Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Re-post of a Bo Pelini column from last year

John Janovy, Jr.
The short answer to this question is: nothing; let him be himself and do the best he can in this high pressure job. The long answer is: let him work through his current contract then replace him with someone who is not such an embarrassment to the UNL athletic program and to the university itself, especially to those faculty members who, for a variety of legitimate reasons, need to act like dignified professionals in front of an audience. Getting rid of an embarrassment is not worth whatever it costs to buy out Pelini, perhaps along with his staff (estimates range up to $20 million). If you’ve ever tried your hand at creative writing—or, for that matter, anything else involving artistic efforts be it music, painting, or dance—then you know that embarrassment is simply part of the game. After all, even world class figure skaters fall on their butts periodically and college football is probably the one activity where it’s really easy to embarrass not only yourself, but also rabid fans who are under the illusion that a coach’s record on the field is a direct reflection of those fans’ self-worth.
We all want Huskers to win regardless of the contest and the venue. That desire applies to programs other than football, of course. So what do we fans do when those desires are frustrated, as they must always be, eventually, regardless of the competition? Again, there are two answers, a short and a long one. The short is: nothing, shrug it off; the sun will come up tomorrow, even if hidden by clouds. The long is: get really mad, rant and rave over every social medium available, pretend you know more about some sport than a coach making obscene amounts of money, surround yourself with a bunch of like-minded buddies, and thank God for something fun to talk about so that you don’t have to lose friends by discussing those subjects forbidden in polite company, namely evolution, politics, gay marriage, and religion.
Now, however, let’s admit that the guy really doesn’t have much of what we’d normally call “class.” He doesn’t handle press conferences very well, does not come across on television as being particularly smart and articulate, he does not appear comfortable in front of a camera, and he tends to drop four-letter words in places where they get picked up by listeners with electronic ears. If all those expletives were aimed at the opposing team, officials, NCAA rules, and the weather then we’d be right there with him; but not a few of those bombs were aimed at Nebraska fans. In other words, he’s telling us that he doesn’t care about us, lumping the pathologically faithful with fair-weather folks who actually have to search for their red underwear on Saturdays. So let’s live with Bo Pelini for the next few years. If, after that, university officials have not learned enough about human nature to hire the right person for this highest of high-profile positions then we probably don’t have much choice but to be proud of a 9-3, or 8-4, season and a trip to the Rural Kansas Bowl.
The one thing Bo does have going for him is player admiration. As far as we can tell from quotes in the media, the boys who participate in this exceedingly violent game love their head coach and even tolerate the proselytizer Ron Brown. This observation is important, a lesson for anyone in a leadership position: stand up for, and stand behind, those who are working as hard as they can, using all their time and talents, to make you rich and famous. You’ll never hear Pelini use an expletive to describe one of his players, one of his assistant coaches, or even a fake punt call on fourth and three when you’ve had second and three two downs before and Imani Cross on your team.
But it’s also important to remember just how cloistered is a major football program. We fans are separated from the gladiators in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that we’re in the stands instead of on the field. We are not a party to Bo’s teaching techniques, his insider analysis of games past, his decision-making processes, his worries, and his personal life. Instead, we summarize that entire program by the use of his name, routinely tie our sense of what it means to be a Nebraska resident to the Husker football win-loss record and national rankings, and assume that our impression of a team’s performance is indeed a true reflection of coaching skills. None of those three behaviors can be justified by the facts: a major college program is exceedingly large and complex, your personal mental well-being has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with football unless you’re part of the team and staff, and nobody can completely control a game played by a bunch of college kids.
I’m not excusing Bo Pelini for an 8-4 record in 2013; he’s evidently doing what he’s been hired to do about as well as he can, although maybe not up to everyone’s expectations and hopes. I am saying that no matter how public his job is on a few fall Saturdays, most, indeed perhaps 98%, of what he does or does not do is hidden from the public simply because that’s not only the way these programs operate, it’s probably also the way these programs must operate in order to be even 67% successful (8/12 = 0.6666). And let’s be honest: he has had a slew of injuries to deal with. When a senior lineman who’s been on the practice squad sees duty in the last game of the season, and not because he’s a senior being done a favor for his parents but because he’s needed, then you know the coach has human resource management problems, not all of them a result of his decisions behind closed doors.
But the cloister has its dark side, as we’ve learned from the Joe Paterno et al. story. The rarest of all revelations in college football may indeed be discovery that some Division 1 coach actually reads serious non-fiction, can talk intelligently about art, is more scientifically literate than his state’s elected officials, listens to opera in his new Nissan Armada (supplied via tax deductible donations from a booster), and is just as sensitive to non-football compliance issues as some assistant professor in biology who’s filled out a 17-page form in order to dissect a frog and knows enough to keep his office door open when a student is in there crying about a grade. So given that Mr. Pelini is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln employee, if not the UNL employee, if not the public face of the institution, I have a couple of answers to the question: what should we do about Bo Pelini?
First, send him to sit in some adjunct English prof’s freshman class for three hours every time he loses a game in which he calls a fake punt. Actually, send him to such a class for three hours every time he loses a game, period. Three hours is about the length of time fans are patient with what they interpret as poor coaching, whether it is poor coaching or not. After the second hour over in Andrews Hall basement, students will get over the fact that it’s Pelini in the room and he’ll start getting some perspective on the difference between his salary and that of the other person who’s also expected to be a superior teacher and is worrying about his/her students just as much as Bo worries about his players.
Second, either send him to charm school or make him take a speech class where he’s up in front of a couple of dozen students who evaluate his performance—posture, clothing, choice of words, rationale, etc. When Bo apologizes for some on-field outburst he actually sounds reasonably civilized, at least as quoted in the newspaper; we give him the benefit of the doubt by concluding that he delivered those words without a script prepared by a staff member. So maybe he can do it after all. And tell him to ditch the hat after the game; I know, we see hats even in nice restaurants in Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean your mother, or your date, approves of them. In other words, if Bo is the face of UNL for half the year, then we want him to at least look and talk in a way that would make him seem like part of the crowd in a room full of well-educated professionals.
Third, pay some faculty members a bonus to go over to the cloister and spend an hour a week educating Bo and his staff on current events, economics, media, advertising, military mis-adventure, pop music, information technology, organization of the university, what the ACE program (Achievement Centered Education, the UNL liberal arts curriculum) is supposed to accomplish, and UNL assets such a Morrill Hall, the Sheldon Gallery and sculpture garden, and Ross Film Theater. In other words, get him out of the cloister and bring him into the fold. If he’s being paid an ungodly sum to be the symbol of our institution, then expect him to actually be a part of it. If he’s being paid an ungodly sum to be the face of American higher education, then let’s help him act the part. Who knows, by the time his current contract is up, a miracle may have occurred.
Speaking of miracles, it’s entirely possible that by the time Pelini’s contract is up, Nebraska will have won a Big Ten championship, if not a national one. For newly hired regular faculty members, six years is tenure time; that’s the year your department colleagues decide whether to award you a lifetime’s job, along with annual evaluations, minimal pay increases, access to group health insurance, and contributions to your TIAA/CREF retirement fund. At UNL, you also get the opportunity to buy football tickets. Has Bo done well enough to warrant the D 1 version of tenure, namely a contract extension? The question is not relevant; he’s already been given one. He has a winning record; if bowl games can somehow be equated to publications, he has enough; his players love and respect him; a few of his students are now professionals. By loose analogy, that’s more than I can say for some current tenured faculty members.
Finally, so get off his case. Nobody except the players and coaches truly know whether he’s doing the best job possible at the University of Nebraska. The vast majority of fans has never played college football and never will, and even those who have played are usually years past the experience. College athletics are neither immune to nor isolated from the cultural and technological changes that are sweeping through our nation and the world, but college coaches often act like that is the case. It’s not. Grow up, coach; pick a couple of role models and start trying to behave the way they do. If she’s still alive, your mother will be happy that finally, by middle age, you’ve developed into the kind of child she dreamed about having when you were born. And in the best of all worlds, you end up being one of those deities in the same Heavenly realm as Devaney and Osborne.
Now, for those of you who want a peek into the future of Nebraska football, order TUSKERS as an e-book from kindle, nook,, or as a nice paperback from The movie script for TUSKERS is also available as an e-book from

Monday, November 17, 2014


I do not claim that scientists, because they are scientists, are more honest or broadly educated than politicians. But in the realm of science, the honesty system operates much more strongly and rapidly than in the realm of politics, mainly because this system typically involves anonymous review of scientific work before that work is made public, and it does not involve public decision-making or voting by a diverse electorate. If you are doing experiments on the sex life of some tiny worm and try to publish your results, then an anonymous but well-educated scientist will scrutinize your methods, including your experimental design, your statistical analysis, your rationale for doing the project in the first place, your interpretations of the results, the extent to which you have taken existing knowledge into account, and even the quality of your writing. All this review does not necessarily make you an honest person, but it does tend to pick up flaws in your thinking and mistakes in your actions. But if you go to a cocktail party filled with attorneys and elected city officials, the main question you are likely to be asked about your research is: “Why is this kind of stuff important?” The question really means: “Why are you spending time and money, maybe even tax money, on this kind of activity, and why do you seem to be so interested in sex?”
There may be a thousand good reasons why you are studying the sex life of obscure worms, but these reasons probably involve the fundamental nature of science itself. The worms could, potentially, become a model system for the study of hormone action at the cellular level, thus serving to help explain developmental anomalies in humans, livestock, and companion animals. The worms might be extraordinarily beautiful creatures under the microscope, thus quite attractive to students who in turn could easily become internationally renowned scholars studying an important global human affliction but who remember fondly their carefree undergrad days back in the lab when all they had to talk about was worm sex. The worms’ reproductive biology could easily shed light on the origin of sex itself, or the evolution of pheromones, both subjects of enormous interest to the scientific community. Pheromone action, as you might suspect, also could be of substantial interest to the cosmetics industry. When a scientist hears that another scientist is studying the sex life of obscure worms, then all of the possibilities mentioned in this paragraph usually come to mind because scientists typically understand how science itself works on a grand scale. But politicians, like their constituencies, rarely get past the issues of time, money (especially tax money), and sex, although sometimes, if not often, there is a hidden disdain for people who would spend their lives studying microscopic creatures with no immediate economic importance.
In our example of the worms, politicians’ focus on time, money, sex, and utility is not necessarily stupid, evil, or dangerous, although it has the potential for being all three. In the previous paragraph, I’ve actually revealed all the reasons why in order to remain economically competitive in a technologically competitive world, a nation needs to have a strong, healthy, broad, and active scientific enterprise. Flourishing scientific activity, sustained largely by curiosity about the natural world, breeds scientists, models, new ways of studying nature, and new applications of existing technology. Thus it is the human resources that are of prime importance to a highly developed nation, not the discoveries themselves. Given enough human resources engaged in research, techniques for studying heretofore mysterious aspects of nature will be developed and the discoveries will be made. Furthermore, breadth of research interest tends to produce transferable technologies, a critical factor in sustaining a technology-based economy. 

PIECES OF THE PLAINS, along with other Janovy e-books, is available on all e-readers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The history of _Herpetomonas megaseliae_ and the bracelet

The history of Herpetomonas megaseliae:

Herpetomonas megaseliae is a single-celled animal that lives naturally inside a tiny fly named Megaselia scalaris. In order to understand why H. megaseliae is so interesting, you have to appreciate the fly, M. scalaris. This fly is one of the truly obnoxious survivors, and so, it turns out, is the parasite H. megaseliae that lives inside it. Megaselia scalaris lays its eggs in about any kind of organic material from the rankest of garbage to the cleanest of sterile culture media, but generally it prefers the rank garbage, or better yet, sewage-soaked soil and even feces. Rotten fish that have been stored in formaldehyde are pretty attractive to this fly. So anything that might have been thrown away, from bacterial Petri plates to toad manure, is a magnet for M. scalaris. This wide range of larval substrates is the reason why M. scalaris is such a survivor; it can get by on all kinds of things other flies treat as garbage. Quite literally, M. sclaris has the ability to fall into a pile of shit and come out smelling like a . . . . well, about like a very healthy fly. Thus we have our basic metaphor: survivors are not very picky, regardless of the organisms playing this role.
Among the most remarkable demonstration of this survivorship ability involved a very large and beautiful lizard, Basiliscus plumifrons, that we had in the lab many years ago as part of a study of the biogeography of parasites that infect reptiles. This lizard had food and water dishes in its aquarium; the food was mainly meal worms and crickets, although once in a while it would get a roach. A dish full of meal worms was also attractive to Megaselia scalaris, and before long there were fly larvae crawling around in the litter and food dish. Naturally, B. plumifrons ate these fly larvae (it would also try to eat your hand if you didn’t handle it carefully.) But the fly larvae then ate their way out of the lizard’s stomach and through the skin, leaving tiny holes. The lizard eventually died and we didn’t figure out why until a grad student cultured a piece of muscle and discovered Herpetemonas megaseliae, a parasite that could only have come from the fly larvae. The lizard and formaldehyde fish provide a rather sobering lesson: environments intended to kill things can turn out to be breeding grounds for survivors.
Herpetomonas megaseliae is a member of the same family as numerous other parasites that cause untold misery and enormous economic loss around the world. Some of the diseases caused by these parasites include classical African sleeping sickness, nagana—the livestock disease that prevents cattle from being raised profitably over a 4 million square mile region of Africa, leishmaniasis (sometimes horribly disfiguring), and Chagas’ Disease, a devastating illness that occurs throughout much of Latin America and which, according to data provided by molecular biologists, has occurred there for thousands of years. So regardless of its fondness for garbage, H. megaseliae is a member of a distinguished group of organisms.
Most of H. megaseliae’s relatives can be cultured, but they are fastidious pansies that must have rich, sterile, usually blood-based environments, and the correct temperatures. Herpetomonas megaseliae, however, can grow in a lot of different environments. One of its favorites at the time was called LPG, which stands for Locke’s balanced salt solution (L) plus (P) Guinea pig shit (G). It also grew at relatively high temperatures that would kill its pansy-ass relatives (“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”) Most of the world’s scientists and doctors, especially those in armies, think that the pansy-ass relatives are very important. If H. megaseliae could talk, it would probably agree with the doctors. But among its kin, H. megaseliae is, like its fly host, a survivor. Furthermore, it was quite cooperative, being easily manipulated to develop into particular life cycle stages on a human schedule, so that a person could do a set of experiments in the morning and be on the golf course by mid-afternoon.
When my students and I first decided to study H. megaseliae, back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, that decision was based on our sense that this parasite was simply a very interesting animal. As we studied it for years, we realized that not only was it interesting from a biologist’s perspective, but it was also interesting metaphorically because of its survivorship qualities and its ability to perform under the most trying of culture circumstances. All of the students who were attracted to H. megaseliae seemed to be people who could, or would, do things that other students couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do, and furthermore, those things seemed to advance the careers of people who could, or would, do them. If you’re in academia, you know what those “things” are and how such activities produce transferable skills by default.
About this time in my career I was walking through a mall in Lincoln, NE, where a bunch of artists had set up exhibits. One of these artists was making jewelry, and just on a whim I asked her if she could make a bracelet with H. megaseliae on it. She said it would be easy, so I drew her a picture, and a week or later I picked up this bracelet. People, especially my departmental colleagues at UNL, probably thought I was a jewelry jerk for having this bracelet made, and then wearing it, but it was actually my statement that I thought the students in my lab who could do anything under trying conditions were more admirable role models for the next generation of young scientists than were my pansy-ass colleagues. I’ve worn that bracelet now, pretty much every day, for the past 40+ years.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Opening paragraphs from my 2014 National Novel Writing Month project, the third in the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series.

1. The Report
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with us,” she said, extending her hand. I remembered that hand, from a year and a half ago, as being particularly warm. Three silver bracelets slid down her arm and rested against her wrist as she reached across my desk. Her sari was deep blue with gold embroidery along the edges. I had not forgotten her eyes—irises so dark they were almost black—or her voice, the deep lilt, the tone, the inflections, all telling me more about my cloistered, Ivory Tower, world, although not intentionally, I’m sure, than her words. Dr. Aparajita Chatterjee, Polk County medical examiner, introduced her companion. “This is detective Burkholder from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.”
“Broderick Burkholder.” His handshake was stronger than it needed to be. He handed me a card, which I glanced at, mainly out of courtesy, and slipped into my top desk drawer. A thought flashed through my mind: if you were casting a movie, and Bruce Willis was not available, you’d call Broderick Burkholder.
“We’re sorry to interrupt your spring break,” continued Dr. Chatterjee. “I’m sure you had plans to slip off with your wife to some warm exotic place for a romantic interlude.” She smiled. I had no plans to slip off with Mykala to anywhere exotic, although I had plenty of wishes—to be twenty-five again with no children and no pets, to win PowerBall, to be on an airplane to Hawaii, to be anywhere except behind my desk, on a cloudy late Friday afternoon in March, one of the most miserable seasons in Iowa, about to be handed the autopsy report resulting from an execution-style murder of a faculty member in the Department of Geology, of which I am now chairman.
“You okay with this?” asks Burkholder. “Sometimes people throw up.”

(Check out my web site for links to the first of the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series, entitled BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER, and the second, THE STITCHER FILE. Both are currently available on all e-readers.)