Why I don’t write

I recently wrote about going to the International Arachnological Congress in Golden, Colorado over here on our lab blog. What follows here is a bit of mid-week catharsis so that I can get on with my life and stop moping. 


I genuinely love writing. I haven’t done enough of it by a long shot to consider myself anything more than competent but regardless of the format I have always derived pleasure from writing. Now, I find this confusing given how awful I am at keeping up any sort of regular writing schedule. Every second drawer in my room has a journal stuffed in the back somewhere featuring two half-hearted entries followed by to-do lists which inevitably take over because I am a scheduling fanatic.

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My notebooks are also horrific to look at.

The problem now is that, as a science doctoral student, I am encouraged to communicate my science and/or my experience. As someone who values the role of media in shaping the way people see the world, I strongly believe in the importance of communication and as a behavioural ecologist I believe that this communication should be the primary output of fundamental science.

Yet despite all this cause for rapid and regular composition, I don’t think my extra-curricular writing practice is any better than it was when I was a teenager. I have no problem with scheduling in regular writing times for my doctoral work but for some reason regular exegesis about study and how much I love the burrito stall in the quad is still beyond me. I was recently (an hour ago) compelled to think about why why this might be when I tried to plan blog writing times and, horror of horrors, my scheduling abilities failed me. It wasn’t because had forgotten how to use a diary or lost all comprehension of time. It was because I sincerely do not know why I should write.

Now I am really really bad at doing things which I do not see the purpose for. When someone asks me to go for a walk my response is always “okay” but on the inside I’m asking “why?” I don’t even mean it in a spiteful way – I just want to know why we’re doing it. I think it’s the same with my writing except, rather than not seeing the purpose for doing it, I’m not sure which cause is more important to me and therefore which aim to plan for [warning: overthinking incoming]

  1. If my blog is a diary about my day-to-day as a PhD student then am I a) keeping a record for my own benefit or b)is it for other students in my field i.e. do I i) need to explain how I do things and/or ii) how I feel?
  2. If it’s a place for me to talk about my research or about other more academic topics, should I a) write more frequently to air out my reckons and try to workshop my own thoughts through the process of writing or b) wait until I have a clearer understanding [caveat: will that ever happen and will I still care?).
  3. Are my blog and twitter a) entirely personal or b) are they an extended CV i.e. can I talk about other things going on in my life e.g. the burrito stall in the quad.

If it sounds like I’m whining it’s because I am.

At the risk of going to far I also want to admit that I’m easily discouraged by how expertise is treated when it enters the public sphere, often through the media. There’s talk about living in a post-facts world (cf Brexit and the American election) and our very own science and innovation minister seems to view the concerns of scientists and of academics in general with disdain. There was a recent video showing Professor Brian Cox’s “smack-down” of a climate change denier and yes it is glorious but I can’t help but despair that this conversation is still happening. The success of Donald Trump in the States so far is a constant reminder that the hierarchy of influence in the world is not and has never been a meritocracy and that, in so many cases, the prevailing narrative within which people live their lives is enough to repel all evidence to the contrary and that the people who can massage and redirect that narrative have the greatest power in shaping the world we live in [deep breath].

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Seriously, how many prominent scientists and people IN GENERAL have addressed this?

(This is a topic for another day but I also find it distressing how willing some scientists are willing to disregard the public as illogical for falling at the feet of demagogues. If scientists are satisfied with shrugging their shoulders as if to say “we can’t help it if the world is full of idiots” then we deserve to be called “arrogant”. What is the value in what we do and how can we operate in the public sphere if we do not have basic empathy and understanding of how and why people at different socio-economic levels – and it is so often about socio-economic differences – live their lives and how they interact with information).

MY POINT IS, the meeting place between technical information and the public is complex and it is arguably the be all and end all of whether what we do as scientist is relevant and I find my relationship to this fact difficult to reconcile. Also I had a burrito for lunch and it was amazing.

Five months in five photos

 

I’m so bad at updates that even this mass update is late. 

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In early December I tagged along on a trip to Northland in a hunt for Cambridgea reinga and what felt like every stick insect on the Cape. I managed to nab my study specimens and not drink myself into oblivion to cope with the company. (Disclaimer: This is a joke). It was a week of spirited scouring of the forest floor to which the only downsides were the dregs of information slipping in through dodgy reception that my grandpa wasn’t well. He had already been sick but the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan while I was away. It occurs to me now that I never got a straight answer about exactly what his diagnosis was.

I arrived home just in time to head out for a dress rehearsal. The choir I’m in (they come up later so it’s worth introducing them) were performing Benjamin Britten’s St Nicholas the next day.

The next morning, Anthony and I went to visit Grandpa at the hospital after breakfast. That is, Anthony proposed to me after breakfast and then we went to break the news to Grandpa. From there, I went on to the concert and the next morning I got on a plane to Wellington to work at a Royal Society workshop.

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The main Chathams Island is not what I expected. I was there for a week with Anna where we bundled up spiders in gladwrap to measure them. They were out in force so we didn’t have any trouble getting the numbers that I wanted but, wow, there is something desolate about that place. It’s not that it’s barren per say so much as that it’s got the feeling of a room recently abandoned with country side that’s a wild carpet of gorse striped with pockmarked roads. We drove to all four corners of the island on roads which just ended without any sort of declaration and we watched The Silence of the Lambs on VCR at the DOC hut.

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So to get the humble brag out of the way, the choir went on a trip to New York to perform Paul Mealor’s Stabat mater and Jubilate Deo at Carnegie hall in a choir amassed by DCINY under the direction of Dr James Jordan. When we weren’t rehearsing we were swanning about Times square and the Metropolitan opera. When asked “how was New York” it’s easier to talk in specifics because when I’ve tried to describe the emotional journey I went on, people start looking at me like I’m touched in the head. Because to anyone else, it’s all “music’s all about making a connection, man. It moooooves you.” So suffice to say, I happy cried and cried cried >5 times during rehearsals and performance.

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Right. So this is how my first week of March went. Anthony and I had decided to get married on the 6th so that Grandpa might make it. Sunday 28th we had lunch with my Thai family to celebrate the engagement (may I say that Anthony and I had had our respective hens and stag nights the previous night and were “worse for wear”). We’d received a phone call from Nana to say that Grandpa wasn’t well and we popped in on our way home. Anthony and I didn’t leave until later that night. Somehow every child and grandchild who lived in Auckland managed to pop in that day. Grandpa died overnight.

I don’t’ know how other people respond to death of a loved one but I think for us our minds scrambled to find the patterns which would explain what we were feeling.

Things I concluded:

  • He died on the 29th of February,
  • The 29th is the day before his birthday
  • The 29th of February only occurs on a leap year
  • Eve’s [the cat] back.
  • Eve was named such because their first cat was “Adam”.
  • Evening

The remaining days are everything you would expect as we tried to take the cracked sky into ourselves. One and a half days mourning at my nana’s house, three days tangi at Orakei marae. Three days after he died, I turned 26 and three days after that, I got married.

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Again, it’s hard not to rationalise but, hell, if he’d died a day later, we would’ve had to call the whole thing off. If he’d survived to the weekend, he wouldn’t have been able to come and Nana probably would have stayed at home with him. Because he died, every family member who couldn’t come to the wedding was suddenly in town for the tangi and might as well stay on. Hell, we hadn’t even considered inviting our family from York because it’s York, y’know? The wedding numbers swelled.

In spite of everything (or perhaps because of everything), I don’t think we could have been happier on that day.

 

Natural history museums; Use ’em or lose ’em

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels and one of my favourite concepts is the Unseen university library. For those unfamiliar with those books, the library operates on the aphorism that “Knowledge is power”. Ergo:

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which is all to say that large quantities of books (magical and mundane) warp time and space around themselves, opening a portal to L-space. The “L” stands for “library” and it links all libraries everywhere and every when across the multiverse. The result is that virtually any bookshop could become infinite.

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Did I mention that the librarian is an orangutan?

To slide obliquely onto my actual topic, there have been a couple papers published recently about the relationship between ecologists, taxonomists, natural history museums and open access. The first postulates that the primary datum of the ecologist is usually thought to be the measurement or count of a species. In other words, some number. But, in reality, a measurement has been made long before that, at a much more basic level: that ecologist has designated that organism as a particular species.

Now, the term “species” is to biology as the term “language” to linguistics: our every-day use of the term obfuscates the sheer number of often-incompatible definitions. Deciding when two animals are two different species and when they are the same comes down to probabilities a lot more often than you may think and, when philosophies change, it’s not unheard of for one scientist to completely overhaul a taxonomy (the classification of different species). I am no taxonomist but I did visit some sheet-web spider collections in the South Island over the last month and when looking at some of the older specimens (old as in <1900s), there was the odd species label which arched the eyebrow.

But in every other respect, these visits were fantastic

The point is that every time an ecologist looks at a plant and decides “Oh that’s an X”, that is an interpretation. So the authors argue that, in addition to open access to numeric datasets, it is imperative that ecologists make any physical samples available. Natural history museums seem like a sensible place to store these.

The second paper supports this notion but acknowledges that natural history museums often lack the resources to take these ecological collections. And by resources I mean a) curators, b) space and, c) capital which kinda determines the previous two. Given this, the authors argue that a cultural shift needs to take place within ecology. Not only do ecologists need to start storing their samples in collections but they also need to be more supportive of natural history museums, whatever form that support takes.

Because support is needed. I’ve been a member of the Entomological society of New Zealand for three years and, in that time, members have been called upon twice to make submissions in defence of members facing the employment axe (or at least the employment shave). In both cases, these other members were taxonomists and curators of significant insect collections who had fallen within that immense shadow which hangs over natural history research nowadays.

(The shadow’s called “Perceived irrelevance” and apparently I wrote a bit about it in a previous life (read: pre-PhD)).

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So to bring things back to my laboured Terry Pratchett introduction [“It’s our party we can do what we want”], it would be fantastic if we could have collections which were are infinite in size, fully integrated across space-time (hello, internet) and curated by a single highly skilled orangutan paid in bananas. But we can’t so instead we have to lend support to taxonomists and natural history collections when opportunities arise and make use of collections and experts when appropriate. If an ecological sample is too large to store, subsample representatives of key taxonomic units, deposit that and remember to acknowledge which institution is holding that sample.

Take home message: Give a taxonomist a hug and drop a sneaky fiver in their pocket.

(Take home message 2: Don’t)

(Take home message 3: I mentioned visiting museums to measure spiders which makes this count as a PhD update)

Another NZ species with Māori name. A species of many names, the glow worm is the larval form of the fungus gnat (Arachnocampa luminosa). The adults are known as “titiwai” while “pūrātoke” refers to the larvae (reference).puratoke

Pūrātoke