All posts by Ian

Remembering Max Richards

Fourth President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. University principal. Professor. Chemical engineer. Mas’ lover. Expert maker of rum punch. These all describe the person who was Max Richards. But there are others that matter more – husband, father, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, friend.

And the one that matters to me: uncle.

It’s almost impossible to capture all there is to say about a person who is one of the major influences in my life. Never in any single big way – I would have a hard time pointing to something specific and saying “I am the person I am because of this thing” – but rather, in a thousand small ways that only someone who was there throughout your childhood and adolescence can influence you. I can’t say that he inspired me to get a PhD, but rather, the fact that he had a PhD created a space in which I could see a PhD as something possible.

As far back as my memories take me, as far back as the stories take me, Auntie Jean and Uncle Max are there. One of my earliest memories is of Uncle Max cooking breakfast – eggs, I think. I was four, and it was the summer after we moved to Canada. The family had come to visit – Jean, Max, Mark and Maxine – and rented a house by a lake. My father would drop my mother and two-year-old brother off each morning on his way to work, but my sister and I got to stay with Jean and Max by the lake. It was a great adventure, my first experience being away from my parents (albeit only for the nights). It may have been a week, or it may have been two, but it was my first great adventure. On the first morning, before breakfast, Mark and I went down to the lake to explore, until Jean and Max called us in for breakfast. The idea of going out before breakfast was new and exciting (something that hasn’t entirely faded in 4+ decades), as was being called back in for breakfast and the fact that Max was doing the cooking.

Whether he was calling you in for breakfast as a small child, or offering you food (and drink) when you visited his home, Max has a real way of making you feel welcome. He had real presence, real charisma. He stood out in a way that had little to do with the fact that he was at least half a head taller than everyone around him. But despite that presence, he also had the ability to not stand out. When I was a student at UWI, everyone knew who Max Richards was, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about how he was running the university. But he could walk around campus and be utterly unremarkable – you’d never mistake him for anything other than an academic, of course, but you’d never think he was the man in charge.

It’s easy for his role as President to overshadow what came before, but his role as campus principal was probably the bigger achievement. The end of the oil boom ushered in great uncertainty. The year before I started, the government had cut UWI’s budget substantially and instituted a cess, a tax on students at the university. Faculty and staff were asked to do more with substantially less, with no prospect of raises. Students were asked to pay more for less. Everyone felt great uncertainty, and blame frequently found its way to Max (because we need to assign responsibility to a real person, not some nebulous group we call “admin”). He took the heat for decisions made by many of his subordinates, and he accepted it with little complaint.

Having spent much of my adult life around universities, I have a sense of what a big achievement it must have been to keep UWI afloat in the face of such a massive budget shortfall – and to do it without resorting to layoffs. If I’m right, this was a monumental achievement, and one for which he deserves credit.

(Wikipedia says it was a 30% cut, but since I’m the one who added that information to Wikipedia, without a source, I have to be skeptical. Back in 2005 you wrote what you knew and sources were optional. I trust that I wouldn’t have added that information if I didn’t believe it was true, but I can’t trust what I can’t verify.)

It’s unremarkable to point of that Max was highly intelligent; it’s a basic requirement for the job he held. What’s more notable to me was how sharp his mind was, how he made connections between the key things, easily he saw through things to their essentials. I learned a lot from Uncle Max when to listen and when to speak. (If only I were better at putting that knowledge into practice.)

Uncle Max had a decency, a vibrance. He talked to everyone, paid attention to people, let you know he saw you. He was truly alive, and in so many ways he explored the myriad ways that one could be truly Trinbagonian, in the best ways you could be.

It was a privilege and an honour to know you.

What am I?

When you invest half your life and so much of your identity in a project that ultimately fails, it leaves you wondering who you are. I wanted to be an academic. I loved learning, I loved research, I loved data analysis. I enjoyed putting all the pieces together and trying to figure out how it all fit together. And more fundamental than that is your identity within a discipline.

Even in the most generous sense, I have not functioned as an ecologist in two years, but I still think of myself, foremost, as an ecologist. It’s more accurate, of course, to say that I have a Ph.D. in ecology. But while some people complete a Ph.D. and move on, my fascination with the science of ecology hasn’t dampened. Only my depth of knowledge.

So if I’m not an academic, what am I? Do I identify myself in terms of my job? It might help if Senior Wikipedia Content Expert was a thing people understood. I advise students who are writing Wikipedia articles as part of a class assignment. I serve as a go-between and a buffer between them and the Wikipedia community. I observe several thousand students as they edit Wikipedia and try to steer them in the right direction. I also help develop resources to help them write Wikipedia articles. I manage some projects, I manage a co-worker. I gather data. I have opinions. Plenty of opinions.

But what does this make me? It doesn’t fill the need for convenient labels or categories. It just leaves me with a question.

Continue reading What am I?

The rise and fall of science blogging

There was a time when I was a science blogger. Not a big deal, not a famous one, but my blog got a fair amount of traffic, and the occasional link from the bigger players. And though it’s been a decade, many of the people I met through science blogging continue to be part of my social media world.

Over the years, I gradually lost sight of the world of science blogs. When I created this site, I tried to set up a blogroll; since I no longer read blogs, I tried instead to create a list of ecology blogs. How times have changed. A decade ago, ecology blogs were very few on the ground, and plant ecology even more so. Now everyone has a website, and their website includes a blog. Few people update their blogs though, and by the time you discover something cool, it has probably gone quiet.

ScienceSeeker is a science blogging aggregator. The post, “On the evolution of the science blogosphere” was an interesting read about the rise and fall of science blogging. There was less decline than I had expected, which proved a pleasant surprise. But we’re not about to see a second golden age of the science blog.

New Year’s resolutions

I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. They seemed a silly habit; for most people they were an admittedly pointless joke, made with the full knowledge that they would be abandoned in weeks, while for others they were a boast, a way of showing off their superior abilities at getting things done, at changing their lives. And for me, they seemed obvious – do the things I’m supposed to be doing, but don’t. Why bother to enumerate one’s own shortcomings?

Gradually, I’ve changed my position. I think they may be useful.

If you plan nothing, there’s a good chance you’ll achieve what you plan, so it makes sense to make a plan for your life, both professionally and personally. For me, the first week of January seems like the ideal time to do that – it’s the beginning of a relatively quiet time at work. Granted, it would have made sense to plan this time months in advance, but those are the times that are just too busy.

And while making plans for your professional life, why not make some plans for your personal life, some plans for self-improvement? While making short-term plans, why not stop to consider the longer term?  Well, maybe it isn’t a good idea to get ahead of yourself. Maybe planning for the longer term is something that’s worth making a short-term goal.

Will I achieve any of this? I have no idea. But one of those items on my yet-to-be-completed list – or plan – is to use this blog. After all, if I hit “publish” right now, I’ve beat my record for 2016.

Learning humility

I’m not a forester, though I sometimes forget that. I’m not an expert on sustainability, or environmental policy, or environmental history. While I know a lot about these things, my knowledge is riven with holes – and I’m often unaware of those holes.

When I teach environmental science, I know that I’m a dabbler when I talk about the atmosphere, or weather, or even ocean currents. I know my geology is self-taught. As a consequence, I know enough to make sure I know what I know and avoid stepping off the cliff into ignorance. But when I talk about environmental history or policy, when I talk about sustainability or land-use or economics, I don’t know what I don’t know. I built a decent edifice of knowledge on a foundation honeycombed with ignorance. He who knoweth not, and knoweth not he knoweth not.

There are things you know because you have a solid foundation, but not a whole lot of updated, specialised knowledge. But what you know serves you well. I can teach chemistry or physics to environmental science students and not feel like they are ill-served. My physics ends at A Levels and my chemistry with my first year undergrad, but what I’m teaching is barely O Level.  It’s stuff I know inside-out, backward and forward – well enough to take apart and explain to the science-phobic. When I hit an unknown, it doesn’t come as a surprise – it’s either higher-level knowledge that I never got to (but may be aware exists) or it’s something I once knew, but have forgotten. Forgetting can be annoying, but it’s just part of what happens to specific bits of information you haven’t though about in 25 years.

Hitting a gap in ecology, forestry, or environmental history can be vertigo-inducing.

I remember not knowing who Aldo Leopold was, early in my career as a grad student, when everyone else seemed conversant with his work. It was very different from discovering how much I didn’t know about the importance of Howard Odum or Robert MacArthur because at least I had heard their names.

So what sparked the current crisis of faith? Aldo Leopold, again.

Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948) developed from his long professional experience in Pinchot’s Forest Service, his discussions with the British ecologist Charles Elton and his encounter with the German ‘Dauerwald’ experiments.

Dauerwald. The term doesn’t even have an article in the English Wikipedia, though it does exist in the German one (and, apparently, its Russian and Estonian counterparts). Not knowing about something that I don’t know exists shouldn’t really bother me, but once I started looking I felt like I shouldn’t have known about this.

Dauerwald is a forestry system that eschewed clear-cutting and defined timber quotas for a system that more closely mimicked nature. I’m immediately reminded of the Periodic Block System. It was required by the Nazi government. Really? And it was, of course, influential on Leopold.

There’s just too much there I should know, but don’t. Discovering this for the first time makes me feel profoundly ignorant.

Dauerwaldrevier2 Baerenthoren

Web presence

No one wants a Google search for their name to turn up a lot of negative information, but I am always curious when a search for someone shows up little information at all. Sure, it doesn’t surprise me if a search for my mother turns up limited information (though thanks to stories about my brother’s death, there’s actually some substance) but where you’re talking about someone who has presumably been online for the last decade or more, it can be surprising to see how little information Google brings up.

This makes me think about the way the internet has changed in the last twenty years. When the internet really became a ‘thing’ in the late 1990s, you created a web page as your presence there. It was probably at GeoCities or some other long-lost community. (It’s sad the way so much digital history has vanished as these sites were gradually shut down over.) Even with the rush by big companies to get online, it was still a rough democracy of content. There was an onus on you, as a user, to also be a creator. This continued, and grew, with the rise of blogs and Wikipedia. These days it seems like most people are online either only as consumers of information, or as producers in environments that are owned and controlled by others. We’re left as little more than the comment section of a corporate website.

This site isn’t permanent. It will only last as long as I continue to pay for hosting and, beyond that, in whatever bits the Wayback Machine finds interesting enough to archive. It’s also nearly invisible to the world (interestingly Bing ranks this page much higher than Google, yet here I am, a committed Google user). But it’s still a space that’s my creation (except the bits that aren’t, like the entire CMS that makes the site work), it’s still a chance to claim a space on what was supposed to be a platform for digital democracy. And to me, that’s important.

Why collinearity matters, or doesn’t matter

This makes sense to me

But then there’s this reply, from someone who knows a lot more than I do.

Conclusion: don’t trust everything you were taught in a statistics class. Like any other real academic field, there’s a whole lot of nuance that’s lost when you simplify things enough to teach undergraduates or grad students who are only interested in applying statistical tools, in the hope that they give you the ‘right’ answer.

What can I do with maps…?

I’m trying to learn a little about Github (because, well, I don’t know. I feel like I should). A few random clicks brought me to the Leaflet project. And it got me thinking about what I could – and should – be doing with maps.

As I child I drew maps constantly. Imaginary maps, around which I concocted stories – usually of the rise and fall of empires, but also about the migrations of tribes and peoples. It was fed by my fascination with history (especially my historical atlases) and Tolkien. It was a great form of expression. Today, while I have used maps for research, I have never managed to use maps to tell a story very effectively. I really should. There are tools today that would make telling stories – real or imaginary – so much easier than they once were. Why am I not doing that?


‘Ferns have not bowed to the ages’

When I started my undergrad, botany was something of an afterthought – I just needed a third course to go along with chemistry and zoology, which had been my mainstays in A Levels. But once I sat down in Dr Duncan’s class, I was enthralled – while chemistry and zoology largely rehashed what I had learned in A Levels, botany took me into an entirely new world. As we partook in an old-fashioned march across the plant kingdom, I was amazed. Lectures were interesting, but it was the labs that truly drew me in.

By the time we got to ferns, we had covered a variety of algae and simpler plants. Much of what I was taught slipped past me, adrift without a proper foundation. The difference between isotomous and dichotomous branching in the thallus. Steles, and steles within steles. But one thing that stuck with me was a quote from Frederick Orphen Bower: ferns, he said, had not bowed to the ages. While other ancient groups like the liverworts and horsetails had retained only a shadow of their former diversity, ferns were not only diverse, much of their diversity reflected a (relatively) recent diversification that had occurred ‘in the shadow of angiosperms‘.

The simple fact that ferns diversified after the rise of the group that is generally seen as replacing and displacing them is in itself remarkable. It clashes, not with evolutionary theory, but rather, with our (mistaken) perception of an orderly progression of evolution. If we can put aside our evolutionary misconceptions, it becomes less disconcerting. Or it did, until recently.

A recent paper by Fay-Wei Li and colleagues uncovers the mechanism by which ferns were able to diversify in the shadows: a gene from a hornwort. In is usual way, Ed Yong does an great job of explaining the research, as does Carl Zimmer. While the discovery is a great story, what really intrigues me is the mechanism of gene transfer. Horizontal gene transfer (i.e., transfer from one species to another) is no big deal in bacteria. Migration of genes from the mitochondrial and chromosome genome to the nuclear genome is strange, but it’s still the kind of thing for which you can envision a reasonable mechanism. Gene flow between species via introgression (hybridisation followed by extensive backcrossing to one parental species) is intuitive (or can be, if you don’t think about it too much). But transfer of a gene from a hornwort to a fern. How is that supposed to happen?

As odd as it sounds, I’m sure there’s a reasonable way for genes to make that journey. I’ve heard about people coaxing plants to take up RNA molecules. Viruses could also have unwittingly played a part. I suppose the most important message in this story may be the realisation that transgenic higher plants may not be as unusual as we tend to think they are.