My favorite story at Halloween


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Production value leaves a bit to be desired, but if you love Halloween, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and you’re not too annoyed by my American white guy voice, you might enjoy my reading of the Washington Irving classic.

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Do my social media milestones matter?


Well, no. Of course not. Still . . .

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Social media is irrelevant, right Duck-Face Mona Lisa?

My wife and I started this blog (formerly Eat More Cookies) way back in July 2006. We were about to complete our third year in Oklahoma, with family back home in New York and friends mostly dotted around the East Coast. We thought those friends and family could better keep in touch with us and see photos of our growing kids if we posted them online, so yeah, we pretty much invented Facebook too. eBird was nascent in those days, and our family blog was also a place where I could post photos and provide lengthy descriptions of my birding trips. I could also share information more generally, like how to feed hummingbirds or why cardinals are often bald in late summer. I threw in a bit of humor, a rather large number of haiku, birding newsletters, some movie reviews, sports fandom, science communication, an original podcast, and political editorial.

Since 2006, Facebook has taken up a lot of that slack so my posting rate here has dropped quite a bit. It’s easier and more effective to share newsletters and other items on Facebook, too. eBird now lets me generate checklists to which I can attach photos, audio, and video. I’ve even specialized with additional blogs: A lot of what you might ever want to know about birds can be accessed through NREM/BIOL 4464 – Ornithology. The O’Connell Lab website is one-stop shopping for most of my professional research and teaching information. Avian Window Kills is a continuous summary of near daily monitoring for window-killed birds at a building on campus at OSU in Stillwater. I’ve even developed and maintain a website for the Payne County Audubon Society. What remains here at The Waterthrush Blog is still dominated by science, birds, and political screeds, mostly when I feel compelled to explore some issue on a deeper dive.

 

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Ah crap – I’m supposed to be on a field trip right now!

 

I’d be remiss as well not to consider my various profiles on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Google Scholar, and ORCID. But in recent years, nothing has changed my social media presence as much as my time on Twitter. It’s there that I celebrate today a new milestone: 1500 followers for @Seiurus.

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My traditionally-considered formative years are long behind me, and even back then my upbringing was considered socially conservative. Raised in a traditional Catholic family, we never really got on board with Vatican II, and this silly nonsense about saying the mass in English. We were taught to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. Next to faith, I’d say that humility was the most important quality that good Catholics instilled in their children. Thankfully I’ve since recovered from the meritless faith, but the emphasis on humility was, if anything, further stoked through graduate school and in charting a career in academia. There’s always someone smarter, more productive, working harder. You were lucky to get the job you have and there are dozens out there who could do it better. When will they find out I’m a fraud? An impostor. Best keep my head down and my mouth shut. I’ll let my work speak for me.

Whether it’s a deep-seated impostor syndrome, some holdover from childhood lessons against growing prideful, or simply a tendency among many in science to see self-promotion as a bit vulgar, a lot of us are lousy at tooting our own horns. I know I am. So for several years as I made attempts to build a social media presence I was highly selective in my choice of people to follow. If people found me, great! But if I went out looking for them, that was a bit too far. That felt like shameless self-promotion to me.

Thankfully, I’ve since learned that that was a silly approach to building my social media presence. The whole point should be to build a network of people for whom my work and my ideas might resonate. Screaming into a void can be okay sometimes, but what’s wrong with inviting people to my tune into my void? The best way to do that? Reach out.

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Twitter – especially Twitter – has emerged as an extraordinary learning resource for me that has helped me connect with science- and conservation-minded people all over the world. Not only have I gained access to new scientific content through links to journal articles and other presentations, I’ve been able to connect with the people actually doing that interesting work. I’ve learned more about diversity and struggles of underrepresented minorities in academia in the past few years on Twitter than I had during the entirety of my professional life before then. These revelations have absolutely made me a better educator. I’ve also built my own network of young scholars who can benefit from my experience. Mentoring is a good thing for both parties; on Twitter I’m mentoring dozens (hundreds?) of people simultaneously.

Thus dismounted from my high horse, I stopped worrying about shamelessly soliciting followers and I started doing something that would help me be most effective at building my network: I started shamelessly following everyone who was following me, and following a few newly suggested folks every day. I don’t care that I’m following 1000 more people than are following me. My goal is to increase the number of people following me. This builds my network, exposes me to new ideas, and – ostensibly the reason I have a social media presence at all – provides a built-in audience for the content I provide. That content is not pearls of wisdom in an endless string, but every 20th post or something really does seem to resonate with someone. That’s pretty cool.

So here I am at a decent milestone: 1500 followers at a time when academics need more than ever to support each other; when aspiring scholars need advice to help them level-up; when science and critical thinking take a beating from the politically powerful; when CO2 has consistently topped 400 ppm, human population hurtles toward 8 billion, and populations of once-abundant species are in freefall; when marginalized people need real allies; when fellow humans suffering from depression or anxiety need to see something wholesome and funny or just feel reassured that someone is listening. If I can be a part of a network that does stuff like that, you’re damn right I’m going to work on building that network, even if it takes a few selfies to get there.

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Lion pride in South Africa, video — Dear Kitty. Some blog


This video from South Africa says about itself: Incredible Lion Sighting ! Lion Pride with 5 Males walking down the road in Kruger Park. “I witnessed this incredible Lion Pride encounter when I was driving past Kumana dam on my way back to Satara camp site where I was spending 8 weeks alone camping in […]

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Steaming piles of dung


From the archives – still relevant as these same stupid attitudes persist.

The Waterthrush Blog

I hesitate to provide a link to creationist nonsense, but sometimes it’s helpful to illustrate just what we’re up against in The Enlightenment 2.0.

Case in point, check out this Jack Chick cartoon on the danger of teaching evolution.

Looks like strawman argumentation is alive and well with Mr. Chick. I like the way “evolution” is represented as a book in which Darwin wields a spear against an apparent Tyrannosaur. There’s also the natural progression that seems universal among creationists that if you “believe” in evolution you must be a Nazi. Don’t forget the insinuation that no one can have any morals without god. (Yep, it’s the threat of eternal hellfire that keeps me every day from punching random people, stealing, and molesting children – otherwise, I’d be all over that stuff!)

But I think my favorite line comes from god himself, when he condemns the little boy to…

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Dear Christian Legislator,


Look, I get it.

You’ve been raised and educated in a society that values faith foremost. The stronger your faith the closer you are to God, and there is no better way to demonstrate the strength of that faith than to have all the available evidence stacked up against you. After all, what value is faith if you rely on objective evidence to support it? Faith means believing despite where the evidence points.

First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church Kingston Cooper Miller

First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Kingston, NY. Photo by Cooper Miller.

We build faith through prayer. You read, reflect, listen to the Word, and you pray. You talk to God and open your heart to whatever message in whatever form He might send. Prayer attunes us to the voice of God that comes in whispers, not thunderclaps.

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Louis XII of France, immortalized in prayer and in stained glass.

Your faith in God burns bright within you, so much so that you have dedicated your life to public service through elected office. Through God’s grace, you’ve been successful, and you have been gifted with a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to “prepare ye the way of the Lord”. That’s what you see as your role in public service. We are a sinful people living in sinful times and on the strength of your faith God has called you to fight laws He doesn’t like and and introduce bills for laws He would.

I mean, this is why Jesus took every opportunity he could to express his unambiguous support for the written laws of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It’s why when asked by the Pharisees if it is just to pay taxes to the emperor of the occupying Romans, Jesus said “Yes! There is nothing more important to me than to make sure that my disciples get themselves elected to government office where they can enact all these great ideas I have regarding tax policy!” It’s vitally important for you to have been elected to the Senate or to the House of Representatives because, and Jesus could not have been more clear about this, there is no distinction between doing the work of the government and doing the work of The Lord.

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“Caesar gets his due, but God gets the important stuff.” ~White Jesus, ca. Bible times.                  (Also Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1612)

But let’s get real for a minute.

You might pray for all sorts of good fortune in your life, but deep down you know that prayer alone isn’t enough. I mean, you wanted to do well in college so you prayed, but you also went to class and studied, right? You met your future spouse, fell in love, and prayed for happy, healthy children, but you also had sex, right? You didn’t just pray to win your elected office, you raised money and knocked on doors and went to barbecues to campaign for months. You might even have waged a pitched propaganda battle against your opponent, spreading lies and half-truths about them that you justified as brutal means to a more godlike end. Certainly the campaign you ran had more to do with your election than did your praying about it. If not, you could have just stayed home and prayed for your job and presto, you’d have it!

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Family Portrait of Pierre de Moucheron, Merchant in Middelburg and Antwerp, his Wife Isabeau de Gerbier, their eighteen Children, their Son-in-Law Allard de la Dale and first Grandchild. Anonymous 1563. Sure, there was a lot of praying going on in that house, but those 18 kids did not appear by magic.

 

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Washington in prayer at Valley Forge. If prayer was all he needed, why bother crossing the Delaware?

This notion of doing something also appears in one of Jesus’ best-known parables, the Good Samaritan. Remember how the good and pious Jews passed the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the road? Presumably, those dudes prayed for the man they had passed. But it was the foreigner from Samaria – hated enemy of the Jews – who actually stopped to help, nursed the man’s wounds, brought him to safety, and left a pile of money to provide for his additional care.  The Good Samaritan wasn’t only a parable to illustrate how far Jesus wanted us to go to recognize our neighbor in other people, it was also an example of what he wanted us to do in service to others. The Samaritan didn’t pray about the beaten man, The End. He helped, he nursed, he went out of his way, and –– Jesus goes out of his way to include this bit –– he spends money to fix the problem.

Balthasar de Cortbemde, 1647

The Good Samaritan, Balthasar de Cortbemde, 1647

So, like the Good Samaritan and the pious Jews who encountered the beaten man on the road, you have a choice. We all do, but you really do because your job puts you in a position to make a lot of things happen, for the better or worse of the millions of metaphorically beaten men on our roadsides today. You can offer your prayers or you can offer your prayers reinforced by your actions, just like you’ve done for every big accomplishment you’ve enjoyed in your life.

I conclude then with a simple question for you. When – and that’s an intentional use of when rather than if – the next mass shooting takes place in a school or a church or a business or a nightclub in your state, what will you tell the grieving loved ones, the surviving victims, and your own constituents that you had done to prevent such a thing?

When things really matter you don’t just pray, you also do. What are you doing, today, to save yourself from the shame you will feel when you face that question?

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EDIT: As if on cue, thank you Senator Marco Rubio for illustrating the mind-numbing hypocrisy of Christian politicians in 2018 (and John Fugelsang, for sharing this gem).

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Non-trivial sacrifices of the itinerant academic


Inspired by a conversation stemming from this Tweet . . .

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I thought I’d share a bit about the sacrifices we’ve made in support of my academic career. This is just a reality check for understanding’s and expectations’ sake, and I hope it won’t read like sour grapes or a pity party. We have been amazingly fortunate to live comfortably on a single, stable salary for the past 15 years. I am tenured and working at an outstanding university with a fun vibe all its own and the benefits of big-time college athletics, music, and other cultural opportunities right here in a small-ish university town. Traffic is generally light,  real estate is cheap, and the growing season is long. I get to teach classes I love to students who inspire me, and my research program is helping me achieve goals I’ve had since my youth. Reinventing myself in a different biome and another culture – silly as that seems because we are simply in another part of our home country – has definitely enriched me intellectually in ways I could not have predicted.

Still, the decision to make this move was not made lightly and there are costs we have borne to do it. I see these as falling into three categories: stuff we miss, stuff we have missed, and additional costs.

Stuff we miss

Wherever you’re from, there are aspects of your hometown or region or state (or country!) that you just won’t experience anymore in your new place. We’re native New Yorkers (Central and Long Island, respectively) who relocated to the Southern Plains. Here’s just a sampling of the things we miss from back home that could be argued as trivial or essential to our mental health and well-being. The sacrifice is two-fold considering that we miss these things and our children will never know them as we did:

  • decent pizza, locally baked bread, real bagels, roadside farm tables, ice cream, fresh wild strawberries, apples, apple-picking, etc.
  • four seasons, snow, skiing, blazing fall colors, crunchy leaves underfoot, open windows in summer, soft rains, mossy rocks, no ticks, etc.
  • mountains, lakes, the beach, all my favorite birds, giant trees, etc.
  • so many friends who were part of the first 35 or so years of our lives

 

Stuff  we have missed

Before FOMO was a thing, we far-away folks knew all about it. When you are far away (in our case, two and a half days of Interstate speeding away), you simply can’t be there to share in the holidays, milestones, and impromptu gatherings of your friends and family. For the past 15 years, we’ve made it home for brief visits once or twice per year. Our children are two of ten cousins & grandchildren close in age to each other (including two who share a birthday) for whom our career move decision relegated them to a childhood without cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles as a part of their lives. Similarly, those cousins and other relatives have grown up without the benefit of us there for them. Some specific things we’ve missed:

  • birthdays, births, baptisms, weddings, graduations, retirements, cookouts, holidays, and all that fun stuff
  • sad occasions like deaths and even just opportunities to be there to help during difficult times for our loved ones
  • opportunities to visit with our own more distant relatives and friends because our time home with immediate family is so limited

 

Additional costs

These include both the direct and the indirect; here are some examples:

  • Yes, real estate and taxes are cheaper here but we had a lovely little home we were easily able to afford when we moved so that wasn’t a big concern for us. One big change was that the slight increase in salary I received moving to a tenure-track position was largely negated by far higher costs for comparable health insurance.
  • Our travel expenses went way up. Flights home twice per year were costing us ~$4000 annually. That’s not an expense I can cover today, let alone 15 years ago on my starting assistant professor salary. Driving was cheaper, but it still meant 4 hotel stays en route, plus gas and vehicle wear and tear. In addition, driving means that we need to allot five days just in transit; a mere five days on the ground visiting family demands a full ten days out of my schedule to make happen. Those ten days away also mean ten days of someone to provide pet care, water our plants, etc.
  • We both lost our dads in recent years. I couldn’t be with my dad when he died so he was surrounded four of his children – and his fifth on the telephone – when he drew his last breath. My wife was working a part-time job that she really enjoyed when her dad’s health took a significant downward turn. Because she couldn’t take the time off to go be with him, she simply quit that job. It would be five years before she took another.
  • A significant indirect cost, we’ve had just two barely-legitimate vacations in the span of 15 years. With what limited time I can take off, the great majority of it is spent hurtling down Midwestern Interstates and crashing on my brothers’ couches once we make our destination. The essential, battery-recharging peace and quiet and comfort and rest of what most consider a vacation is foreign to us.
  • Taking that time and spending that money to maintain a better connection with those back home will almost certainly place you in a disadvantageous position relative to your faculty colleagues who don’t do that. Whether they choose to cut ties with far away family or they have theirs close-by, you will have comparably fewer opportunities each year to get that manuscript written or that proposal submitted, and that introduces the likely probability that you will fall behind.

 

So YES.

If you consider costs like these in your decision to accept or even apply for some job far away, you are not any less of a scientist or any less serious about your career. These costs are real and they will affect you and your family. You would be nothing but intelligent and honest to weigh them carefully as you make the best decision for you.

Good luck; it’s not easy!

 

 

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Stegosaur species compared, video — Dear Kitty. Some blog


This 24 August 2018 video says about itself: Stegosaur family species comparison Welcome to the fifth round of the new dinosaur comparison videos. In this comparison video, we shall compare the different stegosaur family species, also known as stegosaurids. These dinosaurs have spines and plates and are one of the largest terrestrial land herbivore dinosaurs […]

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