QoTD: Edward Tufte on the perfect scientific graphic

February 22, 2008

“Simple design, intense content.”


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.

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 »

Add this one to your toolbar

February 10, 2007

Cross-engine’s interface

Check out Cross Engine, a meta-search engine with a great interface that is also, amazingly, blazing fast. Choose the media (Web, Images, Video, News, Reference, Blogs) and/or particular websites.

ht LifeHacker

Sometimes I wonder what seminars in the future will look like

January 17, 2007

h/t Presentation Zen

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 »

Five ways of keeping email from running your life

December 19, 2006

It happens to all of us. We’re slogging through that key paragraph in the Discussion or outlining the logic of a new experiment. Its tough going, incremental work.

Think I’ll check my email.

Now, email is good. But so is sodium, football, and a warm puppy. The fact is, its the potential utility of checking your mail that makes it so insidious. After all, we may hear from that high school buddy, lover, or ex (and maybe even hit the trifecta in a single message). And we do subscribe to Nature table of contents, we are waiting for a manuscript revision from a colleague. All of these are useful things.

But we were making….incremental….slow….progress on something that was probably more important. And its not like that mail is going to blow away. Or that Jack Bauer, typing with his tongue bouncing in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental, needs your advice at this very moment.

It just is so easy to point click, hit refresh and wait for the little spinning disk to do its thing. Funny thing, that spinning disk. Kinda like a slot machine. And Kathy Sierra reports there may just be a reason. Its called Intermittent Reinforcement, a highly effective training method in which the subject (that’s you) is rewarded not every time she hits the button, but every so often, with most rewards being small (“Great, Oecologia has a new table of contents”) or nonexistent (“Greetings dear friend…”). Casinos figured this out a long time ago, as have dog trainers.

So here are a few tips to make email work for you, not keep you from getting your stuff done.

Update 1 February 2006:   WTF?  Its gone.  The secrets to email productivity gone forever below the fold.   No idea what happened.  While I do a post-mortem, check out a similar post on the ever dependable 43 Folders.

Read the rest of this entry »

Five search engines you should get to know

December 12, 2006

My gosh, did he say five? Turns out, all web browsers are not the same. With the amount of information exploding on the web–and your ability to put things together in a novel way one of the greatest tools in your toolkit–finding ways to access a variety of info is key part of your toolkit.

1) Google (of course). Not the oldest, but the best general purpose search engine. There are tricks to using any search engine efficiently, and Google has a nice tutorial, or you can use this cheat sheet. To keep up with things, its a good idea every once in a while to click Google’s more button just to see what craziness they’re up to. Like, fer example,

2) Google scholar (yeah, I’m cheating, but everything’s interconnected on the web anyway). This a powerful tool for finding recent articles on very precise subjects. I mean, Google Scholar can be scary dead-on good. Use it with Firefox (yes, I use two web browsers, more on that later) to quickly access at least the abstracts and citations of stuff you need to know. Use it side by side with your library’s website (and its built-in subscription access) to access the PDFs.

3) Ask, formerly Askjeeves, is a stripped-down search engine that is Travelocity to Google’s Expedia, a competent competitior that excels at some stuff. For some reason, Ask.com seems to do image searches a bit better. Now, if you want a whole new type of image search….

4) Retrievr is a Web2.0 app, which basically means “new technology, unique task, potentially cool” that allows you to sketch what you’re looking for and then searches Flickr for a match (for that matter, you can use Flickr’s own search window to explore its enormous photo stash in a more traditional (Web1.0?) word-based way). Not yet particularly useful, but a view to the future.

5) Casual Visualization is another Web2.0 app (boy, these guys seem to be having fun) that presents its search retreival in a 2-D space, so as to better describe relationships among the resulting images and text. Want to visualize a scientist’s personal brand? This is the app to do it. Until Google buys them out. Again, mainly just a toy at this point, but it smells like things to come. Or teen spirit. Maybe both.