community college job archive page for links to all the posts).

Back to the top


My SO and I traveled to London in January, and took lots of pictures (posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

We traveled to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.

We traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area twice, posting cute slug pictures after both trips.

We went to Anime Expo.

We took a multi-week trip to Canada, and visited Mt. Saint Helens, got exhausted, had tea at the White Heather Tea Room in Victoria, and visited Tacoma (among other things).

We went to the King Tut exhibit in LA.

Back to the top


My SO made me truffles.

We hit lots of snags in remodeling, including problems obtaining supplies, pouring self-leveling compound, more problems obtaining supplies, having wires melt in our kitchen, and having our fence fall down.

I posted about my summer reading.

I posted a picture of our ever-so-geeky living room.

I read about, then bought, Civ IV.

My SO and I got a sewing machine, and sewed our first project.

I went out to dinner with PZ Myers.

A friend bought a timeshare, and we helped him get out of it.

Back to the top


While there are lots of pictures embedded in other posts (especially the travel posts), there were a few one-shot posts, including a picture of a caterpillar and a spider. And, of course, you can't forget about my two cute slug pictures.

Back to the top


Rhosgobel turned a year old (back in January).

I hosted the third Skeptics' Circle (is it really only a year old?).

I was translated into French.

I started an exercise blog, Rhosgobel's Gym.

I declared a week in October to be Cooking Week.

I finally figured out what Radagast and Rhosgobel stand for.

Back to the top

Tom Tomorrow summary of 2005

What better to post on New Year's Eve than a wrapup of 2005? Well, Tom Tomorrow (author of such classics as Chicken Hawk Down) has already done it for me: Part 1, Part 2.

(via Democratic Underground)

Friday, December 30, 2005

Suggested resolution #2: Save the deep sea

Deep Sea News (a blog I found via a comment here ... thanks Craig!) has a great list of things you can do to save the deep ocean. And I'll bet you didn't even know it needed saving.

A tasty weekend ahead

On our way back from donating blood, my SO and I stopped by our favorite German deli. We traditionally have a dinner of good deli meats and tasty bread on Christmas Eve, but since we were with family this year we missed out on that. So, instead of waiting another whole year for good deli meats, we're going to be having them for New Year's Eve. We also missed out on our traditional Christmas dinner (a result of a family miscommunication), so we'll be making that for New Year's Day. Here's our current plan:

New Year's Eve:
  • Breakfast: Baked French toast
  • Lunch and dinner: Deli meats and cheeses (spicy Hungarian salami, paprika salami, fine and coarse liverwurst, black forest ham, roasted turkey, landjaeger, provolone, feta, Iberico, and English coastal cheddar), with ciabatta and rustic rolls
New Year's Day:
  • Breakfast: Unknown (probably more deli meats)
  • Appetizer / lunch: Bruschetta with fresh mozzarella
  • Dinner: Cream of cauliflower soup, royal braised vegetables in cardamom nut sauce, saffron pilaf with peaches
  • Dessert: Tarte Tatin
It's going to be a fun weekend!

Suggested resolution #1: Donate blood

Red cross image

My SO and I just got back from donating blood, and once again it was a somewhat disheartening experience. The donation itself was fine; what was disheartening was the lack of other people donating blood. We were the only people in the donation center for about half the time, and for the entire time the place was less than a third full. After finishing up my blood donation, my phlebotomist was just wandering around the donating area, obviously quite bored (she reported that it was "really slow" today).

There's certainly a need for blood right now (there always is!), as the Southern California Red Cross reports that they have only a 1-day supply of O-.

So, if you haven't given blood in the last 56 days, and haven't been officially informed by your doctor or a blood-donating agency that you cannot donate blood, go schedule an appointment at the Red Cross's Give Life website (or whatever your local blood donation agency's website is) and go donate. At the worst they'll tell you that you can't donate, and at the best you'll walk out about a pound lighter than when you walked in.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Arg! Bugs everywhere!

One of my relatives got a taxonomic nightmare for a present: a bug vacuum. Considering that I had just written about problems surrounding use of the word "bug" (see this post), I had to get a picture of the packaging:

Front of bug vacuum box Back of bug vacuum box
"Bug" everywhere, yet not a bug to be found

The primary problem with this product's name is that users will most likely not be using it to catch bugs: they'll instead be using it to catch arthropods. Since bugs are a specific type of insect, I was at least hoping that the box would have pictures of insects being caught. But no, the box is adorned with three pictures of spiders (which look suspiciously like plastic toy spiders) being "caught" by the device. So not only does Sharper Image not have a single bug on the packaging, but they don't even have an insect. Sigh.

Since the "bug" vacuum was a hit with the present-opening crowd, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to educate a few folks about the taxonomic errors of the packaging. I received mostly sighs, rolled eyes, and desperate attempts to change the subject (as usual), but the best response came from my 12-year-old cousin: "Okay. Whatever." Not more than 15 minutes later, however, she was aggressively correcting everyone else on their use of taxonomic terms; it was a glorious end to the evening.

I will say that this vacuum does have one good characteristic: unlike many "bug" vacuums that are designed to kill their prey, this vacuum is designed to keep whatever it catches alive, so it can be observed and released (though how this is different from a cup and stiff piece of paper is rather beyond me).


The ACLU has a provocative ad in the New York Times today. Nice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dover decision links

The Dover decision is becoming old news, but if you haven't yet read enough on it, Blogarithmicly has a very good collection of links to other collections of links on the ruling. And, of course, the Panda's Thumb is also providing continuing coverage.

Timeshares - you may be able to get out of the contract if you act quickly

A friend IMed me a few weeks ago to tell me that he'd just bought a timeshare; considering that I didn't think him the type to be suckered, I was surprised.

I became skeptical when I learned more details. My friend had attended a 90-minute sales pitch and done no comparison shopping. The presentation was fairly high-pressure: to be entered into a prize drawing (for a free Hummer) my friend had to stay for the entire 90 minutes, and incentives were given for signing a contract right then and there. My friend signed a $10,000 contract on site.

The timeshare was with Trendwest, a company that sells "point-based" timeshares wherein people get a set number of points each year (6,000 in my friend's case) that can be spent on the company's various lodgings worldwide. The $10,000 was for a "premier" contract, which meant that it lasted for life, and the company even bragged about how the timeshare could be "willed" to people. In addition to the one-time $10,000 payment, there was also an annual fee that lasted for the lifetime of the contract. These "maintenance dues" started at $400 per year, but could be increased from year to year.

Trendwest's website is suspiciously sparce; while it has basic information about the company and its properties, the website does not list how many points it takes to make a reservation at each property, nor does it list how far in advance the properties book up. It also has no information regarding whether resorts are already booked at specific times. Since how much money you save is entirely dependent on how many points each property costs per night (and how available the properties are), this makes calculating the potential cost/benefit of the transaction extremely difficult. Presumably, once you have a contract you can find this information out, but by then it's too late.

My SO and I did more research on the company and found a number of interesting things. First, Trendwest was sued by the state of California in 2003 for "deceptive sales practices;" Trendwest settled the suit, agreeing to more than $700,000 in damages, with penalties and fees possibly exceeding $3 million.
"The complaint alleged Trendwest engaged in deceptive marketing and sales practices, and misrepresented its timeshare products. Additionally, the firm violated cancellation notice requirements and unlawfully failed to accept cancellation requests, according to the complaint."
My SO found what appears to be an old Trendwest contract on the Trendwest website. The contract has annual dues data from October 2001 ($340 per year for a 6,000 point contract). My friend reported that the current dues were $400 a year for the same contract. A quick calculation showed that if my friend owned the property until he was 84 (his lifetime, statistically) and Trendwest continued to increase their dues as they have historically, my friend would pay more than $44,000 in annual dues over his lifetime. That's a lot of hotel rooms.

Also found in the contract was this notice, which implies that Trendwest is drastically marking up their product (caps are original):
This statement seems to be accurate, as secondhand Trendwest contracts are easily available online. Searches on eBay showed numerous equivalent contracts (6,000 points per year for a "premier" lifetime contract, some with even more points already accrued than my friend had bought) for less than $5,000 total payment. Other websites selling "used" timeshares appeared to have similar prices. Since it appears to be perfectly legal to sell timeshares (and this is often one of their supposed benefits), this means that my friend could buy the exact same thing for less than half the cost.

Happily, consumer protection laws in California require that timeshare contracts can be terminated by the consumer within a few days of the purchase (a "cooling off" period; see this website for a summary of what applies in California). The amount of time allowed to cancel the contract depends on state law, and even in California isn't always reported to be the same (the last link reports a seven-day cooling off period for a timeshare; this website says it's three days), but it is clear that the contract can be cancelled within a few days of purchase and that the contract should include a statement of how it can be cancelled. Laws may vary in other states.

I'm happy to say that my friend did in fact cancel the timeshare contract. I look at it this way: even if buying a timeshare turned out to be a good decision for him, it'd be much better to shop around and make an educated choice than to choose based on a single 90-minute presentation by someone with a strong financial motive. That'd be like buying a $50,000 widget without ever comparing different widgets or even having used a widget before.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

More sluggy cuteness

To carry on the tradition of posting cute slug pictures after visiting my folks, here's another one:

Slug pneumostome
A slug with its pneumostome clearly visible

While my prior picture (seen here) showed the overall head anatomy, this one highlights the slug's pneumostome. The pneumostome is an opening in the slug's mantle tissue that lets air into the slug's mantle cavity; inside the mantle cavity the slug has a highly vascularized section of tissue that functions as a lung.

Both slugs and snails have pneumostomes; on terrestrial snails they're located at the tissue covering the opening at the base of the shell (on the right-hand side, as with slugs). The pneumostome is not an anus; the anus is a much smaller opening located (on slugs) under the mantle behind the pneumostome.

As with insects (which use trachea and spiracles to respire), slugs and snails separate respiration from ingestion (which conveniently prevents choking). Pneumostomes can be opened and closed by both slugs and snails; I always like to imagine the cute little gastropods huffing and puffing when their pneumostomes are open.

Hickman et al. 2004. Integrated Principles of Zoology, 12th edition. McGraw Hill.


We're back! Unfortunately, we're back about two hours later than we had hoped, as there was stop-and-go traffic on I-5 (the major north-south interstate in California, which almost never has traffic where we were). I-5's speed limit is 70 mph for cars; in our first three hours we averaged about 45 mph.

The rest stop in the middle of the traffic jam was scarily packed with people. Cars were parked anywhere there was space (dirt shoulder of the offramp, over the curbs on the dirt and lawns, in truck spaces), and each of the four restrooms had lines at least 30 people long.

If you're dying to find out more about I-5, there's an entire Wikipedia page on it, and I've got a few mediocre pictures of the section we were on here.

Considering that we've just been to three family gatherings and one museum (the new de Young) in four days, we're ready to collapse for a bit.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Spirit of the season

I just can't leave my fine readers with that last post for Christmas, so here's a fun snow globe to play with. I must admit, however, that my all-time favorite snow globe has to be this "California Snowman" globe I saw on a coworker's desk.

The administration's justification for wiretapping

I'm busy having fun with family, but couldn't help checking Democratic Underground tonight, where I learned more about the NSA wiretapping issue.

On Thursday, the Justice Department sent out a memo summarizing their legal justifications for why the government can spy on US citizens without obtaining a warrant. Yesterday, Rep. Conyers posted his opinion (which includes many good background links) on the topic:
The Justice Department has written (PDF) the Chairs and Ranking Members of the Intelligence Committees with its legal arguments. In a nutshell, the letter argues that the President's Article II authority as Commander in Chief allows him to do whatever he wants. He doesn't need congressional authorization or oversight. He does not need to go to any court. His decisions are unreviewable by the Supreme Court. It is a similar argument used to justify torturing detainees.

My assessment of the legal basis for this argument would likely break the rules of discourse on this blog. Suffice it to say, it is not going to fly.

To bolster this pathetic Constitutional argument, the Administration also points to the September 11 use of force resolution. But here they are really playing fast and loose with the facts. In a classic heads I win, tails you lose fashion, we learned today from fromer Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle that the Administration asked for this authority and was denied it (the Washington Post has more). Having been denied this authority by Congress, they proclaim they had it anyway. See more from Armando at DailyKos.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bush's bin Laden satellite phone leak story is a myth

I'm supposed to be packing (or sleeping) right now, but I can't help but post a link to this Washington Post story:
President Bush asserted this week that the news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone, alerting the al Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device.

The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president.

But it appears to be an urban myth.

The al Qaeda leader's communication to aides via satellite phone had already been reported in 1996 -- and the source of the information was another government, the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time.

The second time a news organization reported on the satellite phone, the source was bin Laden himself.
(via Rawstory)

Holiday trip

My SO and I will be heading out of town to see family this weekend; posting will likely be light until we get back next week. This will be the first of two out-of-town trips we will take this break ... so much for spending the whole vacation working on the house (and playing Civ).

Happy holidays!

Firefox session saver

But She's A Girl alerted me to an amazingly cool Firefox extension: session saver. This extension saves all open windows and tabs, and automatically reopens them when the browser restarts. This seems especially useful in the event of a browser crash, but I'm using it so that I can shut down my computer at night even if I have pages open I want to save.

[As a side note, I've posted about some other extensions I use here.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

An early Christmas present

The judge in the Dover Intelligent Design trial has ruled that "it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom." PZ Myers is all over the story, and The Panda's Thumb has a ton of good posts. Orac, Wesley Elsberry, BoingBoing, The Education Wonks, and Scalzi have all chimed in as well. News stories on the topic abound; the Guardian's story has a satisfyingly high proportion of background to length. And, if you want even more, the judge's full decision is online (PDF), though I suspect you could recreate it by piecing together the quotes in all the articles above.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I get distracted for a week and look what happens ...

Bush and McCain agree on the torture ban wording, and leave it as McCain's (which I've written about here and here). The House just passed the torture ban, but also added wording that "would let information gleaned by coercion to be used against Guantanamo inmates."

The New York Times reported that Bush authorized the NSA to spy on US citizens communicating overseas without getting a warrant. Bush acknowledged that he authorized the program, then had the nerve to say that the newspaper that revealed the program was "endangering national security;" Bush insists he will continue the program. As a side note, the New York Times held the story for a year at the request of the White House.

Bush admitted that "much of the intelligence [leading up to the war in Iraq] turned out to be wrong. As president I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq." Is he just realizing this now?

The LA Times reported that the US military has clear ties to the Lincoln Group, the contractor that was planting stories (paid for by the US military, but not attributed to them) in the Iraq media. The military had apparently initially attempted to deny responsibility.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sauteed apples with brown sugar, butter, and rum

Sauteeing apples with sugar is probably one of the best ways to eat apples (oh how I love tarte Tatin), and it makes for a great topping. We just made this as a topping for a puff pancake, so its this week's second end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

2 apples
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 sploosh (~1 tablespoon) dark rum (optional)

1. Peel, core, and slice the apples.
2. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium-high heat.
3. Add the apples and sautee, stirring regularly, until lightly browned on both sides.
4. Add brown sugar, stir, add the rum, and cook until the apples are soft and the sauce is syrupy.


This recipe made enough to top a puff pancake for two people; the recipe could be easily scaled up. We suspect this would make a good topping for ice cream, though we haven't tried it.

This recipe is based on a serving suggestion from Rombauer et al. (1997).

Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

Puff pancake

Puff pancakes are very easy to make - all you have to do is mix up a simple batter, pour it into a hot, buttered baking dish, and bake. After about 15 minutes the pancake will have puffed up to extraordinary heights, making a grand (if short-lived) presentation. The finished pancake is sweet and buttery, with crispy edges and a soft center. Since we just had one of these for breakfast, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 cup milk
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large eggs
6 tablespoons butter

0) Preheat the oven to 425F.
1) To make the batter, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, eggs, and milk together until smooth.
2) Cut the butter into a few pieces, place in a 9x13" glass baking dish, and place the dish in the oven until the butter is melted (a few minutes).
3) Remove the baking dish from the oven. Carefully rotate the dish to coat the bottom and sides with melted butter. Buttering the sides thoroughly helps the pancake rise.
4) Pour the batter into the hot baking dish and bake for 15 minutes, or until the pancake has puffed up, the top edges of the pancake are well-browned, and the center of the pancake is lightly browned.
5) Slice into pieces and serve immediately.


This pancake should easily serve four for breakfast; it reheats relatively well in a 350F oven (though it never regains its puffiness).

The pancake will start to deflate almost immediately upon removing it from the oven; if you want to impress people with the pancake's "puffiness", make sure they see it as soon as it comes out of the oven.

This pancake does not need syrup; we almost always eat it plain (but use syrup if you want). However, this morning we sauteed apples with brown sugar and butter for a topping; the two went together well.

To save time, we often melt the butter in the pan (step 2) while we're mixing the batter (step 1). However, if you're easily distracted (or mix things slowly) don't try this, as the butter will burn if left in the oven too long.

If, when cutting the pancake, you find that it isn't quite cooked in the center, just pop the pan back in the oven for a few minutes more.

If you find that you're out of fresh milk, but absolutely must have this pancake right now, you can substitute evaporated milk in place of the milk in the recipe: just use 2/3 cup evaporated milk mixed with 1/3 cup water.

This recipe is slightly modified from Rombauer et al. (1997).

Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

How do Radagast and SO celebrate the end of the semester?

By cooking, of course!

After getting home we made chicken in onion-tomato sauce (similar to hard-boiled eggs in spicy tomato sauce), fragrant pilaf Banaras style (basmati rice cooked with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaf, and fresh ginger), and a raita of spinach and raw onion in a spiced mixture of yogurt and sour cream. We topped it off with lassi to drink.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Grades are in!

My semester is now officially over! Yay!

Unfortunately, the day's positive aspects were once again overshadowed by yet another meeting on that issue. This time it was argued (among other things) that anything I create in the process of teaching a class is the intellectual property of the school, a statement easily proven false by a simple glance at our union contract.

The meeting was far too irritating to blog about more - I'm going to go celebrate the end of the semester.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


After a less-than-pleasant start to my day, everything got much better during my tenure committee meeting. This meeting was the final meeting in my tenure review process: all the members of my committee had observed my teaching during the semester (and the prior few years), they'd read a self-evaluation I wrote, and my students had completed multiple evaluations of me.

The meeting turned out to be a joy: every single member had nothing but glowing comments. It was wonderful.

At the conclusion of the meeting the committee chair checked the "recommend for tenure" box, and everyone signed the form.

Thus ends, for all intents and purposes, my hunt for tenure. Come next August (on the first day of the semester) I will be Tenured Professor Radagast.


[Note: much sushi was consumed this evening after work to celebrate]

I've been spanked (and not in a good way)

A few weeks ago I came up with an idea for a fundraiser to help students in some of our field courses. Students in these courses typically spend more than $400 of their own money to travel to our field site, and our campus doesn't cover any of the cost.

The fundraiser involves selling a product (manufactured and sold by an independent company) that uses material copyrighted by me and another faculty member. We used no campus financial resources in the production of the product, and even though we advertised the product to the campus via a flier, funds to copy the flier were donated by our college foundation. In other words, this is functionally our own product, and the only tie to campus is that we are donating all proceeds from the sale of said product to our campus's foundation for our program's use (and that we're advertising it on campus).

In attempting to do this as ethically as possible, I even publicly documented all the expenses involved in the creation of the product, and plan to publicly document the use of all funds obtained through the sale. Neither I nor my faculty peer are making a cent off the sales, and in fact I've spent a decent sum (by ordering sample products) that I won't be recouping.

I talked with some mid-level administrators before finalizing the fundraiser, and got nothing but "Hey, that's a great idea." So, last week a number of faculty volunteers and I distributed more than a thousand fliers into mailboxes on campus.

A few hours after distributing the fliers, I got a phone call, followed by a terse e-mail, from two high-level administrators saying that my fundraiser was a "potential landmine" and that I needed to talk about this with them on Monday.

I met with one of the administrators this morning, and was told that I had "violated [our district's] board policy." I was accused of both taking money personally and of using campus websites for advertising, neither of which I had done (the independent company is handling all financial transactions, and all web links to date have occurred on websites I own). Even when I corrected those misunderstandings, I was still told that I had violated board policy and done something wrong, even though it was never made clear exactly what it was that I had done wrong (other than not asking permission from the right people), nor was it made clear how I was supposed to have known that I needed to ask for board approval in the first place.

I can understand this administrator's point to some extent - the administration wants to make sure I'm not bilking students or using campus resources inappropriately. However, considering that I wouldn't have gotten into any hot water if I'd just been selling this for personal profit, it is frustrating to be chastised solely because I'm trying to help my students.

This is not a huge deal (the sales will go on, and I know what I need to do next year), but it was not a fun way to start the day.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mashed yams

This is one of my SO's favorite Thanksgiving foods, and my SO insists that using the root vegetables sold in the US as yams is vastly preferable to using sweet potatoes (for a discussion of the differences between yams, the vegetables sold in the US as yams, and sweet potatoes, see this post).

This recipe is apparently an old family recipe of my SO's (i.e., it was made by my SO's family when my SO was a kid), and is this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

3 pounds yams (a variety of sweet potatoes)
5 tablespoons frozen 100% orange juice concentrate
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sour cream

0. Preheat the oven to 400F.
1. Wash the yams (leaving the skin on), and then cut off any blemishes or bad spots. Stab each yam multiple times with a knife to prevent explosions in the oven.
2. Place the yams on a baking sheet (lining the baking sheet with foil can make cleanup easier, as the yams often ooze a bit of syrup). Bake at 400F until a knife or fork easily pierces the yams. This will likely be about an hour, though it depends on the size and shape of the yams.
3. Remove the yams from the oven and let cool until they can be handled comfortably (at least 20 minutes).
4. Remove the skin (including the hardened layer that formed wherever you removed the skin in step 1). The skin sometimes peels off nicely by hand; otherwise cut off the skin with a small knife.
5. In a large bowl combine the peeled yams, orange juice concentrate, butter, and sour cream, and mash (with a fork or potato masher) until well-mixed and smooth.
6. Serve warm.


The amounts of ingredients in this recipe are flexible; vary to suit your tastes. This recipe is also very easy to scale up to feed a large number of people. My SO prefers using concentrated orange juice because it provides more flavor without watering down the yams; if all you have is regular orange juice, that should work fine.

Civ IV special edition soundtrack track list

My copy of Civ IV has arrived. I've installed it. And played it. And I bet you thought this was the reason I didn't post on Saturday. (actually, it was - I was in the office for more than six hours grading and clearing off my desk; I only played Civ after getting home [and yes, before leaving for work too]).

I bought the special edition of the game, primarily because it came with a soundtrack (though the spiral-bound manual and tech-tree poster are proving to be useful). The track list is only printed on the CD itself, making identifying songs while playing the CD rather difficult. My SO did a Google search for the track list, and surprisingly couldn't easily find one. So, to help rectify this deficiency, here's the full track list:
1. Original Civilization Theme Music by Jeff Briggs
2. Asoka (Indian Leader Theme) by Mark Cromer & Jeff Briggs
3. Alexander (Greek Leader Theme) by Roger Briggs, Jeff Briggs, & Mark Cromer
4. Ancient Soundtrack by Mark Cromer
5. Mansa Musa (Mali Leader Theme) by Michael Curran
6. Isabella (Spanish Leader Theme, based on Mallaguena) by Mark Cromer
7. Ancient Soundtrack by Roger Briggs & Jeff Briggs
8. Saladin (Arabia) by Mark Cromer
9. Washington (American Leader Theme, based on "Washington's Artillery Retreat") by Jeff Briggs, Mark Cromer, & Michael Curran
10. Baba Yet (Menu music) by Christopher Tin
11. Peter the Great (Russian Leader Theme, based on Russian folk song) by Jeff Briggs
12. Huang Shi Ti (Chinese Leader Theme, based on ancient folk tune) by Jeff Briggs & Mark Cromer
13. Unused Opening by Mark Cromer
14. Haya Capac (Inca Leader Theme) by Michael Curran & Jeff Briggs
15. Mao (Chinese Leader Theme) by Jeff Briggs & Mark Cromer
16. Genghis Khan (Mongol Leader Theme, based on Mongol national anthem) by Jeff Briggs
17. Tokugawa (Japanese Leader Theme, based on old Japanese folk song) by Jeff Briggs & Mark Cromer
18. Opening Movie Music by Christopher Tin (featuring Talisman)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Shadow of the shark

I recently caught the tail end of a video on a PBS station that had amazing footage of some very cool marine creatures (e.g., pipefish mimicking their environment, a sea anemone swimming in open water and then crawling over some sand). I later hunted around and learned that the video was called "Shadow of the Shark: The Underwater Lives of Ron & Valerie Taylor". Apparently most of the video is about sharks, but the part I saw showed footage of divers exploring a junk-filled jetty on an Indonesian island. The videography was very good, and I must get this video to use in my class; in ten minutes it showed more diversity of marine life than I show in hours of lecture.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Time melts away

It's that time of year again: piles of papers to grade, a gazillion documents to produce (tests, letters of recommendation, etc.), meetings that "have to be held by the end of the year," special projects that need to get wrapped up, and not nearly enough time to do it all. Today, for instance, I walked in at 8am planning to get through at least one stack of grading; I left 12 hours later without having touched the grading, wondering where the day (and any semblance of a non-working meal break) went.

So, expect a lower-than-normal posting frequency for the next week and a half while I push through to the end of the semester. For those keeping track of my tenure progress, my final tenure review meeting will be held early next week.

On a more positive note, I just learned that I've gotten funding to go to the Innovations 2006 conference in Atlanta this coming March. It should be a fun meeting.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

They're not bugs, darnit! (or: what to call that creepy-crawly thing on the wall)

Back in August Angry Professor linked to What's That Bug?, a site featuring photographs and basic descriptions of a huge number of terrestrial invertebrate animals (insects, spiders, etc.) The site's primary goal is to help people identify unknown invertebrates, and they do an excellent job of it.

However, there's one problem: the site uses the word "bug" to describe everything on their site. When I originally wrote this post (back in August), their homepage used the word "bug" at least 67 times, yet only three of the organisms pictured on their homepage were actually bugs.

The problem with the word bug is that while in colloquial English it is typically used to mean something like "any creepy-crawly invertebrate animal I don't like", entomologically speaking the word bug refers only to a specific sub-group of insects, hemipterans.

To understand what hemipterans (true bugs) are, let's review some animal taxonomy. First, animals can be differentiated into a number of phyla (of which the following are just a few):
  • Phylum Cnidaria - sea anemones, jellies, etc.
  • Phylum Annelida - segmented worms, e.g. leeches, earthworms
  • Phylum Arthropoda - animals with a hardened exoskeleton and jointed appendages, e.g. crustaceans, spiders, insects
  • Phylum Echinodermata - sea stars, sea urchins, etc.
  • Phylum Chordata - tunicates, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, etc.
Only organisms in phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata are vertebrates, and thus a correct term for any other animal is "invertebrate". So, if all you know about an animal is that it is not a vertebrate, use the term invertebrate to describe the animal and you can't be wrong.

Invertebrates are vastly more diverse than vertebrates: there are more than 30 invertebrate phyla of animals, and more than a million named species. However, one lineage of invertebrates contains most of their terrestrial diversity: phylum Arthropoda (arthropods). This one phylum contains a majority of the known species of organisms in the world (see the end of this post for more information), and can be broken up taxonomically into four major subgroups on the basis of anatomical differences:
  • Chelicerates - spiders, scorpions, etc.
  • Myriapods - centipedes and millipedes
  • Crustaceans - barnacles, isopods (e.g., pill bugs), decapod crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, crab ... all the tasty ones), water fleas (e.g., Daphnia)
  • Hexapods - primarily including insects, such as grasshoppers, butterflies, flies, bees and wasps, ants, bugs, etc.
So, we clearly must be careful when using the term insect: an insect is an organism in a specific subgroup (class Insecta) of the phylum Arthropoda. Spiders, centipedes, isopods, shrimp, and all the other non-insect invertebrates are not insects, and thus should never be called insects.

Insects are incredibly diverse (with more than 750,000 named species), and can be further broken up into a number of distinct lineages (taxonomic orders). Here are a few of the orders in class Insecta:
  • Order Lepidoptera - butterflies and moths
  • Order Hymenoptera - bees, wasps, and ants
  • Order Orthoptera - grasshoppers and crickets
  • Order Coleoptera - beetles (the most diverse group of insects)
  • Order Diptera - flies
  • Order Isoptera - termites
  • Order Siphonaptera - fleas
  • Order Odonata - dragonflies and damselflies
  • Order Mantodea - mantids (praying mantises)
  • Order Hemiptera - true bugs
Only hemipterans can technically be called bugs; all the rest of the insects are simply insects (or, more generally, arthropods or invertebrates). Thus, since the What's That Bug website features spiders, scorpions, and isopods, in addition to insects and hemipterans, they should really be using the term invertebrate or arthropod, not bug. Sadly, "What's That Invertebrate?" just doesn't have the same ring to it, I guess.

But what are hemipterans? Hemipterans all have piercing mouthparts that they use to feed on either animal or plant fluids, and some can transmit human diseases (e.g., Chagas disease). Hemipterans also generally exhibit hemimetabolous metamorphosis, meaning that they do not have a distinct larval stage like caterpillars/butterflies; instead, juvenile hemipterans look just like small versions of adult hemipterans (as do juvenile grasshoppers and crickets).

Hemipterans can be grouped into two suborders: Heteroptera and Homoptera. The group of heteropterans people are most likely to know are water striders, though the suborder does contain many other lineages, such as toad bugs, creeping water bugs, giant water bugs, waterscorpions, backswimmers, damsel bugs, minute pirate bugs (most certainly Pharyngula's favorite insects), lace bugs, stink bugs, assassin bugs, ambush bugs, and yes, even bed bugs.

Readers are probably more familiar with homopterans, as that suborder includes cicadas, aphids, whiteflies, leafhoppers, scale insects, and spittlebugs.

So, next time you see an invertebrate flying around the house, think twice before screaming out, "Oh no! It's a bug!"

Bland, Roger G. 1978. How to know the insects. McGraw-Hill.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows and brown sugar

This is one of my favorite Thanksgiving foods - sweet potatoes covered with sugary goo. Since this recipe uses sweet potatoes, and not yams, this is a good time to bring up an important point: true yams, "yams" (the ones sold in most US grocery stores), and sweet potatoes are not the same thing.

The root vegetables sold in the US as "yams" are actually a variety of sweet potato. True yams (genus Dioscorea) are monocots (e.g., lilies, onions, agaves) native to Africa. Sweet potatoes (genus Ipomoea, including the "yams" sold in the US) are dicots native to the Americas and are in the same order as solanaceous plants (family Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes). Suffice to say that true yams and sweet potatoes are different (and sadly I've never tasted a true yam, so I can't tell you the culinary difference).

Even though US "yams" and sweet potatoes are just different varieties of the same plant, they're not identical vegetables. "Yams" have a relatively sweet orange flesh that is often a bit fibrous, while sweet potatoes have firmer, mealier yellow flesh that is closer in texture to regular potatoes (though, as the name implies, the sweet potato's flesh is sweeter than regular potatoes). We typically differentiate the two in stores by looking at the color of the skin - "yams" nearly always have a dark skin (often dark red or orange) whereas sweet potatoes have tan skin.

Yam vs. sweet potato
A typical US "yam" (on the left) and sweet potato (on the right) prepared for baking.

I personally prefer using sweet potatoes in this recipe instead of "yams", as I find that the taste of the sweet potatoes goes better with the very sweet topping. We made this for Thanksgiving, so it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

3 pounds sweet potatoes
8 tablespoons (one stick) butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
8 ounces marshmallows (approximately)

0. Preheat the oven to 400F.
1. Wash the sweet potatoes (leaving the skin on), and then cut off any blemishes or bad spots. Stab each potato multiple times with a knife to prevent explosions in the oven.
2. Place the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet (lining the baking sheet with foil can make cleanup easier, as the sweet potatoes sometimes ooze a bit of syrup). Bake at 400F until a knife or fork easily pierces the sweet potatoes. This will likely be about an hour, though it depends on the size and shape of the potatoes.
3. Remove the potatoes from the oven and let cool until they can be handled comfortably (at least 20 minutes).
4. Remove the skin (including the hardened layer that forms wherever you removed the skin in step 1). The skin sometimes peels off nicely by hand; otherwise cut off the skin with a small knife.
5. Slice the sweet potatoes into approximately one- to two-inch thick rounds (or whatever size you want) and arrange in a baking dish. Preheat the oven to 350F.
6. Cut the butter into small pieces and distribute on top of the sweet potatoes.
7. Sprinkle the brown sugar on top of the sweet potatoes.
8. Bake at 350F for 40 minutes, sprinkling the marshmallows on top about 20 minutes into baking.


The amounts in this recipe are variable - use whatever proportions suit your tastes. We settled on three pounds of sweet potatoes because it was the amount that fit into our baking dish easily. If you want the marshmallows to be more whole (and less melted), add them later in the second baking (e.g., add them with five or ten minutes remaining).

See here for a picture of this dish (the marshmallows in the picture were only cooked for 15 minutes).

The first real project

We visited Jo-Ann Fabrics both yesterday and today; they now have more of our money, but we have small bits of cool fabrics with which we can practice sewing. Our largest (by length) purchase was a few yards of muslin, which was cheap enough that we don't mind destroying it while we learn how to use our new sewing machine.

After practicing on some muslin, we decided to try making some miniature board shorts. My SO found a pattern and did the cutting, I did all the sewing, and we both used more spatial reasoning than we expected to. Eight hours later we had our finished product:

Mini board shorts Mini board shorts
Our complete mini board shorts!

My back is sore from hunching over the sewing machine, but I now know a heck of a lot more about sewing than I did this morning, and I have a lot more respect for the work that went into the clothes I wear on a daily basis (they have so much stitching in them!)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A new toy

You, fine reader, may have noticed that there wasn't a new post last night, and may have assumed that this had arrived. If so, you were close, but not quite right.

Yesterday the post was delayed because our new sewing machine arrived, and boy are its specs fun to read: it can do over 800 spm, has more than 200 stitch functions, and comes with the option to purchase dozens of accessories. It's like a game console, except you don't have to keep buying games and can actually make things with it.

New sewing machine
Our new toy: a Kenmore 19233. The stock accessories are displayed in front of the machine.

Neither my SO nor I know how to sew with a machine, but we've wanted to learn (so we could make curtains and do other small projects), so after talking to some friends who sew, we decided to get a machine. The diversity of stitches the machine can do is exciting (to us novices):

Sewing machine's stitch patterns
Oh boy!

Last night I set up the machine, watched the introductory how-to video, and read the 100-page manual to figure out how to use it. Within an hour or so I was sewing away, and by the end of the evening had created this masterpiece:

My very first creation
We are indeed lacking in fabric on which to sew ... I foresee a trip to Jo-Ann Fabrics soon.

And what the heck am I doing blogging? I could be figuring out what all those extra feet do!

(oh, and if anyone knows any good sewing resources, I'm all ears)