Sunday, October 18, 2009

What’s happened since the last post??? Well, the last post was right before the Italian odyssey. How did that go? I spent one week in Turin at the meeting of the European Society of Evolutionary Biologists (yes, I am a member). The conference was both interesting and disappointing. Given that there were 1400 participants, most people could not give a talk. On the positive side, though, most of the talks were of high quality and I really learned a lot. It was humbling going to a conference full of so many extremely clever people, most smarter than me, the humble parasitologist. As for my research, I presented, along with 800 other people, a poster. That was disappointing because, as there were several hundred other posters, people didn’t take much time to stop and discuss my work. I actually spent more time discussing my long forgotten PhD work with a few French acanth researchers than my current work detailed on my poster. Oh well. I’ve decided that the next conference I go to will be much smaller. A colleague of mine says the next international fish parasitology conference is somewhere in S. America…

After “working” in Turin, my holiday began. I flew to Rome to meet Ines and my parents. We spent several days in Rome taking in sites like the Vatican, the Spanish steps, and the Colloseum. Rome was less dirty and more charming than I anticipated, and it is certainly a must-see for any world traveler. But the most memorable part of the visit to Rome was the brutal heat. I’ve spent the last few summers in N. Europe, so I although I yearned for scorching summer temps, I was prepared for the 30 plus degree heat. I am just glad that my folks survived the hikes around Rome without passing out from heatstroke. After thoroughly exploring the treasures of Rome, we headed north to Florence, hometown of Michelangelo. Florence is all about Renaissance art…too bad that we were all sick of the Renaissance after Rome. Nonetheless, we did go to see Michelangelo’s Dave, which was deserving of its reputation. It’s a breathtaking piece of art. We also visited the church in which Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli were buried, which shows what an intellectual center Florence was. After a couple days in Florence, Ines flew back to Germany. On the same day, my sister arrived from Spain, and it was great to see her. The last time we had seen each other was in New York for Christmas 2006, but that doesn’t mean that our sibling rivalry has been settled and forgotten. Whenever she got a bit snotty I had to reestablish my authoritative position as older brother and smack her around a bit. She puts up more of a fight than she used to . The evening before we left Florence, we had a memorable dinner at the corner restaurant Quattro Leonies. The whole fam was tipsy enough after two bottles of wine to engage in a group hug…there’s just something about Italy. The next stop on our trip was Five Chimneys Bed and Breakfast in the Piemont. This little B&B caters to Omahans, of all people, because the Italian owner worked in Omaha for 13 years before getting fired. The newspaper in Omaha did a story on his B&B and he’s been inundated with Nebraskan guests ever since. Situated between the Alps and the Mediterranean, it is in the middle of red wine country. Our host took us on two very nice excursions, one to the mountains and one to the sea. I particularly enjoyed the trip down to “La Cinque Terra”, the five lands. These are 5 little villages located along the Med that look as if they’re about to fall into the sea. They were so charming that my mom wanted to puke, literally…ok, maybe it was sea sickness rather than charm. The highlight of our stay in the Piedmont, however, was not the excursions; it was the food. The wife of our host was a master chef, and she treated us to the best of Italian cuisine. On our first evening, we had a 5-course meal (yeah, 5!, appetizer, pasta, meat dish, cheese, dessert). My dad picked up numerous tips, while I picked up a few pounds. Our hostess went all stereotypical Italian mama on me. She didn’t ask if I wanted seconds, she just piled it on.

Reality was waiting for me after returning from Italy. At the end of September, our Institute was visited by the scientific advisory board. Every two years, the board writes a critical report about the research we are conducting. Their job is to decide whether we deserve the generous government funding we receive. In the summer, we wrote a long report detailing all the spectacular research we’ve done the past two years, and during the board’s visit I, among others, had the job of convincing the board that we’re gonna keep doing great research the next two years. I was surprisingly nervous before this talk to the board, as I felt like my job depended on it. In the end, though, it proceeded like most other talks. All I can do now is hope that the talk was well-received. If not, then I should probably start looking for new work…

So what’s up next? Experiments, yes, but more importantly another fantastical trip. Ines and I are trying to put together a holiday in India. My brother has been in Chennai since September, and we are keen to visit him. Exciting.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer is the time to travel. Tomorrow, I am headed to Turin in Italy to attend the meeting of the European Society of Evolutionary Biology. Must be a small meeting, or? How many evolutionary biologists can there be? A lot it seems; 1200 participants are expected, so this will easily be the largest meeting I’ve ever attended. Hopefully, a few of those 1200 nerds will take a few seconds to glance at my poster. After the conference, I am heading to Rome to meet my parents. Yes, my parents are braving a trans-Atlantic flight to do something they’ve always wanted to do, visit Italy. We plan to see Rome before heading to Florence and Tuscany. Although Italy is sure to be interesting, I’m mostly looking forward to seeing my parents. Actually, this will be my second rendezvous with Nebraskans this summer. I met my old high school/college buddy Ben Retzer in Berlin a few weeks ago. Ben was in the UK to attend the wedding of his fiance’s sister. As he and his fiancé were in neighborhood, they decided to visit Berlin, and I was more than happy to meet them for a weekend in the capital (I’ve often written fondly about my trips to Berlin). Two things I will remember about that trip. First, if you are ever in a bar with psychedelic decorations (i.e. mushrooms sprouting from the ceiling), do not give the bartender free reign to mix the nightcap; it will surely contain too much whiskey. Second, it was a bit weird to be with Nebraskans in Berlin. While Nebraskan dialects and mannerisms are not unusual for me, on a subconscious level I just don't expect to encounter them when I am with my girlfriend in Berlin. It was a sort of reverse-reverse culture shock…my original culture visited me in my adopted culture. Nothing bad about it, it was just a bit strange.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The last two posts have clearly dealt with the theme “rock ‘n roll”, so we are due for a post about parasites. A very exciting experiment of ours came to an abrupt, unplanned end last week. Some background…As a model system we are working with a tapeworm that uses sticklebacks (small fish) as intermediate host. This worm invades the body cavity of sticklebacks and then grows voraciously. The mature worm is so large that it distends the abdomen of the fish and can account for up to 50% of the fish’s weight. A large size benefits the worm, because larger individuals produce more eggs in the next host, fish-eating birds. However, to achieve such prolific growth, worms seem to suppress the fish’s immune system. In a wormy world, this might be risky. By suppressing its host’s defenses, the worm potentially opens the door for other parasites, which might be competitors or on their way to different host’s (e.g. predatory fish). To test this scenario, we infected fish with two tapeworm strains that differed in their growth rates, and then placed the fish in cages in the lake. We intended to leave the fish in the lake until September, so that they would be exposed to a whole summer’s worth of parasites. However, two weeks ago, we observed a spike in fish mortality. So, before our whole batch of experimental fish died off, we decided to undertake an emergency dissection. Unfortunately, the majority of the institute’s technical staff has chosen mid-August for their holidays, so we had to process all these fish with less help than accustomed or expected. Here’s the rough procedure: kill the fish, check the skin, fins, and mouth for ectoparasites, weigh and measure the fish, take a fin clip for DNA identification of the fish, open the body cavity and check for our nasty tapeworm, weigh any worm that is present, take the spleen and head kidneys for possible gene expression studies, dissect the eyes for flukes, squeeze the liver, gonads and intestine for endoparasites, and, finally, freeze the rest of the carcass so the muscles and gills can be checked later. Each little fish requires a lot of work; just checking the eyes can take up to an hour. We had to put in some night-shifts, but we managed to finish the last fish late Friday night. After this dissection-marathon, I’m looking forward to resting my back and not opening another fish eye for some time. I am convinced that the whole effort will yield some very interesting data. Which brings me to a metaphor: big experiments are like binge drinking. We tend to remember the positive parts of it (good data or a nice buzz), but not the negative (an aching back or a wicked hangover).

On another, less-interesting work theme, much of my time has been consumed by report-writing. Every two years, the institute is evaluated by a board of international experts. Essentially, it is the board’s job to assess whether all that government money produced some high-quality research, and it is our job to convince them that we have done lots of spectacular research. In a long, boring report, we detail our work, results, and future plans. I imagine that most of the board members barely read the report, instead browsing through the publication list, checking in which journals we published and how often. Nonetheless, the time devoted to this is excessive. We had two epically long (3-hour) and boring meetings (shoot me) to discuss the content and outline of the bloody thing. And guess who was elected to proofread the 40 page report? Yeah, damn my good English.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I’d been living in Plön for about 1.5 years in the same flat, so naturally, I was getting restless. I moved at the beginning of July to a new apartment. It’s a bit bigger, a bit cheaper, a bit closer to work. But that ain’t so exciting. More entertaining is that, while sorting my junk, I found a DVD with most of the files from my old desktop. I’ve only owned one desktop in my life, and I received it as a gift before heading off to college. That computer, and its monstrous 10 GB hard drive, got me through a 4-year bachelor program. After leaving for Finland, the computer collected dust for several years in my parent’s basement before it was given to charity. But before donating it, my brother burned all my old files on a single DVD and sent them to me. I never really sorted through them, but upon finding this DVD during my move, I had a look. The music was most interesting (this blog is supposed to deal with rock ‘n roll, you know). I had this computer during the lawless Napster days, so shortly after hooking up to the dorm network it was full of miscellaneous obscure mp3s. Browsing through this music nowadays brought about a variety of reactions, ranging from “oh man, what was I thinking” to “awesome, I remember those guys”. A few examples falling in the first category: Bloodhound Gang – Bad Touch (in my defense I was still a teenie when they released that one), Evanescence – Bring me to Life (damn the radio senders still spinning this!), a thrash metal cover of Welcome to the Jungle (I don’t even like the original), a number of unreleased Limp Bizkit tracks (it took me longer than most to outgrow the Bizkit), and Hot Action Cop – Fever for the Flava (that’s probably the low point). Although the presence of such tracks on my old computer causes me shake my head, it also makes me smile. It’s about the memories; nothing says turn-of-the millennium like radio rock hits from Breaking Benjamin (remember them? I didn’t until hearing their songs). Happily, not all of the old archive was so embarrassing. Here’s a short coolest-of list: Ben Kweller – Wasted and Ready, Basement Jaxx – Where’s your Head At?, The Distillers – City of Angels, The Darkness – I believe in a thing called Love (this was nearly assigned to the embarrassing list, but it’s so kitschy it’s cool), Liars – Mr. You’re on Fire Mr., Our Lady Peace – Superman’s Dead, Prodigy – Baby’s got a Temper, Sev – Same Old Song (they were on the Farmclub, remember that short-lived program?), Rorschach Test – Fornicator, Sleater Kinney – More than a Feeling (any Boston cover is bound to be good), and VAST – Free. I can’t really claim to have an emotional connection to any these songs. If I did, they probably would have successfully migrated to my next computer. Actually, I’m glad they didn’t make it, because going through the old files was like opening a time capsule from 2002. Reveling in such musical nostalgia inspired me to go out and download some cool skins for Winamp (it still whips the llama’s ass).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ines and I survived Rock Im Park last weekend. Some background…Rock Im Park is the smaller sister festival of Rock Am Ring. The same bands play both festivals over the course of 3 days, albeit in different orders. Rock Am Ring is bigger with nearly 80,000 attendees, while Rock Im Park tallies 60,000 visitors. Taken together, this is by far the biggest rock festival in Germany, and one of the biggest in Europe. MTV Germany even broadcasts parts of Rock Am Ring live every year. Given the huge audience, they manage to attract numerous big-name acts every year. This year was of course no exception, but, as I hinted at in the previous post, many of the headliners were not exactly the freshest faces. Nonetheless, I was excited to see many of the top bands of my adolescent perform in one place. I was not disappointed. In fact, I felt like I made up for lost experiences. As a 17-year-old I watched clips from Woodstock ’99 (it was pay-per-view, so I only got highlights and news reports about the carnage), and longed to be there right in the middle of the mosch pit. Several of the headliners from that show played in Rock Im Park last weekend, so, although there was no mass destruction and I avoided the mosch pit (too old), I feel like I finally experienced my own delayed version of Woodstock ’99.

After flying from Hamburg to Nürnberg, I arrived at the festival in the late evening, just in time to catch the first and probably most intriguing headliner, Limp Bizkit. Though I didn’t know it beforehand, the band has been reunited since the beginning of this year. After something like 5 years hiatus, they couldn’t expect much resonance with the audience, or? Well, apparently, because they put on a great show. Fred Durst wore his signature red hat, and Wes Borland, the guitarist that had left the band, jumped around stage in an extravagant, clown-like costume. And the crowd sang along with every big hit (e.g. Nookie, Rollin’, Faith, etc.). It was like they were never gone. With this Bizkit comeback, I finally understand why people go to the concerts of reunited, dinosaur bands. It’s not about the music; it’s about memories. Seeing Limp Bizkit reminded me of rocking out as a teenager.

Saturday was the first full festival day for me, and from 2 in the afternoon until 1 in the morning I was watching bands. Here’s the rundown…Dragonforce (80s metal and bonus material in Guitar Hero III), Shinedown (terrible radio rock), Juliette Lewis (boring), Razorlight (surprisingly energetic), Papa Roach (points for persistence, but really why are they still around?), Placebo (not bad, not great, but that’s also my opinion of their music), and Killswitch Engage (who knew that a metal band guitarist could rock out wearing a cape and an Football Club Nürnberg scarf?). Saturday’s headliner was The Killers, and Ines and I secured a position in front of the stage. The Killers released their first and best CD at about the time that Ines and I got together, and ever since we’ve both been big fans. However, being more of a hard rock guy, I was not expecting a high-energy show from these indie boys. I was absolutely wrong; The Killers were probably the highpoint of the weekend. Ines and I danced through their 1.5 hr set to all the songs we knew (which were all of them). Ines described it correctly when she said that they write indie-rock anthems. Indeed, when the fireworks went off during the last chorus of “When You Were Young”, it felt like an anthem worthy of 60,000 spectators. Check it out (that's Rock am Ring, not Rock im Park, but you get the idea). After The Killers we ran over to the extremely crowded second stage and caught the last song from Marilyn Manson. As the crowd started to disperse somewhat, I secured a good position for Korn, the final act of the night. For years, I was a huge Korn fan; one of my fondest teenage memories is travelling to K.C. to see them play for the first time. This show was a bit different, though, because Korn has shrunk in the past years. One guitarist left the band after becoming a born-again evangelical and the drummer has retired due to an injury. But the remaining three members are soldiering on and still performing. For the most part, they played the familiar classics (e.g. Freak on a Leash, Blind, Falling Away From Me). The only surprise was a very cool cover of Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall”. While it was fun to jump around to the old favorites and to watch the band perform (they still appear to have fun playing, even after 16 years), I can’t imagine anything of new and interesting coming from Korn in the future.

Sunday was the final festival day, and the most memorable thing about it was not some performance, but the weather. In the middle of the afternoon, during Flogging Molly’s entertaining set, it started pouring. Luckily, Ines had a press pass (and so did I, because I was her guest), so we could retreat to the press center. The rain only lasted about a half an hour before giving way to blue sky. The weather remained friendly for most of the rest of the day…but not the whole day. At dusk, after The Prodigy finished their set, which was cool but not mind-blowing, it rained in sheets for about 5 minutes. What was essentially one rain cloud soaked thousands of people to the bone and turned the festival into a muddy mess. The timing was terrible, because the sun set shortly after this drenching and the temperature dropped (I later heard that this June weekend was the coldest in 30 years). Now, if Ines and I would have done what was in the best interest of our health, we would have left immediately. I, however, wanted to watch the last headliner, Slipknot. As these crazy guys come from Iowa, I had numerous chances to see them when I lived Nebraska, but for whatever reason, I never managed. Thus, I didn’t want to forgo my chance to see them at Rock Im Park, even if Ines and I were wet and freezing. Slipknot’s show, like their music, was fast and furious. The masks, the rapid fire drum beats, the hard-core fans screaming along with every chorus…it all gave the show energy. Because of the cold, you could see the condensed breath with every scream of lead singer Corey Taylor. More accessories were employed than I expected…flamethrowers, pivoting percussion sets, and an upside-down drummer during the final song. For me, it was worthwhile to suffer through the cold, though I did feel guilty for making Ines, who was wetter than I was, suffer through their whole set. Nonetheless, it was a fitting end to a wild weekend. Unfortunately, reality cruelly returned several hours later, as I got up at 5 to catch my 7 am flight back to Hamburg.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The last two weekends have been great, and next weekend is looking very promising. In the German calendar, May is full of holidays, and the past two weekends have been extended by Feiertagen. Two weeks ago, I spent a 4 day weekend in Leipzig. Ines and I did not have any problems filling the time. We visited the fairgrounds, watched the final episode of Germany’s Next Top Model (mostly Ines), saw the new Star Trek movie (surprisingly entertaining), cooked Lasagne (my attempt at a romantic dinner), went kayaking on the Leipzig canals, and attended a very eccentric party organized by an art school. This past Monday was also a free day, so Ines drove to Plön for a 3 day weekend. Ines and I normally see each once every two or three weeks, so being together on two consecutive long weekends is quite an exception. But we didn’t get bored. We went to see Angels and Demons (in English!) and we watched a straight to DVD Futurama movie (not bad, but not grand). We also took advantage of the unusually warm and sunny weather. We spent an afternoon at the Baltic Sea, which is the number one holiday destination for Germans (the water is still damn cold), and we also tested the water in the Plöner See (also damn cold). So, after two great weekends, we should get back to normality, right? Nope. Ines got accredited to report at Rock im Park next weekend. And guess who her “plus one” is? So, next weekend I am flying to Nürnberg to attend one of the biggest rock festivals in Europe. It lasts 3 days, and the list of bands is impressive: Limp Bizkit, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Papa Roach, Slipknot, The Prodigy, The Killers, and Placebo among others. Many of these acts actually achieved their peak popularity during my teenage years (e.g. Bizkit, Korn, Manson), so I was surprised that they managed to score top slots. Nonetheless, I am excited to see them all in one place. Will they play old hits? Or new stuff that hardly anyone knows? I suppose that will have to be the topic of the next post...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

So, yet again, a month has gone by between posts. I suppose I’d never survive as a professional blogger. At least it was a busy and enjoyable month. At the end of March, Ines came to spend two weeks in Plön before starting her new job at That was like being on holiday. I quit working at 6 to come home and spend time with my girlfriend, and I didn’t do any work on the weekend. Makes me wonder why I chose this crazy profession…

Over the Easter holidays, Katri, a friend from Finland, came to visit Ines and I. We started in Hamburg on the Thursday before Easter and visited the world famous Reeperbahn. The highlight of the evening was Ines getting her picture taken with Germany’s most famous drag queen. Rarely have I seen her so excited. The next day we drove to Leipzig and spent Friday and Saturday experiencing all that the city has to offer…shopping, sights, cocktail bars, vegetarian restaurants, etc. On Easter Sunday, sleep-deprived and hungover, we drove to Ines’s sister in Ebersdorf in Bavaria to celebrate her 40th birthday. The weather was sunny and the atmosphere relaxed, but I had the feeling that Katri was intimidated by Ines’s rambunctious and talkative family members.

On Tuesday morning, I took the train back to Plön, but my stay was short. The next day I flew from Hamburg to Riga for the 3rd meeting of the Scandinavian-Baltic Society of Parasitologists. Sound exciting? Well, it was and wasn’t. It was exciting because I was invited to give a plenary lecture, thanks to my PhD advisor who was on the scientific organizing committee. I practiced quite a lot for my first invited talk at an international meeting, and I think it paid off. After my 30-minute talk about complex life cycles, I received quite a lot questions, and later that evening I even had beers with two of the other invited speakers. So I managed to spark some real interest among my colleagues. In any case, Tellervo, my former advisor, appeared more than satisfied with my performance. And what about the not so exciting part of the meeting? Well, quite a lot of parasitologists still do mind-numbingly boring research, particularly on the veterinary side. For example, there were presentations about the morphological systematics of some blood protozoans and the prevalence of fox tapeworms in Latvian raccoon dogs. These are studies with a narrow audience addressing small questions, and they are difficult to sit through. When I have to listen to these kinds of talks, I am glad that I am no longer working in a classical parasitology lab. Though I still consider myself a parasitologist first and then an evolutionary biologist, I am glad that the academic environment that I am in nowadays gives me a broader perspective and motivates me to tackle big questions.

Monday, March 30, 2009

I work at a research institute. That means that I have the luxury of focusing on research, and I don’t have to teach or deal with needy students. However, each year, we run a 2-week practical course, in which we the researchers supervise students in “real” research projects. Of course, we have the ulterior motive of finding good students to work in the lab. The course is really a fantastic opportunity for any student interested to see how science actually works. The students get handed a novel, untested topic, unlike most lab courses in which the experiments have already been done millions of time, and they are then sent off to answer their question with all the institute’s facilities at their disposal. The students learn methods that I was never exposed to in my entire 4 years of undergrad work. They sequence DNA, measure gene expression, record immune activity, etc. The course probably costs the institute about as much as a small luxury sedan.

Last Friday was the end of this year’s practical course…what a relief. I worked with two girls that came across as neither motivated nor particularly bright. Not that the interaction was all negative. Sometimes it was quite humorous. They were not very comfortable with English, so we tried to communicate in German. My German ain’t bad, but I would say that it isn’t sufficient to clearly describe biological concepts such as host-parasite co-evolution, hermaphroditic mating strategies, and gene flow. Thus, we often found ourselves in the weird situation where I would explain something in English and they would respond in German. In the end, though, regardless of which language I used to explain something, the point never sunk in. They never grasped the goal of their project. While it was fun to try and share some of my eclectic knowledge (I even gave an ad hoc stats lecture during the course), I really don’t like the feeling of talking to a black hole. Perhaps, I was a poor teacher, but even after two weeks of poor teaching the point of the work should come across. That’s what I dislike about teaching; it requires patience and lowered expectations.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yet again, several weeks have passed between posts. The last two weekends have been full of excitement, leaving no time to write, so I’ll compensate here with a long post. Two weeks ago, I was in Hannover visiting Claudia and Rico. I know Claudia and Rico from my stay in Finland, and I wanted to visit them ever since moving to Germany. The timing just never seemed to work out though. Then, at the beginning of February, Claudia sent me a clandestine email invitation to Hannover for Rico’s 30th birthday. Of course, I couldn’t say no to that. Two old friends from Finland also made the journey to Hannover to celebrate, so it was like the good ol’ days in Jyväskylä (no rock hour at Sohwi though). I had heard that Hannover was a boring town, but that was not the impression I was left with after my visit. We went out to a couple nice bars and clubs, even had a late-evening Döner (good, but not as good as in Leipzig). Between Friday and Saturday nights on the town, we took in the sights…which didn’t take that long, as there isn’t that much to see in Hannover. My personal highlight was the slanted elevator in the city hall, i.e. it doesn’t move directly vertically, but at an angle. We also spent a lot of time watching videos on youtube. Here's a highlight.

Last weekend, I traveled to Leipzig to visit Ines. On Friday, she had to DJ, and I accompanied her to the gig. The place was relatively empty and between 3 and 4 I started nodding off. This must be an indication of old age or of a long-lasting hangover from the Hannover weekend. The next day, we visited a farm house with our gay neighbors in a village near Leipzig. Those two wacky guys want to buy this dilapidated place and fix it up. I don’t really understand their motivation for this undertaking. Besides the social stigma of a gay pair living in a small village, they would need to invest a fortune into fixing it up. Ines and I spent the rest of the weekend watching movies and lying around. I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire, which deserved to win best picture. Both Ines and my mother think that I look like the main character. Besides our shared lankiness, I don’t see the resemblance…does anyone else? We also watched a Swedish vampire flick called ‘Let the right one in’. I would also recommend it to anyone looking for a novel take on vampire stories.

After the lovely weekend in Leipzig, I went to Berlin on Monday for the Max Planck Symposium for Evolutionary Biology. The goal of the conference was to explore how the Max Planck Society might encourage evolutionary research in the future (the Darwin year was likely also a motivation). To that end, there were a number of well-known speakers in the field of evolutionary biology. The schedule is shown above. Here’s my spontaneous take on the conference…Dieter Ebert’s talk was good, and the only one that dealt with parasites in depth, but I already knew much of the story he told. To me, his research shows how nature should work, as the results always seem to fit theory nicely. I can’t say that about my work. I also enjoyed Richard Lenski’s talk. He has been following the evolution of 12 E. coli cultures for the last 21 years. That’s about 45,000 bacteria generations. Sounds boring right? Definitely not, because the critters keep doing new stuff. The 12 bacteria lines have all evolved similar new traits; sometimes the same genetic changes are involved, whereas in other cases totally different genetic mutations produce the same trait change. Hopi Hoekstra told a similar tale about beach mice. These mice have colonized sandy beaches in the southern US and are lighter than their grassland-inhabiting progenitors. The change in pigmentation has occurred more than once (e.g. on the Gulf coast and the Atlantic coast), but different genetic mutations are involved. I find it very cool that there are multiple ways in which the same trait can change. This may really speed up evolution, because an adaptive peak can be climbed in several ways. Another highlight was the talk from Svante Pääbo, head of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Pääbo is always in the headlines for his institute’s attempt to sequence the Neanderthal genome. This whole effort has only become possible within the last year or two, as a new generation of sequencing technology has matured. From a few very well-preserved specimens, they get tiny amounts of degenerated Neanderthal DNA. They estimate that at most 4% or so of the DNA extracted from the bone is actual Neanderthal DNA. The rest is from bacteria and fungi. The big news: 63% of the Neanderthal genome is in hand. It will be very interesting to see what kind of insights into human evolution come out of this massive undertaking. The most entertaining talk of the conference, perhaps the most entertaining talk I’ve ever seen, was given by Robert Trivers. He has been a pioneer in the study of social interactions (e.g. cooperation and deception). He colorfully discussed a paradoxical observation: self-deception is widespread in humans. Deceiving others has obvious potential advantages (e.g. lying on a resume to get a better job), but what do we gain by deceiving ourselves? Well, self-deception in humans is decidedly in one direction, towards a positive self-image. We consistently rate ourselves as better than we actually are. For example, in surveys, when asked how we rank in our given career field, 80% of people consider themselves to be in the top half (in academia this stat is apparently 94%...we believe we’re good at what we do). Obviously, this is discordant with statistical reality, as we can’t all be right. This kind of self-inflation may help us to deceive others. We can state that we are good at something, and honestly believe it. There is no need to deal with the physiological and mental challenges of being a good liar. It is rather shocking how deep-seated this self-love is. Psychologists have, for example, found out that we subconsciously like the letters in our own name, particularly the first letter. We even tend to live in places that start with the first letter in our names. So, statistically, there are more Floyds, Freds, and Francines living in Florida than in Texas. But in Texas, there are more Tims, Toms, and Tammys. The trend is, of course, weak, but I find it amazing that there is a measurable effect at all. We are fascinating animals, and I always will wonder how important consciousness is relative to the powerful subconscious processes affecting our decisions.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Friday, I went to see one of the best live acts of our generation: Mindless Self Indulgence. They were playing in Hamburg, and Ines bought me a ticket for my birthday. I first saw mindless self indulgence (hereforth MSI) when I was 17…unintentionally. Nate, a high school buddy of mine, and I drove 3.5 hrs from Omaha to Kansas City to see Korn and Staind. In the late 90s, both those bands were at the peak of their popularity, and they had no trouble filling the mid-sized arena in Kansas City. MSI scored the opening slot on that tour, though they probably weren’t even listed on the ticket. Why MSI opened for Korn is still a mystery to me, because their music, a mix of punk, hiphop, and electronica, did not fit into the whole nü metal scene. Not surprisingly, their performance, both music and stage antics, was not warmly received by the metalhead audience. I didn’t give the band a second thought, as I was too excited to see Korn for the first time. I re-discovered MSI in college, thanks to Napster. Back then, even obscure music was freely available via a quick, innocent, illegal download. On a whim, I downloaded MSIs first and only major label album “Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy”. Shortly thereafter, I and my whole circle of friends were MSI fans. Their music is simply infectious…after a required acclimatization period. Their live shows are similarly memorable. This was clear after seeing MSI as a headliner in Omaha’s greatest rock ‘n roll venue, the Ranch Bowl (which unfortunately no longer exists). Few bands bring so much energy to their live performance; you can get a taste of this by just searching for ‘MSI live’ on youtube. So, now 7 years later, I was interested to see if MSI still could rock the house and whether they could excite a German audience. Yes they can and yes they did. The show included, among others, flying karate kicks from the drum set, insulting the audience, excessive use of the word scheisse and a long strip tease. Ines’s cousin came with me to the concert, and though she did not know MSI’s music, she said that it was one of the best concerts she’d ever seen. The band is obviously still winning new fans with their live shows, because a large portion, if not the majority, of the audience was composed of teenagers. These are kids that were still in elementary school the first time that I saw MSI! Made me feel old…so old that I watched the show from the back of the club, sipping a beer, instead of jumping around in the middle of the audience. To make up for that, though, Ines’s cousin Alex got us autographs from the guitarist and singer. Cool.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The news of the week has to be the start of Obama’s presidency (beautifully documented here). The inauguration was aired live in German TV, and I did watch it. I was still at work at the time of Biden’s oath; then Ines called and told me to run home to watch history. Yes, it seems my German girlfriend was more enthralled by the inauguration of America’s first black president than I was. The inauguration and speech were standard fare in my opinion. We already know the man can give a brilliant speech. What impressed me most, even more than the complicated live translations of Obama’s eloquence, was how happy my fellow citizens looked. America is supposed to be in dire straits at the moment, right? It seems the Obama idiom ‘yes, we can’ has really found an audience. Obviously, every new leader brings along promises to change the status quo (at least in some regard) and make things better. The special thing about Obama is that people believe his vision; he will succeed in revolutionizing America. I don’t mean to be cynical. I think the man will be a clever and capable leader. However, macroeconomic trends, institutional malpractice, and overindulgent lifestyles cannot be inspired to change overnight. So, I hope that he manages to maintain the contagious optimism, even after the honeymoon is over.

An interesting tangent to the Obama-mania, is the frenzy of Bush-bashing. Since the democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, it is as if we forgot about Bush. Those elections were interpreted by many as a rebuke to Bush, a beginning of the end. They effectively crippled his policy-making ability, forcing him to pursue a more moderate agenda the last few years. And when he stops unilaterally invading countries, it is easy to forget that he was a terrible president. Indeed, it seems that journalists and historians just cannot wait to list Bush as the worst president of all time. Justifications for that opinion are abundant: two endless wars, disrepute abroad, record deficits, increased domestic poverty, human rights violations, etc. He was, in any case, the worst president in my lifetime (though there are only four other competitors). Particularly summative is this 2001 article from the Onion, America’s finest news source. Scary how clairvoyant a fictional media outlet can be. As an aside, check out the article on the bottom of the page "Rural Nebraskan Not Sure He Could Handle Frantic Pace of Omaha".

Monday, January 12, 2009

I just turned 27. Happily, I still feel too young to have a mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, birthdays remind us that we are always getting older and never younger, which is probably why they seem to become more depressing each passing year. Generally, I try to ignore my birthday and treat the day like any other. This is a somewhat difficult strategy to maintain in Germany, though. The Germans, at least in my opinion, like to celebrate birthdays. For instance, a typical birthday party includes food, often a full meal with dessert, and drinks, all paid for by the person having a birthday (which seems backwards to me, but who am I to question cultural norms). It is also quite common for the bday boy or girl to bring cake to work and then be congratulated for surviving another year. In our department, we keep track of everyone’s birthday, and shortly before the date, money is collected for a small gift. So, given that I would receive something from my colleagues and my cake obligations, it was impossible to ignore that it was my birthday.

That said, the day was pleasant and not really depressing. I even took care of something that I had avoided for months; I had a wart removed. Warts are caused by viruses. As a parasitologist, I realize and understand that my body is a suitable host for a number of creatures, but I got tired of serving as host for these bloody viruses. The wart was on my finger and removing it was an entirely inelegant procedure. The doctor gave me a numbing injection and then just tore it off, leaving a large hole in my finger. I had the feeling that I could have done the same thing if given enough whiskey and knife. Nonetheless, even I found the whole experience somewhat disgusting. To share that feeling, I posted the picture showing the aftermath of this operation. Gross.