The Kaspari Lab

Spring in Oklahoma–Hiking along the South Canadian River

Debby and I had a lovely hike along the South Canadian River with pals Susan Dragoo (Debby’s writing partner  on the Oklahoma Today piece on Nuttall) and Tim Ryan. These scenes are about 10 minutes from Campus.

SCanadianRiver Debby Kaspari




Grasses SCanadianRiver Mike Kaspari

Politics 101 for Academics

Otto Von BismarkPolitics is the art of the possible.

Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.

I’ve known both quotes for a while, but as I just now looked them up, I discovered they have the same source, Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire, 1871-1890.


I’ve been thinking a lot about politics these days. I recognize my political skills can best quantified with a negative (or imaginary) number. I also think that academics are often charmingly naive about what it takes to make and pass policy, or, at its most basic, convince people of something that they are predisposed to disbelieve.

Last night I was going through the big stack of magazines that accumulated while Debby and I were on sabbatical in Copenhagen. I came across an amazingly concise primer on what it takes to run for office, by Michael Ignatieff, in a recent New Republic . By all means, go read it. I have shamelessly quoted some of his elegant turns of phrase (e.g., “you’re right to get a hearing as the person you are”). But it is better in the original.

None-the-less, here are the lessons I learned, digested and modified by an ecologists intellectual microbiome.

  1. Facts motivate, but don’t sell, policy. Arguments made in good faith don’t get you a hearing.  It continues to amaze me how many academics say “I laid out a flawless argument, if they don’t accept it, I’ve done my part.”
  2. Ideas are rarely criticized, the messenger is. The big fight in politics is over standing, your right to get a hearing as the person you are. Your diploma, your work, your position, is only a small part of your bona fides. You must also show that you are one of us.  Empathy?  A plus. Maybe all that time in the classroom will come in handy after all.
  3.  You must defend your life when people attack it. The best attacks against you have a sliver of truth. While you wrestle with the true bit, the falsehood resonates.  This often leads to the associated behavior of–hours or days later–muttering to yourself “What I should have said was….”.
  4.  To be trusted you must be authentic. People have to believe you are who you say you are. You have to own your life. (Try it. This is harder than it sounds.)  This is why the “lovable rogue” is such a common feature in politics. (i..e., He may be a bastard. But he’s our bastard.).
  5.  You must love the battle. Distaste for the roughness and meanness of politics fails on the campaign trail. People who think they are entitled to office, because they have accomplished great things, amassed great wealth, or belong to Mensa Mark II–lose.

So next time you are talking to a politician, of whatever stripe, note that they have a skill set, and a constitution, likely very different from your own. At the same time, if you want to get something done, in a committee, in a faculty meeting, at the city council, bear in mind Ignatieff’s wise council on the relative importance of facts vs standing, and growing a thick skin. And recall the nickname of one of the more influential legislators of the past century: Hubert Humphrey, the happy warrior.

hubert humphrey

Marty’s World: We’re off to see Ed Wilson!


Happy Friday.

(Click on image to see full size.) 

Marty’s World is Brittany Bensons’s view from the world below.

© 2015

Books: Grant Takes Command, by Bruce Catton

Catton_Grant_Takes_CommandAt their best, memoirs and biography allow one an opportunity to hold your life up to, and learn from, the lives of others.

I have always been fascinated by the civil war biography, and find Catton’s treatment of this part of U.S. Grant’s generalship both infinitely readable and as quotable as the General himself. Catton in the 1940’s and 50’s rehabilitated Grant from an undeserved reputation as a drunkard and a brute. He portrays Grant–like Lincoln, his fellow westerner and greatest protector–as someone who manuvered through the politics of the civil war (and isn’t civil war the ultimate political dustup?) via a combination of tenacity, clarity, and supreme self-knowledge. Grant was a “hard war man”, acknowledging that war was a bloody business that was only won by fighting.  His battlefield directions, often written from horseback on a notepad he kept in his right front pocket, were the model of clean, understandable prose.

Speaking of which, here is Catton’s quote from a General Schofield “Grant was very far from being a modest man, as the word modest is generally understood. His just self-esteem was as far above modesty as it was above flattery … He knew his own merits as well as anybody, and he new his own imperfections. When his attention was called to a mistake he had committed he would see and admit it with a smile, which expressed the exact opposite of that feeling which most men are apt to show under like circumstances …  His absolute confidence in his own judgement upon any subject which he had mastered added to his accurate estimate of his own ability.

Marty’s World: Marty’s been slimed

Marty's been slimed by BrittanyBenson

Happy Sunday.

(Click on image to see full size.) 

Marty’s World is Brittany Bensons’s view from the world below.

© 2015

Marty’s World: the tragedy of pre-zygotic isolation


Happy Friday.

(Click on image to see full size.) 

Marty’s World is Brittany Bensons’s view from the world below.

© 2015

Thermal Diversity: the importance of a community perspective

In a Figure that Jon Shik says used a “shocking” color choice–but that the lead author (who is color blind) finds pleasant and peaceful–we plot the distribution of thermal maxima (or, CTmax, or “death temp”) of an assemblage of 87 ants from a Panama forest. Towards the left are  two measures of environmental temperature–“air temperature”, and the temperature the ants actually experience, that is,  the surfaces ants crawl upon. Note the differences in the distribution of thermal maxima for understory species versus those in the hot canopy. Finally, compare those distributions from a single tropical forest to those from Diamond’s excellent meta-analysis for ants from all around the world, and the best collection from those model organisms: lizards and fruit flies. 

Our takehome?  Tiny organisms experience superheated environments (think the steering wheel of your car on a hot day); ecological communities that experience change have a lot of thermal niches to shuffle; and the more we study the niches in a given community, and the environmental gradients they are adapted to, the more we need to deeply grok the biogeography of communities, not just populations, if we want to predict the ecological future of our planet. Oh, one more thing. Procyptocerus and Pseudomyrmex are high temperature champions; Cyphomyrmex and Strumigenys…not so much.

4 ants from BCI


Kaspari, M, NA Clay, J Lucas, SP Yanoviak, A Kay. (2015) Thermal adaptation generates a diversity of thermal limits in a rainforest ant community. Global Change Biology.

New Paper in Insectes Sociaux on Ants in Flight

Ant life cycles are complicated and varied, but in almost all species the queens have wings and fly through the atmosphere to mate and find new places to live. Drawing by Brittany Benson.  Text by Jackson Helms.

Go the publications page to download  Helms, JA, M Kaspari. (2015) Reproduction-dispersal tradeoffs in ant queens. Insectes Sociaux. 

When most people think of ants they probably picture a colony of wingless workers. Seen this way, it is easy to forget that ants are really just an odd family of wasps. Most ant queens, on the other hand, are indeed wasp-like and have wings and fly.

After developing from an egg virgin queens leave their birth nests and fly out into the world to mate, find a place to live, and start their own colonies. These aerial explorers—the mothers of the ant world—fascinate me. While most ant enthusiasts spend their time looking down at what worker ants do on the Earth’s surface, I spend my time looking up at what their elusive queens do in the atmosphere.

Read More

Introducing “Marty’s World”

Marty’s World is Brittany Bensons’s view from the world below.

© 2015

The joy of click

Wienieish or not, I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after filling half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.” Something like that. The word I always think of it as is “click.”

Might happen once a year, but there is nothing like it.

From Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations Series) by Stephen J. Burn