Saturday, December 29, 2012

Eye Taste Something A Bit Odd.

Happy Holidays, Dear Readers! I hope everyone is recovering from the Bacchanalia of holiday cheer and an (over) abundance of food. I ate more gingerbread cookies than I care to admit. 

While I am organizing my notes on my recent ichnology fieldwork and conference in China and while I am both taking and editing pictures of theropod teeth with the frenzy of an obsessed woman, I thought I would include a food-related adventure from China. [NOTE: Technically I am re-taking these photos. Somehow my entire folder of 300+ images became corrupt, and I can no longer access the images I had already edited. A back-up, you say? I wish I had thought of it sooner. I will never put my trust solely in one external hard drive again. The hurt is still too fresh. Will I learn to love again?]

Fieldwork and conference travel in other countries often involves a crash-course in foreign cuisine. You have absolutely no choice but to dig in unless you have a satchel full of granola bars, which would become tedious after two meals. Also, if you are an invited guest, your hosts will have gone to great effort to feed you. And do they ever feed you! We did field work in multiple regions, and at every dinner we were treated to special regional dishes. One of the first phrases I had to learn in Mandarin was "I'm full!"  

I love international travel, and one of the reasons is the opportunity to experience different foods the way they are actually cooked, rather than the North American version of that particular cuisine. I usually do not hesitate to try something that is new to me or that "looks different." I was prepared for a completely different food experience, but I don't think that anything could have prepared me for THIS particular experience.

WARNING: For those of you with a squeamish stomach, I recommend not reading this post. Certain parts of invertebrate and vertebrate anatomy are consumed that would not normally be consumed, at least in westernized North America. Thanks for stopping by, though. I'll have something a bit less bizarre on the China trip in the New Year. For those of you who have not traveled to China and are leery about the cuisine, please do not worry. This Fear Factor-esque story is not indicative of the cuisine we experienced in China. I enjoyed 99.9% of what I ate while in China.

This foodie adventure takes place after a successful week of field work in various regions and a spectacular conference in Chongqing, China. We spent a few days in Beijing with our host Lida, who did a great job showing us around the city. He also showed us all of the great restaurants at which to eat. The food was fantastic. We sampled countless vegetarian dishes, several regional seafood dishes, beef, pork, and various steamed buns. I have a new appreciation for the multiple ways that tofu can be cooked and actually taste good. We even went to a specialty vegetarian restaurant where the tofu was prepared to look, feel, and taste exactly like fish. 

Lida, like me, is a fan of sushi. Lida and his wife took us to one of his favorite sushi restaurants in Beijing and ordered us the V.I.P. menu. If you've never had one of these types of sushi meals, this means that (with a few exceptions) the sushi chef decides what you will be eating that evening. We were in luck, because we were treated to extremely fresh tuna sashimi. Each part of the fish produces a slightly different texture and flavor of sashimi, and we get to sample each of the parts.

Meanwhile, Lida ordered one of his favorite dishes: octopus tentacles. The tentacles are so fresh that they are still moving. The tentacles are not technically alive, but the nerve impulses are still firing, which means the tentacles wriggle and writhe on the plate like some vermiform nightmare.

How bad could it be? Just watch!

video

That is me talking in the background. The pauses you hear indicate when I am trying not to gag. Everyone has food preferences and aversions. My food aversions include gelatin-based or items with a gelatin-like consistency, and things shaped like worms. Gummi-worms are near the top of the list, or at least they were until I sampled octopus. Octopus, right then and there, moved to the top of my list.

I did not judge octopus on its plate-appeal alone. I listened to the voice in my head that said "Woman up!" and tried a tentacle. This is not an experience I will be looking to repeat. First, I like octopi as whole, living animals. Octopi are intelligent invertebrates, and if a large invertebrate came at me with a cleaver to dine upon my freshly severed limbs, I'd be a bit miffed.

Pronouncing this correctly will not save me from his wrath. http://www.thelovecraftsman.com/2011/03/youtube-video-tells-you-how-to.html

I also did not enjoy the texture. It was too chewy. And, believe me, I chewed like there was no tomorrow for fear of feeling the tentacle move. I wasn't fast enough.

We moved on to dishes that included more tuna sashimi, tempura, shellfish, and soup. Everything was delicious. I temporarily forgot the excitement of the tentacles, assuming that was the odd food highlight of the evening.

I could not have been more wrong.

The chef wheeled the frozen head of the tuna on which we had been feasting in to the dining room on a carving trolley.

"Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, Yum!"

The chef started carving the head in front of us, removing the choice cuts of meat from the head and serving them to us immediately. I learned that many people consider the meat on the head to be the most flavorful part of a fish. I can't disagree: the sashimi was excellent.

Now we come to the part of the story where my brain divides into two entities: Practical Shaman and Timid Shaman. What prompted this mental fission was that the chef, while carving up the fish head, took great pains to extract the eye intact. This back-and-forth happened completely in my head: how much of this played out in my facial expressions I cannot say. Hopefully I looked as if I was intrigued by the chef's carving skills.

"You do know what this means, don't you?" Practical Shaman said. "He wouldn't be so careful with that eye if it was not going to be used."

"Be quiet, you!" Timid Shaman squeaked. "Maybe this is to show us how fresh this fish is."

P.S. insists "I tell you that eye is destined for your plate. And really, how bad could it be? It's just as edible as most other parts of a fish."

"It's a GIANT EYE. Need I say more? How can they expect us to eat a frozen eye that measures in at about a cup?" T.S. had a false sense of security at this point.

"Oh really? Did you not see the giant cleaver? You are going to know what eye tastes like."

Here is what we saw:

From right to left: tuna head, sashimi, A CUP OF EYE.
The chef then took the frozen eye and started finely chopping it into snow cone consistency, or the consistency of ice in a blended drink. Once the surface area of the eye chunks was increased, the pieces started to thaw. I could see gelatinous strands of liquid clinging to the knife. I felt my stomach lurch and try to exit my body in protest.

The chef then carefully scooped the shaved ice (or, in this case eye-ce) into four large shot glasses. The glasses are about 2/3 full at this point. He topped each glass with a serving of white wine, and oh-so-carefully used a toothpick to place a single flake of gold leaf on the top of the floating eye-ce. He handed us each a glass. And then he stood there, waiting.

"This has to be a joke!" T.S. mentally gasps. "There is a hidden camera somewhere. I can't do this!"

"Don't be silly, and don't be rude. You will drink this special creation. You are a guest." P.S. admonishes. "Oh, and the longer you hesitate, that frozen eye-ice is just going to become more slimy." Sometimes I think P.S. takes great pleasure in providing uncomfortable observations. 
  
That was it. I was a guest and a representative of my country: I had to do my duty as a gracious Canadian visitor and drink that eye.
  
I had only enough culinary fortitude to do this in one gulp. Yes, I felt the gooey melting eye pieces in my mouth, and there was a faint fish flavor, but down it went, gold flake and all.

I DID IT!!! I ATE (well, drank) AN EYE!!!

We had a great deal of fun teasing each other about this later, and, as Lida said "You'll never forget this meal!" If I had to choose between the two bizarre (to me) food items of that evening, I would pick the eye over the octopus tentacles. I didn't have to chew the eye, and the eye didn't come from an animal that was still alive. The eye also didn't move (and didn't come from an animal that was still alive when it was removed). That being said, I am not going to seek out eye for my next dinner party.

I'm sure that this isn't the strangest food item people have sampled in the name of international research. I'd love to hear some stories!

I think it's time for lunch!

Happy New Year!

SAS

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Science: It's Getting Closer to Being a Girl Thing.

I am experiencing a form of deja-vu: I am sitting in the same chair, drinking an inhuman amount of Earl Grey tea, and watching (and re-watching) recruitment videos designed to inspire today's young women to choose science as a career. There is one important difference: this time I am not completely disgusted and insulted by the mere existence of these videos.

Let's recap: the European Commission had produced and distributed a video that they, in a Cosmo-Girl-esque attitude towards women, thought would appeal to young women and encourage them to consider a science career. All the European Commission managed to inspire was outrage: the ad (and I think I am safe calling that pandering bit of runway nonsense an ad rather than a recruitment video) spent more time featuring girls sashaying than girls titrating. I don't know how many of the links are still operational for the original video, but if you can stomach it, check out the video here. There were several parody videos created by women in science that highlighted the stereotypes of women in the academics that the EC used as A-reel.

The European Commission had little choice but to pull the original video and come up with a strategy to create a new, less insulting version. Perhaps they were impressed by the parodies, because they created a video contest and a jury chose two winners and a People's Choice out of the submissions. Let's watch, shall we?

Here is Winner #1, a submission from France:




My first viewing of this video left me slightly uneasy, but I could not immediately identify the source of my discomfort. Then, after two more viewings, I could pinpoint the source of my unease. The creators of this video were not using the love of science and exploration as inspiration: they are relying on indignation at science being a male-dominated career to motivate young women to enter the sciences.

I can see what they were trying to get at: the adage "Decisions are made by those who show up" is as true in science as it is in other aspects of life. I hope this was the central message this video was trying to inspire in young women, but the leech-like message that followed was "Science has a male agenda that must be countered."

When I hear these sentiments from a few of my female peers, I do feel indignation, but not at "those evil sexist men." I feel like I'm being asked to choose sides in a boys vs. girls game in physical education class. Gender teams have never appealed to me, either in sports sports or in arguments. Just because I have XX chromosomes does not mean that I will automatically agree with a stance taken by another person with XX chromosomes. I am capable of looking at the data and making my own decisions.

My mentors have been and are mostly men. My colleagues in vertebrate ichnology are predominantly men. I couldn't ask for a better group of people with whom to work. I have never once felt like they looked down on me or my abilities, or (worse) thought that I needed extra help because I am a woman. Maybe my experience is not the same as that of other women in science: I can't speak of their experiences. However, when I hear people say that men are pushing their agenda in the sciences to the detriment of women, I think of the great men with whom I work and feel as though they are the ones being stereotyped. Stereotypes are dangerous tools on which to rely when making career decisions. Yes, there are inequalities that exist in science. They do need to be addressed. Decisions are made by those who show up, but WHY you show up is just as important as walking through the door. Indignation and anger at inequality are not going to be enough motivation to sustain you through a scientific career. The drive must run deeper than activism.

Here is Winner #2, a submission from Australia:



The opening amused me. Apparently, you don't have to be limited to a desk job if you are in science. I'm chuckling because for the past nine days I've been Super-Glued to my desk working on a paper. I would conservatively guess that over 70% of my duties as a curator and collections manager are administrative. Most researchers I know have to wear the Administrator Hat more often than not when applying for grants, working out budgets for their research labs, and serving on committees. Anyone who believes a scientific career frees them from the shackles of filling out forms in triplicate is going to be in for quite the rude awakening on Day 1 of their position.

I digress. This video is a bit more traditional in its approach: it shows young women having fun in a traditional chemistry lab setting. That left me with a "ho-hum" feeling. It was the last segment of the video that I found the most interesting. It showed images of real women scientists and their scientific fields. THAT is more like it! I believe the key to inspiration is to lead by example, showing a real female scientist getting down and dirty in science (with me that's a literal statement: part of my project involves stalking birds in marshlands, and during excavation I wield a pick-ax and shovel) highlights that anyone with a scientific passion can and should explore their interests as a career. I would have preferred the video focus more on examples of real women scientists than the smoking beakers.

Here is the People's Choice runner-up, a submission from the States:



I like this video. It showed real young women talking about scientific achievements they want to be a part of. They were determined to send the message that they did not consider gender to be a barrier to them entering, and succeeding in, the sciences. The focus was on their drive and their goals.

The European Commission had no where to go but up in terms of producing a better recruitment video, and I think they learned that women in the scientific community have strong ideas about what they want to see for promotion.

I found myself asking "What would my ideal recruitment video look like?", especially since I was unsettled by the first video. My ideal video would be a combination of videos #2 and the People's Choice. I envision young women talking about their specific scientific goals and dreams, and pairing them with women scientists who are working in those specific fields. A link between the now and the future, and an emphasis on how today's women scientists are the leaders and the mentors for the future women researchers. Decisions are made by those who show up: we should be there to give meaningful directions.

Back to editing figure captions.

SAS out.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's 3am...Don't Step on the Hairball

I am a deep sleeper. While living with my sister-in-law, she would joke about checking to make sure I was still breathing. I don't just sleep: I go into torpor.

Despite my corpse-like repose, there are some events that will wake me out of a dead sleep. A mouse gnawing on something in the field trailer. The occasional clap of thunder. A house exploding. And, my all-time favorite, my cat Maia retching up a hairball at 3am. If I was serious about waking up on time in the morning, I would record that sound for my alarm.

Yes, you. Don't look so content. I stepped in that hairball!
My family has been a family of cat people for as long as I can remember. Both my Granny and Great-Aunt had cats, and growing up there were always two to three cats in the house at any one time. Some of my earliest memories involve the family cats.

When I first started university I did not have an opportunity to have a mammalian pet, and I also thought I wouldn't have one for some time due to an inconsistent schedule and near-constant moving student. A pet was something that Future Lisa would get to have.

I was not even thinking of a pet when I came across a black and white kitten in the bushes outside of my apartment one December ten years ago. It was bloody cold, and I was just getting ready to undertake yet another big move. I thought "If this little guy is still here when I get home, I'll let it inside." I didn't want to let the kitten into the wrong apartment building if its owners were one of those people who let their cats outside.

I will never, ever understand why people let their cats outside in the city, or even in a small town. Check out the Indoor Cat Initiative - cats that remain indoors (or in cat-specific outdoor enclosed patios) live longer, healthier lives because they won't get run over, attacked by another animal, pick up some nasty disease, or get lost. Outdoor cats are also one of the primary predators for local wildlife, such as birds. In urban areas, cats are Public Enemy #1. Maia is a happy indoor cat that gets supervised outside time, and is merely content to make high-pitched squeaky noises at the birds visiting my feeders. Meanwhile, the neighborhood cats that are let outside to roam free by their careless owners have created a larder of sparrow corpses next to my mint patch.

Anyway, when I returned home that evening, I saw that the kitten was walking down the hallway like it owned the place. I picked it up (learned it was a her), and began knocking on doors. She had several mats in the fur around her neck that needed to be cut out. No, no one knew anything about this kitten. No, no one wanted a cat. I was beginning to feel a little desperate. I was moving across the country in a few days and had an orphan on my hands. I made inquiries at shelters, and then felt like the world's biggest turd right after. Shelters were accepting cats, alright, but they were putting them down as fast as they were letting them in.

That was it. I was a cat owner. Maia was named, and my parents (who were down to help with the move) lost no time in outfitting the "grand-cat" with all of the gear necessary for her new life.

Now all I had to do was move her. Anyone out there who has had to move a cat, or take one to the vet, is familiar with the following scenario: cat goes into carrier, carrier goes into car, car moves, soul-ripping yowls of anger and despair emit from carrier, driver goes insane and drives off road. Hyperbole and a Half describes the horror of moving pets more succinctly than I ever could.

Other than a rocky period where I had to leave grad school to work and I wasn't sure where I was going to live (Maia bunked with a couple of friends for the few months it took us to secure a place), Maia has been with me for 10 years.

The Queen.
I can't say that she particularly enjoys it when we travel. She has to go to our friend's house, and our friend has two cats of their own. Maia, you see, is an only child, and is not well socialized with other cats. I've watched her in action. At best she learns to tolerate the presence of another cat. Do not even ask about dogs.

Didn't you hear me? I said, "Don't ask!"
If co-authorships were granted just on the amount of time a person or object spent with you while working on the project, all of my papers would be co-authored by Maia the Cat and Earl Grey Tea. Maia's favorite time of the day is Writing Time. Wherever I happen to be working, Maia will be there with me, either snoozing on the seat next to me, or helping me hold my books open by lying on them.

This pose is most conducive to detecting Type II errors.
Time to get back to formatting figures for a rather large review paper. Maia is doing her part: she is lying of the dining room furnace register, making sure the dining room doesn't receive too much heat.

Until next time,
Strange Woman.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - Vulture Food

Despite my misadventures from the previous day, I was refreshed and eager to participate in the scheduled canyon hike. The canyon boasts of a lush green ecosystem within the fairly arid landscape of Turkmenistan. I was looking forward to all the birding opportunities I would have.

I was still a bit dehydrated, so I made sure to stock up on bottled water in my CamelPak, and to bring a bandanna to keep the sun off of the back of my neck. I also resolved to take it slow - one great part about birding is that no one expects you to keep up with the crowd when your face is glued to binoculars.

We pulled into the mouth of the canyon and dismounted. Right away we noticed a group of large, soaring birds circling far overhead. Our presence had disturbed a large colony of Griffon Vultures!
When I die, I hope I am eaten by vultures. (Wikipedia.org)
I should probably mention my undying adoration of vultures. I have been fascinated by these carrion eaters ever since I was a child. Growing up in southern BC I saw a great many Turkey Vultures in my rural community. One of my favorite hikes was to the offal dump in the mountains behind the local farm. If I was very quiet, I could sneak up on the Turkey Vultures feasting on the remains of the most recent slaughter. Their appearance is what initially attracted me, but as I learned more about them, the deeper my fascination grew. I tried in vain to convince the adults in my life (it was a small circle, but I tried) that vultures are beautiful birds that deserve respect. Sadly, vultures in Asia are on a frightening decline towards extinction, but thanks to the efforts of organizations such as the RSPB, there is a plan in place to reverse this trend.

I digress. We began our hike up the canyon. Even if I was separated from the group, there was no way I could have become lost: a pipe carrying fresh water ran along the entire length of our trail. It was also leaking in many places (I was told that local people punch holes in the pipe to access the water) so there was also no way I would die of thirst.


You can picture the vultures circling patiently overhead...
It was an extremely hot day. I paused frequently to look at the scenery, and noticed that the Griffon Vultures were still following us after almost a kilometer. One of the UNESCO committee members was hiking with me and Rich, and she and I took an opportunity to use one of the puncture holes in the water pipe to soak our bandannas. As we were bending down, I hear Rich scrambling to get the video camera out. I looked up to see what all the fuss was, and saw the most amazing sight: a Griffon Vulture, on seeing us bend down, had descended into the canyon to investigate the situation. We were being selected by the vultures as one selects a lobster from a tank.

If only I had been carrying any form of food that a vulture would have found palatable, I would have stayed crouched to see if it would have landed: I wouldn't want a vulture to go to all the trouble of landing if it was not going to get a good meal out of it. After we stood up (and made quite a few Monty Python jokes about not being dead yet), our opportunistic Griffon Vulture made a couple more passes and ascended out of the canyon.

This was the highlight of the canyon trip for me. The flora in the cool confines of the canyon was lovely, but my interest in botany was waning with my energy. My body was telling me to give it a rest. I sat out the rest of the hike at one of the many tables set out for our catered lunch. Complete with circling vultures.

One of the several prayer cairns set up along the canyon.


The next day (May 27th) we traveled back via train to Turkmenabat to attend the international conference. I was looking forward to this with some trepidation: no one on the Expedition had any idea what the schedule was for the talks, or how long each speaker had for their talk. We knew there were the plenary speakers (Rich, Federico, and Martin were among those), and regular speakers (my category). We figured that we would get the information when we needed it.

May 28th was the first day of the conference, and the rest of the international and national attendees had arrived in Turkmenabat.
The Expedition and Conference were the big news item in Turkmenistan that week.
Our entourage had swelled to three buses for the conference attendees and several police and security vehicles for escort. We did not stop for one red light the entire time the conference was running. One person counted at least 50 officers stopping traffic We were shuttled from our hotel to one of the national theaters for Day 1 of the Conference.

This was the largest performance we had seen to date.
This performance focused on the national treasures of the country.

EVERYTHING we did was recorded. Our track site interviews were being played over and over on Turkmenistan TV that week.
After the welcome ceremony we were escorted to the main theater. The Expedition Members were ushered into the first two rows. Rich went with me to the front row, but I had noticed something he had not: he was not going to be sitting in the front row. I pointed to the stage, and pointed at his name placard on the stage. He was going to be part of this morning's show.

No pressure. That gentleman in the back is the current President of Turkmenistan. That screen was not used for any of the presentations. It displayed this image for the entire plenary session.
The plenary speakers found out that morning they had 20 minutes to give their presentations, and that had to include translation time. Rich gives very slide-rich presentations: a 30 minute presentation might contain anywhere from 60 - 100 slides. He also has an organic presentation style that often includes many jokes. I do not know how he did it, but he managed to give a great presentation of 60 slides in 17 minutes including translation. I would later that day have cause to perform a similar feat, but at that time I was naively sitting in the front row enjoying the show.

After the plenary session concluded it was time for lunch. We were shuttled to the Hippodrome for a huge banquet lunch.
The Hippodrome. I didn't get to see any of the famous horses of Turkmenistan.

A very touching event happened to me after lunch. When we entered the banquet hall we were greeted by a long line of holy men, whose hands we shook as we passed. These same holy men were also waiting in the line as we left the hall. A few of us felt that it would be very polite if we shook their hands again and say thanks. As I made my way down the line I saw there was a group of elderly ladies in traditional costume waiting at the end. When I reached the end of the line I was instantly surrounded by the ladies, and they all wanted to hug and kiss me. It was very sweet. Their affection reminded me of my Granny, who had past away only two years ago.

By this time the rest of us speakers had figured out when we were to present. I had a major problem: my jump drive containing my presentation was back at the hotel. Another presenter had a similar presentation conundrum: there were images he wanted to add to his presentation. I also wanted to add a few more images. We agreed to be a united front in needing to return to the hotel. We flagged down Dr. Poladov and asked if we could get a ride to the hotel and from the hotel to the theater. We were, and we quickly put the last minute tweaks on our presentations and made it back to the theater with time to spare. I was feeling quite proud of myself for being able to improve my talk on such short notice. That feeling was not going to last.

I get to my session, sit down, and Rich whispers to me "Five minutes."

"Wow," I replied, "I made it back just in time!"

"No," said Rich, "that's how long you have to give your presentation. Including translation." He smiled that smile that said "Now it's your turn."

Five minutes. Oh crap. Where are the Griffon Vultures when you need them?

I had prepared my presentation (challenges in preserving and protecting large intact track surfaces) using the typical international conference formatting: a presentation with images and data that can be delivered in 12 minutes with a couple of minutes for questions. I had (after my sneaky editing session) a grand total of 17 slides.

I sat there with a stunned look on my face. I watched the presenters from Turkmenistan give their talks. Their presentation style was to deliver a monologue with little to no images and sparse (from what I could tell) supporting data.

I am a nervous public speaker. I have given numerous public presentations, several professional talks, and have taught multiple labs, but before every presentation a knot of anxiety tightens in my chest and stomach. I have been presenting for more than a decade, and I think this is a reaction to public speaking that I will always have. This time felt completely different. A surreal calm washed over me. It was a different feeling than not caring, but I felt as though a lot of pressure had been relieved. This was the most relaxed I had ever been for a presentation. I think it was because I knew I had no time whatsoever to say anything ridiculous or make any mistakes. I had to keep my blather on a leash. I even threw in a joke that translated well. At the break I received a lot of compliments on my talk.

I won't go into the 20 minute long closing ceremony speech to the President about the conference and about all the wonderful successes for which the President can take credit (this was the style of official meetings in Turkmenistan: the President receives long and detailed praise for all accomplishments).


That concludes the memorable (for me) parts of my trip to Turkmenistan. 
This trip was definitely a cultural experience. Will I ever go back to Turkmenistan for more paleontology related work? I can honestly say I do not know. Dr. Poladov, the Turkmenistan researcher who succeeded in the monumental task of organizing, coordinating, and executing the Expedition and Conference, has not responded to my emails, nor has he responded to the emails of the other paleontologists who I know have tried to contact him. I wish Dr. Poladov all the best: he did a fantastic job coordinating such an event and should be commended. Maybe we will hear from him someday soon.

Strange Woman out.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - The Privy Bush

Hello, Dear Readers! I am back from field work and a conference in China, about which I will post as soon as I wrap up Tales from Turkmenistan. I had difficulty accessing the blog while abroad, so I had to wait until now to continue this tale.

Where did I leave off? Oh, yes! We were leaving the Koytendag track site, had finished lunch, boarded the Paintmixer, and were on our way to Umbar Canyon Waterfall. This is where the bloom falls off the rose of the glamorous life of a paleontologist and the harsh reality sets in - as great as this profession is, it does not offer a +5 immunity to travelers' ailments.

I was feeling quite disturbed in my gastrointestinal system. Every jolt of the Paintmixer send cramps of discomfort coursing through me. All I could think, like some deranged mantra, was "Just make it to the Waterfall, just make it to the Waterfall." There was no washroom on the Paintmixer. If I was going to take care of this, it was going to have to be field-style. In other words, a secluded bush and a roll of TP. Just make it to the Waterfall, just make it to the Waterfall...

The Paintmixer and the entourage of vehicles pulled into parking area for the hike into the Umbar Canyon. "Great," I thought, "all I have to do is wait for the crew to hike up the Canyon, and I'll have the parking area and all those lovely bushes to myself!" I saw a goat trail leading up the hill next to the parking lot - that was my trail.

"Oh, you silly naive Strange Woman", my Practical Brain thought. "You forgot about the rest of the entourage! The wait at the vehicles, don't they? They keep an eye on everyone!"

"Damn! They'll see me hobble off and follow me!" I thought. Rich offered to run interference for me. He'd waylay anyone trying to follow me up the goat trail. You have to love knowing that someone has your back in any situation. I altered my mantra: just make it up the hill, just make it up the hill...

I started to climb the goat trail. I was unwilling to crouch behind rocks because of the scorpions and snakes in the area (I could imagine that death scene: Rich finding me, with my pants unceremoniously gathered around my ankles, keeled over from a scorpion sting on my derriere, and the end of toilet paper flapping in the light breeze like a somber flag of surrender. That would make for, no pun intended, a crappy eulogy.)

With Herculean control I hiked up the trail, found a bush, turned around to make sure the coast is clear...monkey puzzle tree! There I was in plain site of the entire entourage!

"OK Strange Woman," I thought, "you can still do this. Head for the next highest bush." Just make to the next bush, just make it to the next bush...

I made it. I turned around...you're kidding?!? Was there no bush on this accursed hill that was out of sight of the huge mass of people below?!? This had turned into one of those strange Dali-esque dreams where you wander through a hallway or a large room looking for something important and everything is out of perspective and you can see around corners. No? Just me?

Just make it to the next bush, just make it to the next bush...

I barely made it. When I say I barely made it, I mean just barely. Nature was not going to let this call go to voicemail, entourage or no. At this point all I could think was "let them film me and broadcast it over Turkmenistan TV for all I care. Heck, I'll do the voice-over." If anyone did see me in my oh-so-undignified-for-an-international-researcher situation, they paid me no mind. I would have waved had anyone noticed me.

I descend the hill feeling like the bowels had dropped out of my soul. I was so weak and shaky I could barely walk, but I slowly regained my composure as I rejoined Rich. It was a good thing, too, because our hosts saw that I hadn't been to the Waterfall and they were hell-bent on making sure I saw it. I admit, it was a nice waterfall. [No pictures here.]

We make it back to the Paintmixer for our final stop of the day: the captive breeding program for native animals!

Too cute! Kids!
The adult male.
  There were also members of the native fauna that were well past the cute and alive stage.

Why are carnivores always depicted snarling?

I admit I did not take as many pictures here as I would have liked. I was still feeling fairly shaky, and my new mantra was "just make it to camp, just make it to camp."

This annoyed me. I usually have a strong digestive constitution. The only digestive issue I've ever had is with meat, and even that is not consistent. I was used to those symptoms, and this was not it. I had been struck low by a traveler's bug. Now I hoped that my supply of Pepto-Bismal would last. When we made it back to camp, I skipped dinner, slunk to our room, gulped water and the Pepto, and hoped the situation would resolve itself by morning.

The situation resolved itself, alright. It resolved to be worse than the previous day.

On the 26th we were scheduled to visit an underground mine to explore cave fauna and karst (cave) features. This involved a long voyage on the Paintmixer, and a kilometer trek underground. As soon as I awoke I knew the only trek I would be making today (with some regularity, again, no pun intended) would be to the bathroom and back. I crawled to breakfast to stock up on bread, fruit and water, and then hid in my room like a fugitive. As soon as people left, I stole to the bathroom and relieved both the mens' and ladies' toilets of all their toilet paper. This was war, dammit! So there I was, curled in the fetal position on my bed, surrounded by my hoard of tissue like some deranged irregular squirrel. That was 9:00am.

By 1:00pm I was out of tissue. The Pepto did not have the muscle to stop what my system was throwing down. So much for planning ahead. I was able to mime to the poor cleaning lady that I was in desperate need of tissue by waving an empty roll and looking frantic. One of the center attendants tried to get me to go to lunch, but at that point all lunch would have done is added fuel to a fire I wanted dead. I tried to mime that I was not feeling well without making it look like I didn't like the food. (The things I worry about when I'm sick. This must be the Canadian in me.) I think my miming had an effect, because somehow the poor fellow was able to convey that, as soon as the crew returned, he would send the crew doctor in to look at me.

There was one issue...the doctor only spoke Turkmen and Russian.

So, who out there has ever had to pantomime diarrhea? To a crowd of strangers? My acting skills must be superb (or desperation is my muse), for between my pantomime of my Old Faithful intestines and a supplemented translation of other symptoms by one of the Russian geologists, I was given the medication I needed and instructed to stay away from sweets, alcohol, and overly fatty foods while recovering.

I was going to live!!! The medication worked fast. I was able to go to dinner and attend that evening's entertainment of traditional dancing and singing. We were all sitting on either the huge traditional couches that surrounded the carpeted dance area, or sitting at the farther tables. I was on one of the couches. Once the traditional performances were over, modern club music started playing and all the dancers started pulling the expedition members off of the couches and on to the dance floor. I couldn't escape.

I am not even a passable dancer on the best of days. My motto is "if you can't dance well, dance silly." My favorite moves are the Bus Driver and the Shopping Cart. Other than those, I know one move. The living dead have more rhythm than I do. Regardless, out I went and did my best not to embarrass anyone. I think people were just happy I went out, because a lot of the dancers grabbed me for cellphone photos.

That's it for now! Next post: the Canyon hike and the Conference. Strange Woman out.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bear-ly Bigfoot

My brain and I have a deal: I keep it occupied, and it does its best not to get me into trouble. However, my brain has its own ideas of what it considers proper entertainment. One would think museum work would be enough to keep that cerebral scamp from causing mischief, but this is not always the case. Here’s an example. I am in the midst of taking photographs of Late Cretaceous theropod teeth for an upcoming paper. I get to look in great detail at teeth of some of the coolest dinosaurs known. Is my brain content? Parts of it are, but I have a section of my brain whose attention span is akin to that of a hyperactive 6 year old after gorging on Halloween candy. It can’t focus on one task for long durations…unless I trick it. One of two tactics seems to work in my Battle of the Brain. I can play a TV program or movie in the background, distracting Hyper Brain with the flashy lights and colours. I can also play audiobooks, and Hyper Brain responds by settling down under its mental blankie for story time.

Right now I’m listening to Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” series. I enjoy that all the students in “Ender’s Game” have portable computer desks through which they have instant access to educational material. Were the story written today, I’m sure these desks would be called laptops. So far, his characters use their instantaneous connection with their version of the Internet for useful, productive, or at least purpose-driven tasks. I do not think that O. S. Card had memes in mind when creating this system. My point is that we have a seemingly vast pool of potentially accurate and useful information on which to draw. Unfortunately, for every accurate website there are countless that contain the intellectual equivalent to the insides of a sorely used hanky. This is coupled the apparent lack of fact-checking this digital drivel. For fun, check out the website for the Pacific Tree Octopus, and then check out University of Connecticut’s research on Internet literacy in society.

Our culture (in general) has very few skills in distinguishing between fact-supported interpretations and anecdotal opinion. The Internet is used for disseminating information. Period. Not high quality information, not accurate information, just information. It is up to the distributor to impose whatever quality control they feel is necessary, and up to the receiver to separate the wheat from the chaff. When I was teaching undergraduate labs, I refused to accept websites as part of citations - “.edu”, “.gov”, and open access journals were the exceptions - but any other web citations were verboten. Why? I told my students that any person with a computer and an Ethernet cable can post a seemingly reputable looking website that states Bigfoot is alive and well in the woods around Campus, complete with seemingly credible data, and that there is no group that checks the accuracy of such claims before they are made available. In short, there is no pre-publication peer-review system for websites. Why am I seemingly picking on Bigfoot and its followers? A couple of days ago, this news article came across my screen about a researcher wanting $300,000.00+ for a blimp and thermal camera to search for Bigfoot. Bigfoot also made an appearance in Nunavut as recently as October.

As no one has ever caught a Bigfoot in the act of making a big footprint, there are four explanations for the source of these vaguely humanoid-looking tracks: a) there actually is a stable population of large, North American primate with no documented fossil record or physical evidence in North America, b) there are a lot of people roaming around the wilderness interpreting everything they see through their Bigfoot-Decoder glasses, c) there are guys wearing ape-feet and gorilla suits that happen to have a buddy with a camera and a penchant for seeking attention, or d) a combination of b and c.

I do love cryptozoologic lore, but not because I view it as a reliable source of scientific data. I love it for the cultural perspective, and to witness how people incorporated their lore into their interpretations of the surrounding world, and also how people attempted to explain events that, at the time and given their information pool, defied explanation.

I find the legend of Sasquatch/Bigfoot particularly fascinating for two reasons: a) I grew up in Bigfoot country and spent most of my pre-18 years crawling over the woods of northern Washington and southern BC (I was the odd geeky girl. A social life was not open to me, so I retreated to the woods), and b) most of the North American Bigfoot “evidence” is footprint-based. There are even repositories of supposed Bigfoot track replicas and associated data.

I can give you this ichnologist’s perspective on the ichnological data attributed to Bigfoot. One issue I have is there are only certain surfaces on which an animal can walk which will accurately record the shape of the animal’s foot. The consistency of the surface (substrate) plays just as important a role in recording foot shape as the shape of the foot itself. Think about the differences in footprint shape when you walk on dry sand, firm wet sand, and mud. Your foot is not going to change shape. Your footwear may change, unless you do this kind of experiment in bare feet for fun (yes, I do this for fun). The differences in footprint shape are completely substrate dependent, from the way the substrate settles after you withdraw your foot, to the way you alter your step length and foot placement. Paleoichnologists see this phenomenon in dinosaur footprints all the time.

In checking out a few Bigfoot and cryptozoology websites (if you're brave, I dare you to Google "Bigfoot inbreeding"), I noticed that most insist that Bigfoot prints are NOT the prints of a bear. This needs to be stated because of the similarity in both size and shape of many purported Bigfoot prints to both grizzly and black bear footprints. One identifier for bear tracks is the presence of claw marks, as bears do not retract their claws. Bigfoot prints are supposed to consistently lack claw marks. However, what if the claw marks are not preserved on the substrate? What if the bear’s hindpaw (or pes for my fellow ichno-geeks) steps on the print left by the forepaw (manus)? What about track surface degradation, or a myriad of other factors that can alter the shape of a footprint between the time it is made to the time of discovery? To an eye unfamiliar with surface-based ambiguities, and to an eye looking at a print through Bigfoot-coloured glasses, the discovered print might appear suspiciously humanoid.

The biologist in me also knows that, for the number of sightings that have occurred (this map only shows the USA, but Canada is not immune from Bigfoot Fever) there would need to be fairly healthy population numbers of Bigfoot. I should have to take Bigfoot bangers into the woods instead of bear bangers. There are two animals in these regions that have healthy population numbers: humans and bears. Lozier et al. (2009) (follow the link to their paper) found a very strong correlation between the supposed ecological niche of Bigfoot and the presence of black bears (Ursus americanus). Also, just two species of bear can make several different looking prints. Check out these images of bear tracks made in a variety of substrates:



http://www.nps.gov/gaar/planyourvisit/images/bigbeartracks2.jpg
http://files.myopera.com/SittingFox/albums/302399/Bear%20track.jpg


http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/
http://icestories.exploratorium.edu This is the most primate-looking one, but it's in the worst substrate to preserve details like claws, front and back prints, etc.

I chose these images of bear tracks because they show a variety of preservation types. Some look unmistakeably bear. Others resemble the Bigfoot-style tracks. Bears have five oval-shaped toe pads, and the toes are arranged in a pattern similar to that of humans. As you can see, sometimes claw marks are imprinted, while in other prints claw marks are either missing or not obvious.


http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/files/norock/research/NDGBPbeartrackscombo.jpg
The second issue I have with the available pool of Bigfoot track data is that there is an apparent preponderance of single, isolated footprints. This is a problem if you want to thoroughly document a track phenomenon. Finding (or only collecting) one footprint is the ichnology equivalent of only collecting one bone from a skeleton. The information needed to interpret the hip height, stance, and gait of the track-maker is recorded in a series of footprints. Photographs of Bigfoot prints seem to only reveal one isolated footprint. Perhaps the Bigfoot researchers are keeping all their long trackways hush-hush for a big reveal. Is there a trackway that goes with that one print? What to the rest of the prints within that trackway look like? If the footprint is not shown within the context of a trackway, I (or anyone else) cannot rule out the possibility that the photographer is just showing me the most humanoid looking print out of a series of rather typical bear prints in order to gain support for their belief.

http://www.trailventuresbc.com/scm/pic/grizz-track-chilc.jpg


http://www.bearnovascotia.ca
Belief is the correct term, and critical thinking tends to fall by the wayside on the path of belief. Once belief takes hold, it is difficult to not interpret information through the filter of said belief. It becomes easy, even desirable, to ignore contradictory data. Cherry-picking information that only supports a certain belief is the bread-and-butter of pseudoscience. People go out into the woods with the idea of Bigfoot (or any other creature from lore), and they present information that supports a Bigfoot-only interpretation without supplying alternate explanations, reinforcing their preconceived goal of proving the existence of Bigfoot. It is circular reasoning at best, deception at worst, and the people conducting research on Bigfoot are presenting their information to a public with atrophied critical thinking processes. It’s the Pacific Tree Octopus on global scale. If the evidence is so strong for the existence of Bigfoot, show me the peer-reviewed publications. No, a newsletter from “Bigfoot Quarterly” is not a peer-reviewed publication. A book published commercially by a Bigfoot scientist is not a peer-reviewed publication. A book with a high sales volume means it’s a good story, not an accurate story. If high readership were the only criterion needed for accuracy of an idea, sparkly, annoyingly morose vampires would run amok in society.

“But Strange Woman”, you may ask, “you are presenting your views through an anti-Bigfoot filter. How is that any better than the pro-Bigfoot view?” Good question. Here is my answer. Critical does not mean anti-anything. When you deal in any data-based discipline, you have to be very, very careful to separate what you know (speculation) from what you can support. Speculation is a healthy, active mind at work. It’s useful to let your brain travel down all of the “What if…” paths. However, much like our canine friends, that brain needs to be kept on a leash or it will make a mess of your neighbour’s lawn. I might believe, deep down in my core, that a certain small theropod tooth was produced by a certain species of theropod. I cannot just publish that belief without supporting data. I must also provide all of the alternate explanations possible, along with the data that supports those explanations. Even that is not sufficient. I must then send that idea out to my peers so THEY can provide all of their alternate explanations, as well as tell me what data they would like to see in order to be convinced of my idea. That’s the peer-review process. It can be slow, it can be frustrating at times, but it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to retain the objectivity required for interpreting data-based ideas.

What does all this have to do with Bigfoot? There are still too many alternate explanations for the phenomenon of humanoid-looking footprints and sightings of large dark hairy things in the woods that do not require the presence of a never-before documented North American primate. In the Nunavut Sasquatch sighting article, one of the researchers comments on the disparity between the reported sighting of the creature and the reported length of the footprint. The creature seemed too large to make a footprint of a certain size. Their comment was “...but that happens, people exaggerate.” Anecdotal sightings of wildlife phenomena are too subjective and too fluid to be considered concrete data. They are stories that get better with the telling. This is not the fault of the people reporting these encounters (these people did see something that surprised and perhaps scared them): it’s the inherent flaw of the information, and our brains naturally like to be entertained.

Speaking of which, I think there are some humorous cat-themed memes I need to surf.

Strange Woman out.

Update 10/05/2013: FINALLY fixed the formatting issue for this post.
Update 17/12/2014: Another format fix. I prefer this layout