Ascending Into The Stacks

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Riding an escalator to a higher level at Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Now and then I like to go through some of my old photographs and give them new treatments in Adobe Lightroom. I have learned so much from all these years of working with the software—and I follow a very different approach nowadays: warmer and more nuanced, less outlandish and cold. It is an interesting experience to retouch my old work with the benefit of experience and new eyes.

Becoming A University Student Once Again

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Today I embarked upon the path to becoming a university student again. I will be taking Chinese language classes at the MTC in Shida during July and August. With such a short program I am only dipping my toes into the water to see how I like it—and to figure out how school can fit into my busy schedule. (I am also here working on a number of other time-consuming projects; 15+ hours a week is a sizable commitment to be making.) My goal is simply to get a grasp on the language and not make a complete idiot of myself when I order food at a restaurant or whatever. No need to ask for directions; I have a smartphone, thank you very much—though I might have to start asking around simply to get some practice.

Closing the loop on a curious synchronicity from my undergrad

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In my third year of university I mistakenly enrolled in a course entitled Urbanization & Global Change. The name caught my eye as I had become quite interested in the science of global change, a major focus of my physical geography program. I was dimly aware that it was more of a human geography course (it qualified as a “social science” credit under the University of Toronto’s hilariously weak distribution requirement system) but assumed that “interdisciplinary” indicated there might be some real science involved. I suppose I must have imagined we’d be studying the effects of urbanization on the global carbon cycle, or perhaps something about nutrient cycling in urban estuaries. I had absolutely no idea we’d spend entire lectures discussing Starbucks, Facebook, and “branding identity”. (And you wonder why I speak dismissively of the humanities?)

I realized my mistake after receiving the syllabus in the first lecture. Unfortunately I was unable to find another course that would fit as nearly into my timetable. I eventually reasoned that I may as well take one basket-weaving course that term to alleviate an otherwise heavy science course load. And so I stuck with it.

Writing For Wikipedia

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One of the more stimulating courses I took during my undergrad was a newly offered fourth year seminar: ecology and evolution of plant-animal interactions with J.D. Thomson and M. Frederickson. Newly offered courses are a bit risky—none of the kinks are worked out and you’re often at the mercy of instructors puzzling out how best to go about things. Nevertheless, I am glad I took a chance on it. The structure of the course was rather experimental, mixing up the standard paper critiques and written exams with class debates and field trips. We spent a lot of time in class talking about the assignments themselves and whether or not they worked for us. The major assignment—which is usually a big, dumb essay—was a pleasant surprise: write or revise the Wikipedia entry on a topic related to plant-animal interactions. The professors identified several entries that were either shabby or non-existent and distributed a list to the class. We later drew lots, more or less, and I chose myrmecochory. What’s that, you ask? Here is the definition from Wikipedia—in my own words, no less:

Myrmecochory is seed dispersal by ants, an ecologically significant ant-plant interaction with worldwide distribution. Myrmecochorous plants produce seeds with elaiosomes, a term encompassing various external appendages or “food bodies” rich in lipids, amino acid, or other nutrients that are attractive to ants. The seed with its attached elaiosome is collectively known as a diaspore. Seed dispersal by ants is typically accomplished when foraging workers carry diaspores back to the ant colony after which the elaiosome is removed or fed directly to ant larvae. Once the elaiosome is consumed the seed is usually discarded in underground middens or ejected from the nest. Although diaspores are seldom distributed far from the parent plant, myrmecochores also benefit from this predominantly mutualistic interaction through dispersal to favourable locations for germination as well as escape from seed predation.

The ambiguous future of an alpha-class world city

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This is the full text of an undergraduate research paper I prepared for a second-year course at the University of Toronto entitled Urbanization & Global Change. It has been lightly edited to suit the online medium. Do not plagiarize this paper! That would be dumb; I received a mark in the low 70s for this assignment. I later moved to Taipei, strangely enough. Read my second thoughts about this paper. Some corrections of the most heinous factual errors are noted in square brackets in the text.

Along the banks of the Danshui River in Taiwan sprawls an improbable apparition: Taipei, the provisional capital of the Republic of China (ROC), a regional centre elevated to global importance in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. Home to more than 7 million people, with a further 5 million in the surrounding metropolitan area, Taipei is ranked 39th on the Global Cities Index (“Global Cities Index”, 2010) and is classified as an “Alpha-” level world city according to the Global and World Cities Research Network (“The World According to GaWC”, 2008). Its elevated status in the global system of trade and cultural exchange is particularly remarkable given the uncertainty surrounding the ROC’s claim to nationhood and right to self-determination. Taiwan is by far the most significant state-like entity not recognized by the UN, it is not a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and few nations maintain open diplomatic ties to the ROC (“The World Factbook”, 2009). Taipei has emerged as a global city (Smith, 2004) despite its ambiguous political and legal status but determination of its future is inexorably intertwined with the rise of China as a world superpower and the seemingly inevitable resolution of cross-Strait relations.

Lecture Hall Doubts

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Inside the auditorium at the Earth Science Centre at the University of Toronto.

I wonder, what possessed me to capture this particular moment? Perhaps it is the absurdity of having spent so many hours in this place jotting notes and trying to follow whatever is going on, grave doubts gnawing away at my sense of purpose. It is not that I am a bad student (actually, I do quite well), but I have already been out there in the world, pursued a career, and easily lose focus on how this experience of near-constant bewilderment will benefit me in the future. Even so, there’s nothing to do except keep going. I have absolutely no plan to quit before I am done even if these sacrificial years turn out to be completely futile.

In the Halls of the Physical Geography Building

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The bulletin board outside my professor’s office at the University of Toronto.

I have been spending a lot of time in the halls of the physical geography building as of late, meeting with my professor, attending labs, and handing in assignments. I also take the time to appreciate what I find on the walls: research papers, student assignments, elaborate maps, and bulletin boards covered with photographs from past expeditions. After a lifetime of interest in the subject it is really something else to be here now, studying the shaping of the world we live in.