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 »

Does GTD foster OCD?

February 17, 2007

Holy crap. It’s a useful book people.

I have visions of the “Church of Allen” sometime in the not so distant future, complete with special digital watches that incessantly blink your Mastery Number.

Reach number 100? Time for the fiery carousel.

5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas

February 4, 2007

5 parts to an academics system for capturing and storing ideas

An an academic, you need a system to effectively capture and curate your ideas. Such systems are infinitely flexible–part of the fun is playing around with different components until you find a set that fits you. That said, I suspect that the following components are pretty much universal in any such system:

you need a means of capturing an idea anywhere,

you need centralized, temporary storage,

you need an arena for right-brain and left-brain play,

you need long-term storage.

We’ll spend time over the next couple of weeks examining each of these in more detail; consider this the opening chapter.

OK, here’s my system in, of course, 5 parts: Read the rest of this entry »

Fighting stupid science with snark

February 1, 2007

First, another day of light posting while I catch up from a four-day gotta get the grant in marathon.  Sometimes you let your daily 30m/day maintenance and saw sharpening activities slide to get big urgent and important tasks (like bringing in $$$$$) off your plate. GTD is sometimes about taking the longer perspective.

In the meantime, here is an excellent example of using snark for good, not for evil.  Carl at Full flavour behaviour  discovered this on the back of a Cheerios box.

I suspect this isn’t for teenagers, who wouldn’t be caught dead shilling for General Mills, but instead for over-stressed, under-caffeinated parents who see a graph, a happy teenager, and dare to dream.  Unless said parent is a scientist, in which case you have the makings of a nice sloppy spit take.   Now, in this situation you can get indignant and write an informed letter to General Mills (insert “sound of letter wadded and dropped in a trash can” here), or you can get all medieval snarky on their lying asses, and write the following in a post that is then picked up by Boing Boing and its legions:

But I digress; however inappropriate a twenty year-old may look on a kiddies’ cereal box it’s nothing compared to the ludicrous graph in front of which she is positioned. First of all, every condition shows a decline in concentration overall – with 8am as the benchmark! I can’t concentrate on walking at 8am! Downhill from that is comatose!! And what is this poisonous rubbish that causes such appalling degradation of intellectual activity? First up, a glucose drink! The breakfast of champions! Who hasn’t left the house of a morning, pausing only to swallow down a couple of cans of Tango or Lucozade? I’m reminded of Bill Bryson’s “Rated FIRST against the Ford El Crappo for safety!” diatribe on advertising – if a glucose drink is the only competition then Cheerios can’t be doing too well against anything more sensible. But wait! Sugary energy drinks aren’t the only competition! The other condition is.. no breakfast! Which actually beats Cheerios in the first half hour! Clearly, the subjects were still mulling over the pseudo-scientific crap they’d just read on the Cheerios box and couldn’t concentrate on.. whatever it was they were given. In the end, of course Cheerios come out on top but it hardly tells you anything you didn’t know before – as the only solid food in the experiment you might equally read the result as, Cheerios-better for you than starvation.

Yeah, read the whole post and let that snark wash over you.  And think of the memo the ad guy at General Mills will be getting.

5 ways to minimize Stuff part I: Email

January 25, 2007

stuff.jpgWe’ve spent some time talking about the big goals for a developing academic, developing the “uber-skills” of scholarship, creativity, communication and time management. These four (and the other parts of your life) underlie your strategic vision, your basic roadmap. But while having a map is an essential part of reaching a destination, you still need a detailed set of steps to get there.

One psychological barrier, as outlined by David Allen’s Getting Things Done, is “stuff”. The central idea is that much of our day to day anxiety arises from unresolved, ambiguous list of expectations. Allen defines stuff as

anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.

In other words, only by dealing with “stuff” can you feel on top of things. Furthermore, as you proceed through graduate school you will find, without active preemption of “stuff”, this will be harder and harder to do. This is because you will accumulate projects as a natural result of being an active productive scientist. The insight of GTD is that nothing drives away the desire to tackle hard, creative, and worthwhile tasks like the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else.

Stuff comes in various flavors (and we’ll address many of them) but the kind that is easiest to deal with, and with the least effort (i.e., more “stuff for the buck”) is email. Read the rest of this entry »

Five ways to read broadly (and why you should)

January 12, 2007

Not my office.

We already know that among the uberskills of Academia, being a scholar ranks near the top. We need to be broadly read so we can make connections, talk to our colleagues, and teach. Furthermore, one of the fundamental ways to make a creative leap is to connect the tool of one discipline with the practice of another (more on this down the road). Finally, there is nothing quite so quaint as a first year grad student who is convinced that all he needs to do is master his little corner of the universe. Wait until his Orals.

That said, it gets harder and harder for new grad students to scale the impressive mountain of manuscripts due to the increasing number of journals, and ease of electronic access. It used to be (codger-alert!, insert whiney voice here) that the number of reprints you could read was limited to the hours you had to thumb through Biological abstracts (paper version) and the number of quarters you had in your pocket for xeroxing. Now the limit is set by the number of times you can hit return.

But read you must–its probably the most important time investment you can make in your first two years, and the ability to teach yourself is a key skill to develop. So, here’s what you do: Read the rest of this entry »

Toward assembling a committee, Part 1

January 7, 2007

yecchYou want to see a professor wince? Randomly insert the word “committee” into a conversation. Just try it.

Truth is, most of us have a love-hate relationship with committees. Collaborations with colleagues are essential, and in your research, you will find that many of the most interesting questions can only be addressed when you bring people on board. But how do you put together committees toward generating something creative? Specifically, how many people do you assign to a task?

What you’re up against: An observation in the form of a stupid joke.
“What do faculty meetings and spackle have in common?”. Answer: They are amazingly efficient fillers. Put a bunch of faculty around a table for an hour, throw out any topic sentence, and wait. Someone will comment. Then someone will expand on that comment. Then someone will qualify it. Then someone will tell a lame joke who’s real intent is to slam the second commenter. Pretty soon, hours up!

A general principle: Creativity is a two-part process.
Its about generating a lot of ideas and then culling that list down to the good ones.

An insight: The Dumbness of Crowds arises from a creativity imbalance
Kathy Sierra gives plenty of examples as to how, if you are putting together a group of people to creatively solve a problem, more ain’t necessarily better. Why? I suspect its partly due to the Creativity Principle. We want to get lots of input, lots of ideas. But the process of recognizing the best ideas is hampered by the very group size that generated them in the first place. In part, we want to be nice: there are no “bad ideas”, everyone can contribute, that sort of thing. But as Sierra points out,

Art isn’t made by committee.

Great design isn’t made by consensus.

True wisdom isn’t captured from a crowd.

We leave this topic for now with an excellent example of design by committee, with a bit of a swipe at Microsoft (which is always fun).  In the meantime, any good committee horror stories?