Archive For: General stuff

About bullying and image use

In the past few days there is a sense of increasing tension in the air. Whether it is due to events that happened during this week or something else, I felt like I should do something to calm the spirits down, before people around me start losing their common sense or succumb to depression. So I decided to post some images that I think are calming, together with some optimistic words. Everything is going to be alright.

However, I just want to ask something that seems obvious to me but might not be so straight forward to other people: Please be respectful and considerate of others, especially if you are commenting on someone else’s work or lifestyle. No bullying please. More specifically, if you decide to share my images, and you use them to spread hate towards nature, or if you share them while personally insulting me or one of my colleagues or friends, I will not only take your post down but I will also block you from all my social media accounts. There is a page dedicated to image use on this website, make sure you head over there to read it before using my images to promote your agenda.

Case in point: In the context mentioned above, I shared a photo of a baby velvet worm on my Facebook account a couple of days ago, along with some comforting words. For the most part it was positively received, at least until one person decided to make a negative comment… For the sake of privacy, I will call her M.

bullying-1M is a stranger to me. I have never met her in person or talked with her before. She reached my post because we have a mutual friend, H, who commented on my photo. M went ahead and allowed herself to bash H for expressing her fondness for the photo.
bullying-2I replied, clarifying that there is no place for negativity on my timeline, especially when the original purpose of this post was to help people relax. I advised M to hide my post on her feed if she is bothered by it.
bullying-3M replied:
bullying-4bOh M. My frustration is not with you insulting the critter. The animal does not know you and in fact could not care less about you. It is over the fact that you show no respect towards other people and their interests.
I am not a native English speaker, so I had to look up the meaning of razz. It means to tease. Now correct me if I am wrong, but teasing someone for their passion or livelihood (in this case, M’s sister-in-law’s sister, who is a naturalist), and adding insults while you are at it, does not sound funny to me. That’s not joking. That’s bullying.

You cannot insult someone and then when finally confronted about it, avoid taking responsibility for what you have done by saying you were only joking. From the insulted person’s perspective, the damage has already been done. Believe me when I say this, I have had my fair share of abusive relationships, even during my professional training. I know exactly what I am taking about. Instead of being compassionate and understanding that there may be people out there with different interests than hers, M decides for everyone what is worth spending time on and what is not. Thank you for your contribution, M. Please tell me more what you think I should be doing with my life.

By the time M finished writing her comments I was already away from my computer and I did not see them. In her defense, she did remove my photo from her timeline. Two of my friends, professional biologists, noticed the string of comments and took the initiative to reply. Their answer reflects my opinion exactly (thank you!).
bullying-5Now, this could have very well been the end of it, if it wasn’t for the fact that M decided to re-share my post on her timeline, but this time with a big insult plastered all over it, calling me out on my awful behavior: “…this is the original post by Gil Wizen that I was called out for… F*** HIM. Who is he to tell me what I can put on my timeline??” she wrote. Well my dear M, I will tell you exactly who I am. I am the sole creator of the very content you are using to spread this negativity in the form of hate. And I say no. You cannot use it for this purpose. Sue me.

This whole incident angers me. A lot. Not only M was rude and disrespectful to me and to pretty much every naturalist out there, but she also went ahead and tried to directly insult me publicly. I tried to keep my cool about this. I know she did not mean any harm. Maybe she saw our constructive criticism as an attack on her personal beliefs. Fair enough. However, that name-bashing online defamation that she went with at the end? That is unforgivable in my book.

Needless to say I ended up blocking M. I did not do this as a result of anger or frustration. She does not enjoy seeing images of critters on her Facebook feed, and that is completely fine. She is entitled to her own opinion. I blocked M to protect her. Things can escalate and get out of control fairly quickly online, and I was trying to avoid a verbal execution by a lynch mob. I do not think that would have happened, but I did not want to find out. I just want to reiterate that bullying is a crappy way of showing someone you care about them. And if you bully because you do not care about that person, if the only thing you can afford to be is inhumane, then what the hell are you doing with your life? If anything, the entomological community proved that it can stand up against bullies when they attack one of us (here and here are two recent examples). But it does not have to get to this. Come on, people. We can do better.

The photo from the original post. Are you grossed by this creature? Well, that's just too bad.

The photo from the original post. Are you grossed by this creature? Well, that’s just too bad.

Updates to the subscription service on this blog

This post is addressed to my subscribers and people who follow my blog updates via RSS feeds.

A week ago a subscriber informed me that my blog was sending out multiple emails notifying about old posts, content that has already been shared with my followers on the website and social media. I was happy to receive this report, even though what it really meant was that I was spamming my own subscribers.
At first I thought that I was the one to blame for this issue, due to my edits and updates to existing blog posts. I ran a simple check and reset the subscription service, hoping that this would be the last time I hear about it.

Unfortunately, this morning I got an email from the subscription service, pointing to blog posts that are over one year old. This is bad.
After doing some reading and verifications, I realized that the subscription service I use, Google’s Feedburner, is a sinking ship. It is no longer supported. Therefore, I switched to a different service to solve the problem.

What does it require from you, my subscriber? Most likely nothing. If you subscribed to receive my blog updates by email, you do not need to do anything. I transferred the mailing list to the new service and it should send out a newsletter to you once a week, but it will do so only when new content is uploaded to the blog (if I do not publish anything new, no email will be sent).
However, if you follow my RSS feed, and you had it saved in your browser’s bookmarks or RSS feed reader, you will need to update the URL to the new one. The previous RSS feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/GilWizen) will slowly stop updating until it is no longer active.
The current RSS feed is http://gilwizen.com/feed/
The subscription links on the blog’s sidebar are now updated, so new subscribers will be directed to the current service and updated RSS feed.

Please note that some email services (Gmail, Yahoo, etc’) block images in newsletters being sent via mailing lists. If you wish to view the images in the newsletter, you will need to add its ‘sender’ email address to the list of trusted addresses, or you can click the link to view the original blog post using your web browser.

I truly apologize for any inconvenience this issue may have caused. Now we can start 2016 all fresh!

The question

When you photograph routinely and you manage to produce some decent shots every now and then, there comes a time when people come to you popping THE QUESTION. And no, I do not mean people kneeling while holding a box revealing a ring, asking you to marry them (although, I have to admit, it would be nice…). What I am talking about is the question that every photographer loves to hate – “what lens do you use?” or its even more annoying derivative “what camera do you use?”

I get it. We are all curious people, especially when we see something we like and want to reproduce it ourselves. Nevertheless, when a photographer displays his hard work, the last thing he wants to hear is praises about his equipment. You will find many rants about this phenomenon, written by photographers who are tired of hearing that “it is so easy to press a button”. It seems common for people, whether knowingly or not, to devalue photographers’ work by downscaling their actual involvement in the process of taking a photo. Very recently, I showed a lab mate several photographs that I took. In sheer excitement he exclaimed “That is one great camera you’ve got!” It was not the first time I heard this statement, and for years I have been collecting potential responses for such misled beliefs – “Thanks, it is a good camera. I taught it everything it knows”. Photographers should not deal with this sort of commentary, in the same manner that we do not hear people tell a chef that he must have a great stove or a painter that he must have expensive brushes.

Some of my photography gear. I know what you're thinking - "Does that scorpion come in a Nikon-mount as well?"

Some of my photography gear. I know what you’re thinking – “Does that scorpion come in a Nikon-mount as well?”

This strange behavior does not skip photographers (myself included), even though they have better-phrased versions of THE QUESTION – “what settings did you use?” and my personal favorite “what setup did you use?” What I like about the questions coming from fellow photographers is that unlike most people, they understand that there is a person behind the camera, even though it is the camera that ultimately records the photos. A living person, by implementing his experience, plans the shot, the composition, exposure, and presses the shutter at the right moment. Knowing which camera and lens model were used tells you nothing about how the lovely image you saw was obtained, but knowing the setup gives a greater understanding why the photo came out the way it did. Still, setup alone will not convey anything about the time spent preparing for the shoot, researching and observing the subject, or about composition. Each photo has its own conditions and therefore the capturing process is different.

The reason I am ranting about it is that I am too tired of hearing THE QUESTION. Maybe one day I will put up a webpage detailing the gear I use, but at the moment I see no reason for randomly advertising products. And please, stop asking me which camera or lens I think you should buy. I do not know what YOU need. Oh well. I guess the only way to deal with it is to laugh about it.

My NZ ordeal (part 2)

Some time ago I wrote about my NZ accident and I mentioned that the story did not end there. One of the most frustrating experiences I had upon leaving NZ was a slow and thorough inspection of everything I had in my luggage by the customs officers. I am not sure what they were expecting to find, because I had collecting and import permits for all the research material I obtained. After discussing this with other visitors to NZ (not necessarily scientists) I learned that it is a standard procedure that some lucky individuals must endure. But imagine spending a couple of hours in an isolated part of the airport with other “suspects”, where you are being treated like trash for doing nothing. I will not go into details but it was definitely some of the most nerve-racking time I had in my life.

It was not before I returned to Canada when things started to take a wrong turn. I purposely delayed writing a post about it, mainly because I needed time to digest what has happened and to understand the details of my case. My plan was to write it down eventually because I believe it can be important for other graduate students facing a similar situation, and I think I am ready to share.

So cut back to early 2013, I spent several months in NZ, most of the time observing mating behavior of ground weta (ensiferan insects of the genus Hemiandrus) as a part of my PhD research, but I also found the time for experimenting with my photography. There is something about being all alone, in a foreign place, that sparks your creativity to try new and interesting ideas. Some of the shots I managed to capture in NZ were surprising even for me (see some of them here).

(Feel free to skip this paragraph if you only want to read the “juicy” parts of the story. It explains the research I was conducting in NZ)
Before I detail my story, let me elaborate a bit on weta mating behavior. One of the things I aimed to capture was the mating process in “short-tailed” Hemiandrus species. “Short-tailed” means that, unlike most members of suborder Ensifera, the females do not possess a long ovipositor (a device used to inject the eggs into different substrates, such as soil, wood, leaves, etc’). This character was found to be associated with a high level of maternal care: the ground weta females seal themselves in an underground burrow, spending several months tending their eggs and the hatching nymphs. As for the mating process, in most ensiferan insects the male transfers a nuptial gift for the female to feed on during mating. This gift comes in the form of a protein-rich spermatophore, attached by the male to the female’s genitalia. In “short-tailed” ground weta however, the males deposit their nuptial gift on a modified segment on the females’ abdomen, and in some species they even display mate-guarding behavior while the females consume their nutritious gift.
The result of my photography trials was a series of shots that I am very proud of, showing the whole mating process:

Hemiandrus-mating1

The mating process in Hemiandrus pallitarsis. 1. The male (bottom) attached to the female; 2. The male attaches the sperm ampullae to the female’s genitalia; 3. The male disconnects from the female’s genitalia and extends two phalli; 4. The male’s phalli start secreting the nuptial gift; 5. The nuptial gift is deposited on the female’s modified sixth abdominal segment; 6. The male displays mate-guarding behavior while the female consumes the nuptial gift.

It is important to mention that during my time in NZ this information about the ground weta mating behavior was already known and published. My intention was to use these photos in presentations and perhaps in my PhD thesis as a communication aid. And indeed, I presented them to several faculty members during a meeting and they were impressed.

From that point on things started to go downhill.
My PhD supervisor back then requested to use a photograph of a wasp for a textbook chapter he was working on, and I replied that I would gladly license it for publication. That is, after payment of a small licensing fee. Then happened the thing I was worried about the most: he asked how this sits with use of my weta photos in his future publications. My reply was the same.
I have always allowed the use of my photos for presentation purposes, whether it was an in-class presentation, conference talk, poster, etc’. My only issue is with publication and distribution of my photographs. This is a legal matter (Copyright Law is a real thing) that involves a license in order to manage who has copyrights over the use of the photo by transferring all or part of the copyrights from the photo owner to someone else. Anyone who is not familiar with this and those who wish to know more, you can refer to my Image Use page.

My refusal to give the photos away triggered an unfortunate chain of events that ended with the supervisor kicking me out of the lab and terminating his supervision, essentially shutting down my PhD research. I was accused of being greedy:

 

“Even after agreeing that I have been more than generous with funding all your New Zealand doctoral research and that your work and all expenses were, in fact, fully covered by my NSERC Discovery grant, you insisted on going ahead in charging me for the use of the photographs. It is for this reason alone that I no longer wish to supervise your doctoral research. While I think that you have the skills, background and experience necessary for tackling this project, I cannot continue to supervise a student with such a mercenary approach to the student-supervisor relationship…”

 

(As a side note I should say that this person now avoids mentioning this small detail and tells a different story, trying to make it look like my departure from his lab was a mutual decision. It was not. This infuriates me because I did want to go on with my PhD research. To him I say – take responsibility for your actions!)

I think the supervisor was missing a crucial detail of what copyright protection is meant for. Notice how nothing is mentioned about how much I was going to charge for the photos? That is because this was never discussed, the supervisor did not even bother to inquire about my image use policy, for him it was enough that I intended to charge for the use. Protecting my copyrights?? Nonsense, in his eyes I was all in it for the money! While there are photographers out there who routinely take copyright infringements to court in order to collect the damages, I cannot brag for having such a history.

What is even more surprising was that I was handed a copy of the university’s Intellectual Property Policy with a friendly remark that everything I create during my term as a graduate student is owned by the university. Really? Everything?…
Well, this is not exactly how it works. According to this policy, the university owns any idea, invention or pretty much any data that you collect or create while conducting research (raw data cannot be copyrighted anyway). This applies to any form of media that may contain such relevant data, including photos. But it is important to understand that while the university legally owns the data concealed within a photo (or a disk, flash drive, laptop etc’), it does not own the media itself unless it was the university’s property in the first place. In my case, the photos were captured by me using my photography gear, therefore the university did not own the photos and had no copyrights over use of the photos themselves. When requested, I provided low-resolution files for data acquisition purposes; nevertheless the university cannot use those photos in future publications without my consent.

Some will say that I should have agreed to give away the photos to maintain a healthy working relationship with my supervisor. This may sound like the right thing to do, however in my opinion a relationship in which someone is using you for their own personal gain is not a healthy relationship. Do take the time to think about it. Moreover, everyone has the right to choose whether they want to share their creation with someone else. I chose not to, and while my choice may seem strange to some people, it comes after a history of bad experiences. I learned my lesson the hard way, and I will not devalue my work any longer.

Here I turn to every grad student out there – you DO NOT owe anything to your supervisor other than working on your project. A supervisor cannot force you to give away your rights on something you created. If they do, that’s academic bullying. For example, if you produce an artwork piece depicting your research subject, does the university or your supervisor immediately own it? Of course not.
Universities as institutions have committees or unions that can advise grad students how to deal with such disputes. I know now that I should have taken this case straight to both the university’s Research Ethics Board and Copyrights Office. The end result of me moving to a different academic department might have been the same, but the supervisor’s disgraceful behavior would have been recorded on file, which could later act as a warning sign for prospective students.
Lastly, I think it is a real shame that a professor who spends so much time and energy fighting the disease of academic plagiarism is completely unaware of Copyright Law.

As for those ground weta photos, they will probably never see the light of day. I hope at least that you enjoyed viewing them here, and that you learned something about politics in academia at the same time.

My NZ ordeal (part 1)

Entomology has a small component of risk that comes with the job. You might get stung or bitten by an insect or several insect soldiers defending a colony, you can catch an insect-borne disease, or you can serve as a host for a small parasite. The chemicals used by Entomologists to kill and preserve insects are very often harmful also for humans. In addition, fieldwork can get you into a lot of trouble – you might unintentionally find yourself being accused for trespassing, you can get lost or stranded in an unknown place in a foreign country, or you can accidentally hurt yourself while working.
I hate to say I have some degree of experience in each of the cases mentioned above, but it is the last one that scared (or maybe I should write scarred) me the most.

I have been working alone for two months already in NZ. I decided to survey a well-known hiking area in Canterbury for potential night fieldwork. This is something I always do before night surveys – hiking the area at daytime to make sure it is safe enough for night work and that there are no “surprises” like loose rocks or hidden abysses along the path.
At first the area looked very promising for tracking ground weta activity – I found many occupied burrows. After about 3km of zigzagging between steep slopes and wide riverbeds I decided that this track is far too dangerous to repeat in the dark. And to make things worse it was raining all morning so most of the path was slippery. I turned around and started walking back. I was less than 5 minutes into my return trip, when it suddenly happened.
I lost my step.

At first I thought I stepped on a loose rock but the more I think about it I recall I felt no resistance back when placed my foot, so I believe this must have been a part of the path that was missing, washed down to the river as runoff by the rain. But how it happened is not really important.
The weight of my backpack (lots of heavy photography gear) pulled me down, I fell several meters into a riverbed and felt a strong hit to the right side of my face. Apparently my head was knocked against a large rock. But the funny thing is – it was the simplest stupidest accident ever. A stupid fall. Actually my first fall ever while hiking. I was not taking any photos, I was not running. I did not even reach down to look at something on the ground. Nothing. The pain was unbearable. I did not pass out, but I noticed my nose was bleeding like crazy. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen to ME?” Two thoughts immediately came into my head: first, are my teeth still in place? They were. Thank goodness. Second, what am I going to say to my girlfriend and my family? I promised them that I will be safe and that nothing bad can happen. How will I even let them know?! Only then I realized that I was in the middle of a river, off track, and that it was already afternoon. “I might get stuck here!” However, I was extremely lucky – two kiwi hikers saw me and came down to help. They concluded that I had a broken cheekbone and we tried to walk back together but I could only walk a few hundred meters before losing my balance. I guess I might have had a minor concussion. They decided that it is better to split – one of them took my backpack and went uphill to get cell phone reception, the other one stayed with me. While we were waiting in the river, swarms of sandflies (New Zealand’s version of blackflies, Simulidae) were sucking every single drop of blood I had left in my body. I was so desperate I was ready to walk back at any cost. But deep inside I knew I was just being a pain in the neck to my helpers. I felt the remaining blood draining from my face when the first hiker came back without my backpack. He left it somewhere on the track because it was heavy. My camera gear!!! Aaarrrggghhh!!! Now I was really desperate to walk back.
We waited a couple of hours for a land Search and Rescue team to show up (with my backpack. Thank goodness again). They were very nice and professional, and I was surprised to learn that they were all volunteers. They decided to call a chopper because we were too deep into the steep track, and carrying a stretcher was out of the question. I think the waiting was the worst part. It was already getting dark, the wind was chilly (left my coat in the car) and the sandflies were having their feast on our bodies. Eventually the chopper did arrive and pulled me up on a stretcher. We landed at Christchurch hospital, where the doctor congratulated me on my broken face. The first time I break something, and it had to be my face?? Wow, seems like I am really good at getting into trouble. Surprisingly, my nose has survived the hit, but I had a broken cheekbone and a swollen black right eye. I looked hideous. I could just as well say I got into a street fight. Apart from that all was well, no harm done to my already shaky mental state or to my vision. The car with all my stuff (including my weta) was taken to the local police station, so the following day I had a nice police escort to reunite with my belongings. I drove back to Christchurch in weepy eyes – they were super sensitive but I was also so happy to be alive and well to tell this story.

WARNING: Disturbing and gruesome image. But you know you want to click it. Go on, click it. And while you’re at it, look into my eye and watch the beautiful sunrise at Marfells Beach. 

 
Fast forward a few days, after resting and stuffing myself with pain killers I had to go through a small surgery to restore my face back to normal. They did a good job. I think. You might not believe it but I actually looked worse before the accident! My right eye socket now features a metal plate. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get one of those.

skull

…and the moral of the story kids: Don’t go banging your head on hard surfaces. Unless you want a metal plate and a cool x-ray like this one.

 

I had to stay in New Zealand as planned and could not fly to Canada earlier because of potential damage to sinuses. This has also screwed up my research plans for the end of the trip – so I did not have enough weta material collected.

I cannot thank enough to the kind people that helped me through this horrible accident and nursed me back to health. I am indebted to you all and I hope our paths cross again sometime in the future, no accidents involved of course!

One last thing I want to say: if you have a hiking accident, New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to be at. ACC took responsibility for the rescue and treatment expenses. Again my luck – I could have ended paying more than $20000 for the chopper and surgery. Yikes.
Now you realize how important it is for entomologists to have high risk insurance!

Unfortunately for me, the story does not end here. There is a second part to this ordeal, much worse than the accident, and it happened after I returned to Canada. I am still recovering from this mess so I do not feel confident enough to write about it. But things are starting to look up recently, and I do intend to come back and share my experience, because I think many grad students may find themselves in a similar situation.

Oh my god is it that post already???

In almost any blog I have been following, there is a point when the blogger, due to various reasons, must take some time away from his blog/website. After this necessary period of time in absence, which can be rather short or extremely long, what usually follows is an apology for the lack of updates. Now I have seen this occurring many times, but all these cases had something in common – they happened after the blog has established itself a reputation and good readership.

Here I am, essentially at the same point in the blog’s history, after not updating for over five months. I never thought it would happen so soon. What I am wondering about is whether I need to apologize to my readers for neglecting the blog. The thing is, I don’t think I have readers that are subscribed to this blog, I don’t even have that many posts here, so won’t it be like talking to myself? Isn’t blogging in general talking to oneself until some other voice starts echoing back in the distance?

So – no. This is not an apology post. A lot of things happened since my previous update. Some bad, some even worse, but some pretty good. I will do my best to share most of the stories here because I think many people, especially young scientists, can learn from my experiences. And this was one of my goals in starting this blog in the first place.

However, first I have to finish writing about New Zealand. Unfortunately, these stories will now be mixed with more current stuff I planned to write about. I was not very motivated to do it and I guess this is part of the reason it took me so long to go back blogging.
Why? Read on.

In New Zealand!

For the past three weeks or so I have been traveling in New Zealand, looking for suitable fieldwork sites for selected species of ground weta. It is now summer at its peak in NZ, the air is (usually) warm and the sun is scorching hot. This is quite a change from the frozen cold state I left Canada in. Although I enjoy the scenery and the lively creatures I encounter, I have to admit I was never a summer person. I prefer the cold temperatures, so in a way I miss the winter. However, I am aware that had I been in Canada now I would have wished for some warm sunny days. Got to take whatever I can.

Meanwhile, in Canada...

Meanwhile, in Canada…

Hello world, welcome to my blog!

A little late than expected, and due to repeating disappointments with terms and conditions of some online social networking services, I decided that I should open a blog where I can post about my interests and whereabouts.

I assume I have to introduce myself first, but that is what the about me page is for.
This will mainly be a photo blog where I will present my point of view on nature but also a place to talk about research highlights. I also have a great interest in popular art and design, and occasionally I will post about the link between them and the natural world.

Thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoy!