Thursday, January 30, 2014


We had to write a poem for French class. Specifically, we had to use a certain grammatical construction and tense in our poem. And our poem had to be modeled after Le Message by Jacques Prévert. His poem is rather sad and dark; a rough and very poetic interpretation is that it discusses the loss of love but Prévert approaches that large theme in a rather prosaic manner using everyday things (chairs, doors, letters, rivers). Here it is in the French (translation here):
La porte que quelqu’un a ouverte
La porte que quelqu’un a refermée
La chaise où quelqu’un s’est assis
Le chat que quelqu’un a caressé
Le fruit que quelqu’un a mordu
La lettre que quelqu’un a lue
La chaise que quelqu’un a renversée
La porte que quelqu’un a ouverte
La route où quelqu’un court encore
Le bois que quelqu’un traverse
La rivière où quelqu’un se jette
L’hôpital où quelqu’un est mort.

Even without understanding the words, you can see how the construction of the lines is formalized and repeating. The last word, mort--it means what you think it does. Somebody is dead. Dark and sad.

Here is my poem:
Les jouets que mes chiens ont détruits.
Les coutures qu’ils ont fendues.
Les poupées qu’ils ont éviscérées.
La bourre que j’ai découverte dans le salon.
Les morceaux qu’ils ont poussés sur le lit.
Les jouets que les chiens ont aimés le plus.

Les laisses et les collets qu’ils ont portés.
Les heures que nous avons passées à marcher.
Les heures que nous avons passées à jouer.
La nourriture chère qu’ils ont mangée.
Les gâteries que j’ai faites.
Les jouets que je leur ai achetés.
And its translation:
The toys that my dogs destroyed.
The seams that they ripped.
The dolls that they eviscerated.
The stuffing that I discovered in the living room.
The bits that they pushed under the bed.
The toys that my dogs loved the most.

The leashes and collars that they wore.
The hours that we spent walking.
The hours that we spent playing.
The expensive food that they ate.
The treats that I made.
The toys that I bought them.
Oddly, I couldn't come up with a title for it (do you have any suggestions? It has to have multiple layers of meaning like Prévert's title). But the professor LOVED my creative verbs (éviscérer! détruire!). I was inspired in this by Prévert's use of se jeter, to throw oneself--what an interesting verb. It abruptly changes the tone in his poem. I also decided to stick with the "everyday things contain their own stories but are also part of larger stories" theme. But I decided to take a poke at the gloomy tone and made the first half of mine about the dogs tearing up their toys. 

(As an aside, I know the French take their literary arts very seriously, but I don't think a Frenchman would shiv me for taking liberties with Prévert.)

It was super fun to write. I had to use my dictionary a lot--but I learned a lot of new vocabulary in the process. Having fun with words in another language! That's progress!


After finding out 20 minutes before class was supposed to start that it was cancelled (prof is sick), an illustration of the difference between me and a 20-year-old:

20-year-old: I'm mad! I could have slept an hour longer.

Me: Great! I've got an exam today that I need to study for. I'm going to the library.

(I get up at the same time every weekday regardless of my class schedule. I study, clean the house, walk the dogs, whatever needs to be done.)

Friday, January 24, 2014


I finally wrote something original in French that contained no grammatical errors. Not one. And that's a BFD. Sadly, I consistently conjugate verbs incorrectly, leave off accents, forget to add an s to the end of adjectives modifying plural nouns, use the wrong article (that damned tricky de). Some of these are written errors that wouldn't necessarily be detected in conversation. But it is important to write properly.

For most of our exams, we have to prepare a short essay at home (the topic is assigned before the exam) and reproduce it on the exam without notes. We only have to write 100-150 words--that's not a difficult task. Remembering what I drafted up isn't the problem. It's the errors that creep in during the initial drafting. I'm learning to check for my most common mistakes.

For our first exam, we had to write about the one thing we would do if we went to Paris, using the future tense. Here is my essay:

Si je vais à Paris, je louerai un appartement. Il sera dans le 14ème arrondisement.

J’ai vu les musées et les monuments de Paris. Ils sont tous magnifiques … et tres bondés.

Quand j’sera à Paris, je voudrai vivre comme une Parisienne.

Au marché dans la rue Daguerre, je ferai les courses tous les jours. J’irai au marché pour des légumes, à la boucherie pour du porc, à la boulangerie pour du pain, à la fromagerie, à la patisserie pour des macarons, et bien sȗr au marchand de vins! Je n’oublierai pas un sac réutilisable.

J’inviterai mes amis à dîner chez moi.

Je découvrirai un café agréable. Le matin, j’y prendrai le petit déjeuner et observerai les passants comme une vraie Parisienne.
Here is a translation (it sounds sort of silly when translated but believe me, this is probably the most complex thing I've written in French yet):

If I go to Paris, I will rent an apartment. It will be in the 14th arrondisement. 
I've seen the museums and monuments of Paris. They are all wonderful ... and very crowded.
When I am in Paris, I will live like a Parisienne.
I will do my grocery shopping at the farmer's market on the rue Daguerre every day. I will visit the farmer's market for vegetables, the butcher for pork, the bakery for bread, the cheese store, the pastry store for macaroons, and of course the wine shop. I won't forget my shopping bag. 
I will invite my friends to my place for dinner.
I will find a pleasant cafe. In the mornings, I'll have breakfast there and watch the passers-by, like a true Parisienne.

Our next writing assignment? Write a poem (at least 80 words) using a particular grammatical form that we learned this week. A poem! Quite a distraction from cat skeleton and musculature or lipid metabolic cycles.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A New Exercise Dominatrix

I've decided that I need to do some regular exercise that is a bit more involved than walking the dogs every day. Since just after xmas, I've been doing half an hour of pilates three times a week. But I'm not in a class, haven't paid any extra fees, I don't even have to leave home. It's the magic of YouTube.

In general, I spend about 0.000001 seconds per day on YouTube offerings. But there's this Aussie named Angela and her partner Nina who, with a click, will direct you through a variety of pilates workouts. Nina is a silent partner, not uttering a peep in any of the half dozen videos I've watched of them. She gets stuck demonstrating the "easier" options while Angela spurs us on to greater heights of effort.

There are workouts for abs, for the butt, and several different, simple to moderately difficult general routines. I love them! I can do them in my bedroom in the morning after I feed the dogs, who are then happy to doze on the bed, occasionally lifting an eyelid to see what I'm doing, while I grunt and roll around on my mats (I'm a delicate flower; I need two mats stacked together).

Angela is probably in her 40s and she looks fabulous! The Aussie twang is always entertaining. But best of all, she's a subtle exercise dominatrix, enticing you to attempt exercises that look simple. You do your best, got to keep Angela happy, but by the next day, you are thinking, good god, I had no idea I had that many different muscles in my butt.

Of course, I know perfectly well that I am my own dominatrix--Angela is certainly not setting my alarm or forcing me to do anything. But we all create these kinds of fantasy narratives to help us get along, get through.

I know that I feel better, that I sleep better, that I am more alert during the day when I exercise regularly. All that for a small, regular investment of time with Angela and Nina.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It's Still Not Funny

So the problem professor remains a problem. He is still channeling Louis Black, although an admin person in the department told me that she thinks he channels Eddie Izzard too. I can sort of see that. I like Izzard but he's not that funny either five days a week, first thing in the morning. (Izzard is apparently a polyglot and did a tour in France in French, which he learned just so he could perform live in France. I admire that. I don't want to learn science from him, though.)

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I wanted to wait until the first exam to make a decision on any action that I should take about this prof or this class. Well, the first exam is here--a multiple choice, 150-question, take-home, open-book exam. I spent most of Saturday working through it. I have been keeping up with the readings and lectures and homework and I still found the exam challenging.

Having written multiple-choice exams myself (I have even received training in proper techniques for doing so), I have to say, problematic prof wrote an exam that deeply and thoroughly tests the material he presented in class. No regurgitation of factoids; you have to instead apply things you know to different situations.

Besides, I am finding the material extremely interesting. Like biochemistry, it will be very useful for me in the future.

So I am willing and able to filter Louis/Eddie out each morning. But I remain concerned about the messages this prof is sending to most of the class. He is not setting a very good example for these impressionable 20-year-olds.

I get to the class early so I can study in the quiet, dark room for half an hour or so (it's a dog-free zone for me). This means that I get to eavesdrop as everybody else arrives. About a third of the class is so intimidated that they sit in class like shocky baby birds--afraid to move or peep. Another third thinks it is all a big frat-boy laugh fest. They of course don't get it at all. And the last group is so overwhelmed by the material that they are just sort of limply hoping that through some miracle they might pass the class.

I emailed problematic prof with a rather detailed question about a couple of concepts that were confusing me. He replied in equal detail, then closed by telling me that even though he had encouraged the class to email him with questions, only one had done so: me. Well, I can see why. Shocky birdlings will be too scared of him to email, fearing what might happen. Frat boys think he is a walking joke and won't bother. And the third group, well, they are propping up the lower end of the curve and aren't the sort that talks to professors anyway.

While the material is good, the learning environment is not its equal. At the end of the term, I will very likely send letters to the department chair and possibly the dean, but now that my own initial shock has worn off, I can be more measured and hopefully more effective in what I say than if I had angrily rushed into the chair's office that first week.

Friday, January 17, 2014


This week I took my first test of the term on the bones of the cat skull. I have to learn the names of almost every bone and major bony structure in the cat skeleton, starting with the skull. During the first week in lab, we checked out small boxes containing a cat skull and jaw which we could keep for the term, even take home. The same cat skulls have been used for this anatomy class since the 1950s or thereabouts and they are shiny and polished from decades of skin grease and handling.

Kitty 182. Pencil for scale.
And I am most certainly not the first nor the last pre-vet/pre-med student who has poked and prodded her own living dog's or cat's skull to see what I could identify through skin and nerves and muscle.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Beagle and Unattended Toaster Oven Chicken Nuggets

I don't normally forward links. I figure the internet is a wild and wooly place--you all can discover its nooks and crannies for yourself. But this is simply incredible!

I am suspicious that this is a spontaneous behavior on the part of the dog. It is likely the dog was taught how to move the chair in some related context. But it's fun to watch anyway.

Adventure with the Owl

In Biochemistry class, we are talking about the properties and activities of the phospholipid bilayers that surround every living cell. The prof put up a photo of a boiling pool in Yellowstone that was scummed with bright orange and yellow bacteria to emphasize that all living cells use this same structure, even extreme thermophiles. The bilayers are made of specific types of molecules that self-assemble into this configuration when put in aqueous solution. It is a very ancient structure indeed. While the biochemical and evolutionary stories are certainly fascinating, I found myself thinking about my fabulous trip to Iceland a while back where I saw plenty of boiling pools rimmed with weird minerals and brightly colored bacterial mats. And I began to fret about not having any more cool adventures like that. I can only post just so many photos of the dogs napping in the sun by the back door before the blog devolves into meaningless, navel-gazing blather.

Well. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I've mentioned before that I am volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation and education center located north of Corvallis. From October to the beginning of January, I was on a Wednesday morning shift, but my class schedule this term didn't have any morning openings so I had to switch to an evening shift.

The morning and evening shifts are pretty different. Some animals eat during the day, some at night. You spend more time cleaning cages in the mornings. And we generally have to contend with much colder temps for the morning shifts--frozen water bowls and hoses and even your own clothes since you inevitably get wet when spraying clumps of bird poop and chick remnants off perches.

Last night was my first evening shift. I volunteered to take care of the animals in the outdoor enclosures at the back of the property. I often took on this particular set of tasks during the morning shift and am familiar with some of the longer-term residents.

Only one bird needed to be fed: a young Great Horned Owl. I hadn't seen him before. First, the owls eat at night so we never really dealt with them during the morning shift, but this particular owl is a relatively new arrival. He was in a building that I had not visited before. He was to get one mouse and three chicks for his meal. I tossed them into a pitcher with hot water to warm up/thaw (the mice are kept in the freezer, the chicks in the fridge) then went to check on the other animals on my list.

It was dusk when I walked out there for my initial recon but I could still see the outlines of the animals in the cages. It was a short list: the pair of merlins (one was already bedded down for the night in the crate they used as a nest), the two ducks and a goose (oddly friendly birds whose wading pool needed emptying, cleaning, and refilling; ducks and geese shit copiously), the squirrels, and a red-tailed hawk who viewed me with considerable suspicion. I gave them all fresh water then returned to the kitchen to prepare the owl's dinner.

By the time I carried the small metal plate with the mouse and three chicks out to the owl's enclosure, it was nearly full dark. I am familiar with the layout of the buildings and the paths but I had to open the first door to the owl's enclosure entirely by feel. All of the doors are double locked with a snap-lock or carabiner placed through a primary latch. The owl is in a multi-cage building so the first door led to a vestibule with interior doors that opened into the animal spaces. The vestibule is about 10 feet by 10 feet and it has no lights (none of the outback buildings are lit). There was a glimmer of city lights so I left the outer door open until I could find the double locked entrance to the owl's cage. I then closed the outer door and fumbled my way into the owl's cage.

The owl was fairly distressed by my entry so I tried to make it quick: remove the soiled pillowcase on the stump, place a clean one down, and lay out the now cooled mouse and chicks, cut bits facing up (we slit them open to entice sick animals to eat). The entire time the owl was flinging itself against the mesh in the corner trying to get away from me. I could see it silhouetted against the city-lit night sky but the lower part of the cage was completely black. I turned to leave...and couldn't find the pull-string to open the latch which is located on the outside, of course. The door was closed and completely flush with the wall. Where was the string?

I found a line of zipties zipped together sticking out from behind a piece of 2x4 framing the door and pulled on that. It broke. I followed the stump of zipties to see where it went but the metal siding was so well attached to the wood framing that I couldn't get my hand through. I couldn't even tell if the zipties were attached to anything on the other side. I hadn't noticed any zipties when I opened the door the first time.

I tried to slip my hand between the door and the frame but the space was too small. I could tell where the latch was but could not reach it. I would have needed a tool with a right angle to open it anyway. I was in a cage floored with gravel, decorated with limbs and stumps and a damned angry owl. I thought about trying to bend the metal plate into a tool but it proved too thick. I was trapped in the enclosure with the owl.

I was a new team member and the only one handling the outback that evening. I wasn't even sure if anyone would miss me!

I crouched down in a corner to consider my options. I decided yelling was the best choice, at least as an initial plan. I calmly shouted "Help! I'm locked in!", counted to fifty, and repeated it. Every time I yelled, the owl became very agitated and began flying around the entire enclosure. He could certainly see me even if I couldn't see him. I felt a puff of air from his wings over my head several times. I stayed crouched and kept my head down. Counting to fifty wasn't an exact clock but I spent about 15 minutes doing this. I began to wonder what my next option should be. I wasn't panicked and it wasn't terribly cold and I was dressed appropriately. But the owl was pissed and I did not relish the idea of spending hours in that cage with him.

Then I heard a guy yell "I hear you! I'm coming!" I stopped yelling and stood up, trying to see through the trees. The owl stopped flinging himself around the cage and perched on a tree limb above the door, waiting with me.

I saw a bobbing light coming towards me--I was a little confused because it was coming from the opposite direction of the main buildings and I thought I was the only one out there. But whoever he was, he was coming to let me out. He came closer and said, "I'm not familiar with the buildings." Okay, definitely not a facility volunteer. "Turn right in about 50 feet," I said. I could see now that he was wearing a headlamp. Very useful, those things.

He came over and opened up the outer door and paused. I said, "I'm stuck inside, you'll have to open this door too." And so he did. To the great relief of me and the owl, I slipped out into the vestibule. It was only when I was relatching the door that I noticed that there was marker writing scrawled on the metal siding: door latch string broken. Hey, helpful person, that message is not very fucking helpful IN THE DARK! Sheesh.

I found out that this guy lives in a teepee at the far end of the property (Oregon, hippies, whatever). I had no idea he was back there although I had seen the teepee. I thanked him profusely and returned to the main building. Sure enough, none of them had even noticed that I had not returned in a timely manner! I filled out a repair request, resisting the urge to include a rant that writing on an enclosure wall was not a particularly effective way to share important information.

So, an adventure. Certainly not the same scope as riding Icelandic ponies for three days but an exciting event nonetheless. Lesson learned: add my new shift leader's number to my phone and carry the thing in a back pocket at all times. Other lesson learned: I'm not MacGyver. But at least I didn't panic. And the owl got his dinner, which he would no doubt eventually eat.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

That's Not Funny

I think one of my professors this term is going to present some problems. I won't identify the course or the professor.

I've spent years in front of groups of people giving technical presentations of various flavors. I know an awful lot about managing those kinds of events. For example, it is important that the speaker "take charge" or "own" the space. Move tables or microphones if you need to. Change the lighting. Ask your listeners to change seats. The time and space is yours and you need to be comfortable in it.

It is also important to establish credibility. This is usually done long before you arrive at the venue by sheer fact that you have been invited to that place to share what you know about a particular topic. You are the expert. There is rarely any need to state your credentials or experience as part of your presentation or in the presentation materials. There are exceptions to this but you have to be a pretty damned special speaker. 99.99% of technical talks do not require anything more than your name somewhere after the title.

If your audience is not open to your ideas, you might need to establish gravitas. This is somewhat different than credibility. It is part of "owning" the space. You need to "own" the conversation too. This sounds adversarial when I write it out this way, but you can generally do this with tone of voice and body posture.

And even if you are a standup comedian firing off one-liners every 30 seconds, you still need to have a flow to your material. There need to be signposts within your material to indicate important points and changes of direction. These can take many forms, and can be also be handled with a variety of shifts in voice tone and body position and posture.

I don't intend to write an essay on how to deliver a technical talk. But I wanted to give you a flavor for the intricacy of details that a good speaker will consider and use in his talk.

Back to this problematic professor.

Are you familiar with the comic Lewis Black? If you aren't, stop reading and go watch some of his stuff on YouTube. He looks like he's about to have a stroke half the time but his stuff is pretty funny.
Funny when delivered as standup comedy.

This professor apparently believes that he channels Lewis Black and I can tell you without hesitation that Lewis Black is not funny when you have to listen to an hour of him every day of the week and he's trying to explain complicated technical matters.

This guy uses the same emphatic, jerky body motions, the same bombastic shouting followed by whispers, and a lot of profanity (Black's famous for his constant use of "fuck"). He stalks back and forth at the front of the class, using his body to physically intimidate those in the front row. Every few minutes, he veers off into random stories that nearly always involve physical violence to people or animals and that have little relevance to the technical matter at hand. He demanded that everyone in the class sign an "agreement" not to talk during class (unless spoken to by him) or face removal from the class. He said it was a matter of "respect." He called the class "you little bastards" this morning. Yep, a whole lot of respect going around.

The first day he listed all of his credentials, degrees, post-docs, years and dollar amounts of funded projects--and challenged us to try and disagree with anything he would subsequently say in class. He doesn't "own" the space, he pisses over everything in sight. His random stories are not signposts. They are confusing and distracting. He yells at us when we write or type things as he talks--"you don't need to write this down!" I really don't like being told how to learn or study or organize information.

The professor even said something the first day about being like Lewis Black, so I think he is aware of at least some of these behaviors. I think he does some of this on purpose. If so, he has to be one of the more unpleasant academics I've met in quite a while.

I've decided to wait for the first exam before doing anything about this. At a minimum, he is creating a hostile learning environment. I suspect that his department head is a weak leader or this guy would have been reined in long ago. So complaining might be a waste of time.

Don't get me wrong. I have a pretty strong stomach for these sorts of things. I am not looking for problems. But I'm paying a ton of money to take these classes and I expect something a little more coherent for my dollars.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Eyes Have It

I was able to observe a double enucleation on a boston terrier a couple of weeks ago. He had severe glaucoma, was already completely blind, and in considerable pain. His eyes were swollen (even more so than in unaffected boston terriers who are pretty pop-eyed to begin with) and milky white; the tissues around them were red and inflamed.

I know the vet who did the procedure and she allowed me to lurk in the operating room and bug her with as many questions as I dared. She also allowed me to cut open the eyeballs after she removed them--a perk of shadowing!

Normal eyeballs should be filled with a clear gel and have several distinct layers. This dog's eyeballs were filled instead with a small volume of opaque liquid. The layers inside were abnormally thickened. The black layer you see in the photo above is the choroid. It is normally dark in color but I don't think it is supposed to be black like this. The retina lies over the choroid; you can see some sort of rumpled, lumpy stuff in there--not a functional retina, to be sure. The lens should be clear but in this eyeball, the lens is the yellowish round object. The other eye didn't have an identifiable lens.

Even though this operation seems like an extreme solution, it was in fact the only solution. Once healed, the dog will be pain-free for the first time in years, and he will be able to live a relatively normal lifespan. I don't believe this is a common solution for humans with glaucoma though it could be. By necessity, vets are often far more practical about the gap between treating symptoms and finding cures. Vets will probably be pretty darned useful to have around when the zombie apocalypse comes.

There are plenty of intersections between animal and human medicine. Vets use lots of human drugs to treat Fluffy, off-label of course, and surgical techniques pioneered and perfected for one often smoothly translate to the other. While it depends on the vet and the details of the clients, vets have told me that between 30 and 70% of the drugs they use for animals were made and tested only for humans. But it goes the other direction as well. While shadowing with the dermatologist specialist, I learned about a remarkable new animal allergy drug that is becoming available. Since the development of a new drug costs many millions of dollars regardless of whether it is for Jane or Fluffy, the company (Zoetis, the animal side of Pfizer) obviously decided there was a significant market for it and that they would not only recoup their R&D investment but make a profit. I have no doubt that there will soon be ongoing human trials with the same drug or something like it.