A graphic novel style scientific poster

•November 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Copyright belongs to me, Julia Amerongen Maddison. You are welcome to distribute non-commercially with attribution.

click on the image to see it full size.

RGB 4 flat

know your shit

•January 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

know your shit, claire says, in her advice of how to be a good science communicator.

i thought i might expand on this.

1. know your shit – by structure.

know how your shit is structured. know how its components relate to each other, how things move, how things attach, how to look at your shit from different angles. know your shit inside and out, three dimensionally, not just two dimensionally. know whether your shit is little or big, know whether it happens fast or slow, whether it’s a system that’s more like a human being or more like a machine, whether it’s a mutualism or a parasitism, whether it changes over time, whether there are uncertainties, how big those uncertainties are. know where your shit ends and other people’s shit begins. know what the overlaps are. know where your shit extends beyond your understanding of it, and vice versa. know that you are still learning your shit, and thus know what it is about your shit that you don’t really know.

2. know your shit – by heart.

know your shit without looking it up. feel your shit. feel how it’s structured, how it moves. know your shit so that if someone asks you a new question you haven’t thought of, you understand deeply by heart enough of your shit’s structure and pieces that you can imagine how it might work, imagine what the answer probably is. these means you have to hold a representation of your shit in your heart, something you add to and subtract from, build on, query with new ideas.

so far you will be an expert in your shit. when you are an expert at plant identification, you have to know your shit by structure and by heart. you have to know which aspects of a plant are constant within a species, and which aspects vary with species. you have to see minute, crucial details and know them to be important. if you are an expert, you can likely do this without a reference guide, and if you are also a holistic sort of botanist, you might also know not just what the distinguishing traits are, but also what they do, why they are structured the way they are. you would likely know your shit by structure and by heart.

BUT until you know your shit by name, you cannot communicate it directly. this brings us to number 3:

3. know your shit – by name.

know how to represent your shit. know what people call your shit. know what words, images, gestures they understand. if they don’t have words or the words they use are wrong, teach them the right words or accommodate to their words. know how to use words to describe the processes your shit goes through. know how to construct analogies that properly represent the key structures of your shit. know what aspects of your shit cannot be captured by words, and how to communicate in other ways – images, direct demonstrations, videos. perhaps there is a particular je ne sais quoi to distinguishing two carex species that really can’t be described in words – show your audience 50 examples of one kind and 50 examples of the other. give them the wordless practice they need to feel your shit, to know it by heart themselves.

know that if you call something by a different name than the one people understand, they will not know what you are talking about. if i call someone bill and you call them pablo we will not immediately realize we are talking about the same person. know that if you use an analogy about something that people have not experienced, it won’t aid in understanding. if i talk about the frustration of opening vials with one latex-gloved hand and you have never worked in a lab, you may not get what i’m saying.

knowing your shit by name is, i would venture, the hardest part for academics, because it is where our training to be scientific experts falls short. it is one thing to know your shit by the names that many of the scientists in your direct academic community use. it is another thing to know your shit by the names that actually allow more distant audiences to understand you.

it is a part of knowing your shit as a science communicator to not only understand its structures by heart, but also to understand its representations by heart. to get weird – one must know which word-boats or image-boats will carry the key concepts intact across the memeless desert of physical reality and allow those concepts to dock, unload, and take hold in a new mind.

Theses are big dynamic things

•May 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment


That said, I’m feeling quite positive at the moment.

social ecology

•April 9, 2013 • Leave a Comment

In the scale from hasty sketch to finished masterpiece, this is definitely a few scratchy lines of pencil on scrap paper. The psychology in it is an amalgamation of my personal experiences and vague recollections of psychological concepts. Most of all, if you know of anything that has been talked about in this realm I would love to hear about it.

Using the Social Brain to Understand Ecosystems

As social animals within a complex society, we have an evolved ability to navigate complex relationships between individuals, between groups, and between groups and individuals. A lot of this social intelligence seems to come from an intuitive place, from emotions and “gut” feelings. This can make our thinking process difficult to characterize but it is nonetheless an important part of how we understand other humans. Combining emotions and logic, a lot of our social experience can be talked about with words and concepts- stereotypes, more official psychological concepts, and the day to day gossip that is extremely context dependent. All of these concepts inform our own behavior and our understanding of other peoples’ behavior.

My interest is in whether there is a way to apply our instinctual and well-practiced social abilities to our understanding of ecosystems. I’ll discuss a bit more about what I mean by social abilities and then mention some ideas about how to mix this with ecology.

Social abilities

We grow up in society, we learn over time the more subtle aspects of how to interact with, manipulate, and tolerate other human beings. Many of us are experts at this (to different degrees). We have many many successes and failures, and if we grow up paying attention, we become more able to make fairly good decisions in very complicated situations.

We also classify and understand behavioral patterns for individuals, who are complex and context-dependent. As a kid, one might be surprised when their uncle, who always seems happy, suddenly seems angry. As an adult, however, we don’t immediately think “Oh no! Our theory about Fred was wrong!” We might re-evaluate our perception of Fred, but we also probably think “Oh I wonder what specifically happened, what made Fred angry.”

We are constantly striking a balance between developing predictable principles about people (Fred always tries to recognize the positive in any situation) and developing context-dependent explanations about why the current situation is the way it is (Fred forgot to eat lunch, so he’s grumpy).

In addition, when it comes to understanding people, we sometimes try to develop sweeping generalizations about humans in general (all people named Fred are positive, happy people). A conscientious person, I think, will recognize that these generalizations don’t always apply, but that there is often a reason we come up with certain patterns. How do we navigate which patterns hold true and which are entirely unfounded? In the realm of social life, this is often done primarily with continued experience and re-evaluation, as opposed to statistically valid experiments.

In my experience one can also develop ways of recognizing telltale signs of different kinds of people, or even different aspects of personality. As opposed to saying “all people named Fred are positive” we might recognize that there appears to be a pattern where certain features are associated with people who also display a certain more broad-scale trait. In other words, instead of deciding that if you have characteristic B you must also have characteristic A, we can develop the concept that overarching characteristic A tends to be associated with a suite of characteristics B, C, D, E and F. If we start to notice that Fred has three or four characteristics out of that suite, we might be more convinced that Fred has characteristic A. This is sort of like doing an instinctual PCA and figuring out which variables best predict certain key personality traits.

What are the signs and/or measurements? Outward appearance and actions (facial expressions, fidgeting, pitch of voice, body language, clothes, etc) as well as the information we receive via communication with that person. For the latter, we don’t have a good analog in ecosystems, because we can’t listen to them. However, there are certainly a whole range of potential outward appearance and action variables (species composition, evenness, temperature, SOM content, soil texture, parent material, latitude, and on and on) that can inform us of an ecosystem’s “personality.”

Ecological applications

Many studies use PCA and other multivariate techniques, and as you mentioned we are developing a better understanding of context-dependence. Perhaps we are already using our social brains to understand ecosystems. But for now, I’d still like to consider the question: what could this framework add?

One potentially hare-brained possibility is to anthropomorphize ecosystems and explore where the analogy holds up and where it breaks down. This could mean naming ecosystems (You know Liz? Liz is that diverse shrubby patch down by the rivershore with lots of happy waterfowl…) and trying to assign personalities to them. For example, one could apply traits such as “extrovert” and “introvert” and say that extroverted ecosystems are ones with lots of energy exchanged with nearby ecosystems, while introverted ecosystems are ones with lots of energy transfer going on within, but not as much external exchange. I think this angle is more useful as a thought experiment and not much beyond that.

Another possibility is to change how we describe ecosystems. Instead of having what are essentially stereotypes – on a broad scale, “boreal forest, deciduous forest, grassland, etc” – one could use a suite of traits to describe location-specific ecosystems. This puts the focus on ecosystems having traits as opposed to being certain kinds of systems.

This would be equivalent to saying Fred seems to be a positive person in addition to other traits, as opposed to all Freds being positive. For example, “This specific ecosystem here in the Kootenays seems to have great carbon storage abilities, but doesn’t have much diversity in the understory.” To my knowledge, we know a lot of this information already, but it’s in the angle of perception that we might find new patterns. The BEC zones may be a good example of this way of thinking (though it would be great to incorporate change over time). It’s also totally possible that we already do this in many ways and I can’t think of more specific examples. Again, to some extent this may be what multivariate analyses do from a more statistically sound perspective.

What I like in particular is the concept of having “ecosystem personality traits.” (Which may just be another name for ecosystem functions, in the end.) These traits could be applied to ecosystems, and some traits would tend to be found together.

The more I write about this the more I think we’re already doing these sorts of analyses. Many of these directions seem to be relatively new, though, and perhaps that’s why having an overarching goal of exploring ecosystems using a social perspective seems interesting to me.

The difficulty of communication

The primary problem I can see with trying to use our social cognitive abilities to understand ecosystems is in the communication of our understanding. Would it really add anything to think of ecosystems from a context-dependent, social way, unless we can’t communicate our certainty using widely accepted metrics? Maybe not.

Gossip is not evidence, and intuitive ideas about whether or not Fred is a positive guy may not necessarily stand up to a test of statistical significance, yet we use these abilities to navigate complex systems with great success.

At this point I’m curious if you think there is anything interesting in this or if it’s all just a re-statement of things already said.

mind map

•December 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

JAM's mind map


•November 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

this is a trail map of my mind. i’m the red dot. instead of climbing around a hierarchy tree, i’ve gotten somewhere. it’s a bit more possible to think of this as a landscape, now that i’ve landed in a place and can really explore it a bit more. i’m still technically jumping scales, but all of the different colours of detail seem more to me like chasing trails. when i lived in corvallis, i followed real forest trails until i came to their end or until they made loops or i ran out of time, and i kept a mental map of the branching points where there was a trail i hadn’t gone down yet. this is so much like that, because i see a small detail that might be important, or a specific paper that surely would be good to read, and it’s like a branching point in the trail i’m on. i have to make a mental (or physical) note of the fact that there’s a branching point there, and in the world of ideas there are SO MANY of them.

here’s what “progress” looks like:

recovering from spinning out

•October 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

i’m a little green car, spinning out and trying to make my way through Masters Land (and trying to avoid being stuck in the doldrums.. see: The Phantom Tollbooth)


•October 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

at the moment i’m too lazy/busy to figure out how to put this directly into the blog post, so here is a link:


it is a pdf about things and relationships that some of you may have heard me talk about a while ago.

Re: the five things slide, just trust me on the 45 meta-relationships. i didn’t draw them because it would’ve taken forever and looked like a beautiful mess.

as for what is a meta-relationship, imagine you and a friend are fighting. the nature of your relationship, in a simplified sense, would be negative. the fact that the relationship between you and that friend is negative may have an impact on your relationship with a different friend. in other words, one relationship is interacting with another relationship, which basically means that there is a relationship between the relationships. (yo dawg).

if you want a more ecosystem-relevant example, here is the simplified way i think about it:

Let’s say you have this situation:

species A +/- species B -/- species C

This suggests that species A is predating or parasitizing species B (species A benefits + and species B loses -) and that species B and species C are competing (both lose -)

Let’s say something changes in the environment to shift the relationship between species A and species B so that species A is taking less and perhaps even giving away some resources, such that it becomes a mutualism (+/+). Now species B is doing better, which means it may not be affected by species C. Depending on the weights of interactions, the relationship between species B and species C could turn into 0/- (species B is unaffected but species C is still losing out) or 0/0 (they aren’t competing or helping each other). There are a lot of possible scenarios. but the point is, the relationship between species A and species B affected the relationship between species B and species C.

If it’s hard to picture this without tangible species, imagine species A is a mycorrhizal fungus, species B is a doug-fir tree, and species C is a ponderosa pine tree. The fungus can be a mutualist or a parasite under different conditions, and the competition between the doug-fir and ponderosa pine might shift weight depending on the doug-fir to fungus relationship. Yay meta-relationships!



…why is the font bigger on this post? ah the mysteries of wordpress…

directions to investigate

•October 2, 2012 • Leave a Comment

ugh. it might be a while before i update the soils field trip post. for now:

directions to investigate:

1. agriculture. role of mycorrhizae for different crops, different spatial/temporal timescales. 

2. communication and resource transfer over networks. defense chemicals, dying trees sending resources to young’uns.

3. large-scale biogeo. species composition, density of networks, thresholds to network effectiveness (temperature, moisture, distance between hosts). 

4. temporal variation- seasonal prevalence of MNs, dieback in desert summer? again with thresholds. 

soil trip 2012

•October 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Maciej showing us some delicious arugula that was harvested just before we dug a neat soil pit.

click on photo for bigger version.

Instead of giving you an overview of what we did in a way that would just hop between branches all at the same level of the hierarchy, I want to fall into the leaf tips and just say three simple little tidbits, and then scale up into the bigger picture branches from there.

1. The Helmers. (People)

these super nice seed potato farmers in pemberton who had the cutest soft voices and genuine smiles, sun- and wind-burned cheeks. they gave us delicious carrots from their garden and let us climb all over their harvesting equipment. also they had a cute cute dog that was so rambunctious.

2. What kind of wild plant would you be? (Plants)

a liverwort? a succulent? a gallium? more on this soon.

3. Columnar basalt. (Geomorphology)

oh i guess i posted on this already. well it was very cool to see it in person. now that i think about it i didn’t actually touch any, but the waterfall was pretty darn cool. (that’s brandywine falls just off the sea-to-sky highway.)