Mark Vellend: A book is everything a tweet is not (but please tweet about my book)

by Mark Vellend

This post appears concurrently on Dynamic Ecology.

VellendI was not at the ESA meeting this year, but a handful of advance copies of my book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, were, and Margaret Kosmala was kind enough to send me a photo of the first buyers. I’d like to be able to play it cool and say this was just another ho-hum moment in the life of a scientist, but it wasn’t. I stared at the photo for a good while with a huge smile on my face. Maybe that was just because smiling is contagious and it was instinctual to smile back at the two people smiling at me through the screen. But there was also a sense of deep gratification. Following in the footsteps of some of my scientific heroes, my name was on the cover of a green and yellow book, the book was now born, and at least two people other than my Mom and Dad were willing to pay money for it. Success!

Writing a book is a teeny bit like having a child, but also not like it at all. The similarities: long gestation period, intense anticipation for its arrival, major investment in its success, worry about its uncertain future, and sometimes wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. The differences: I (gender: male) actually did most of the work this time getting it to parturition, books are decidedly precocial (no diapers, bottles, tantrums, lunch boxes, or swimming lessons), I’m not sure anything I do now will influence its future, and although one might say the journey was difficult at times (f*$%ing index!), it’s not even in the same universe…I’ll just stop there instead of pretending that words can do justice to the difference on this point (just received stink eye from across the room). I guess I’m just trying to say that there’s a bit of emotion involved.

This post is the last (I think) in a short series based on thoughts that grew out of the process of writing the book. The others (here, here, and here) focused largely on scientific issues that flowed directly out of the contents of the book. In addition to the little story and handful of thoughts above, I figured I’d now step back from the content of the book, and share some thoughts on writing books in general. (Pretty thin cover story for shamelessly advertising a just-released book now available from amazon.com, I know.) Before diving into this project, I had a short-lived but intense bout of wondering why anyone would write a really long document that people need to pay for in an age when nobody reads anything they can’t download for free. Now I can think of several reasons:

(1) The premise of my doubt isn’t actually true. Many ecologists do value in-depth treatments of broad topics (I certainly do) and many even value the physical book they can hold in their hands. Long live books.

(2) A contract focuses the mind. Had I decided to just write the book as some kind of online wiki (an idea at one point), I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to invest as much as I did in making it a coherent whole. A contract, timelines, formal guidelines, an encouraging editor, and the happy thought of holding a physical book in my hand one day almost certainly helped the book become a better scientific contribution than it otherwise would have been.

(3) Books endure for longer than papers. I have no evidence to support that claim, but when I think of the reference sections of my own papers, I’m pretty sure the book:paper ratio increases as you go back in time. Even if the ideas in it become obsolete, a book endures as an historical signpost, defining the state of the field at a particular point in time, in a way that papers rarely do (in my opinion). Even if scientists have no use for my book in 50 years, I can imagine historians of ecology finding it useful from time to time, long after I’m dead and gone. (Why anyone should care about the fate their writings after they’re dead and gone is an interesting existential question, but I’m happy enough to accept most of us just do seem to care.)

(4) A book is everything that a tweet is not. We consume information in increasingly smaller and faster bits, and the smaller the bit, the less the author is likely to have reflected deeply on its content. I love reading books because I can feel the intellectual depth and reflection shine through, helping advance my own understanding and appreciation of the issues to a greater extent than you’d typically get from reading a stack of papers of the same length. None of which changes the fact that I still want you to tweet my book, without thinking about it for more than a second (go! do it now!). To make it even easier, here’s a tweet from Princeton University Press for you to re-tweet.

(5) Intellectual satisfaction. During no time since my Ph.D. did I dive as deeply and broadly into the literature as I did when writing the book. Thoughts swirled, ideas popped up, links were made between previously disparate things. It’s hard to separate the writing the book itself from being on sabbatical as the source of satisfaction derived from this, but it was refreshing either way.

As a final thought, if you’re reading this wondering if you should write a book, and you can find the time to do it*, I say go for it. I assume that the fact that you’re wondering means you already have an idea what the book would be about, which is an obvious pre-requisite. In all likelihood, it will be gratifying and stimulating for you, and your field of study will be better for it. If you read my book, please let me know what you think, positive or negative (but don’t be mean or nasty). I hope it sparks some interesting conversations.

* This certainly varies between people and types of books, but I’d say you want at least a year during which you can devote a big chunk of your efforts just to this one project.

Nevada Senate Election 2016: Money and the Shadows of Party

by Wendy Schiller and Cory Manento

This post appears concurrently on the Brown University website.

When there is an open U.S. Senate seat, the dynamics of Senate elections are quite different than when an incumbent is seeking reelection. In 2016, there are few open seat races but one in particular – Nevada – has major consequences for party control of the Senate and is closely tied to the fortunes of the two main party presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In this essay, Cory Manento and I analyze the Nevada open seat Senate race in the context of the 2016 political environment. We also take a trip back in time to showcase how this race stacks up to a similarly hotly contested open seat Nevada Senate election that occurred more than 100 years ago.

Newlands

Francis Newlands

On March 27, 2015, U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that he would not seek reelection in 2016 after serving for 30 years in the Senate and 12 years as the leader of the Senate Democrats. In response, two ambitious politicians, Joe Heck and Catherine Cortez Masto, jumped into the fray to run for the open seat. More than a century earlier, another senior Nevada U.S. Senator, John Jones, announced that he would not seek reelection after serving for 30 years. An ambitious and enterprising politician named Francis Newlands seized the opportunity to run for what was now an open seat to represent Nevada in the Senate. Newlands parlayed his wealth and political pedigree into a successful campaign for the open seat. Just four years earlier Newlands had mounted a challenge against incumbent U.S. Senator William Stewart, but dropped out of the race when it was clear that he would not gain the support needed to win the election. That Newlands didn’t fare well against Stewart in 1899 is telling, because it shows that the political advantages of an entrenched incumbent can overcome a well-funded challenger. But with an open seat, Newlands’s wealth (and political experience made possible by his wealth) made a critical difference.

Comparing the 2016 election to the 1903 election highlights the differences between what it takes to win a U.S. Senate election in the age of indirect elections versus direct elections. Under the indirect system of elections, each chamber of the state legislature met separately at the beginning of their legislative session to vote for senator; a candidate who received a majority in each chamber was declared the winner. If no candidate received a majority, the two chambers would meet jointly and vote until a winner was chosen or they adjourned for the year. Under direct Senate elections, which came about after the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, voters cast their votes directly for U.S. Senators. In 1903, Francis Newlands used his tremendous wealth and political power to curry favor in the Nevada state legislature and won the open seat left by Jones’s retirement without having to worry about the down ballot effects of a national party presidential nominee. In contrast, Republican Congressman Joe Heck and Democratic former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the 2016 candidates, are each showcasing their own personal histories of service to the voters directly while simultaneously trying to avoid comparisons to polarizing national figures from their own parties.

Modern Political Ambition – Joe Heck and Catherine Cortez Masto

The Republican candidate for Senate, U.S. Representative Joe Heck, was born in New York in 1961, grew up in Pennsylvania, and moved to Nevada in 1992.[1] He has served for over 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and was called into active duty three times over that period, including a 2008 deployment to Iraq, and he recently became a one-star general.[2] Heck also served his community as a volunteer firefighter, ambulance attendant, and search-and-rescue team member before becoming an emergency room doctor and running a company that provides consulting, medical training, and operational support to law enforcement, emergency responders, and military special operations.[3]

Heck first entered politics in 2004, when he was elected as a Nevada state senator. After serving one four-year term, he was defeated by 765 votes (0.76 percentage points) in his bid for reelection.[4] But Heck recovered quickly, successfully running for Congress for Nevada’s 3rd district in 2010. In Congress, he has put his military experience to work, serving on the Armed Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, while chairing the Military Personnel Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Department of Defense Intelligence. Through these committees, his stated primary focus has been “maintaining our national security.”[5] A relatively moderate Republican, Heck is not a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and ranks in the 73rd percentile for conservatism among House Republicans when examining his bill sponsorship patterns.[6] Despite this relatively moderate bill sponsorship record, Heck has voted with the Republican Party about 93 percent of the time.[7] Heck’s record of public service, his Congressional experience, and his relatively centrist tendencies make him a strong candidate in a state that usually has competitive statewide elections.

The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, presents a strong opponent for Heck. Nevada Democrats were eager to find a potential replacement for Harry Reid that would be supported by retiring Senator Reid but not overshadowed by him. Cortez Masto fits that bill. With a victory in November, she would become the first Latina U.S. Senator in American history. Cortez Masto has already exhibited her ability to win a statewide election, as she was elected Attorney General of Nevada for two terms – winning each election by more than 15 points – before being required to step down in accordance with the term limit imposed by Nevada’s constitution.[8]

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Cortez Masto worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and as former Nevada Governor Bob Miller’s Chief of Staff before entering electoral politics herself. She successfully ran to become Nevada’s 32nd Attorney General in 2006, and was reelected to a second four-year term in 2010. Cortez Masto’s family is well known in Nevada; her father, Manny Cortez, is widely credited with transforming the Las Vegas strip into a prominent tourism destination while he was the head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.[9]

As Attorney General, Cortez Masto worked to combat the use and distribution of methamphetamines in the state, and worked to strengthen laws preventing sex trafficking and violence against women.[10] Nevada is still recovering from being hit particularly hard by the housing crisis in 2008, and Cortez Masto has made this issue front-and-center in her campaign. She points to the state’s “historic” $1.9 billion settlement with big banks that she helped secure as Attorney General as evidence that she will be able to continue to help the state’s housing market recover.[11] By emphasizing her past accomplishments and service, Cortez Masto hopes to present a competitive contrast to Joe Heck’s record of experiences as a Nevada state senator and then U.S. Congressman.

The apparent strategy of both candidates thus far has been to equate their opponent with an established national party figure. Representative Heck has tried to cast Catherine Cortez Masto as the second coming of Harry Reid. But Harry Reid has served Nevada for 30 years and has balanced his role as partisan leader of the Democrats with strong advocacy for the state of Nevada. Heck may gain traction by emphasizing that Masto, like Reid, is a Democrat but it will be hard to produce enough negatives about Reid to swing the election.

Cortez Masto has drawn some associations of her own between Heck and Donald Trump: “Congressman Dr. Joe Heck says he has ‘high hopes’ for Donald Trump to be our next President; I have high hopes Nevadans will reject Congressman Heck and the Trump-Pence ticket in November,” she said in an August Facebook post.[12] In a state with a surging Latino population, and with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump highly unpopular with that voting demographic, Masto is hoping that the association proves costly to Heck. Harry Reid is also backing up Masto’s attempts to tie Heck to Trump stating that Heck “had an opportunity to be courageous. Instead he gave a big bear hug to Donald Trump.”[13] Heck has responded by actively trying to shift the focus away from Trump – he refrained from a formal endorsement – and back to Heck’s impressive resume of service. But as with several other GOP candidates for U.S. Senate this year, disassociation from the top of the party ticket is proving to be a challenge.

The Nevada 2016 election is likely to be a close one; polling averages show Heck and Masto separated by fewer than 3 percentage points which is typically the margin of error in standard polls.[14] The candidates and outside groups have already spent, and will continue to spend, a lot of money to gain an advantage. Fundraising hauls thus far have been nearly even, with a slight advantage to the Democratic side. Cortez Masto has raised $8.7 million and spent $5.2 million, while Heck has raised $7.4 million and spent $2.6 million.[15] The National Republican Senatorial Committee has committed $6.3 million to aid Heck, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – with the help of Harry Reid – has raised $12 million to help Masto defeat Heck.[16]

Just as Senator Reid comfortably won reelection throughout his Senate career, Senator John Jones was able to keep his seat for several terms without a serious challenge. But when long-serving U.S. Senators retire, the dynamics of the next Senate election change considerably. This year’s candidates, mired in a contest that will likely be decided by a small margin, are lacking the inherent advantages associated with being an incumbent. Without the established fundraising connections from a previous Senate run or the ability to highlight previous U.S. Senate experience, Heck and Cortez Masto have tried to earn the trust of voters and donors alike by framing the race in terms of their own strengths while attacking their opponent.

The political career of Francis Newlands offers some insight into what these candidates can do to be successful. After his unsuccessful bid to unseat an incumbent in 1899, Newlands learned about the advantages of running for an open seat through that experience. With a more “level” playing field, Newlands was able to play to his strengths to win the Senate seat in 1903. While money certainly provided the deciding advantage for Newlands over 100 years ago, vying for an open seat was also crucial to his success; 100 years later, open seat Senate races also still require astute campaign strategies but this one is also strongly influenced by the presidential nominees.

Historical Political Ambition – Francis Newlands

When John Jones retired from the Senate in 1903 after serving for 30 years, Francis Newlands finally had the opening to wage a successful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. The senatorial career of Francis Newlands provides a stark example of how ambitious individuals could parlay their own wealth into a U.S. Senate seat in the age of indirect elections. Though the Democrats have a slight fundraising advantage in 2016’s Nevada Senate race, in the age of direct Senate elections, it is unlikely that a fundraising advantage will yield such a singular advantage in the way that it did for Nevada Senator Francis Newlands throughout his political career.

Before entering politics, Francis Newlands was an attorney who inherited great wealth as a result of his marriage to the daughter of a California banker named William Sharon.[17] Sharon himself briefly served as a U.S. Senator from Nevada – he was elected in 1875 and served one term – laying the foundation for his son-in-law’s future political career in the state.[18] Newlands entered politics by backing the Republican and Silver parties. The Silver Party advocated a monetary standard that would allow the use of silver in addition to gold as backing for the dollar. This was advantageous for western states that had a lot of silver deposits, including Nevada, which is nicknamed the Silver State. The more established wing of the Republican Party, backed by banking and manufacturing interests, opposed the free coinage of silver.[19]

But despite his support for free silver, Newlands was able to win the Republican nomination for Nevada’s at-large House of Representatives district in 1892 through an effective use of money: he bought influence with key newspaper editors and made several contributions to the campaigns of other party members running on the same ticket.[20] By his own account, Newlands spent a total of $50,000 (about $1.3 million in 2016 dollars) to win election to the House.[21]

In 1899, Newlands decided to launch an electoral challenge against Senator William Stewart, who was well-entrenched in Nevada politics. One of the elements working in Newlands’s favor was his effort to magnify his own public voice through the purchase of several state and regional newspapers, including the Nevada State Journal. Using these press outlets as a megaphone, Newlands flooded the public with his argument that Stewart was no longer an effective advocate for Nevada.[22] But Stewart was able to use his established political connections and skill to convince Nevada state legislators that he was a candidate who represented a wide array of interests, including silver. After losing the support of the pro-silver activists who migrated to Stewart, Newlands dropped out of the race.

Newlands gained new political life when he ran successfully for the House in 1900 as a Democrat and worked in Congress to pass a major irrigation bill that became known as the Newlands Act.[23] With that accomplishment under his belt, Newlands decided to run for Senate again when Senator Jones announced his retirement. Newlands realized that he had to unify Democrats and Silver Party members in order to win control of the state legislature. His well-funded efforts paid off, as he defeated a challenger that was hand-picked by Senator Stewart. Newlands won the seat on the first ballot by a vote of thirteen to four in the Nevada Senate and thirty to five votes in the Nevada House.[24] See the roll call vote here. Once Senator Jones, an established political figure, retired from the U.S. Senate, Newlands’s wealth and political experience (which was largely possible in the first place because of his wealth) won him the open seat.

If Francis Newlands were alive today, he might have some political wisdom for the Nevada Senate candidates who are each well-funded and have adequate political experience. Newlands would have recognized the changes in the voting demographic in Nevada and advised Cortez Masto to emphasize her government experience in the context of being a Latina and a woman in a state that has never elected either to the U.S Senate. And he might advise Heck to distance himself even further from Trump and play up the range of his public service to Nevada, from military, to medical, to legislative. Both candidates have demonstrated their ability to win an election decided by a wider constituency than Newlands faced when Senate elections were indirect. But Newlands knew enough to emphasize what he had done for the state and how he would be different from the towering long-serving Senator whose seat he was trying to win. In that same way, in 2016, the winner of the open seat in Nevada may be determined by which candidate more successfully highlights their own past and emerges from the shadow of prominent figures within their own party.

Wendy J. Schiller is a professor of political science and international & public affairs and the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Brown University.

Wendy J. Schiller

Wendy J. Schiller

___________________________________

[1] Steve Tetreault and Ben Botkin, “Rep Joe Heck Says He’s Running for US Senate,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 6, 2015. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[2] Molly O’Toole, “Meet Joe Heck, the GOP One-Star General Who Could Take Reid’s Senate Seat,” Defense One May 31, 2015. Accessed on August 4, 2016 .

[3] “Joe Heck (R)”, The Wall Street Journal. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[4] “Races for the November 4, 2008 General Election,” The Las Vegas Sun. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[5] “Meet Joe,” Dr. Joe Heck for U.S. Senate. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[6] “2015 Report Card, Rep. Joseph Heck,” GovTrack. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[7] “Joe Heck,” Ballotpedia. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[8] Andrea Drusch, “Meet the Woman Harry Reid Wants to Replace Him in the Senate,” The Atlantic, March 27, 2015. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “About,” Catherine Cortez Masto for Senate. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Facebook, Catherine Cortez Masto. Accessed on August 4, 2016 .

[13] Burgess Everett, “Inside the GOP’s Campaign to Snatch Harry Reid’s Senate Seat,” Politico, June 5, 2016. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[14] “Poll Chart: 2016 Nevada Senate Race,” The Huffington Post. Accessed on August 20, 2016.

[15] Opensecrets, “Nevada Senate Race.” Accessed on August 3, 2016 .

[16] Burgess Everett, “Inside the GOP’s Campaign to Snatch Harry Reid’s Senate Seat,” Politico, June 5, 2016. Accessed on August 4, 2016.

[17] Wendy J. Schiller and Charles Stewart III, Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy before the Seventeenth Amendment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 93.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 94.

[20] William D. Rowley, Reclaiming the Arid West: The Career of Francis G. Newlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 68-69.

[21] Schiller and Stewart, Electing the Senate, 94.

[22] Ibid, 95.

[23] Ibid, 95-96.

[24] Ibid, 96.

PUP Publicist Colleen Boyle highlights our Fall list on C-Span

Our publicist extraordinaire Colleen Boyle recently spoke to C-Span’s Book TV about some of our lead titles, including Ken Rogoff’s The Curse of Cash, Roger Penrose’s Fashion, Faith and Fantasy, and Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott, all forthcoming this September.

Check out the full interview about these and other forthcoming PUP titles on C-SPAN!

Rogoff

Penrose

Welcome to the Universe

A look at avian intelligence with Nathan Emery

EmeryWhat really goes on inside the mind of a bird? Are these creatures as simplistic as the expression “bird brain” would have us believe? In Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, Nathan Emery shines new light on the minds of birds, offering insight into their sophisticated neurological functions and the diverse behaviors these functions give rise to. An extraordinary work of cognitive biology, Bird Brain uncovers an array of unexpected abilities including mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight. Recently, Emery took the time to talk with us about avian intelligence, why it has long been misunderstood, and how he first became hooked on birds.

Can you tell us something about how you go into studying avian intelligence?

NE: I completed undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire in the northwest of England. Then I moved north of the border to do my PhD studying face responsive neurons and social signals in primates at the University of St Andrews. After that, I moved to UC Davis in California for 3 years to work on an animal model of autism, that didn’t exactly work out as expected, but it did result in me meeting my future wife, Nicky Clayton. We moved to Cambridge in 2000, me continuing my neuroscience research at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, where both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did their PhDs; Nicky as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. It was at Cambridge that I started getting focusing on birds instead of monkeys.

How did you become interested in birds?

NE: My wife Nicky got me hooked on birds. I was never a birdwatcher, I didn’t keep a pet parrot, and it would be fair to say that I’d never really considered them, except as a tasty meal at Christmas. Nicky has worked with birds for her entire career, first studying bird song for her PhD, then concentrating on spatial memory and caching behaviour. I was writing a review paper on how different animals use eye gaze as a social signal. I didn’t know what to say about birds, as my knowledge up to that point had been entirely about primates. She made me see the light! She told me dozens of fascinating facts about birds. I was hooked and haven’t turned back. My review completed from a new perspective, Nicky and I collaborated on a project looking at whether scrub-jays appreciated that others were watching where they cached, and whether they protected their caches from these potential thieves. This lead to our first joint paper, which we were lucky enough to get into the highly prestigious journal Nature a few months after we got married. It was published on our joint birthday, probably the first, and possibly the last occasion this happened to a paper in Nature! In the 15 years since, I’ve not looked back on either front, and now my research is entirely on birds.

How did you get involved in writing Bird Brain?

NE: I’ve wanted to write a popular book on avian intelligence for about 10 years, but things always seemed to get in the way. Then I was approached by Ivy Press to write a chapter on avian brains for an edited book they were putting together. My wife was asked to edit it, but she didn’t want to do so, so suggested me. I was keen, but then thought ‘why don’t I just write the whole thing myself?’ Ivy agreed, so that’s what I did. I had already arranged a year long sabbatical from work, so switched focus from the experiments I’d planned, to writing the book.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. Did you have any input into how it looks?

NE: One of the reasons I was excited to be working with Ivy Press (the UK publisher of Bird Brain) was their reputation for producing beautiful books with a specific focus on design.

They were producing some very attractive nature and science books for a popular audience, and I really liked what they had planned for this project as it tallied with my own ideas. I’ve always been interested in illustration. At that crucial point in my life when I had to choose what I was going to study, I had to decide between science and science illustration. I chose science, but have always tried to incorporate illustration into my science work – whether the design of my lectures or talk slides, the illustrations in papers or even the design of problem-solving tasks. This project was a dream come true. I designed and drew all the illustrations in the book (except for three) using Photoshop, but they were then changed into a style more consistent with other Ivy books by three great illustrators. I do get credited for Illustration Concept, but would love to illustrate my own books in the future.

It’s quite unusual to see detailed brain wiring diagrams and experiments illustrated in a popular science book. Was this something you had in mind from the start?

NE: Yes. Jacqui Sayers, the book’s original editor was very keen on doing something visually different with the book, to try and make some of the arcane aspects of science more accessible to the public. I tried to illustrate the various steps in an experiment in a way that could be easily understood. We also tried not to dumb down how the information is presented, which is why there are quite a few complex diagrams detailing the avian brain’s wiring patterns. Also, it is called Bird Brain! However, the brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe, so it would be a travesty to present it too simply. We think we’ve achieved the right balance.

Why do you think birds have been maligned for so long?

NE: The term ‘birdbrain’ is part of our language. Our ancestors knew more about the capabilities of our feathered cousins than we did, until very recently. They feature as the clever protagonists of many fables and legends, including origin stories concerning the beginning of the world. Although somewhat fanciful, there is a lot of truth – at least in terms of their behaviour and intelligence – about these birds. A bigger issue is that most people have little experience of birds, outside of pigeons, chickens, ducks and sparrows, and they wouldn’t know what constitutes intelligence. You see an animal using a tool, such using a stick to move food into reach, and it is easy to use your own experience to understand that this requires some intelligence. This is possibly why a video of a New Caledonian crow solving a problem requiring 8 different steps has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It just looks clever. Compare that to a study of long-term memory, such as remembering where something was hidden 6 months ago. This doesn’t translate very well to a single video. All the relevant information about what maybe going on in the bird’s mind when it’s recovering a memory of a past caching event, such as ‘where or when did I hide that worm?’ is hidden in the details of the experiment rather than a video clip. Our perception of all animals is guided by what we see in front of us, and its relationship to our past experiences. Unfortunately, our day-to-day view of the natural world is not enhanced by a Sir David Attenborough voice over. This clouds our view of an animal’s intelligence more than any particular aspect of their behaviour.

What would you say were your most important findings about clever birds?

NE: There are three pieces of research of which I’m the proudest. The first is the study that I mentioned earlier, that scrub-jays are protective of their caches by implementing different strategies to reduce the chance of them being pilfered. The most intriguing fact about this, is that not all scrub-jays do this. It’s not an innate response to being watched. Only birds that have previous experience of being thieves protect their caches – it takes a thief to know a thief! Birds without such experience, do not protect their caches. They are too naïve to know that the world is a bad place until they experience otherwise. This finding has been proposed as evidence that jays have a theory of mind – thinking about another’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that this is akin to human theory of mind or a process that is special to creatures who cannot speak.

The second finding is a series of studies on tool-related cognition in rooks; namely whether they are capable of creating novel tools to solve unique problems, such as bending a wire to reach and pull up a bucket containing a treat, or placing stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level to reach a treat floating on the surface. There is no evidence that rooks use tools in the wild, so it is striking that in captivity they can do things that great apes have yet to demonstrate. One of my greatest loves is designing experiments, especially new cognitive tasks. I have notebooks filled with my experimental designs, and we’re currently testing the problem-solving abilities of the famous ravens at the Tower of London using some of these new designs. It’s extremely rewarding when others adopt your tasks, especially when they add their own improvements and test them on their own species. One case is the Water Displacement Task, my ex-PhD student Chris Bird and I adapted from Aesop’s Fable ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, that has now been used to test rooks, New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, western scrub-jays, grackles and young children. It’s one of the challenges of comparative psychology to develop tasks that assess cognitive differences across species that aren’t based on simpler factors, such as visual acuity or manual dexterity. Certainly for birds, the Aesop’s Fable Task appears to be achieving this aim.

The final contribution for which I’m proudest is not the result of an experiment, but an idea. Nicky and I wrote a review paper in the journal Science in 2004 in which we proposed that crow and ape intelligence is an example of convergent evolution – namely that complex cognition evolved in these distantly related animals due to facing similar selection pressures, such as living in complex social groups or having to find and process a range of foods, some that are difficult to acquire or with external defences. This idea lead to me coining the term ‘feathered apes’ for corvids. It is gratifying to see this has become part of the scientific furniture where the general public just accepts that crows are smart, and just as smart as apes, dolphins and elephants.

Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London, UK has studied the intelligence of corvids, and parrots, as well as apes and monkeys for the last 20 years. Emery is the co-editor Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals. He is the author of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, a visually stunning guide to the brain, behaviour and cognition of our feathered friends. Emery’s work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV. He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London.

Bird Fact Friday – Do birds have a prefrontal cortex?

From page 26 of Bird Brain:

In the mammalian brain, the prefrontal cortex is a center of intelligence—it has a role in personality, self-awareness, problem-solving, and in executive functions such as planning, flexibility, and working memory. In birds, scientists have determined through studies of behavior, neural connectivity, and neurochemistry that the caudolateral part of the nidopallium (NCL) is the avian equivalent of the prefrontal cortex. Even pigeons are known to achieve executive functions traditionally attributed to the prefrontal cortex, including working memory, planning, flexible thinking, and attending to objects of interest.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Time Magazine calls Robert Gordon the new Thomas Piketty

GordonHave you discovered “the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must-read of the year”?  Writing for Time Magazine, Rana Foroohar takes to heart economist Robert Gordon’s claim that the big payoff from the digital revolution has already come and gone. Foroohar suggests that if Gordon’s New York Times bestselling book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth and other cautionary titles like Revenge of the Analog are any indication, the hubris of Silicon Valley may be far less warranted than we’ve come to believe. Foroohar writes:

Beyond a mere surge of Silicon schaedenfreude, there is a significant debate going on about the effects of technology, about whether the digital revolution has made us better off (socially) and by how much (economically). Academic Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which is the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must read of the year, is gaining traction in policy circles with a persuasive argument that the inventions that drove growth and productivity over the last 100 years or so weren’t the personal computer or the Internet, but the internal combustion engine, indoor plumbing and electricity.

Gordon’s research shows that the Industrial Revolution had a much bigger effect on economic growth than the PC, the iPhone, or any other gadget. Indeed, his book points out that productivity growth actually began shrinking after the 1970s, which is when digital technology really began to take off. His conclusion: unless the techno-optimists come up with some really seismic invention quickly, our children are likely to be worse off economically.

Read the full piece in Time Magazine here.

Robert J. Gordon is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University. His books include Productivity Growth, Inflation, and Unemployment and Macroeconomics. Gordon was included in the 2013 Bloomberg list of the nation’s most influential thinkers.

 

Brexit, voting, and political turbulence

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Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri

On 23rd June 2016, a majority of the British public voted in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The Leave or so-called #Brexit option was victorious, with a margin of 52% to 48% across the country, although Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and some towns voted to remain. The result was a shock to both leave and remain supporters alike. US readers might note that when the polls closed, the odds on futures markets of Brexit (15%) were longer than those of Trump being elected President.

Political scientists are reeling with the sheer volume of politics that has been packed into the month after the result. From the Prime Minister’s morning-after resignation on 24th June the country was mired in political chaos, with almost every political institution challenged and under question in the aftermath of the vote, including both Conservative and Labour parties and the existence of the United Kingdom itself, given Scotland’s resistance to leaving the EU. The eventual formation of a government under a new prime minister, Teresa May, has brought some stability. But she was not elected and her government has a tiny majority of only 12 Members of Parliament. A cartoon by Matt in the Telegraph on July 2nd (which would work for almost any day) showed two students, one of them saying ‘I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.’

All these events – the campaigns to remain or leave, the post-referendum turmoil, resignations, sackings and appointments – were played out on social media; the speed of change and the unpredictability of events being far too great for conventional media to keep pace. So our book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, can provide a way to think about the past weeks. The book focuses on how social media allow new, ‘tiny acts’ of political participation (liking, tweeting, viewing, following, signing petitions and so on), which turn social movement theory around. Rather than identifying with issues, forming collective identity and then acting to support the interests of that identity – or voting for a political party that supports it – in a social media world, people act first, and think about it, or identify with others later – if at all.

These tiny acts of participation can scale up to large-scale mobilizations, such as demonstrations, protests or petitions for policy change. These mobilizations normally fail – 99.9% of petitions to the UK or US governments fail to get the 100,000 signatures required for a parliamentary debate (UK) or an official response (US). The very few that succeed usually do so very quickly on a massive scale, but without the normal organizational or institutional trappings of a social or political movement, such as leaders or political parties. When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff asked to speak to the leaders of the mass demonstrations against the government in 2014 organised entirely on social media with an explicit rejection of party politics, she was told ‘there are no leaders’.

This explosive rise, non-normal distribution and lack of organization that characterizes contemporary politics as a chaotic system, can explain why many political mobilizations of our times seem to come from nowhere. In the US and the UK it can help to understand the shock waves of support that brought Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn (elected leader of the Labour party in 2015) and Brexit itself, all of which have challenged so strongly traditional political institutions. In both countries, the two largest political parties are creaking to breaking point in their efforts to accommodate these phenomena.

The unpredicted support for Brexit by over half of voters in the UK referendum illustrates these characteristics of the movements we model in the book, with the resistance to traditional forms of organization. Voters were courted by political institutions from all sides – the government, all the political parties apart from UKIP, the Bank of England, international organizations, foreign governments, the US President himself and the ‘Remain’ or StrongerIn campaign convened by Conservative, Labour and the smaller parties. Virtually every authoritative source of information supported Remain. Yet people were resistant to aligning themselves with any of them. Experts, facts, leaders of any kind were all rejected by the rising swell of support for the Leave side. Famously, Michael Gove, one of the key leave campaigners said ‘we have had enough of experts’. According to YouGov polls, over 2/3 of Conservative voters in 2015 voted to Leave in 2016, as did over one third of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

Instead, people turned to a few key claims promulgated by the two Leave campaigns Vote Leave (with key Conservative Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox) and Leave.EU, dominated by UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage, bankrolled by the aptly named billionaire Arron Banks. This side dominated social media in driving home their simple (if largely untrue) claims and anti-establishment, anti-elitist message (although all were part of the upper echelons of both establishment and elite). Key memes included the claim (painted on the side of a bus) that the UK gave £350m a week to the EU which could instead be spent on the NHS; the likelihood that Turkey would soon join the EU; and an image showing floods of migrants entering the UK via Europe. Banks brought in staff from his own insurance companies and political campaign firms (such as Goddard Gunster) and Leave.EU created a massive database of leave supporters to employ targeted advertising on social media.

While Remain represented the status-quo and a known entity, Leave was flexible to sell itself as anything to anyone. Leave campaigners would often criticize the Government but then not offer specific policy alternatives stating, ‘we are a campaign not a government.’ This ability for people to coalesce around a movement for a variety of different (and sometimes conflicting) reasons is a hallmark of the social-media based campaigns that characterize Political Turbulence. Some voters and campaigners argued that voting Leave would allow the UK to be more global and accept more immigrants from non-EU countries. In contrast, racism and anti-immigration sentiment were key reasons for other voters. Desire for sovereignty and independence, responses to austerity and economic inequality and hostility to the elites in London and the South East have all figured in the torrent of post-Brexit analysis. These alternative faces of Leave were exploited to gain votes for ‘change,’ but the exact change sought by any two voters could be very different.

The movement‘s organization illustrates what we have observed in recent political turbulence – as in Brazil, Hong Kong and Egypt; a complete rejection of mainstream political parties and institutions and an absence of leaders in any conventional sense. There is little evidence that the leading lights of the Leave campaigns were seen as prospective leaders. There was no outcry from the Leave side when they seemed to melt away after the vote, no mourning over Michael Gove’s complete fall from grace when the government was formed – nor even joy at Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary. Rather, the Leave campaigns acted like advertising campaigns, driving their points home to all corners of the online and offline worlds but without a clear public face. After the result, it transpired that there was no plan, no policy proposals, no exit strategy proposed by either campaign. The Vote Leave campaign was seemingly paralyzed by shock after the vote (they tried to delete their whole site, now reluctantly and partially restored with the lie on the side of the bus toned down to £50 million), pickled forever after 23rd June. Meanwhile, Teresa May, a reluctant Remain supporter and an absent figure during the referendum itself, emerged as the only viable leader after the event, in the same way as (in a very different context) the Muslim Brotherhood, as the only viable organization, were able to assume power after the first Egyptian revolution.

In contrast, the Leave.Eu website remains highly active, possibly poised for the rebirth of UKIP as a radical populist far-right party on the European model, as Arron Banks has proposed. UKIP was formed around this single policy – of leaving the EU – and will struggle to find policy purpose, post-Brexit. A new party, with Banks’ huge resources and a massive database of Leave supporters and their social media affiliations, possibly disenchanted by the slow progress of Brexit, disaffected by the traditional parties – might be a political winner on the new landscape.

The act of voting in the referendum will define people’s political identity for the foreseeable future, shaping the way they vote in any forthcoming election. The entire political system is being redrawn around this single issue, and whichever organizational grouping can ride the wave will win. The one thing we can predict for our political future is that it will be unpredictable.

MargettsHelen Margetts the Director of Oxford Internet Institute and professor of society and the internet at the University of Oxford. Peter John is professor of political science and public policy at University College London. Scott Hale is a data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute and a faculty fellow of the Turing Institute. Taha Yasseri is a research fellow in computational social science at the Oxford Internet Institute, a faculty fellow at Turing Institute, and research fellow in Humanities and Social Sciences at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. The four collaborated on the book Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action.

Announcing Britain’s Birds

BirdsWe’re thrilled to announce the release of Britain’s Birds, an essential addition to any birder’s collection.  This user-friendly guide for beginner and experienced birders includes comprehensive coverage of every bird recorded in Britain and Ireland, distribution maps and migration routes, as well as a wealth of tips for identifying birds in the wild. To learn more about the book, listen to a podcast the authors recorded with Talking Naturally, and watch the trailer for a glimpse of the beautiful full color interior. Put together by a group of life-long birders, the book is comprehensive, practical, and full of color images of every plumage you are likely to see in the UK.

 

 

 

The team behind Britain’s Birds:

Rob Hume, a freelance writer and editor for 35 years and editor of RSPB publications from 1983 to 2009, was Chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, and has led wildlife holidays in the UK, Europe and Africa. Robert Still, co-founder and publishing director of WILDGuides, is an ecologist and widely travelled naturalist. Andy Swash has been involved professionally in nature conservation since 1977 and is managing director of WILDGuides. A renowned photographer, he leads photographic tours worldwide, and has devised, co-authored and edited many books. Hugh Harrop founded the ecotourism business Shetland Wildlife and is one of Shetland’s top birders and naturalists. His award-winning photographs have been published throughout Europe and North America. David Tipling, one of the world’s most widely published wildlife photographers, is author or commissioned photographer for many books and writes regularly for leading wildlife and photographic magazines.

A historical alliance: Victor Cha on the US-Asian relationship

ChaHow was the critical American alliance system originally established in Asia, and is it currently threatened? In his most recent book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in AsiaVictor Cha draws from theories about alliances, unipolarity, and regime complexity to examine the fascinating evolution of the U.S. alliance system. Exploring the motivations and aspirations of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, Cha explains the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Asia and how it contributes to the resiliency of global alliances  today. Recently Cha took some time to discuss his book and what he learned while writing it.

Why did you write this book?

VC: I was motivated to write a history of how the United States created this incredibly unique and important alliance system in Asia.  Long after the Cold War, these alliance still exist and indeed are critical to US policy today.  So how and why were these alliances formed?  Powerplay is one of those studies that a scholar can work on for years.  It deals largely with archival work and in that regard, it is timeless!  In my case, I had started the project some 12 years ago and had written about 100 pages.  Then, I left Georgetown to take public service leave when I worked on the National Security Council as a director for Asian affairs.  I did this for nearly three years between 2004 and 2007 and when I returned to the academy, I took on two additional book projects which took me away from Powerplay for four years.  I was so happy to get back to it, however, and spent the last two years going back into the archives and recreating the history of how Kennan, Dulles, Eisenhower and Truman thought about Asia at the end of World War II.  I was also able to weave into the last chapter my thoughts about the future of the US alliance system based on my experiences in government.  I am so happy with the result and look forward to sharing this with readers.

What did you learn in the course of writing the book?

VC: Perhaps the most interesting lesson for me was how the American experiences as a great power in Asia were truly unique.  Even as a colonial power in the 19th century, the United States did not behave like European powers or like prewar Japan.  It was a hegemon in Asia, but was more inclusive in its thinking and genuinely interested in more than simply imperial designs.  Just as an example, the United States in the 19th century actively encouraged its missionaries to go to Asia to teach about worship, values, and faith.  This was unlike the British who banned their missionaries from educating Asia and the Japanese which later imposed state worship on their colonial subjects.  The American interest was cultural and economic before it was strategic.  It was only with the Cold War that the United States was compelled to create strategic relationships, but then used these relationships to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

VC: Like all authors, I enjoyed the conclusion, because it meant the book was done!  Aside from that, I enjoyed very much writing the case study chapters on Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as the stories for each case are different and special in each of their own ways.  There are some wonderful quotes by Asian leaders like Syngman Rhee of Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan that were fun to discover in the archives.  I also enjoyed writing the section in Chapter 7 about the region’s efforts to form a multilateral security organization in 1949.  These efforts are not really covered in other histories.

What is the story behind the cover art?

VC: So, the editors at Princeton and I discussed for a while an appropriate cover for the book.  There were some fantastic pictures in the Dulles papers at Princeton that I had come across, and the one we chose is that of John Foster Dulles at the front in Korea one week before the North Korean invasion of 1950.  The other photo we considered was Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signing a document at the San Francisco conference with Dulles and Dean Acheson standing behind him.  Both photos conveyed the inordinate strength that the United States wielded at the time over these countries, but also an appreciation of the strategic importance of these new allies.   The book is about “control” and these photos seemed to convey the “hands-on” nature of the U.S. commitment.

Victor Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and formerly served as director of Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council. Cha is an award-winning author, receiving awards for his books The Impossible State and Alignment Despite Antagonism. His most recent book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.

Nile Green: What happened when a Muslim student went to Cambridge in 1816

GreenTwo hundred years ago, there arrived in London the first group of Muslims ever to study in Europe. Dispatched by the Crown Prince of Iran, their mission was to survey the new sciences emerging from the industrial revolution.

As the six young Muslims settled into their London lodgings in the last months of 1815, they were filled with excitement at the new kind of society they saw around them. Crowds of men and women gathered nightly at the ‘spectacle-houses’, as they called the city’s theatres. London was buzzing with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a few months earlier, and the new sciences – or ulum-i jadid – that the students had been sent to discover seemed to be displayed everywhere, not least in the new steamboats that carried passengers along the Thames.

As the weeks turned into months, the six strangers began to realise the scale of their task. They had no recognisable qualifications, and no contacts among the then-small groves of academe: they didn’t even know the English language. At the time, there was no Persian-to-English dictionary to help them.

Hoping to learn English, and the Latin that they mistakenly took to still be Europe’s main language of science, the would-be students enlisted a clergyman by the name of Reverend John Bisset. An Oxford graduate, Bisset told them about England’s two ancient seats of learning. When two of the students were subsequently taken on by the mathematician and polymath Olinthus Gregory, further links were forged with the universities, since Gregory had spent several years as a successful bookseller in Cambridge. A plan was hatched to introduce at least one of the students, Mirza Salih, to a professor who might be amenable to helping a foreigner study informally at one of the Cambridge colleges.

This was long before Catholics were allowed to study at Britain’s universities, so the arrival in Cambridge of an Iranian Muslim (one who would go on to found the first newspaper in Iran) caused sensation and consternation.

The don who was selected to host Salih was a certain Samuel Lee of Queens’ College. Lee appears to have been an odd candidate for supporter of the young taliban, as the students were called in Persian. A committed Evangelical, Lee was devoted to the cause of converting the world’s Muslims to Christianity. Along with other colleagues at Queens’, including the influential Venn family, he also had close ties to the Church Missionary Society. Founded in 1799, the Society was fast becoming the centre of the Cambridge missionary movement.

Yet it was precisely this agenda that made the young Muslim so attractive to Lee. The point was not so much that Salih’s conversion might bring one more soul to Christian salvation. Rather, it was that as an educated Persian-speaker, Salih might help the professor in his great task of translating the Bible into Persian, a language that was at the time also used across India, as well as what is today Iran. Lee jumped at the opportunity. And so it was that Salih was invited to Cambridge.

As his Persian diary reveals, Salih came to like the professor enormously. For though posterity would commemorate Lee as the distinguished Oxbridge Orientalist who rose to the grand status of Regius Professor of Hebrew, his upbringing was far humbler. Lee had been raised in a small Shropshire village in a family of carpenters and, in his teens, was apprenticed to a woodworker himself. On a research trip from California, I visited Lee’s home village of Longnor. It is still a remote place today, reached by single-lane tracks hidden in the hedgerows. At the local church, I was delighted to find the initials of his carpenter great-grandfather, Richard Lee, carved into the pews he had made for his fellow villagers.

Two hundred years ago, it was almost unknown for a country boy like Sam Lee to become a Cambridge professor, but he had a genius for languages that won him the patronage of a local gentleman. As a similarly ambitious young scholar on the make, Salih warmed to the self-made Lee, and in his Persian diary he recorded his life story with admiration.

Through Lee’s patronage, Salih was able to lodge at Queens’ College, and dine in the hall with dons such as William Mandell and Joseph Jee. At the time, the president of Queens’ was the natural philosopher Isaac Milner, as famous a conversationalist as he was a chemist. Salih certainly enjoyed the dinners at the high table, but his time in Cambridge was not all a Regency feast. He made study tours of the libraries that interested him, especially the Wren Library at Trinity College, which housed the statue of Sir Isaac Newton. In his diary, Salih called him ‘a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England’.

In return for having the closed world of the university opened to him, Salih helped Lee in his work on the Persian Bible. He even wrote a letter of recommendation when Lee was first nominated for the post of Regius Professor. The letter is still preserved in the university archives.

Between Salih’s diary, Lee’s letters and university documents, a rich picture emerges of the unlikely relationship formed between this foreign Muslim and what was then the most muscularly Christian of the Cambridge colleges.

The university was only one of many places that Salih and his fellow Muslim students visited during their four years in England, questing for the scientific fruits of the Enlightenment. The encounter between ‘Islam and the West’ is often told in terms of hostility and conflict, but Salih’s diary presents a quite different set of attitudes – cooperation, compassion and common humanity – and, in preserving the record of an unexpected relationship with the evangelical Lee, unlikely friendships. Written in England at the same time as the novels of Jane Austen, Salih’s diary is a forgotten testament, and salutary reminder of the humane encounter between Europeans and Muslims at the dawn of the modern era.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include Sufism: A Global History and The Love of Strangers. He lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.