22 July 2016

Reasons to go back to blogging

Because my blog is a place I don’t have to put up with the proliferation of political memes.

12 July 2016

Tuesday Crustie: Today the bucket, tomorrow the world!


Lobster (sic) in a bucket looks like a gigantic monster on a metallic planet, and the waterdrops look like stars.

From here.

11 July 2016

Pokémon in real life: biologists catch them all!

Pokémon are back in the news. The property that was a mega-popular trading card game in the late 1990s is back with a new smartphone game, Pokémon Go, that launched last week and is suddenly thing the thing on everyone’s lips.

You are going to read about a zillion hot takes and think pieces about this game, but remember: the Southern Fried Scientist, Andrew Thaler, got there first.

In our afternoon of wandering, it was clear there was no ‘typical’ Pokémon Go player. We saw parents with their kids, young adults, older couples, grandparents, and one gnarly Harley rider who excitedly called to his buddies in the Yorktown Pub “Hold up, I found a Pidgey!” The Colonial Triangle (Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg) in general is so snow-blindingly white that no one even thinks twice about calling it the Colonial Triangle. Yet, this afternoon was the most diverse gathering of people I’ve ever seen in Yorktown.

Asia Murphy has came up with the idea of creating a pokédex for real organisms. Thus, the #PokemonIRL hashtag was born.

I made mine up at the top, and you can, too! A template is here. You will need a graphics editor and a bit of experience, but you can make one pretty quickly. It’s a cool idea to spread the joy of finding critters, which are just as wild and exotic as any that the Pokémon Company creates.

Additional: The person who created Pokémon was a frustrated insect collector, Satoshi Tajiri (Thanks to Jon Mooallem).

Alex Lee points out that Pokémon is doing a much better job of inspiring kids than nature is. This is perhaps to be expected. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, “A game is life with the dull bits cut out.”

External links

The power of Pokémon Go
#PokémonIRL (blog post) 
Pokémon in real life blank templates
Is ‘Pokémon Go’ Good for science?
If you must play Pokémon Go, ‘catch’ some real animals while you’re at it

08 July 2016

“Proper” technical writing?

I’ve been struggling with a frustrating manuscript revision this week.

First, the manuscript was turned back to me because of formatting. I think this was the first time that a journal didn’t send the article out for review just because I hadn’t followed their style guide. In fairness, I had not followed their style guide closely enough, but it wasn’t fixing the reference format that frustrated me.

What frustrated me was that I had submitted the paper months ago, and had been waiting for something to happen. The journal had sent it back for reformatting a couple of days after I submitted it.... but never sent me an email notification about it. I only found out because I logged into the manuscript handling system just before I was about to email the editor saying, “Hey, what’s going on?” I had wasted months waiting for a decision because of that lack of notification.

After I found this out, I talked to one of my colleagues who’d had a similar experience. A paper she’s submitted sat in the editorial system, with no notifying email, because the recommendation was not “Accept,” or “Reject,” but, “We think this paper would be more appropriate to our sister journal.”

The moral of that part of the story is to log in to the manuscript submission system after a week or so to check on your paper.

I made the changes and resubmitted it. It came back again fairly quickly – and I did get an email telling me about it this time – with another style request.

Please eliminate pronouns like ‘we’, ‘I’, ‘our study’, and ‘my study’ throughout your text. Proper technical writing should not use such phrases.

I had a Return of the Jedi flashback:

Han Solo: “Well, why don’t you use your divine influence and get us out of here?”
C-3P0: “I’m sorry, that just wouldn’t be proper.”
Han: “Proper?!”

First, that little detail about not using the first person is nowhere in the journal’s rather extensive style guide. I would have avoided it if you’d told me not to do that.

Second, the comment that using first person is not “proper technical writing” is annoying. Look, I’ll try to follow your journal’s style. But don’t tell me that using first person in a scientific paper isn’t “proper.” There’s no Académie française for scientific writing that determines what is and is not acceptable. There are just common community practices. There’s been articles (in higher ranked journals than yours, by the way) arguing that we should write like we speak. For instance, Gregory (1992) wrote:

With no guidance, scientists copy what they see, and we see thing like this: “The author is of the opinion that it is appropriate to write papers in the third person.” This is ridiculous. I am the author, not a third person.

The insistence that “data” must always be always a plural noun is another example of a stylistic preference that is confused with some sort of “proper” use. I used to believe this, but argument, analysis, and common use has softened my position. The example that convinced me was that we say, “Eight hours is too long to wait.” There’s a plural noun followed by a singular verb, and nobody bats an eyelash.

There is no ultimate authority of what “proper” technical writing is that someone can appeal to. I realize that people disagree about writing style. That’s fine. But asserting that something is wrong or improper is annoying when you can find examples of that style in many journals, and there is not ultimate authority to appeal to.

Update, 13 July 2016: People on Twitter (mostly) agree: first person is technical writing is not a horrible thing to be avoided at all costs.


Gregory MW. 1992. The infectiousness of pompous prose. Nature 360: 11-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/360011a0

External links

The data is in, Pt. 2

05 July 2016

Tuesday Crustie: Under the microscope

Arthropods are wonderfully charismatic and photogenic under a scanning electron microscope. Here are a few pictures of Emerita benedicti that my student Claudette and technician Tom took for no reason than they look cool.

The animals were under the microscope for a research project that we have going on. We got some other nice pictures that may make their way into a manuscript. These were just a bonus.

27 June 2016

Making trees, or; The triumph of molecules

One more quick observation from the Evolution meeting in Austin last week.

Every tree of relationships between species I saw was based on molecular data.

This interested me, because there was a point where there was controversy about whether DNA data could be used to make phylogenies. I seem to remember articles that argued that relationships based on morphological data would generally be superior to those from DNA.

Now, I wonder if the tables have turned so much that if you put up tree based on morphological data instead of molecular data if people would look at it funny. (There would be a few exceptions, obviously, like fossil data.)

Photo by Extremely Tropical on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license.

22 June 2016

Evolution 2016, Day 5

Perhaps the highlight of my last day of the Evolution meeting was learning from Paul Durst that you can get fleas off a (dead) mouse by putting the body in a paint can shaker. The next speaker, Matthew Forister, started his talk by saying, “Dead mice in a paint shaker. Tough act to follow.”

Forister also won the “Overly honest methods” award for saying at one point, “Does this have anything to do with the real world? I don’t know.”

Some final impressions of this meeting.

I was surprised by how humourless the talks were. Dead mice in a paint shaker notwithstanding,very few people tried to make a joke. I only saw one Star Wars quote in a talk, even though a social game for students, Evolution bingo, encouraged people to put Star Wars quotes in their talks. I didn’t see any clown noses in the poster sessions, either.

The food and drink was very good. I’ve been at some small meetings that had snacks this good, but not a conference that was this big.

This was probably the smoothest running set of presentations I have ever seen. While I made fun of the chimes, they worked better than conference moderators. People started and stopped on time.

The precision timing of the talks mattered little, however, when you have one talk in room 10-C and the next one in Ballroom C. The distance between them was long enough that it took probably 3 minutes to get from one end of the meeting rooms to the other, so you were invariably missing the starts of talks.

On a related note, sixteen concurrent sessions is too many.

When you see a lot of cool talks using the same sort of organisms, you feel like the stupidest person in the world for not working on them. “Why am I not studying guppies? What is wrong with me?!”

External links

Evolution 2016 bingo card