Rules of Thumb: the 50% rule

May 31, 2008

We are often the worst judges of our own work. For manuscripts, we have a remarkably effective, if somewhat brutal, corrective called peer review.

But academics also perform live in classrooms and seminar halls where it is difficult to get a read on just “how we did”. This is partly due to the mind-clouding adrenalin that takes some time to be flushed from our blood stream. By the time we are thinking clearly, the audience has drifted away. Sure, you can somewhat plaintively corner a friend in the hallway to get the scoop, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an inquiry, you know that the critique will be, let us say, somewhat filtered.

Luckily, the problem of getting good feedback is widespread, and we can turn to the Bay Area bluegrass community for one valuable rule of thumb. This is Larry Cohea’s 50% rule. Larry is the banjo player for the long-running band High Country, and, as such, is keen judge of the human condition. Once, when a good friend of mine was complaining about her live performance, he gently lifted her spirits with an evocation of the rule:


if you think your performance was really, really, bad,

chances are it was 50% better than you think it was;

and if you think it was really, really, good,

chances are it was 50% worse.

This rule, like a nice dose of lithium, does wonders for post-performance anxiety. More to the point, it often seems to be true.

Any other RoT’s out there that guide you through the academic life?

Grace Note: Spring in New England

May 25, 2008

Back home in Oklahoma the summer is gearing up, and most of our yard birds are already starting on their second clutch. But here at Harvard Forest, the breeding season is just cranking up. You can almost smell the avian testosterone. But, far more emotionally uplifting (and less olfactorily disturbing) is the plethora of bird song that starts around 4:45 in the morning.

And of all the bird song, that of the hermit thrush echoing through the greening forest, is the best .


“Hermit on the rocks” by Debby Kaspari, pastel and graphite on paper.

On the Five Stages of Proposal Writing

May 24, 2008

I’m preparing to dust off a proposal that was rejected six months ago. It’s a resubmission to the National Science Foundation. In such cases the word submission is particularly apt. When NSF is funding less than 10% of the proposals it receives, one is pretty much resigned to one or more rewrites before you have a chance at funding. And since you often have only one or two chances a year to submit a proposal for 3-5 years of work, well, one doesn’t have to be a whiz on the quantitative side to see proposal writing as a lovely lesson in the brevity of all things mortal.

But I digress.

While dwelling on such things existential it was great to come across FemaleScienceProfessor‘s take on the the process of writing a grant proposal. What emerges is the notion that successful grants have to be in some way transformative, that their writing is not linear but aggregative, that much of it has to do with juggling budgets and filling out forms, and that, when it’s all over (after months of nurturing the baby that you then unceremoniously kick out of the nest), well….I’ll let her do the honors…

And then.. someone in the grants office pushes a button and the proposal is gone. I get an automated email. I am relieved, but there is also a melancholy feeling of emptiness at the departure of the proposal out of my intellectual grasp. What will I do next? I contemplate cleaning my office, but I don’t actually do it.

FSP is a worthwhile blog. Check it out.

See also:

10 steps toward better grant writing

5 ways of dealing with that rejected manuscript

Another GTDA haiku

Happy Friday–Penn and Teller

May 23, 2008

I study social insects for a living. That said, honeybees have always seemed to be rather wimpy, and thus prone to the kind of abuse in this video.

I’d love to see them try this with army ants…
Eciton hamatum bivuoac by Christien Ziegler

Eciton burchelli major by Christien Ziegler

Photos by Christien Ziegler

Beware the self-created tizzy

May 23, 2008

There is a seductive quality to time management schemes, including the one upon which this blog is based. You can, in fact, find yourself getting a heckuva lot of things checked off your “to-do” list if you carefully manage your time, build a tightly organized calender, learn to say “no” to interruptions, and close your office door to work on manuscripts. There is a sort of delirious pleasure at the end of the day, seeing all those boxes checked. And to do this day after day after day.

Some psychiatrists may call this manic behavior. I call it a self-created tizzy.

Don’t forget to give yourself time to think.

By this, I mean, treat yourself to the occasional long languid walks through your favorite haunts, a couple of hours with a notebook and a pen in the corner of a coffee shop, or just stretched out in your favorite chair, feet up, staring off in the middle distance. This is time for the dust to settle, for the disparate bits of thought to organize and reorganize in a playful way. All this happens while you order that second latte or people watch on a sunny park bench.

It is possible to be so busy working on stuff that you lose grasp of why you are doing it.

Which reminds me of my quote of the month. A pal and I were discussing how another pal always seemed to be going 500 hundred miles per hour.

“Of course she doesn’t have time to think.” he said. “She’s x-ed it out of her schedule!”

GTDA Poll: What software are you itching to learn?

May 11, 2008

I have two. I have gone as far as buying phone-book sized manuals. They stand on my desk, mocking me, exuding their “new, unused book smell”.


Yes, I know it is high-end, extraordinarily flexible, and doesn’t suffer from the bloat and baroque passive-agressive coding of SAS. But I know SAS. I learned SAS using punch cards. And I don’t want to sound like a pirate.

Dreamweaver CS3

Gawd I hate web design programs. It used to be MS Frontpage. An abomination. Currently I use Adobe’s Go Live! CS2. That program!, and the people behind hit!, are personally responsible for the collective loss of about 4 cm! of my stomach lining!. Now Adobe has bought Dreamweaver.  Do I have any reasonable expectation for things to be better? No. But it is integrated with all the other Adobe stuff that I do use.

So have at it. What software do you feel compelled to learn, through some combination of peer-pressure (yeah, Aaron, I’m talkin’ bout you), slick marketing (Oh! A piece of candy! Oh! Another piece of candy!), and serious issues with procrastination? Leave your approach-avoidance conflicts in the comments.

Mac apps for various academic tasks

May 11, 2008

From Kerry Magruder\'s web pageThe software one uses is typically some combination of what you were trained on, what you can borrow…erm…afford, and what you, on a wild hair, decided to try out.

New software cries out like a siren. It offers new features. It will allow you to finally drop that klugey program that annoys you daily. Like the guy in the adjacent cubicle who is way too fond of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.

But new software is also a seductive opportunity to avoid working on that manuscript. Software invariably has some incompatabilities that are not trumpeted on it’s homepage. And finally, all software has a learning curve. Before you hit that “download” button, ask yourself, “Do I really need this, or do I just really want it?”.

With that warning, if you are a MacHead, take a look at Kerry Magruder’s list of cheap effective mac apps that take on and, in his mind, supercede Microsoft Office, Endnote and a host of other programs that have been around since the Cold War. Magruder, who is a science historian, makes a compelling argument:

Are you accustomed to using one application for everything? A single “kitchen sink” application that tries to do everything usually ends up doing nothing well, while locking you in and preventing future migration to new and better tools. On a Mac, things are different. The best applications tend to be small and agile, optimized to do a small number of taks extremely well. These apps work well with others, and pass information back and forth so that you can put together your own favorite, customized suite of applications that work best for your writing and research needs. Mac users work in many different ways; the abundance of high-quality Mac software may surprise you. Also, don’t let their relative affordability fool you: these are superb apps. Rather than buying Microsoft Office, try Neo-Office and invest in some of the following instead. Soon you’ll be wondering how you ever got anything done without them.

Magruder also has an excellent page on his paperless workflow. It leads you, step by step, through the programs and protocols that start with reading and proceeds through analysis, writing, onto publication.

Go ahead. The sirens are calling.

See also:

On leaving MS Word for greener pastures

Second brain software

5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas