Tag Archives: media

Musings on the tinkling of glass from the almost shattered ceiling of American democracy

Dear Most Powerful Democracy(TM) in the World,

Congratulations on taking another step closer to having a woman break the ultimate glass ceiling in your country, with Hillary Clinton being declared the presumptive nominee of one of your two political parties. We look forward to welcoming you to the large community of nations that have been electing women leaders to head their government for decades now. It may surprise your citizens—especially those rooting for the big orange loudmouth presumptive nominee of the other party—to find that even a number of Islamic nations have elected women to their highest offices. But don’t be embarrassed about joining this group now. When it comes to matters of democracy and human rights and equality, “better late than never” always applies. Long arc of history and all that considering, you know?

I imagine you know that your presidential election tends to capture the attention of the rest of the world, and this one in particular has the world in its thrall like a spectacular car crash that one cannot look away from, even though the outcome may be disastrous for occupants of the cars and spectators alike. The popularity of the orange loudmouth with the strange hair alternately baffles and frightens the world’s citizens who can scarcely believe that so many citizens of this superpower nation, known for your leadership in science and technology, for crying out loud, are falling for the dubious charms of a globally well-known con-man. That one of your two parties, half of your entire political spectrum (seriously, America, how on earth do you do democracy in such a big diverse country with just two political parties? But let’s leave that question for another time!) has been hijacked by a narcissistic demagogue happy to use bombastic nationalism and xenophobia laced with racist and sexist slurs to score television rating in this election turned into reality show, is…incredibly depressing.

At the same time, though, what’s happening in the other party offers more hope for the world. A fierce battle over liberal/progressive ideology between, gasp, a woman and an old school socialist? Who could have even imagined this in America a decade ago? Now it appears that the woman may be winning the party’s nomination to become the first female presidential candidate ever in your long and storied history as the world’s leading democracy? And a majority of your citizens might well retain their senses to elect her to follow your first Black President? How wonderful of you to finally move into this new phase in this new millennium! (Let’s set aside, for now, the more touchy subject of how they both have continued to rain bombs on much of the world – but we must address that too, soon, after you send the lunatic orange man packing.)

What took you so long?

So many younger nations, often learning about democracy from your own history, have lapped you and surged so much farther ahead in how they run their elections now – you really should feel embarrassed. Looking at you from the polling booths of some of these younger nations might feel like looking at a venerable but arthritic old man who is too set in his eccentric ways and unwilling to adjust with the times to learn how to run things in this new millennium. We hope that you will pay attention to and build on the energy of your younger citizens, many of whom have been involved in this election campaign with no little passion, calling out the injustices of the really bizarre ways you still run your elections. Like it is still the 18th century and you are still an agrarian nation deeply mired in social, economic, and cultural inequalities spread across a vast and mostly depopulated continent.

But never mind that for now; let us be cautiously optimistic that you just might follow up on your first Black Man in the White House with your first Woman President! What a way to make another grand entrance on to the world stage, two hundred and forty years after your birth as a democratic nation! So please: don’t throw this opportunity away, and for Earth’s sake, don’t let the narcissistic con-man steal this election too, like his predecessor did at the turn of the millennium.

You still have much work to do in fixing your democracy and bringing it up to date though, all the way from the design of ballots to drawing of voting district maps to how votes are counted in different states to who actually oversees and runs your elections to these myriad and ludicrously convoluted ways your parties hold primaries… to who pays for the whole circus… the list is so long and so hilariously tragic! You really do have a lot of work to do – which may be why you show so little enthusiasm for actually cleaning up the mess! It is like the aftermath of a centuries old frat party (or democracy rave) in your living room when you just can’t summon up the energy to throw all the trash out and start a new day afresh. Yet that is what you need to do! And you might start with the odd thing that happened tonight, and keeps happening every election – when your media gives away the results of the game before the last votes have been cast! What’s up with that?

While we are getting ready to applaud this apparent imminent shattering of the glass ceiling in America, many of us are also baffled at how your much-lauded free press decided to declare the winner before so many states have even held the vote for their primaries! How does your free press, which is supposed to be such a crucial pillar for democracy in a free society, continue to undermine the most basic process at the heart of democracy: the casting of votes to elect representatives? How does this make any sense? I mean, sure, the press has an obligation – and more, a competitive drive – to report whatever it deems newsworthy, so some of the fault lies with those who release these results that can tip the electoral scales. Still, surely this is something that could be fixed by reminding the media of their serious responsibility and making them keep their megaphones switched off until the last vote has been cast? That’s how some other democracies do it, to protect the sanctity of every vote.

While there is much you should learn from studying how other nations run their elections, at least in this one instance, you might consider the Most Populous Democracy in the World: India. Did you know that the press there, while invited and encouraged to closely observe and report on the entire election, is nevertheless restrained from announcing any results until after all the votes are cast and counted? And mind you, restraint is not likely to be the first word—hell, not even among the first 100 words—to come to mind when one thinks of / observes the Indian media these days; they are a cacophonous, obnoxious, loud-mouthed, argumentative lot, are India’s TV talking heads, who seemed to have learned too well the ratings game from your television networks. Yet, when it comes to election results, they exhibit remarkable restraint (or pay the price of jumping the gun).

Media Coverage

In order to bring as much transparency as possible to the electoral process, the media are encouraged and provided with facilities to cover the election, although subject to maintaining the secrecy of the vote. Media persons are given special passes to enter polling stations to cover the poll process and the counting halls during the actual counting of votes.

Doesn’t that sound like something for your press to try, at least for the general election?

Do click on that link and look around the helpful website of the Election Commission of India: all the fascinating details of how that rambunctious cacophony of a democracy, with over a billion people scattered densely across a varied landscape with poor infrastructure and much less money than you, manages to run its parliamentary elections—featuring thousands of candidates from dozens of political parties vying for hundreds of millions of votes cast at nearly a million polling stations—with much less of a fuss and a bother. Imagine, for example, running your entire presidential election, from the first primary to the general election, in just a couple of months instead of the years-long and practically never ending campaigns you force your candidates to run now! Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And conducive to the actual business of governing the nation for the public good?

Of course there is much that is also wrong with the running of elections in India – just see who they elected Prime Minister in the last election. Has any nation figured out a fool-proof way to conduct the messy business of democracy? Shouldn’t they all be talking to each other and borrowing from each other the best ways to make things work most impartially and openly and fairly?

There is a great deal more we could tell you about how to improve and modernize your elections, to bring you up to date in the 21st century. If you really put your mind and considerable resources to it, you might even come up blazing the trail again for the rest of the world, showing us how to get it done properly. Many other nations would love to help you with that, even as you claim to be the designated driver of democracy around the world. It is past time you got your own house in order, and we would love to talk to you about that. Perhaps after you’re done with this most insane of your recent elections, and are able to take a breather. Hopefully.

For now, let us raise a glass to the sound of all that tinkling glass, beginning to fall down slowly from that almost shattered ceiling… the world may hold its breath waiting for the final blow that breaks it fully apart come November. Until then, you do you – in the best way you know how!

– from a humble representative of your friends and well-wishers, citizens of other democracies.

Reconciliation Ecology in Current Conservation

Current Conservation 5.1As I told a friend earlier today,  I am chuffed!

This is an announcement I have been waiting to make for quite a long while. Sometime during 2011 (or was it 2010?), my friend Nandini Rajamani approached me on behalf of this magazine of which she had just become editor, called Current Conservation, published out of Bangalore. She told me this was a popular magazine that had been around for a few years, and was being revamped to expand its reach among the nature conservation audience in India and elsewhere – but particularly focusing distribution on practitioners. She pointed me to their website where I found some really impressive articles from a variety of international writers laid out quite beautifully in a magazine format (why had I not paid attention to the emergence of this magazine sooner, I asked myself?).

Then she invited me to join the editorial board, and, more significantly, to contribute a regular column of essays about conservation topics! Apparently she, and others involved with the magazine had been reading my blog and thought I would have something useful to say to their readers on a regular basis. And here I thought that I was, a) mostly whistling into the wind, and b) as a blogger, part of some new media in an era where print magazines were on their way out! How could I refuse such a regular writing gig from a magazine, in a region where (Nandini assured me), despite all the hype about the www, print still ruled as the primary means of disseminating information for most people?

But I don’t write about tigers and other charismatic wildlife in the usual media ways, I thought, so will the largely Indian readership go for my somewhat askew take on conservation through reconciliation ecology? Yes, she said, reminding me that my “Tigers are less important than warblers” article remains one of the most-read essays I’ve ever written! She offered to call the column “Reconciliation Ecology”. So I said yes, of course! And looked forward to a more formal and less-ephemeral-seeming home for some of my more coherent ramblings.

In the first essay, I set out to answer a question I am asked repeatedly: “What is Reconciliation Ecology?“. I sent off the essay. And waited. I wrote another essay, “Lost Sounds“, and waited some more. Months passed before I heard that they were revamping the production process and the website and that they would catch up with the backlog of volume 4 before launching volume 5 which would include my debut column. Meanwhile, they had also asked me about artwork for my column, and commissioned an artist to produce something based on some ideas we discussed. The drafts and proofs were very promising. Then I noticed the website sporting a “under renovation” sign, and my pulse quickened as I left it open in an oft-refreshed tab in my browser. Yet more months passed with the site remaining unchanged even as the editor asked me for more essays so they could catch up on all 4 issues of volume 5 soon!

I knew Nandini had been finishing her Ph.D. dissertation when she first took on the job, and had since had other postdoctoral projects calling her away from India. It also seemed that other personnel were being shuffled around, even as months passed with the website remaining moribund, under that dusty “under renovation” sign, which I had stopped checking obsessively.

And then, yesterday, out of the blue, I got an email from the managing editor telling me that the magazine was back in production and issue 5.1 with my column was already out, in print and on the web! The email was accompanied by a pdf containing my article in its final form, a two page spread bordered by beautiful artwork depicting transitions and overlaps between the “natural” and “human” worlds, just like we had discussed, in a vaguely Warli painting style! How carefully and beautifully have they laid down my words on the pages of this beautiful magazine… I can’t wait to smell the ink when I get the actual print copy in hand soon.

Meanwhile, I am quite chuffed to present to you: Current Conservation, whose website is still being renovated. But you can read all their issues online, including 5.1 whose cover is featured above, containing my new column on pages 26-27! Read the whole issue, of course, and all the previous volumes as well. There is a lot of good stuff there, and more exciting stuff to come (and be more accessible too) with the website redesign. You can also follow the magazine on its new Facebook page.

And let me know what you think about my answer to your oft-asked question “What is Reconciliation Ecology?“. I welcome ideas and suggestions for topics to explore in future columns, as well as any of your own writings you may want to submit. I will be happy to email you a pdf reprint if you want one. Also, please consider subscribing to the print issue and supporting this important publication in any way you can.

Now I better go and finish the next couple of essays I had promised months ago!

ScienceOnline2012 in Review

Nice short video overview of the ScienceOnline2012 unconference I attended last january, just days before my life went into a turbulent period from which I am still recovering. I had several blog posts in mind to record my own experience at the meeting, and summarize the discussion in the un-session I was able to lead there. It is nice to see this video which reminds me of the warmth of that unconference, and jogs memories that should help me write those blog posts… just as soon as I’m done catching up with all the other more urgent scheisse that has piled up at work in my absence! In the meantime, enjoy this video, which even has my own hairy face on camera for a second, laughing at something Brian Malow, the Science Comedian said during lunch on the final day. Its only been a couple of months, but feels so long ago that I have to say: ah, the memories!

“God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance” (Sorry HuffPo!)

Hmm… in case you (like me) haven’t heard yet, HuffPo, that popular source of much pseudoscience and woo (especially Choprawoo), has finally decided to add a HuffPost Science section! About time, eh? But, wait, what do they start with? Ms. Huff herself holding forth on how unusual it is for scientific equations to have emotional impact (unlike, apparently the Iowa caucus results! Sigh…), and on the “false war” between science and religion. Because, you see, those battles are apparently all “misguided, outdated”! Really? Been to a school board meeting in Texas lately, lady? Or notice how the leading candidates in the Iowa caucuses chose to run away from science and retreat into religious ignorance?

Instead, we are urged to follow the model of those (like Ken Miller) with “inquisitive minds that can accommodate both logic and mystery” – as if we don’t get into science precisely because we are captivated by nature’s mysteries, and want to use logic and the scientific method to solve them! We are told that (paraphrasing Miller) science is “the key to understanding our relationship with God.” Why, yes, on that point: science has indeed given us many keys to understanding nature, and shown us over and over that “God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance” as Neil de Grasse Tyson puts it so elegantly in the video below! Of course, he was responding to Bill O’Reilly’s ignorant remarks about god and the tides – but they apply equally well to the woolly-headed thinking pervading the liberal-left. Let’s hope Arianna runs into Neil one of these days, gets a good glimpse into his soul of a nerd, and learns something worthwhile about the real beauty of science. For now, though, the grand opening of HuffPost Science does not look very promising. Let me leave you, instead, with Tyson’s words:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5dSyT50Cs8?wmode=transparent]

Miss Representation: How do I raise strong, independent daughters when the media tells them they can’t be so?

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/28066212 w=500&h=283]

Much as I might jokingly complain about being always outnumbered and always outgunned by women in my life (3:1 growing up; 3:1 now!), it is tough being a dad to young girls, and a professor/mentor to female undergraduate and graduate students. Not because I don’t know or understand women (can’t say I always do, but…), don’t know how to communicate with women (haven’t done too badly), or miss the company of macho male friends (I definitely don’t miss that). No, that’s not it. Rather, it is hard to tell them that they really, truly can grow up to be all they want to be, and that nothing should hold them back from chasing their dreams and fulfilling their rich potential. Hard to make them truly internalize that confidently. Because our global culture is so male dominated and has become so saturated with misogyny in virtually every medium of communication, that it is hard to keep those insidious images of women as sex objects from seeping into the subconscious of young girls figuring out their roles in life. The above documentary Miss Representation” is therefore something I welcome, and hope there are many more like it to even begin pushing against the tide.

It won’t be easy, though, given that even when women engage in the political process to try and change the system, and take to the street to protest, asshole members of my sorry sex can’t help but ogle/molest/objectify them! I’m not sure how to cure that side of the problem. It is a good start, though, to at least fight the misrepresentation of women in the media, and this documentary may help. Although, I have to wonder how effective it will be if it is airing only on Oprah’s network. We need this message hammered into our consciousness (and subconscious) on more mainstream networks watched by both men and women!

For now, tonight, it may be time for me switch on Oprah’s channel as I embrace the “honorary woman” status conferred on me by a friend years ago, in response to her then husband’s use of stronger epithets against me because I happened to like the movie “Antonia’s Line“. And he was/is a politically progressive dude (self described lefty radical too, in fact) who supports feminist causes in principle – just so long as you don’t flaunt them in his face by depicting strong independent women who don’t really need men to survive, thank you very much. As I said, its a tough uphill battle, but a necessary one to win for all our sakes.

As Ecosystems, Cities Yield Some Surprises – a report on the ULTRA-Ex symposia at ESA 2011

As I have been tootin my own horn in several posts here this past week, I co-organized two symposia (1 & 2 and a workshop on Wednesday for a day of Urban Stewardship at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America which ended in Austin earlier today. The two symposia brought together researchers from 21 sites in the ULTRA-Ex network, and we met again later for a late evening workshop to discuss ways to nurture, grow, and sustain a grassroots network of collaborative long-term urban research sites. More of my thoughts on that later. For now, read the following report from science writer Hillary Rosner, who happened to be in the audience for much of the day, and even came to the evening workshop on an empty stomach! I’m very happy at the turnout to the events, and the quality of the conversations throughout the day – and thrilled to have our work appear in the online pages of the Gray Lady!

Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions. Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions on different days of the week.
Green: Science

In Boston, scientists measuring the city’s greenhouse gas emissions have found what they call a “weekend effect,” a clear drop-off in the amount of carbon dioxide entering the city’s atmosphere on Saturdays and Sundays. In Fresno, researchers have discovered that backyard water use increases with wealth, as does backyard biodiversity. And in Los Angeles, ecologists studying the city’s “ecohydrology” have calculated that planting a million new trees, an idea with fairly universal appeal, would have the drawback of increasing water consumption by 5 percent.

The researchers, who presented their findings this week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Austin, Tex., are all involved in a nascent program to understand the nation’s cities, home to 80 percent of the population, as functioning ecosystems. The goal is to educate urbanites about their environment and how they can act to make it more sustainable.

The program, called Ultra, for Urban Long-Term Research Area, is a joint effort of the National Science Foundation and the Forest Service. A total of 21 projects are under way, including two in New York City. In establishing financing (known as Ultra-Ex grants) for exploratory sites in 2009, the science foundation called urban sustainability one of “the greatest challenges to the long-term environmental quality of the nation.”

At a research site in Fresno, Calif., overseen by Madhusudan Katti, an ecologist at California State University’s campus there, the aim is to untangle the interactions between city water policy, outdoor water use at homes and biodiversity to help inform policy. On the average, wealthier households in Fresno use more water in their yards, yet not because the water is more affordable for them: the city has no metering system, so residents pay a fixed monthly rate.

Reducing water use is considered crucial to guaranteeing long-term sustainability, yet Dr. Katti found that using less water could cause local bird diversity to decline.

“Half the population globally lives in cities, but we don’t have a conceptual understanding of how cities work as dynamic systems,” Dr. Katti said. “We need to generate that understanding.”

Nathan Phillips, an ecologist at Boston University who runs one of the city’s two Ultra-Ex sites, told the audience at the conference that his project, which includes rooftop plant experiments both in and outside the city as well as measurements of greenhouse gases, had revealed a “pulsing type of urban metabolism.”

In a visible signature of human activity, emissions of carbon dioxide increase during the week and decline on the weekends, he said. The next step is putting sensors on 160 Boston buses and identifying the locations of natural gas leaks around the city.

In New York City, one Ultra-Ex project based at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is exploring links between public health, green spaces, and ecosystem services, or nature’s ability to perform functions like cleaning the air and water or preventing flooding. The project is studying seven green roofs, including one at the main post office building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, to understand their role in preventing sewage from spilling into the city’s waterways during heavy rains.

Some Ultra-Ex projects have a social justice component. In Syracuse, the research helped prevent the installation of a sewage pipe in a low-income neighborhood. Scientists were able to show that installing features like green roofs and porous pavements could reduce storm water runoff.

Just as these research sites are beginning to reveal how such urban ecosystems function, federal budget cuts are calling their future into question. At the ecology meeting, a few dozen Ultra researchers met to discuss how to merge their independent projects into a more closely knit network with an online hub, with or without a central financing source. Cities, after all, will still live and breathe and eat and sweat regardless of what happens in Washington — where there is, by the way, an Ultra-Ex site researching the environmental factors that cause neighborhoods to decline or flourish.

Ecologists Discuss World’s Problems in Austin – #ESA11 report on KUT radio

At the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, 3500 scientists meet in Austin this week to discuss issues like overpopulation, climate change and loss of biodiversity. Photo courtesy of NASA.At the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, 3500 scientists meet in Austin this week to discuss issues like overpopulation, climate change and loss of biodiversity. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Homepage Feature Slider, News

Ecologists Discuss World’s Problems in Austin

August 11, 2011 5:44 am by: Axel Gerdau

By Lindsay Patterson for KUT News

Until the end of the week, 3500 scientists are gathered in Austin at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America to discuss—and try to solve—some of the biggest problems facing the planet today. On the agenda are issues like overpopulation, climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The six-day conference allows ecologists to share the latest research with each other and talk about solutions.

University of Texas Professor Camille Parmesan is one of the speakers at the conference. In a conversation with KUT News, she emphasized the changing role of her profession.

“What ecologists used to do, which is work in a pristine environment and try to figure out how species are interacting and how they interact with their environment, is now becoming how species interact with each other and all the human activities going on,” Parmesan said. “That requires collaborating with a diverse range of other professions, like architects, economists and policy makers.”

A collaboration with professions inside and outside of academia is essential when it comes to solving the biggest ecological problems facing the planet, according to Parmesan.

“Working together with other disciplines, we’ve come a long way towards actually having solutions,” she said.

To listen to the full story, click on the audio player above.

A few thousand ecologists meet in the city to discuss Earth stewardship… but does anybody know or care?


I woke up in Austin, Texas this morning, a bright and sunny one, looking forward to the start of the 96th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The society has chosen “Earth Stewardship” as its theme this year, and the meeting launches not with a lecture or a keynote speech by an eminent ecologist – but an interdisciplinary panel discussion on the topic of earth stewardship! The conference program is appropriately filled with sessions and talks on the topic of how we might be better stewards of spaceship earth even as we continue to do a lousy job of it right now. Drop by on Wednesday, Aug 10, 2011, for example, to catch two symposia (and an evening workshop) I’m co-organizing on Stewardship of Urban Systems:

  1. Ecosystem Services and Processes in the ULTRA Network
  2. Socio-ecology, Governance, and Equity in the ULTRA Network

There is, obviously, plenty more about all areas of ecology – this is, after all, the largest annual gathering of ecologists in North America. I don’t see any meeting stats readily available on the website yet, but know that this meeting will feature a few thousand attendees. If you want to visualize how big this conference is, note this: every morning and afternoon from Mon-Fri, there will be as many as 25 parallel sessions of talks – some organized like my symposia, others consisting of papers contributed by authors. 

Think of the scale again: there may be as many as 25 different sessions of talks for you to choose from at any given time!!! Followed by evening poster sessions with thousands of posters. And workshops, and field trips filling up every available interstice of time. On Thursday evening, we even have an ESA sponsored music concert!

So I sit here this morning, trying to wrap my head around the scope of this meeting, trying to reconcile what I want to attend and what I can, realistically, given my own commitments and meetings with friends, colleagues, and collaborators. Overwhelming as the program is, I am also contemplating the broader context of this meeting. We ecologists are meeting in Austin, the state capitol of Texas. We meet a day after the state governor, Rick Perry, held the Response, a massive prayer meeting “for a Nation in Crisis”, in nearby Houston. In addition to the political, social, economic crises facing this country (whether you view them from the left or right perspectives, you will agree we have crises), Texas itself has been in a drought this year, with associated ecological problems for an agricultural state. Texas is also a state with very little in the way of public lands: it is a model state for private ownership of all land! One would think, therefore, that this ESA meeting about earth stewardship has massive relevance to the community, both locally and nationally. Kudos, therefore, to the ESA for choosing the theme of Earth Stewardship, and attempting to include non-academic perspectives in today’s opening panel discussion.

So it occurs to me to do something I haven’t really done a lot at conferences before: see if there is any news story about this meeting anywhere in the local or national media. I fire up the google to first find local newspapers. There are two: the Austin Statesman and the Austin Chronicle. Neither, it seems, has heard of the ESA or our big meeting happening right under their noses this week. Not even the concert “An Austin Night for Nature” is on their event calendars!


A broader search on Google – its news and blog searches in particular – yields links to but one story: a study about bellybutton bacterial diversity to be presented at ESA on Friday

One study in the news. That’s it. Surely we ecologists are not all navel-gazers? Not at a meeting about nothing less than the stewardship of this entire planet? So why is their nothing else at all about this meeting in any of the mainstream media? The conference website even has a special section for the press. Surely not everything happening at the meeting is embargoed! Or is it?! Will there be more media coverage in the coming days? I sure hope so…

I’ve seen much better news coverage at other scientific meetings, but the ESA has generally always felt behind the curve. There isn’t much blog coverage – not much that I’ve read in any prominent blogs with high traffic. Nor is there much chatter on twitter, yet – but follow #earthsteward and #ESA11 if you’re on twitter, as I expect traffic will increase in the coming days. Although I’d be amazed if we can make either hashtags trend. Where, o where, is our public outreach, ESA??!!

So a few thousand ecologists are meeting in the capitol of the second biggest state (after Alaska) in the US of A, one with most of its lands in private hands, to discuss how we might become better stewards of the earth… does anybody care?