Sunday, January 31, 2010

Texas Birds

At some point, every serious birder comes to Texas because Texas offers a seriously large number of birds. In addition to a wide array of Texas specialties not available anywhere else in the US (e.g. white-tailed hawk, chachalaca, green jay, green kingfisher, colima warbler), winter in South Texas usually offers the chance to see birds from Mexico and Central/South America that stray north of the Rio Grande (and thus become "listable" on your North American bird list).

I am dying this afternoon because Robert reports that a bunch of rare birds are currently in South Texas, and if we were still in Texas, we would definitely be chasing them. But since we're none of us in a good position to see these birds in the flesh & feather, let's do a photo tour of these species, with my thanks to random strangers who have provided these photographs elsewhere on the web. The rare birds (and their current Texas locations in parentheses) include:

Amazon Kingfisher on the Rio Grande in south Texas, near Laredo. (Think Green Kingfisher on steroids - about 50% longer and 3x heavier.) From southern Mexico to South America.

I am crazy for kingfishers, so missing this one hurts the worst.

Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron (Bentsen Rio Grande State Park) from Mexico to Colombia

Roadside Hawk (Frontera) from Latin America

Northern Wheatear (Bee County) from Europe, Asia, Canada, and Greenland - typically winters in Africa. I don't know what the heck an Old World flycatcher is doing in Texas.

Kelp Gull (Aransas) from South America (and the southern hemisphere more generally)

Great Black-Backed Gull (Boca Chica) - winters in northeastern US and Canada

Northern Jacana (Choke Canyon State Park) from coastal Mexico to western Panama

Rose-Throated Becard (4 individuals in 3 locations) from Mexico to Panama. Robert, my parents, and I made an attempt at another becard in South Texas a couple Christmases ago with no luck, thus this bird is approaching nemesis bird status.

Brown Jay (San Ygnacio, along with the Seedeater) from Mexico to South America. This bird used to be more reliably seen along the Rio Grande, but this is the first one I've heard about in recent years.

Lucy's Warbler (Santa Ana) - winters in western Mexico

Townsend's Warbler (Aransas) - winters in Mexico (also the west coast of the US)

Black-Throated Gray Warbler (Quinta Matzatlan) - winters in Mexico, breeds in the western US

Brown Booby (Boca Chica) - breeds on islands in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea and winters "at sea over a wider area"

Robert adds "the Texas Rare Bird Alert is so crowded, it takes about 3 pages of reading before you reach the (ho, hum) Clay-colored Thrush and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet at Bentsen." These last two are rare birds that Robert and I have seen on previous trips to South Texas.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Not in Austin Anymore

Some evidence:

1) I went to Wal-Mart to buy a pair of flip flops for wearing in the shower. They had one style available for women (with an annoying plastic flower on the top) and none for men. I went to Target, where they had one style for men (which was about $20) and a few styles for women, only one of which was plastic and cheap (which I bought). Granted, it is winter, but I'm used to flip flops being available year-round. I have also seen one person wearing flip flips since about November - a woman wearing socks and flip flops at the grocery store. (Seeing people in slippers at the gas station is, however, more common than in Austin, but I think that's in part due to the different demographics.)

2) We are under a Winter Storm Warning with the expectation of 8-11 inches of snow accumulation tonight into tomorrow in the Triad (i.e. here) and 5-10 inches of snow and sleet accumulation in the Triangle (i.e. where Robert lives, about 2 hours east). I have been invited to a dinner party tomorrow night but there is no way I am braving (read: stupidly risking) the roads. It's expected to remain below freezing until Monday afternoon. It appears that I will be trying out the bus to and from school next week.

3) I drove to the mall last weekend to buy running shoes at a sporting goods store next to the mall. I had been sort of resistant for several reasons, one of which was that it is on the whole other side of town. I drove surface streets for all of about 10 minutes and I was there. I really have not yet grasped how small this town is and how light the traffic is.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Types and Traits

There are two types of people in the world: those who believe there are two types of people in the world and those who don't. I'm the second type.

In fact, increasingly, I'm wondering how much value there is in the whole "personality type" idea full stop, where people of different personality types are viewed as qualitatively different from each other (apples versus oranges).

The idea of personality types jives pretty strongly with our lay understanding of personality, hence the popularity of Cosmo magazine's - or these days, Facebook's - "What kind of sex maven are you?" type personality tests that categorize women as "bad girls," "romantics," "sensualists," etc. These typologies also offer rich descriptions of a person (e.g. the Myers-Briggs categories, sun signs).

But does thinking of people as different types tell us more about a person than does thinking of people in terms of their personality traits - dimensions like authoritarianism, conscientiousness, or self-monitoring along which people differ quantitatively? In other words, do we gain more understanding by knowing that a person is Type W rather than knowing that the person is high or low on traits X, Y, and Z? Do particular combinations of traits X, Y, and Z yield emergent attributes or behaviors that we would not typically see?

I would have suspected yes, but apparently the answer is mostly no.

Personality psychologist David Funder writes: "The latest evidence indicates that knowing a person's personality type adds nothing to the ability to predict his or her behavior, beyond what can be done using the traits that define the typology" (The Personality Puzzle, p. 213). My professor says that finding interactions among traits (e.g. that trait A is linked to an outcome based on the person's level of trait B) is rare. This suggests that in general, the degree of association of a trait with a behavior is not dependent on where the person stands on other traits. For example, the trait of conscientiousness has been positively linked with academic success (and a host of other good outcomes). Based on this reasoning, we should predict that high conscientiousness will be equally associated with academic success regardless of the person's IQ, emotional stability, etc.

One thing that I like about the trait approach (aside from its empirical support) is that it does seem right to conceptualize many aspects of personality as separate dimensions along which people can vary rather than aspects that separate people into groups. For example, would it really make sense to separate people into the "Creative" type versus the "Logical" type (which I think is a fairly common thing for people to do)? There are plenty of people who are high on both or, more sadly, low on both.

That being said, some people (strong situationists) would argue that personality traits don't tell us that much about people either because an individual's behavior is inconsistent and much more driven by the situation / environment than it is by some inherent personal characteristics that are claimed to be enduring over time. While it's well-established that people do over-attribute behavior to the characteristics of the person rather than the situation (the fundamental attribution error), it seems implausible that we could predict or explain behavior very well by ignoring personality entirely, barring possible particular situations in which individual differences in personality would be overwhelmed by a strong environmental stimulus.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Recycling Bin

This weekend, Robert helped me take my recycling to the bins on the other side of the property. It was amusing to see how few different kinds of paper recycling I had from the kitchen given that the recycling filled a pretty large computer box:

Local Sunday newspaper
The Economist
Honey Nut Cheerios
Quaker apple cinnamon instant oatmeal
Rosemary Triscuits
Kashi granola bars
Saltine crackers (3 different brands)
Lance's whole grain peanut butter crackers

It seems like not much variety in boxed foods, though I'm not sure what else I would expect to be seeing... Kraft macaroni & cheese? Tuna Helper? Instant mashed potatoes? Chocolate cake mix?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Treadmill Bliss

I love the Adidas Supernova Glide shoes so much that I bought two pairs of them today, both with the sort of hideous yellow ("lemon") detail color but I don't even care about that. I gave them a 6 mile test this evening and they were great.

In fact, I just ordered another pair (blue) that I found on sale for $75 online.

I hope Adidas keeps making this shoe for years to come.

UPDATE: Of course, right after buying the shoes, I started to wonder - does my ankle feel weak? Am I feeling soreness in my right arch? Bah! We'll see.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some Descriptive Statistics

From June 9, 2009 through January 21, 2010:

I have walked an average of 5.7 miles per day (standard deviation: 1.4 miles).

I have eaten an average of 1980 calories per day (standard deviation: 190 calories), which is bizarrely in line with the government recommendation (if I recall correctly) that women eat 2000 calories per day.

My strength training numbers are truly pathetic. I did a total of 228 minutes (yes, less than 4 hours) during this 7.5 month period. Yikes. That's about 1 minute per day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Can You Withstand It?

My research methods lab today had a discussion on science versus pseudoscience. I want to thank the people at this website (which the class looked at and evaluated as part of the lab) for inadvertently providing me with this wonderfully droll way of describing what our labs are going to be like for the rest of the semester:

"It is only expected that you ... can withstand the joy and the rigor" of the labs.

I anticipate "the joy and the rigor" to serve as a personal touchstone for me throughout the course and within my research career in general. Some days, withstanding the joy and the rigor of psychological research is harder than others.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Fell

Aha, that mysterious crashing noise I heard this morning? Apparently it was my (rather large) dictionary falling off the shelf onto the floor, taking an air duster can and some other things with it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Accipiter sp.

When I got home from the grocery store this afternoon, standing on the grass next to some bushes in front of my apartment complex (about 4 feet from where I stopped walking when I saw him) was a first-year accipiter (either a sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk). We looked at each for a few moments, then he flew away. I simply cannot tell whether he was more like 11" (sharp-shinned) or 16" (Cooper's) in length, nor did I see any other distinguishing features - I was too mind-boggled by seeing this hawk so close up that I didn't do a good job of seeing him. Because of the sitting on the ground behavior, and the white breast with brown stripes (albeit in the wrong direction), he reminded me of a burrowing owl (which he is not).

Robert's suggestion is that the hawk had gone after a house sparrow and missed, and that I had seen him on the ground while he recovered. That sounds pretty reasonable to me. In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to be dumbfounded by a handsome hawk on a grey winter afternoon.

He looked something like this sharp-shinned.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

1st Semester Wrap Up & 2nd Semester Intro

I got all A's for the first semester (true A's in a system with +/- grades for all but A+ so I mean A's and not A-'s). I have not seen my final exams for two of the courses (and don't know whether I will) but I got a 95/104 on my stats final for a cumulative 96 for the course.

I also got my evaluations from the students in my lab. For "overall rating of the lab instructor," I got an average of 4.18 out of 5 points. I do not have a context for interpreting this score other than that it falls between "good" and "very good" on the scale - I have no clue what typical ratings look like in our department or at our university, particularly for TAs.

My first semester experiment did indeed turn out not to have worked, though this is a common outcome in experimental research even when the phenomenon does actually exist - it can be a bear to get the manipulations to work sayeth the professors in my research group - so it is not a dead end. I plan to try the idea out again with a different method for manipulating ego depletion. We'll see how it goes.

This semester, I am taking developmental psychology, personality psychology, and multivariate statistics. I am also continuing my thesis course (same advisor) and TAing for the undergraduate (regression-based) stats course (new instructor). I have not taken a course in either developmental or personality, so those courses should be interesting and challenging.

The second year students are not taking any classes this semester; it's all thesis, all the time for them. Several of my cohort have said that they are envious of them, but I'm not entirely sure I am. Writing the thesis is unlikely to be any easier than taking classes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Lives of Others

If you haven't yet seen this movie, you should. It's excellent.

The actor who plays the Stasi captain does an outstanding job, and I relished the contrast between the seriousness of the situation, the subtlety of the actor's expressions, and the hilarious grey science-fiction-esque jacket he's so often wearing (it's 1984 in East Germany) - nice work by the costume designer there.

Also, the joke that the Stasi flunky tells in the cafeteria about the head of the Party is very funny in an extremely intense scene.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

I Want to Read This Book

On my flight home from my parents' house, I read The Magicians (and stayed up until about 2:00 a.m. to finish it once I got here), a book about an uber-genius guy who goes to a secret magic college. (Thanks, Tam!) I was pleased that it was not very much like the Harry Potter series, though many a nod was made at those books, particularly in the form of sarcastic comments about quidditch and whatnot from students in the book who are well aware of the general conception of magic school = Harry Potter. The book also draws on other children's fantasy classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice, and The Once and Future King. (Thankfully, the nihilistic Bright Lights, Big City period of drugs and sex was short. I really disliked that book.) References to Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, and other geek-lit is sprinkled without; a characteristic example: "Josh speculated about the hypothetical contents of an imaginary porn magazine for intelligent trees that would be entitled Enthouse."

In place of Narnia, this universe has a series of Christian fantasy stories set in the land of Fillory. The description of one of these books starts out unpromisingly:

"...The Wandering Dune, the fifth and last book in the series... On entering Fillory, the two girls encounter a mysterious sand dune being blown through the kingdom, all by itself. They climb the dune and find themselves riding it through the green Fillorian countryside and out onto a dreamy desert wasteland in the far south, where they spend most of the rest of the book.

Almost nothing happens. Jane and Helen fill up the pages with interminable conversations about right and wrong and teenage Christian metaphysics and whether their true obligations lie on Earth or in Fillory..."

But then, my heart starts racing:

"In the end the sisters are picked up by a majestic clipper ship that sails through the sand as if it were water. The ship is crewed by large bunnies who would be overly cutesy (the Wandering Dune-haters always compared them to Ewoks) if it weren't for their impressively hard-assed attention to the technical details of operating their complex vessel."

Ship, sand, technically-competent rabbits! Later, we learn that the girls "receive a gift from Highbound, the captain of the rabbit-crewed clipper ship that the girls encounter in the dessert. The gift is a little brass-bound oak chest containing five magical buttons..."

You know Highbound (which is a terrific rabbit name) is a complete bad-ass.

I really want to read the story of these rabbits and their ship. I'm thinking 5 parts Richard Adams (Watership Down), 3 parts Lost flashbacks, and 2 parts Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Little Less Softness

Leopold reached the end of his strength the week before Christmas, and after two days of neither eating nor drinking (he even had food left in his mouth that the vet said he was too weak to chew), he was put to sleep on Friday, December 18. By this time, he was completely lame from arthritis and on Friday morning, expended the entirety of his energy in trying to lift his head whenever Robert would stop petting him for a moment. He died quickly, without pain, and with his Boy Human at his side. According to Robert, the depiction of Hazel dying at the end of the 1978 Watership Down movie (which we watched over the break in honor of Leo) is a pretty good representation of what Leo looked like when he peacefully went to sleep forever.

I am broken-hearted. I knew when I left Austin that I would probably never see him again, but the truth of this has hit me hard the last couple weeks, and I got a lot out of hearing Robert's frequent reports (even though these reports sketched out a steep decline in Leo's functioning over the 4 month period).

But I also know that if Leo were here, he would look at me as if to say, "Silly human! Life is good!" And so to pay tribute to the great Leopold, who knew so well how to be happy, I wrote this song to the tune of "Jingle Bell Rock":

Leopold Rex

Leopold, Leopold, Leopold Rex
Leopold thump and Leopold jump
Stopping, then flopping, he rests for a while
In the Leopold style

Leopold, Leopold, Leopold Rex
Leopold wakes and Leopold shakes
Feeding then pleading for one extra pap*
He climbs up into your lap

(* pap = papaya digestive tablet)

The night-time is the right time
To put him in his cage
But when dawn comes, you lazy human,
Let him out before he goes in a rage

Look at that Leopold licking his feet
After his carrot snack
He's someone special, it's a fabulous treat
To pet his black-zippered back

I'm not over-praising, it's amazing
How he sleeps with an open eye
And it's a wonder how that Rex fur
Creates a softness field six inches high

We love you, Leopold, you are the top
Through dark clouds you are our ray of sun
But when the Black Rabbit calls, you gotta get up and hop
That's the Leopold,
Our sweet Leopold,
Good-bye Leopold Bun!