A new manifesto

March 11, 2013


Every once in a while its good to take a step back, look to the horizon, and figure out the principles that got you where you are.  Call it a mission statement or what have you, when I put together my first webpage in the mid 90’s, I wrote a manifesto. Which is now updated. You’ll have to check it out to see what went before (accompanied by the above photo of me collecting army ants). But here is V 2.0, written 17 years later.

After 17 years, it is time to update the manifesto. Much has changed. The beard is now grey; the “Coon hunter’s special” hooked up to the motorcycle battery has been replaced by a Penz with 10 LEDs; and I seriously doubt I could achieve, let alone maintain, the above posture. Mind you, the old manifesto (below) is still valid. It just needs a little updating. If it seems a bit more operational, and little less aspirational, re-read number 1; 2-6 are a roadmap toward achieving it. 


1) Change the world. Why else are we here? The world could use some help right now.


2) Always be finishing something. Wonderful advice, courtesy of Dan Janzen. It is always easier to begin a project than it is to wrestle it from 95% complete to over the finish line.


3) Quality = style * content. Style makes content go down easy; content makes it satisfy. 


4) Teaching = Writing. A corollary to 3. Writing is not dumping your thought processes onto the page. Good writing, as David Foster Wallace says, is considerate. It is empathetic. Know your audience and write for them.


5) Become the authority on something. The joy, and the responsibility, of scholarship is in becoming the go-to person on something that the world cares about (or should care about, see 1).


6) Work is play. Academia is hard, science is hard. But where else can you discover something truly new? We are the lucky ones: we exist in a civilization that values discovery. Keep the long view, and cherish those moments of transcendence. 


QOTD: Charlie LeDuff on the two rules of good journalism

February 13, 2013

QOTD: Charlie LeDuff on the two rules of good journalism

1) Get it right
2) Don’t be boring

The curse of “but have you considered?”

February 13, 2013

Why is academic writing so hard to read, and so painful to craft? Peter Elbow nails it. 

No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”. Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one. (“Elections tend to favor those who… You know what’s interesting here is the way in which political parties just… Still, if you consider how political parties tend to function…” and so on.) Alternatively, we drift intosentence interruptus: a phrase is left dangling while we silently muse — and we never return to finish it.

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:

X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.

And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.

We breed such a suspicion of anything smacking of generalization that we contort our writing to hedge, dissemble, and CYA. This is one reason why I find theoreticians to often be the best writers, at least in my field of Ecology. 

Two small steps toward remediation?  

1) Treat every appearance of the words “could”, “should”, “may” with deep suspicion.

2) When citing, focus on the first paper that dealt with the issue, the best such example, and a recent good paper in the journal you happen to be sending your manuscript to.

HT Andrew Sullivan

New Word: Inundata

February 12, 2013

Inundata (v. “I inundata”, “you inundata”, “She inundata’d”). 1.  To present and overwhelm with information that fails to address any hypothesis. 

Of course, Darwin was well aware of the phenomenon. 

QOTD: Martin Vasky on Time

February 12, 2013

 I see time as sailors see wind, or photographers see light, as something to use, manage, and shape, not as something to be a victim of, or to see go by.


Happy Friday: On deconstructing a conspiracy theory

January 25, 2013

Rationality with a slight tinge of snark, a lovely snack when served with a frosty beverage

One key to writing well: editing

January 21, 2013

Emily Temple at Flavorwire has a nice bloggy-style compilation of quotes on an unappreciated part of writing: the fine art of editing. All are great; two are special.

Pithy, but true….

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler


And I love this one. 

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

We so desperately want to get a completed manuscript off our desk that we forget that it needs to incubate a bit. When we return, our ideas have matured, and those sentences we loved (or tolerated) before, look atrocious.

OK, I’ve procrastinated enough. Time to start editing that manuscript. 

Creativity’s Recipe

January 21, 2013



Oliver Burkman has a lovely short essay on the best practices for fostering innovation. It just rings true to me. The crux:

The key to a solution lies in how you state the problem. You need to strip it of context and colour; more technically, McCaffrey argues, you need to reduce it to a specific form: “verb, noun-phrase, prepositional-phrases”. What the ski firm really needed to do was to “reduce vibrations over 1,800 hertz”. From there, it’s an easier leap from one domain to another: similar vibrations, it turns out, play havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. Violin designers address this by using a metal grid; the ski designers, finding the analogy, adapted it: problem solved.

So the recipe for doing something creative is as simple as 


1) State the problem in its most basic, explicit terms.

2) Stare at that statement and looking for analogies to problems in other fields. Apply the solution logic in those other fields to your problem.

Rinse, repeat. 

Note that 1 and 2 call on different skill sets. The first is that of the logician who also knows her system well enough to grok its essential parts. It’s *really* essential parts.  Barbara McClintock captured this in the dictum “Know your organism.” The second is that of the broadly read, intensely curious, generalist. Focus on one to the exclusion of the other, and you risk becoming the 1) drudge who only publishes in specialty journals (where you are a *star* of your niche group), or 2) the flighty person with a thousand ideas but no publications. 

It’s hard, often frustrating work trying to balance the intense understanding of one system while keeping up with issues of Science and Nature. But when you discover that the template of one field of inquiry overlays your problem in an eerily satisfying way, you can almost feel ole’ Leonardo looking over your shoulder and smiling. 

Good writing is considerate

January 13, 2013


Utilize     A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

From Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace

Your academic elevator speech

August 20, 2012

As a new grad student–or an older grad student in a new venue like a national meeting–you need to meet people. Science, after all, is a social enterprise in which you exchange ideas, review other peoples work, collaborate on experiments, and work together on often tedious but necessary committees. Getting to know the folks in your field, and getting them to know you, is an under-appreciated part of the process.

A second under-appreciated part of the sci-biz is the importance of the first impression. It is a truism that first impressions matter, that the first experience with another person sticks in your brain and colors your opinion and expectations. ResearchImage by Bertran Gawronski at U. Western Ontario suggests that subsequent impressions that conflict with the first one tend to be explained away as one-off phenomena, exceptions to what that person is really like, good or bad.

So if a basic part of science is building networks of colleagues, and first impressions matter, it is key to be prepared for the inevitable encounter with folks you want to get to know. As silly as it sounds, it is important to craft, memorize, and practice, your academic elevator speech (named for the amount of time you have between recognizing someone who is a captive audience and the time before the elevator doors open again).

Here’s what you should look for in an elevator speech.

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