Monthly Archives: July 2016

Steve presenting at a conference

Conferencing as an old fogey

Photo: Me hijacking my own talk at CSEE 2016 to shamelessly plug my book.  I don’t look all that old, right?  Photo © Alex Smith, with permission.

I’ve just (as I write this) come from my favourite yearly conference: the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.  It’s my favourite for a number of reasons – among them, really superb science, a broad range of topics, and a lot of friends.  (The latter makes a big difference when you’re conferencing as an introvert.)

I’ve realized something a little bit disturbing.  When I went to my first conference (the Ecological Society of America meeting in 1993, I think), I was young, and a rookie.  I watched the grey-haired old fogeys whose names I knew from the literature, and I knew I should introduce myself and get to know them, but it was hard.  But now, in 2016, I have become a grey-haired old fogey*. Continue reading

"I'm stumped!"

Every qualifying-exam candidate should say “I don’t know”

Photo: “I’m stumped” (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).  Geocaching Hanley Park, by Martyn Wright via, CC BY 2.0

As I write this I’ve just come from a great talk: Kim Hughes’ SSE Presidential Address at Evolution 2016 (Variety is the spice of life: death, sex, and the maintenance of genetic variation).  Presidential addresses are very much a mixed bag: sometimes a ramble from a superannuated blowhard with a big captive audience; sometimes a charmingly offbeat mix of reflection and experimentation.  This was neither – it was just a terrific talk. Continue reading

The garden of insects

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

I went for a walk in the Garden last week, and it was lovely to see the colours on display – nature in all shapes and sizes, with another species offering a different look everywhere I turned.  I’m not talking about the flowers – although those were nice too.  I’m talking about our Garden of Insects.

The Garden of Insects isn’t a signed attraction.  Continue reading

Graphic: Fisher's model of software updates

Fisher’s geometric model of software updates

Images: Fisher’s model visualization, own work; update progress bar by Jeff Attaway, somewhat dubiously CC BY 2.0.

Last month, the Toronto Star newspaper launched a “new and improved” website, which is nothing short of awful. The other day, the only game app I keep on my phone pushed an update, and now it’s noticeably harder to use than it was before. I’m nursing my laptop along because Windows 8 and Windows 10 are both worse than Windows 7. Why do “updates”, “upgrades”, and “new and improved” products so often seem worse than what they replace?

R.A. Fisher knew*. Continue reading

Statue of Oliver Goldsmith

Lessons from three role models

Warning: a little saccharine. My inner curmudgeon took the day off.

A couple of months ago I was interviewed for the People Behind the Science podcast.  Midway through, the host asked me about my role models – and it was a question I had to think about.  That’s because the best role models aren’t obvious; they don’t broadcast “look what I do” or ham up their behaviour in an attempt to be modeled.  This very subtlety is what makes them effective, at least for me. I’ve never taken overt advice terribly well, and too-obvious role modeling just seems like advice with a touch of condescension.

But even though I had to think about it, of course I’ve had role models.  Plenty of them – but there are three I remember often. Continue reading

Commerson's dolphins

Commerson’s Dolphin and ego naming: a (minor) mystery solved

Photos: Commerson’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) in the Strait of Magellan, by Miguel Vieira via; CC BY 2.0.  Bougainvillea by Andrew Schmidt via, released to public domain. Syngrapha hochenwarthi, by Dumi via, CC BY-SA 3.0

Everyone knows, of course, that Latin names are often based on names of people: the namer might choose to honour a friend, a colleague, a celebrity, a prominent public figure, or a deserving scientist.  But do namers ever succumb to the temptation to honour themselves?  If I were to describe a new goldenrod species, say, could or should I name it Solidago heardi?

I’d never thought about this until I stumbled across a claimed case of such ego-naming. Continue reading

XKCD cartoon: "Literally"

Why I’m going back to saying “Latin” names

Image: xkcd #725, by Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5

Warning: trivial.

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ve noticed that I frequently return to the fascinating stories behind the scientific, or Latin, names of Earth’s species.  (If you haven’t, you may think using “fascinating” and “Latin names” in the same sentence is a bit much. But I beg to differ.)  But which are they – “scientific names” or “Latin names”? Continue reading