More realtime-ish

I thought I'd do a really quick blog to get back in the habit.

Last week was actually a bit odd, because 1 May is actually a holiday here. In the UK they take all the real European holidays & turn them into Mondays & call them "Bank Holidays". So I have now learned that "early May bank holiday" is really the international worker's day, and "late May bank holiday" is really pentecost. It seems an affront to history & culture to remove the names like that. I thought the "floating Monday" thing was bad enough in the US, but at least they still actually call them "Memorial Day" & "Labor Day" or whatever. Anyway, we spent it mostly cleaning my apartment, though we did go out & get some programming done in the evening, before meeting Patricia and having dinner with my biologist acquaintance & two more of his brothers (& one of their wives.) They took us also to a former anti-aircraft tower that has been turned into an aquarium & climbing wall. It is quite surreal. There are apparently six such towers, though I've only run into one before (& didn't know what it was!)

Friday - Sunday I spent with Dad, Marty, Brian, Les, Les' sister Catherine & Patricia & sometimes Will (he also got some work done, since he see's his mom more than I see dad!) The Mullaneys are into the professional site-seeing thing, which was kind of interesting, but at some point Dad & Patricia & I basically bailed & went to see all the nice things in walking distance, + the KLI where I work. We all had a lot of nice meals.

The most interesting thing intellectually for me was that we visited a Benedictine (in fact, Cistercian) abbey & the guide said about how important it had been to bring the Benedictines to Vienna, since they brought literacy & lots of agricultural knowledge with them. I thought a lot about what the order was doing back then -- men kept sleep- & largely language-deprived, told not even to think about anything except god, with the exception of the time they spent reading & writing, mostly old texts. The one thing they could talk about was business, so it is no wonder they developed amazing agriculture and such. As a kid, I always wanted that kind of life, actually! But of course we weren't Catholic... anyway, now I was thinking about it as a way to transmit, retain, and even accumulate knowledge for a culture. Really very interesting --- really, when you get down to it, amazing --- Kind of an early, slow version of Wikipedia.

The abbey was founded by Otto of Freising, who went to Paris for his education & picked up on the Benedictine way. It helped that his father was the ruler of the closest thing to Austria that existed at the time, so they were able to see the advantage of bringing all that knowledge home and had the resources to do so.

Speaking of knowledge and evolution, I forgot in my last post to mention the talk I most enjoyed last month, by Arianna Wozniak. She had this really interesting analogy between physics & biology, and showed how the fact selection affects its own landscape (which includes variation) is somewhat like relativity (where mass affects space). I'm not doing the talk justice here, but she was a really interesting thinker who brought together a lot of recent evolutionary theory for me & really helped me conceptualize and consolidate some things I'd long been suspecting about the silliness of some concepts of speciation. I mean, she addressed something I remember not believing when I was told it at college. Then I thought I was missing something, but now that I'm a lot older I can see that sadly it was probably my professor who was missing something, though I think he & is field knew something was wrong. I knew her "virtually" already, she edited a paper of mine in sort of an on-line journal last year, but it was really just amazing to hear her talk. I wish she had stayed longer, I think I could have talked to her for days.

The best talk so far I've heard this month was actually my first experience of on-line webcast conferences. I'd been invited to some before, but this is the first time I found myself with time at the right moment & logged in. It was being held at MIT's Brain & Cognitive Science department, which was my favorite place for talks the last few years we lived in Cambridge. The topic was Brains, Circuits & Genes. The second talk (by David J. Anderson) was unbelievable -- they showed that the same genes were linked to the expression of genetically inherited and socially acquired tendencies to be aggressive (or not) in fruit flies. Efficient, but unbelievable! It's just not how I think about genetics, though I had heard about phenotypic plasticity & changes in gene expression as a consequence of social outcomes before, from Hans Hoffmann. But to know that the mechanism was so related to biological inheritance that it reuses (at least in this case) the same gene is amazing.

The webcast thing was fantastic. There was this great video of fruit-fly aggression (who knew? They actually picked each other up & threw each other around! He also showed how different their posture is when they are courting, & said this showed commonality with Darwin's observations in opposing emotions...) But on the other hand, it really made me miss being at MIT. Not only because of the great talk, but because I was worried the whole time about whether I was going to blow the download cap for the KLI -- not a problem I've ever had anywhere else, not even at home! In the end I went home, since it was a coffee break at the meeting & I needed to buy laundry tokens anyway (you can only buy those Tuesday early evening in my building -- Obviously I buy 20 at a time, but you still run out!) and I was meant to be meeting my PhD student Hagen. But then when I got home they had pulled the conference off the web -- I guess MIT had problems with it too. Also, it looks like someone in the afternoon didn't want their results released out of the room. Which probably means they were under embargo from some journal -- Nature or Science.

Speaking of, I need to finish a draft grant proposal & a review tonight so I can work on papers the rest of the week. I'm stuck here this weekend without Will because of a meeting next Tuesday, so hopefully I'll get a ton done. At least I'm hardly travelling this month -- I do have one one-day EU obligation, but thankfully it's in Vienna!
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