Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ecological Succession of PANs

Ecological Succession is a process by which organisms move into an "empty" environment. It might be observed after a large-scale disturbance, such as a fire, which leaves a landscape stripped of it's previous inhabitants, or when an agricultural field is abandoned and goes "wild". Very rarely in nature is there a truly new environment, but these cleared environments happen regularly. The movement of organisms (particularly vegetation) into these areas is well documented and happens in a logical order from fast growing and high-dispersal weedy species to slow-growing hardwood forests.

At a university, the same type of process can occur when a new building is built and inhabited, but it's not the vegetation that gives it away. You can tell the stage of succession a building is at by the number of passive-aggressive notes (PANs) that are attached to anything communal. It starts with weeds - gently phrased notes in sentence case, all in black type and simple fonts, like Times or Helvetica. Eventually, the weeds create enough soil for the shrubs to take root and Bold type starts to appear and exclamation points sprout and grow. The colored text and underlines are the softwoods - they take a little longer to develop, but they have a longer run than the weeds and shrubs.

Post-doc Department was the PAN succession equivalent of a hardwood forest. Notes in all caps that threatened the very well-being of the reader. Exclamation points were the punctuation of choice and there was no roman font, only bold. The signs exclaimed WARNING! and READ THIS FIRST! and were written by people who had studied the art of condescension under gurus that lived on mountain tops in Nepal.

Fig. 1. A magnificent elm of a PAN. Apparently people were slipping on a regular basis because this note was present for the entire 4 year tenure of PLS's post-doc. The use of "further" AND "furthermore" makes this a wonderful specimen.

Now, I have a confession. I LOVE the unintentional comedy of PANs and I would be lying to you if I said that I don't appreciate a good PAN. The fact that I have had bookmarked for years should be some indication of this. Though I have enjoyed moving into a new building, the new environment is virgin territory for PANs, which is disappointing on several levels.

So, I have taken it upon myself to start the early stages of succession. The autoclave on our floor consistently does not close all the way, causing the alarm to go off after about 5 minutes. My office is close to the machine and it appears that the alarm only bothers me enough to do anything about it. I took the opportunity to cast the first seed into the new environment today, with a carefully crafted "weedy" PAN - Sentence case black Helvetica, no bold font, no threats and relatively pleasant. A simple note letting people know that pushing the door up once it closes will create a tight seal. With time and a little TLC, I hope that my little seed will flourish and nature will take it's course.


  1. Yeah - good luck with the note. I went berserk in grad school lab one day when I arrived at 6am to grind out my usual bench work only to find that every single bit of glassware was in the sink waiting to be washed, including the bottles and beakers I had cleaned and put on my bench the night before in preparation for the early start. I wrote a very condescending mandate on the whiteboard that was still there when I visited last year (4 years after graduating). There was still glassware in the sink during my visit.

  2. Yeah, the notes don't really do anything other than A) make your department seem really unfriendly, or B) provide me with endless entertainment. But, people steal your stuff when you need it should be an offense punishable by throttling.