Thursday, June 28, 2007

Progress, Lack Of

This is what the last couple of weeks have been like for me:

  • Programs and/or computer keeps crashing for random different reasons. I start to think something is wrong.
  • I spend several days running anti-virus programs, deleting suspicious files, and doing maintenance activities like error-checking, defragmentation, and disk-cleanup.
  • I spend several days coming to terms with the fact that none of that seemed to help.
  • I get department computer person to help me. She spends a long time running anti-virus programs and convincing herself that it is a software problem, not a hardware problem. She says I should re-install the operating system.
  • I spend several days coming to terms with the idea of wiping out my hard drive and starting over. I really don't want to do this. I spend a lot of time on the internet researching the problem, and eventually decide to do it.
  • I then spend several days making copies of all my files, folders, programs, etc. and convincing myself that I have in fact made all of these copies and that it is okay (really) to do this.
  • I then spend several days trying to re-install my system. This is surprisingly difficult to do. I cannot get my computer to boot from the CD. I spend a lot of time on the internet researching how I am supposed to do this. I download a bunch of drivers which are supposed to help, but don't. Nothing I do seems to work. I call department computer person for help, but she is not there. I then decide to try the re-installation disk from our lab computer, which is a different model but pretty close, and this seems to work.
  • I then spend several days trying to get my computer back up to speed -- downloading updates (80 critically urgent security updates from Windows!), installing anti-virus programs, and re-connecting to the internet.
  • My computer continues to crash periodically for no discernible reason.
  • I call department computer person for help, and she says I should call Dell.
  • I call Dell, and am told I need to re-install the system (again!) because I probably downloaded the drivers in the wrong order (there's an order?!).
  • I start to re-install the system, and the computer crashes, and won't do anything.
  • Nice Dell guy tells me to open up my computer and take out the memory card and put it into another slot. I do this, and everything is still crappy, so this seems to indicate there is something wrong with my memory. He says he will send me a new one in the mail next day air. In the meantime, I run a diagnostic thingy on my system, which also tells me something is wrong with my memory.
  • Right now I am sitting in my office, using the lab computer, periodically checking the mailroom for a delivery, and mostly being completely useless.
So there you have it. I'm sure there are things I could be doing without my computer, but it really doesn't feel like it. So here I sit. I think I'll go check the mailroom again.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Interesting new book:The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology

Saw this review for a new book by Bernd Heinrich that looks fascinating. It is an autobiography about his family's life in science and includes lots of bugs, birds, taxonomy, war, family conflict, and nature and nurture. Review by David Barber for the New York Times:
The curious title of Bernd Heinrich’s sprawling memoir, as he discloses straightaway in his preface, is a “direct heist” from an obscure volume published in 1932 in German (“Der Vogel Schnarch”), the chronicle of an Indonesian zoological expedition in quest of an elusive species of jungle rail. Its author was none other than Gerd Heinrich, his “Papa.” Why not call the book an hommage, then? It is ultimately that too, yet the whiff of theft in the air is the first clue that what follows will be no ordinary account of a son following in his father’s footsteps. This particular gene pool turns out to be something of a fever swamp, and thereby hangs a tale of two naturalists that reads like a cross between a Darwinian parable and a Nabokov novel: an absorbing scientific saga rife with uncanny twists and fraught with quandaries over the primordial tussle between nature and nurture.

The purloined rubric, for all that, smacks somewhat of a diverting wrinkle. Prize catch though it was, the secretive rail with the rumbling call (Aramidopsis plateni) that Papa Heinrich bagged on the island of Celebes has only a bit part in this ancestral odyssey, and birds of every feather played second fiddle to Gerd’s lifelong ruling passion: collecting and classifying specimens of the prodigious family of parasitical ichneumon wasps. It soon becomes clear that the rarest birds on display here are the Heinrichs themselves — conceivably the most redoubtable father and son in their field since the pioneering Bartrams (John and William) botanized up and down the Eastern Seaboard back in the days of Franklin and Jefferson.

Heinrich fils, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, is best known for his groundbreaking books on raven intelligence (“Ravens in Winter” and “Mind of the Raven”) and for his study of physiological stamina based on his exploits as an ultramarathoner (“Why We Run”). He first made his name, however, as a bug guy. “Bumblebee Economics,” a layman’s guide to insect sociobiology that grew out of his doctoral dissertation, was nominated for a 1979 American Book Award, cementing his reputation as an uncommonly enlightening nature writer for popular audiences.

So was it old-fashioned filial devotion that spawned this stellar body of work in modern research biology? Not exactly. Heinrich’s penchant for entomology plainly owed much to his father’s indomitable presence (he was dragooned into snaring wasps when he was practically a grub himself), and his yen for field studies blossomed during his adolescence in upcountry Maine after his immediate family emigrated from Germany in 1951. Even so, father and son never really saw eye to eye: although Papa Heinrich’s own checkered history as a “freeman of zoology” with no secure institutional ties left him skeptical that his offspring would have a future in the profession, he was nonetheless stung that the son he nicknamed “Pise,” after the charismatic species Protichneumon pisorius, felt no obligation to carry on the family trade. “He made no secret of the fact that he hoped I would one day take over his collection, but I had no interest or intention of fulfilling that hope,” Heinrich writes. “Later I did go on to study biology, though not his sort of biology.”

The ensuing narrative — unfolding under the epic headings “The Old World” and “The New World,” and drawing extensively on Gerd’s surviving letters and journals — is a labor of love on a grand scale. Part eulogy and part apologia, Heinrich’s painstaking effort to reconstruct his clan’s “journey through a century of biology” obliges him to grapple with the thorny human element that’s bound up in his intellectual heritage, giving a whole new meaning to the proposition that biology is destiny.

Born in Berlin in 1896, Gerd grew up on a bucolic Polish estate called Borowke that proved to be a vital wellspring for a baptism in nature. It was there he acquired his zeal for wasps before being conscripted as a German infantryman and then a fighter pilot in the Great War — and where, some 30 years on, he buried his cherished hoard of specimens in a strongbox before narrowly escaping the advancing Red Army in 1945. “The ichneumoninae,” he later wrote with a touch of waspish wit, “have disciplined my time and energy, excepting the interruptions of wars, a revolution, invasion, expulsion, starvation and emigration.”

Bernd spent his early childhood at Borowke as well, born to a Polish mother in 1940, on the anniversary of Darwin’s death. When the Iron Curtain fell, his parents spirited him and his younger sister out of harm’s way and for the next six years eked out a hand-to-mouth existence in a forest cabin near the Elbe River, until Gerd wrangled a passage to America. The recollection of that formative interlude sparks some of Heinrich’s most lyrical writing — a portrait of the future scientist as a footloose nature boy.

The action flags a bit in the second half of the book: in recounting his coming-of-age in the brave new world of molecular biology, Heinrich only intermittently strikes a happy balance between technical and anecdotal rumination. But things pick up again in the closing chapters, where he steps back to reflect on what his late father’s life’s work reveals about the essential nature of the naturalist’s calling. As a diehard taxonomist in the classic Linnaean mold, was Papa Heinrich a vestige of a bygone age — engaged in mere “stamp collecting,” in Isaac Asimov’s withering phrase? That’s one way of looking at it, but his son would also have us see him as a touchstone figure even in the era of the genome: a paragon of the empirical discipline that’s the foundation of the scientific enterprise. It’s a testament to the younger Heinrich’s heartfelt humanism and hard-won historical perspective that father and son emerge as exemplary kindred spirits, bonded by an abiding fascination for living things that he hails as nothing less than “a prime phenotype of love.”

Monday, June 25, 2007

CCTV ANTS Documentary June 28

Amy Mertl, my lovely labmate, in addition to being a fabulous myrmecologist, is also a fabulous filmmaker. She teaches a class at Cambridge Community Television and as a class project she convinced her newbies to make a short documentary about ants. Sweet! That documentary -- appropriately entitled ANTS -- will be premiering at CCTV June 28th at 7pm. If you are in the area, you are invited. If not, it will be available online and on CCTV later (details to follow). I haven't seen it but I know that there are interviews with Stefan Cover, Corrie Saux Moreau, Mario Muscedere, James McLurkin, Meghan Frederickson, and Kari Ryder Wilkie. I'm so nervous!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bulldog Ants in National Geographic

National Geographic has a nice photo essay on Australia's Bulldog Ants -- Myrmecia. They remind me of Gigantiops. See the photos here.

Roller Derby Name Cloud

Okay, okay, it's Sunday night and I've been trying to think of cool roller derby names all day long and I promise I will work on my thesis tomorrow but right now I took all the roller derby names from the official master roster of names and created this tag cloud of the top 100 words used in roller derby names:

created at

I think I could pick two or three random words from this list and have a pretty cool name, actually, but I am hoping for something a little more unique. Cheers!

Update: I have started a new blog dedicated to my roller derby stuff. It can be found at You can also find out my new roller derby name!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Roller Derby Madness

So... it seems The Ant Room Maven is now one of the newest members of the Boston Derby Dames Roller Derby League. Holy Crap! It will be awhile before I am actually in a bout, but practices start soon. I am uncertain whether anyone reading this blog for ant-related content will be interested in this or any subsequent roller derby related news. Perhaps I should start another blog. Not sure. At any rate, I still have to come up with a fantastic roller derby name and am wondering if anyone out there has any ant-y or science-y suggestions. How do you come up with a derby name?
"There's an art to coming up with your roller derby name. In just a few words tops, it must convey toughness, wittiness and intelligence. The best names are plays on words, and many take their inspiration from a famous figure (usually female, but not necessarily) in history or pop culture." -- Roller Derby Diva
"The process of choosing a derby name is actually quite involved. According to roller derby legend, the yet-unnamed skater must prepare a hollowed-out gourd containing the following items: one roller skate wheel, three strands of hair, scrapings from a burnt piece of whole wheat toast, one tube of red lipstick (any brand will do), and one white sock. On the evening of the next full moon, the skater must place the gourd and its contents outside in clear view of the sky. The skater must sit cross-legged (in front of aforementioned gourd) for exactly nine minutes while looking up at the moon and thinking positive derby thoughts. That night, the perfect derby name will appear to the skater in a dream..... Just kidding" -- Emma Badapple, Gotham Girls Roller Derby
"The perfect derby name should not only be sassy, witty, and tough, but it should also have some personal significance to the skater. Favorite celebrity names, movie titles, and song lyrics can all serve as inspiration for a great derby name, as well as hobbies, interests, and personal obsessions." -- Emma Badapple, Gotham Girls Roller Derby
My favorite roller derby names tend to be hard-as-nails but also ironically-tongue-in-cheek. For example: Marie Fury, Lois Carmen Dominator, Ivana Clobber, Sheryl Crowbar, Claire D. Way, Sandra Day O-Clobber, Pina Collidah, Etta Maims, Rhoda Perdition, etc. Names have to be registered and no two girls can have the same name. Check out this massive roster of names.

Anybody have any thoughts?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Progress Report and Crafty Ants

Oh, my blog is so sad and lonely these days. I'd better start posting again. I did slow down a bit when I broke my arm but am now well enough that I made it to the roller derby tryout on Sunday. I find out tomorrow if I made it or not. I have definitely lost my mind.

I've been working, too. I've been training Noah, the new grad student in our lab, to ID ants, and he is going through my canopy samples, sorting by genus. I also finally got around to pulling out all of the Cephalotes specimens from the canopy samples to send to Scott Powell. And I have been working on my Gnamptogenys, a surprisingly difficult genus. I'm not sure why, exactly. They are large, distinctive ants with beautiful and diverse sculpture patterns. And I have a key (although I really wish I had the new key). And yet somehow they end up being difficult. I am working on an interactive key which I will post online when it is done.

On a lighter note, I present a collection of crafty ant items from Etsy: