Buying tech: the importance of desktop real estate and other things

October 26, 2011

Just bought myself a new iMac with a 27 inch screen. A thing of beauty. After a decade or more of working from laptop computers (or notebooks..what are they called now, anyway?) I decided to have one gi-normous heavy desktop again and synch the important content using SugarSynch and Dropbox.  It’s the cloud baybee!  And not lugging my MacBook around has made my back happier.

One thing I have learned is that desktop real estate is a big deal: a large monitor, or two small monitors (say a notebook and a 20 incher) allows me to write more efficiently: my manuscript and bibliography open, and Google Scholar and Devonthink lurking ready to pitch in. And monitors are comparatively cheap nowadays.

I had a choice between two versions of the iMac, a 2.7Ghz and 3.1Ghz model for about a $350 more. When I asked the Apple guy if it really made much of a difference, he scrunched up his face for a millisecond and said, “No. Not really”.

A nice article by Sam Grobart at the New York Times, on rules of thumb when buying tech backs up that judgement.  Read the rest of this entry »


Choosing a title

October 26, 2011

This from the folks at Research Trends:

Research Trends decided to conduct its own case study of scholarly papers published in Cell between 2006 and 2010, and their citations within the same window…

comparing the citation rates of articles of different lengths revealed that papers with titles between 31 and 40 characters were cited the most…

the few papers with questions marks in their titles were clearly cited less…

but titles containing a comma or colon were cited more…

and only one (uncited) paper with an exclamation mark in its title.

Also, on the subject of humor…

An analysis of papers published in two psychology journals…found that “articles with highly amusing titles […] received fewer citations”, suggesting that academic authors should leave being funny to comedians.

Note both analyses are for manuscript citations. If the standard protocol when skimming journals (or having webots do it for you) is to look for keywords and phrases, this all makes a bit of sense.

However, if your grant proposal is sitting on a stack with another 19 or so, and you want to be one of the first read (and believe me, you don’t want to be the last read) your gambit may be to attract some attention. And the best way to do that is to stand out. In Advanced EEB this semester, each student proposed five titles for their NSF Pre-Doc, and we “market tested” each set by vote of hands.  Most of the time, it was the short, jargon free, titles that posed a question or a challenge, often with a clever turn of phrase, that won out.

My working hypothesis:

Grant title: maximize the “intriguing” content;

Manuscript title: maximize the information content.

QOTD: Oscar Wilde

October 26, 2011

“An idea that isn’t dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”


Be bold.

Ten quick tips for improving your scientific writing

October 22, 2011

Writing is craft, and you improve your writing through some combination of osmosis–absorbing the talents of your favorite authors–practice, and the toolkit of rules you build as you go. As I work through the writing assignments of our new, very good, cohort of graduate students, I accumulated the following list of simple rules that will push your writing closer to the Big Leagues.  Yes I know, many are oldies but goodies, but they are so easy and easily learned, they are a gateway to quickly improving your writing. And, as David Foster Wallace once pointed out,

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

So on with the terrible truths. Read the rest of this entry »

Why we do Science: Richard Feynman on a flower

October 10, 2011

I cannot add to, or detract from, the great Richard Feynman.

ht to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish.

A reasoned rant: the case for hypotheses

October 7, 2011

Yeah, this is one of those essays that starts by quoting Darwin

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view to be of any service.

The hypothesis is the pivot point around which science turns.

This is one reason why “No one has ever collected this data before” is, by itself, a weak rationale for a dissertation.  It is impossible to fund your research by promising only to collect cool data. It is the hypotheses that make the data cool, or, at the very least, show why its cool.

So what is an hypothesis?  It is a series of assumptions, tied together by logic, that generates novel predictions. Collectively, it is an explanation that answers a scientific question.  Let’s break that down. Read the rest of this entry »

Farewell Steve Jobs

October 5, 2011

It is with a heavy heart that I say farewell to Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and a role model for all those who strive to do something new, create something important and vital, and do so by acknowledging that quality=style*content.

Grad school is hard. Crazy hard. Long hours, low pay, steep learning curve. But the following famous video, from Job’s commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, remains one of the best pieces of advice for those desperate to be heard, hungry to make a difference, and longing to see and touch and experience something unique. To explore the unknown.

ht to alex at

Why we do science: it’s not all about the applications

October 1, 2011

Senator John Pastore:
 “Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?”

Physicist Robert Rathburn Wilson: “No sir, I don’t believe so.”

Pastore: “Nothing at all?”

Wilson: “Nothing at all.”

Pastore: “It has no value in that respect?”

Wilson: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

As we busy ourselves writing grants and justifying our existence, it’s good to take a step back.

hat tip to Boing Boing