Category Archives: Meta

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.

Rebuilding a blogroll

Back when I used to blog regularly, I had a pretty substantial blogroll. Times have changed – the blogs I used to read have gone mostly dormant, and a whole crop of new blogs (including many linked to journals) have popped up. One of the really heartening developments is the presence of a slew of ecology blogs. So I figured it was time to start putting together a new blogroll.

What ecology blogs am I missing?

The changing ecosystem of blogging II

From my perspective, nature writing and science writing can bleed into one-another. In my last post, when I talked a little about the rise and fall of my blogging, I didn’t talk much about the different types of blog posts. In my experience, there are two types of posts – those where “publication date” matters and those where vintage doesn’t really matter too much.

In a general sense, time sensitive science writing tends to focus on the latest discoveries, or failing that, the latest issue of one journal or another. This sort of stuff can be fun to write about – exciting new finds, or just stuff that’s cool because of its newness. But you can also do the same sort of writing on something dredged out of the older literature. The value of immediacy can be tempered by the fact that it’s impossible to assess impact within a few days of publication. If you’re writing for the general public, it can also be difficult to balance the need to explain the background with the need to tell the current story. Too much background and the ‘story’ gets lost. Too little, and the reader gets lost.

The other type of writing is more about narrative. You can write about basic concepts. Lots of background for the general reader, plenty of opportunity to actually convey some real information…but apart from questions of tone (who’s really my audience?) there’s the problem of trying to stay on track. At some point you either have to assume a certain amount of background knowledge…or you’ll end up writing Wikipedia, all over again.

Back in the dark ages (2007) Dave Munger and Sister Edith Bogue launched BPR3 (Bloggers for Peer-Reviewed Research Reporting; sadly the original website is lost to link-rot) which later grew into researchblogging.org (which is still chugging along, by the look of things). More recently, Dave launched ScienceSeeker, which seems to have similar, but more all-encompassing goals. I loved the idea of clearly marking (and aggregating) posts about peer-reviewed research, but it doesn’t deal with the problem of recentism. Writing at BioDiverse PerspectivesFletcher Halliday took a look at what gets blogged about when it comes to papers about biodiversity. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the classic papers, it’s not the papers that have attracted hundreds of citations. Rather, it’s the new stuff. Scientists like writing about what’s new and novel. And why plumb the depths of decades-old literature when there’s more new stuff coming out than anyone can keep track of?

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The changing ecosystem of blogging

In 2006 I stuck a toe into what could be called science blogging when I started ‘Plant News‘. It wasn’t exactly a resounding success – over the course of the next two years I added a total of 63 posts. Unlike my previous forays into blogging, I actually had something to talk about, but I never managed to develop a voice or any real readership. And it’s a shame, since back in 2006 there were few competitors.

My first serious attempt at science blogging came about a year later, when Bill Dembski came to campus peddling intelligent design. This time everything was different – I had already started to blog (although mostly about politics and religion) and I was in the process of getting to know the science blogging community. Over the next several months my blogging output grew, peaking in February of 2008. By July 2008 it was mostly over. Blogging had gone from fun to work. Since then, from time to time I have tried to re-launch my blog(s), but with limited success. At some point, blogging stopped being easy.

The idea behind blogging was ‘easy’ writing. The medium is immediacy, the ability to post whatever you’re thinking. But the more I wrote, the more I thought about what I wrote.

Short posts have their value, but they quickly get old. Short posts don’t really stand alone. You can build a narrative of short posts (some people have done really well with that on Twitter) but it leaves very little room for nuance, for background, for explanation. But the longer your posts get, the more you realise the value of editing…not copy-editing, that’s something you can fix later (or, if you’re careful, while you write). No, what’s difficult about long posts is that they require a plan. You need some vision of how you’re going to write them without getting lost, without repeating yourself, without losing sight of your point entirely. And writing turns into work. A post that you might otherwise have thrown up in 10 or 15 minutes now takes hours or, worse yet, after days of editing simply sinks into the growing pile of drafts. And other priorities, like work, take over…

[More later]

Names…

I suppose it’s time to stop calling this by the default My Blog that WordPress gave it. To be honest though, it’s a pretty descriptive name – it’s a blog, it’s mine…what more do you want?

I suppose some sense of the place might help. But what do I really want to do here? What’s my vision for this site? And how do you encapsulate it in a single phrase? OK, well, I can’t. Well…what about something clever? Something catchy? Something profound? Sounds great – now all I need is skill in coming up with clever, catchy names. If I could do that, wouldn’t I be making lots of money in marketing?

OK then – how about a reference to something that’s kinda cool and somewhat descriptive? Something with a distinctly Trini flavour. But what? I’m sure there are dozens of ‘river lime’ blogs and ‘rum shop’ blogs. “A Mayaro state of mind” would be nice. But it’s probably been done already. And, more importantly, I’m not shooting the breeze in Mayaro, and I’m not in that sort of a state. I don’t want peace with the universe, I want intellectual engagement. With a sense of what is Trini and botanically inclined, nature inclined.

And then I realised what I was looking for. The samaan tree – Samanea saman. For starters, it’s a really attractive tree with its open, spreading crown. Its long, almost horizontal branches are excellent hosts for epiphytes. The campus of the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine (Trinidad) was dotted with them when I was an undergrad, and (weather permitting) the grass under a samaan tree was a good place to sit and talk, sit and contemplate the world. With the added bonus of random small insects falling out of the tree above you.

The first meeting of the group that was to become the Association for Tropical Biology (and Conservation, in recent years) had their initial meeting in Trinidad, and it was the samaan tree outside the Sir Frank Stockdale Building on the UWI campus that has graced the cover of their journal, Biotropica, ever since.

Although not a native species, there is something very Trinidadian about the samaan tree. In many ways it speaks to an older, less industrialised time when people understood that trees mattered. It has a personal connection, in memories of my undergrad days at UWI. And it is connected with one of the pillars of Neotropical biology – the journal Biotropica.

So it is with that in mind that I have renamed this blog. Too pompous and self-indulgent? Maybe. But so be it.

That went well…

I jumped out of hiding, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take the world of blogging by storm. But somehow, nothing happened. Not a word appeared on my exciting new blog. Why?

Not having written anything for such a long time, I felt the need to come back with a bang. And two papers seemed to offer the opportunity to do just that – He & Hubbell’s controversial article Species–area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss seemed like the perfect opportunity to write about something I know more than a little. Then came Davis et al.’s Don’t judge species on their origins. That article was especially timely – it appeared just a day or two after I read Scott Carroll’s Conciliation biology: the eco-evolutionary management of permanently invaded biotic systems. Carroll is one of Davis’ 18 coauthors and his ‘conciliation biology’ is an excellent introduction to the subject. The Davis et al. article, on the other hand, lacks nuance. More to the point though, the controversy it generated made it a great topic to blog about. It seemed really promising.

But then ten days passed. I wrote something for my Ramjohn family site, but that, for now, is a closed blog with perhaps one member other than myself. I tried to get started here. And I realised something. I’m not a blogger. I’m no longer comfortable throwing up short posts, throwing up a few links, shooting a half-formed idea out into the blogosphere. Not even here, where no one is going to read it.

If you feel the need to write something coherent, writing can be really hard. So what happens now? Do I learn to blog again? Do I stop blogging, but continue writing? Or does this just the world of stillborn blogs? Time will tell.

Welcome!

Almost a year since my last blog post at Further Thoughts, and more than four years since my first post at that site, I’m ready to try something new.

One of the main reasons I stopped blogging was a rising perfectionism. Blogging stopped being an amusing diversion and started to be work. To make matters worse, I gradually began to expect more of myself. As a result, posts that once took minutes started to take hours to compose. Anything that lingered that long was likely to end up stuck, permanently, as a draft.

The end of my blogging made me somewhat happier, but it robbed me of my voice. There was so many times that I wanted to express an opinion about something, but I knew that before I did that, I needed to finish some big post. Which never got done.

I’m hoping that I will do better this time…