Wednesday, September 30

So about those baboons already, right?

The first real day spent with the baboons is easily summed up by a single word: surreal. Let's have a look at the background. I'm jet lagged, and maybe even legitimately sick. I'm taking in all these crazy new stimuli around me and trying to make use of all of it.

This doesn't allow much sleep or chance for further recovery. This is sort of what I signed up for, though. What didn't help was that I woke up at about 2 AM and was unable to fall back asleep, probably because my muscles were overly sore from incorrectly sleeping on my side. Going into the first day with sore muscles is not so hot. Once 5ish rolled around, I got myself up and began to prepare. Turns out I had way too much time. Half hour or less would be just fine... and then it would be off to the sleep site.

What a baboon researcher generally does is follow the baboons around for several hours and record their behavior. The time can get rather empty when the baboons aren't doing what you want or just aren't doing much at all, so I was able to get plenty of pictures.
We followed the baboons from their original sleeping site, through fields, across streams and a marsh, through some pine trees, over another field, to where they would sleep the next night. Hopefully these areas won't get old too quickly.
Monkeys in trees. What will they think of next?
The day before was a major South African holiday; apparently South Africa recognizes even more holidays than the People's Republik of Massachusetts. Its little wonder, given how recently Apartheid was abolished, the new government and culture feels the need to celebrate the advances and changes that have been made in the past 20 years. And who can blame them?

In the states, we like to hold bar-be-ques as celebrations and are ingrained into the festivities of some of our holidays. South African's love their bar-be-que. They even have a special name for it: braai. The word means "roast" in Afrikaans, and is a very good word to know, apparently. Use it, and you will make them happy.

So, lots of South Africans went out to the park picnic grounds to celebrate Heritage Day. The baboons would wander through the exact same areas a day or even hours later.
wu-tang troop ain't nothin to fuck wit

That's the way of working with "urbanized" baboons. People can create effects over hundreds or years or just a few days. There are significant benefits, however. You can meet some very interesting people when you're not all alone in the bush with the animals. Plus, the baboons are powerfully habituated, so they're not afraid of us researchers at all.

Which brings me back to a question I was asked by several individuals before I left. I told them that by my guess, that the absolute closest I would be able to get to the baboons would be 10 meters.
one day I shall devour your soul and light your husk of a body on fire
I was mistaken. These baboons will let you within a foot of them. We try as hard as we can to stay 10 meters away, but that won't stop them from walking right up to you, past you, or starting a fight all around you. You just have to do your best to stay out of the way, get out of the way, and be as invisible as possible.

But it's a pretty good deal.

Saturday, September 26

Boston to Cape Town Liveblog

Some of you will be familiar with my many adventures in the world of airlines, and this little post is for all of you. I have this wonderful knack for getting screwed over when I fly across the country, which I had to do a lot of in college. In defense of air travel in general, one could argue it was predominantly the fault of United Airlines. I swore once never to fly them again, then sort of forgot that I made such a pact and booked another flight with them. I was not about to forget this a second time. So I don't fly United anymore, and if I have any say I truly never will again. This may not bode well for my angry, ranting stories about my air travel fiascoes which I am told are oh so entertaining. So, I guess its a good thing I'm trying to write about animals now, and not horrible airline angst.

Having heard so many great things about international flights with wi-fi and power outlets next to every seat, I was hoping I would be able to pen a true liveblog of this material, but alas, a KLM Airbus 330-300 just isn't the Concorde. However, much of this was written in-flight so I would not forget key details of the experience.

The trip started out with Lanthe driving me to the airport via zipcar (thanks, girlie). Despite the fact that I was taking an international flight from the get-go, I apparently wasn't going through terminal E - just boring terminal A since the flight was "operated by Northwest Airlines." So after following some extemporaneously devised instructions to the airport and proper terminal, everything was fine.

I have this problem where I own standard style rolly suitcases which I pack to be reasonably full, and they always weigh more than 50 pounds, and I have to get charged, or move my stuff around in order to get my bag under the weight limit. I have one bag in particular which I don't use much anymore. Really, I can't use it because it will always go over the bloody limit no matter how little I think I'm putting in it. I've gotten smaller and smaller bags, and continually run up against the same problem. This time, however, I didn't even weigh them properly, but when I went up to that bag check and plopped them down on the scale, both weighed exactly 50 pounds. Hell yes.

As I sat down in my carefully selected seat for the Amsterdam flight, I was hit by a wave of infantile screams. I was in a four seat row, and only one woman separated me from an Indian mother and her young child. Said child was not very happy to be on our plane. It cried for about half an hour before settling down. I think it (too young for me to be able to tell gender... yes, I know what you might be thinking, but I'm not planning on starting a family for myself anytime too soon) fell asleep after that. Fortune held with me, since (at least at the time I write this paragraph, which is more than 4 hours into the flight) the tyke didn't make an obnoxious sound for the remainder of the flight.

On the Amsterdam flight, the attendant for my region of the plane was an awesomely flamboyant fellow. For those of you old folks in the know, think Adlai, except white.

For the first time in a very long while, I consumed an airline dinners.

attendant: What would you like, chicken or vegetarian?
me: Well, what kind of chicken you got?
attendant: ... Dead chicken?
me: Well, that's a good start, I suppose. What else can you tell me?
attendant: Bad chicken?
attendant: Its really kind of gross. The vegetarian dish is much better, but you have to like curry.
me: Well, its a good thing I do. Let's go with that.

It was rather tasty. I ever managed to get my attendant buddy to get me an extra serving from the back.

While glancing at the map of our route from Boston to Amsterdam, I wondered at how this could be a 7 hour flight, and the next leg could be 11 hours. Geometry be a harsh mistress. Then I realized I was going to be flying over all of fucking Africa, and I really ought to have gotten a window seat in spite of my hate so that I might enjoy the view. Well, my next seat is similar to this one, and I have some decent window views, so I think I'll be okay. Maybe the flight won't be very full, though this one is surprisingly packed.

As the flight came to a close, they sent the duty free carts through the aisles. The were basically just loaded up with cartons of cigarettes and some bottles of booze. They were even the European packaged cigarettes which have 150% more guilt as an ingredient than American cigarettes. They have these huge warnings on the packages saying "Smoking will kill you." Personally, I find them highly amusing, especially when I talk to some of the ridiculous smokers I know about them. Really, they're just wonderful conversation starters in general.

The Amsterdam airport leaves something to be desired in terms of food. Other shopping seems fine, there's storefront after generic storefront for electronics, cigarettes, lighters, chocolates - everything on the earth that you tend to see marked up (but duty free!). However, there were hardly any restaurants to grab some food. There signs everywhere pointing to the one McDonalds in the area, and I was about to break down and get some of that until I saw the massive line and remembered how I'd sworn not to spend my own money on them. All the other options were sit-down restaurants, which I certainly didn't have time for... or so I thought. In the end, I just grabbed a quick "gondola pizza" which was as bad and overpriced as one would expect, for 5 euro, but it hit the spot, and there really were no other options.

At the gate, it took me a little while to figure out what the hell was going on. In Amsterdam, and across all of Europe for all I know, security checks are done at the gate. In theory it makes sense. In practice... well I've not seen nearly enough of these checkpoints to start getting all judgemental. I liked the idea, in spite of the fact that I had already gone through more rigorous security in Boston and generally hate security. Now, because of you have to send everyone through security here, that means the check-in process at the gate begins more than an hour before takeoff. They probably could have used more time. I certainly could have used this downtime which I wasn't aware of to go eat a real meal, but according to Vinayak, that'd cost me about 20 euro in Amsterdam proper, so nabbing a meal in the airport would undoubtedly be close to 30 euro.

Security was all well and good, though. No computer box with me, so now bizarre hang-ups associated with that. I'm getting more and more the feeling that I should have brought the funbox with me. Although my netbook has done surprisingly well for me so far - I've already spent some time using photoshop to touch up some images, and did not really have any performance issues at all.

Anyway, security. All was well. Made friends with another American in the line, one who operates a recording studio in Cape Town. I have a feeling he could give me some mad tips for music on the radio show. Here's a thought for the people on my radio crew: once I get settled, I'll send a local African song to you guys every week and you can play it.

Once the long wait was over, and we were all carefully seated on the very full plane, takeoff continued smoothly. I hadn't slept too much during the first flight, sort of because I wanted to save it up for this 11 hour deathtrap. My plan went quite smoothly. I did not miss a drink or food service, and somehow I completely lost track of about 7 hours of time. I fell asleep during take off, and woke up an hour later to find myself being offered food and drink. One rather tasty chicken dinner and miniature bottle of red wine later, I was ready for the valerian cocktail, which allowed me to continue my conversation with Morpheus.

What happened after that is a bit hazy for a long time. I'd stop and start and glance at the map to find us considerably further south than I might have expected. When I legitimately awoke, I found both my neck and buttocks to be too sore to continue sleeping. None of my standard airplane sleeping position variants afforded me much success. Oh well, it turned out to be time to eat again.

I had a very nice conversation with the English/South African couple seated next to me, and learned a few handy things about the city of Cape Town. I may even have gotten myself an inside edge with their daughter who specializes in tourism and could apparently show me the ropes around Cape Town and possibly some of the surrounding region.

A window seat might have been useful. Clouds are a problem, though. We're two hours out of Cape Town right now, and everything is covered in clouds, so I can't see much of anything anyhow. I'd say the clouds look different here, but I think that is the trick of the setting sun. Looks like there a giant Antarctic ice flow running from here to the horizon.

The quantity of unhappy children on both these flights has been surprising. It has been many a flight (all of which were domestic) since I encountered screaming babies. I suppose it is not too surprising that people traveling such great distances are family types more than the business fliers on my American flights. Or perhaps the semi rule holds true, and the planes are larger and thus the babies more numerous and thus the resulting din is louder overall.

Something amazing just happened in liveblogland. The attendants were pushing their final service carts down the aisle, asking if people wanted ice cream or chips. The guy pushing one of them blunders in such a way as to knock one of the boxes of food off the cart. A woman was standing behind him waiting to get to her seat just past where the cart was currently stationed. At seeing this error, she starts chiding him about it, and he basically asks her if she wants to do it, and she agrees. He takes her seat and she half-assedly continues the service, all leading to more hilarity. When she gets to her seat where the attendant is sitting, she asks, "and you'd like a bottle of wine?" "Yes, please," he replies.

Shazbot, I'm almost there. Its dark outside, which is to be expected, but still a bit disappointing. This sort of feels like what is was like to arrive in Japan really late into the night after a similarly epic flight. My sources on this plane conflict with my others concerning how... "normal" Cape Town is. These people actually live there, though, so I think I can trust them.

Wednesday, September 16

So it begins

When I started graduate school, I made a sort of pact with myself that I wouldn't cut my hair until my next big life shift. I was going to let it grow out and remain in a long fashion till the time when it seemed right.

Then I decided to take a leave of absence and go to Africa to study wild monkey behavior. It definitely felt like the right time for a trim, and I was getting damn tired of the annoyances of long hair.

Most of you who will come across this blog probably know a little to a lot about me, but I'd hate to be unkind to the newcomers, since I'm trying to develop some readership and all. I was born in Oregon, and spent pretty much my entire life there until leaving for college. While I was there, I played the violin in one of the best orchestras in the state, won some speech and debate competitions, played soccer, ran track, and spent plenty of weekends preserving natural Oregon prairieland with the Nature Conservancy.

College turned out to be in Boston, at a place called MIT. MIT was my favored choice during my college selections, though one could say my ultimate decision was made easier by the fact that my dad and brother both attended MIT as undergraduates and graduate students. We're one of those families, even though MIT doesn't really make many allowances for legacies.

My major was in what MIT calls "Brain and Cognitive Sciences," (or BCS, as people tend to call it) which to an uninitiated undergrad just sounds cool. MIT changed the department name from Psychology to BCS in the 80's, before the field of Neuroscience had its own spin-off in the Nature publication catalog. In truth, the BCS department is a lot of neuroscientists, ranging from the Molecular to the Cognitive, with a sprinkling of real cognitive scientists and linguistics hanging around the huge new building MIT gave the department.

I have long styled myself as a "Systems" neuroscientist, taking all the relevant classes, and backing it up by spending a couple years working in a high-profile monkey physiology lab. Those were good times, and gave me my first exposure to monkeys. I'm sure that some classic stories from these years will be retold...

My most fundamental understanding of primates doesn't come from my MIT monkey research, but rather from the innocuously named class "Animal Behavior." It would be unwise to say too much about that class right now, given its impact and subject matter is arguably the dominant foundation for this blog. However, in short, Animal Behavior was the best class I've ever taken. I even had the fortune to TA the class the year after I took it. The amount of knowledge and inspiration I drew from that class over the two years I was involved with it can pretty much never be understated.

So then I left MIT. Not exactly by choice, mind you, but I happened to graduate on time so I didn't have a whole lot of ways around that. I've watched MIT create interesting effects in many people, and I'm certainly one of them. There's still a lot I could have learned at MIT; its an addictive place for a certain kind of person. Some of them continue as PhD or Masters students at MIT, some of them get jobs and just hang around MIT all the time, some of them don't get jobs and just hang around MIT all the time.

I decided to go to graduate school in neuroscience, though at the recommendation of pretty much everyone I've spoken with, I chose to not pursue graduate school at MIT. "Its a good idea to go to a different graduate institution than your undergrad institution." So, I went to Brandeis, another top-notch biology school, just up the river a few miles.

And right now, I'm taking a leave of absence so I can try something that I've always wanted to do - go out into the field and do field research with wild animals. That's why I found myself a nice little temporary field research position, and am going to travel to Cape Town, South Africa to study the vocal behaviors of wild Baboons.

So, that's my life in a nutshell. I'm still in Boston right now, and the end of one of the more interesting months of my life is coming to an end, and then I'll be off to South Africa. I'm going to write about all the primates I'll be working with, the baboons, the researchers, the South Africans, and I'm sure I'll recount some old tales of other primates I've met and lived among.

Right now, I need to go back to packing and trying to be sure that I won't forget something vital, which I'll be half the world away from.