Another GTDA haiku

January 28, 2008


Today winter pales
a Bewick’s wren’s buzzy song.
Yay! Southern Great Plains!

h/t Friends of Edgewood Nature Preserve


5 transformative email tips

January 28, 2008

email.jpegEmail is still a relatively new tool. However, its power, for good or evil, is clear. To get the most out of email, and minimize its suckiness, consider the following five tips. Also, be considerate of your elders, who stubbornly retain many of the worst email habits. They were trained, after all, on V 1.0.

The first four come from an interview with Marilyn Paul, on Matt’s Idea Blog.

  1. Use subject-line protocols to speed communication: a.) No reply needed – NRN; b.) Thank you – TY; c.) Need response by date and time – NRB 10/30 3:00 pm; d.) Use subject line for whole message: Meet 10:00 10/30 Okay? END Mike: This is becoming standard practice, but don’t be surprised if an older colleague or –yikes!–your major advisor “replies to all” with a message “Yes, but when is the meeting?”. Don’t worry. She’ll only make that mistake, ohhh, five times or so.
  2. Keep e-mails short. Most should be no more than 1-10 sentences. Communicate your main point in the first sentence or two. Don’t make readers work because you don’t have time to focus.
  3. Don’t deliver bad news in an e-mail message. If it’s urgent, pick up the phone. Use tone of voice to indicate concern, but not anger. Mike: It’s easy to hide behind email. Don’t do it.
  4. After two rounds of problem-solving on e-mail, pick up the phone. Mike: Email is not a panacea. The more intractable the problem, the more you need human contact–and all the meta-information contained therein–to find a solution.
  5. If you can deal with it in 2 minutes, do it. Otherwise drag it to your Action, Hold or Archive folder and clear your Inbox. Just don’t forget to regularly plow through your Action folder.

5 useful websites for grad students

January 27, 2008

ra-ra-ra.jpgAs a graduate student, I am assuming you live cheap, work a lot, and travel. If so, these sites may be of some use.

Flightstats — If you have a day of travel ahead, know someone who does (and who’ll you’ll be picking up at the airport), or are booking a ticket and want to know which flights/airlines/airports are always delayed, this is your website. So, by default, this is your website. Extraordinarily useful for the traveling scientist.

Seatguru — So you are online booking a flight. You get to pick a seat. But beyond aisle vs window, how do you know which seats are drafty and cold, which roar with engine noise, and which are next to colicky children? Good news. Seatguru has the plans, and the advice, for seat selection for every type of plane for every major airline. OK, the colicky kid thing is a crapshoot.

39Dollar Glasses — One of the last great scams is the eyeglasses biz. Optometrists often run a 90% markup. Even chain outlets like Pearl Vision make you pay through the nose. And for what? To buy lenses from someone else and insert them into a frame. Now there are a number of outlets for online eyeglasses, and 39Dollar glasses is the one I use. To give you some perspective, I got my prescription reupped at Pearl Vision and had them order the new lenses for my frames (which, needless to say are tres chic). Then I ordered some spiffy prescription sunglasses online. Sunglasses arrived in 2 weeks: cost $139. Pearl’s phoned me 4 weeks later, had botched the order, and charged $179.

What does 200 calories look like? — This one could be filed under “visual explanations”. If you are trying to eat healthy (and, honestly, that diet of Mountain Dew Red and Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwhiches has got to stop, bubby, people are beginning to, well…talk) this site gives you a quick look at what you’re getting. The surprise for me: 1 bagel = 1 big wad of french fries.

Online Ukulele tuner — If your stuck in an airport, destined to sit in the middle seat across from the restroom if your flight ever arrives, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, and hepped up on Mountain Dew Red and Wendy’s Spicy Chicken, what better way to lift your spirit and that of your fellow passengers than to whip out the ole Uke and rip off a plucky version of “Stairway to Heaven?”.

Your welcome.

OK, any other websites that make life just a bit more bearable?

5 books that will make you write better

January 23, 2008

typist_reporter_scribe_small.jpgCheck out Reading Lists above for five books that address two basic roadblocks to the beginning science writer.

The first is “making time to write” and overcoming procrastination.

The second is the craft of science writing, the assortment of tips, tricks, and practices that every good science writer accrues, often through trial and error.

All but one is under $20.00.

The residue of design

January 21, 2008


As a scientist, you know you’ve made it when Boing Boing covers your stuff. I recently collaborated with a team of scientists (Steve Yanoviak, Robert Dudley, and George Poinar) on a manuscript coming out in The American Naturalist. It’s about a nematode whose life cycle has it spending time in the guts of birds and ants, and that has a pretty unique way of doing it. Here’s the, um, straight poop.

Worker ants of the species Cephalotes atratus, like many ants of the treetops, have a hankering for bird poop (lots of nitrogen and salts in a piece of bird poop). Some bird poop, however, is infected with the eggs of our nematode parasite. Now most adult worker ants can’t take solid food; they feed it, instead to their brood back in the nest. However, when infected poop is fed to the brood of Cephalotes atratus ants by their older sisters, the nematodes cause the brood to grow up with bright red (dare we say, berry-like?) gasters. In the paper we build a plausible hypothesis that birds mistake the red gasters (now full of nematode eggs) for fruit, harvest them, pass them as feces, the feces are harvested by Cephalotes workers who bring them back to the nest, and the cycle continues (one key bit of evidence–it’s easy to pluck off an infected gaster and much, much harder to remove the gaster of a healthy ant).

There is no evidence this is a voluntary arrangement–we see no advantage to the ants of harboring these nematodes. Rather, this seems to be another case of a parasite, once inside its host and with its hands on the wiring and machinery, tweaking the host to do its bidding (my endocrinologically inclined pal points out that the nematodes and ants share a host of neurochemicals, so replace “hands” above with “hormones”). The nematodes even make infected ants raise their gasters vertically, making the egg-filled butt-berries infinitely pluckable.

Long before there were neurobiologists, apparently, there were parasites paving the way.

Below the fold, the real story of how this sordid story of manipulation came about.

Read the rest of this entry »

Will you earn your Ph. D.?

January 20, 2008

images-3.jpegAn interesting post from the political science blog The Monkey Cage. Some folks at Syracuse University looked for the best predictors of graduate student success in their Economics program, using as data the records of their past students.

The upshot: the best predictor of passing comps: your GRE scores, having an M. A. degree, and having an economics major.

However, the best predictors of completing the Ph. D. program were different. They combined something very concrete–a student’s preparation in mathematics, with something far more intangible–the strength of their research motivation, as gleaned from the personal statements in their application to grad school.

My take, for what’s it worth.

In most programs, your written and oral comprehensive exam tests your mastery of a set of material, and, indirectly, the work habits that allow you to teach yourself.

But there is a reason grad school is often described as a process of transformation from someone who reads to someone who is read.

Because the second hurdle is the ability to design, and analyze novel research. This takes a mastery of logic (and mathematics is, at its heart, logical calisthenics) and a stubborn drive to see a project through. Those students who work on mastering the literature, but avoid the often lonely process of designing, collecting, and cranking methodically through data and manuscripts, risk the scarlet ABD of academia–All But Dissertation.

We’ll be spending some time in the upcoming posts working on your analytical chops. But in the meantime, don’t skimp on math. Even if your dissertation never requires matrix algebra or integration and differentiation, studying math trains your mind to think clearly.

Another GTDA haiku

January 19, 2008

The modal fate of

all your scientific toil

will be rejection.

This has been a public service announcement from GTDA.

Your 10-point checklist before sending off that manuscript

January 19, 2008

checklist.jpgA recent article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande suggests that complex missions often fail due to the sheer number of steps required to complete them successfully. The aggravating thing is that these steps are individually simple. However, in our frenetic world, even experts often miss a step.

The solution? A checklist–the low-tech answer to mastering challenging tasks. As Gawande reports, when the health care workers of a hospital’s ICU were required to follow a checklist for a seemingly straightforward task–keeping catheters clean and infection-free–10 day infection rates dropped from 11% to 0, and 8 fewer people died over a 15 month period. These were competent professionals yet their performance benefited from a simple piece of technology. And I don’t know about you, but it gives me comfort when I board a plane and see the pilot reviewing a pre-flight checklist.

Preparing a manuscript is a complex task. Your career ultimately depends on producing successful manuscripts. The last thing you want to do is send out a manuscript prematurely. It wastes your time, your editor’s time, and the time of your anonymous colleagues. So here’s a ten point checklist toward making sure that every manuscript you send out allows your work to shine. I wish every graduate student would do the following before sending me a manuscript, as an advisor, committee member, editor, or reviewer. Read the rest of this entry »

Tools are great. Talent and dedication? Better.

January 9, 2008

Many academics are pure geeks when it comes to software and gadgets. But tools exist solely to let your ideas shine.

As evidence, consider this little number, the first song on what is frequently called “The Greatest Rock Album of All Time”. It was recorded, in it’s entirety, on a 4 track tape machine. Which means that a song, no matter how complex, ultimately had to be recorded in no more than 4 takes. Modern recording studios now have an infinite number of tracks at their disposal. But, arguably, nothing has bested Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, recorded, by way of computer analogy, on a Kaypro.


This message has been brought to you by Geezer-Matic.
Because it just don’t get better than the way it once was.

On leaving MS Word for cleaner pastures

January 9, 2008

My mini-rant against Microsoft Word prompted reader Sasha to suggest looking into Scrivener. Now wouldn’t you know it, Virginia Heffernen has a nice article on cheesey little website about her move away from the Redmond empire.  It links to a nice essay by Steven Poole on the same topic.

The upshot of both: the process of creative, synthetic writing is largely divorced from the process of formatting mass-produced documents. Our job as academic scientists is not to write memos, but manuscripts. Why not find software that gently removes the distractions, and lets you, and your words, flow?  Read the rest of this entry »