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The painful process of writing academic book chapters/articles November 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, food for thought, writing.
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I love writing (as you can tell from my more than 1,260 blog posts so far) but sometimes, it is just hard to get started on the subject matter at hand. I remember that, when I presented a talk in 2001 in Berlin (Germany), I started writing the paper at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, using my then Compaq laptop (my brother and I bought matching laptops at the time, before they were acquired by HP).

It took me the whole afternoon, evening and I seem to recall that I was up until about 3 or 4 am that night. My brother had gone away for the weekend (at the time, we were living together) and I had the whole evening/weekend to focus on the paper. I got it done at around 11am on the Sunday. That conference paper became the cornerstone of much of my research agenda to this day.

Many people seem quite impressed that I can write as much on my blog as I do. To tell you the honest truth, I write on my blog as I think. That is, if you read any of my entries, you might as well be sitting right beside me listening to my unstopping chattering. I set that as the goal of my blog: it should read in the same way as my normal conversation.

Sometimes I crank anywhere between 1 and 6 posts in a day and writing all that content doesn’t really take me much effort in terms of how long it takes me to write or even research and do the links for a post. This is not because blogging is oh-so-easy, but because I am so familiar with my own writing and the general links I use as sources, etc. that my writing now flows with ease.

The only problem tonight is that the writing isn’t flowing as much, so what I decided to do was to create the EndNote style (I use EndNote for academic reference management) for this specific book chapter. I also created the general heading structure and laid out the overall argument I am giving in the chapter. Finally, I pulled text that I had already written in other academic papers, making sure that I noted that it wasn’t all original text. Then I added a substantial amount of original thoughts. Now all I have to do (which I plan to do all Saturday) is to print it out, edit the language so that it’s not a direct cut-and-paste, insert enough original content as to make the argument flow, and then send it for proofreading/editing with some of my colleagues.

This last bit is a piece of advice I am happy to pass along. Despite the fact that I am an academic (or I guess, precisely for that reason), I *always* make a point of asking for advice and input on anything academic I write. ALWAYS. And my journal article/book chapter acceptance rates are really good. I think that this comes as a result not only from writing good research, but also being humble enough to ask for advice from your peers. That’s the only way you can get better. So I always ask my friends to edit my stuff, even if they are not academics, because they are always able to provide a fresh perspective.

Musings from Raul’s very tired mind at 3:30am after having cranked out a really good first draft of an original contribution (book chapter).


Statistics Canada provides us a full RSS feed of statistical goodness! November 20, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, food for thought, public policy issues, random thoughts, sustainability, wastewater, water, water policy.
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Hat tips to Greg Andrews (TechVibes) and Darren Barefoot (Capulet) for pointing me out to Statistics Canada’s RSS data feeds. You’ll see – even though I’m a chemical engineer, during my Masters and PhD degrees, and in my post-graduate work I have done quite a lot of qualitative research.

My personality traits work to my advantage when using qualitative research methods. I am pretty good at interviewing people, analyzing textual data, coding using Strauss and Corbin’s axial coding methods, undertaking ethnography, etc. I am considered a specialist in institutional analysis because, well, I know how to study rules and routines. And the majority of these studies are undertaken by observing and interviewing.

The thing is, during the course of my PhD, I became REALLY quantitative. Since my advisor’s training was quantitative, he impressed it upon me. I’m quite grateful to him for doing that because thanks to his sage advice and training, I have examined wastewater governance and policy using quantitative methods (something that is rather atypical in this body of literature). And of course, there’s my love of game theory and econometric methods. WOWSA.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I drooled (just as Greg tweeted earlier this morning) when I saw StatsCan’s RSS feeds. Given the kind of research I do, economic, government, population and environmental indicators are the RSS feeds I grabbed. You can grab any others as you may see fit.

Unfortunately, and this is quite sad, I can’t get any quantitative data on water through those RSS feeds (or at least I haven’t been able to get any so far). I do know where to find some water-related statistics in Canada, but the state of the art in regards to accurate water stats in Canada is (as mentioned in Karen Bakker’s edited book) rather appalling.

If I manage to get my hands on some good data, you’ll see some pretty graphs here sometime soon.

Social media tools and academia November 18, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, random thoughts.
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As I was archiving and packing some stuff, I realized that I now have way many more tools to do the kind of research I do, and that, should I want to really engage in broader dissemination of my research, I can create a website, generate content for a blog, create an information-dissemination campaign, raise awareness of my latest research project, all through the magic of Web 2.0 tools. I had already talked about this with several of my geeky academic friends, but it hit me really hard today as I was going through some papers, I thought “oh, this journal article is online for sure – all I need to do is de.licio.us it and it’ll be there always for me“.

Before I engaged fully in social media, I wouldn’t even have thought about it and would have accumulated yet another printed copy of a paper. But thanks to Web 2.0 tools, I’ve become more and more efficient. Shane Gibson gave yet another example last night at the Vancouver Sales Performance Meetup with LinkedIn. All great tools for me, as a professional of environmental issues. Good times!

Net neutrality in Canada: The challenges ahead November 18, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, blogosphere, food for thought, geekifying myself, net neutrality, public policy issues, social media.
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While I have become much more involved with social media in the past year than I had ever before (I am in almost every Web 2.0 application except for Facebook), I hadn’t really thought a lot about the issues with net neutrality until the day when I live-blogged Michael Geist’s talk at Saint John’s College (UBC) as a guest blogger for my friend Rebecca Bollwitt (Miss604) in April of 2008.

Recently, I’ve become more aware that my role in Vancouver’s social media scene is much more than just being the Organizer of Vancouver Bloggers Meetup. It is also part of my role to raise awareness about issues that affect those of us who use the Internet on a regular basis. Moreover, we social media folks are also substantially affected by these challenges.

Steve Anderson (the co-founder of the SaveOurNet.ca Coalition and National Coordinator of Campaign for Democratic Media) and Kate Milberry (SFU doctoral candidate, a good friend and an expert in digital activism) both reminded me of the need to think about social media as an ecosystem. As an expert in environmental issues, I often use ecosystems as a metaphor to analyze phenomena. I have to say that I had thought of social media as an ecosystem, but hadn’t thought of Canadian legislation on net neutrality as one of the challenges. Steve’s article actually gave me good insight on this issue. He writes:

The Conservative federal government is NOT inclined to support an open Internet. To keep a level playing field on the Internet we’ll need a robust citizens movement to put pressure on politicians and policy makers and shape policy that protects equal access. The social web community can provide the foundation for this burgeoning movement – perhaps even serve as a catalyst. Consider this a call to action.[SaveOurNet.ca]

Having engaged in academic activism myself, researched and studied environmental mobilizations, and often preaching to the public to become more involved in public policy, I am always up for supporting activism that benefits our society. So, I would sincerely encourage you to get informed, get involved, and become part of the white cells of the social media biological system. You can help, and if you have a stake in the future of Canadian internet, you probably should.

The International Year of Sanitation was 2008 – how much progress have we made? November 12, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, wastewater, water, water policy.
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Stuck in Customs

Credit: Stuck in Customs

When I see how little do people think about wastewater and the right of humans to clean water, sometimes I wish I didn’t do research on wastewater governance. Admittedly, I was entirely thrilled at the beginning of the year, as the UN had announced that 2008 would be the International Year of Sanitation.

However, as time has gone by, I have begun to wonder (and a recent tweet by my friend Nadia Nascimento) made me dig a bit deeper in my archives.

Well, I can’t say that there’s been much progress. The “culture of flushing” still seems quite prevalent, and the only recent local news story about water pollution that I read was related to a Langley mushroom farm. Um, do people in Vancouver really think that we have made great strides in the way we manage our wastewater. I sure hope they don’t. Because if they do, they’re in for a big surprise.

I’m going to embark in doing some serious research on local (Metro Vancouver) wastewater governance and I’ll report back with some of my results. In the mean time, I should just say that if you want to be more environmentally conscious, you should make efforts in reducing the amount of wastewater you generate.

Public policy lessons on homelessness for Vancouver’s next mayor November 2, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, Focus on Vancouver, food for thought, Homeless Action Week, homelessness, public policy issues, random thoughts, social change, Vancouver.
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Vlastula on Flickr

Credit: Vlastula on Flickr

Both of the candidates with actually the best shot at actually becoming the next Mayor of Vancouver (Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner) have participated in debates on (and broadly proclaimed that they’ll work to end) homelessness in Vancouver (you can read a good recap by Tris here). Well, gentlemen, I seriously do hope that whoever wins, will seriously seek some sound advice on public policy, particularly on the issue of homelessness.

I am not an expert in homelessness policy by any means. I am, however, a specialist in environmental studies and public policy, and particularly I’ve researched issues that are clearly the domain of various levels of government. In particular, water governance in Mexico faces many challenges precisely because of this problem – overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities. Homelessness has the same basic structural problem. It should be a shared responsibility, but no actual level of government takes real responsibility and is truly accountable for dealing with homelessness.

In Mexico, wastewater governance and water supply provision, for example, is fully a responsibility of the municipality. That responsibility is enshrined in the Mexican Constitution (Article 115). Unfortunately, municipalities don’t really have a standing in the Canadian political system. Canadian federalism recognizes the Federation and the provinces (and Territories). However, municipalities/cities are not recognized (see Canada’s Cities report) and therefore, the intergovernmental relationships amongst municipalities, the provincial governments and the Federal have become really complicated [EDIT – Found even better sources on the debate on whether municipalities should be granted constitutional status in the site of the Library of the Parliament of Canada and in the Canadian Encylopedia].

This is unfortunate, and it’s a big problem if you think about it, because – who bears the brunt of homeless as a societal issue that needs to be addressed? The municipality. However, how can a municipality address an issue that requires cooperation between provinces, the Federation and the municipality if there is no actual recognized Constitutional status of the city in Canada? (see the sources I’ve included above on the state of the debate in regards to the constitutional status of the municipality/city)

According to Vision Vancouver’s blog, Gregor suggests to “build relationships with all levels of government” as one of the key actions they’ll undertake if elected.

According to Peter Ladner’s blog, Peter suggests that he will tackle homelessness “through a partnership of federal, provincial, regional, municipal governments and non-profit agencies”.

Well, dear candidates in the November 15th municipal election, you will need to not only build relationships and partnerships, but actually establish sound, solid intergovernmental agreements that lead to the implementation at a local (municipal) level of the Federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Although, that being said, I think we need a sound National Homelessness Action Strategy.

Homelessness is definitely a regional/municipal public policy issue, but municipalities can’t solve the problem by themselves, without the support of the Federal government. For all candidates, I suggest you coordinate your strategy with the Federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (launched in December 2006).

Under the HPS, the federal government will offer the provinces and territories the opportunity to enter into bilateral partnerships, improve collaboration and develop linkages between the federal homelessness programs and provincial/territorial social services to help communities make strategic investments that will best serve their homeless populations.[HPS About Us]

I would also recommend investing in solid, evidence-based research on homelessness using a global, multi-country, multi-region comparative strategy. Surely, other countries have reduced homelessness. How did they do it? What did they do? What was needed?

I am sure someone must have done good research on the topic. I haven’t, but if I was a specialist in urban issues (specifically homelessness) rather than an environmental specialist, I probably would launch a research programme with applied outcomes (e.g. partner with the local communities to actually effect change).

I was able to find a good article on homelessness and health (co-authored by, amongst others, Dr. Jim Frankish, whose research I do respect a lot).

Homelessness and Health in Canada: Research Lessons and Priorities
C James Frankish; Stephen W Hwang; Darryl Quantz, Canadian Journal of Public Health; Mar/Apr 2005; 96.

[Link here]

Additional resources – Not a research paper, but Monte Paulsen’s post on The Tyee “Seven Solutions to Homelessness” is a great read.

One last word – whoever wins, please don’t just give us empty promises.


The death of environmentalism? October 27, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, climate change, public policy issues.
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A recent post by Rebecca on “is blogging dead” and a comment by Darren on that particular post (echoed by other commentators) made me remember that I once wrote a post about “The Death of Environmentalism”. Since it never made it past the drafts, I am now I’m resurrecting it in an updated form.

Now, to provide additional context, I just found out via Jonathon Colman from The Nature Conservancy that only 18% of survey respondents (I’m assuming all Americans) strongly believe that climate change is human-caused and harmful.

While I do hold my own opinion on the causes of climate change, that’s irrelevant for this discussion. The thing is that there seems to be a very small proportion of the population who believe in climate change (or at least, so would appear from the data shown). Now, the title of this post is associated with a paper by Schellenberger and Nordhaus titled “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World”.

The gist of this paper (and surprisingly, the evidence presented by The Nature Conservancy) seems to suggest that American environmental NGOs have not had much success with galvanizing public opinion on climate change in the United States. If you read the work of Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, they find increased support to the hypothesis that Conservatives have influenced public opinion on climate change (as a non-problem or a non-issue).

McCright, Aaron M., and Riley E. Dunlap. 2003. “Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy.” Social Problems 50(3): 348-373.

But the thing is – regardless of whether it’s the ENGOs fault or the public’s fault (I don’t really want to blame anyone) – one of the main reasons why the Schellenberger and Nordhaus paper was so controversial is because it talked about “environmentalism being dead“. And I’m pretty sure that they intended for the paper to spark controversy (and make environmental NGOs try to work harder at educating the public about the need to adapt to climate change). That’s where I’m bringing the connection.

If you think about it (and as accurately said by the commentators on Rebecca’s site), the best way to spark a discussion about a topic is to say that X or Y is dead. Environmentalism is NOT dead. Much less here in Canada, and in Vancouver. For starters, Greenpeace started here! Environmental NGOs have a place and there is a need for them in the global environmental movement. The thing is, the Schellenberger and Nordhaus paper (as the other post mentioned by Rebecca) did serve to galvanize people, make them react to the issue and write about it.

Now, if we all did that about municipal and provincial politics in Vancouver and British Columbia, if we did that about climate change and other environmental issues in our own turf, THEN I think we would see a revival. And I’m hoping I’m contributing to this debate, and look forward to other’s contributions.

Conference panel accepted! October 20, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, random thoughts.
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Ok, so I know that I’ve complained about academia left, right and center to anybody who will lend me his or her ears. I know that I am an academic. I am guilty as charged of being disappointed in the realpolitik of academia. But the truth is, I am always happy when I do some good academic work. It’s part of me, it’s what I’ve been trained to do for many years. And whether I like it or not, it’s what has put food on my table for a large portion of my career (I started doing research as a project assistant even before I finished my undergraduate).

So I got the news that the panel I organized for a conference in 2009 has been accepted. This particular conference aggregates everybody who studies Latin America in the world. As a result, it is a pretty damn big congress. But the great news is, because I’ve kept my academic connections and I haven’t burned any bridges with anyone in this field of research, I can do a lot of networking and maybe job interviews for academic positions on site!

I had written a post about how good I felt this beginning of the week and I scheduled it to publish tomorrow, so it may actually sound slightly counter-intuitive when you read my blog from top to bottom, but the main point is – I’ve got a 100% success rate with the organizers of this conference. Every year I’ve organized a panel, it’s been accepted.

We now resume our regular programming …

I *am* an academic October 1, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, personal life, random thoughts.
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Photo credit: Roland on Flickr.

I had a lovely day today (well, yesterday since it’s Wednesday by now) where I finished editing two journal articles (one approved for publication with minor revisions and one for peer-review), doing a peer-review of a journal article (which I rejected as the article was horrendous) and managed to do a couple other errands and have a lovely meeting with Robert Ballantyne.

During our meeting (where I gained a lot of insights), he emphasized one thing. He said “well, you ARE an academic“. And it’s true. I’ve been trained as an academic. I look at things, phenomena, stuff through research-trained eyes. My heart jumps when I publish another journal article, when I share my research in conferences and present papers, when my students graduate, when I write letters of reference for them for graduate school, etc. And I absolutely love, love, love teaching.

I live, breathe and eat research and teaching. Well, I have. The past few months, I have sort-of-abandoned the research field. Well, maybe abandoning is not the right verb. I still do research and I still have presented at conferences (like this summer) but I’m not as active as I used to be and I haven’t been able to keep up with the literature on some of the areas where I’ve done research.

By the time September came, I already had lined up 3 or 4 conferences for the following year, and I already knew my travel calendar for the fall. This time, I think I’m only doing 2 conferences in total in 2008. That’s really, really very few conferences and talks for my standards (although I seem to recall that I may have not presented anything around 2002).

However, the past few weeks (particularly since I’ve been back in Vancouver) I’ve started to come to terms with the fact that maybe I’ll have to keep blogging and social media as a side, instead of fully incorporating it into my portfolio. I need to get back to my research portfolio and find ways to expand my output in such a way that I can apply my recently acquired social media skills to my academic pursuits.

Today, as I was talking with Robert (and later in the evening with my brother A, who is a tenure-track professor right now) and in previous weeks with my good friends HZ and Beth Snow, I *do* love academia. It’s the family business (Mom, 2 of my brothers, myself).

Now this doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop blogging or that I’ll shift much the focus of my blog. I may blog more infrequently but not stop fully. I may incorporate more of my research into my blog writing. This is just a quick reflection on what I think will be the future for me.

On the personal nature of blogs September 19, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life.

At Green Drinks Vancouver this past Wednesday, people asked me what my blog was about. It was kind of hard to describe what I write about and to describe myself to an audience that (a) knows VERY little about blogs and (b) doesn’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that I undertook a PhD but that I also do a gazillion other things.

I am not the only academic blogger out there. As a matter of fact, some of my best friends (who have PhDs) also have blogs. But apparently, this is not a pervasive phenomenon in Vancouver, and much less in Vancouver’s environmental community.

People seemed to be taken aback by the fact that I blog about myself. On the other hand, some of my friends wonder if my blog is becoming “too techie” and “too impersonal” and less about me.

I am a mixture of personas. Anybody who knows me, knows this. I can write serious stuff, I can do research, I can write consulting reports, I can write blog posts that are funny (some) or critical. The thing is, having a personal blog allows me to have a freedom and flexibility that few other outlets do.

However, for those of you who might be potential employers, fear not. I also know how to write about other things that are not me. See for example my public policy or water policy posts. I can harness the power of Web 2.0 to disseminate my research findings to a much broader audience.

My blogging has in no way hurt my academic career and I would seriously hope it won’t hurt my environmental consulting career. I hate it when people want to place me into defined, shallow boxes. I am not *just* a blogger. I am not *just* a researcher or an academic. I do lots more than what people think I do. Just give me the freedom to be creative and you’ll see great things. I’m not being overconfident, I’m just being honest. And this, as you can see, was a very personal post.

Banning bottled water in Vancouver and the Metro Vancouver pledge September 5, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, Focus on Vancouver, food for thought.
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A large portion of my research agenda focuses on water, despite the fact that sometimes some relevant water issues go unnoticed (did you know that 2008 is the Year of Sanitation?). The good thing about studying water is that questions pop always on my mind and there’s always something new to look at.

Being an academic and a blogger, I look at issues through research-trained eyes, and the whole discussion on banning bottled water in Vancouver is one of those debates that attract me. I am hoping to do some research about it in the short term future.

Ianiv and Arieanna

Photo credit: Ianiv and Arieanna

I am particularly drawn to water issues as I’ve done research both in the environmental engineering field (building wastewater treatment plants) and in the environmental studies field (studying water governance and policy). I am trained to examine problems from the social sciences AND natural sciences/engineering lenses.

A few weeks back, Duane kindly invited me to guest post on his blog. We were doing Blogathon and my post examined very briefly the debate on water privatization, but I didn’t delve in depth.

The whole banning bottled water debate in Vancouver touches on two issues. One of them, the commodification and privatization of water. The other one is the potential health-associated risk of consuming water from the tap. Both of these issues would give me enough material to start a new blog. However, I’m going to just focus on one small sub-issue: bottling water for sale and redistribution (and the health effects associated).

We often (but not always) consume bottled water because we feel safer. Sometimes we consume bottled water simply because we don’t have access to tap water at the moment. There are different rationales. However, one associated (implicit) benefit is that we don’t need to worry about our safety and health if we consume bottled water. Is our tap water really all that bad?

When I worked as an environmental engineer, I would get stomach illnesses whenever I would be exposed to wastewater streams. But I have never gotten sick from consuming water from the tap (neither in Mexico nor in Canada). I know, the whole “revenge of Montezuma” joke is based on a perception that potable water in Mexico is really polluted and thus every foreign visitor will get stomach cramps or get ill when visiting if they consume water from the tap. But it has never happened to me (not even now that I’m visiting).

Metro Vancouver is undertaking a project to have people pledge to consume only tap water and reduce the number of plastic water bottles thrown into landfills. I have to say that I wholeheartedly support this initiative. From their website:

Why Metro Vancouver has a Tap Water Pledge
* Metro is committed to reducing bottled water use by 20% by 2010 to reduce the environmental impact of bottled water
* Millions of single-use plastic water bottles (one litre or smaller) ended up in our region’s landfills in 2007
* We want to provide a tangible way residents to support a sustainable practice – using refillable water containers instead of single-use plastic water bottles

[Metro Vancouver: Take the Tap Water Pledge]

The Tap Water Pledge page has information on health risks associated with water, fast facts, etc. that are aimed to help the public understand the rationale behind the project. Interestingly enough, I didn’t find data on the worldwide consumption of bottled water in comparison to Canada and/or Vancouver. I think this would be a broader perspective. From the IBWA statistics page, their 2007 stats report, I found out that Mexico is the second largest consumer of bottled water in the world, with 54.1 gallons per capita (but is this figure per year, per month? If one drinks one litre of water a day, how many gallons is that a year? I hate websites with poor statistics!)

Now, from a social media perspective, I have to say that while I think the page is a good resource, I would probably take a much more “public understanding of science” approach to it. I have to say that it would be fun to undertake this type of project, and it would merge Web 2.0 with sustainability research…. Hmm… good idea!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: For some statistics on bottled water consumption, the International Bottled Water Association has some data. But I couldn’t find anything on Canada. Frustrating.

How to insert “blogger” into my CV? September 2, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, blogosphere, personal life, random thoughts.
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So I’m updating my resume (not the CV, which is more academic) and I’m trying to figure out a good way to insert all the non-paid blogging I’ve done. I have the skills, I know some HTML and a bit about CMS (not that I’m a Joomla! or Drupal or even WordPress geek, but heck I do know some stuff, and I do my own stunts).

I thought of writing something like this

“2006 – to date – Owner, writer and editor, Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment, also known as Hummingbird604.com. -“

But I’m sort of at a loss as to what else to write. It’s not like I’m a professional blogger, but I want to “sell” those skills I have already.

Then, under Skills I was going to insert something like

– Basic HTML, Content Management Systems.

I dunno. I’ve never actually had these skills and this newfound knowledge until I started blogging, so I’m sort of at a loss. I mean, I do have a 2 page resume that presents me as an environmental consultant, but I want to be able to speak to what I know about social media, etc., and use those new skills in a new job.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

Adaptation and vulnerability to floods and climatic events in Mexico September 1, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, climate change, environment, Focus on Vancouver, food for thought, public policy issues, sustainability, Vancouver, vulnerability and adaptation, wastewater, water, water policy.
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This post is worthy of much more in-depth content, but I just wanted to show that the municipality where my parents live is really unprepared for extreme rain. The photos and video shown below show the local river almost entirely flooded (and rather polluted, as you can see).

River overflow 2

River overflow 3

As you can see, cars are at serious risk of being taken by the river. The local authorities are rather unprepared for these extreme rain events. But the funny thing is, I wonder how prepared are the Metro Vancouver municipalities. I will be doing some research on this topic upon my return to Vancouver.

The game of politics in Canada, the US and the local levels August 30, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, blogosphere, food for thought, public policy issues, random thoughts, Vancouver.
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I don’t follow US politics. At least, I don’t follow it seriously. This may be perceived kind of shooting myself in the foot and a serious blow to my credibility as a scholar. Not at all, and I’m going to prove you wrong. I am not the only non-US citizen who is NOT obsessed with the results of the US elections. I could scour Twitter and find those key tweets where people said “hey, can we please get over the whole Barack Obama/Michelle Obama/Hillary Clinton speech and move on to other topics?“.

I understand that there are many American ex-pats in Canada, particularly Vancouver. Many, MANY of them are my friends, and not only Twitter friends or blog-friends, but friends, FRIENDS. I can also understand that many Canadians or Canadian residents are interested in the outcome of the US elections because the US is such a key actor in Canadian life. One can’t ignore the US, simply speaking. That’s also the case in Mexico because the US has a strong influence on Mexican politics (both foreign policy and domestic politics).

You could easily build a case to entice me/convince me of why I should follow US politics. But the truth is, I’m rather disappointed by the lack of interest of exactly those who have been tweeting about US politics on LOCAL (and by local I mean, Vancouver politics). Want some proof? Use Summize (aka Search.Twitter.com) and find tweets about “Gregor Robertson” or “Peter Ladner”. 14 tweets on Gregor Robertson (two of mine, and full disclosure, I said I liked him). 8 tweets on Peter Ladner.

Now, do the same for any of the following keywords: Obama, HRC (Hillary Rodham Clinton), National Democratic Convention (NDC). I just did a quick one for Obama and I couldn’t count the number of tweets (they were so many). I’m sure if I used another tool, I could find actual accurate stats on the emphasis that has been given to the US election.

As a scholar who has taught political science, I completely understand why this happens. As a resident of Canada, I can completely understand why this happens. As a resident of Vancouver and someone who has passionately embraced the city where I have lived in for more than a decade, I am dismayed. It looks as though the interest of Twitterers in local, municipal issues is minimal.

While I am absolutely not afraid of retaliation or criticism, I would seriously like to encourage people who live in Vancouver to think about, talk about and discuss the ideas of those people whose decisions will influence YOUR lives. YOUR local livelihood is at stake.

I am not at all asking my readers (particularly my Canadian readers, as I know that I’ve got quite a few from abroad) to stop thinking about or discuss US politics. It’s important. Heck, even I wrote about it (when I complained about the really sad fact that Obama and Clinton had to face-off, because they both would be breaking stigmas and old paradigms).

I just want people to take more of an interest in local politics. And no, it’s not because I’m now in the ballot of the Vancouver Election Contest. I had been ruminating this post since I started getting flooded with tweets about the US National Democratic Convention, the Hillary Rodham Clinton speech, the Barack / Michelle Obama speech, the Joseph Biden speech. Of course, I admire them. I have previously expressed my admiration for Obama and for Clinton. But it came to a point where I was just like “ok, this is a little bit too much“.

I do hope (and expect!) that my Twitter friends will do the same thing when the Vancouver mayoral election draws nearer and I expect (and want!) a barrage of tweets about the local elections. The best way to effect change is to get involved. And I want my Twitter and blogger friends to get involved in issues that will affect them the same or more than the outcome of the US elections.

Back in academia for a bit August 27, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, personal life.
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I’m attending (and presenting) at a conference that is being organized by a good friend of mine. All the big gurus in Mexico on the topic are here, and it’s very nice to put a face to the name of the journal article’s author. My presentation went really well and I’ve had a fun time. Mom came along as she is a scholar as well and she wanted to see what was going on (even if it’s not her topic)

However, and I’m pretty sure anyone who knows me well, I get tired really easily when I’m overwhelmed with people. This conference is huge and LOTS of people are coming to say hi and talking to me. When this happens, I shut down and need some space and ME time. I’m excited but also exhausted.

This afternoon, I came back home late to check my email, Twitter and my blog comments and noticed that a lot had been going on. I haven’t had a chance to even look at many of those twets and/or comments. I’m exhausted.

But I’m glad to be again immersed in a field and a world where I feel very successful and on top of things. Whereas I’m always learning something new and still feel not-geeky-enough when it comes to social media, PR and the tech world, I’m a natural-born academic and this world I know very well and I swim with the sharks without any hitch.

However, I hope this is NEVER interpreted as though I don’t enjoy the social media world. I really do! But I don’t feel as “authoritative” when I give an opinion or talk about a topic. I was thinking about topics for BarCamp, and felt a bit helpless because, even though I’ve been asked to collaborate in one particular panel, I feel that I don’t have enough to contribute to a BarCamp just yet.

I’m not self-hosted, I’m not a WordPress pro, thus I feel as though I’m not ready to share anything at BarCamp on my own. That’s quite alright though, I’m more than happy to join collective efforts and presentations, but still, it’s kind of nice to be at this conference because I feel again as though I’m knowledgeable and my opinion has some weight.

Water footprint: A new tool to examine water scarcity and use August 24, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, public policy issues, wastewater, water, water policy.
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Lighthouse Park West Vancouver

Water is a topic that I’m actually rather passionate about (and I’ve previously written about it, like my discussion of the culture of flushing and the concept of water governance). I love researching it and writing about it, particularly because a professor whom I really respect a lot (part of my doctoral committe) told me that the two issues he saw were going to be the most important in the future were water and energy issues. I came across the concept of water footprint via the Max Gladwell blog (actually their twitter account – Hat tips to Max Gladwell!).

What is the water footprint? Well, I am guessing it is modelled after the ecological footprint that Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees coined in 1992. The website WaterFootprint.org defines:

The water footprint is an indicator of water use that looks at both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. Water use is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated) and/or polluted per unit of time. A water footprint can be calculated for any well-defined group of consumers (e.g. an individual, family, village, city, province, state or nation) or producers (e.g. a public organization, private enterprise or economic sector). The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, not only showing volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations.[Water Footprint.Org]

It’s an interesting concept, particularly when we apply it to our day-to-day staples, like a cup of coffee (that according to calculations by Hoekstra and Chapagain is about 140 litres of water per cup). As indicated by the Environmental News Network, the concept of water footprint gaining adepts. I was kind of pleased to find that the writer of the ENN article was associated with the World Resources Institute (WRI). One of my very best and closest friends is also associated with WRI as he did a post-doc there, and their datasets on water are some of the finest that I have encountered. Truly speaking, I would not mind doing a post-doc there.

I would like to know if any of my readers actually thinks much about his/her water consumption patterns. Do you ever think about your water footprint or your ecological footprint?

Developing thicker skin in academia and in blogging July 30, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, blogosphere, personal life, random thoughts.

The whole blogging thing has brought me lots of joys. I have made tonnes of great friends, I’ve been able to raise money for cancer research, I have been able to provide some people with some free swag and opportunities that they wouldn’t have accessed were I not a blogger. I am even now the Organizer of the Vancouver Bloggers Meetup, with sword and all. The most rewarding part is really knowing that my blog can in some small way effect positive change.

Sadly and rather regrettably, very recently blogging has brought me some pain too. A nasty comment got me so worked up that I had to let it out on Twitter. Luckily, my friends were of the opinion that I should let it go. I concur.

Let me explain. I see blogging using the same philosophy I have of academic research: you got to develop a thick skin. I know that, every so often, I am going to get all sorts of nasty comments, aggressive behavior from other bloggers and readers alike.

Same thing has happened to me with academia: sometimes, a peer-reviewer will say that my paper is complete and absolute garbage. Sometimes, a fellow researcher will say that my work is completely irrelevant.

The anonymous nature of commenting on blogs (in social media) and of double-blind peer-reviews (in academia) allows for inner people’s frustrations to come out frequently (and often, hurting the recipient of the negative comment). But the truth is, if I see it from the perspective that academics are also just humans (and thus, admitting that bloggers are again just humans) then it’s easier to admit that not everybody is bound to like me. Actually, LOTS of people are bound to NOT like me (although my rate of rejected, peer-reviewed papers is VERY low, if I may say so myself).

But it’s up to ME AND ONLY ME to rise above. I can’t and I won’t let anyone who is nasty to me win. Trust me, I am much better than that.

The Environmental Movement Needs You – Homer Simpson Has Already Joined – Guest post by Lotus Effect July 26, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, Blogathon 2008, climate change, environment, environmental NGOs, Focus on Vancouver, food for thought, friends, Green Drinks, guest post, public policy issues.
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This post was contributed by L.E. who blogs at The Lotus Effect.

I love the way Raul phrases his environmental passions: “Being a student of the Environment”. I’ve found myself amongst the dozens of people I know that have put their previous career paths aside and pursued environmentally-related position in hopes of making a difference (and I’ve abandoned any inclination to feel the least bit hesitant to say that making a difference bit 🙂 regardless of how trite it may be perceived by some).

So I’m confronted with it everyday – people wanting to do something, and we constantly hear.. “Just start anywhere.. it doesn’t’ matter where – the first step will introduce you to a plethora of options, and before you know it, you’ll come across something you’re really exited about.” Well, what if you don’t know where to take that first step? This is where this post comes in, I hope to offer some options of first steps that might lead you to your green passions. So here they go.

1) GREEN DRINKS The perfect combination – environmental geekery and sophisticated discussions with all kinds of people working in, or interested in the environment. I’ve only attended the Vancouver version twice, but it’s been a lot of fun – there is always a mix of veterans and solo flyers that show up without knowing a soul (but that is of course changed after the first beer). 🙂

2a) STORY OF STUFF This is a great little description of how the world currently works, some of the problems our actions are causing, and how to get involved in changing these patterns. The point with this one is.. simply reach out and learn more about how the world works, and how we can minimize our impact on the environment

2b) CRADLE TO CRADLE Similar to Option 2), this is a monumental piece of work that redefines the way we approach how we go about building stuff and creating the everyday objects we use. This novel concepts presented in cannot be called short of anything but a paradigm shift in the positive direction of what it means to be human. It’s simple, and beautiful…

If you’re interested in learning more without diving into the book, I’d recommend having a look at the TED talk featuring one of the authors (TED has numerous amazing talks on many other subjects including psychology, art, music, and technology. The one other talk that seems to be somewhat related would a brain scientist experiencing life a stroke in her left hemisphere, leaving her exposed to the raw experience of living life through her right – creative, loving, unified hemisphere – the experience’s lesson – if we use both of our brain real estate (Left AND right hemisphere), then we are much more in tune with others, and the environment around us – have a look).

2c) INCONVENIENT TRUTH If you haven’t seen it yet.. The only thing i gotta say about this one – i think any movie that helps someone win the Nobel Peace Prize might – just might be worth watching.

3) TAKE A HIKE I’m not kidding. Go get outside. Listen to the silence of the air and the stillness of your thoughts. There are many accessible parks in the Metro Vancouver area. Some of my favorites include Lighthouse Park (which is easily accessible by public transit, but surprisingly beautiful and secluded), the Grouse Grind if you’re adventurous, Shannon Falls or Bridal Veil Falls (if you prefer a light walk in the woods), or the Chief if you’re fit and would like a bit of a challenge.

4) LEARN ABOUT WATER Why on earth am i writing about water? An excellent recent film “Flow: For the Love of Water” about water illustrates this resource’s incredible importance. For one second care to entertain the thought of considering how essential water is to our survival, health (as in, the lack of clean water leading to health and survival problems). Climate change is melting glaciers and snowpacks around the world meaning that rivers worldwide are or will be facing water shortages. In 1999, 26 percent of Canadian municipalities reported problems with water availability, including seemingly wet locals such as Vancouver and Victoria (Environment Canada 2001; Boyd 2003). To illustrate the importance of this issue a bit further: 440 of 669 major cities in China face moderate to severe water shortages, and data collected from NASA and the World Health Organization suggest that 4 billion people will face water shortages by 2050 (Lagod 2007).

5) FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE SIDE Learning more about the state of the world can be difficult at times, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned about environmental issues is the absolute necessity to stay positive, and not let things get to you personally – I’ve just started a blog about this and highlighting the importance of something known as the Lotus Effect (the real definition). Using all the energy generated by anger of learning about humanity breaking environmental laws and transforming it into something positive – action on improving things or leading by example. And last, and most importantly, keeping a sense of humour about it all, and not taking things, and ourselves too seriously.

A great example would be a well-known (and very witty) standup comedian talking about energy and world politics in Robert Newman’s History of Oil (I love it). Another PERFECT example of this would be the words of wisdom by a writer on the Simpsons – Welcoming Homer, the Tree Hugger! I’d like to end on that note, if you don’t visit any other links, visit the last two – I’m particularly fond of always looking at the bright side of things. With Love, L.E.

The objective academic activist? – Guest post by Dr. Hisham Zerriffi July 26, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, Blogathon 2008.
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This post was contributed by Dr. Hisham Zerriffi, Assistant Professor with the Liu Institute for Global Issues at The University of British Columbia.

The Objective Activist Academic?

Note: While this post is about academics and specifically some issues that we have, I think it is relevant to a more general audience. Next time you see an academic advocating a certain position, you might want to keep this post in mind in order to figure out how to evaluate what they are saying.

As an academic I work on subjects that I also care quite deeply and passionately about, as do my students. I teach in an environmental sustainability program and everyone involved from faculty to students is there because they are concerned about the state of the world and want to create some positive change. I actually came from the NGO world before moving into academia. One of the things I have struggled with and which many of the students in the program struggle with is how to engage in the issues you care passionately about when you are supposed to be this objective academic observer. That’s what this post is about. First of all, I should say that not all of my colleagues face this problem. Some of them disengage from the whole issue of advocacy, public education or policy advice. They do their work and if someone else picks it up and runs with it, great. Others, however, see the need to try to be more proactive in creating change. The students often face this dilemma when thinking about signing on to a petition (e.g. save X rainforest) or writing an op-ed or engaging in any other type of activity that could be seen as advocacy. Second, I should also note that these are my views. My colleagues may very well disagree with me.

So, what is my approach to this problem? It is to keep the following in mind:

1) When I became a scientist and then an academic, I did not give up my rights as a citizen. I have every right to engage in public debate on issues I care about, just like everyone else.

2) Recognize that there is no such thing as total objectivity. There is good research and bad research. But even the decision on what to research is not an objective one. I do the work I do because I see problems in the world that need solutions. Within that, I try to do the best research I can, but I’ve already made a judgment that this topic is an important one. You also have to recognize that the question you ask will affect how you view the data. Asking the question a different way may make you parse the data one way versus another and come up with different conclusions. Here’s an example. Back in my NGO days, I got data from a government program regarding the safety and reliability of a particular technology. The government’s analysis of the data lumped both safety and reliability together and came up with a set of conclusions. I thought that it was better to separate them and when I analyzed the disaggregated data, the picture was quite different. Both analysis were “correct” based on the question asked, but the conclusions were different.

3) Don’t let yourself be labeled or put in a box. This can be a tough one to fight, but it is necessary. I used to work on nuclear issues at my NGO. We used our analytical skills to try to reduce the risks from nuclear weapons production and to argue for a move away from nuclear weapons. Our money often came from foundations. Of course, those in the industry tried to dismiss some of our work on the basis that it was biased because it was funded by foundations that had clear objectives in this regard. Interestingly, they never questioned their research skills because they were funded by the nuclear industry or by the federal government to work on nuclear weapons. You have to try to puncture this illusion that one side of an issue is “objective” while the other is not.

4) Distinguish values from facts (my thanks to a colleague at the university for emphasizing this in recent discussions). As an academic, I am also allowed to have values and make moral judgments. If I am going to support some cause based on my moral values rather than some piece of research or evidence, that is fine. However, I have to be clear about that. You can’t make people think that Dr. So-and-So thinks this is good so therefore there must be evidence to back it up when you are basing your decision on your values. This, however, is a tricky one. People may have a problem with this, either still thinking you are basing this on your expertise or now being dismissive of you because you have lost your “objectivity.” Don’t forget, in some cases you don’t have to sign on to something as an academic. You are a person outside your academic life (though I know it can be hard to believe that sometimes, especially when in the final leg of your Ph.D.). (also see point 1).

5) Get your facts right and communicate them well. This is critically important if you want to maintain credibility. The challenge is that sometimes what you are writing has to be a brief overview of the facts without all the nuance and caveats. That’s okay as long as you don’t twist the facts or be selective about the facts in a way that skews the overall picture. You also shouldn’t ignore inconvenient facts if they are *critical* to the problem. This doesn’t mean you have to take into account every piece of evidence, no matter how minor, when writing a short piece for the public. What is important is the balance of evidence.

6) Do good research. Be careful in your work, examine alternative hypotheses, ask the questions that need to be asked and then back it up with solid analysis. If you come under attack for your views and your research is strong, you will be in a much better place to defend yourself and explain why your position is valid.

7) Do good research. See above.

7) Don’t forget to do good research. Sorry, I know it’s a tired and cliched writing device to repeat yourself in a list, but seriously, I can’t emphasize this enough. And if you are outside the research community but really interested in a topic, do your research. Both on the topic and on the researchers.

So, when you see that scientist talking about climate change or that political scientist talking about the middle east, try to bear some of this in mind. Are they making an argument based on facts or values? Are they presenting the facts truthfully and honestly? Perhaps just as importantly, bear this in mind when you see pundits and commentators discussing the research of others. Climate change “skeptics” get a lot of press despite the overwhelming evidence and number of scientists that form the consensus on this issue.

Second Life and CSI:NY July 26, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life.
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The other day, I was watching an episode of CSI:NY and they’re making use of Second Life… it’s awesome! Darren was mentioning that there were a lot of good applications for SL (although I’m not sure if I’ll ever join).

I think TV shows are adopting a lot of information technology ideas. For example, the main character in Gossip Girl is a blogger. Now, CSI:NY uses Second Life to capture a criminal. Nice! I even wrote about Twitter on an episode of CSI (the original one). YOWZA!