Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I'm finally published...

Woo hoo!

After being in grad school for like, ever, one of my papers has finally been published in a professional journal.

JG Douglass, JE Duffy, AC Spivak, JP Richardson (2007) Nutrient versus consumer control of community structure in a Chesapeake Bay eelgrass habitat. Marine Ecology Progress Series 348: 71-83.

Here are some "behind the scenes" pictures of the experiment described in the paper:

This is me at Goodwin Islands in 2004, testing out our method of applying insecticide to caged plots of eelgrass.

Here's a shot of the cages from the actual experiment in 2005. There were 40 cages, which were a real pain in the rear to keep up with. It would have been impossible without the help of everyone in our lab. Sometimes on weekends during the experiment I would kayak or windsurf out to the cages to scrub the algae off of them. That's probably the closest I'll ever come to doing something practical with windsurfing.

There were a lot of unforseen difficulties involved with doing an experiment in cages that were out in nature. One that we definitely didn't forsee was that large needlefish swimming through the eelgrass bed would accidentally spear themselves into the mesh cages, get stuck inside, and die. This picture is also funny because the wind is blowing into my swimsuit pockets and pooching my drawers out in a weird way.

Good times. Hopefully I'll get some more papers out soon.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Second Wind

I almost cancelled my plans to visit the Outer Banks last weekend on account of the wet forecast. But the wind was supposed to be awesome, and some friends of mine were hoping to go, too... I just needed an extra push to make it happen. That came when my pal Bruce called and said the sound-side house he was at, the "Second Wind", had extra rooms for Saturday night. The promise of warm, dry digs was enough to lure me, John Gelinne, and John's gf Lindsey (below).

We showed up Saturday morning and sailed all day in warm, cloudy, sprinkly weather. Lindsey had her first windsurfing lesson and showed great promise. The rest of us got some good runs on 6.9 - 8.5 sails. It was fun looking down on the windsurfers from the third-story porch of the house, and soaking in the hot tub at the end of the day made me appreciate the life of luxury.

Sunday dawned clear and cool with a deceptively strong breeze. (It seemed light at the house, but out on the water- wow!). I went out on a small 4.25 sail and 77 liter board, but had plenty of juice. John G. didn't have a small sail of his own, but did a blasting run on a 5.2 borrowed from me and a 104 liter board borrowed from Bruce. After some insane runs and explosive wipeouts, he retired, concerned that he might damage the borrowed equipment. After lunch the wind came up a notch and my 4.25 actually started to feel big. I gambled and rigged my smallest sail, a 3.5 that I had NEVER used before except for beginners. Amazingly, it was enough, and I was blessed with the rare thrill of shooting across the water on a craft so small it almost seemed like it wasn't there.

Also, the yellow sail matched my yellow board, so I looked pretty.

Thanks John and Lindsey for taking the pictures.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Plastic is Forever

I used to think that it was silly to worry about plastic garbage in the midst of more "serious" environmental threats like deforestation, overfishing, and population growth. I figured that trash on the ground or in the water was really just a cosmetic concern; ugly but harmless. But now I've realized that plastic in the environment is a much greater problem than I thought. Here's why:

1. We use a shit-ton* of disposable plastic products and packaging materials every day, and even when we throw them away or recycle them they often end up in the environment by spilling out of a truck or a landfill. *I.e. in the US we trash about 1000 plastic water bottles per second.

2. Plastic floats, so it pools up on the surface of the ocean and on beaches, in ever-increasing amounts. Photobucket In college we took a field trip to a nature-reserve island off the coast of Texas, and the beaches there were piled high with mounds of trash that had washed in from the ocean. (Ironically, it's the less-inhabited beaches where the trash is more obvious, because no one picks it up.)

3. Animals eating and getting entangled in plastic is more than just the occasional seagull sticking its head through a six-pack ring; it happens ALL THE TIME. On those beaches in Texas, many of the plastic items we found had diamond-shape notches missing, indicating sea turtle bites. Turtles, birds, and fish can all go belly-up from the indigestable plastic waste that accumulates in their stomachs.
Even if the plastics don't directly kill the animal, they can leach out chemicals that disrupt normal body chemistry and cause cancer, infertility, etc.

4. Plastic in the environment doesn't go away. Even when the sun breaks it down into brittle little pieces, the pieces stay. This blew me away: Scientists towing fine mesh nets through the ocean have found that in many places, the mass of tiny plastic particles is 6 times the mass of plankton. That means that any animal that tries to eat the plankton, like a whale, is swallowing tons of plastic instead. That can't be good. People have been wondering why whales haven't recovered their populations since we stopped whaling. This could be a reason (along with illegal whaling and harmful noise from boats and military sonar).

Check out this video about the problem:

Oh, I should probably mention something that can be done about this. First of all don't litter. Second, don't buy stuff with excessive packaging or stuff that you don't really need. Third, re-use bags and containers whenever possible. And finally, for crying out loud, stop buying bottled water. If you're worried about drinking tap water get a filter.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My dad's story from the jungle...

My parents are living in Venezuela for two years while my mom teaches at a private school in Caracas. This is part of the retirement "deal" they made with each other: My mom agreed to settle down at Edisto Island only on the condition that my Dad would first accompany her on an extended sojourn abroad. This has made for an interesting family dynamic, captured in the following account of their recent trip into the Amazonian part of Venezuela. The story will be most appreciated by those who know my folks, but should have some general interest, as well.

Adventure in the Orinoco Delta
By Johnny Douglass

Our adventure began with an all night bus ride to Ciudad Bolivar at the edge of the Orinoco Delta. We took an "executive bus". If that was an executive bus, I'm glad we didn't take the chicken bus. This bus had very comfy seats that reclined nicely but it was a little rough around the edges in other ways. For example the bathroom had no window and no functioning light. The toilet seat was obviously designed by women because there was no way to retain the seat ring up for standing water-makers. I had to stand on one foot and use the other knee to hold it up. It was sort of hard to balance on one foot while the bus was careening around curves and still hit the mark…in total black velvet darkness, but I suspect it is a good exercise for the elderly to maintain coordination and balance.

Other than urination time the bus ride was pure bliss until the air conditioning broke down out about two thirds of the way there, but I'm getting ahead of myself. We began with a nice on-board American movie with the English audio replaced with dubbed in Spanish. The plot involved a sort of Rambo-type guy. He was an ex-Ranger sniper, engaged by bad guys in the government to go around shooting people from a great distance with a big rifle that made all their blood splash out from a single hit. Anyway, that was over when the air conditioning died. Since this was an executive bus, the windows wouldn't open. Soon the windows which had been fogging up on the outside from the cold interior were fogging up on the inside from the sweltering heat and sweating bodies.

We arrived in Ciudad Bolivar about two hours early at 3:45 AM (a Venezuelan miracle). I think the bus driver kept the pedal to the metal to get us to our destination before we died of heat stroke and dehydration like those poor illegal guest workers that unscrupulous operators smuggle into the US locked up in the back of truck vans. We phoned Peter, the posada owner/operator (a posada is a small resort that can range from something like a bed and breakfast to something like scout camp) , who cracked a few jokes about it being the middle of the night, but he came out to fetch us. On the way back to the posada he cracked a few more jokes about the fact that his posada was at the end of a horrid dirt road through a couple of barrios (slums). His jokes, which in his German accent he called "chokes" always ended with a laugh of "heh heh heh" that sounded like Eddy Murphy's laugh in his Saturday Night Live Mr. Rogers spoof.

The posada was surrounded by a tall cyclone fence and guarded by 13 gentle but very woofy dogs. Venezuelan dogs tend to be much like Venezuelan people, products of very mixed ancestry, noisy, very affectionate and sociable. The dog barking started a rooster crowing contest from all the rural barrios within about a kilometer radius. Since it was so early our bungalows were not ready but Peter kindly let us repose in the hammock house. In the Venezuelan outback a hammock house is an inexpensive accommodation where young adventurers or other low income tourists and cheapskates sleep. It consists of an open sided shelter with a tin or grass roof and lots of hammocks with mosquito nets hanging around from the posts and beams. This hammock house was quite deluxe and actually had a couple of bunk beds among the hammocks. We chose the bunk beds.

When day broke we discovered our posada had a small swimming pool and a small zoo enclosing several ordinary animals and some less ordinary ones. They ranged from chickens and turkeys to monkeys, a peccary, a deer, and an agouti. I immediately made friends with one nice monkey who stuck her arms through the cyclone fence to inspect my hands. I was having a bit of an eczema problem on some of my fingers which worried her. She tried to groom off the little bits of peeling skin while making joyful cooing sounds. Then Catherine approached and she bared her teeth and lunged at her in rage. Later Peter informed me this female monkey was able to distinguish between human males and females. He said she did not like any woman intruding in her space when she was enjoying attention from a man, "Heh heh heh". At my age I'm glad to know there are still at least some female primates who are attracted to me.

I don't know if it was female or male, but I soon made another friend. A free flying but obviously tame parrot landed under my reclining lawn chair. It climbed up with beak and feet to have a better look at me and seemed to find me very unusual. I offered my hand and it climbed on and immediately began trying to disassemble my watch. Before I realized it could do so, it had removed the little aspirin tablet-size compass from my watch band and held it in its mouth. I protested but I could not get it back. At that point Peter wandered up to see how his guests were doing. I protested that his parrot was about to swallow my compass. He said, "Vell din he is never lost and can always fly home to where he started from. Heh heh heh. Chust a choke."

I was afraid to stick my finger in the parrot's sharp beak to try and retrieve the compass so I just wrote it off. Eventually he climbed up on my shoulder. I thought it rather quaint and felt like saying, "Look at me; I'm a pirate". Ultimately he started making himself obnoxious by nibbling my ear. When I would turn my head to make him stop, he would try to nibble my lip. If I tried to brush him off, he would just grip down harder with his talons. Now I know why Caribbean pirates had parrots on their shoulders. It wasn't for style or image. They just landed there and they couldn't get them off. At long last, it tired of me, spit out my compass, and went off to bother others.

Our adventure was made very nice by our travel companions, Dennis and Rosemary Pace. They are a pair of long legged career expatriate teachers in their late 50's. Bostonian Dennis is distinguished by his Romanesque schnoz which lets him pass for an Arab or an Italian (which he is) or anything else exotic. He is also a great conversationalist and comfortable with anyone and everyone. Canadian Rosemary is distinguished by her big brown eyes, curiosity, kindness, and eagerness to engage socially with all those around her.

There's a lot to worry about when you travel in Venezuela. Among the four of us we managed to spread the worry so that each person worried about that which he/she worries best. I worried that some of our vital gear, bank cards, or travel papers would be lost or stolen and also that we would be late for one of our travel connections. Catherine worried that there might be something to do or see that we would miss. Dennis worried about how the international securities market and the Red Sox were doing. Rosemary worried about someone getting bit by an animal and whether the rest of us had connected all the dots in our respective planning and operations roles.

Getting bit by an animal is a pretty important worry in the Orinoco delta. Beaks, fangs, sharp teeth, and blood sucking arthropods abound. Surprisingly the ubiquitous mosquito was not as prevalent as we had feared, especially in the day time. However there were other invisible biting things that may have been akin to chiggers or no-see-ums that raised red itching bumps that are sticking with us longer than mosquito bites do. I think I collected most of these lying around in the shade in my swimsuit the last day.

Back to the script. We did a few hours in Ciudad Bolivar on the day of our arrival and we took a long ride provided by a neighbor of Peter's to visit Puerto Ordaz on our second day at the posada. Ciudad Bolivar is ancient, historical, and fairly scruffy in most but not all places. Puerto Ordaz is larger and more wealthy (although wealth is a relative thing). It's a fairly new city. The high point for me was visiting a great city park below a big hydroelectric dam. The park was full of little water channels and water falls, ponds full of fish, and woods full of wildlife including a sloth, a huge woodpecker, and an agouti.

Our driver Amador was a character. He seemed to know everyone in town. He had cheery remarks for all his friends and strangers too. While driving he had friendly horn toots for his friends and all pretty girls as well as old fat ones. He also had toots of support to disabled people in wheel chairs and just about anyone that caught his attention. In Venezuela, when in doubt, toot. Amador turned into a helpful guide. He slowed down his Spanish, was good at spotting wildlife, and showed us neat places in the park.

At the posada life was idyllic. Our bungalows were simple, charming, and sufficient. They were inspired by the local Indian houses, round (hexagonal to be precise) with a palm thatched roof, cement floor, and a real bathroom with hanging beads for a door. Each couple had a bungalow. Our door lock was hard to operate but we discovered that we could easily just open the windows, which had no latches, and step in.

Although the bungalows were perfect, all four of us had to share a room on the second day because we had altered our plans late in the process and the bungalows were all booked on that one day. That didn't portend a big problem although Rosemary warned us that Dennis sometimes screamed in his sleep. I figured that probably meant about once every other leap year. The shared room was an increment more modern than the bungalows. It had a window unit air conditioner, and a bathroom with a door, one double bed and three singles. All was well until shortly after lights out when Rosemary heard the sound of water running and checked the bathroom. She alerted us that the toilet tank was overflowing and a lot of water was on the floor. I got up to see and discovered about an inch of water on the lowest part of the floor near our bed. Suddenly it was lights on and all hands on deck to rescue our bags, shoes, and clothing on the floor from the rising flood. Never mind that we were all in our tropical weather minimalist under-dainties. We had an emergency to deal with. Of course the toilet tank had no shutoff valve in the water supply line. I finally managed to stop the flow by using a plastic coat hanger to prop the tank float thingamajig up to the highest position.

With the toilet flood stopped we all fell into a peaceful sleep, peaceful that is until, "Eyowwww" a blood curdling scream like the first word in James Brown's famous song, I Feel Good pierced the night. Yep, Dennis had screamed. I was afraid he had discovered five-inch scorpions in his bed but it was only a nightmare. Rosemary dashed over to tuck him in again and he apologized, explaining that he'd had a bad dream. The rest of the night truly was restful until 5:30 AM when our alarm rang and we roused ourselves for the next stage of our adventure.

For the next stage, we were driven to another posada in cahoots with the first to begin our wilderness experience in earnest. It was just on the edge of the tiny delta town of Piacoa. There's not much to keep Piacoa on the map except fishing, a little small scale cattle farming, and I forgot the third thing. Houses are mostly little shanties of tin, mud, clay, and cinderblocks surrounded by bare earth yards with barefoot kids and chickens pecking around everywhere. Ourselves and a few other mostly German tourists were the only gringos in town. I worried that we would be targets of much attention if not some Chavista hostility but the people seemed to take us in stride just as they did the town drunk lying on the dirt with his bottle, hollering and singing by the boat docks. That's probably because the French posada owner is a local lifetime resident and always has a handful of gringo tourists in town.

Oh, did I refer to the boat docks? I meant shade tree and mud bank. The fishing boats and the few supply boats are all less than six feet in beam and probably not more than 25 feet long. The fishing catch was interesting, usually a small number of large fish of varying species mostly unfamiliar to me. There were many species of catfish. Most were huge, bizarre, and looked more like Columbia River sturgeon than South Carolina catfish.

So much for the modest marina, now on to the delta. Roger (Roget), the operator of our posada and Gekko tours was a very fine and knowledgeable fellow. Though born in France, he came to Venezuela with his family at the age of two. He spoke no French but got along very well in Spanish, English, and German. Best of all for Dennis, he had a TV in his quarters where he could tune in the Red Sox. Roger obviously loved the delta. He took us great distances through wide and narrow channels in his 11 passenger open tour boat. It was a heavy low long narrow fiberglass boat with a 75 HP outboard. It did very well at a fast pace in the choppy open water as well as when scraping over fallen logs in weed choked narrow channels. The delta is peaceful, beautiful, vast, and populated by diverse and abundant wildlife and a sparse handful of subsistence folks who live off the fish, a tiny garden patch, a cow, and a couple of chickens.

Roger obviously knew the delta like the back of his hand and loved it very much. In all we took five boat trips in various directions into the delta over our three days there. By eye or ear Roger could detect interesting wildlife long before any tourists in the boat detected anything. I cannot describe every interesting plant or animal but here are a few highlights. Several giant black blobs high in trees were identified as nests of various termites or species of bees. Most disturbing were killer bee nests. Roger told us if you harmed one, it would release a scent that would draw all its compatriots in a murderous rage. He told of a friend's dog that had snapped one and was stung to death by a vengeful swarm. Yuckers!

We visited one narrow dead end channel in a jungle area where Roger said electric eels hung out. He had once poked one with a green bamboo pole and got the shock of his life. My web research says they can stun or kill their prey and hapless would-be predators with as much as 600 volts. We didn't see any ourselves but hearing about them was good enough. I hadn't brought my insulated electrician's boots.

During our first day outing, we were cruising quite briskly as we backed out of a winding channel when a big scary fish jumped in right next to Rosemary. The size of a nice rainbow trout, it was something else with snapping jaws and vicious looking long teeth. I was impressed with how nimbly Rosemary exited the venue for a more forward position in the boat. I think Roger called it an eagle fish but the only web hits I got from that were fish eagles.

Later that day we stopped at a mud bank near a shanty where some children were playing near the water. We pulled up next to them and fished for piranha with hand lines. The fish were biting voraciously per their reputation but they were quite agile at grabbing the chunks of fish we used for bait without getting hooked. Catherine snagged a small one but only Roger regularly landed big ones. Their teeth looked vicious.

Roger began thrashing the water with his machete to attract more piranhas when there was a mysterious hum from above. "Killer Bees; watch out!", he shouted.

Watch out? Like where the heck do we to go? Jump in the water? I don't think so. Never before have I felt more like between a rock and a hard place.

On our last day in the boat we entered a so called lake on an island but it was connected by water to the flowing delta channels surrounding it. There were great expanses of grasses and weeds with lots of aquatic birds and swimming cows, which one German tourist in the boat called wasserk├╝hes. The high point of that trip (or low point depending upon your perspective) occured while Roger was getting the outboard engine disentangled from a mass of weeds. Suddently a snake appeared in the boat. Rosemary again exited the venue with impressive agility. Roger pronounced it a highly venomous Bushmaster and took care to whack it senseless before holding it up to show us. At risk of diminishing the impact of the story, I must confess it was a rather small juvenile. According to a web site, however, juveniles are also deadly.

Here is a rundown of the wild animals we saw in the Orinoco: numerous howler monkeys, a coatimundi, an agouti, a sloth, a mouse (big deal), tons of lizards, a bushmaster snake, pink river dolphins (only their bellies are pinkish), a variety of fish (many weird looking or armed with frightful teeth), clouds of butterflies, dragonflies, dead caimans, water chickens, various heron species, kingfishers, black vultures, parrots, woodpeckers, eagles, osprey, and miscellaneous raptors, water fowl, chicken-like fowl, and smaller forest birds. Though we saw trees filled with tarantula webs, there were no visible tarantulas.

After Piacoa we returned to our first Posada for a couple of relaxing days of reading near the pool. We took one more trip into Ciudad Bolivar to visit one of Simon Bolivar's brief residences and a nice modern art museum featuring the work of famous Venezuelan constructivist artist, Jesus Soto.

Our departure was a little unnerving. The posada owner approached to tell me my check had bounced. This put me in a panic. Catherine had either been on a recent secret shopping spree or scurrilous rascals had stolen my identity and drained my account. It turns out that it was just the stupid bank feeling that the check was too wrinkly or that the ink color was not suitable.

Peter got a local guy in an ancient Chevy Malibu jalopy to take us back to the bus station. Getting on the bus was a bit nerve-wracking since they seemed to be saying our tickets were no good. The others with better Spanish finally figured out that the tickets were fine; we just had to go to a poorly marked kiosk and buy a special little tax stamp to staple to our tickets. This bus actually had a light in the bathroom and the air conditioning held on for the whole trip.

In the final analysis, our adventure was great. I will try to somehow get pictures on our web site from which I am currently being blocked (I think) by the firewall on the wireless router that I'm tuned to in Dennis' apartment. Only a few items of clothing and an inexpensive wrist watch were lost. In spite of the teeth, claws, beaks, and electric animals, the only bloodshed we witnessed was when one of the Irish tourists accidentally stuck her finger in the fan she was using to dry her swimsuit top. I'm ready to relive the experience – mentally- over Cuba libres, cheese, and nuts. Heh heh heh.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hampton Roads Sailboard Classic, Day 2

Woo hoo! It was another beautiful, "Indian Summer" day of windsurf racing in swim trunks. The forecast called for light winds, so I rigged my huge, 9.8 meter-squared sail. That was perfect for the shifty, 4-12 knot conditions that we got. It also put me closer to the leaders of the longboard fleet; John Contos from Virginia Beach, Carsten Boekholt from Germany, and Farrah Hall from Annapolis. John and Carsten had a noticeable speed advantage with their sleek raceboards. Farrah on her wide Olympic board was about the same speed as me on the Kona, but the Olympian's tactical skills and strenuous sail-pumping usually got her closer to the lead.

I placed fourth in the first two races, but pulled a major coup in the third and final round. I started on starboard tack, as usual, and stayed on that heading while John, Carsten, and Farrah all changed to port tack early. My simple strategy worked; I tacked right on the lay line and rounded the upwind mark well ahead of the rest. Yes! As I was going downwind past Farrah she said, "And we have a winner!" assuming that the race was already in the bag for me. I was not so confident- there was still plenty of time for me to screw up. On the way to the jibe mark, though, I caught a lucky gust and planed for about 20 seconds, putting a bit more distance between myself and Farrah. After that the wind got really light and I struggled to maintain speed while the rest were gradually gaining on me. I could hear the flexing cambers of Farrah's sail as she pumped like a dynamo, creating her own wind. When I was almost at the jibe mark, the others were less than 100 m behind. Then a giant cigarette boat roared between us, its wake slightly helping me and slightly hurting my competition. Ha ha. I rounded the downwind mark and tried to shoot straight to the upwind finish line, but realized I would have to tack to make it. Fortunately the others had to tack, too, so they didn't gain on me too much. My second run at the finish line was also a bit low, but I tacked again near the pin end and crossed the line on port tack. The PA on the committee boat announced "OK over!". Yeah! (O-K is my sail number).

It was a great way to finish the regatta. I didn't do so well overall, but that moment made my day.

Overall winners:

Formula class- 1 Dave Kashy (hairy), 2 Alan Bernau (black shirt), 3 Eric Rahnenfuerher (tall center)
Longboard open- 1 John Contos (left), 2 Carsten Boekholt (brown leather hat), 3 Farrah Hall (center)
Longboard women- 1 Fan Pat (right), 2 Marcy Kennedy (blue top), 3 Helen van Gelder (not pictured)
Novice- 1 John Gelinne (brown boardshorts), 2 Bruce Powers (not pictured)

Below is a picture of John Gelinne going fast on his shortboard between races Saturday. Can you believe he's only been windsurfing for a few months? Glenn Woodell has hundreds more pictures from the event here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hampton Roads Sailboard Classic, Day 1

Warm, bathing-suit weather graced the first day of the 2007 Hampton Roads Sailboard Classic, where about 20 windsurfers from around the East Coast congregated to compete and carouse.
The fleet was diverse, both in terms of the sailors and their styles of equipment. A hard-core "formula windsurfing" contingent was ripping around the course, lead by the legendary Dave Kashy of Newport News.

We also had an even greater celebrity in attendance; women's Olympic windsurfing contender Farrah Hall, racing the official Olympic one-design board, the RS:X.

Most of the rest of us were on traditional, long raceboards. My hibiscus print Kona board was a bit of an odd duck, but no one else could match my level of color-coordination.
The wind was great in Willoughby Bay; around 10 knots early in the day, increasing to 15-20 knots later in the afternoon. The formula boards planed almost the whole time (see Colin Pitts, below), while the longboards planed more consistently as the day went on.

I had a tough time breaking into the top places, never managing more than 4th. I did well on the windy reaches and downwind legs, but just couldn't get the Kona to go upwind as efficiently as the long raceboards. Between races I experimented with my technique, timing how long it took to get upwind with the daggerboard down (slower but better angle) versus fully-planing with the daggerboard up (faster but worse angle). I realized that even in strong wind I was usually better off with the daggerboard down.

At the end of the day all the racers and crew went to the Golden Palace Chinese Buffet in Hampton. Mmm... m.s.g.

(Glenn Woodell's full photo album from the regatta is here).

Friday, October 19, 2007

The dumb thing about "The Matrix"

I really like the Matrix movies, but because I'm a nerdy scientist there is one thing that has always bugged me about them.

Let me explain... The prologue to the movies is that a massive war takes place between humankind and robots. As a desperate measure during the war, the humans intentionally darken the sky to cut off the robots' source of solar power.

But according to the movie, the robots are then able to use the humans themselves as a power source, harnessing the heat energy from their bodies. Under black skies, the robots rear vast crops of men and women in hydroponic tanks, sucking their energy while pacifying their unconscious minds in a virtual reality world called "The Matrix".

It's cool and spooky, but it could never happen because HUMANS DON'T CREATE ENERGY. We get our energy from the food we eat, and our food comes from plants, which get their energy from the sun. So humans are actually solar powered, too. If we blacked out the sun we would soon run out of food and die.
In The Matrix movies they try to get around that by saying that they recycle the humans; liquefying the dead ones and feeding them to the new crops to keep the cycle going. But that wouldn't work because energy would be irretrievably lost with every cycle, just like a bouncing ball always bounces a little lower than its last bounce. If the robots fed the new humans solely on the old humans, each generation would be much smaller than the previous one until they ran out of humans entirely.

Though the laws of thermodynamics would preclude the use of humans as an energy source in a dark world, I can think of some other reasons that the robots might want to keep us around. The main one would be as a source of creativity. Perhaps the robots could get new ideas and inspirations by stealing them from our organic minds.

Wow, I'm a geek.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What's SUP?

**UPDATE- Check out this post for more info and a local SUP video**

I had so much fun camping in the Outer Banks last month that I couldn't resist another excursion. This time I went with a new windsurfing buddy named John Gelinne. We planned the trip a week ago when the forecast called for 25 knots of wind. Unfortunately, the meteorologists' early prediction was 100% wrong (see below).

We turned lemons to lemonade, though, finding Saturday morning's eerie calm perfect for "Stand Up Paddleboarding". I used my Kona windsurf board and a long paddle borrowed from Jim Perry. The Pamlico Sound was a mirror merging with the sky, and gliding across it felt like floating on air. Looking down I could see fish of all sorts darting amongst the seagrass patches. The only other people on the water were a kid and his mom fishing from a kayak . The boy caught a few little fish and was ecstatic. It's nice when parents do natural, outdoors stuff with their kids.

My paddling excursion didn't tempt the wind to blow, but when John went out after me, a dark "wind-line" appeared far away on the water, and moved gradually closer. By the time he came to shore the flags were rustling and we had sufficient breeze for mellow windsurfing. Later in the afternoon the wind picked up enough for some planing runs with my big 8.5 sail, capping off of the slow crescendo of the day. John snapped this nice shot of the sunset from the campground.

Sunday wasn't totally glassy in the morning, but the wind never picked up much at all. Nevertheless, John and I got our thrill by challenging the Atlantic Ocean at "Ego Beach", where we comically struggled to sail out through the waves and ride them back to shore.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Profiles in Greatness: Russell P. Burke

I’ve decided to use this blog to honor a few individuals whom I admire and respect. These “profiles in greatness” are not intended to be comprehensive biographies, but just a few snapshots of the serious, humorous, and / or revealing sides of some cool people. The first honoree to agree to this treatment is Russell Burke, my roommate from the first part of graduate school here at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Putting it all out there

Russell has many positive qualities, but the one that defines him most is his remarkable openness. He somehow defies the invisible boundaries that normally prevent forthright communication between new acquaintances or people of different social status. This can be startling or off-putting at first, but most people find it charming once they realize Russ is “for real”, and they typically respond by becoming more open and comfortable themselves. I got a hint of Russ’ candid nature before I even met him. We had both been accepted at VIMS and were looking for housing and roommates when Russ sent the following email to the VIMS listserv, which was forwarded to me:

To all graduate students,

My name is Russell Burke. I am 22 years old from Long Island, New York. I am finishing my undergraduate degree in marine and environmental science aat Rider University in New Jersey as of this May. I will be attending VIMS as a full-time graduate student as I pursue my Ph.D under the advisement of Dr. Rom Lipcius. My interests are blue crab and bivalve ecology with an emphasis on estuarine nutrient cycling.

I will be arriving in early July to assist in ongoing research at VIMS. By then I would like to have housing established. My hope is to have a townhouse with a few different roommates (one is fine, but I am not adverse to the idea of more than one). I will be on a fellowship, so I should have no problem paying my fraction of the rent throughout the year. I am an easy going guy who enjoys diversity in character and personality. The only people that I have a difficulty dealing/living with are those individuals who are inherently mean, pompous, greedy, and overly egotistical. I consider myself a kind and loving person who is accepting of virtually everyone, but the aforementioned qualities are real turn-offs for me. With that being said, I love all types of sports, I am open to trying new things, and am pretty optimistic most of the time. Also, I am clean, conscientious of my responsibilities as a housemate, reliable, and trustworthy. If these are qualities you would like in a roommate and a friend, please e-mail or call me at (xxx) xxx-xxxx (until May 14th) or (xxx) xxx-xxxx (after May 17th). I will be making one visit at the end of May or the beginning of June to survey housing, take care of paper work, and purchase/register a car in Virginia, so this would be an opportunity to meet me if you are in the area.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to meeting you all soon and making a match for prospective housemates soon.

Russ Burke

It was obvious to me then that Russ was at least a little strange, but he sounded like a guy who really cared about life and people (not just science and academics) so I gambled and offered to be his roommate. It turned out I was the only one who replied to the email, not counting a bitter, older grad student upset that Russ had mentioned the fellowship. Anyway, I ended up getting an apartment with Russ, who turned out to be the best friend and roommate I could ever have wished for.

Comedian Extraordinaire

Besides Russ’ openness, his next most defining quality is his nearly ceaseless, irreverent humor, which ranges from appallingly corny to quite brilliant at times. Part of the reason Russ’ humor works is that he is never self-conscious about the way it is received, even when he himself is the only one laughing. Russ just keeps going and going until you’re either laughing at his jokes or laughing at him. One of the trademarks of Russ humor is anthropomorphization of animals or puppets, most notably “Fox Number 1”, an endearing scoundrel with irrepressible coprophagous tendencies.

Fox Number 1 has a rich and detailed history, but some of Russ’ funniest characterizations are one-timers. Like the one time we were playing the vidoegame Streetfighter II and Russ was speaking in a husky Japanese accent for his character, the sumo wrestler E. Honda: “LIPID… is the building-block of LIFE!” I guess you had to be there. Russ says he learned to be funny as a chubby kid just trying to diffuse the teasing of bullies. The pressure to prove himself and be accepted also drove young Russ to become really good at sports and games.

A Competitive Nature

One thing I could count on when playing videogames with Russ was that he would never give up and he would never go easy on me. So I usually lost, except for in the game “Mortal Kombat”, where I learned a really cheap move- the crouching roundhouse-kick. I would use it to knock him off his feet again and again before he could block or retaliate. With the move I beat him for 15 straight rounds, then he figured it out, improved on it, and beat me for 30 straight rounds.

At that point I was so frustrated that we agreed never to play the game again.

Stubborn yet Spontaneous

When I first met Russ he had a flattop. This was not the usual short-all-over cut, but an actual, square-on-top, highway patrolman-style flattop. Russ is pretty good looking, but the haircut was very unflattering, and everyone told him so. Still he would not change it, maintaining that he’d had the haircut since he was a kid, he liked it, and he kept it as a matter of principle... perhaps as a symbol of his free will and independence. One day, though, the flat top was gone. It was Russ’ decision. When he decided he wanted to change he just did it.


Russ has been through some times. His dad passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease during our second year of grad school. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for Russ to face the loss of his loving father. But Russ the comedian has a mature, philosophical side, which showed as he dealt with the sadness and helped keep his family close through it all. In that time I think Russ grew and changed a lot.


Russ’ sense of humor and his genuine and patient interest in people and emotions gave him a way with women.

For a while Russ was known as a sort-of Casanova for his prolific dating. But like his flattop haircut, that would change suddenly. Russ met Candy Huayhualla, a beautiful Peruvian woman, on the rather whimsical Internet rating and dating site, "hotornot". Honestly, from the way he met her I was a little skeptical that Candy would become a serious love for Russ.

But I soon saw that Candy was different. She completely captured Russ’ heart and consolidated his once-diffuse attentions. Despite the pressures of distance, and a fiercely protective future mother-in law, Russ decided Candy was THE ONE. In typical Russ fashion (overdoing it) he spent nine days preparing our apartment for the marriage proposal. There was a giant poster commemorating all the milestones of the Russ & Candy relationship, along with a huge “Will You Marry Me?” banner hung in Russ’ room. Flowers, teddy bears, cute cards, candy… the apartment was stuffed with enough romantic accoutrements to supply a Hallmark store for 10 years. Thank god Candy said yes.

An old day passes; A new day begins

Both Russ and I shared a tendency to accumulate stuff. I accumulated windsurfing stuff, and he accumulated everything else. We had barely managed to combine our lives into Apartment 28B, and with Candy now spending more time there, too, it was getting pretty crowded. It made sense for me to find a new place, so I swapped dwellings with Candy, and she and Russ made the apartment their home. They were married last summer and are still going strong. With his personal life in a great place, Russ has renewed his academic and research efforts. He is now charging towards the thrilling conclusion of his doctoral research on oyster reef restoration in Chesapeake Bay. He looks forward to an eventual teaching position on a university faculty, where he can inspire the next generation of budding scientists to follow their dreams, even if it means breaking the mold of conventions.