31 August 2008

Wooden spoon

Poor Dees. I guess it's a case of wait 'til next year...

Note: The "wooden spoon" indicates the team that comes last in the AFL home and away season.

30 August 2008

Cost of education

I recently saw this interesting graph from The New York Times, which shows the cost of education in the U.S. way, way, way outpacing everything else measured in terms of inflation.

I wonder how that steep education line breaks down? K-12 versus university? Cost of tuition versus books? I've taken a quick peek at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but nothing is immediately jumping out.

It's frightening that education, one of the great levelers of inequality, seems to be rapidly becoming a means of generating debt, not wealth.

Texas Higher Education and Creation Research, Part 29

The author of EvolutionBlog had the gumption to go to a conference on creationist research (no snickering, please). There several posts in a series of his report, but I wanted to point out Part 3, which has some interesting comments from "an enthusiastic young woman identifying herself as affiliated with the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School." I've been blogging extensively on ICR's efforts to get permission to offer Master's degrees in Science Education, so her comments make for interesting reading. Much of the post centers around some ill-chosen words for which the speaker apologized, but I'll just call out this:
I don't think Christians understand the depth of the stronghold evolutionists have in our system. They have engineered things to stop anything that we say, to report anything that we say.

We're doing a really, really bad job of our "stranglehold," when pretty much every poll that I've seen indicates that a huge fraction of U.S. citizens disagree with the conclusions of evolutionary science.

Also, several people suggested the ICR offer a Master's degree in Religious Studies rather than Science Education. Is it "strangling" someone's point of view to ask them to put a different label on the bottle?

29 August 2008

One step forward, two steps back

Yesterday was one of that days that makes you wonder, "What am I doing here?"

You try to create positive change. Treat students a little better and grow a program.

And people elsewhere just undercut it.

The crux of the issue is that we're looking at cutting pay for student assistants. I'm hoping we can avoid it. But right now, I doubt it.

26 August 2008

Tools of the trade

In my job as a professional science writer, I use no less than eight different software packages to get the job done. And that number is tending to go up, not down.

On the writing side, I use word processor, obviously. I'm using Microsoft Word for most of my work, but lately I've started using Google Docs when I have to collaborate with students.

A word processor alone doesn't help much with the task of references, though, so software package number 2 is a specialized reference manager; I'm currently using EndNote.

Now that I have the words under control, I need to deal with numbers. Microsoft Excel is great for data entry and simple manipulation, but again, I'm moving towards Google Docs for certain tasks. But Excel can't do the sort of high end analysis that I need as a scientist. So I have a statistics package (currently SPSS), and scientific graphing software (currently Origin), bringing the total to five.

I find I also need two kinds of graphics software: one for vector based images, and one for a pixel based images. I've been using Corel Draw since version 3, so I'm going to continue to use it for as long as I can for the vector images. Luckily, the package also includes Corel Photo-Paint for the pixel images.

I could, strictly speaking, stop there. But I consider posters a sort of manuscript, and I could use my graphics packages for making posters -- and have done so in the past. But I've found a simple desktop publishing program can actually be faster and easier. Microsoft Publisher is little known but very useful in this regard.

And that's what I use just for mastering my manuscripts, never mind presentations or websites or other odds and ends.

25 August 2008

Here I go again with the classes

First day of class today. Both classes were in a building I literally had never stepped into until today.

One class, Biological Writing, is an entirely new class to me. I plan on that class being interesting. In the Chinese sense of the word.

22 August 2008

Escape to the island

Today was the last weekday before classes start next week. So, unusually for me, I did something sensible.

I got the heck outta Dodge.

I had decided to go to the Coastal Studies Lab, and nothing came up that prevented me from going, as so often happens. I did leave a little later than planned, as I got into an early morning unexpected hallway conversation about how messed up certain assessment practices were.

On the drive out, I used to feel guilty about not going to the Coastal Studies Lab -- and I still do. But now I also feel guilty about going to the Coastal Studies Lab. My carbon footprint is on my mind a lot.

The day was just about perfect for collecting. Not very busy, and cloudy. Particularly important today, as aI forgot my sunscreen (again) at home. I was able to get everything I went to South Padre Island for, but the best thing may have been that I got an idea for a fun little project I'll have one of my students get on.

I returned to the department to a broken photocopier -- which is a big deal just before classes start because all the instructors want to copy their class outlines -- and our hardworking clerk staying late to copy the material for the professors who had gone home already. She also tells me there was a steady stream of people going by my office looking for me.

Heh. But I fooled them...

Very tired, though. While I was not as waxed as if it had been sunny, I was shoveling for a few hours on the beach, and it's hard yakka.

21 August 2008

The Zen Hokey Pokey

If you go to the CBC entertainment wesbite, you can listen to the hokey pokey my way. Don't scroll down if you want to listen to the live clip. A transcription is below the picture, for when the clip is removed, as I'm sure it will eventually be.

The Zen Hokey Pokey

You take your left arm
And you don’t move it at all
You take your right arm
And you keep it really still
Sit in contemplation
Doing Zen meditation
Is that what it’s all about?

You take your left foot
And you leave it where it is
You take your right foot
And you completely clear your mind
Practice non-attachment
Surrender everything
Now you’re doing the Zen meditation

20 August 2008

About where I expected we'd end up with sasquatch

Yup. It was a fake.

And a low-level fake, too. I mean, I thought mistaking a possum for sasquatch was bad, but a gorilla suit?
Two researchers bought the "carcass", encased in ice, for an undisclosed sum.

But as it thawed it turned out to be a rubber monkey outfit.


19 August 2008

Getting the office under control

Now that I've managed to tame my email inbox for work, I'm working on the rest of the office. This is somewhat scary. I found some paperwork I had to sign off on that hit my desk in... oh... start of November 2007.


18 August 2008

Inbox zero

I have no email in my main inbox.

That probably hasn't been empty for the better part of a year. My email inbox has generally been way, way backed up, which is indicative of how ratty this last academic year has been. The task of emptying my inbox was inspired by a recent post by Seth Godin.

I'm going to see how often I can keep that inbox counter to zero, and try to initiate a few things instead of catching up.

Of course, this does overlook the fact that I have... how many email addresses? Yeesh.

15 August 2008

More sasquatch honesty than expected

From a story in The Age:
One of the two samples of DNA said to prove the existence of the Bigfoot came from a human and the other was 96 per cent from an opossum, according to Curt Nelson, a scientist at the University of Minnesota who performed the DNA analysis.

Possum? Are you kidding me?

And I thought it would be hard to mistake a bison for a sasquatch.

They tried to pass off a frickin' possum as an undiscovered bipedal hominid?
Biscardi said the DNA samples may not have been taken correctly and may have been contaminated, and that he would proceed with an autopsy of the alleged Bigfoot remains, currently in a freezer at an undisclosed location.

Give unto me a break.

You have contamination problems when you're dealing with traces from a crime scene, ancient DNA from hundreds or thousands of years ago, not when you have a two meter biped stored in a freezer that you can grab a few chunks from.

Smell the popcorn, carny's comin' to town

The sasquatch news is progressing about as I expected with this morning's news story in The Age:
The two men who claim to have found Bigfoot have admitted to filming a hoax video with a fake scientist, but they still claim they have a real Bigfoot corpse in the freezer and will reveal all at a press conference.

This reminds me a lot of the English girls who claimed to see fairies, fooled so many people, admitted to faking photographs but insisted they had seen fairies.


Yesterday, I didn't get a chance to post my predictions: that they'd show pictures of gels of claimed DNA, but not allow any other labs to take samples.

This is unraveling fast.

14 August 2008

Off-site meetings

I spent the evening and will spend most of tomorrow at a lengthy college meeting.Because it was off campus, it was called a "retreat."

Should major organizational meetings be given a name that means, "to go backwards"?

Hype, hoax, or hope?

US hunters claim they have found bigfoot.

Headline pretty much says it all. Except it should say, "US hunters claim they have found sasquatch," as far as I'm concerned.

I've blogged a fair amount about new species, because it shows how much we need to learn about the biology of our planet. For my thoughts on sasquatch, see here.

I suspect this is going to turn out like this previous sighting... That the pictures on on a site called http://www.inquisitr.com/ does not fill me with hope.

The picture itself does not fill me with hope. It looks a little too "carnival sideshow" to me.

12 August 2008

Zeroing out

BalanceIt took seven years.

I was able to stay pretty much in the black all the way through my undergraduate and graduate education. I went briefly into a bit of debt to move across 3 times zones to my first post-doc, but I was out of debt before I started my second post-doc in Melbourne.

The end of my second post-doc was when I went seriously into the red, long term.

I had to a trans-Pacific move back to North America. When I came back, I was unemployed for a while and owed taxes. I was offered the job I currently hold a couple of months later, and then had a trans-continental move. That combination sunk me. I got a line of credit with my bank extended, and that was how I paid to get here to start my job.

I was slowly paying off the debt, but sunk back when I decided to hire a lawyer to help with my green card application (worth every penny), and had to dip into the credit line again.

Today, thanks to some summer teaching and a little bit of grant salary, I paid back the last big of money owed on my credit line. Today, I am not debt free (I still have a lot of payments left on the world's friendliest car), but this is a relief.

I mention all of this just in case you ever wondered when in their career professors start to pull into the black. Everything in this job is about the long haul.

08 August 2008

One for the quote file

Science is like a good friend: sometimes it tells you things you don’t want to hear. It tells you the truth.

- Charlie Booker, "Charlie Booker's Screen Burn" for 2 August 2008, The Guardian

07 August 2008

Should conferences be necessary for faculty?

Departments should remove conference presentations as a requirement of job performance.

I love research conferences. They're one of my favourite parts of my job. But increasingly, I feel incredible guilt every time I travel by any means other than foot. Jet fuel is a big greenhouse gas source.

I will have to struggle with my own conscience over my own personal decisions to travel to conferences or not, but there is something institutional that can be done.

Right now, our department expects -- indeed, requires -- faculty give conference presentations to get tenure. I imagine it's the same in many other departments in many other universities.

It made perfect sense not too long ago to require conference presentations. It's not that long ago that video -- heck, even simple graphics -- on the net was a pain. (Some of you might remember the days of Gopher with me.) It was faster and more efficient to communicate by physically meeting in one place.

I'm not sure that's true now. Look at the phenomenal TED talks, for instance. We have reached the point where we can think about doing research communication very differently.

05 August 2008

Pull and push

A Blog Around The Clock contains a nice analysis on something I've discussed before, and that many are starting to notice, namely how easy it easy to find things that conform to your pre-existing beliefs:
The difference between now and then, now being 2008 and then being, let's say, 1958, is in the distribution. With three TV channels, a local paper or two, a local radio station or two, everyone got the same serving of both news and entertainment. This was a "push" - the information is pushed onto the audience, who has to take it or go live in a cave. ...

Today, the media reality is that it is a "pull" model - there are so many outlets, hundreds of cable channels, increased numbers of magazine, millions of blogs, satellite radio, that everyone searches for information and entertainment they are interested in. And ignore the rest. ...

The only venue I can think of, the only place where "push" still works and people are literally forced to listen to things they personally don't care about - is school.

And after that rattling around in the back of my mind for the day, it dawned on me that this is why creationists are putting so much effort into attacking the teaching of evolution in schools. School is rapidly becoming the only place where kids might hear opposing views.

Now that I think about it, I can't help but wonder if the "push" model of might also be doomed.

03 August 2008

Note to travelers: We can take your stuff

If you're crossing a border into the United States, the government can take away anything electronic for any reason for any length of time and give the information on it to others.

Read more here.

Many scientists cross American borders to go to conferences or to do field work. And most are highly dependent on their laptops in particular, which are often used for data collection, grant writing, and so on. Taking away a computer could be devastating. So I'm labeling this one as "Science and politics."

02 August 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 19: U and W

Memory is U shaped. Presentations should be W shaped.

People tend to have higher recall for the start of things and the end of things than bits in the middle. The tendency to remember the start of things is the "primacy effect," and the tendency to remember the end is the "recency effect."

Consequently, the start and end of a presentation are rather important, because that's something people will tend to remember no matter what you do. This is both a blessing and a curse, since you don't have to work hard here. If you summarize your talk at the opening and closing, people will tend to get the message and you don't have to do a lot of work to get their attention and have them remember it. On the other hand, if the opening or closing do not go smoothly... they'll remember that, too.

I first became aware of how screen writers approached pacing by an article about Malcolm Hulke, who wrote a lot of television in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed he wrote a book about it. Hulke argued that a story should be W shaped. You need something at the start to get the audience's attention, and a big finish -- which is perfectly in line with the U shape of memory recall.

The place where you have to do the most work is in the middle.

After a few minutes, people's attention starts to drift. It's in the middle of a presentation that people are less likely to be engaged. You have to do something to bring them back on board, and keep them engaged. This is the middle peak of the W. In a presentation, there are several things you can do. Change the pace or the tone. Do the unexpected. Do something to refocus the audience's attention. If this was a movie or a TV show, you would have a car chase, plot twist, or a dinosaur appear.

This discussion from a Nature podcast is, I think, another variation on the "W" scheme:

Focussing in a way on the idea of mini-cliffhanger this seems to be a thing that lots of good movies have in common. If you imagine Bruce Willis making his way through the skyscraper in Die Hard, he has sort of intermittent battles with the terrorists, which kind of comes to our head at various points and then things calm down a bit and then a new cliffhanger builds up and he gets into another fight. ...

(W)eirdly enough that pattern also seems to happen in Casablanca, if you imagine, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berkman's characters. They are not fighting obviously, but while they are in a way, they're, sort of, wrestling with their feelings and they are, sort of, drawn together and then apart and together and there is a, sort of, mini-cliffhanger's feeling there(.)

A "mini-cliffhanger" is one way to create that middle peak of the W.

01 August 2008

Something I totally forgot about...

StardustMy name was in space.

Monkey off my back

And the revisions are done and the manuscript is submitted! Poor manuscript, waiting for almost a year for me to get some uninterrupted time so I can focus on it and complete it.

If and when I get this paper accepted, I think I'll tape up the first page where I can see it and write on it with a Sharpie: "Never again."

Hypothetically speaking

Times Higher EducationOver in Time Higher Education, there's an article by Tim Birkhead of note. He writes:

The scientific research councils seem to be obsessed by hypothesis testing.

The little bit about "research councils" is something that casual readers might miss. What Birkhead is really bitching about is not hypothesis testing. It's about money.

This point become a little clearer here:

The entire funding strategy by the research councils is risk averse.

Again, this has little to do with hypothesis testing, and a lot with the amount of available resources. "Research councils" are government agencies. As such, they are accountable to people who tend to have a very dim view of research in the first place. In times of restraint, many will favour the safe bet, the guaranteed return, rather than the boom and bust excitement of investing in long shots.

As someone who has suffered at the end of the grant killing phrase "too descriptive" more than I'd care to recall, I'm sympathetic. But to blame hypothesis testing as too limiting is wrong.

Blog posts that make you cringe

I hope, I really, really hope, that I've never said anything as stupid to any of my colleagues as the questions documented here.

I hate revisions

There are some parts of the scientific enterprise that are more fun for me than others. Very low on the list are revising manuscripts after they have been reviewed.

The good news is that the manuscript is always better after revision.

The bad new is that the amount of improvement is much less than the amount of effort that goes into making the improvement.

I'm currently trying to deal with an almost off-handed comment by one reviewer. There will definitely a paragraph and a couple of extra lines in the paper that wouldn't have been there without that query... but it's taken me most of yesterday afternoon and all morning to do the research to track down the answer.

This is one reason (though by no means the only one) why a couple of my manuscripts have been awaiting revision for way too long. One is finally in press, and I'm working hard to get the other one back to the editor.

Back to the revision... very close to done now, I think.