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(This is what blogs are for, so…)

If you ever, particularly in scientific writing, find yourself saying “the process of …” (e.g. the process of evolution, the process of adaptation, the process of speciation), STOP. You are writing three extra words that add no meaning. Evolution is a process. Speciation is a process. You could just use those single words. Using fewer words is usually the classier choice. It’s certainly the sensible choice when you’re writing something with a word limit. Similarly, there is seldom any need to say (to pick an example) “the evolutionary process”; again, “evolution” suffices. I defy you to find a situation in which the wordier construction adds vital meaning.

I have spoken.

(Ask me sometime about starting papers with “Ever since Darwin”.)


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Southern Louisiana. For the next three-plus months. I’m a field tech for a project that’s studying the long term effects of oil spills on seaside sparrows and marsh rice rats.

So far (I’ve been here a week), I’m more or less high on all the zany wildlife that are commonplace here: pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, armadillos, dolphins, anoles, tree frogs, anhingas…Expect lots of gushing and many exclamation points in upcoming posts.

Here, have a bird picture (it’s a savannah sparrow):sparrow

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To whomever

To the field biologist (apparently studying vermilion flycatchers?) who sent in this image to Postsecret:

Postcard includes a torn picture of a bird, a point count data sheet, and the text “My depression skews my data. I feel like a bad field biologist.”

I feel for you, whoever you are. Please seek help, and know that mental illness doesn’t make you a bad person, let alone a bad biologist.

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I saw the movie Lincoln last weekend. It was excellent, and tellingly the theatre was nearly full two months after the release date.

Apart from Daniel Day Lewis’s eerie transformation into exactly what you imagine Abraham Lincoln to have looked and acted like, the outstanding performance in this film, to me, was Tommy Lee Jones’s depiction of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was an abolitionist congressman who had to retract his statements that he thought all races were created equal in order to make the 13th Amendment more palatable to less radical politicians. (He does so with searing rhetoric, but the emotional cost to him and to the black people listening to him is apparent.)

The rest of this post requires a minor spoiler (probably not a spoiler at all if you know anything about Civil War history or are inclined to look things up on Wikipedia). Stevens’s housekeeper and mistress/common law wife, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was black. (This fact is not apparent until nearly the end of the film and is played as a “big reveal” of sorts.)

After the movie, one of the people I saw it with thought that this fact cheapened Stevens’s work for abolition somehow; several others in the party agreed; I caught myself agreeing for a second.

But really, how is acting in the interests of someone you love—not just acting in their interests, but fighting for their human rights when they have less opportunity to do so themselves—a less-than-noble motive?

Taking the original statement further, is it ignoble for Lydia Hamilton Smith herself to support the abolition of slavery, because she’s black and therefore serving her own interests? If we frame the story that way, it’s the privileged members of society granting rights to the less privileged who are the greatest heroes; the underprivileged who fight for their rights are less worthy of praise. (I’m writing in general terms now, because the argument could apply to any social justice movement.)

This reasoning, to me, is obviously wrong. In fact it’s a way in which hegemony is maintained after it’s been officially dismantled. The narrative of already-privileged allies acting benevolently supersedes the narrative of activism by the less-privileged group and thus makes their contribution to history seem smaller, keeping them as a group less visible.

It also ignores the power of personal interactions to change people’s opinions. It might not always turn out so well, but sometimes it takes having a gay sibling, or a child in an interracial relationship, or a feminist teacher, or a trans friend, or a Muslim coworker to change a person’s mind about their bigotry. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with reconsidering one’s own bigotry.

Allies are vital to any social justice movement. But let’s not pat them—or ourselves—on the back too much for their detached benevolence. Granting rights to those who have been deprived of them is good; but the struggle by those people for those rights is the heroic tale we should remember.

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Graveyard Club – The Unsettlers

Well the graveyard ain’t no place for dancing

and it ain’t no place for sweet romance

And if you try to make a tombstone for your bed

sweet little lady might wind up dead

Probably the sort of music you’d hear at the circus in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Here is a live version on YouTube in case you can’t open the CBC link outside of Canada.

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Update: cat boredom

I’ve added to the collection of homemade cat toys I’ve been assembling for Palu. An unexpected windfall arrived in the form of a bag of plastic Easter eggs—you know, the kind that has two halves so you can take it apart and put chocolate inside it. The egg shape gives them some interesting kinetic properties, i. e. they roll around in unexpected patterns on linoleum. This turns out to be mesmerizing for Palu, who has almost crashed into several walls while pouncing on plastic eggs.

Having found a stash of polyester stuffing, I also made a couple of catnip pillows out of an old sock—simply cut the sock into two sections, stuffed each with a bit of the stuffing and a pinch of ‘nip, and sewed them shut. So far, they have been ignored, although my sleepier cat Luta was huffing one earlier today, while Palu was too busy begging to be let outside to give them more than a cursory examination. I’m pretty sure there’s more than enough catnip in the toys to interest them—I can smell it myself—but they continue to spurn my efforts to amuse them.

My sister pointed out that the best toys are the ones you steal for yourself, so now that the house is strewn with them, maybe Palu will be able to entertain himself.

Gratuitous cat picture:

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Palu, one of my two cats, is easily bored. As a result, he spends the three hours before every mealtime mewling obnoxiously for food. He also picks fights with the other cat and knocks things off of counters. I try to let him go outside as much as possible, but he sometimes gets in fights with the neighbourhood felines and will probably start spending less time outside as it gets colder. Since I’m doing the unemployed-and-living-with-my-parents thing, I’m bored too. So I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone, and make Palu some cat toys.

First, and simplest, is a ball of tinfoil. Palu bats it around and chews on it; I will need to make a new one fairly regularly, I think. But it holds his attention for about two minutes at a time, and, if it’s especially close to dinnertime, I basically have to throw it at him to get his attention.

A step up: you know those envelopes with the plastic windows? They make an excellent crinkly sound! I tied a string around the middle of one and dragged it around for Palu to chase. Verdict: he’s more interested in it when I dangle it in the air rather than when I drag it along the ground. As before, he doesn’t seem interested in interacting with it when I’m not there to “animate” it. And when I tried getting him to chase it about half an hour before dinner, he lasted a few minutes before fixing me with a contemptuous glare and yowling, then stalking into the kitchen.

Hence, another step up: I dug up some of the old craft supplies from my childhood, glued a bunch of colourful feathers to a wooden bead, and tied some twine to the whole thing. I hung this off of a hat rack, and Palu started batting it and nibbling the feathers of his own accord. When I swung it around he went pretty insane, and even attacked it after I’d put it down. It’s now lost a few feathers. So, tentative success.

A small dose of catnip also occupied him for a good while, but I don’t think I want to drug him every day. Laser pointers are out, because they make Palu a little too hyperactive and terrify my other cat, Luta (who alleviates his boredom by sleeping). Future projects might include a stuffed toy (with a little catnip inside) and perhaps some bouncy balls if I can find them. Anyone have other cat amusement ideas?

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