Why you should never joke about a vortex

March 12, 2007

Vortex Mike

Hi all. I woke up this morning and realized that if two manuscripts did not leave my computer and head off, pink and naked, into the uncertain world of the reviewersphere, I would be an unhappy camper.  So light posting this week, the last one before blessed Spring Break here in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

Lotsa good stuff coming up, tho, not least of which, in no particular order…

1) 5 essential reading lists–of yes, 5 books each, on various topics focusing on the uberskills of academia. Each with their one, big idea, neatly summarized.

2) More on capturing your ideas–and making sure you can find them again. I’ve been polishing a discussion today and relying a lot on my old friend, DevonThink Pro Office.  If it was humanly possible, I would reach through the ether and install it on all your computers this very instant. But I can’t. Which is good.  Because it would crash your PCs. But its the thought that counts, right?

3) A return of Brown Food Web Friday–Hey, I’m an ecologist because I love studying critters and tromping around cool environments. Care to guess what this is (courtesy of Steve Yanoviak, of the ubercool website CanopyAnts.com)? Post yer conjecture in the comments.


4) An expanded blogroll–There’s a lot of great stuff out there in unexpected places. As academics we gotta be creative about finding it.

5) More on how to read, and write a scientific paper.  Which sometimes means dropping everything and going full immersion. Like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.

So bear with me while I clear the decks, get out some research, and make my co-authors much happier to have said “yes” in some dark era past.


Beware the vortex of wasted time….

March 9, 2007


Rolling Stone has clips of the 25 best South Park moments of all time.

I’ve helpfully linked to the best one.

Bwa ha ha haaaa.

Changing the world

March 9, 2007

It gives one a measure of hope when we can find three people from different walks of life who have made amazing contributions toward improving life on this tiny blue planet.

And that one of them is an evolutionary biologist.

Congratulations to James Nachtwey, Bill Clinton, and E. O. Wilson.

Why you should manage your dissertation like a stock portfolio

March 9, 2007

We conclude our discussion of Ira Glass’s excellent podcast on broadcasting.

The message here is simple. Any person who wants to be innovative must try a lot of things that don’t work. Which is to say, you will frequently find yourself  one minute, one hour, one month into a project that in the end doesn’t pan out.  If you’re not failing, you’re not trying.

This also applies, on a longer time scale, to your dissertation.

The great thing about science as a way of knowing is that failure, properly managed, is still success. The more hypotheses you test in a given project, the greater the variety of evidence you bring to bear, the more interesting the paper will even if your supercool hypothesis bites the dust. And, at the same time, you have given yourself every opportunity to see why it did or didn’t work. You’ll know more than when you started.

So make sure you build the chapters of your dissertation with the eye of an investor who is in it for the long haul. Combine sure fire, more conservative and descriptive work, with projects where you shoot for the moon.  Because, rest assured, some of those gambles will pay off.

How to lecture: two beginner’s mistakes

March 5, 2007

We continue our exploration of Ira Glass’s excellent broadcasting podcast, adapted for science graduate students by placing it on a piece of wood and banging a few nails through it.

1) Learn from the experts, don’t mimic them. All of us go through an acolyte stage. It is perfectly OK to steal, err, sample from folks you admire. But you are ultimately creating your own style and approach in the way you write, lecture, and do science. If your colleagues recognize your behavior as an imitation of professor X, or, worse yet, do imitations of you imitating professor X, you need to back off a bit.

2) Don’t be a narcissist. Show some empathy. Don’t talk down to your audience, draw them in. (Corollary: You have to be really talented to lecture like an asshole.) When I was a beginning lecturer, my wife kindly assented to sit in the back of the classroom. Note that this was the second time I had taught Principles of Ecology and I thought I was getting reasonably good at it (I wasn’t). I caught up with her at the end of class and we walked back to my office. Eager for feedback I asked “Well, how did I do?” and then braced myself for the effusive torrent of praise to come.

“Not bad, I guess.” she said. “But do you have to lecture like you have a stick up your butt?”.

So we end today’s post with that simple bit of wisdom, courtesy of Zeladoniac:  Don’t lecture like you have a stick up your butt.

Ah bdee Ah bdee Abdee…That’s all folks!

March 5, 2007


And no, I have no idea. Supply your own captions in the comments.

Big ht to OMG LMAO

The learning curve: a psychological hurdle to creativity

March 4, 2007

In our second installment from a podcast by Ira Glass, we learn about the steep learning curve in becoming a professional storyteller. One consequence is that you learn to recognize good work sooner than you learn to do good work.

This is a huge insight into one of the great banes of graduate student existence. You are a grad student because someone has recognized your raw talent, because you have a latent barometer for distinguishing good science from bad, and because you have a passion to do good work. Yet unless you are extraordinarily lucky, your first efforts, your second efforts, your third efforts, will be pretty bad. And the painful fact is that you will recognize it as not very good because, as Glass points out, you have good taste.

Remember that this is a common dilemma in mastering any creative skill. If you don’t have the tenacity and the work habits, it will grind you up.

But if you fight through it, and resolve to apprentice yourself to the task, you will move forward. As Gideon said in some earlier comments, you have to immerse yourself in grad school, absolutely drown in it.

Also, note Glass’s little diversion on how you speak to your audience. You don’t underline every third word for its emphasis (i.e., the “BBC voice”). Speak with the tones and inflections as if you were telling a story to friends around the table.

Why a lecture is not a manuscript read aloud

March 3, 2007

Have you ever listened to a lecture that was read from a manuscript? Even a beautifully written text can somehow fall flat when read from a podium. Why is that? Ira Glass, of This American Life, gives us a clue in the first segment of this remarkable podcast. We’ll be spending some time this week with Glass, as his tips for beginning podcasters resonate far wider.

The upshot: public lectures are structured differently from writing. In a public lecture, your audience can’t zoom forward or back through the text. They are living, with you, in the moment. Public lectures are intimate conversations writ large. So even scientific lectures have a large component of storytelling. And a story is made up of two parts.

Read the rest of this entry »

This is just….not….funny, people!

March 3, 2007

OK, it is, sorta.

ht Boing Boing

Al Gore: Quality = content * design

March 2, 2007


As academics we go to a lot of seminars. And in those seminars we can get a lot done. The most obvious thing we can accomplish is to learn something of what the speaker is trying to convey. But many of us relish the dim quiet of a seminar room for other reasons. It allows the mind to settle a bit, free of phones and email. It allows us to open the blank page of our notebook (an almost erotic experience for an academic) ready to scribble some thoughts down. Sometimes, inevitably, we even close our eyes for a few minutes…

This is much harder to do when the speaker goes out of his way to keep you eyes riveted to the screen by modulating his voice, pacing his presentation, and showing gorgeous, apt, visuals.

Which is to say, I just saw Al Gore’s global warming presentation. Live. A few rows back from the stage. In a rocking sports arena more than half filled with 9000 cheering undergrads along with a few professors and local dignitaries. As good as the movie An Inconvenient Truth is, the talk in its entirety, live, with audience reaction, is pretty damn special. Gore’s talk is so successful because, if I may stretch a metaphor, it is a perfect storm of compelling content presented with drama, humor, and passion. Read the rest of this entry »