Sunday, May 15, 2011

When I go insane, please change my name to Moldova

Yesterday I experienced something the likes of which I have never seen. Eurovision. Oh Em Gee. I finally found the absurdity that was missing from my life. And have come to fully realize that Europe is doomed. However, I can't express the amount of joy I got documenting the event, that could only be surpassed by the entrance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, on Twitter. It's amazing how amusing I find myself.

In all honesty, I should have seen this coming. When I was in England in 2009 I was introduced to Mika, running around like a clown on purpose. England loves their crazy. And apparently so does the rest of Europe. However, I didn't expect them to love that level of pop; old school pop at that. With very few exceptions, the entire continent is still listening to 80's pop and 90's boy bands. Georgia, who rocked it with angry grungy hip hop, single-handedly brought late 90s music to Europe. I never thought a band who reminded me more than a little of the Black Eyed Peas would be a welcome musical experience. France tried to evoke a revolution with military jackets (which were so 2009) and a Les Mis-like score. I think they're overcompensating for WWII. And Italy and Romania unveiled their respective Michael Buble cloning projects.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Vanilla Ice is now in Russia.

And who wins the crackpipe award? Moldova. I was warned that Moldova has a history of insanity at Eurovision, but I was in no way prepared for the spectacle. I should have looked up their performance from 2010, but that would have ruined the WTF factor. Men in 3-foot gnome hats seemed perfectly normal compared to the chick in a fairy costume with a horn riding a unicycle and the final close up of perfected monocle use. That viewing experience could have only been better with the addition of little green faries, but, alas, I'm all out of absinthe. Once I find out where this country actually is, and where they get their crack stash, I might have to go visit. And I fully expect Moldovan customs to hand out unicycles upon entrance into the country.

But all in all, I learned an important lesson thanks to Eurovision. Never mention a threesome in a Twitter posts. Hello, porn spam. This is totally Ireland's fault. What kind of name is Jedward anyways?

Europe, you're definitely living up to your US reputation and stereotype, while making Justin Bieber look good at the same time. After three hours immersed in European pop culture, I missed Bieber hair. But I can't fault them. That was by far the best three hours on a Saturday afternoon I have ever wasted. Thank you, Eurovision, from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, May 13, 2011

When dissertations get kinky...

... it doesn't bode well.

The most recent description I have come up with to describe my feelings towards my dissertation is: "I feel like I'm in a S&M relationship with my dissertation and I was never given a safe word." This is also the most accurate description. Safe words are important, kiddos. Otherwise you're just left dominated, tied up, and abused.

On a related note, it was suggested that "cloaca" be my safe word, but I've concluded that it'd be far too easy for me to work that into pillow talk.

Other people have put their grad school sentiments more tactfully. For example, in a recent article in The Nation a Columbia University professor was quoted saying, "Going to grad school's a suicide mission." How vanilla. This article, of course, was re-posted on Facebook by half my graduate student friends with various messages of "woe is me", and half my tenured friends with various messages of "sucks to be you". Unfortunately, I can only support this hypothesis with my own empirical evidence. Woe is me.

Looking at my Facebook profile and TweetStream, I guess this has been a pretty rough week between me and my dissertation. Somehow I've taken a flogging without even realizing it. And I find it rather disconcerting that it takes my social media updates to act as a status report. All of my posts from the last week have documented my tenuous relationships with my dissertation, with a highlight being, "If my dissertation is the Battle of the Bulge, then I'm sitting in a snowy foxhole getting the shit mortared out of me." Obviously I need to post more cute kitten videos to negate the documentation of my downward-spiraling soul.

I can really only end this bitchfest with the reflection that The Simpsons really provides a perfect social commentary on pretty much everything. And might I add, that middle video clip was a lot funnier before I turned 30...

(On a side note, when I first heard the term "blog" I thought it stood for Bitch LOG. I fully realize that this post is totally living up to that sentiment.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The worst thing that has ever happened to me:

The invention of ebooks.

Which was not helped by the gift of a Barnes & Noble Nook ebook reader for Christmas. Double whammy.

Finishing up my 5th year of my Ph.D. program while being massively behind on ALL my deadlines (don't you just love the sound they make as the whoosh by?) doesn't really leave me with copious amounts of time for non-scientific reading. The fact that I've been a grad student for just a shade under a decade and my funding will likely run out before I actually finish this effing degree doesn't really leave me with copious amounts of money for non-booze purchases. So making books - my unparalleled addiction - as easy to purchase as ONE click of the mouse will surely prove to be my ultimate downfall. Funny, I always thought that would be liver failure or an unfortunate trundling accident.

This "One Click Smut" (does that sound wrong, or is it just me?) issue need to be rectified. STAT. Frat boys around the country may argue the point, but easier is not always better - especially when it involves time and money I don't have. I need to be forced to work for things, particularly things which may be soothing to my soul, but harmful to my career goals. Afterall, I think we've clearly established that I don't have much of a soul left these days, so really, what's the point? Consequently, I demand that more steps be added in the ebook-purchasing process. Perhaps a 200 question survey of our understanding of metaphysics and how it relates to experience should be instated, or a required expository essay on how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand relates to the break up of Prussia. (And might I mention, the phrase "expository essay" always makes me think of John Hodgman, Resident Expert.) At least before ebooks I had to get in my car and drive across town to get my fix. Considering I'm too lazy to even put on pants unless I have to, extra steps would really help the chaos ebooks are wrecking on my life. And require me to wear pants less often. Somebody needs to get on this. Now. Before I buy anymore books this week. I mean, how am I supposed to charge my Nook when they shut off my power because I can't pay my bill?

Ebooks. The worst thing that has ever happened to me.

Oh yeah. And that time I got run over by an ATV-wielding Canadian in the Arctic was pretty bad, too.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Let’s take a moment for….

Slime mold. It's big, oozing, and asexual with suicidal tendencies. What more could a girl ask for?

I’m taking time out of my intense campaigning for more flightless birds in romance novels to bring you this public service announcement about the awesomeness of slime mold. I’m completely serious - I don’t joke about things like slime mold. My Master’s advisor turned me on to slime molds when we spent an entire class period talking about them because he loves them so much. Loves them to the point that one of the most prominent dinosaur paleontologists said, “If I didn’t love dinosaurs so much, I’d totally study slime molds.” Ok, he probably didn’t throw in a “totally”, but I’ve found that with each advanced degree I get I talk more and more like a valley girl, so in my memory, that’s how he said it.

Anyways, here are just a few of the reasons why slime molds are so awesome:

(1) Hey baby, check out the size of my cell

Those big, sometimes brightly-colored oozing masses you may sometimes see in the woods? Yeah, that’s one cell. One. Cell. With multiple nuclei. How cool is that! Additionally, some slime mold cells can also join together to form big multicelluar colonies. Ultimate teamwork. Actually, they kinda remind me of myself. Most of the time I really just want to sit on my couch and enjoy solitude. But during a zombie apocalypse I would want to be around other people. You know, to use as weapons and bait.

(2) Slime mold wants you covered, wants you smothered like its Waffle House hashbrowns

These guys move. Honest to God. They’re the things that blob-like horror movies are made of, except they don’t try to eat you. Actually, they're totally harmless. And I'm sure they were Steve McQueen's biggest fans.

(3) When I think about me I touch myself

What’s sexier than confidence? Slime mold has such confidence in its evolutionary superiority that it doesn’t need to look outside it’s own DNA to supplement its gene pool – it just gets it on with itself and BAM! Houston, we have spawn. Don’t let the fact that the above statement makes it sound like an inbred Nazi turn you off. Sometimes, when the conditions are perfect (and by perfect I mean that they happen to run into a compatible slime mold in heat. Which I'm sure happens ALL the time...), slime molds can reproduce sexually. But everyone knows that budding off is way more fun. Wait…what?

(4) Taking one for the team

You thought Dumbledore made “For the Greater Good” look sexy? Wrong. That was slime mold. As any child who ever had their innocence ripped from them by watching hyenas kill baby cheetahs or crocodiles eat the mangled bodies of baby elephants or orcas toy with baby seals on the Discovery Channel (back when they showed nature shows) knows, Mother Nature can be a brutal bitch. So when environmental conditions turn harsh, and slime molds are forced to extremes to ensure survival, some of them commit suicide. Nothing says survival like death. Dictyostelium discoideum cells, for example, congregate together (essentially forming a multicelluar organism) and form “puff balls” (for lack of a better term) that are raised on a stalk. The slime mold cells that make up the stalk undergo altruistic suicide or “programmed cell death” to lift the puff ball up higher. The ultimate point of their sacrifice is that spores form within these puff balls and can then be disseminated to colonize new areas. Despite the video footage of cute baby animals being brutalized, this is why nature is so great: it’s all about eating and sex.

So long story short, slime mold makes up the awesomesauce that is poured over things. You have a piece of awesome covered in awesomesauce? Yeah, that’s slime mold. You’re welcome.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Role of Flightless Birds in Romance Novels

Now, I take my science very seriously; but I take my fun seriously, too. Last time I gave a research talk to my department, I titled my talk "Paradigm Broken: New study shows 65 million year old bird should be served with red wine". This started as just a joke title when my friend who was running the graduate student seminars was pressuring me for a talk title. However, when I started building my presentation, I thought to myself "why stop at just a title?" I proceeded to put together a full 10 minute talk on wine pairings with the extinct birds I study - including a Principle Component Analysis. Obviously it was much more fun than my actual research talk. While that talk was without a doubt one of the highlights of my grad school career (I know, sad, right?), I have yet to share that talk publicly - aside from a teaser - for the reason that I fully intend on giving it as part of a presentation at a professional conference one day. Can't let the press get wind of this hard-core research before I can publish it, after all.

Well, last Friday I gave another seminar talk to the grad students in my department. And of course I thought about coming up with another joke talk. However, the fun I get out of creating fake figures set up an internal struggle with the fact that I'm the laziest person I know and didn't want to do more work. But then I saw that it was April 1st, and just had to suck it up and put a few more hours into my powerpoint. This time, it started with an abstract. Indulging my laziness, I just cut and pasted the abstract from my most recent paper, then added the summary for the second half of my presentation: "I will then proceed to talk about something else. Possible topics include (1) blah blah blah dead birds blah, or (2) the role of flightless birds in romance novels." I figured no one was going to read the abstract - I hadn't read one all year for the seminar speakers - but I immediately started getting emails from friends saying they were going to be disappointed if I didn't really talk about romance novels. Well shit, I had officially committed myself - something I strive never to do. Alas, at least now I had a topic. A topic that includes my two favorite subjects: dead birds and smut.

As for the talk, I'll start with the conclusion: the role of flightless birds in romance novels is UNDERUTILIZED. In my extensive research through (1) obsessively reading romances, (2) Google searches, and (3) Twitter, I have found only one romance featuring flightless birds: "Seize the Fire" by Laura Kinsale. Though I actually had to go through the unheard of lengths of ordering a paperback online to procure a copy (I have a Nook and have gotten used to instant gratification, something that is deadly to my bank account and dissertation), I now own this love story of flightless proportions. I must also add, however, that "Seize the Fire" is now available as an ebook for the Nook because Ms. Kinsale is totally awesome and talked to her publisher (seriously, does anyone know a Laura that isn't awesome? I didn't think so.). Needless to say, we're now Twitter friends.

"Seize the Fire" follows the story of Napolean the Rockhopper penguin in his wing-propelled adventures searching for that one perfect cloaca to compliment his own. Ok, technically it follows the story of Naval captain Sheridan Drake who adopts Napolean the Rockhopper penguin, but the penguin plays an important role in humanizing our jaded hero. And that's it, kiddos. That's all I could find, with the exception of several webpages claiming there's a Harlequin Romance entitled "Lover Boy" that features the Chandler, Arizona Ostrich Festival. Sadly, "Lover Boy" is a rather innocuous and banal title. If I were writing a HQN featuring an ostrich festival, I think something like "The Ostrich King's Lover's Secret Chick" would be a more appropriate title. Even if ostriches aren't in the plot line. Subsequent searches have failed to turn up any evidence of this book outside ostrich festival websites, so if either of the two people who might read this post know of this book's existence, PLEASE let me know! [EDIT: A friend has helped me locate "Loverboy" by Vicki Lewis Thompson! It is currently winging (har har) it's way to me!]

The lack of data turned up in my extensive literature searches (and by extensive, I mean I'm pretty sure I spent more than 30 minutes on Google) is very disappointing considering all the romantic potential flightless birds have to offer. In fact, I now consider flightless birds to be the prefect romance allegory. Let's look at the two largest groups of flightless birds: ratites and penguins. Ratites are the group of Southern Hemisphere birds that include ostriches, emus, cassowaries, and kiwis (no, not the fruit). All of these birds have secondarily loss the power of aerial propulsion, but several species still use their wings in some form of function. The ostrich, for example, primarily uses it's wings in courtship dances - splaying it wings, bobbing it's head, swaying back and forth on bended knee. How much sexier can an ostrich get? I'm all hot and bothered just thinking about it. I think the importance of courtship, and women adorning themselves with ostrich feathers, in romance novels speaks for itself. But if not: it's important. Ostriches will also use their wings to scare off predators to protect their young - another noble use of flightless wings. Despite all the abundant alpha asshattery shown by heroes in novels along the way to HEA (Happily Ever After), they're always excited by the prospect of participating in the game of evolution by the end, and that includes protecting their genetic investment.

Penguins are perhaps an even more romantic group of flightless birds. Not only are they so damn cute that you just have to go "Awwwww" every time you see one (with the possible exception of the dead ones in my lab...though I do find their tarsometatarsals absolutely precious), but many species are monogamous and mate for life - at least once they find the one cloaca that in the darkness binds them. Additionally, both parents generally help in raising their chicks. How romantic - HEAs for all! Oh-ho, but don't be fooled, it's not all commitment and monogamy out there in this flightless paradise. You still have Emperor Penguins, who are essentially the rakes of of the penguin world - finding new partners every year. And every good story needs a devious rake.

Most of the rest of flightless birds (that we haven't eaten to extinction, and well, even those that we have) are found on islands, or island-like settings (like isolated South American lakes where you can find flightless ducks). Honestly, what's more romantic than being marooned on an island with flightless birds...and perhaps a pirate? You can get ravished AND dinner!

All-in-all, flightless birds are vastly underutilized by romance authors as either heroes and heroines or as plot points. Consequently, I will now dedicate the rest of my career to lobby for more aeronautically-challenged avians in romances. In fact, I will even go so far as suggesting the new sub-genera "Cloaca Erotica" for the hard-core aviaphiles out there. No cloaca-loving judgment here. To date, people sadly don't find flightless birds as sexy as I do. Yeah, I know, I don't get it either. But hopefully together we can change that so our children can be raised in a world more embracing of flightless cloacal kisses. If I were in the least bit apt at creative writing, and less lazy, I would write them myself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to write a dissertation

Need a Ph.D. to find a job in your field but freaking out about writing a dissertation? No problem. Just follow the seven-step program below and they'll be calling you Dr. Malcolm-Jamal Warner in no time. By the end of it, you'll probably even have enough alcohol-induced false confidence to operate on people, too.

1. Head to your favorite bar. *
2. Order a drink.
3. Open Word.**
4. Drink
5. Type
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 as needed.
7. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

And remember, being a scientist doesn't mean that your committee doesn't want to read a dissertation written in first person stream-of-consciousness.

*Hell, it doesn't have to be your favorite bar as long as it serves booze. Lots and lots of mind-numbing/opening booze.

**More serious dissertators (read: those in their 4th year and above) might want to consider a ToughBook or good ole pen and paper to reduce chances of permanent damage from overturned beers. After all, by this point, you're probably starting your day with whiskey in your coffee and just continuing on from there.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fossiliferous Smut

This is not a book review. This is me sounding my barbaric yawp over the smut-loving rooftops of the world.

In a recent bout of unproductiveness (which, let's face it, really comprises about 85% of my day, with 10% of the remaining 15% being eating, and you have to work bathroom breaks in there, too...) a little web searching led me to a list of romance novels that involve paleontologists. I've always had this rage of jealousy deep down in my soulless soul at the thought that archaeologists got all the romantic glory. But apparently sometimes being wrong is awesome. Oh Happy Day! After cross-checking with my library's online catalog, I found that a local library actually had one of these books. Days just don't get better than this, so I immediately placed a hold. Granted, with a title like "Ravished" (by Amanda Quick), I wasn't sure how this was going to play out - perhaps the sketchy little website had lied to me. After all, if I were to write a paleo romance, it would be titled "Dirty Little Bone", "Old, Hard, and Dirty", "Hard as a Rock", or "Bones of Contention" at the very least. My fears were compounded when I went to pick up the book and it had a photograph of flowers on the front. Flowers? Really? You don't even find fossil where flowers grow...unless it's a prickly pear. However, I was slightly comforted by the fact that this was the Large Print version, and everyone knows large print versions always have plot-inappropriate images on the cover. So I let this slide; old people need to get their daily dose of bone, too, even if it's disguised behind flowers. It's like hiding their blood pressure pills in the pudding.

The online library summary provided no clue as to plot points, and I was far too lazy to actually look up the cover copy on Amazon, so needless to say I was surprised to find this alleged paleo smut to be a Regency. Although, with a title like "Ravished", OF COURSE it was a Regency. Every self-respecting historical is entitled "Ravished" or "Seduced", followed by the optional prepositional phrase. Seduced by a Duke, Ravished by a Viking, Seduced by a Ravishing Viking Duke - you get the picture. But the point of all of this is to say that I had no clue what I was going to get when I started reading "Ravished", but I was assuming that my emotional investment in the hope of paleo smut was going to result in nothing more than a spiteful tease by an archeologist-loving website. Boy was I wrong.

Harriet Pomeroy is a rector's daughter in (where I can only assume) southern England, and has a fossil problem. Most Regencies involve heroes and heroines with whoring problems, money problems, gambling problems, petticoat problems, and overbearing ass7wipe family problems (the 7 is silent), but few have fossil problems. (As an aside, though, I will note that I know several non-Regency people with a fossil problem, so they do exist outside Romancelandia.) And it came as a further surprise that it was the heroine who is the eccentric fossil hunter - though, upon reflection, in a historical this makes sense as the heroes are generally off being irresponsible, except when needed to save the day, and wouldn't be able to fit in fossil hunting amongst their alpha asshattery schemes. Regardless, female paleontologist = double rainbow. But Miss Pomeroy has a fossil problem that gets her into all sorts misguided adventures. And it gets her ravished. In a good way. By Gideon, who is less of an assclown than many romance heroes. While the plot held my attention (hell, the promise of a brooding alpha asshat and a hot sex scene at some point in a book can hold my attention these days), it was the "Romance Novel Guide to Paleontologists" that totally did it for me.

First we have the descriptions of paleontologists:

A fossil collector will resort to anything when he gets desperate.

And a warning about the dangers of other "professionals", which is surprisingly accurate given some of the stories I've heard over the years:

I can tell you, sir, that there are those who would steal my fossils and claim them as their own discoveries without so much as a flicker of remorse.

Coupled with delightful character references that perhaps explain why I'm still single:

He wondered if it was the lack of an inheritance that had kept her unwed or if her evident enthusiasm for old bones had put off potential suitors. Few gentlemen would be inspired to propose to a female who displayed more interest in fossils than in flirting.

Followed by an appropriate emphasis on the utter and total obsession with fossils. Upon first meeting her mother-in-law (a countess, no less), rather than engaging her in charming conversation, Harriet prattles on about her newly-found fossil tooth. As Gideon tells his mother,

And that is the end of all polite social discourse this evening unless you forcibly intervene, madam. Once my wife is launched on the subject of fossils, she is very difficult to deflect.

Shortly followed by:

There she goes again...You had better stop her quickly unless you want for the conversation to revert to fossils.

We learn the important lesson that digging up fossils predisposes a woman to deadly schemes and supernatural strength, and when using a fossil as a weapon against ravishing in a bad way, make sure it's a forgery.

Harriet ignored him. Her goal was the large stone sitting on top of the last cabinet in the aisle, the one that contained the fossil impression of a [fake: this was mentioned earlier] large, spiny fish. She prayed the stone would not be too heavy for her to lift.
Bryce [bad guy] never guessed her intention. It probably did not occur to him that a woman would resort to such a means of defending herself or that a woman would be strong enough to do so even if she tried.
But Harriet had been digging fossils out of solid rock for years. She had spent hours wielding a mallet and chisel. She knew she was no weakling.
She grabbed hold of the chunk of stone and hurled it down at Bryce's blond head just as he reached up to grasp her ankle.

We also learn how to use bone analogies in pillow talk. Just in case it wasn't obvious.
Says Gideon:

Perhaps you will show me just which portions of my anatomy you consider equal to or more impressive than the old bones you collect, madam.

Says Harriet:

I would have to say that I have rarely encountered fossil metatarsals of such size...And one seldom is lucky enough to find a tibia of such proportions...Very impressive...And other than the femur of an elephant I once had the privilege of examining, I have never seen such a magnificent thigh bone...Now we come to a most interesting discovery...

Says Gideon:

Do not tell me you have found fossils of that particular anatomical item.

Says Harriet:

No, but this is certainly as hard as any fossil I have ever dug out of stone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that's how paleontologists do it. Lesson learned. The only thing I would add would be a reference to how I once drunkenly bid $300 on a walrus baculum during a live auction at a conference. To which the auctioneer commented, "Batteries not included".

Our last lesson is in how to title a scientific paper. Harriet entitles her paper:

"A Description of the Great Beast of Upper Biddleton" by Harriet, Lady St. Justin

And that settles it. I'm working "Great Beast" into my next paper title, and I am adopting "Lady" over the more traditional "Dr." as my required prefix. This includes in the classroom, in the mail room, and in everyday life. Especially at professional conferences. Even if I'm dancing on a table.

All in all, I really can't praise this book enough, or the experience of reading it, mocking tone aside. The scientific ideas are vague enough not to cause violent flinching to the paleo-knowledgeable, but are appropriate to the time with discussions on fossil succession, deep time (vs. the deluge), mountain building events (sadly "orogeny" was not used in any bedroom ...or cave... scenes), and extinction. The paleo romance I'm currently reading is a contemporary and I find myself talking back to the characters when they're wrong. 'Tis the curse of the well-informed.

Moral of the story: everyone should be ravished by "Ravished", impressive anatomical specimens and all.