Mastodon is also not rocket science

Weeks after Elon Musk took possession of Twitter and proceeded to tweet fast and break things, this Scientific American article by Joe Bak-Coleman offers a general theory of why it’s going so badly: social networks are complex systems rather than complicated ones.

On a social network, interactions between individuals create dizzying feedback loops and chaotic interactions that render simple mathematical models next-to-useless for predicting the future, let alone controlling it. Musk’s gamble is that applying his tinkering philosophy to Twitter will take him where no one has gone before: ownership of a large, healthy and profitable social network. The problem is that, unlike the moon or Mars, we have no idea how to get there—and that’s a challenge that engineering fixes cannot solve.

I saw this linked from Mastodon, where I (and now a pretty large fraction of my former Twitter network) have taken refuge. People there are generally passing it around in the spirit of schadenfreude that imbues most discussion of Twitter in the “Fediverse” distributed social network. However, I don’t see much awareness that what Bak-Coleman identifies as a problem for Musk running Twitter is also a problem for a network of mostly volunteer admins running Fediverse-connected Mastodon instances: we don’t actually know how design and moderation decisions will ultimately add up to create the decentralized social network we’re all using now.

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What was Twitter?

(Flickr: Buzz)

The science fiction novel Ender’s Game is best remembered for its primary plot, about a genius child who leads Earth’s forces to genocidal victory against aliens; but it also has a secondary plot line that seems, in retrospect, terrifyingly prescient. While the protagonist Ender is learning to become the greatest space-general in history, his near-equally-gifted pre-teen brother and sister, left behind on Earth, take up politics. Peter and Valentine set up pseudonyms on a global online message board and spar theatrically, building competing followings and eventually real-world political influence. By the novel’s end Peter has leveraged his online clout into the leadership of a worldwide government.

I read Ender’s Game in the mid-1990s, when it was truly science fictional to imagine the whole world connected in a single messaging system, much less using devices portable enough to carry in a backpack. By 2004, my final year of undergrad, I acquired a bulky Dell laptop which was, most excitingly, capable of using the wifi network that had just been installed in my campus apartment complex — and I’d already gone from a hand-coded HTML personal website to a series of blogs hosted on the most obvious choice, Multiple of those blogs were social affairs, shared with friends, but their connection to people elsewhere on the Internet was entirely mediated by individual “<a href=” hyperlinks. Midway through graduate school, I accepted responsibility for building a website for a conference to be hosted by my home department, and decided to try embedding a new messaging platform I’d heard about: Twitter.

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New publication: A genetic fingerprint of coevolutionary diversification

A red milkweed beetle, Tetraopes tertophthalmus, on its host plant (jby)

A new paper from the lab — coauthored with all three of the Yoder Lab’s graduate student alumni — is now online ahead of print in the journal Evolution Letters. In it, we analyze population genetic data from 20 pairs of plants and herbivores, parasites, and mutualists that live intimately on those plants to test for evidence that the associate species’ population genetic structure aligns with that of their host plants. This is an expected result if adaptation to the host plant drives diversification of the associates — and we found that it is indeed a recurring pattern. This is a pretty neat result, and, I think, a nice contribution to a long-established literature on how intimate associations with plants has driven the diversification of groups like butterflies and beetles.

Denali diary III. Alpine

The final pinnacle before the descent from the Savage Alpine trail (jby)

Notes from a trip to Alaska.

We had allotted ourselves one full day in Denali, and given the alterations to our lodging plans and the persistently rainy weather, it seemed best to spend the time on the longest stretch of established trail offered in the park, the Savage Alpine trail and the adjoining Savage River trail. These were as deep into the park as we could go without paying for guided tours, and they covered what looked like a pretty good sample of the available terrain.

We shuttled to the park visitor center to catch a park-managed bus — an actual school bus, painted NPS green — to the trailhead. The previous night’s sun break was truly over, with misty rain and clouds hiding the ridge lines to north and south as we left the visitor center campus and followed the park road west. There was, still, no sign of the big mountain. The park road climbs from the visitor center through boreal forest, which got patchier as we went higher. After a stop at park headquarters, we disembarked at a joint trailhead for a short loop, Mountain Vista, and the longer climb into the hills, Savage Alpine.

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Denali diary II. Lodging

View out the bus window, crossing the Knik River (jby)

Notes from a trip to Alaska.

You can get from Anchorage to Denali National Park by rental car, Alaska Railway passenger train, or chartered flight — but we took the bus. A regular service runs from the convention center in downtown Anchorage to multiple stops in and around Denali, about four hours’ drive north on State Highway 3, and it leaves early. C and I hiked our luggage through a light morning drizzle to join a small crowd of fellow-passengers huddled under the convention center portico, and by 7:30 am we were driving north.

We took the highway — the only highway — east out of town and then west towards Wasila, with views of mountains through the cloud banks. Eventually the rain got too heavy, mist rolled in, and the highway headed north and left more developed territory, running between walls of forest that looked, to eyes raised on eastern temperate-deciduous woods, distinctly scraggly. The trees were aspen, spruce, none more than 40 feet tall, rising out of thick undergrowth like bathers wading in the shallow end of a crowded swimming pool. Large swathes of the spruce were dead-looking, gray-brown ghost groves — killed by spruce beetles, apparently.

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Denali diary I. Anchorage

A view east from downtown Anchorage, toward the Chugach Mountains. (Flickr, jby)

Notes on a trip to Alaska.

We landed in Anchorage at eight o’clock in the evening, but it might have been any time from dawn to almost midnight. High-latitude summer light is uncanny enough to a southerner such as me (flying in from Los Angeles via a long stopover in Seattle) when it’s still fully light out at nine o’clock in the evening; but then also a mid-July weather system had swathed the city in low clouds and persistent drizzle, filtering the sunlight down to a high-twilit grey.

C and I took a taxi to a rental apartment we’d planned to use as a base of operations for the trip. I had an academic conference in Anchorage, and we’d taken that as an excuse to fly up a week early and see some sights — Denali National Park, then the vicinity of Kenai Fjords. First, though, we had a day in town to settle in and get our bearings. The rental-apartment host and her husband met us and our heap of luggage on the doorstep of their house — which, in addition to having our apartment in the basement, appeared to operate both as a multi-unit bed-and-breakfast and as the local consulate of the Netherlands. Our host was, it developed, a Dutch transplant. She showed us around: kitchen, living space, bedroom, washing machine and dryer, sofa bed in the living room (I suspect she didn’t realize C and I were a couple), and an orientation to the city via a tourist map on the kitchen table. Downtown was a dozen blocks north, on the other side of a long east-west strip of parkland. We thanked her out the door, unpacked a bit, and then hiked into downtown to the nearest late-night food we could find, by-the-slice pizza with, it turned out, reindeer sausage — how local!

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The variety of queer scientists in The Queer Variable

Shaun O’Boyle and Alfredo Carpineti have spent the last two years interviewing LGBTQ+ folks working in the sciences, and the result is now available today on the website of Pride in STEM: an e-book compilation of 40 edited interviews, The Queer Variable. I’m very glad to have been included, as just one voice in an impressively international (if necessarily Anglophone) chorus. The book is something of an oral history, not of a single event or project, but of the career trajectories of the interviewees and how their queer identities have intersected and shaped their work — a topic addressed in a more systematic (dry) manner in the second Queer in STEM paper [PDF]:

Three key processes emerged from our analysis of participant experiences and provide an explanatory framework for how queer STEM workplace identities are shaped by a combination of internal and external influences (see Figure 1). Defining explains how these individuals come to understand and name themselves as queer in terms of gender and/or sexuality; Forming refers to their construction of specific STEM identities; and Navigating describes how the interplay of professional and personal influences impacts expression of identity in places of work and study.

The Queer Variable effectively samples the wide range of ways LGBTQ folks have defined their queer identities, formed their place in a STEM field, and navigated the challenges of a career that incorporates both. Go download the free e-book and have a look.

Tree property is tree theft

Mist-shrouded coast redwoods along Highway 101 in northern California (jby)

My review of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, a not-unsympathetic exploration of timber poaching on the margins of Redwood National and State Parks, is online (and in print) in this week’s Science.

It’s a good book, following a small group of “outlaws” in the depressed logging community of Orick and the park rangers trying to prevent and prosecute their thefts of valuable old-growth coast redwood from park property. The author, Lyndsie Bourgon, blends that true-crime narrative with bigger-picture perspective on the history of forest management and the global trade in illegally harvested timber. Maybe not surprisingly, it ends up being more a critique of global capitalism than an indictment of the tree thieves, and my review follows it all the way to Full Space Communist:

The book’s unavoidable conclusion is that the problem manifest in timber poaching is not the destruction of a particular tree or the failure of a conservation plan but rather a social and economic system that roots personal identity in wage-earning work (or lack thereof) and that describes a tree by its value as board feet in a lumberyard. Tree Thieves thus suggests that the theft of a tree may be a category error … so pervasive that we don’t know we’re standing in its shade.

Transitional moments

Posing with students in my 2022 Flowering Plant Systematics course, just before commencement.

Our semesters end the week before the Memorial Day holiday, which in practice means I don’t really get out from under the end-of-semester pileup and start my summer until that holiday weekend. Which is sort of nice for me, personally, because my birthday usually lands somewhere in or adjacent to the last weekend of May.

This year it’s a big(ger) round number, and there were any number of moments that seem nicely timed to commemorate it: I joined the University’s first in-person commencement since 2019 as a faculty “marshal”, and the passel of students from my spring botany class who were participating actually tracked me down to pose for photos. I introduced the first in-person thesis defense by a Master’s student from my lab, and she gave a fantastic, polished presentation of work that her committee declared outstanding almost the moment she stepped out of the room to let us confer. Next weekend (since I’ve now widened this moment to roughly a fortnight) I’ll run and probably survive my twelfth marathon. And, after I’d stopped checking email before the holiday weekend, I got the letter from the Provost conferring tenure and promotion, a year ahead of schedule.

It’s all nice and gratifying in different ways: good impressions made, mentorship successful, hard work paying off, employment and a raise secured. It’s really shockingly well in line with what I’d have wanted to have happen by this particular round-number birthday, if you’d asked me a decade ago when postdoctoral research was still fresh and exciting and radically more adult than grad school. (I’m in the midst of hiring the lab’s first postdoc right now, yikes.) However, right now my mind is more on the sheer number of things I’m still planning to accomplish: the big plans for the summer, grant and paper writing and course planning, and the speed with which making those plans chopped that vast expanse of teaching-free time into not enough. I’ve gotten a lot done in the last five years, and I’ve got so much more to come.

It’s May!

It’s May, my birth-month! Here’s Julie Andrews repeatedly singing the word “gay”.

And as it’s also International Labor Day, here’s a very particular rendition of an appropriate track.

Tonal clash? I think it’s what we call range, darling.