Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A beautiful day in Auckland

It is a little hard for me to believe that I only just got here yesterday. Maybe that's due to the incredible hospitality of the Rainey family, or maybe it's the eerie, chimeric familiarity of the place; but when I realized today that it was Wednesday, and I got here on a Tuesday, the feeling was surreal.

Maybe it's the length of the days. I got up early this morning (as you might expect if you did a complicated bit of time zone math), so I've been going for a while. It was utterly clear and gorgeous, so I walked down the street to watch the sun come up over Hauraki Gulf.

It's quite a ways down to the water -- I think I dropped as much in elevation to the beach as I walked in distance from the house to the top of the stairs down. On the way, I was joined by an incredibly and aggressively personable little Siamese. Let it not be said that friendliness among Kiwis is limited to the humans. Quite to my surprise, the cat followed me all the way down the 200 or so stairs, and even came right out onto the beach.

Unfortunately for my camera-hogging little buddy, once we were actually on the beach I was quickly absorbed by taking lots of pictures of really boring things, like rocks and limpets and seaweed. Before long, Kitty had disappeared and I had only mollusks for company.

By the time I made it back to the house, Paul was up. We had a spot of coffee and were off to the lab, where he gave a really interesting talk on the evolution of multicellularity. This is quite a paradox given our current assumptions about how evolution works, and is an area of special interest to me. The fundamental problem is that, any time you have a group of organisms that trade a little personal benefit for the good of the whole, there is a tremendous incentive for cheaters to arise and reap the benefits without paying anything in to the pot. Since the cheaters end up gaining the most, they multiply the fastest and cooperation breaks down. This has been repeatedly demonstrated experimentally and even holds true to an extent in my old co-op!

So how do you maintain cooperation? Obviously it happens all the time; there are loads of symbiotic interactions in the natural world, and plenty of cooperation at higher levels of complexity (like co-ops). For multicellular organisms to happen in the first place, something had to have gotten past this stage about half a billion years ago (in fact, evidence points to at least a dozen independent origins of multicellularity). The fact that our current models of evolution have a hard time dealing with these things suggests that there's some room for improvement in the model, and this is largely the kind of question I hope to look at in my PhD thesis. It turns out that some of the bacterial systems that Paul uses for experimental evolution offer some unique and interesting ways to check this kind of thing out.

The key is that Paul's lab has a bacterial strain that, under certain conditions, will reliably evolve from free-living, independent cells to a cooperative mat of cells. Equally reliably, and with enough time, cheaters will evolve and eventually destroy the cooperative mat. Since the mat uses resources more efficiently than independent cells, it will re-evolve, and then re-collapse, and so on. Hopefully, by playing around with different evolutionary pressures, Paul's team will be able to discover important new things about how evolution plays out in these scenarios. Their data so far sure are fascinating.

And heck, maybe I'll be part of that team. Sure is a nice place, and good people (and cats)!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Actually in New Zealand

Here I am, actually in New Zealand. Pretty fantastic.

The flight was pretty much without a hitch. It's longish, but nothing too bad -- I even slept for a bit midway through. I was even lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me! Certainly made stretching out a bit easier. Customs was a breeze, and I got on board a shuttle to the North Shore lickety split. On the way up, I was treated to a spectacular sunrise over Manukau Harbour. I made good enough time to surprise my pajama'ed host, who was expecting me a bit later than 6:30...

After a breakfast with Paul and a bit of freshening up, we drove around a bit to see the sights. Auckland is an unbelievable city if you like the water; the various bays and inlets that section various bits of it up are constantly present and gorgeous. Fifty or so extinct volcanoes stick up here and there, going on 50km or so to the East. The effect is to take a body of water I normally think of as vast and monolithic (the Pacific Ocean) and section it up into something much more inviting. This place is kayak heaven.

Sightseeing out of the way, we went to the lab to sit down a bit. Massey University's main campus is at Palmerston North, which is only slightly less in the middle of nowhere than Palmerston South (if indeed there is such a place). Recognizing this, they have been expanding a satellite campus at Albany, in Auckland's North Shore. Things seem to be on the up and up, with a focus on growing their strength in biology and evolution. I think my most singular impression so far is of the architecture -- all the labs are little independent buildings, rather than the large, shared spaces I'm used to back in the states. It does give the campus a bit of a sleepy, residential feel. Kind of like if Hopkins were in Marin instead of Monterey, and had fewer people: really quiet little place right next to a largish city.

Jet lag hasn't been so bad, yet. However, it is only 4:30PM, and the prospect of staying awake for another five hours seems a bit daunting. This is shaping up to be a loooong day...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Here we go...

Supposedly, in 24 hours I will be on the other side of the world. This still seems somewhat unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is the fact that I will be able to speak to people there in my native language. Thank you, 18th century imperial Europe.

My jumping off was made immeasurably more pleasurable by a stay with the good folks at CPX, a remarkable co-op full of remarkable people who together drive Palo Alto's awesomeness quotient through the roof. Pictured is the indomitable Wes, hands covered in what can only be described as a prelude to sheer terror. This probably won't make any sense to you if you've never tried to walk up the path to Synergy on the night of the Halloween party.

Well, off I go! I'll leave you with this remarkable fact courtesy of Wikipedia:

Zealand (Danish: Sjælland; [ˈɕɛˌlænˀ]) is the largest island (7,031 km²) of DenmarkGreenland, which is a Danish territory) and the 95th largest island of the world ... (excluding

In Norse mythology the island was created by the goddess Gefjun after she tricked Gylfi, the king of Sweden, as told in the story of Gylfaginning. She removed a piece of land and transported it to Denmark, and it became the island of Zealand. The vacant area was filled with water and became Mälaren.[2] However, since modern maps show a similarity between Zealand and the Swedish lake Vänern, it is sometimes identified as the hole left by Gefjun.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Premptive Travel Blogging

Looks like further exposition on the future of climate change lectures will have to wait until life stops intervening. From this point on, hoursbyhours becomes ---

a travel blog! *cymbal crash*

In fewer days than I care to think about, I'll be on a plane to storied New Zealand, where I will regale you, dear reader, with stories and pictures from extraordinarily far away. (It will be just like Bill Bryson's "Down Under," but less funny, eloquent, or lucrative.)

Until then -- and may then please wait for me to pack, thank you -- here's a picture to test out Blogger's image capabilities:

Away, bags, pack! Pack, I say!