what game are you playing?

Yep, it happened. The post-fact world bled into the post-scandal world, which then crescendoed in an inauguration. Then the earth came alive, voiced the pain of rift, and reminded us that we stand for bigger issues than crowd size. Well, some us do. And that is what saddens me.

I am, in order of passion, a football (of the version European/South American/African/Asian/Russian/Australian) fan, cycling fan, hockey fan, American football fan, and enthusiast of sports in general. During my thirties I became a diehard Colorado Avalanche fan. Still am, though this year has been a challenge to say the least. The Detroit Red Wings, that perennially talented, hard hitting, well coached group of players were the enemies. Evil. Pure evil through and through. I would watch games between my team and their team torn by fear of loss and hope of victory. There was something fun about that tension, which might explain why people even care about sports in the first place.

As I grew older, (thirties are young BTW), I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending a number of Red Wings fans. Regardless of outcome, we could raise a pint to effort and talent and share a passion for something that bound us together, something bigger than we were; the joy of watching hockey and the appreciation of the skill required to play at a level beyond any of our capabilities. And we grew together, as a team, joined by common interest.

I fear we have lost this when it comes to politics and social discourse and concern for our fellow citizens. As I type these words, tears are pushing against the barrier of tact (I am at a local pub). I fear we have decoupled from the interest that drives progress and that we now seek shelter is us versus them dichotomies. I am guilty. I do not like the present climate nor do I care for the 45th president. I fear him and what appears to be his covert attempts to enrich himself and his cohort. And I am sickened by my fear. And that disgust is based in ignorance because I do not know my fellow Americans as I should.

Fear is a powerful and destructive motivator. It stands in the way of sharing common ground. Interferes with dispassionate vision. We become blinded by alternative facts and fake news, which we cling to in an effort to justify our unsteady bearing. Fear drives a wedge between us and them, between passion and reason, between communities dependent on the same infrastructure. Fear drowns the passion for the shared and elevates the stakes of competition. Fear moves winning and losing into the realm of existential threat. Red Wings fans become threats to my very existence.

And yet I am not sure how to remedy the situation. I teach, I write, I read, and I love my family and partner. I discuss and I listen and still I am lost. Maybe that is the path to growth. Uncertainty and seeking. Maybe. But I am sure of this: that I know my fellow humans are important; young, old, left, right. And we must’n forget this. We can’t descent  into hate. We, as a country have been there, and we know it breeds division. We are better than that. You are better than that.

 

there are no dumb

I have been going through the “drafts” folder in my WordPress account. I came across this attempt from a few years ago. Something a little light in the midst of “I would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal voters had not voted”. Enjoy…

I love to teach. Part of the reason for this passion is that I get to constantly push myself to learn. The “living dangerous” side of having chosen teaching as my career is that you never now what kind of question you are going to get about the information you are so confidently disseminating. Take, for example, the query I was presented with during a recent outing with 25 fifth graders.

The group had visited the University of Colorado at Boulder for a tour of campus and a look at the scientific research taking place. Every 20 minutes, the attendant graduate student scientists (me and my cohorts) escorted a subgroup to different locations on campus. We started with a wonderful lecture by Dr. Jeff Mitton who showed pictures from a recent trip to the Galapagos. Next was a visit to two labs in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. After that we learned about the plants in the herbarium/greenhouse, then we moved to the museum insect collection. It was here that the question grew from a small egg, matured within its cocoon, and emerged as a full adult.

From behind a stack of drawers containing pinned grasshoppers, bees and butterflies, a small, yet surprisingly confident voice asked, “Do insects fart?” I could only smile. “Umm…” I had to collect my thoughts in the midst of suppressed giggles. “I suspect they do, but, well…I am not sure.” My science brain went into overdrive, while my teacher brain went into damage control. I defaulted, as I have learned is the best course, to honestly. “Well, I am not sure. Can I get back to you on that?” “Sure” was the reply. And later that day, thanks to my smart phone, I did. For those of you who were not present, here’s the short answer…

Methanogens are bacteria and are at the heart methane production. And thus are responsible for most farts. The anaerobic bacteria live in the guts of host organisms and help digest consumed food. In the case of insects, this mutualistic interaction helps break down consumed plant material, often in the form of wood and leaf litter. It appears that only a few insect orders actually produce methane (http://www.pnas.org/content/91/12/5441.full.pdf).

So while this inquiry may on the surface appear to be an opportunity to use the newly acquired word “fart”, the question is actually pretty interesting. In fact, a recent article (http://www.livescience.com/12922-eating-insects-global-warming-greenhouse-gases.html) suggests that a good way to reduce your carbon footprint it to eat insects.

I will continue to believe I was in the presence of a future MacArthur Award winner. Just sayin’.

question parsimony

After a long hiatus, I have decided to come back to writing my opinions, linking life to nature and science, and hopefully, fostering thoughtful discussion. This reemergence has taken a while to mature. Germination began months ago with my move to California and the start of a part-time teaching job; both of which I am grateful for and proud of. During these months there have been long periods of happiness, comfort, tranquility, and confidence. I have wanted to share these times and put them into a perspective that may help others understand there own journey and to recognize the fruits of their efforts. And yet, recently I am preoccupied. Recently is a lie. I have been preoccupied for a while.

It seems the diving back in is best accomplished through the words of someone more talented than I. Someone who hits at the theme of this post without meaning to. “The practice which obtains amongst the Americans of fixing the standard of their judgement in themselves alone, leads them to other habits of mind. As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend…As it is on their own testimony that they are accustomed to rely, they like to discern the object which engages their attention with extreme clearness; they therefore strip off as much as possible all that covers it, they rid themselves of whatever separates them from it, they remove whatever conceals it from sight, in order to view it more closely and in the broad light of day. This disposition of the mind soon leads them to contemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth.”

These are the words of Alexis de Tocqueville. They are found in the first pages of the second volume of Democracy in America (1840). de Tocqueville was the keenest of observers. A socio-political thinker ahead of his time and brave enough to delve deep into the youthful American democracy. When I read the words above I was struck by the parallels of living within a newly minted political environment and the quest for scientific understanding.

Those of you who are scientists are aware of the application and applicability of parsimony. For those of you not familiar with this concept, it simply means explaining what you see in the simplest terms and with the fewest assumptions. You may know the idea under the name Occam’s Razor. It’s use in science is justified as a means to build a solid scaffold upon which to describe the world around us. An example of this might look like the following: You go outside early in the morning with the intent of getting in your car to drive to work. You put the keys in the ignition, turn the switch a quarter turn, and nothing happens. Frustrated, you start flipping the mental pages of all the auto repair manuals you have ever read and decide that the starter solenoid has become fouled as a result of the lightning strike that hit your garage last night. You also suspect that such an occurrence is due to inappropriate placement of the starter motor in the car. After a quick call to work, letting them know you will be out for the day, you fire up your MIG welder, and get to work reengineering your car. Now, while all this may be the cause of your angst, the reality might have been that you didn’t turn the keys far enough (you were very tired after staying up all night reading the new issue of Scientific American) or the battery may simply be dead. Regardless, you chose the more complicated approach, with a lot of assumptions, without first testing the easiest fix.

Describing nature is similar to this. We may intuitively know that the simplest explanation for a phenomena is not the full explanation, yet we need to be careful not to jump into the overt complexity without first testing the simple options. The catch with this line of thinking is that we can get stuck in answers based on the simple solutions. If you end up with positive results for an experiment, based on the simplest variables, we might just move on and decide that no further digging is necessary. I have had to catch myself a number of times when analyzing my ant data. I find something that affects species extinctions and am apt to say, eh voila! Publishable paper! Perhaps, but could something else further explain what I see? Some interaction between variables? Something I hadn’t thought about at all? Perhaps I need to go back to the field and set up a new experiment to measure one more aspect of the environment. And this in my mind is one of the wonderful aspects of science; we seek the simple, yet we test the complex.

de Tocqueville’s words above hint at a similar conundrum, and in light of the recent election, I dare say we need to be leery of the simplest explanations, and indeed delve into the more complex. As a wise professor once reminded us, parsimony is a human construct.  I interpret this reminder, and de Tocqueville’s observations, in terms of an adjustment on the old saying “If it seems too good to be true, then it is.” My new version is, “If things seem too simple, they most assuredly are not.” While I want to believe the errant tweets and misguided policy recommendations of our new president-elect are simple buffoonery, my curious side is screaming don’t buy it. Something feels sinister here, something too simplistically distracting. We are in a holding pattern now and a lot of us, myself included, are just a little on edge about the future. Our job right now is to be good scientists for community, to give where we can, to dig where we need to,  to be diligent when gathering data, to evaluate our sources, and to publish our results.

ants

This one is pretty, nay, entirely, basic. Two lovely ladies from my collection of ants. The first is Myrmecia forficata and the second is Myrmecia simillima (I think. Still working on the identification.) A big thanks to Jana for the Olloclip iPhone lens.

myrmecia forficatamyrmecia sp

conservation mission: dialogue

“He who dedicates himself to the duration of his life, to the house he builds, to the dignity of mankind, dedicates himself to the earth and reaps from it the harvest that sows its seeds and sustains the world again and again”

-Albert Camus

 

Camus wrote these words in the years immediately following the end of World War II. A time when nihilism’s grip was tightening and the reasons for living seemed to be few. His generation had played witness to two World Wars, and would soon experience the atrocities of World powers playing political chess with citizens simply trying to make ends meet. What is poignant about what he writes is the universality of his underlying sentimentality. If you broaden your perception, hear his words at multiple frequencies, you realize he understood the human condition; the mystery of living amongst ever changing patterns of existence and the requirement of contributing to the preservation of a balance.

 

It is risky to draw a parallel between post-war efforts at material and psychological reconstruction and the need to establish ethical environmental attitudes. At least it feels that way. Yet I read Camus’s desire to establish a morality in living and decision-making and it is hard not to be aware of the current relationship between nature and humans (and yes, I realize I have separated the at this point. They will be reunited soon). Contrary to Camus’s advice, we are in the process of constructing a dilapidated dwelling; a home whose roof is askew and whose walls are porous to the gentlest of breezes. And we are satisfied that we have constructed a masterpiece of longevity. We have not.

 

But that is my view, and it need not be yours. The truth, as it is with so many conflicts between mighty opponents, is that the idea of protecting nature has become a polarizing concept. The conservation side says either you are with us or against us. The other side (not sure what to call it) has buried their collective heads in unimaginative justifications for the status quo. They both suffer from ego and self-righteousness. It need not be that way. 

 

The realization that we (humans) belong to the earth, and do not control it, is ancient. That we continually disregard this piece of wisdom is ancient as well. That we have a hand in our interactions and that somewhere collaboration rests on the willingness to say “here’s what I need” and to ask, what do you require?” is a diplomatic intercourse that might begin to bridge the gap between respect and control. That bridge could lead to a place where we can make small contributions based on what we define as nature and conservation. A place where we can all agree that we are part of a whole, and that whole is worth efforts to maintaining it. Let’s call that outpouring of effort “autonomy of change”.

 

Autonomy of change might look like each of us taking a minute to see what works for our community and those around us. It might look like an honest discussion of science and possibility. Could look like simple alternatives to destructive practices. Definitely would have the focus of responsibility and acceptance.

 

And it might not look like enough. But if we all try it, then maybe something would grow from our efforts.

 

It will certainly look like getting rid of browbeating those who do not agree with our own point of view. The point is, that something needs to be done. But only half of something will get done if we ostracize half of the people who might help out. So maybe it is time to change the message to something more inclusive. To be imaginative in the way we communicate (the “we” being all of us). I see that as having to start at a different place than we are now. And I see that as a simple step in the right direction.

 

And if we meet in the middle, we might reap the rewards and find dignity in our sustainability.  

recognition

What is the value of recognition?  Of getting a heart-felt, honest, two-thumbs up, “Good-onya mate”?

We graduate students are mostly left to our own devises. Trust and fraternity are earned in the ability to generate ideas, undertake experiments, summarize results and, adequately convey their importance. This currency is how we are judged and how progress is encouraged. For most of us there are countless hours of investigating the best way to proceed with currently accepted methods. Hundreds of questions we consider before accepting one. And we usually do this with the minimum of guidance.

Whether by essential Platonic design or as a result of the overflowing workload of our advisors, we grad students are left to founder on the rocks of intellect; to wade through the countless volumes of work put together by those who came before us. Rarely is a consensus convened to accept or deny the path we have chosen. Rarely is there enthusiasm in the amount that assuages our doubts and conveys Yes! Yes! Yes!

But there are events that beg to fall within the realm of “yes”, and one of them is the comprehensive exam. It is a process dedicated to reviewing our ideas, methods and the depth of thought we have given to the structure of our dissertation. At CU, the preparation involves a 15-20 page dissertation proposal, which is sent to all of our committee members 10 days before the planned three-hour meeting. The meeting, made up of the graduate student and their committee members, involves a 20-30 presentation (a summary of the proposal) and questions from members regarding the thinking behind each chapter or questions of interest. The idea is to have a constructive conversation in order to focus research and glean experience from the assembled committee members.

But grad students don’t always get the message that this is not a test, a make-or-break situation in which a single “um” will sink all prospects of advancement. We don’t get the memo that this is a chance to defend our thought process and open up a dialogue. Instead we perceive it as a stressful, scary, uncertain event in our education.

I spent that past few days in California with my girlfriend. We ran with Daisy the dog, ate great food and surfed. I am emerging from a winter (well, not quite yet) of recovering from a surgery to repair damage in my leg; a result of a skateboarding accident. And I am so excited to note the progress that each week brings. Five months after surgery, to the day, I was able to get out on a surfboard and catch my first waves of 2014. To suggest I was ecstatic would be an understatement, especially when I was originally told the process of recovery could take up to a year.

While sitting on my board, waiting for a wave to come in, I could not stop myself from raising my arms in joy and celebrating where I was. It was a long way from lying in the road, three muscles of a hamstring torn away from my pelvis, and unsure of what would happen next. That moment atop my board was an acknowledgement of having persevered, followed advice, and arrived at a place I was not sure would be available. And it struck me that my experience with my comps exam last week was similar.

I went through my comps exam last Tuesday, a week ago. I passed. Upon leaving school that day, I called Jana (my girlfriend) and sobbed with relief and pride, the latter something I am not all that comfortable with. And what rolled over me, as I enjoyed the Ventura coastline, was that I wasn’t reveling in pride. No, pride was not the fire in my belly. What I was happy about was knowing that this is where I wanted to be and this is what I had worked to achieve. In essence, I was accepting the value of what I am, what I have chosen, what I work for, and of where I am going. In the end it was a realization that the value of recognition resides only within. Others may signal to you, well done, but until we do that for ourselves, believe in our abilities, our thoughts, and our path, there is no value, only recognition.

So what is the value of recognition? Surely it rests in self-recognition of our own value.