Uncommon Ground

Author Archive: kent

Celebrating 50 years of the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center @UConn #aacc50th

Cover of the program for the AACC 50th Anniversary GalaI was privileged to attend to 50th anniversary celebration of the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center on Saturday night, and to sit next to Dr. James Lyons, Sr., a UConn alum and the first director of the Center. You can see a few photos that were posted during the event on Twitter. I was also asked to say a few words during the celebration. Here’s what I said:

Thank you Willena.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to greet you tonight, although it is a little odd to welcome you when you’re already eating dessert. It is also dangerous for anyone to give me a captive audience, so I also congratulate Willena on her courage in trusting me, and I promise that I will be brief. I know that the real program comes after me, and I also understand that there may be a party you want to get to.

We live in frightening times, but 1968 (when the African American Cultural Center was started) was also a frightening time. Our country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, student protests were exploding, and our cities were burning. There were riots at the Democratic National Convention, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and on April 4th the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis.

But 1968 was also a year of hope and promise: The Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the 3rd season of Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on national TV, and perhaps most important of all, LL Cool J was born on January 14.

1968 was also the year when students, faculty, and staff at UConn came together to establish the African American Cultural Center.

For the last 50 years, the Center has been a vital part of campus life at UConn. Its dedication to cultural preservation, leadership, and academic excellence is a vital part of making UConn one of the nation’s leading public universities.

As a nation we were founded on the principle that all people are created equal and that we all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t need to tell anyone here that we have often fallen short of this lofty principle. Indeed, I need only to mention the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Laquan McDonald to remind us how far we have to go.

But at a time when violent political rhetoric seeks to divide us, the work of the African American Cultural Center is more important than ever. It enriches us all by showcasing the culture, history, and traditions of people of African descent. It binds us together as people and inspires us to imagine a future in which everyone is valued for their unique contribution and in which the culture, history, and traditions of all people are treated with the respect they deserve.

I am honored to play a small part in celebrating the Center’s 50th anniversary this evening, and I am delighted to have the privilege of welcoming you to this celebration.

Thank you.

You SHOULD…Read:Orwell, Leopold, and Teale

The UConn Humanities Institute asked me to contribute to their “You Should…” series. Here’s a copy of my contribution.

You should…Read: Orwell, Leopold, and Teale

But not the Orwell you think. Read  Politics and the English language to be reminded that “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” and Shooting an elephant for a concrete example of how “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”[1] Read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac to learn that when Canada geese return north in the spring “the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March” and the many things a poor farm can teach those willing to learn. Read Teale’s A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm to learn Leopold’s lessons in our own backyard on a farm in Hampton.

[1] And for the best first sentence in an essay: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by a large number of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” WARNING: Descriptions in the essay would have offended many in 1936. More will find them offensive now.

The Mindset List for the Class of 2022

20 years ago Ron Nief, emeritus Director of Public Affairs, at Beloit College created the Mindset List. Every August since then the Beloit Mindset List has been a feature of higher education in the US. It’s been maligned (http://www.beloitmindlessness.com/2018/08/19/more-of-the-same/,http://www.beloitmindlessness.com/2018/08/21/here-we-go-again/) and it’s been parodied (https://www.theonion.com/a-look-at-the-class-of-2019-1819592320), but as I wrote a couple of years ago “I always get a kick out of looking it over. It reminds me of how old I am.”

I’m a couple of years older now than I was a couple of years ago, and I still get a kick out of looking the list over. Here are a few of the items that I found especially striking:1

  • Among the iconic figures never alive in their lifetime are Victor Borge, Charles Schulz, and the original Obi-Wan Kenobi Alec Guinness. That last one really hurts. I remember seeing the original in a movie theater.
  • They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too.
  • Presidential candidates winning the popular vote and then losing the election are not unusual.
  • There has never been an Enron.

It you want to read all 60, here’s the link: http://themindsetlist.com/2018/08/beloit-college-mindset-list-class-2022/.

  1. The comments in bold italic are my commentary.

A few thoughts on how to structure a scientific paper

I mentioned last week that I’m reading Williams & Bizup, Style: The Basics of Style and Grace. Yesterday I came across this very succinct advice for the early stages of writing a paper and thinking about how to structure it.

When you plan a paper, look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to a question large enough for you and your readers to care about.

If you’re a scientist and writing a paper,1 you already have the data and most or all of the statistical analyses done. So the “look for a question” part has to happen twice in writing a scientific paper.2 You need to “look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to a question large enough for you and your readers to care about” before you begin collecting data. Then you need to collect data that will answer that question.

Science being what it is,3 after you’ve collected the data you’ll find that there are data you couldn’t collect that you wanted to collect4 and there are data you collected that you didn’t anticipate collecting. In writing the paper you now have to look at the data you have in hand, identify a question that the data in hand can answer that is connected to a larger, interesting question, and (this is the hard part) write the paper using only the data that answer that larger, interesting question. If you’re like me, you5 will have collected other data that don’t fit in this paper. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean you should discard them. It merely means that they’re not useful for this paper. With any luck you’ll find that they are useful for another paper that you’ll write in the future.

  1. Or at least if you’re a scientist like me and writing a paper.
  2. Or at least it has to happen twice if you’re me.
  3. Or at least science being what it is in the way that I do it.
  4. Especially if your research involves work in the field.
  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out that I almost never collect data myself. It’s my students and collaborators who collect the data. Even when I’m in the field, I mostly hold the field notebook and write down the measurements someone else is making. I rarely make the measurements myself. The closest I usually come to collecting data myself is collecting samples from which someone else derives data.

A few thoughts on writing (inspired by Williams & Bizup, Style)

I do not claim to write well, but I have been writing for nearly 40 years, and I’ve been helping students with writing for more than 30. Along the way I’ve figured out a few things that work for me, so I thought I’d pass a few of them along. Keep in mind that I have no training, and I have no credentials suggesting that anything I write is worth reading. If you find something useful here, use it. If you don’t, ignore it. Better yet, if you find something here you think is fundamentally misguided, leave a comment so that others won’t be misled.

Nearly 30 years ago I bought a copy of Wiliams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I’ve referred to it frequently ever since. On Wednesday I bought the Kindle edition of Williams & Bizup, Style: The Basics of Style and Grace. I’m just getting started on it, but I can already recommend it. It’s a shorter version of Lessons, but even in the shorter version there’s a lot here that anyone who writes can use.

The first and most important lesson is not to worry about style or principles of style at all until you’ve written something down. The only bad first draft is the first draft you haven’t written. Before you worry about whether readers can understand you or whether what you’ve written will capture or hold their interest, write something down so that you can start revising it. This lesson took me a very long time to learn. When I was in graduate school I literally had to start writing with the first paragraph of the Introduction and then write every other paragraph in sequence until I was done. I also struggled to make every sentence and paragraph perfect as I was writing them, because that was how I imagined writers wrote. Even though I’d read and heard it before, it wasn’t until some time after I joined the faculty at UConn that I finally understood that 90 percent or more of writing is rewriting. As Williams and Bizup put it,

Most experienced writers get something down as fast as they can. Then as they revise that first draft into something clearer, they understand their ideas better. And when they understand their ideas better, they express them more clearly, and the more clearly they express them, the better they understand them—and so it goes, until they run out of energy, interest, or time.

They also point out that you can exercise your revising chops on other people’s writing. When you’re reading something that seems complicated and confusing, take a good, hard look at it and see if you can find a way to express the ideas more clearly. If you can, you’ll have the satisfaction not only of having worked out the meaning of that complicated thing, but also of knowing that you had the skill to make something understandable when the author couldn’t or wouldn’t do the Sam thing.

Just telling you to revise doesn’t help, of course. You have to know how to revise. The good news is that Williams and Bizup provide a set of principles that anyone can learn and apply. It’s not easy to apply them, and sometimes you won’t have the time to apply them, but keep in mind that

Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly. —Ludwig wittgenstein

BioOne is collaborating with SPIE and moving to a new platform

A few of you know that one of the hats I wear is that of Chair for the Board of Directors of BioOne. BioOne is a non-profit organization that provides low-cost access to journals in organismal and environmental life sciences while providing the society and non-profit publishers of journals in the BioOne collection with substantial revenue. Leadership of BioOne includes representatives of both the scholarly publishers and academic libraries. I have found it very rewarding to be associated with such a productive collaboration. The focus on low-cost access increases the availability of the journals to students and scholars everywhere. The focus on providing income to publishers ensures that they can continue to publish the journals. Working together, we help to ensure that scholarly communication within the fields represented in BioOne is accessible and sustainable.

Today BioOne is announcing a new collaboration with SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. What does optics and photonics have to do with life sciences you ask? Well, like BioOne, SPIE is committed to providing electronic access to a wide audience, and BioOne’s journal collection will be hosted on a new, high-performance web site in collaboration with SPIE that launches on January 1, 2019. SPIE is already providing the technology behind the BioOne Career Center, and we look forward to working with them to provide even better access to journal resources than we do now and to develop new ways of serving the life science community that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Here’s the press release:

BioOne, the nonprofit publisher of more than 200 journals from 150 scientific societies and independent presses, has announced the forthcoming launch of a new website for its content aggregation, BioOne Complete. The new website, to launch on January 1, 2019, will be powered by a nonprofit collaboration with SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

This significant partnership leverages SPIE’s proprietary platform technology to meet the needs of BioOne’s community, including its more than 4,000 accessing libraries worldwide. The new BioOne platform (remaining at bioone.org) will give BioOne Complete a more modern and intuitive look and feel, while enhancing user functionality.

Lauren Kane, BioOne Chief Strategy and Operating Officer, notes, “This exciting partnership better positions BioOne for growth in the future, all while redirecting a major cost center to a fellow not-for-profit organization. SPIE has already proven to be a responsive and creative collaborator with an appreciation for BioOne’s mission and stakeholder needs. We are excited to share this news, and soon, our new site, with the community.”

Scott Ritchey, SPIE Chief Technology Officer, adds, “Our partnership with BioOne demonstrates the value that compatible, not-for-profit organizations can create when working together. The SPIE mission is better fulfilled with the shared insights and economies of scale created by our relationship with BioOne.”

BioOne’s goal is to ensure that this will be a seamless and transparent transition for all stakeholder groups. All aggregation content, subscriber licenses, and user profiles are being migrated to the new site. The BioOne team will be in touch throughout the fall with updates, required actions, and educational resources.

Proposed revisions to US Endangered Species Act regulations

On Monday I pointed out that the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Service planned to propose revisions to regulations that affect how the Endangered Species Act is implemented. The proposed changes were published in the Federal Register today. There are three sets of changes. Here are links and the accompanying summary for each:

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (collectively referred to as the “Services” or “we”), propose to revise portions of our regulations that implement section 4 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). The proposed revisions to the regulations clarify, interpret, and implement portions of the Act concerning the procedures and criteria used for listing or removing species from the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants and designating critical habitat. We also propose to make multiple technical revisions to update existing sections or to refer appropriately to other sections. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/07/25/2018-15810/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision-of-the-regulations-for-listing-species-and

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, propose to revise our regulations extending most of the prohibitions for activities involving endangered species to threatened species. For species already listed as a threatened species, the proposed regulations would not alter the applicable prohibitions. The proposed regulations would require the Service, pursuant to section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, to determine what, if any, protective regulations are appropriate for species that the Service in the future determines to be threatened. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/07/25/2018-15811/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision-of-the-regulations-for-prohibitions-to

We, FWS and NMFS (collectively referred to as the “Services” or “we”), propose to amend portions of our regulations that implement section 7 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. The Services are proposing these changes to improve and clarify the interagency consultation processes and make them more efficient and consistent. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/07/25/2018-15812/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-revision-of-regulations-for-interagency-cooperation

The period for public comment ends on 24 September 2018.

Proposed revisions to regulations implementing the US Endangered Species Act

The US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are charged with implementing the US Endangered Species Act. On Wednesday, they will publish three proposed rules in the Federal Register that modify existing regulations by which they implement the act. The proposed rules deal specifically with

  • Criteria for listing of species as endangered or threatened and for designation of critical habitat,
  • Aligning the way in which protections to threatened species are applied between USFWS and NMFS, and
  • Changing requirements and procedures associated with interagency cooperation on activities that affect endangered species.

If you are interested in how the Endangered Species Act is implemented in the United States, I urge you to read the proposed changes. If you want to comment on them, you have two options (on or after Wednesday, 25 July):

  1. Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal (http://www.regulations.gov), enter FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0006 in the search box, click on the “Proposed Rules” link, click on “Comment Now!”, and submit your comment.
  2. Deliver a hard copy of you comments by US mail or hand delivery to
    • Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–HQ–ES–2018–0006; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803
    • National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, 1315 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

If you submit comments, they will be posted at http://www.regulations.gov.

I expect to review the proposed changes over the next few weeks and to post my comments on each of the proposals here. Then I’ll collect them into a single comment and post them at http://www.regulations.gov. If you read my comments and disagree, please explain how and why you disagree in the comments. Your comments will make my the comments I share with USFWS and NMFS much better.

Saturday afternoon at Trail Wood

OK. This is mildly embarrassing. I moved to Connecticut in 1986, I was one of the co-founders of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series on Nature and the Environment in 1996, I’ve read A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm at least half a dozen times, and Trail Wood is less than 30 miles (40 minutes) from my home in Coventry, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I finally visited. It won’t be the last time. I expect to return once or twice a year to the Beaver Pond Trail, to cross Starfield and Firefly Meadow, and to visit the Summerhouse and Writing Cabin.

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) photographed at Trail Wood

A nice patch of black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) greeted me near the parking area, which is just a short walk from the house at Trail Brook. Rather than following Veery Lane, I turned left and followed the path through Firefly Meadow towards the small pond.

Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood

The Writing Cabin is on the southwest shore of the pond. I turned right and followed the northeast shore to Summerhouse. From there I followed a path along the stone wall bordering Woodcock Pasture until it met the Shagbark Hickory Trail.

Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) photographed at Trail Wood

I found spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) along the Shagbark Hickory Trail , which I followed to the Old Colonial Road. From their I followed the Beaver Pond Trail to the edge of the pond.

Beaver Pond at Trail Wood

After sitting for a while on a nice bench at the south end of the pond, I backtracked on the Beaver Pond Trail and followed the Fern Brook trail through Starfield back to the house and then to the parking area. The whole walk was less than a mile and a half, and the total elevation gain was only 55 feet. It was definitely an easy walk, not a hike, but it was very pleasant, and it was nice to spend time on the old farm where Teale spent so much of his time.

So to anyone from UConn (or nearby) who reads this and hasn’t been to Trail Wood yet, take a couple of hours some afternoon, drive to Hampton, and explore. Trail Wood is easy to find, and it’s open from dawn to dusk. It’s a gem in our own backyard. And if you haven’t read A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, do it now. You’ll enjoy your visit to Trail Wood even more if you do.

On the importance of making observations (and inferences) at the right hierarchical level

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that trait-environment associations observed at a global scale across many lineages don’t necessarily correspond to those observed within lineages at a smaller scale (link). I didn’t mention it then, but this is just another example of the general phenomenon known as the ecological fallacy, in which associations evident at the level of a group are attributed to individuals within the group. The ecological fallacy is related to Simpson’s paradox in which within-group associations differ from those between groups.

A recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives practical examples of why it’s important to make observations at the level you’re interested in and why you should be very careful about extrapolating associations observed at one level to associations at another. They report on six repeated-measure studies in which the responses of multiple participants (87-94) 1 were assessed across time. Thus, the authors could assess both the amount of variation within individuals over time and the amount of variation among individuals at one time. They found that the amount of within individual variation was between two and four times higher than the amount of among individual variation. Why do we care? Well, if you wanted to know, for example whether administering imipramine reduced symptoms of clinical depression (sample 4 in the paper) and used the among individual variance in depression measured once to assess whether or not an observed difference was statistically meaningful, you’d be using a standard error that’s a factor of two or more too small. As a result, you’d be more confident that a difference exists than you should be based on the amount of variation within individuals.

Why does this matter to an ecologist or an evolutionary biologist? Have you ever heard of “space-time substitution”? Do a Google search and near the top you’ll find a link to this chapter from Long Term Studies in Ecology by Steward Pickett. The idea is that because longitudinal studies take a very long time, we can use variation in space as a substitute for variation in time. The assumption is rarely tested (see this paper for an exception), but it is widely used. The problem is that in any spatially structured system with a finite number of populations or sites, the variance among sites at any one time (the spatial variation we’d measure) is substantially less than the variance in any one site across time (the temporal variance). If we’re interested in the spatial variance, that’s fine. If we’re interested in how variable the system is over time, though, it’s a problem. It’s also a problem if we believe that associations we see across populations at one point in time are characteristics of any one population across time.

In the context of the leaf economic spectrum, most of the global associations that have been documented involve associations between species mean trait values. For the same reason that space-time substitution may not work and for the same reason that this recent paper in PNAS illustrates that among group associations in humans don’t reliably predict individual associations, if we want to understand the mechanistic basis of trait-environment or trait-trait associations, by which I mean the evolutionary mechanisms acting at the individual level that produce those associations within individuals, we need to measure the traits on individuals and measure the environments where those individuals occur.

Here’a the title and abstract of the paper that inspired this post. I’ve also included a link.

Lack of group-to-individual generalizability is a threat to human subjects research

Aaron J. Fisher, John D. Medaglia, and Bertus F. Jeronimus

Only for ergodic processes will inferences based on group-level data generalize to individual experience or behavior. Because human social and psychological processes typically have an individually variable and time-varying nature, they are unlikely to be ergodic. In this paper, six studies with a repeated-measure design were used for symmetric comparisons of interindividual and intraindividual variation. Our results delineate the potential scope and impact of nonergodic data in human subjects research. Analyses across six samples (with 87–94 participants and an equal number of assessments per participant) showed some degree of agreement in central tendency estimates (mean) between groups and individuals across constructs and data collection paradigms. However, the variance around the expected value was two to four times larger within individuals than within groups. This suggests that literatures in social and medical sciences may overestimate the accuracy of aggregated statistical estimates. This observation could have serious consequences for how we understand the consistency between group and individual correlations, and the generalizability of conclusions between domains. Researchers should explicitly test for equivalence of processes at the individual and group level across the social and medical sciences.

doi: 10.1073/pnas.1711978115

  1. The studies are on human subjects.