30 June 2006

It must have been the long hair

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Honest and a defender of the innocent.

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

28 June 2006

Feeling like a scientist

Very, very busy day today, what with class, paperwork, and working with students and colleagues. The good news today for me was that I was working with two students on experiments that have been sputtering for a long time -- started, but not really carried through to completion. Students would start things but abandon them before we could finish, or we would run out of animals. I'm thinking that may, just maybe, I'll be able to push those projects further along. I actually felt like something approaching a productive researcher.

Getting worried about how fast I'm going to have to get ready to lecture for Friday, but not much I can do about it.

The not so good news was that camera system on one of our major microscopes was acting very flaky and unpredictable. I think there's something going wonky with the computer, but it's very hard to pin down.

27 June 2006

Bagging a roc with a slingshot

RocWe got one.

After so many tries in the department to get external funding solo, my collegue Anita has managed to pull down a six-figure equipment grant from the National Science Foundation.

Let there be much praise sung and much chocolate purchased for our mighty hunter, who brought down seemingly impossible prey.

As it happens, I also submitted a proposal to the same program at the same time. I should be hearing news on my proposal "Real Soon Now."

24 June 2006

Beautiful Evidence reviewed

Baeutiful Evidence coverEdward Tufte's three previous books -- The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explantions -- were good purchases. They're the sort of book that I go back to again and again, sometimes just browsing through just to get a little inspiration.

Consequently, I looked forward to receiving Tufte's fourth major book on information design, Beautiful Evidence. There was something different about reading this book compared to the others, though. Tufte has posted several sections on his discussion board well in advance to get feedback on the ideas. I was one of the many "Kindly Contributors," as Tufte calls them, on those chapters, particularly one on phylogenetic trees. Further, one chapter had already been printed as a little booklet on PowerPoint. It so successful that it went to two editions.

Furthermore, a cursory glance reveals many examples that Tufte has already talked about at some length in his earlier three books. There's the works of Galileo. There is a whole chapter about Minard's chart of Napolean's march towards Moscow, which Tufte pretty much single-handedly made famous in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in which he said it might be the best statistical graph ever. High praise from a demanding taskmaster!

Given that a good chunk of the book was already familiar to me, was there anything new to be learned? Absolutely.

The first chapter concerns annotating pictures, which Tufte calls "mapped images." Right away, two of the books themes emerge. First, the importance of integration of different types of data. Here, pictures are the focus with the words providing supplemental information. Second, a concern is raised about dubious evidence, with the work of Ernst Mössel. Mössel tried to create a universal description of art, but ended up with a system that was so all encompassing that it could not be shown to be wrong.

The second chapter continues on the theme of integrating information in Tufte's concept of sparklines. Sparklines are little mini graphs that are meant to be fully incorporated into text. To my disappointment, the HTML that would be required to stick a sparkline in the blog falls into the "more trouble than it's worth" category. But a few people are experimenting with these, and there are a few sparkline plug-ins for word processors that can be found on the web. I've used one of these in my own writing, though; shown here is something from one of my annual review documents.

It will be interesting to see if any high end technical journal will consider using these routinely.

The next chapter concerns using lines to link together. Tufte argues that most lines are underutilized, and could contain much more information and be much more useful than they usually are.

The fourth chapter is, to my mind, the heart of the book: "Words, numbers, images -- together." That statement is simple, but the many excellent examples make this a deep exploration of the idea. A chapter section on Galileo's work is wonderful. Every scientist knows Galileo's contributions, but seeing them through Tufte's words and pictures gave me a much deeper appreciation of the impact Galileo had. Tufte credits Galileo with a "forever idea," which, in a word, might be "empiricism." More to the theme of the book, however, Tufte uses Galileo's work to show how his arguments were enhanced by an integration of word and image. Again, this is an idea that Tufte has talked about before, that good displays put many comparisons in "eyespan," but the point is pushed farther in this book than before.

Similarly, the fifth chapter on Minard's chart is worth Tufte's revisit, as he uses it to exemplify powerful general principles we can learn about how to make "intense" displays that generate credible, powerful evidence. One simple example lesson from this chapter: sign your work. Credibility is enhanced by accountability.

Bad evidence, which had been introduced in the beginning, returns in force in the next two chapters, the second of which contains Tufte's already famous indictment of PowerPoint. Making a graph, Tufte argues, is an ethical act. Again, this is not a new idea for Tufte, since he introduced the "lie factor" in his first book. What is new is his argument that consuming such information is also an ethical act. Too often, we are lazy and don't hold liars accountable. These are powerful and important messages in an age of spin and truthiness. As I've said before, a lie left unchallenged gains the perception of truth.

The book's last chapter, on pedastals for sculptures, is the weakest and could have been omitted. It is disconnected from the rest of the book. The book, after all, is supposed to be about evidence. Nobody that I know of has ever claimed that scultural pedastals were ever intended or perceived to be evidence. Instead, the chapter showcases one of Tufte's other interests, outdoor abstract scultures. Still, Tufte's passion and thoughtfulness still shines, so much so that this deviant chapter is almost forgivable. Almost.

Similarly, I am puzzled by the choice of dust cover, which shows a series of pictures of one of Tufte's dogs leaping into a lake. Beautiful they may be, but are they evidence? If so, of what?

And I'll put out just one more thing that annoyed me in the text. In a few points, Tufte suggests that we ask ourselves, "What would Richard Feynman think?" I find this just as annoying as, "What would Jesus do?" I have no way of knowing how bright (Feynman) and profound (Jesus) people will respond to new and novel situations. Isn't this one of the reasons we find these people to be bright or profound? It's more useful to invoke their principles than trying to use imprecise empathy to figure out what to do. Particularly when I ask, "What have I done?" and see that I've approached the same problems in several different ways, often with equal success. In other words, when I see a bad graph, I think it's more useful to think of one of the many simple but deep ideas presented in Beautiful Evidence ("Show comparisons, contrasts, differences") instead of asking, "How would Tufte redesign this graph?" I could only really answer the latter question if I have buckets of money to try to hire Tufte as a consultant.

Finally, I am left wondering about cases where the evidence may be highly credible -- but is not beautiful. While working on this review, I was reading a scientific paper for my evolution class (Pellmyr, Olle & Leebens-Mack, James. 1999. Forty million years of mutualism: Evidence for Eocene origin of the yucca-yucca moth association. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96: 9178–9183; click here for abstract). The evidence is highly credible and believable, but I daresay that it is not beautiful. The argumentation is precise, but deadening. Tufte talks about ways that flawed evidence may be concealed (second hand repackaging: e.g., textbooks presenting summaries of technical papers that very few have read). But papers like this raise another way that flawed evidence might hide that Tufte does not discuss: "If it's incomprehensible, it must be brilliant." * People have become accustomed to research using techniques that are so new, few people understand them. Unintelligibility itself becomes an indication of credibility. That's bad. I think there's more to be said here, but perhaps that will be Tufte's book five, since the introduction promises he has more to say on the subject.

This book is, of course, going to be widely read and highly praised. But I don't think it will it be read enough. It is frustrating to read something like this advocating ethical scholarship and standards for evidence when there are new books that flat out lie about science (yeah, I'm looking at you, Ann Coulter). And when you can lie about science -- that part of human endeavor that Galileo transformed with his forever idea that it was all about evidence -- you can lie about anything.

To do your bit to kill truthiness, you could do much worse than following the principles in Beautiful Evidence.

* I call "If it's incomprehensible, it must be brilliant" the 2001 principle, because I think it explains why so many people sing praises to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many virtues it has, I admit, but the thing does not make sense.

I knew it

Back in March, I gave a public talk for Brain Awareness Week, "Brain Scans and the Magic Lasso." (An archived version is here).
In it, I talked about how I saw the use of fMRI as imminent in legal situations. And I was right, as I learned listening to the Nature podcast this week (transcript here). Companies called No Lie MRI and Cephos are going to sell commercial lie detection systems based on fMRI. And I pretty much called that in my talk. Legal challenges will happen, I predict.

23 June 2006

Thought from an administrator

Quote from yesterday's provost candidate that I quite liked:

"A vision without a plan is fantasy. A plan without a vision is drudgery."

Even though I'm unsure if he's my favourite candidate, hey, at least I got a good quote from going to the ope forum...

22 June 2006

The time monsters

This week is one of those weeks. Forgot about finding time to blog or work on the book manuscript, finding time to go to the washroom is a major accomplishment. This week consists of: Get up, get ready for class, class, run to tail end of faculty senate meeting with provost candidate, lunch, get quiz ready for class, for to open forum with provost candidate, work with intern Amanda, few minutes to try to tie up loose ends, home for dinner, exercise, sleep.

And that's the day. Repeat five times. Use weekend to catch up.

I'm horribly behind on some classwork and a few other things, largely because the provost interviews are chewing up a big chunk of the day. But it's really important to see those interview situations, because this is the #2 job on the campus. It's one of the ones that can have a huge impact on the overall health of the place. Not to mention my own career.

18 June 2006


Athropod Structure and Development Top 25Hey, I was almost hot (scientifically) in July through September 2004. Go way down to #22. Never noticed that before.

Oh, yeah...

As a Canadian, I am contractually obligated to say:

Go Oilers.

Now back to paperwork. I mean it this time.


Manuscript word count for 18 June 2006I think there's something to be said for this obsessive tracking of a project in a public forum. It was able to get me off my bum and get a few hundred words in on my book manuscript, after a week or so of thinking about other things (class, interns, etc.). I've heard B.F. Skinner used a similar technique when writing. He would keep track of what he was doing, and would only allow himself to take speaking engagements when he was above his target number.

Anyway, back to the many other tasks that need doing. Many, many other tasks...

17 June 2006

Taxonomic romance

Blepharipoda occidentalisIn our graduate evolution class yesterday, my colleague Anita revealed that there is a group of beetles named after her.

I was instantly jealous.

By way of a few quick reminders, the traditional method of classifying organisms is to have seven levels: Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. The names have to be in Latin or Greek, although "latinizing" names or words from other languages is allowed. Ths person who describes a group gets to name it. Names are often descriptive of the organism's look or living space. For instance, take the case of the sand crab Blepharipoda occidentalis (pictured), which I studied for my doctoral work. Blepharipoda, the genus name, means "eyelash feet," which refers to the fringes of hairs (setae) that line the beautifully curving leg tips (dactyls) that they use for digging into sand. They live on the west coast of North America, and their specific name, occidentalis, reflects this, as it means "western."

Taxonomists are free, however, to name species and genera and so forth whatever they want. Locally, when my colleague Bob Edwards described a new species of fish, he named it Gambusia clarkhubbsi after a Texas ichthyologist, Clark Hubbs.

But you don't need to be a scientist to get a species named after you (though it probably helps). Returning to sand crabs for a second, Chris Boyko works on the taxonomy of sand crabs like Blepharipoda. He's also a fellow comics enthusiast (loves Chester Gould), and a man who made my writing life hell by splitting one sand crab family into two, making it much harder to describe some work I did. Be that as it may. He named one sand crab after The Simpsons creator Matt Groening: Albunea groeningi. He named another after Peanuts character Lucy (infamous for her "crabby" disposition): Lepidopa luciae.

Anita got a genus of beetle named after her because, well, she happened to be dating a beetle taxonomist at the time.

I'm so jealous.

I have genus envy.

(Yeah, that's right, I wrote this whole long blog entry just to make that one lousy pun.)

16 June 2006


Motivator: Tenure-track
Friday afternoon has been nice to me today. No talk to think about that's less than 24 hours away. Nobody bothering me, for the most part. Just a chance to stop and think for a few minutes and get my head organized. I realized several NSF grant deadlines were coming up, so I started work on at least one of those. I may take a crack at more than one, who knows. Still many things that need doing and not enough of them done (must email grad students and prospective grad students...), but I didn't feel as rushed-pushed as I felt much of the week earlier.

15 June 2006

In turn...

Internship motivatorIn another one of those still-not-quite-sure-how-this happened events of the summer, I spent this afternoon meeting with various people about a summer internship program with high school students. I'll have a student, Amanda, working with me for six weeks starting next Monday. Not quite sure what I'll have her do yet. Will have to spend some time sorting out project ideas next week.

Speaking of the grad class, it's going very well, all things considered. My colleague Anita thought today went well -- which was good, considering it was on a very subtle topic (units of selection).

12 June 2006

Today's loss of productivity

Contradiction motivation posterClick image to enlarge if you can't read the text. I took the picture of the box that I actually received from Carolina Biological Supply, but created the fake poster style with the instantly addictive Motivator.

10 June 2006

Ahead of the game?

Manuscript count 10 June 2006One week of summer class down. The class (Evolutionary Theory) is going as well as can be expected for the first time. The thing I'm enjoying about it the most is that, as I expected, my colleague Anita and I have very different strengths and interests. She can put together lectures on stuff that I couldn't. At least, not without way more preparation, difficulty, and stress on my part.

As far as the book manuscript goes, I have no idea how I'm managing to keep the word count above the 200 words a day target (graph). But I am, though the curve is clearly starting to flatten, and the writing is going to start getting harder very quickly.

04 June 2006


Just as people are curious about their family lineage, academics are curious about their intellectual lineages. An intellectual lineage is more complex than a family lineage in some ways, because of course while we're restricted to two parents, we are often fortunate to have many excellent teachers who contribute to our intellectual development.

Nevertheless, the usual tradition is to trace intellectual influences back through Ph.D., since that's the highest degree, and usually the one that people spend the most time on, and the one that typically establishes the closest working relationship between student and mentor.

I knew my Ph.D. supervisor, Dorothy Paul, worked with Don Kennedy. Don Kennedy is a pretty well known figure in science, because he edits the journal Science. But I couldn't find out in my digging who Don Kennedy worked with. I decided to use a rather old fashioned technique to find out: I wrote a letter.

To my surprise, considering how hectic being Science editor must be, Don Kennedy wrote me back a short but very nice letter back very promptly. To my surprise, he worked with Don Griffin, whose work is famous in biology. He demonstrated how bats found their way in the dark: by echolocating. In animal behaviour, he was also a strong advocate for the field that became known as cognitive ethology.

I have yet to work out who Don Griffin did his doctoral work with. May take a while, but I'll keep it in mind.

03 June 2006

Here we go 'round again

I spent a good chunk of the day in my lab doing work related to my current manuscript that's in revision. It's necessary but unglamorous grunt work: all I'm trying to do is to get some pictures of already known results.

One of the great joys of doing research is that you get to find out new things. But the downside is that you always have to do it more than once. Replication is critical to science. In fact, I was listening to an interview with a parapsychologist (A little searching reminds me that it was Michael Thalbourne) who talked about the "well-known fact" that results in parapsychology get weaker over time as people try to replicate them, not stronger.

And I thought, "There's your sign."

The effect gets worse the more you try to study it? That's the exact opposite of regular science, and to me speaks volumes about why parapsychology doesn't get respect. It's pathological science to say, "Oh, effects get weaker as we look for it again."

In my case, I'm trying to get a few pictures of crayfish neurons. The ones I'm interested in were well described about 30 years ago, and are well known. But, since the point of the paper I'm working on is to compare similar neurons in a species that is not a crayfish, it helps to have pictures showing that I can in fact see what everyone else has described, and that any differences are not just due to dodgy techniques on my part.

And, to make matters even less interesting, I even have some pictures of the relevant cells. They're just not very pretty. But, because I think this manuscript has a chance to actually be a bit more widely read than some of my other stuff, I figured I might as well take the time to try to get some stuff that looks nice.

Necessary, but trying to maintain enthusiasm while doing replicates is awfully hard for me. Research is much more fun when you don't know what the answer is going to be.

02 June 2006

Holy cow, it's June?

Yeah. It's June. My new graduate class, Evolutionary Theory, starts Monday. It runs every day and I'm just working on Friday's talk. Luckily, I'm co-teaching it with my colleague Anita Davelos Baines, because otherwise, I'd only be working on Wednesday's talk and I'd getting ready for complete panic on Thursday. Instead of moderately nervous for the following Monday (10 days time).

Fortunately, I've managed to get somewhat ahead in my target word count for the book manuscript. Which is good, because I think that red line is going to flatten next week.