Thursday, July 31, 2008

A homecoming!

So I decided to take a break from whining about my rather boring life, to jump up and down squealing! Sarah, the international relations student who moved into our honours room and became as much a part of our department as I was (if not more so) has come home from JApan for a visit! It's been so quiet without her!

I felt that this was a good moment to record a few of the memories that come to mind when I think of her:

  1. She was the one to name my blog, which was the final act of persuasion in getting me to start one.

  2. She'd run around the honours room belting out classics, like "I heard it on the grapevine"

  3. Somebody complained about people using our computer lab if they weren't in our department, so the IT guy went to check. Sarah was sitting there, typing away about atrocities in Darfur or something and he went to ehr and asked if she'd seen anyone who wasn't supposed to be there. She sympathised witht he terrible nature of the simple situation and promised to keep an eye out for him. The minute he left she ran to the honours room and ahd a minor freak-out!

  4. When the Australain was around and we started the betting pool (I won't explain, it's kind of random) she used to come and sit in my lab and talk crap with him until I nearly fell off my chair giggling.

Tehre are so many more random things that happened that I'm going to have to stop this so I can focus on work today rather than just sitting giggling all morning.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The easy way around

You use stats to test ideas about a population based on a smaller sample...

So if I collect every lizard on the farm, then I won't need stats.

That might be easier than reading through my second stats book for the day.

Plus I could pick up some chai tea on the way! I ran out of teabags this morning - not a good way to start a Wednesday!

How many lines have a vertical...

yes, I've been spending my afternoon reading up on multiple regressions. It's actually been quite fun - I'm finally understanding the mechanisms behind the printouts! the honours student also came past to say Hi earlier, he's been coming past most days, and its nice. I'm on my own in the lab most of the time and it's nice to ahve a bit more of a 'lab-family' atmosphere, kind of like when the Australian was still around!


The ethics meeting was yesterday. I have yet to hear whether my aplpication was passed or not, and I'm procrastinating going to find out. The thing is, if I have clearance I have clearance. If not, it's 2 weeks before I can apply again, and then another 2 before they have another meeting. So if I know now or later won't really change things. I'm holding thumbs that it was passed, but that's about all I can do!

Last night I cooked a really horrible dinner. Well, it was nice, as long as you didn't eat the meat. I have learned my lesson that Pick & Pay meat is to be avoided at all costs. I think it would have taken a hacksaw to cut through it! On the plus side, I made rice successfully, which is a pretty unusal event in my life. I have never figured out the whole rice thing, and prefer to make pasta or cous-cous - both of which I can cook in my sleep by now.

Last night I went to have hot chocolate with Joey, and we came to the conclusion that the only safe meat in this country is from Woolworths or Spar. We all know that Checkers is to be avoided (something that south african girls are taught as infants, along with not sitting on the seat in a public bathroom). And while P&P meat is fine, it's cut badly and always ends up super tough.

I am so going to end up a vegetarian after all this! And I can't wait for my mom to come home so I don't have to cook every night! And I'm pretty sure my father can't wait either!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Once again, a music themed post! To tell the truth I've been playing with some data that I want to present soon, only to find that the results were exactly opposite to what I expected. So I went online looking for the lyrics to a song I was listening to, and I came across this (here) and decided to give it a try:

Music game (A to Z)

ok, look at your Music and write down for each Letter (A to Z)- the first Artist in your list- the last Artist in your list- the artist you like most

9 Lazy 9
3 Doors Down (don't judge me!)

A.C. Newman
Azure Ray
Architecture in Helsinki (going through a bit of a phase...)


Cafe del Mar
Crystal Method
Calexico (I had 'Cruel' on repeat for a day or two...)

The Darkness
Dynamic Shadows
Deep Forest

Eagle-Eye Cherry
Excuses for Skipping

The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Future Loop Foundation
Funeral for a Friend

Gwen Stefani

Half-handed cloud
Hugh Masekela

Ian Pooley
Issa Bagayogo
Indigo girls

Jack's Mannequin
Just Jinger
Just Jinger

K.D. Lang
The Killers

La Pieta
Luther Vandross
Lemon Jelly

Machine Head
My Morning Jacket
The Mountain Goats

Norah Jones
Neko Case/ New Pornographers

The Owls
Of Montreal (I think, I have a short O-list, and couldn't really pick anything...)

Panda & Angel
Puddle of Mudd

Queen (that's the only Q that I have...)


Sacred Spirit
System of a Down
She & Him

Taking Back Sunday

The Used
The Unicorns (added points for the name...)

Van Morrison
Vusi Khumalo
Violent Femmes (more for associated memories than anything else. V is also a short list!)

The Wallflowers

I don't have anything :(

Yvonne Fair

Zero 7
ZUCO 103
Zero 7

That was amazingly quick! I was also amazed by how much random music I seem to have collected over the years! My inner hoarder just can't take anything off my Ipod, just like I can't seem to clear the CDs out of my room when I'm far more likely to plug my Ipod into speakers than ever use a CD player again!


I love being on rooftops. I don't know if it's a symptom of my watching too much TV, or just a result of my spending part of my monday evenings on the roof in the break in the middle of orchestra practice, but I love it. Admittedly, I'm not fantastic with heights, although I've largely got over my fears as I have to climb after lizards all the time (plus going to Namaqualand requires extensive rock-hopping skills if you're going to have any fun at all).

So last night Duncan was singing in an Eistedfodd in the same building as where I had orchestra practice. We all went along to support him and it was lots of fun! I got there a bit early (Luke was bringing dinner but got stuck in traffic) and I went to listen to the JYO practising. They were terrible, although I can't really say that the standards have dropped too much because I listened to an old CD the other day and we were really not very good either back in the day... I also went through to the little practise room where I had lessons for the first 3 or 4 years of my viola 'career' and the room next door where I used to sit and pretend to do my homework while I waited for my lesson. My mom used to drop me off an hour or so early every week. It brought back a lot of memories, although the most vivid was of me almost passing out several times during my early lessons. Holding something that's quite heavy on your shoulder and standing for an hour can do that to you if you're not used to it! I also started on an instrument that was slightly too big for me, which didn't help. I was supposed to start on a 3/4 size violin with viola strings on it, but they gave me a full-sized violin instead.

After all that Luke arrived, and as we only had about 10 minutes before we had to go in to the Eistedfodd, I shoed him and Candice the roof. It's one of the best roofs ever! It's flat (which always helps) and has ladders and things between levels, and cool ramp things to climb on (or not). There are also raised sections with windows where you can watch the people inside the building and between the sections are cool little alleyways (where Luke was almost attacked by an exploding pigeon). When it was about 5 minutes before we had to be in the Eistedfodd we left, only to find that it had already started.

It turned out that the section before (high-school kiddies) had run over time and we weren't actually late, but we were convinced that we were, and so we snuck in (in full view of everyone because the door is right behind the performers) and settled down. It was in the room where we had Foundation Orchestra practice (when I was 10-14) and I got to reminisce a little bit in order to try and ignore the guy belting out "Cry me a River" - not the JT version, for the record. The kids weren't bad at all. There were a few problems, but they were all young, and from the Arts School, so I'm sure they'll be ironed out soon enough.

Then the adult section started. By then Candice, Luke and I had been joined by Duncan's sister and brother-in-law and it was quite entertaining to watch everyones faces as the first guy butchered an Aria and then tried to sing "All I Ask of You" with his daughter. I'd thought that he was bad, but she sounded like... there's no word for it! Every time she went for a high note (I say 'went for', not 'hit', because I don't think she hit any of the right notes...). Candice very kindly gave me her scarf to shove into my face to hide the giggles and I tried to focus on rolling it into a little ball and ignore the horrendous display, but it wasn't working so I threw it at Luke to distract him (he was pulling the "I'm not impressed" face which might or might not have been trying to stop the giggles). After that was a guy who walked off stage before the accompanist had stopped playing, and a potential dentist/orthodontist who hides dead bodies in his dustbin - he was actually pretty good!

Finally it was Duncan's turn and he was awesome! I've never liked opera music, I find it boring and the excessive vibrato annoys me (sure, it helps with sound production, but we have microphones now), but I found that Duncan's singing (besides being really erally good technically) held my attention completely. I actually felt that he understood what he was singing (and not just in the movements, you could hear it as well). by the end of the song everyone was paying attention - even the weird adjudicator was tapping her feet! At the end of it people started clapping before the song was even over, and the applause was sincere, not like the polite clapping that was happening before. It was so awesome!

After all that (and a really appalling couple of schoolkids trying to sound like Mariah Carey which I will not try to describe becasue the words don't even exist) everyone else ehaded for Eastgate for a celebratory cup of coffee, while Luke and I grabbed pizza frmo his car and, with David and Athena in tow, went and had dinner on the roof. It was freezing, but lots of fun. I love rooftops! From there I followed Luke to Eastgate and we had coffee with everyone and then he showed em a fantastic route back to the highway. I go to Eastgate regularly and never know how to get home afterwards, except for a very long way around.

So that was my evening, and it was awesome! And congratualtions to Duncan for a fantastic performance and for winning the highest award available!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The beauty of friendship

Yes, cheesy title, I know! But bear with me - it's been a pretty horrible weekend, and I was saved from complete and utter despair by an awesome night out with some pretty amazing people!

My weekend was horrible because I haven't been sleeping well. Even today I lay down for a nap and ended up dreaming that I wasdrowning in a dirtly green swimming pool. I woke myself up because I was thrashing around trying to swim... On top of all that (lizard woes number 5) the last really sick lizard was dead when I went to treat him this morning. I'm praying that it wasn't the result of anything I did. I'm justifying the whole situation by sayiong that I did my best, that he wasn't really improving very much, he was realy far gone to start with and that I was silly to let myself get attached to something that was that sick (silly to get attached to anything that is, in fact, a test subject). Is there a name for some kind of reverse-Stockholm syndrome? It was still pretty upsetting. Fortunately just after that whole thing I had coffee with a friend from the zoo, and it was really nice.

So anyway, last night I went out to dinner with Lara, her (and my) friend Nicola and a bunch of other people. I knew an alarming number of them, and even more alarmingly it was because I've taught them at some stage! It was fun though, and we laughed a lot, between lots of really rough Afrikaans jokes... and various lous and random discussions. La and I also met someone from Sevende Laan in the bathroom, which got her all super-excited! After that we realised that it was still pretty early, and although La needed help to walk to the car (Nicola was driving) we were all up for going off somewhere else, so we headed off to a pub near my house.

It was really awesome! I tend to stayt clear of pubs and clubs, as I find that I always run into people that I know either from babysitting them (sad, but oh so true), teaching them or serving them at any of my various jobs. It's incredible awkward and I always end up feeling old and embarrassed. The bonus of this place is that I think they actually check ID, so it was packed with people of around my age. When I finally found Lara and crew we set off to the bar to be stopped by a very tall (and very tipsy) guy in a suit. He rushed over to La and gave her a kiss on both cheeks. I figured that either he knew her, or he was really drunk, in which case the best option (once he left her and headed for me) was to let him do the cheek-cheek thing and then he would either introduce himself or go away.

So it was left cheek, right cheek.. the he grabbed my face and pulled in to me! La tells me that she's never seen a look on my face like that, and it was really luck that he did, indeed, go away or I would have had to hurt him. Unfortunately he didn't stay gone, and spent the next half an hour wlaking past us and casually slapping my butt until I had to switch places with Nicola (you don't want to upset her!) and he got the message.

Once Lara and I'd recovered and we;d all managed to squeeze in at a table in the back, we decided that it was a good time to take photos. One of the other people (Natasha, neither of high heels or Eyes) had a camera with her, and Lara and I tried very very hard to do self portraits with the two of us in various poses. It didn't work. Most of them involve one of us laughing while the other poses. Eventually the owner of the camera reclaimed it, but carried on taking photos, so there is a fantastic series of pictures of us in various stages of gigling fits. I hope to get a copy soon, because it's been a long time since I've laughed until I cried, and I think that having a memento would be a great thing to get me to giggle should a weekend ever be as depressing as this one!

So yes, friendship is really a wonderful thing, and I'm giggling as I type this, so I'm going to have to stop there!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Desert! Mole-rats!

So I was just thinking about how boring my life is at the moment. Yes, in the last week I have had to battle with the power-that-be to get sick animals to a vet, where they were treated inbetween massive snakes (including a beautiful anaconda that bit a friend of mine), but in general, the months that I'm in Joburg tend to be pretty routine and boring. I don't work an office job, so I guess my life is more interesting than most, but there is very little to write about. When I go on field trips everything gets more exciting, but even that has faded a bit.

Fieldwork now is incredibly routine and I like it that way. I have to occasional excitement of the roof falling in or watching random antelope from my window, but otherwise it's pretty much business as usual. Back in the day (I'm getting old) fieldwork was always to different exciting places where we met new and crazy people and had weird things happen to us.

So back to the point: a long time ago Luke and Id ecided that we would write a book called "The mole-rat diaries" all about our adventures catching mole-rats. On the last trip (it was almost 2 years ago) we actually started keeping accounts on his laptop all about what stuff happened. I stopped after about a week becasue I was too tired at the end of the day, but I have a few pages that I thought I would put up here in installments. I figure when I run out of actual stuff, I ahve the photos and the memories to try and carry on.

So watch this space for the new and exciting series of the Mole-rat Diaries (Helen's POV)

Family ties

I am exhausted at the moment! Last night my aunt arrived from Cape Town. She lives in England, but had a business trip to the cape, and now she's spending a few days with my grandparents. Her flight arrived at 8pm, so my dad and I collected her and went to my granparents house for a late supper. Wow, my grandmother is a really good cook, and while I appreciate that she made us an incredible meal, it was the size of about 2 of the meals that I cook at home, so I spent most of the evening feelnig mildly ill.

It was really nice to see my aunt again, but I found it strange, and a bit sad, that I'm not upset that I won't see her again before she goes back overseas. When I was youger she came out once a year and we all went on holiday together. When she was in the UK the biggest treat for us would be to phone her and talk for 5 minutes. Now I guess we have Skype and email and it feels like she's not all that far away.

I'm struggling at the moment a bit - the sick lizards are taking a lot of time, as well as the fact that I feel obligated to help at the zoo more often because they've helped me out. My actual work is falling behind, although I'm getting a lot done, and I'm making up for it by staying up late. When I finally collapse into bed I struggle to sleep. I think it's all the stress. This morning I think my body outvoted my brain, and I slept until 9:30. That means that this weekend (besides coming in to university every day to treat sick lizards) I'm gonig to have to catch up on a lot of work.

Fun times...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Anyone (aka lizard woes part...4?)?

So I took the (surviving) sick lizard back to the vet today, along with two others that have been looking a bit under the weather. I'd been giving them fluids and stuff so they weren't looking too bad, and even bit and peed and all the usual stuff that makes me REALLY dislike this particular species. I'll probably be taking the sick one home this weekend so I can keep an eye on him, as well as giving him his fluids. I've actually grown quite attached to the little guy! Here's hoping that he's ok!

So after going in to help with the frogs, rushing back to university, collecting lizards, rushing back to the zoo, rushing back to university... I settled down to realise that work of any description was NOT going to be happening today - an alarm was going off about 2 offices down from the lab, as well as drilling and sawing and hammering downstairs. so I tried very hard to work while the masters student read (and commented about) Heat magazine, and then I rushed back to the zoo to collect a treatment sheet for my lizards (so that the powers-that-be can see exactly what's going on) and have lunch with Luke and Elaine.

Luke was off with his chimps, so I sat with Elaine and Tommy, a guy from the technical staff who has offered to give me a zoo cap! I really don't like hats, but for some reason volunteering at the zoo has a side-effect of really wanting a hat! For the record, hats are only given out to official staff, and they can give them away to volunteers when new ones are issued (volunteers aren't allowed any current items of the zoo uniform). The bonus of the hat (besides reaching super-power status amongst volunteers) is that it means that people at the restaurant who recognise it as you either working or helping at the zoo, give you a 20% discount!

So during lunch Elaine spotted a little girl carrying a kitten, and went to yell at her - pets are definitely not allowed in the zoo, for obvious reasons. It turned out that the kitten is a stray, although she's really really tame (and SO cute!) so Elaine ended up adopting it and looking after it. The kitten is really adorable and I would love her, but I have two large dogs so I doubt it would last long in my house! Luke has it at the moment, and I'm hoping his family falls in love with it and takes it permanently. Otherwise, I'm really hoping that we can find her a nice home soon! So anyone in Joburg wanting a kitten?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chai tea

I found a box of chai tea at the supermarket and brought it into the lab. I've been drinking it constantly since then, with soya-milk and a little bit of sugar. The whole lab smells nice now!

Apparently it has as much caffeine as coffee. Is this true? Or just another myth like the coffee having less caffeine than tea myth (so not true!). Coffee has been giving me headaches so I had to give it up, which means that my caffeine levels are dangerously low at the moment!

lizard woes part 3

The third lizard is still alive! He's still not looking great, but he's definitely better than he was. The other one that we gave fluids to pre-emptively is amazingly energetic now. the first batch (which now only consists of a single lizard) is due for a check-up tomorrow, so I might take one or two others along just in case. As it is, the people 'in charge' - such as the vet who nobody could find - are really angry with me about the whole situation, so I'm hoping this won't jeopardise my ethics application (the meeting is in less than a week).

It seems that the powers-that-be are more concerned about the unit's image than the health of the animals, which bothers me a lot. I know that it's a nasty place to work and it must get depressing, but as far as I'm concerned animal welfare is of paramount importance. I just don't understand people who don't see the world that way.

On the plus side, we finished deworming the lizards this morning, and the honours student administered his first ever dose! I was very proud!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

lizard woes continued

Two of the three sick lizards had died by yesterday afternoon. I went to chyeck on them before I went home and ended up having to put them in the freezer. I had to go to the zoo and help out as a thank you for the help yesterday, and I found that scrubbing frog tanks helped a lot! It's amazing how caring for something else can make you feel so much better about life!

That said, I must go and treat the remaining lizard. Let's hope he's still alive to receive it!

Monday, July 21, 2008

lizard woes

So on Friday, some of the honours student's lizards started getting sick. One of them died that day and another died on the weekend. I offered to help with deworming them, because we know for a fact that they ahve worms, and that they've been under a lot of stress lately. The fantastic vets here decided that as I've helped with deworming before I could do it all alone, and pretty much said that as much as they were delighted to help, they didn't actually want to DO anything.

I wasn't happy about the whole sitiation, but as it happened, I had a really busy week last week and a killer headache on friday, so I went I hadn't been down to see them until this morning. In the meantime I'd checked the dosages and asked a bunch of different vets for advice on how much to administer and how to give it to them and side effects and all that stuff, so I was feeling slightly more confident about the whole situation. When I got down to the unit this morning I was completely stunned by the condition of the animals. I measured them about 2 weeks ago and they were all healthy and full of nonsense and wriggling and in good shape. This morning one of them had nasty lesions all over himdelf and another two were barely breathing and thin and dehydrated. I disinfected them and tried to give them water, but it wasn't helping, so I tried to call the vets, but they didn't answer their phones and I started to panic. I can honestly say I ahve never seen lizards looking this bad before. I knew that they wouldn't make it until tomorrow if I didn't do something, and as much as I knew exactly what to do, I didn't have a)the ethical clearance (if you can believe that! I have no clearance therefore it should just die) and b) i didn't have the stuff I needed. So I did the only thing I could think of and took them to the zoo.

It was awful! Firtly there was complete chaos as they were deworming anacondas and one of them had bitten a zoo-keeper and there was blood everywhere and the snakes smelled bad and it was just complete havoc. The snakes were cute in a way though! It was just really awful becasue the vets agreed with me that the lizards were in a complete mess and might not survive, and I felt embarrassed that I'd let them get to such a state. I like to think that the people at the zoo know me well enough to know that I look after my animals properly, but I felt really guilty to be associated with such sick lizards.

On the other hand I know poeple who would just let the animals be euthenased or let them die rather than look like they weren't looking after them properly. I only realised later that I wasn't really obligated to do anything, but the thought of leaving them like that made me feel sick and furious with myself for even having that thought. The fact is that they're not my test subjects, and I have very little to do with them, but I caught most of them, and as such I feel responsible.

They're the honours student's responsibility, and to his credit, I checked the unit thoroughly and the tanks are pristine and the rest of the lizards are fine, so he's off the hook. He's done a pretty good job, but unfortunately we aren't vets and there are limits to what we can do. The only issue is that he had noticed that they weren't quite normal alst week, but he didn't have the experience to do anything about it. But considering the fun and games I've been having with the vets here, there's not much that he could have done. Which leaves me at war with the university vets who evidently couldn't be bothered to look after sick animals.

Friday, July 18, 2008

I am a strange strange person...

So I spent most of yesterday fighting with the complicated papers again. It's not often that I can say I spent an entire day on a single paper and not feel gulty for procrastinating - I worked hard and thought hard and wrote out pages of ridiculously long and scary equations which I think are almost starting to make sense to me! The rest of the day was spent helping my supervisor who is having computer issues after upgrading his referencing program (I could have told him that version 10 is evil, but he probably wouldn't have believed me, considering that he still hasn't changed back to the old version after a very horrible battle to remove a single letter from a reference...) It was actually quite entertaining, how it was almost a role-reversal day - for once he was trying to find ME! Excuse my grammar there, it's 8am and it's already been a long day...

So anyway, back to the title. As I drove home last night I realised that I was feeling completely happy and elated. I realised that I am currently working on something really difficult and I have no clue what I'm doing, and it felt great. I figured that maybe I've been so depressed lately because I've been bored. I work hard, but most of it is techniques that I've learned before (back to 2006 when I started as a postgrad) and most of it is boring and repetitive and as much as the results occasionally look cool and I enjoy working towards figuring out what's going on, what made me fall in love with academia wasn't getting publications or looking intelligent (or getting A's - although that was always fun). What I love about academia is finding an issue or a problem and grappling with it and discussing it and arguing about it and generally fighting until I figure it out.

Lately I've been thnking hard about leaving academia once the almighty PhD is finished. Now I'm not so sure. I really do love what I do, I'd just lost that for a while.

And today I went back to gym after a few months of not going (the Madagascans needed all my energy, I went on fieldwork and then I got sick from a diseased monkey). It was awesome! I might not be able to walk tomorrow, but I'm feeling great now, albeit a little bit tired fromoleaving home at 6am after sitting up late cooking for my dad.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


So, in the spirit of duck-in-a-rowness, I cleaned out the fridge (my mother is not exactly the pinnacle of organisation at the best of times, and now that she's away I seized the opportunity), the drawer by my bed and my shoe collection.

To tell the truth, I'm not too sure how much of it was my newfound desire to put my life in order, and how much was a result of my spending most of the day reading papers that I didn't understand. Eventually I went home, printed a few of the worse ones out and settled down on my bed with a pen and a highlighter and tried to get through them. After about an hour, I got to a stage where the scientists had put together a bunch of pictures with an instruction to 'hold your finger 10cm from the page and focus on it and then look at the page without changing the focus of your eyes' or something. They followed by assuring me that not everyone can do it. After about 10 minutes of squinting I felt (once again) like I was stuck in an episode of Punkd, except that a) I really dislike Ashton Kutcher and b) I'm not famous. Unless I really am living the Truman Show, but that makes very little sense because if that was true they wouldn't have made the movie.

So I started going through some of the piles of junk in my room and getting rid of stuff. It was pretty interesting. I've always known myself to be a bit of a hoarder, but I had no idea how bad the situation was. For example the bottom of my bedside drawer was covered with old batteries. There were about 3 handfuls of them. I'm sure that I had them in my walkman way back in the day, and when they ran out I saved them to use in an alarm clock or a torch os something that doesn't need as much power as a walkman or discman. For a horrifying moment I realised how bad the situation would have been if I hadn't switched to an Ipod. I'd be wading through batteries, which would be spilling out into other parts of the house... You'll be glad to know that I put them all in for recycling!

After that I tackled my shoes, which actually began in a perfectly innocent attempt to find a certain pair of shoes, and ended up with me throwing out a huge pile of old ones. I realised to my horror that I have a shoe collection to rival a lot of people who I ridicule regularly, which makes the whole situation a lot worse considering that I probably wear about... 6 or 7 pairs regularly. I actually found my huge silver platform shoes (don't judge me) from when I was about 14. There were others, equally old that have acutally come back into fashion because I kept them for so long! On the plus side, I found my old hiking boots, which I thought I'd lost.

So now that that is done, I have no excuse (except cleaning out the other cupboards, but I don't have the energy right now) but to get back to the nasty complicated papers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Facing fears

So, in a spate of putting-ducks-in-a-row, I've spent the better part of the last week doing huge piles of admin, ordering equipment, booking vehicles for the upcoming field season and sorting through data to get it into a workable form. I've also had bad days when I've gone home and needed to take my mind off life, so I've been catching up on movies.

It is here that I faced a very real fear... yes, really... believe it or not... I watched the whole of the Wizard of Oz. In one sitting! I think the fact that I had my phone with me, with a few close friends on speed-dial helped. The australian had also told me what she could remember of the ending which made it a lot less scary. I also found the Dorothy & Co were exceptionally annoynig, so I didn't really fear for them at all. Maybe if the lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) had succeeded in eating them they would have stopped singing... As for the wicked witch of the west who has been a recurring figures in my nightmares from when I was about 4 years old... well I found out that the stripy tights that scared me so much actually belonged to the wicked witch of the EAST! And the fact that I knew that witch #1 had a house land on her, and #2 did the whole "I'm melting! Meltiiing..." thing, they got a whole lot less scary.

I also faced another fear today, that is the fear of tring to do something I don't understand. As of this morning, I have decided to do some visual modelling with my data. It means that I've spent about 6 hours reading papers with really long equations that I don't understand, but I'm making progress!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The inner bunny-hugger

So I haven't posted for a while because I've been entirely caught up in the oh-so-joyous world of applying for animal ethics permits. For the non-zoologists out there, basically everything I do involving animals (even observing them) requires me to fill in a 13-page long form (including 3 mini-essays) which is given to a committee of very scary and qualified people who decide whether or not it is necessary for me to do the study. Last time I did this it was a huge drama because they wouldn't give me clearance until I completed a whole ton of corrections. That's all fine, except that the secretary didn't bother telling anyone, so I ended up starting fieldwork late becasue I had to do 2 piles of corrections and then wait for the next committee meeting where they made me go in and talk to the committee - something that has never happened before as far as I know!

Let me just point out that I have huge respect for the whole ethics thing. Firstly, you can't study at the university without clearance - it's part of a contract type thing I signed when I started this degree. Secondly, it's one of very few things that I get to apply for directly, not through my supervisor, and as much as I hate responsibility, I like that they hold ME accountable for my actions. Thirdly, you can't publish without ethics clearance and fourth: it makes you decide on an end-point, so basically when the animals aren't looking too fantastic, you can go back to your end-points and use them to decide whether or not you should remove an animal from an experiment. I also like to think that if there is ever a more humane way of treating my animals, the committee would know and would help me to implement the changes necessary. I've also, on occasion, had to show people around the animal facilities to show where they're being housed, and demonstrate all my techniques to a vet to make sure that I'm not hurting anything.

So anyway, there is a cut-off date for applications - in this case it was friday. If you miss the cut-off then you can't apply until the next month, so everything is set back - a major issue if you depend on the breeding season for everything like me, and if there is a rainy season starting soon that will stop my work completely from time to time while I wait for the rocks to dry off a bit so I can go back out into the field. So on Wednesday I realised that I had 2 days to do my application - one day of you count the fact that it would have to be read over by my supervisor (which takes at least half a day of tracking him down) and the by the guy in our department who has to sign off the application before I could submit. I went straight into panic mode, and didn't even go to the zoo for the rest of the week. I'm pround to say that my application went in on Friday and everything should be ok!

On top of all of that my supervisor yelled at me for not finishing something that I'm currently taking a break on, and went on to tell me all about how hard it'll be for me to get a posting after I finish this degree, which sent me into a depressed spiral. I told him the next day that I don't want to go into academia, which I think scared him slightly, but I'm hoping that he'll start to understand where I'm coming from now. Either way he's out the country for a month soon and I'll have to go back to fending for myself. Oh well...

This morning at the zoo felt decidedly weird, I missed being there every day, but I also realsied that I really don't have time for it, and I should start to pull back and refocus on my work. The frogs are looking fine, despite my not being there, although 2 of them are missing, which means that they probably escaped and then dried out and died in some corner of the room. I got to sit in on a rock-monitor post-mortem though, which was really interesting!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

follow-up photos!

here are some pictures from the oh-so-awesome Kruger trip! I'm afraid that they really aren't as good as I'd like, but unfortunately if a leopard sits behind a bush there's not much you can do. Antelope have a way of turning their butts to you whenever you take out a camera, so at least (for your sake) I'm not including the many butt-shots I have!

A contemplative giraffe.

A contemplative lapwing. I forget which kind, the bird book is at home at the moment (and I'm not...)
A contemplative waterbuck. These are the only buck you want a butt-shot for because they have lovely white rings there!
Behind the fuzzy branch there is a leopard! Forgive me for not going around to the other side, but there was a big river in the way...
A one-eared bokkie! He was the cutest little guy! I bet he tells great stories about the time he excaped from lions...

A roadblock! That car was stuck there for quite a long time because the oncoming traffic all stopped to look! Not unlike a real roadblock actually...
A likkewaan! They're actually pretty big, and we saw a lot of them!

A chilly roller. Early in the morning all the birds were fluffy and miserable looking!

An almost butt-shot.

Those brown blobs are the cheetah and the cubs. I wish you could take photos through binoculars. Or rather that we had cameras implanted in our brains and we could photograph stuff exactly how we see it! Then again there was that movie (Final cut) where that didn't work out so well!

Elephants drinking after a very cute mass-mudbath! The babies weer rushign around trying to get the adults attention, one of them resorted to sitting between an adults front feet and jabbing at it with its trunk! They covered themselves with sand shortly afterwards.

Once again, biocular cameras! The blob in the centre is also a leopard.
A rhino! One of many, but this one had his head out the trees, which is a nice contrast to all the other pictures!

Lion, Tigers and... never mind!

So I just spent 4 days in the Kruger National Park. It's pretty much this really massive game reserve in the lowveld, that at some points is less than 100km from where I do fieldwork. I was sent along with a visiting researcher from Australia, who was really cool. It was nice to meet a scientist (with the exception of my scientist friends who are totally rox) who could have a normal conversation about music, dumb horror movies and also cool stuff like geckos and stuff they found in experiments and stuff.

It was weird going there. Firstly, we used to go when I was really small, and I didn't really like it too much. My concentration-span is notoriously short, and my clearest memory is being tired of being cooped up in a car all day (it's a big% area so you aren't allowed to walk around) trying to eat pop-rocks quietly so that my dad wouldn't find out that we were eating in the car. My mom used to snea up pop-rocks to try and keep us quietly. My other memory is of it being super-hot and we bought little hand-held fans for the back of the car, where we found out that if you got new abtteries and put your hand in the way of the blades it really really hurt. I have a few memories of animals, but not nearly as vivid as trying to sleep when it was really hot and stuffy at night, and swimming in the pool at one of the rest camps.

Needless to say, when I was around 10 or so we stopped going to Kruger, and went to the beach on holiday instead, which I was a lot happier with! So the first weird thing (after all that) was the random memories that popped up when I went to places. I remembered things like sitting at a particular picnic site and nearly being mobbed by starlings, and seeing a you leopard (or was it a cheetah?) asleep at the side of the road, or the hyenas we saw once. I really didn't expect to remember all tehse things when we were in terrain so much like my field sites where I've never really thought about those holidays at all!

Secondly, it was really hard for me to be cooped up in a car all day. Partly for reasons that I will not discuss here as I think they are best left alone, and partly because it looked so much like the farm, so we'd go past an outcrop and I'd have to force myself to quell the impulse to jump out of the car and go and look for lizards! I also battled a little bit because I'm actually relatively antisocial and like to take a walk whenever I'm away to get away from people and enjoy the silence for a bit. As ti's all scary and big 5 and stuff I had to be around the australian the whole time. I was proud by how wel I masked my crankiness at times, and other times I took an extra shower or went to bed really early so that I wouldn't have to be all friendly and stuff.

Thirdly: well the Kruger is a big 5 area. This means that the 5 animals traditionally known to be the most dangerous to hunt (and generally be around I think) are there and any walking around ahs to be done in the presence of game guards with rifles. For the record they are: Lion, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo and Leopard. Anyway althought hunting them is totally out of the question now, there is some prestige attached to seeing all of the big 5 on a trip. Don't ask me why, elephants and buffalo (and Rhino) in some parts are almost as common as impala, and if there really was a prestige-type list it should probably include cheetah, wild dogs, hyenas and a few other things I've forgotten to mention. Anyway the moral of the story is that it is nearly impossible to see all of the big 5, mainly because it's really hard to find (or spot - no pun intended) leopards. We saw it 3 times in 3 days. Really. We saw black rhino - they were reintroduced relatively recently and there are only about 70 individuals in the park, had 3 independent leopard sightings and saw a cheetah with cubs (also something that hardly ever happens). If you;d asked me a week ago what the chances were of somebody seeing a leopard and a cheetah in a single trip to the kruger I would have laughed at you!

And finally, I realised that I actually know stuff! I'm famously bird and buck (antelope) impaired and can barely tell the difference between a pigeon and a mossie (sparrow), but for some reason I knew a lot fo the birds that we saw, and the antelope weren't nearly as difficult as I expected. There weren't as many different bokkies as I expected, and I geuss I've absorbed a tiny bit of bird knowledge from all those weeks in the field, but I was shocked!

I also found out that I'm actually pretty good at chatting to people in Afrikaans. We came across very few English-speakers and if you're driving past people who have just seen a leopard and they and tell you, it really does come in handy. Now I know that my Afrikaans is good, partly from travelling fairly often through South africa, and partly from some close friends who speak Afrikaans at home (and often to me when they forget that I'm English). I've been able to make myself understood and understand people well enough to organise things or ask questions, but I'm always extremely self-conscious and they realsie that I'm English and they either keep it simple or they start speaking English. On this trip I felt completely comfortable speaking Afrikaans, to a point of having random conversations, just chatting about stuff and even on one occasion (after I touched my camera to a hectic electric fence and shocked myself) swearing in afrikaans and then being rather sarcastic to the people who pointed out that it was actually electrified. It was very cool!

Photos are to follow, otherwise this post will go on forever!