30 May 2019

“Why do you love monsters?”

My wife asked me, “Why do you love monsters so much?”

Maybe because I can’t remember ever a time I didn’t know about Godzilla. The name and image - the glowing fins, the roar, the strange look that was almost a hybrid between a tyrannosaur and a stegosaur – were imprinted on me that early.

The same was true of King Kong, and maybe the Universal monsters (the Karloff Frankenstein, the Lugosi Dracula, and particularly the Creature from the Black Lagoon). You absorb a lot of pop culture that was made before you were born in your early years.

But I certainly didn’t learn about Godzilla from being exposed to the movies, because I remember the first time I actually got to see a Godzilla movie. It was in Killarney, Manitoba, when it still had a sit-down theatre. There’s no mention of that movie theatre online now; I think it was the Roxy? (There was a drive-in, too, and I think it’s still open.)

The theatre showed a lot of re-released low budget movies, ostensibly for a young audience, on weekend nights. I remember watching King Kong Escapes (long before I saw the original classic 1933 King Kong), an early anime called Magic Boy, and the oddly titled Super Stooges vs. the Wonder Women.

One week they showed Godzilla vs. The Thing. I think they had this poster to advertise it.

Needless to say, “The Thing” turned out to be rather different than the poster implied. I was not expecting... a moth.

In retrospect, this was a colossal stroke of luck. I later learned that this was generally considered to be the best Godzilla movie via the cover article in Fangoria #1. (I read and reread that article, thinking of all the Godzilla movies I had yet to see and felt I might never see. You had to work hard to be a nerd in those days.) Even though many more Godzilla films have been released since that Fangoria retrospective, lots of fans still rank Godzilla vs. The Thing among the best.

That good initial experience probably helped cement me as a lifelong Godzilla fan. Even now, I can watch that first movie and appreciate it, albeit on a different level than I could when I was young.

I don’t know if my love for Godzilla would have survived if the first movie I had seen had been something like Godzilla vs. Megalon. Or Son of Godzilla. I think that was the last of the original series I saw, and... that suit. Ugh.

But being a Godzilla fan teaches you to value hope over experience. Because, if we’re being honest, there aren’t that many good Godzilla movies. Even for a Godzilla fan, young or old, some are just utterly tedious.

Being a Godzilla fan has also taught me to bide your time. Because so many of the Godzilla movies were bad, they always had a reputation as being “cheap Japanese monster movies” that were easily dismissed. But guess what? The stuff that was derided for years finally earned some respect.

People started to realize just how hard it was to create those special effects. I look at the final monster battle in Destroy All Monsters, knowing what I know now, and am in awe. How they got all those suit actors, and wire controlling monster parts, on film at all amazes me.

People began to write about how great the music of Akira Ifukube was. Composer Bear McReary noted that the only real competitor that Ifukube’s Godzilla theme has for longevity is the James Bond theme – and the Godzilla theme is older!

The original 1954 version of Godzilla got an art house run, with all the additional American footage with Raymond Burr removed. Key shots were returned and gone was the so-so dubbing, replaced with subtitles. It was a revelation. No longer was the original Godzilla a cheap Japanese monster movie. It was a haunting classic that evoked the horror of an atomic bomb attack.

I hope the new Godzilla movie I am going to see tonight is good. But as a fan, whether it’s good or bad as a whole is almost beside the point. There will probably be some moments, images, that linger on and impress you even if the movie as a whole doesn’t.

And maybe there will be some more kids who will grow up never remembering how or when they first learned about Godzilla.

P.S.—I bought the T-shirt pictured above last year, and I never wore it. I saved it specifically to wear to the opening night of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. That night is tonight! IMAX presentation and I’m very excited!

That was close

There are many days where I am good at my job. The last weeks of the last semester were not among those days. And I say this with a couple of weeks having passed since the end of the semester.

I have a few semesters under my belt now, and I usually aim to have grading all done and posted several days before grades are due. It give students a chance to review their grades, check for any last minute corrections (which happen regularly, when there are hundreds of students).

This semester... just did not work like that.

This biggest problem was that I ran into unanticipated problems with one of my online courses. While the regular course is online, the final exam is in person to maintain the integrity of the class. (One of my colleagues was more blunt. “Because they are cheating [profanity].”)

So I booked computer labs, multiple sessions, to administer proctored exams to the students.

Except that the rooms were not exactly as advertised. Some computers flat out wouldn’t work; students could not log into them at all. Some computers crashed repeatedly, and logged students out of the exam – which, because of exam security, would mean the student would have to start the entire exam again from scratch.

These problems would turn, say, a 25 person computer lab into something more like a 20 person lab. I did not anticipate that. I had to figure out some other arrangements for people who were taking the exam on the last scheduled day. I had people taking exam for days after I thought I would have them all in and would just be grading.

I barely got the grades in on time. I wasn’t able to communicate with students as I wanted. It was very stressful.

And the moral of the story is: Don’t book computer labs to capacity. Leave a few seats empty to act as back ups.

26 May 2019

The future of education isn’t online

There is a certain class of people who are convinced that higher education as currently taught is a stupid waste of time, and that the future is to move instruction on to the Internet. I see a lot of questions on Quora asking when this will happen.

I think the notion of online learning is appealing for a certain kind of person: technologically savvy and probably rather introverted. I’m one of these people.

But most students are not like that. Most people learn best with face to face interactions instructors.

I am reminded of this by seeing this Twitter thread about Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium, which is basically an online class. Students get a computer lab and no professors.

And students hate it. I think my favourite burn is one studentwho wrote:

I would call this place hell on Earth but I don’t want to insult hell.

Even a MOOC company acknowledged that MOOCs have failed to disrupt education (they called them “dead”) in the way some people were talking.

More data shows MOOCs consistently underperform.

The vast majority of massive open online course (MOOC) learners never return after their first year, the growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world's most affluent countries, and the bane of MOOCs — low completion rates — has not improved over 6 years.

I teach some classes online, and I think you can create a good learning environment for some students. But this vision that the future of education is a bunch of YouTube videos and adaptive algorithms is not a vision that I want to see.

Update, 30 May 2019: A new report on online education adds more evidence saying they aren’t better, although this one is focused more on K-12 than higher education.

Full-time virtual and blended schools consistently fail to perform as well as district public schools.

11 May 2019

A pre-print experiment, part 3: Someone did notice

In 2016, I wrote a grumpy blog post about my worries that posting preprints is probably strongly subject to the Matthew effect. It was a reaction to Twitter anecdotes about researchers (usually famous) posting preprints and immediately getting lots of attention and feedback on their work. I wanted to see if someone less famous (i.e., me) could get attention for a preprint without personally spruiking it extensively on social media.

I felt my preprint was ignored (until I wrote aforementioned grumpy blog post). But here we are a few years later, and I’m re-evaluating that conclusion.

A new article about bioRxiv is out (Abdill and Blekman 2019), and it includes Rxivist, a website that tracks data about manuscripts in bioRvix. Having posted a paper in BioRvix, that means that my paper is tracked in Rxivist.

It’s always interesting to be a data point in someone else’s paper.

The search function is a little wonky,but I did find my paper, and was surprised (click to enlarge).

Rxivist showed that there has been a small but consistent number of downloads (Downloaded 421 times). Not only that, but the paper is faring pretty well compared to others on the site.
  • Download rankings, all-time:
    • Site-wide: 17,413 out of 49,290
    • In ecology: 542 out of 2,046
  • Since beginning of last month:
    • Site-wide: 19,899 out of 49,290
My little sand crab natural history paper is in the top half of papers in bioRxiv?

I did not expect that. Not at all.

I know there is an initial spike because I wrote my grumpy blog post and did an interview about preprints that got some attention, but even so. I know there aren’t hundreds of people doing research on sand crabs around the word, so hundreds of downloads is a much wider reach than I expected.

And some of the biggest months (October 2018) are after the final, official paper was published in Journal of Coastal Research. The final paper is open access on the journal website, too, so it’s not as though people are downloading the preprint because they are circimventing paywalls. (Though in researching this blog post, I learned a secondary site, BioOne, is not treating the paper as open access. Sigh.) (Update, 14 May 2019: BioOne fixed the open access problem!)

I am feeling much better about those numbers now than in the first few months after I posted the paper. I never would have anticipated that long tail of downloads years after the final paper is out.

And Rxivist certainly does a better job of providing metrics than the journal article does:

There’s an Altmetric score but nothing else. It’s nice that the Altmetric score for the preprint and published paper are directly comparable (and I’m happy to see the score of 24 for the paper is a little higher than the preprint at 13!), but I miss the data that Rxivist provides.

Other journals provide top 10 lists (and I’ve been happy to be on those a couple of times), but they tend to be very minimal. You often don’t know the underlying formula for how they generate those lists. The Journal of Coastal Research has a top 50 articles page that shows raw download numbers for those articles, and if you are not in that list, you have no idea how your article is doing.

While I still never got any feedback on my article before publication, I don’t feel like posting that preprint was a waste of time like I once did.


Abdill RJ, Blekhman R. 2019. Tracking the popularity and outcomes of all bioRxiv preprints. eLife 8: e45133. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.45133

Faulkes Z. 2016. The long-term sand crab study: phenology, geographic size variation, and a rare new colour morph in Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae). BioRXiv https://doi.org/10.1101/041376

Faulkes Z. 2017. The phenology of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae). Journal of Coastal Research 33(5): 1095-1101. https://doi.org/10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-16-00125.1 (BioOne site is paywalled; open access at https://www.jcronline.org/doi/full/10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-16-00125.1)

Related posts

A pre-print experiment: will anyone notice?
A pre-print experiment, continued

Fiddly bits and increments

External links

Sand crab paper on Rxivist

10 May 2019

Reliable shortcuts

There’s an old saying that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.

I think that’s true of shortcuts, not mousetraps.

Everyone wants reliable shortcuts. They don’t want to have to assess every available option every single time.

Best seller lists, Consumer Reports, “Two thumbs up!” from Siskel and Ebert, “Certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, “People also shopped for” on Amazon, “Five stars” on Yelp!, and awards shows are all efforts to create shortcuts.

An amazing number of arguments in academia are about shortcuts. Almost every debate about tenure and promotion and assessments of academics I have seen or read is about shortcuts. Arguments about the GRE are about shortcuts.

I got thinking about shortcuts because of this article on what journals go into PubMed.

For some members of the scientific community, the presence of predatory journals, publications that tend to churn out low-quality content and engage in unethical publishing practices—has been a pressing concern.

Rebecca Burdine is among the concerned, because she advised people to use PubMed as a shortcut.

I could tell parents “researching” their rare disease of interest that if it wasn’t on PubMed, then it shouldn’t be given lots of weight as a source.

Stephen Floor thinks the problem is even wider:

This has also contributed to the undermining of “peer reviewed” as a measure of validity.

But again, “peer reviewed” is a shortcut. Anyone who’s been in scientific publishing for a while knows that assessing scientific evidence is messy and complicated. Every working scientist has their own “That should never have gotten past peer review!” story.

We will never, ever get rid of shortcuts. People crave certainty and simple decision making rules. But we should talk about using shortcuts in science in realistic ways.

It is not reasonable to expect any shortcut to be perfectly reliable all the time. Don’t ask, “Which shortcut is better?” but “How can I use a few different shortcuts?”

Unfortunately, scientists who understand the nuances of a situation often do a shoddy job of conveying that nuance. Or maybe they just get tired of being pressed for shortcuts. So we have kind of brought this on ourselves.

External links

Academics Raise Concerns About Predatory Journals on PubMed