23 October 2013

Alaska LEOS and rare Mourning Doves

I finally participated in my first LEO Webinar and had a great time.  I'll be calling in for more of them as they come up monthly.

LEO is the Local Environmental Observers program/project in Alaska.  The principle being, the people actually living in an area are the prime observers for what is going on.  This includes keeping an eye on birds, among many other things.  The title comes from the September 13, 2013 observation by Richard Kuzuguk of a Mourning Dove in Shishmaref, AK.  Very unusual up there.  I don't have that species down here, but in general, they're very common here.  (Common as in 'wake up light sleepers'.)

For an idea of the rarity of Mourning Doves in Western Alaska, take a look at the distribution map at Wikipedia.

21 October 2013

Question place!

Been a while since I hung out the shingle for questions.  Have at it.

Also, a couple astronomical things have come up in my 3d life, so remember that's an area to think/ask about too.

16 October 2013

Civil Service Pride

Reading much of the commentary about civil servants during the current government shutdown has reminded me just how much so very much of the country loathes us.  Yes, us.  I do work for the US government (as always, I speak only for myself!).  It also occurred to me that I seldom see anybody writing about civil servants working hard and taking pride in their work.  The converse is common, that civil servants are lazy, should all be fired, that they're lying when they say they're there to help.  Such things are even more common in political speeches.  I'll redress that balance some.

A few years ago my workplace had an outside group review how we were doing..  The outside group not including civil servants.  As usual, some things they thought we did well, some they didn't think so.  But one point they criticized us on was that we work too hard!  50 hour weeks being routine.

At the meetings to tell us what was allowed or required, of whom, during the furlough, we had something of a 'Green Eggs and Ham' in reverse.  The people who were furloughed asking the questions, laws duly passed by congress and signed by president providing the answers:
Q: May I work upon the mainframe?
A: No, you may not work upon the mainframe.
Q: May I do it on my desk?
A: No you may not do it on your desk.
Q: May I do it at my home?
A: No you may not do it at your home.
Q: May I at least answer my mail?
A: No you may not even answer your mail.
Q: May I, can I, please, read my mail?
A: You may not, can not, any way, any how, even read your mail.

The 50 hour weeks and having to be told repeatedly that it is a violation of federal law to work while furloughed don't point to lazy people.  (I know there are other groups that also do routine 50+ hour weeks.  They're not lazy either.)  As insurance against people sneaking in to do work in spite of being furloughed, the guards were given a list of who is allowed to be working.  If your name isn't on the list, you don't get in to the building.  Don't know how many times people have been turned away, but I expect it has happened.

A little farther afield, it isn't lazy people with no commitment who walk to work through a blizzard to issue National Weather Service forecasts. I know of other NWS weather forecasters who, when severe weather was coming, simply slept at work -- because they weren't sure they could get in to work the next day.

I also live near a national park, which, of course, is shut down.  Like many, I saw the video of a congressman -- who had helped bring about the shutdown -- berating a National Park Service employee for doing what she is supposed to during a shutdown.  But, beyond the fact of his grandstanding (more of which followed at the WW II memorial by others), I happen to have talked to some park rangers over the years.  Also at some other national parks that I've visited.  They all love their parks, and the national system.  They're all (the ones I've talked to) committed to their parks and want to be able to share them, show them, explain them, whathaveyou, with as many people as possible.  Shutting down is very much against their nature.  But congress is who authorizes federal expenditures.  And they authorized none for national parks -- no budget.

Emergency employees (constantly mis-labelled 'essential' in the media) are able to work during shutdown only on the principle that congress is expected (not such a reliable expectation these days) to honor its debts and the emergency people are protecting life (NWS weather forecasters) and property (Park Service people protecting vs. vandalism, for instance) -- in the very near term.  Research for curing cancer might do such things later on, but isn't a near term guarantee.

But, speaking of dedication to their work, and concern for it, read How the Shutdown Is Devastating Biomedical Scientists and Killing Their Research for its profile of a scientist trying to keep experiments going -- which includes keeping animals alive -- in spite of everyone else having been sent home.

As I write, there's talk of an agreement having been reached.  But neither the Senate nor House has voted on it yet.  Until the votes are counted, it is not a done deal.  That fact is part of why we're currently in the shutdown.

Regardless of the inaction and insane action from Capitol Hill, a couple million civil servants have kept working -- without pay -- through this.  Walked to work through blizzards.  Didn't counterattack when a person who created the problem was berating her on national TV her doing what she's required to by laws that he passed.  And have been trying to prevent months and years of research from being wasted.  These are not lazy, uncommitted people.

15 October 2013

Diversity in Science

"First rate minds try to surround themselves with first rate minds.  Second rate minds try to surround themselves with third rate minds."  That is a pragmatic point for today's topic.  Whether I'm a first rate mind myself, I enjoy being around them.  And it's obvious that science does best when we have the best people involved.  My actual starting point is the morality that it is wrong to discriminate against people for who they are.

What brings this up, and out of my usual range of posting, is events over the weekend that happened to Danielle Lee, @dnlee5, a biologist and blogger at Scientific American.  Early in the process, she gave an interview and said: “If that many people were going to come out in support of me, I’d rather it be in support of one of the missions that’s going to make me redundant. I am trying to make myself redundant, truth be told. It is a lonely place to constantly be the only one like you in science,” "  One such mission being increasing diversity in science.

Very normal for my posting is the message 'you can do science'.  But that doesn't touch preconceptions people might have about who 'you' can be (quick answer: anyone).  I've heard that the common image of a scientist is a middle-aged white man with bad hair, wearing a lab coat.  Fortunately I'm nothing like that -- I've never worn a lab coat.  I've also heard that it's better to talk about living people than people like George Washington Carver and Marie Curie (still ... go read their biographies).

I'll limit myself even further, just to people that I've met personally.  The fact that I know these people does not mean (I'm looking at the nitwits* who might have snuck in to the room) that there's no discrimination in science any more.  It does underscore the fact that it's unconscionable.  If you don't accept the moral argument, then because of the pragmatic -- these are first rate people you would be refusing to let do good work.  I won't be listing names for all, which is something of a question.  On one hand, taking away someone's name is more than a little depersonalizing and can be offensive in its own right.  On the other, I've heard more than once from people that they don't like to be trotted out to be 'the woman' or the like -- that they just want to go do good science, a privilege accorded the pale males who just want to go do good science. 
  • Warren Washington is an African-American man who has won many awards, and been a leader in climate modelling.  He was also the doctoral advisor to Claire Parkinson.
  • Claire Parkinson a woman who has been studying sea ice for decades now, and wrote a book (now in second edition) on climate modeling with Warren Washington.  Also wrote a very good book solo on the history of science and math.
  • Margaret Davidson   A woman who has been director of both NOAA's Coastal Services Center and its National Ocean Service.  She lead (we met about the time she started so I know it was her idea and plan) the CSC towards and in its approach of working with communities as opposed to issuing edicts.  (NOAA being furloughed, her bio is offline).
  • Jamese Sims An African-American woman who did her thesis on modeling hurricane intensity and now works in NOAA/NWS on relating weather information to health and safety.
  • A blind PhD cognitive psychologist.  As much as I read, I boggle at someone who takes in entire textbooks by listening.  We played cards once, which I think is hard if you can't see them.  (Braille doesn't cover the fact that you can't 'see' them all at once.)  Much better card player than me, too.
  • A gay, disabled, African-American man.  There's an article about straight white male being the lowest difficulty setting for life, by John Scalzi.  This guy has been playing on the grandmaster setting.  And has remained amazingly not-bitter.  I'd last maybe a few weeks in his place.
  • James West  an African American man, inventor of the microphone that's used in several billion devices (you probably have several yourself), member of the National Inventor's Hall of Fame.
  • Jeanette Epps is an African-American woman, astronaut, inventor, engineer.
  • A female Muslim scientist from India -- we talked, well before 9/11, about the concept of jihad and what it meant.  She talked; I asked questions and listened to answers.  She said that the jihad was an internal matter -- the struggle with yourself to live a virtuous life.  I've since heard this from a number of other Muslims.
  • A Hispanic male mathematician/oceanographer
  • A Hispanic female observational oceanographer
  • A Hispanic female numerical hurricane modeller (was also a summer student of mine)
  • A transgendered, gay, man -- another for playing life on the grandmaster setting.  Incredibly broadly talented across math/science/engineering/technology _and_ languages. (Human ones as well as computer ones.)
And many more.  This list is biased towards African-Americans and women because it was prompted by an African-American woman's experiences.  It has long been obvious to me that first rate minds come in all packages, from all backgrounds.

Second rate minds try to surround themselves with third rate minds.  They can't cope with people who are as or more talented and hard working than they are.  If they must encounter a first rater, they're the ones fastest to reach for the bigotry encountered by @dnlee5.

* I'd be using stronger language except for this blog's language standards.

07 October 2013

Journalists' desires

I've seen several articles one telling scientists what journalists want, and why, and some going in to how.  Most recently http://www.scidev.net/global/communication/practical-guide/what-journalists-want-from-scientists-and-why.html It's all useful advice, and the one time I was allowed to speak to a journalist, I had a very good experience.

But, one thing very lacking in these articles is discussion of what it is that scientists may expect in return, why it is worth the scientist's time, and why it is worth the potential risk to professional standing and employment.

Advice: Journalists are on deadline -- so drop everything you're doing in order to answer their questions.
Q: Ok.  It's obvious why journalists want (us) scientists to drop what we're doing in order to answer their questions.  But what is the journalist promising in return?  Accurate quoting?  Many scientists have experienced the contrary.  Being quoted at all?  Not necessarily, we might not say anything quoteworthy in the journalist's opinion.  Chance to review the article prior to publication for accuracy?  Often refused on grounds of journalistic independence.

Advice: Answer all the journalist's questions, to ensure their understanding.
Q: Makes sense if we're going to talk to a journalist at all that we do what is needed for them to understand what we're saying.  But now it is a matter of not only dropping everything we're doing, but doing so for indefinitely long period.

Advice: Speak their language.  (Not English vs. Swahili so much, but glaciologist vs. ordinary citizen.)
Q: So not only do we drop everything we we're doing, for indefinite period, but even though we were interrupted in the middle of thinking hard about some obscure part of our field, we're to immediately shift mental gears from our frame for professional thinking to speaking to random citizens?  If I'm in the midst of writing a paper or proposal -- where I have to saturate in professional language -- it's going to be a while before I come down to being able to talk understandably to my wife (a bright person, but not a professional in my field so my reference for journalists; my wife understands this, journalists don't seem to.).

Even just in the context of speaking to a journalist, there are some costs and challenges to the scientist.  But let's go a little farther in what is happening for the scientist