Surely, surely, this can be modified into a field vehicle

February 28, 2007

Every primatologist would want one….

5 steps to building your scientific muscle

February 27, 2007

One of Monet's bridges

One of the basic variables of behavioral ecology is the GUT (Giving Up Time)–the amount of time an organism spends at one activity before quitting to do something else. The optimal solution to calculating an organism’s GUT is simple in principle: you quit one task when the opportunity costs–the costs of ignoring all the other stuff you could be doing–exceed the benefits of what you’re doing now.

That rodents are able to do these calculations with ease is a subject of much resentment among the scientists that study them.

But when do you stick with a project for the long haul? And what can you expect for all the effort? How do you avoid being an active participant in, gulp! an exercise in futility?

One answer is staked out in a recent article in the NYT summarizing the research of Andre Ericsson and colleagues. These are psychologists who study the correlates of expert performance. In other words, what does it take to get really, really, good at something? As their work is summarized in a 918 page tome, and I’m a wee bit behind in my reading the way it is, I will summarize the summary.

…the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice….Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.


“I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

So before we get into a knicker-twist over genes versus the environment, the message of this work seems to be that if you want to get really good at something, you have to practice, practice, practice.

But genius = good genes x workaholism.

To me, the more interesting issue relevant to this blog is the question: What sort of deliberate practice, focusing on technique and not outcome, would make one a good scientist?

An artist may paint the same bridge over and over, a dancer may practice her Tai Chi, a guitarist will work on progressions until their spinal. But what should a young scientist do over and over, focusing on the skill and not the outcome? Sure, each profession has a skill set (for me, its fixing tiny ants on tiny triangles of paper attached to stainless steel pins, so as not to immerse said ant in a sarcophagus of Elmer’s Glue)

Carebara reina, a damn tiny ant

But what intellectual practice makes you a better scientist? Here are my fives for today: Read the rest of this entry »


Celebrate skepticism

February 26, 2007

We live in a wondrous time, when anybody with passion and creativity can put something like this together and reach an audience of millions.

It gives one a modicum of hope.

UPDATE 27Feb07: This is one popular video.  If its not showing up above, you can find it here.

TGP: If operating systems ran the airlines

February 26, 2007

My academic life has spanned the computer revolution.  I wrote my undergrad thesis on an IBM selectric, learned Fortran by punching cards, and have matriculated through PCs and Apples.

This is frickin’ hilarious.

The money quote:

Mac Airlines All the stewards, captains, baggage handlers, and ticket agents look and act exactly the same. Every time you ask questions about details, you are gently but firmly told that you don’t need to know, don’t want to know, and everything will be done for you without your ever having to know, so just shut up.

Windows Air  The terminal is pretty and colourful, with friendly stewards, easy baggage check and boarding, and a smooth take-off. After about 10 minutes in the air, the plane explodes with no warning whatsoever.

Windows NT Air  Just like Windows Air, but costs more, uses much bigger planes, and takes out all the other aircraft within a 40-mile radius when it explodes.


February 25, 2007

// Good visual presentation should be evocative, as is this portion of a map “Romantic and Sexual Relations” at an unnamed high school, as reported by the research office at Ohio State University. Note that 63 pairs were unconnected to anybody else, and this info was self-reported. I’m just sayin’.

I know of at least one of these maps that was drawn for a well known field station. By the members of that field station. Nodes and links indeed.

Great design, great cause

February 25, 2007

Do what you can.

Flowcharts, how do I love thee?

February 25, 2007


I haven’t used flowcharts much in my teaching or research, but this may change soon. First, there is this marvelous mashup of flowcharts with web pages to teach copyright law. Biologists have long used keys to simplify identifying critters, but I can easily imagine using flowcharts to teach, for example, the experimental results that would allow you to identify different kinds of population regulation.

Perhaps the real utility of flowcharts for graduate students may lie in the underused but powerful practice of Strong Inference. SI endorses building a logic tree when planning your research so that each experiment tests as many different hypotheses as possible. The end result is that each experiment produced maximum bang for your research buck. I am seeing more and more flowcharts in the NSF grants I review.

How would you flowchart your dissertation research?

Finally, flowcharts are effective ways of detecting patterns in otherwise seemingly inscrutable behavior.

Read the rest of this entry »

5 steps toward teaching science in an irrational (i.e., human) society

February 24, 2007

We begin today’s discussion with an observation by Robert Kaplan:

“The world as it exists often rejects rationality, spare narratives, even truth. If we have learned anything during this age of speedier and increasingly numerous interactions between peoples with different historical experiences, it is that facts matter less than perceptions, especially perceptions informed by raw emotions. It is what people believe that is crucial, not what they actually know. What is needed, therefore, beyond guiding philosophical principles, is a vivid appreciation or just what’s out there, in the form of the myths, passions, and irrationalities that in any age are central to decision making and, in a larger sense, to the human spirit itself. Romance, rather than being antithetical to realism, is a necessary component of it.”A historian for our time, Atlantic Magazine Jan/Feb p. 80.

My takehome arises from two observations:

1) Folks attracted to the sciences are a subset of the human condition.

2) Your audience (folks reading your letter to the editor, an Intro Bio class in the heartland, your Mom’s side of the family at the annual reunion) have different skill sets that allow them to learn differently, as well as different hard-won prejudices.

3) Teaching involves providing the maximum number of your audience the highest likelihood of understanding at the deepest possible level the concepts and facts you are trying to convey.

My fives on the break. Read the rest of this entry »


February 18, 2007

CardinalCrepeMyrtle by Debby Cotter Kaspari

Cardinal Crepe Myrtle by Debby Cotter Kaspari 

One advantage of living in the southern Great Plains (especially after having grown up in the northern Great Plains) are the hints of spring that emerge about now.

In the past few days we’ve heard our first Northern Cardinals (who always sound Norweigan to me),  and Redwing Blackbird males (whose song sounds like the opening notes to the old National Geographic theme). Its wonderful to think how a dose of avian testosterone can improve the moods of other fellow members of the oak savannah ecosystem.

Any signs of the season’s passing where you are, gentle readers?

QOTD: Annals of field biology

February 18, 2007

Robert Sapolsky on field biology“[Park officials and researchers]..occupy fairly different worlds. The former are government bureaucrats who, when based in the field, wear uniforms or, when based in government offices, suits and ties; the latter, by contrast tend toward torn jeans. The former think about issues like how to increase the flow of tourism in their park, while the latter would just as well get rid of those irritating tourists entirely, so that they can study their one species of ant in idyllic peace. editor’s note: Huzzah! The former tend to be pragmatic realists who function in a realpolitik world; the latter tend toward hysterics and causes and pride themselves on having no social skills. The former typically have wildlife management degrees, while the latter tend toward more prestigious degrees from fancy-ass universities and then, in a way that the former seem to find to be almost viscerally offensive, choose to live like Luddite pigs in leaky tents. And most of all, the former seem to exist merely to shit on the spirit of every park regulation they can get away with.”

Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir

editor’s note part deux: A Primate’s Memoir captures life as a graduate student/field biologist perhaps better than any book. Furthermore, Sapolsky’s clarity and humor is a model for anybody who wants to write or teach better.