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Member since: Wed Jul 24, 2013, 12:10 PM
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My undergrad seminar earlier today.

The lectures for my large-enrollment class are still online, but my seminar for first-year students (on dinosaur art and monsters of folklore - lotsa fun) is face to face, and today was our first meeting.

For the most part, this is an excellent group. They asked a lot of good questions. It's an honors group, so these are all among our best students.

One thing, though. We're not allowed to tell students to wear masks in public universities in my state. I thus couldn't require masks in the classroom. I did, however, indicate that I was recovering from a nasty chest cold (I'm still coughing from it), and that I'm a chronic asthmatic who had a severe attack on Tuesday. It's been extremely humid, and something is pollenating that I desperately want to see wiped out to extinction - so although the issue isn't acute now, I'm still wheezing. I also have a 5-year-old daughter who can't be vaccinated yet. For those reasons, I asked that the students strongly consider being masked in the room.

Masks are available at every door to the building. They were also available in my classroom, though I don't know if that's true of every classroom - but every student who wants a mask can very easily obtain one.

Out of a group of 21, 18 were masked.

What bothers me is that the three unmasked students gave me a look that basically said, "I don't give a fuck about your problems."

While we're not allowed to require masks, we're allowed to explain why we ourselves wear them. (The same is true for vaccines.) I really want to use "because I don't want to be ashamed of myself" and "because I'm not a moron" as reasons, but I suspect I'd get called out for it.

I never thought I'd see the day when asking for basic decency and consideration of the welfare of your fellow person would become a political litmus test.

Runaway selection is killing people.

Some of you might have seen one of my earlier essays comparing trends in Republican politics with runaway selection in evolution. If longer tail feathers attract peahens, tail feathers on peacocks will lengthen over generations to the point that the feathers might actually limit the bird's ability to move or hide. Likewise, during the late 1980's and 1990's, we saw talk radio and right-wing media pushing for increasingly conservative Republicans, to the point where being able to shout "USA, USA, USA!" louder than another candidate is more important than a demonstrated ability to read and write. Hence the madness we're dealing with.

I keep hoping that the next election cycle will break this trend - that the selection has now created political peacocks that can no longer walk or fly because of their outsized tail feathers, and a large enough number of Republicans will say "enough." They're stuck between two rocks - they can't win the primaries without the redhatter base, but are starting to find it more difficult to win the general election with it. The 2020 election burst any remaining bubbles of hope I had that we'd already gotten there - but clearly, we're not.

And now, it's starting to cost lives and throwing those of us still alive into a tailspin of confusion.

My home state does not allow school districts to issue mask mandates. Its legislature and governor don't seem too interested in promoting vaccinations, either.

State policy, technically speaking, applies to K-12 education. It doesn't actually include universities. But the state Board of Regents has decided to see things otherwise, and so we're now the only Big 10 institution without a mask mandate.

The city council has issued a mask mandate. It's supposed to cover all public buildings in town. But the local school district is saying it won't comply - and frankly, I understand that decision, even if i dislike it. The district went to court over an in-person teaching mandate last fall and lost. It cost them a lot of money. And the higher-ups at my university have announced we're taking our marching orders from the BoR. Indeed, for a short time, we were issued "guidelines" that all but forbade us from talking about vaccines or masks with only the narrowest of exceptions. (I have no idea how the Department of Epidemiology would have dealt with it.). It was reversed almost as soon as the rest of the country noticed it, but the fact that the people supervising the whole institution felt obliged to bow before bullshit, being given to them by people who know it's bullshit but feel either entitled or constrained to pretend it's not, is alarming.

I happen to know some of these administrators. Not one of them is anti-mask or anti-vaccine. I'm pretty sure they've all been vaccinated, and I always see them wearing a mask on campus. But they have to walk a fine line between what they know is right and what they think they can actually do. Meanwhile, the BoR is walking a tightrope between the state capitol and physical reality.

Some of the right-wingers in the legislature may believe the it's-not-that-bad-and-vaccines-are-unsafe-and-masks-don't-help-and-don't-impose-tyranny-on-me bologna, but most don't. The same is as true of Washington as it is Des Moines.

This is all because of the runaway selection that was left to run at liberty for the past 40 years. I suspect the governor of our state knows full well that vaccines and masks save lives, but she won't allow herself to see past the next election. Get past one rock, and hope the next one isn't that bad.

Everyone on campus knows masks and vaccines are necessary if we want this thing to end, but there's always someone higher up the food chain who thinks they have to pretend otherwise. And it eventually loops back on itself to the knobs don't seem to actually care that what they see with their own eyes, and hear with their own ears, is inconsistent with what they're told to believe.

This all has to stop, and I believe it will - but when? In my lifetime? I used to think so, but I'm not so sure. When politicians can't be made to put the real world ahead of the warped view of a handful of outspoken but ill-informed voters who think they're the majority, we're hosed.

Refuse the vaccine, but go to the hospital when sick? This is how Americans treat science.

They treat science like they treat religion.

Note how I phrased that. I didn't say they treat science as a religion. Rather, they treat science the way they treat their religious denomination - like a buffet.

If you were to poll American Catholics, you'd find a wide range of opinions regarding divorce, birth control, priestly celibacy, the role of women in the church, Papal infallibility, and even core doctrines like transubstantiation. In some cases, it might even be a majority who disagree with the official church position. And these are people who attend Mass and take part in the sacraments.

It's like a buffet meal - I'll take some of the roast beef and green bean casserole, but not the beets.

(I chose Catholicism not because it's the best example, but because it's the example I know best. I was raised Catholic. My wife doesn't eat bacon, but not because she's Jewish. It's because she's a vegetarian. The rest of her family is perfectly happy to eat it.)

I understood this after listening to a friend of mine in grad school discuss a conversation he'd had with a young-earth creationist. The creationist claimed that radiometric dating can't be trusted because we don't know if rates of radioactive decay are constant over time. "OK," my friend said, "then why do nuclear power plants work?" Because it turns out every nuclear plant, whether generating power for neighborhoods or a submarine, relies on the constant output of energy from a supply of nuclear material - and that output is constant because the nuclear material is decaying at a constant rate. It's the same physics. If one doesn't work, neither should the other.

This left the creationist baffled.

People don't realize that scientific concepts don't exist in a vacuum. I've heard people say that the fossil record can't be used to support the theory of evolution, even though the petroleum companies that fueled their cars spent millions on its use to find oil and gas reserves. And they used it for the same reason evolutionary biologists do - it's a predictive tool.

It's one thing to draw a line with religious belief to accommodate other values, experiences, or modernity. It's another to do that with physical reality.

Hence, we have people who will go to the hospital if they need medical care, but who will also follow crackpot politicians into thinking COVID is a hoax or that the vaccine is deadly.

We've seen this before. Denial of climate science? Evolutionary biology? Modern geology? I'm not talking about flat-earth or ancient alien believers, either - I'm talking about ordinary people who might claim to be scientifically literate, but who pick and choose those parts of science that conform to their political or religious ideologies. It's been typical of the average American's approach to science since before the modern era.

It's getting worse, and given my efforts in the classroom, I don't know if it's ever going to get better. But the idiocy we're seeing is not new.

thoughts on today's Google doodle and the line between human and nonhuman

The Google Doodle up for today (Aug. 1) refers to Turkana Boy, the remains of an adolescent male Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster*) found east of Lake Turkana. The specimen is about 1.6 million years in age.

I had the privilege of seeing this specimen about 6 years ago, and I'd like to describe my reaction to the opportunity, which went way beyond what I expected.

My work these days is mostly on the crocodiles that have lived in East Africa over the past 25 million years. This includes both the living forms and the extinct.

Today, if you see a crocodile in East Africa, it's nearly always one of two species of Crocodylus - C. niloticus or C. suchus. Both were considered the same species (the Nile crocodile) until about 10 years ago, when molecular evidence clearly showed that they're different. Crocodylus suchus is mostly in western and central Africa, though its range does pass through Sudan and (we think) into Ethiopia. One of the dwarf crocodile species (either Osteolaemus tetraspis or O. osborni) formerly occurred in western Uganda, and the central African sharp-nosed crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) reaches Lake Tanganyika, but otherwise, anywhere you go in East Africa now, you'll just see the one species.

But until comparatively recently, there could be as many as five crocodile species living in the same area. Some were gigantic - one species of Crocodylus could have exceeded 27 feet in length. And for the most part, they are unrelated to C. niloticus or C. suchus. (Many are closely related to Osteolaemus, but were normal-sized for a crocodile, making them giant dwarf crocodiles.)

But I digress.

My work has taken me to museums throughout East Africa. My animals were the largest predators faced by our ancestors, and one of them is known to have consumed such primates, as shown by the presence of crocodile bite marks on the remains of at least one early human at Olduvai Gorge. (We named that crocodile Crocodylus anthropophagus. But I again digress.).

I thus wanted to look at some of these early humans to get good impression of their size. Pictures and reported dimensions are OK, but I wanted to visualize it. And frankly, some of these fossils are famous, and I kinda wanted to see them for that reason as well - but mostly, it was to get a visual sense of them.

These countries treat early human remains as national treasures. They're kept under very tight security. The US Constitution is given less security than some of these fossils.

So one day, a couple of us were taken to see the early humans in Nairobi. A couple of boxes were taken out with the skulls of "australopithecines." These are (depending on what one counts as a close human relative) the closest relatives of humans that aren't referred to our genus, Homo. I picked them up and looked them over. Very impressive.

Next, they took out the drawer holding the skull of Turkana Boy. And right away, I felt what can only be described as an emotional experience. I felt something I couldn't put into words. Was it because this was such a famous fossil? Maybe, but so were the others. Was it because it was such well-preserved fossil that had been restored by some of the best preparators in the profession? Maybe. But there was something more than that.

It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I eventually did.

Assemble a room full of philosophers and anthropologists, lock the door and tell them they can't leave until they agree on the demarcation between human and non-human, and you'll get a room full of dead philosophers and anthropologists. There's no one set of standards. Is it our large brain? Our ability to make tools? Self-recognition? The ability to consciously plan for the future? Knowledge of our own mortality and burial or our dead? Art? Language? Alteration of the landscape for our own purposes? A soul? Some of these came about gradually and can be found in other animals. Other primates make tools, and some can be taught to communicate with sign language, for example.

I have know idea where the dividing line is, but the australopithecines I'd seen were on one side of it, and Turkana Boy was on the other side. And I was on the same side as Turkana Boy.

The australopithecines were cool to look at, but however many similarities I could see between them and me, they weren't me. Their skulls, to me anyway, still kinda look like the skulls of gorillas and chimpanzees. Not identical, mind you - they're not as prognathous, and the teeth aren't quite the same - but even though I knew they walked on two legs, the overall gestalt of the skull was that of an ape.

But Turkana Boy? I wasn't just holding the skull of an immature male primate. I was holding the skull of someone's kid. This individual was never merely a juvenile - he was a child. He would have grown not to be a mature individual or adult, but a man.

This was someone who probably saw some of the crocodiles I'm working on, but alive. How did he react? Was he fearful? Did he and his friends play in the water, like most children would? Did they somehow know which parts of a river were safe? Did he or his parents perform some sort of ritual to ward the crocodiles away? No idea - but I can visualize them.

(Some of these crocodiles were large enough to have slurped him down as easily as we might slurp down an oyster or Jell-O shooter. That's probably why we don't see crocodile bite marks on hominins from that site - the crocs were bigger, the hominins were smaller, and there probably wasn't much biting involved. Another of the crocs looked like it crawled right out of Dr Seuss or Hieronymus Bosch. Imagine a gharial crossed with a sawfish. Or a crocodile with a musical instrument instead of a snout. Another digression. I apologize.)

Some part of my forebrain registered the australopithecines as "ape" and Turkana Boy as "human." I can't point to a single morphological feature that did this for me. Turkana Boy's brow ridges aren't as prominent, his teeth look more like mine, his brain cavity is somewhat larger. Maybe that played a role? I don't know. But the overall bearing of this specimen crossed a line I still haven't located, and my subconscious reacted to it.

Anyway - I've worked with modern and fossil bones throughout my career. I've had all kinds of reactions. Some are just gorgeously preserved. Others were handled Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, Mary Anning, and other founders of my field. Or I came to realize they represented a new species. There's a thrill with these. But Turkana Boy was different, and the Google Doodle reminded me of that.

*In my opinion, early humans have been way oversplit.

The clay Gilgamesh tablet at the Museum of the Bible - thoughts of a museum collections worker.

Earlier today, we learned that a clay tablet containing part of the ancient Epic of Gigamesh held at the Museum of the Bible, founded by the Hobby Lobby people, was smuggled illegally out of Iraq and must be turned over for repatriation.

This came with a lot of comments to the effect that such things belong in the countries where they were found.

I agree, in principle. But as someone who has spent his entire career working in museum collections, I want to explain why “it belongs where it was found” isn’t always such a simple thing.

First, some acknowledgments:

Acknowledgment 1: this case involves not just principle, but law. If a specimen is illegally taken somewhere, it needs to go back, and those responsible for the illegal exportation and sale/purchase of the object should be punished. Simple as that.

Acknowledgment 2: I’m a paleontologist and herpetologist whose direct work includes neither human artifacts nor human remains. The issues surrounding these are somewhat different from those surrounding non-human remains – there are levels of cultural sensitivity I don’t generally encounter, except in the abstract. And although all fields of natural history reflected imperial attitudes historically, they were arguably more acute when man-made artifacts or human remains (bones, mummies, etc.) were involved.

That being said, I actively collaborate with paleoanthropologists. In grad school, my partner at the time worked on an archaeological site that became the source of protest. One of my closest friends at the large midwestern museum where I did my post-doc was the liaison responsible for repatriating Indigenous American materials to the tribes from which they came. (This meant I once met the grandson of a Cheyenne warrior who fought at Little Bighorn. It was an educational experience I will never forget.). So although I’m not directly involved in archaeological issues, neither am I ignorant of them.

So here’s what I think –

It was very common, at least until the mid-20th century, for natural and cultural objects from the developing world to end up in European or American museums. Most of my work these days is on the evolution of crocodiles in East Africa over the past 20 to 25 million years. This means I visit lots of museums in Africa, but it also means time spent in London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and other capitals of the old European empires. Fossil and modern crocodile specimens collected in the former colonies often ended up back in Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the US).

Does this reflect imperialistic attitudes toward other people? In part, yes. The idea that the people living where they were found might want to play a role in their preservation and study was rarely, if ever, taken into account.

Moreover, some of the expeditions that collected the material included racist justification. For example – the American Museum of Natural History in New York led several expeditions to what are now Mongolia and north-central China during the 1920’s. These are famed for having discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs. They also discovered some of the dinosaurs the general public might know about, including Velociraptor, though it only became widely known when Jurassic Park came out in 1992. But the actual purpose of the expeditions was to find human ancestors.

The rationale here wasn't entirely racist. One of the curators, William Diller Matthew, believed all mammalian groups had Asian origins, and that humans would be no different. He was working from a theoretical framework that suggested close links between North American and Eurasian animals, with the likeliest dispersal corridor being the Bering Land Bridge. But one of the museum higher-ups, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another matter – he dismissed an African origin as unacceptable because of its racial implications. As he saw it, our ancestors had to be Asian because an African origin (from black people) would be beneath him.

It gets far worse when cultural materials and human remains are part of the equation. It can legitimately be said that modern archaeology arose from what would now be described as grave robbing. Indigenous graves in North America were routinely dug up, and their contents were routinely shipped off to New York, Chicago, Washington, or Pittsburgh, among many others. Anthropology shares some of this; it wasn't rare for the bones of Indigenous Americans or African Americans to be collected for study. That these were the ancestors of living human beings who didn’t want their relatives exhumed, much less treated as mere objects and put on display in a far-away museum, never seems to have crossed anyone’s mind at the time. It was an atrocity that we still trying to make right.

But as a museum collections worker, I have to point out that imperialism and racism were not the only reasons these things were done.

In many cases, specimens were shipped back to the cities not because they were seen as treasures of the empire, but because no museum existed anywhere near where the materials were collected. “Keep them where they’re found” loses some of its punch if there’s no facility on hand to properly care for the materials in perpetuity, assuming that’s what we agree to do.

(This is why fossils from South America were looted to a far lesser extent than from other parts of the world. There have been natural history museums on that continent since the 19th century. Not saying things were never removed improperly – only that it was less frequent.)

Moreover, much of it was done at a time when travel was far more expensive and time-consuming than now. A scientist studying biological or paleontological specimens from what is now Indonesia would find it far easier to visit London or Leiden than Batavia (present-day Jakarta). It was also considerably more dangerous - much of this was done before antibiotics or antimalarial drugs, for example, or even before anyone knew what actually caused tropical diseases. And since the colonial territories generally didn’t have the kind of educational system set up to train professional scientists who could work on the material locally, it made sense to send the specimens to the scientists.

I’m not saying removing the material was morally right – only that it was often logistically rational, given the assumption that these items were going to contribute to scientific knowledge.

The present situation in former colonies is uneven. Some now have world-class museums with modern conservation facilities, and they are staffed by professional scientists who are from those countries. In many cases, the specimens - especially some of the fossils - are considered national treasures. I can say from direct observation that “Lucy,” an Australopithecus afarensis skeleton from the Afar region of Ethiopia, is kept under better security in Addis Ababa than the US Constitution is in DC.

But that’s not always the case. I’ve been to museums in those parts of the world that give new meaning to the word "squalid." Pest and climate control are nonexistent, staffing is uneven and driven more by politics than expertise, and the facilities are so poorly funded that much of the work is done on a volunteer basis. Museum records may not have been computerized, and the catalog books are slowly deteriorating. Over time, specimens that aren't lost or damaged lose their scientific value.

A few years ago, the main part of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro burned to the ground. It was caused by an aging electrical system. Everyone knew it needed a major upgrade, but the museum was never given enough support to address the problem, nor was it given the support to photograph or copy some of the most vulnerable material. Nearly all of its collections were lost.

I took this loss personally. I’d visited those collections. Some of the material I studied is now gone. (Indeed, I may have been the last person to study some of these fossils.) I watched curators – some of them personal friends – dash into the fire in a futile effort to save specimens, notes, data sets, and anything else they could grab in their arms.

"Keep them where they were found" and "keep them safe in perpetuity, so all can learn from them" do not always lead to the same conclusion. It's one thing if we're dealing with objects looted from a grave with direct links to a modern community, but not necessarily if cultural links to the present day are more tenuous, or if the specimens have no particular cultural significance in the first place.

There are massive gray areas here. Kinnewick Man is a good example of the issue. In 1996, the skeletal remains of a man who died about 9000 years ago were found in what is now the state of Washington. The material is unusual for its great age and completeness, and early work suggested physical features more typical of ethnic groups living outside North America. Together, these made Kinnewick Man central to figuring out how and when people began to settle the Western Hemisphere. We know Indigenous groups in the Americas moved around quite a lot over the millennia, and that the tribes encountered in a given location by European explorers weren't necessarily the tribes one would have encountered in previous centuries. There was thus no scientific reason to expect Kinnewick Man was directly ancestral to anyone in an Indigenous community known to have lived there during historical times. But according to the belief system of the Indigenous tribe that claimed that land, the tribe was created right in that place. To them, Kinnewick Man was one of their ancestors pretty much by definition. This left anthropologists with a serious dilemma - how to balance respect for the rights and beliefs of people who had every right to not trust scientists with the compelling scientific argument that careful study of Kinnewick Man might shed a powerful light on a critical phase of human history, all while treating the remains with reverence.

I can only say this - I'm glad I wasn't involved.

I'm not trying to be arrogant or imperialist here - I'm merely stating the complexity of the real situation.

(Acknowledgment 3 – not all squalid museums are in the developing world. I’ve seen some horrible examples right here in the US. And disasters like the fire in Rio can happen anywhere. The Second World War devastated many European cities, causing many important museums to be damaged or destroyed. The original specimen of Spinosaurus, for example, was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. To this day, the exterior of the Humboldt Museum in Berlin is pock-marked with divots from Russian and German bullets. In 1995, the curator at the Naturkundemuseum in Stuttgart continually pointed me to one or another place where “one of your bombs” hit the museum. I kept my mouth shut, not explaining that [1] that was decades before I was born, [2] you guys started it, and [3] I did my homework and know that the bombs hit at night, meaning it was a British bombing raid. The US bombed during the day.)

Indeed, this has become a reason to support the argument that spreading materials around to different museums can be a good thng, even if it means taking them out of the home countries. That way, a disaster befalling one museum doesn’t result in a universal loss. It also supports the notion that efforts to duplicate should be given priority. That the insects and mammals at the museum in Rio were lost is bad, but they can be replicated. The audio recordings of indigenous people speaking languages that are now extinct, and which were never copied, can not.

Just thought I’d share a few thoughts. Yes, fossils and artifacts should be kept within their regional context, and they should be repatriated whenever possible. But there are other variables that should be considered. And in this case, although I fully support returning the clay tablet to Iraq as a matter of both principle and law, I worry that it isn’t the wisest practical decision, given how unstable the region is.

Currently reading Burroughs et al., Forget the Alamo

It's definitely worth reading. I learned about the Alamo as a kid in the Northeast, and heard plenty more when I lived in Austin for graduate school. But I'd also read books like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, who put the struggle over Texas in the broader context of expanding territory where slavery was legal.

I learned from my father, who served in Vietnam, that one can honor the service of someone even if one thinks the cause was wrong. So I can see some of the Alamo defenders as courageous, can acknowledge that not all of them were pro-slavery activists (indeed, some were abolitionists), and can understand that Texas was one of several regions in Mexico that tried to gain independence because of the federal government's instability, and yet still understand that the main push within the US for annexing Texas came from the South and was based on free state-slave state politics.

Anyway - Forget the Alamo is a good book. Although it talks about the siege, it's really about how the event came to be mythologized in the US as an example of American fortitude and righteousness against oppression, and how it (and the Texian revolution as a whole) came to be isolated from political struggles in both the US (slavery) and Mexico (instability).

I wanted to reach out to the authors, but don't have their email addresses. It's because I wanted to share the picture below with them.


I took it in the Bay of Pigs area of Cuba about 10 years ago. I was there as part of a group working on the natural history and conservation of Cuban crocodiles, but I did get to see some of the surrounding region. I had a great time.

Cubans call the Bay of Pigs incident the Battle of Playa Girón, after the closest town to where it happened. There's a museum there about the battle; I wasn't able to visit, but I saw two WW2 surplus relics given by the US and USSR to their sides in the conflict - a Sherman tank facing down a T-34. (The Sherman tank would have stood little chance, if any.)

There's a billboard near the museum that describes the Battle of Playa Girón as the site of the "first defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America."

Every year, I talk about the Cuban crocodile project because I got excellent photos of nesting behavior in the species. (Crocodylian nesting behavior is surprisingly bird-like. They protect their nests and hatchlings with great vigor.) And when I do, I show them this picture.

My only comment? That the people killed at the Alamo would probably disagree with the billboard's assertion that Playa Girón was the site of the first defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America.

I hope to visit that museum when I go back, whenever that is. And I have to go back - I never saw a bee hummingbird. (A local birder tried to find one, but no such bird showed up. But in the space of 5 minutes or so, he showed us the two species of owl found only in Cuba. And we saw some Cuban todies. The Cuban trogons were also great, but they almost don't count, since they're so common down there.)

Travels with a bear.

If I could digress from politics for a moment:

As I’ve probably mentioned before, I work on the evolution of crocodylians - living and extinct alligators, crocodiles, and their close relatives - for a living. One consequence is the need to visit museum collections to look at modern skeletal specimens and fossils. And because crocodylians have lived pretty much everywhere over the past 80 million years – they’re known from as far north as Ellesmere Island in rocks about 45 million years in age, for example – this means going pretty much everywhere.

Life would be much simpler if people would just mail their crocodylians to me. For one reason or another, they won’t. So I go to them.

In 2019, I travelled to East Africa for 8 weeks. I’ve done extended trips like this before, but this was different – I now had a 3-year-old daughter. This would be hard for her. (Hard for her mother and me, too.).

So I asked my sister for advice. Her husband served in the US Navy, and like others in their community, they faced extended absences of one parent while they had small children. How did they deal with it?

She gave me several suggestions. Out of them, my wife/her mother and I came up with a solution: we’d go to Build-A-Bear and have two teddy bears made. One would stay with our daughter, and the other would come with me. I would then have pictures taken of the bear every day, sometimes with me, and text them to my wife, who would show them to our daughter.

We put great ceremony into the bear generation process. Build-A-Bear puts a “heart” of sorts in the bear before adding stuffing, both my daughter and I blew on the heart before its insertion. When we got home, we chose one of the t-shirts she’d outgrown and put it on the bear.

(I kinda hoped they'd hook the bear to a couple of power cables and throw a big switch, but it wasn't quite so dramatic as that.)

I did manage to get pictures nearly every day, though I couldn’t actually send them every day – believe it or not, there was an attempted coup in one of the countries (Ethiopia) during my visit, and most WiFi was shut down for several days.

I tried to expand the level of inspiration by asking my colleagues to sometimes pose with the bear. Some of these were US- or Europe-based scientists visiting the same facilities, and others were scientists from the host institutions. I made an effort to include women and people of color – it’s critical to show young girls that fields such as science are not just for white cis-gender males. Most found it charming, though I suspect I’d get in serious trouble if the photo I took with the director of one of these museums with the bear was ever made public.

It worked. My daughter was sad I was gone, but she always felt connected. She’d see the pictures in the morning before heading to day care (by which time it was afternoon for me), and would tell all of her friends about them.

I just returned on Monday from my first international research trip since the pandemic began – this time to Germany and Italy. My daughter is now 5, and I wasn’t going to be gone for nearly as long (just shy of two weeks), but I decided to keep doing it. I might keep doing it in perpetuity – it’s kinda become a thing for us.

I suspect by the time I retire, I’ll be known as the fellow who’s always keeping an eye on the time for bear o’clock as much as a crocodylian systematist. And I’m cool with that.

Here are some of the photos. I’m not including photos showing my colleagues – only the bear and, in some cases, yours truly.

Waiting for the flight to Addis Ababa, 2019:

Bale Mountains, south of Addis, 2019:

With some Somali ostriches, Middle Awash NP, 2019:

Middle Awash NP, 2019; there are crocodiles in the river behind us, but I don’t think you can see them:

Outside the paleo (palaeo?) collections area at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, 2019:

Lions near Nairobi, 2019:

Getting caffeinated before hitting the collections, Kampala, 2019:

Working with fossils, Stuttgart, 2021:

Train between Stuttgart and Tübingen, 2021:

Post-research drinks, Rome, 2021:

Roman Forum, 2021:

Wondering where the gladiators all went, 2021:

Why I don't think Trump will ever really be prosecuted.

It's not merely a matter of "rich people always get off." They too often do, but not always.

Nor is it a matter of not being able to assemble an impartial jury - though that's going to be a major effort in and of itself.

Nor is it even because his lawyers can get this dragged out until long after he goes toes-up on us. (And if they did, they could still go after his estate, which would cut his children off at the knees since they're not capable of getting actual jobs. Trump, or his lawyers at any rate, know this.)

It's because I don't think he's competent to stand trial.

Seriously - have you listened to his recent public statements? The cognitive decline is accelerating. This, on top of the mental illness he's had since at least early adulthood, is likely to keep him out of a courtroom.

From a purely objective viewpoint, he can't participate in his own defense.

My thoughts, anyway.

some birds from Jones Beach, Long Island

We were visiting my in-laws, and I was able to get away to bird nearby Jones Beach and area. Most of the beaches were closed for the weekend (they were holding an air show), and the weather was lousy for much of the time, but I did see some things.

piping plover


semipalmated sandpiper

American oystercatcher

This one - there's something about terns that defies my ability to identify them. Empids? Ammodram sparrows? Old World Warblers? Neotropical kingbirds? I can do those. But terns? I think they're emitting some sort of psychic energy that messes with my normal bird ID skill. So I've got it ID'd as a Forster's, but could be convinced that it's a common. Thoughts?

Thinking of Dad (and others whose sacrifice was kept quiet)

My Dad served in the Navy in the early 1960's. He'd started college on a hockey scholarship, but evidently wasn't ready for college yet, so he enlisted.

It wasn't until I was in my teens that he acknowledged he'd served in Vietnam. It was around the time the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated in DC, and there were marches in most US cities; he desperately wanted to join the march in nearby New York City, but couldn't, and it tore him up.

Here's the thing, though - I know almost nothing about his experience. He took nearly all of it to his grave. I only know that he was with a team sent in to do surveillance work, and he was the only one to come out alive. And the names of those who didn't are not on the Wall in DC.

He'd grown up fluent in French - his family is all from Quebec. Pretty much all communications between Hanoi and Moscow were in French, which is probably why he was sent there in the first place, even though he was originally trained in underwater demolitions.

I don't know how many people he was with. He was evidently captured, but was never listed as a POW, probably because this happened before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. That he was tortured was betrayed by his inability to hold his middle three fingers up as most people do to indicate the number 3; he had to hold up his last three fingers, as though he as signalling "OK."

He came out of it with a drinking problem, but he also came away with an internal strength I'll never understand. He gave up drinking completely when his diabetes was diagnosed. He faced amputations following from diabetes, and later a terminal cancer diagnosis, with a far more even resolve than any human should be able to muster. I have to think he took the good and the bad out of that experience.

Later, I came to learn about the Vietnam War. I struggled with the disparity between war whose cause was not entirely just and my father's participation in it. I learned that one can honor the service of one who wore the uniform without necessarily agreeing with the cause - a lesson I took to heart when protesting the Iraq War.

There are the heroes we know about, and the heroes we don't.
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