Tweeting over the Great Firewall

Wow, six months without a post is the longest I have neglected the blog for a while! I’ve got a couple of posts to write now that the summer is over, but I thought I would start with something that was a bit of a challenge for me over the summer. I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing in August, including five days attending the International Congress on Ecology (INTECOL). Usually, I like to try to promote the work that is going on at conferences and contribute to the general online science community by live-tweeting. The only trouble is that in China Twitter is banned… I came up with two solutions:

Solution 1: VPN

I used a virtual private network to bypass the firewall. That worked pretty well, and while VyperVPN cost about $12 for a month it gave me regular access to the web for the duration of my stay in China. Not bad value. However, part of my reason for going to China in the first place was to exchange ideas with Chinese researchers, and that’s tough if they can’t see what you are tweeting.

Solution 2: Weibo

My second solution, then, was to take to Chinese social media to try to communicate. There is a fair amount of guidance on Twitter and conferences, but I couldn’t find anything on Weibo and conferences. Also, Weibo is very much Chinese (as opposed to global) and so there wasn’t much hope of me communicating in the local language. Still, I tried my best and punted most of my first day of tweets (in English, unfortunately, and one as an experiment in Chinese via Google Translate) out through Weibo as well.

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 00.23.23

The results were not that surprising…  I got a bit of interest on the Twitter feed (interestingly, many many bot accounts, which has never happened before), but very little on the Weibo feed. In fact, I got absolutely no interaction whatsoever. The Twitter feed was completely out of sync with the rest of the planet (or so it seemed), but at least a few people both saw and understood them!

So, what I learned here is that social media is tough to crack in China, even when trying to use local tools. It’s also tough to sign up for Weibo because the authentication uses Chinese mobile phone numbers… Aside from that, the hashtags are a little different (note the “#” at the beginning as well as the end of the hashtag above) and I really never got to grips with finding profiles of people who might be interested and trying to add them to “Weibos”. Has anybody else had any success? Are there academics using both Weibo and Twitter in their social media arsenal?

PS: If you are interested, here’s a quick run down of the conference via my tweets and another from another attendee.

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Update on Community Collaborative Impact

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post about “Community Collaborative Science” as a model for impactful teaching and research in UK universities. As I mentioned back then, this kind of “service learning” is a core part of the curriculum in many US universities, but has not taken off in quite the same way in the UK. I was discussing the idea with my partner and we ended up putting together a pitch for a NESTA seed grant. The grant would have been used to build the system and pilot a few projects through an online collaborative workspace. Here’s the pitch:

Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t successful, but there seem to be other people thinking along similar lines. If you are interested in this kind of topic then please do drop me a line and we can discuss this in more detail.

The power of stories (a call for arts-science collaboration)

beta-life-websiteIn my previous blog post I put out a call for collaborations to adopt a citizen science approach to studying mimicry. I’m delighted to say that is going very well (thanks, everybody!), and I’ll provide an update soon. However, there is another area of collaboration that I thought might be interesting to discuss. I lecture in the School of Biology, and I am interested in broadening the scope of my MSc research projects. In particular, I’m becoming more and more interested in cross-faculty and interdisciplinary projects that expose students to different ways of thinking about their research topic.  I came across the Comma Press science-into-fiction concept through Martyn Amos from Manchester Met (a computer scientist and public engagement lead).Read More »

Help us understand mimicry!

Picture1I have written about mimicry before, describing why most mimics are imperfect and how some mimics imitate not only the appearance of other animals but also their sounds and behaviour. Now, I need your help with an ambitious experiment to test theories about the evolution of mimicry. Most people know that there are harmless animals that have yellow and black stripes to look like stinging bees and wasps. But did you know that there are many thousands of such species, all with different degrees of “bee-ness” or “waspiness”? The new experiment is designed to compare 56 harmless hoverflies with 42 wasps and bees to measure how similar they are. That’s 2,352 unique comparisons! This information will allow us to test exciting new ideas about the evolution of mimicry. There’s only one catch…

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With his beard and odd dress sense, Uncle Sam would have made a fine entomologist!

This particular experiment will use the human brain as a processing tool and the power of the crowd to generate data. It’s a bit like “Strictly Come Mimicking” (or “Mimicking with the Stars“, if you’re in the US): you just need to rate how similar you think the two insects appear out of 10. I’d appreciate it greatly if you could take some time to run through the experiment below. Don’t do it thinking that there is an end, though – there are 2,352 combinations, remember, and the images are randomly paired on each screen! You can access the experiment here:

www.mimicryexperiment.net

My goal is to reach 10 ratings of each pair of insects. That means a total of 23,520 ratings. I know this is a long shot, but that’s the aim, people! Please do share it far and wide! I’ll share regular updates on the blog as the ratings come in (however many or few there are!).

“Noble nature”…?

20161231_184514Walking home after a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, I spotted a small sign in a shop window. The text says:

“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, so should a man behave in his village”

– Dhammapada (1st Century BC)

Two things sprang immediately to mind. The first was the tendency that we have to attribute greater emphasis to quotes from older civilisations, despite the fact that those civilisations are less developed. Older civilisations are not wise like older people – they are actually younger in an absolute sense (as pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky). It is as if being from a time far distant to our own confers wisdom that we perceive lacking in contemporary society.

However, the second thing that occurred to be was that “that’s not how bees work”… Pollination is a mutualism most of the time, but not always. By offering a nectar resource in exchange for the transfer of pollen, flowers have evolved relatively straightforward paths to that nectar for their respective pollinators. Sometimes that is a big, open flower that can be accessed by many species, but other times the flower has a peculiar shape or the nectar well is particularly inaccessible. The latter cases often result in very specific species that are able to access the nectar using particular behaviours or very long tongues.Read More »

My run of luck

It is easy to look back and see those little (and sometimes not so little) moments that have caused great changes in your life. Being in academia (and having survived this far) means that I have been immensely lucky. There is no other way to describe it. Some of that luck has been self-made, or at least I have seen and taken opportunities when they presented themselves. However, there were a lot of cases where I benefitted from sheer serendipity. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of those:

  1. I was born this way – Straight off I need to acknowledge my privilege. I’m white and male (among other awesome things) and that gives me a massive headstart straight away.
  2. A casual conversation with a lecturer – After an ecology lecture in 2004 I approached my lecturer and asked about PhDs. In my mind, he asked “How do you feel about dragonflies?” although I have a feeling I have made that up. He wrote a PhD project up, I applied, and started working with him the next year.
  3. A transoceanic link – My PhD supervisor happened to have a former student working at a university in Canada. He put me in touch, we found a slightly unusual funding source, and I ended up moving over shortly after finishing my PhD.
  4. Helping out around the lab – As the senior postdoc in the lab in Canada, I chipped-in with supervision of MSc and PhD students. The upshot was that I was helping a student analyse and write-up her data. That analysis produced a Nature paper.
  5. Government policy on research assessment – Because I hadn’t held a faculty position before, if I joined a UK university and was a part of their Research Excellence Framework submission I would only have to submit one paper. The fact that I was looking for a faculty position just as our Nature paper came out made me very attractive as a new hire.
  6. Having a big mouth – Someone in the department realised that I never say “no” to anything. One day I was called into my Head of School’s office and shown an email from Random House publishers saying that the chair of a local event had pulled out and could they suggest someone to fill in. The event was an Evening With Richard Dawkins (of whom I am a massive fan) in front of a sell-out crowd at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I said yes (inevitably), met Richard, we shared a couple of hours on stage, and I have been told that the evening went extremely well (it was hard to tell from under the spotlight!).

That’s not saying that I haven’t worked hard. I’ve done what most academics do, which is to sacrifice a degree of work-life balance until reaching a permanent position. I have published a LOT and the ideas that I have been nurturing for a number of years (urban pond research networks, projects on environmental education, pedagogical research, and dragonfly evolution) are coming to fruition. However, there were key points in my career when luck was a deciding factor. There are probably academics out there who had no luck and got to where they are purely on the basis of hard work. However, I imagine they are in the minority!