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Ah, Friday.

White-marked Tussock MothLucy and I did our usual Saturday routine -- a trip to the farmer's market and library with Penny. On the way back, we picked up pizza fixings so that Daniel and I could make pizza together for lunch.While Daniel and I were making the pizzas, we went out to the tent for a moment and saw this cool caterpillar. It's another kind of tussock moth caterpillar, like the ones we saw a month ago, but in a different genus. This one, evidently, has really nasty urticating hairs. I got some pretty cool pictures.

Daniel and I made two pizzas. He helped at every stage, mixing the spreading the dough, putting spices in the sauce and testing it, and then building the pizzas. We made a pepperoni, sausage, and bacon pizza for him and another with added lebanon bologna, fresh tomatoes, and mushrooms for me. They both turned out quite well and he was very pleased with the outcome.

It's the last weekend of the summer and the students are rolling back in. Some people are sad when Amherst loses its small-town feel when the students come back, but I don't mind -- I like the excitement and enthusiasm the students bring. But I do treasure the times they're away too.

Last weekend of summer

Since getting back, I've been busy getting ready for the beginning of the semester. I knew it would be intense and I haven't been disappointed. I was feeling like I was keeping my head above water until I came down with a cold yesterday. Now I'm just trying to get through the day.

I've gotten the basics of my class set up and ready-to-go. The main new thing I'm planning to try this semester is to add a period to most classes where we look at the particular problems I see in student's scientific writing and try to fix them.

The boys went back to school today -- I have until Tuesday. Each day I get closer to the beginning of the semester. I didn't get as far as I hoped this summer -- I never do. I do feel pretty good about where I did get to.

Busy

Our bargaining team has been negotiating a new contract for months. They have reached agreements on many points, but the governor hasn't yet made us a fair basic economic offer on salaries. Other unions are getting 5-6%, when you consider their "steps", but we're being told to accept 3.5% -- and to consider part of that "merit pay". Given that inflation has been running at around 3.5% it means that we're actually accepting a pay cut -- unless you've been "meritorious" and then you get to keep your buying power flat.

I wrote a brief note to the governor:

As a UMass Amherst faculty member, I appreciated when you spoke about being a champion of higher education -- and I have been pleased with your willingness to support an open and honest dialog about the future of the University, rather than to let the current Board of Trustees run roughshod over our governance structures. Thank you.

Unfortunately, the bargaining team for my union (which supported you in the primary) has been struggling to negotiate a fair contract with your administration and tells us that the economic offer to us is not comparable with the offers given to NAGE and SEIU. Faculty fared particularly poorly under Republican administrations and we had hoped to get a fair deal from a Democrat. Please help us settle our contract before the beginning of the academic year by giving us a fair offer. Thanks!

Our contract

Sova?a RatoYesterday, Alisa, Daniel, and I drove to Andover to get some parasitic vermin to live in our house and suck up our air. Rats. We caught two and a half wild rats while we were in St. Croix (like the one pictured here). One of them evidently got caught by a mongoose trying to get out of the trap and had its head eaten off, so we only got a half of that one. But no! I had to come home and drive for three hours, so we could buy rats. And rat cages. And rat food. And rat litter boxes. Probably we'll need to hire a rat masseuse too.

I don't particularly hate rats or anything -- I'm just skeptical that the rat experience is going to somehow be qualitatively different than what we had with the guinea pig. Or with the mice. Or with the rabbit. Or what I had as a kid with hamsters or gerbils. Furry little vermin -- all of them. At least they're not going to try to breed them, dank' al dio. Brr...

Vermin

I've really been enjoying reading frobnosticate, a blog by a local guy who's decided to try to take his drawing to the next level by going back to graduate school. Its been interesting watching his drawings evolve over time and its reminded me of the only art class I ever took. As an undergraduate, I majored in Biology and Spanish -- I had never felt like I had any real aptitude for drawing and, when I had to take an art class as a liberal arts requirement, I decided to take it "pass/fail", since I was worried about the time commitment. In the end, I spent more time on that class than any other I took that semester, had the time of my life, and had several pieces selected for the senior show.

I haven't been drawing much lately, but with my new camera, I'm feeling like I have the ability to try to take more than just snapshots. So, with much ado, here are a few of my favorite pictures I've taken over the past couple of weeks.

America from Outside
Kiel aspektas usono?

Captain Austin
Kapitano Austin

Daniel, Jonathon, and Buzz
Daniel, Jonathon, kaj Buzz

Buzz Launches Jonathon
Buzz ?etas Jonathon

Real Art

We went to see Michael Moore's "Sicko" yesterday afternoon. I think it is definitely his best movie so far. Sure, the trip to Cuba was a stunt, but the ideas underlying it were sound, well-justified, and well-documented. Michael really did his homework on this one.

It was really heart-wrenching to see the health-industry in the US laid bare for what it is: a place for unscrupulous people to make as much money as possible by finding any way to deny coverage to sick people. But this is a problem with capitalism as a whole. Corporations are in business to maximize profits, not the common good. Its a theme that is played out over and over in every aspect of our society: public transportation, DRM software, as well as medicine. I've thought for a long time that corporations should be required to document how they're serving the public good in order to remain incorporated -- that's how it used to be. In a global economy, however, even that might not be enough.

From the reviews I'd read, I hadn't appreciated that the movie goes beyond health-care to talk about the underlying causes of our societies ills: the way people in America, especially poor people, are systematically disempowered to discourage participation in political processes. If you can keep people fearful and demoralized, they will be afraid to rise up and do anything about it. And our political leaders seem only too happy to keep as many people as possible in that state.

Sicko: Not just about health-care

Mi kaj Buzz metas etikedon en la herpestonWe had a successful trip. We marked more than 40 mongoose dem and had around 70 captures total, including several juveniles. We caught one animal we had marked previously in 2004. We got Tom to photographically document the procedures for us.

We packed up over the course of the morning interspersed by trips to the ocean to swim. It was with significant regret that I packed up the masks, fins, and snorkels. We said our goodbyes and we all told ourselves that we'll be back again next year. Paula, Alex, and Carey were on the same flights as us, so we didn't say our goodbyes until we got to Hartford.

Our travel arrangements worked out well. Daniel checked the bottles of rum carefully when the box came off the baggage carousel to make sure none had broken. Stupid war on moisture... We arrived back around midnight and were home around 1am. Penny was happy to see me and Lucy gave us big hugs.

Today, I'm back at work.

Home again

SunsubiroOur Carribean adventure draws to a close today. We sat out and watched the sunset. With my green bottle of Elephant, I could imagine I was seeing the "green flash", but I guess I'll just have to try again next year. We stayed up late into the night watching meteors and talking. Carey and Alex sat with Tom and I watching the sky while the younger kids played, until Carey couldn't stand it any more and she quit trying to play grown up and ran around and played with the other kids. When I finally tracked Daniel down, playing Nintendo DS with Zach, he was so tired he couldn't walk straight and I had to steer him back to the cottage.

Today, we're planning to laze around and pack up at a leisurely pace. I went for a last early-morning snorkel adventure. I was hoping I'd see the sea turtle that magically seems to appear everytime Buzz jumps in the water, but no such luck. We need to be on the road around 1:30pm to catch our flight that will get us back to the airport around midnight and home by 2am. It's been a great adventure.

Last day

Mi trinkas Hammerhead bieronToday was probably the longest day of our expedition. Buzz, Bob, and I did the dawn mongoose patrol and then we got ready for a trip to Buck Island. I remember we considered doing Buck Island last time, but I voted against it because I didn't have any way of seeing anything while snorkeling. Snorkeling isn't much fun when you can't see anything more than 24inches away. But this time I had glued some lenses from an old pair of glasses inside a mask and it was working well enough that I was willing to give it a shot.

We arrived at the wharf around 11am. We had a few minutes to look through their souvenir shop and then to slather on the sunscreen. I thought about buying Charlie a $17 pickled centipede in a bottle (about 6 inches long), but decided to get him a t-shirt instead. I got one (a t-shirt) for Lucy too.

We got on the boat a bit before noon. It was a large catamaran. We motored out against the waves, wind and current. The waves were choppy, but some were two or three feet, I would guess. When we hit those, we'd get spray over the bow that would soak us -- it felt good.

We saw a green sea turtle. The boat passed directly over it and I got a good look -- at the silhouette, at least -- before the boat passed over.

We passed by Protestant Cay and Green Cay, before we moored at a lovely beach on the lee side of Buck Island. We stopped there for a few minutes to swim and to let people test their equipment. They had passed out fins, masks, and snorkels to people who needed them. Daniel was all set and all I needed were fins. I tried them out and they worked just fine. The beach was unbelieably steep. Just past the edge of the water, it dropped off about 5 feet. I didn't even try to climb up onto the beach. After a few minutes, we set sail for the east end of the island to dive on the reef. While we motored along, we got out the sandwiches we'd prepared and had lunch.

The reef extends like a horseshoe around the east end of the island. Outside the reef, the water is deep and dark blue. Inside, the water is turquoise. The reefs themselves are dark brown with waves rolling in and breaking on them constantly. We came up inside the line of reefs and moored about 50 yards from the reef. The lowered a stairway down into the water and I sat on the stairs, with Daniel just behind me, to put on my fins and mask.

We were required to go through a guided tour of the reef, which involved following the first-mate as he swam in and out of the reef, following a series of interpretive markers on the bottom. There were many different kinds of coral: brain corals, elkhorn, staghorn, and others -- and lots of sponges. We saw a lot of big fish: gaudy parrot fish and a million different kinds. Just as the tour ended, I saw a big school of bright blue reef fish swim by. It was amazing. After that, we were on our own.

The reef has islands of coral that stick up with lower areas between and among them, creating a maze of grottos and alleys among the coral. There are sea fans and sponges waving back and forth with the current and large, brightly colored fish darting back and forth. Its an amazing place.

Daniel was a bit nervous -- he really wanted to head back to the boat, so we did that. Left to his own devices, I think he would have simply stayed there. It took a bit of effort, but I persuaded him to go back out into the reef one more time. Holding hands, we swam back into the reef and in and out of the coral. It was a bit scary to have the twisted shapes of the coral looming up at you, while you rise and fall above it and the waves slap against your head. The snorkels worked perfectly -- I could breathe just fine and only occasionally needed to shake out a bit of water that would get inside.

After making a long circuit, we ran into Buzz, who pointed where we could see some barracuda. Daniel was very excited and swam like mad, moving ahead of me, to follow one for a while. Buzz had told him previously about having followed one which subsequently followed him and, being a good empiricist, Daniel wanted to try it for himself.

After that, Daniel was ready to go back to the boat and I went with him. I helped him get his fins off and, with the assurance he was going to stay on the boat, I went out one more time. I swam around again, losing myself in the coral one last time, and then headed back to the boat myself. I was the first one off the boat and the last one back on.

Carey sidas en la glaciujoThe ride back was much smoother. The opened a big shade and raised the sail for the trip in. The first mate joked around with the children: he offered Carey a snack and a soda if she would sit in the cooler. I snapped a few pictures. Instead of slapping against the waves, you could feel us moving with them: they would raise us up and push us along. Most everyone was content to sit and rest after the exertions of exploring the reef.

After we were back on shore, we went back to the Fort Christian Brewpub with Paula, Carey, and Alex for some Hammerhead Pale Ale. Before long, the captain, his mate and most of the rest of the passengers were there as well. We sat by the water, enjoying the scenery and listening to live music. Daniel and Jonathon discovered the joys of feeding the laughing gulls, which would dive to catch bits of french fries thrown into the water.

After dark, we went back into the water and tried out the new dive-light that Buzz got at the dive shop. I had wondered about not seeing any invertebrates on the rocks around Cottages by the Sea -- it turns out that they're only out at night. The rocks were covered with huge sea urchins with long spines. We didn't stay out too long, as everyone was exhausted.

Today is our last full day "on island". We need to pull in all the traps and then we're planning to go up to the LEAP place on Mahogany Road so that Buzz can pay his respects to Fletcher Pence.

Buck Island

Dol?a pomoI had written a few paragraphs for today, but they were lost when I had a kernel panic. That doesn't happen much anymore. I was using iPhoto when it happened -- probably a bug in Apple's new core imaging stuff.

We went to the farmer's market again on Saturday and this time all of us went. We got lots of interesting tropical fruits: genips, of course, and bananas, star fruit, and pomegranates. We also found something I hadn't seen before called "sweet apple". It has a rough, pebbly exterior and the inside is kind of slimy and full of seeds. You suck the slime off the seeds and then spit them out. It doesn't really taste like anything else, but the closest I could come up with is "very sweet, overripe banana, with watermelon seeds". We also visited the fish market. Buzz commented on the gruffness and reserve of the men who were selling fish, as compared with the humor and openness of the women selling fruit. I agreed, but pointed out how the men were happy to show the kids the different kinds of fish and pulled out a live spiny lobster for them to touch. We ended up buying a red snapper and a lobster for Tom to prepare, along with some steaks, as a "Surf and Turf Luau" later in the day.

We went on a snorkeling adventure the other day to the north side of the island. We had been there the last time I was here and I remembered that there was a current, but this year the current was extremely strong. It was so strong, there were standing waves over the large rocks and corals. Swimming into the current as hard as I could, I could only manage to stay in place. Tom, Daniel, and I swam out to the coral, but I was afraid to swim farther into the coral for fear of being swept against it and getting cut up. Today, we plan to go to Buck Island where the snorkeling is reported to be magnificent.

We met a woman travelling with her two daughters, Carey and Alexandra, who joined us on Saturday for a visit to the "Monks Bath", north of Fredriksted. The monks bath itself was less interesting than the tide pools nearby. We saw chitons, snails, hermit crabs, sea urchins, and a sea cucumber. I got a lot of good pictures of the boys and girls looking at cool stuff. They're planning to join us today on the trip to Buck Island as well.

After the luau, expertly prepared by Tom, we had movie night. We were joined by the girls and another couple of children, Zack and Ari, to watch Spirited Away. We couldn't start until after 8 waiting for Zack and Ari to get back from the French restaurant, but by 9:30 or 10, Jonathon was simply exhausted and Buzz carried him away to go to sleep. It was a big day for a little guy.

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