Wednesday, 29 December 2010

you start to think it’s normal

From The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton by Yann Martel:
I hate this place. I hate it because whenever I come here during the day I like it and nearly fall for it. It’s comfortable and warm, the people are nice, and you know what’s expected of you. I say to myself, You should get a daytime job here. The pay’s good, better than what you make now anyway, you work with people, the hours are sane — hey, why not?

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
Then I catch myself. This place is dangerous it’s so cunning. It crawls up on you stealthily. You get used to it, the routine, you know. You start to think it’s normal. Finally you think there’s nothing else. Then you blink, forty years have gone by, and your life’s over. Sometimes I come here during the day and I look in from the outside and I ask myself, Why don’t these people ask for more?

Sunday, 12 December 2010

scientists and bureaucrats

From the book A Journey of the Imagination: The Art of James Christensen; captions by the author.

A Journey of the Imagination: The Art of James Christensen

Three Scientists Debating the Aerodynamic Capabilities of the Dynastes Beetle

The beetle flies for two miles at a stretch, but these self-important egos are debating it “scientifically”. You may notice that their feet don’t match up and it’s very hard to tell where one leaves off and another begins. They have, in effect, lost their personal identities in their quest for self-importance.

The Old Scholar

Every university has an old scholar or two, professors whose learning stopped years ago, here symbolized by the wormy apple and the snuffed-out candle. The tatty, stuffed owl on wheels, the Ptolemaic (earth-centered) solar system, and the Leonardian sketch that’s all out of kilter symbolize wisdom that has become outdated or obsolete.

Life-Size Portrait of a Very Minor Official

I have an ongoing battle with the rigidity of bureaucracy. This is an officious little minor dignitary. If we use hieratic scaling — that is, the most important person in an image is the largest — then this tiny little portrait is life-sized.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

the science of snowballing

Continuing with the Arctic exploration theme: a scene from hilarious Belgian animation Panique au village (see the trailer). The three mad scientists, operating a giant mechanical penguin and entertaining themselves with long-distance snowballing. Where do they hire for jobs like that?

Monday, 22 November 2010

from annals of adult psychophysics

Now about the scientific expeditions — in words of a certain Humbert Humbert:
One of my favourite doctors, a charming cynical chap with a little brown beard, had a brother, and this brother was about to lead an expedition into arctic Canada. I was attached to it as a ‘recorder of psychic reactions’.
I had little notion of what object the expedition was pursuing. Judging by the number of meteorologists upon it, we may have been tracking to its lair (somewhere on Prince of Wales’ Island, I understand) the wandering and wobbly north magnetic pole. One group, jointly with the Canadians, established a weather station on Pierre Point in Melville Sound. Another group, equally misguided, collected plankton. A third studied tuberculosis in the tundra. Bert, a film photographer — an insecure fellow with whom at one time I was made to partake in a good deal of menial work (he, too, had some psychic troubles) — maintained that the big men on our team, the real leaders we never saw, were mainly engaged in checking the influence of climatic amelioration on the coats of the arctic fox.
I left my betters the task of analysing glacial drifts, drumlins, and gremlins, and kremlins, and for a time tried to jot down what I fondly thought were ‘reactions’ (I noticed, for instance, that dreams under the midnight sun tended to be highly coloured, and this my friend the photographer confirmed). I was also supposed to quiz my various companions on a number of important matters, such as nostalgia, fear of unknown animals, food-fantasies, nocturnal emissions, hobbies, choice of radio programs, changes in outlook and so forth. Everybody got so fed up with this that I soon dropped the project completely, and only toward the end of my twenty months of cold labor (as one of the botanists jocosely put it) concocted a perfectly spurious and very racy report that the reader will find published in the Annals of Adult Psychophysics for 1945 or 1946, as well as in the issue of Arctic Explorations devoted to that particular expedition; which, in conclusion, was not really concerned with Victoria Island copper or anything like that, as I learned later from my genial doctor; for the nature of its real purpose was what is termed ‘hush-hush’, and so let me add merely that, whatever it was, that purpose was admirably achieved.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Monday, 1 November 2010

a general disinclination to work of any kind

From Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome:
In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”

Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog (Bloomsbury Classic)
What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did not know, then, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.

“Why, you skulking little devil, you,” they would say, “get up and do something for your living, can’t you?” – not knowing, of course, that I was ill.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

actually working

My favourite quotes from the Work section of The Lazy Person’s Guide to Life by Gray Joliffe, a truly wonderful book which seems to be out of print. If I ever get back to regular employment, I have to make sure that I can reach my full lazy person’s potential there.

actually working
Some people like making work complicated because it gives them a sense of identity and importance. Those of use who are secure enough not to need this reassurance attempt to simplify everything, and get through it quicker.
The easiest thing to be at work is the boss, because then you can delegate everything and concentrate on important things like lunch and going home early.
business travel
After all, that amount of iron isn’t entitled to fly.
The lazy person’s philosophy is this: as most of us work with our brains it is ludicrous to transport our bodies from one place to another, home to office.
getting fired
Getting fired is harmful to the self-esteem, but only for the first five or six times, after which you give up on yourself and make your fortune painting abstracts under an assumed name.
Meetings are for the most part unnecessary, but if you are dragged into one, you can catnap surreptitiously and that beats working. Don’t let key people see your eyes snap shut, though, because it looks amateur.
Lazy people are never unemployed, as they prefer to call it freelance or self-employed.

For more quotes, go here.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

budget cuts vs Nobel prizes

Science is Vital has got its official website and a bunch of celebrity supporters, including Sir Patrick Moore and the Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse. More than 30,700 have signed the Petition to be delivered to Downing Street this coming Thursday. (You still have a few hours to sign it!) Who knows, this time it may work. Or may mot. I just read on Exquisite Life blog that
To pay for a Conservative—Liberal deal on student fees, ministers are considering the possibility of a second wave of extra cuts to science budgets after the Comprehensive Spending Review.
And speaking of Nobels: isn’t it good news that four of this year’s Nobel crop (Robert G. Edwards, Andre Geim, Konstantin Novoselov and Christopher Pissarides) are based in Britain? That undoubtedly will help the argument. As Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society (quoted here) put it,
Just this week two Russian scientists <Geim and Novoselov>, working in the UK for the last ten years, won Nobel Prizes. Would they have chosen the UK today, when cuts are threatened?
On the other hand, and quite in contrast to last year, there were no women Nobel prize winners this time. Shame.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

science is vital

Britannia used to rule the world but does not any longer. It doesn’t have much in terms of natural resources, the public transport is awful and more or less everything here is overpriced. Which is understandable, since this country produces very little. London may host the next Olympics but a great sports nation Britain is not. And don’t even start me on weather.

Let’s face it, the only two things Britain is any good at are science and gardening. Some people would disagree and insist that British gardening is excellent, rather than “any good”. That’s fine with me. More to the point, I am told that a lot of scientific research in the UK is world-class. I won’t argue with that either, even though I myself never was involved in world-class research. You would expect the world-class research attract at least some decent funding, and then some more funding to add more class to “just” research, right? A man can dream. But then the government tells us that there is a huge budget deficit “that we inherited” (from the previous government, of course) and science funding also must be cut, which reminds me that we are still surrounded by idiots. I can’t agree more with Robert M. May writing in New Scientist that
the current thinking is not just wrong, it’s mad.
Now I am not a big fan of joining the Facebook groups, but I am prepared to make an exception for a good cause when I see one. Science is Vital is actually doing something: organising a March for Science on Saturday 9th October in central London, and will be lobbying Parliament on Tuesday 12th October. If you are reading this, please join the group, spread the word, plan a day out in London... speak up against the madness.

Of course, there always will be gardening.

Monday, 6 September 2010

not afraid to say “we don’t know”

From The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder):
“Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail somebody else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor
Among the many things that made the Professor an excellent teacher was the fact that he wasn’t afraid to say “we don’t know”. For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn’t have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


“Shortlisted” (or even longlisted) “for Booker / Pulitzer / Orange Prize...” Did you ever wonder why it is OK for fiction authors to put these credentials on the book covers while listing the failed job interviews on your CV is deemed off-limits?

Once upon a time, last century, I was shortlisted for a lectureship. On the interview, I had a chance to meet with two other candidates, one of whom was eventually offered the position. That means, at some point I had a 33% chance to get that job. And yet I feel that it won’t do me much good if I put this fact (that I blew my chance, that is) in my CV. Because in this sport only the wins count.

Frankly, this is ridiculous. If I were lucky and got that or other job, I wouldn’t send my CVs around any longer, right? So it shouldn’t really harm to mention that some of the previous applications resulted in interviews. Same goes for grants. You are expected to include the successful grant proposals in your CV. Why only successful? The writing of unsuccessful grant application is as time-consuming — and as important.

Do you know what helps to get a grant? That’s right: being employed. Therefore, being employed helps being employed, and having grants helps getting grants.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

logy, logue, logia

First published 3 August 2010 @ just some words

Wordle: logia
Contrary to what you read in Wikipedia, -logy is not a suffix. If anything, it is a root. It is derived from Greek word logos (λόγος) which has a lot of meanings:
speech, oration, discourse, quote, story, study, ratio, word, calculation, reason.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary says:
-logy /ləʤɪ/ comb. form forming nouns denoting: 1 (usu. as -ology) a subject of study or interest (archaeology; zoology). 2 a characteristic of speech or language (tautology). 3 discourse (trilogy). [F -logie or med. L. -logia f. Gk (as Logos)]
I like “a subject of study or interest” better than “science”, because “logies” in a sense (1) also include astrology, phrenology and pyramidology. (One former colleague of mine used to say that there are real sciences, like chemistry and physics, and phony ones, which all end on “ology”.) There is a tendency (at least as far as renaming of university departments goes) to substitute well-established terms of Greek etymology with pluralised English equivalents: “earth sciences” instead of “geology”, “life sciences” instead of “biology” and so on. I can’t help thinking that, by using plurals, they try to get more funding. But what on earth is “biological sciences” if not a tautology? Does not biology sound scientific enough? Apparently not.

Since there are too many fields of study and people know only so many Greek words, it is inevitable that quite a few “logy” (1) terms are hybrid words which mix Latin and Greek parts. For example, sociology (the corresponding Greek word is κοινωνιολογία) and scientology (both contemporary and early usages of which sound tautological). Similarly, Italian, Russian and other Slavic languages have a hybrid word algologia (альгология) — phycology, a branch of botany dealing with algae. The (non-hybrid) English term algology means something else: study of pain.

Then there is philology. It does not mean “study of love” but the other way round: “love of study”. Really, it should be logophilia, and indeed such a word exists, meaning “love of words”, with a vague hint of a medical condition.

“Logies” (2) include dilogy, palilogy, phraseology, terminology — you name it.

Apology and eulogy belong to the third group of “logies”. These two can be made into verbs (apologise, eulogise) — something you really cannot do with “logies” of (1) and (2) types. “Logy” (3) is very similar to -logue as in dialogue, monologue, catalogue, Decalogue...

What about analogy and homology? They don’t belong to any of these three categories. They are derived from the same Greek root logos but use another meaning of it: ratio, proportion.

Many European languages retained the Greek spelling, -logia of their -logies (see the table below). In English, logia (Greek λόγια), a plural of logion, refers to collection of sayings of Jesus, especially those which did not end up in the Gospels. In Spanish, logia (from Italian word loggia) means either lodge (as in Logia Masónica) or, er, loggia.


just some words

Three months ago, I started another “low-throughput” blog, just some words. I wanted to have not-Blogger blog. But why did I choose to host it on Maneno? First, Maneno is multi-lingual, and I want to have an option to publish in more than one language.

Monday, 14 June 2010

i don’t know how to teach

Professor Farnsworth is my all-time favourite mad scientist. I don’t know in which field he is a professor but since he is teaching at Mars University, it is not even relevant. Professor does not care either in which field he wants the Nobel Prize: “They all pay the same”.
Fry: “Hey, professor. What are you teaching this semester?”
Farnsworth: “Same thing I teach every semester: the mathematics of quantum neutrino fields. I made up the title so that no student would dare take it.”
Fry: “Mathematics of wonton burrito meals. I’ll be there!”
Farnsworth: “Please, Fry, I don’t know how to teach. I’m a Professor!”

Thursday, 3 June 2010

tragedy of the immigrants

From Brick Lane by Monica Ali:

‘This is the tragedy of our lives. To be an immigrant is to live out a tragedy.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The clash of cultures.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘And of generations,’ added Chanu.
‘What is the tragedy?’
Mrs Azad, the doctor’s wife, is puzzled and annoyed by Chanu’s incessant talk of a tragedy.
‘Of course, the doctor is very refined. Sometimes he forgets that without my family’s help he would not have all those letters after his name.’
‘It’s a success story,’ said Chanu, exercising his shoulders. ‘But behind every story of immigration success there lies a deeper tragedy.’
‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’
‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one's identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one's own sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family. I’m talking—’

‘The society is racist. The society is all wrong. Everything should change for them. They don’t have to change one thing. That,’ she said, stabbing the air, ‘is the tragedy.’

Saturday, 22 May 2010


An amazing animation by RSAnimate, inspired by Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA and his latest book, Drive.

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

is brevity my sister?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand people who constantly talk on their mobiles. Back in 1995, Bill Bryson wrote in his Notes from a Small Island:
These people are getting to be a real nuisance, aren’t they? This one was particularly irritating because his voice was loud and self-satisfied and littered with moronspeak, and his calls were so clearly pointless: ‘Hello, Clive here. I’m on the 10.07 and should be at HQ by 1300 hours as expected. I’m going to need a rush debrief on the Pentland Squire scenario. What say? No, I’m out of the loop on Maris Pipers. Listen, can you think of any reason why anyone would employ a total anus like me? What’s that? Because I’m the sort of person who’s happy as a pig in shit just because he’s got a mobile phone? Hey, interesting concept.’

Notes from a Small Island
Then a few moments of silence and: ‘Hello, love. I’m on the 10.07. Should be home by five. Yes, just like every other night. No reason to tell you at all except I’ve got this phone and I’m a complete fuckwit. I’ll call again from Doncaster for no reason.’ Then: ‘Clive here. Yeah, I’m still on the 10.07 but we had a points failure at Grantham, so I’m looking now at an ETA 13.02 rather than the forecast 1300 hours. If Phil calls, will you tell him that I’m still a complete fuckwit? Brill.’ And so it went on all morning.
Fifteen years later: what has changed? Clive got a smartphone, learned how to text and tweet, even how to post hideous photos at Facebook, but the gist remains the same.

Maybe that was the reason of my initial dislike of Twitter? Of course, it’s not Twitter’s fault that most tweets appear to be as semantically rich as blather of Bryson’s “Vodaphone Man”. On the other hand, the 140-character limit poses quite a challenge. If you have anything interesting to say at all, say it in a few words. Because the papers, patents, grant applications, grant reports, CVs and associated documents, like “teaching philosophy”, even blogs (including this one), all suffer from logorrhoea. I’m sure both authors and reviewers will benefit from shorter, um, whatever.

Imagine a grant proposal in a tweet. Sounds interesting — has value. Boring — goodbye, end of story. As an experiment, I’ve created a Twitter account, ecologicalniche, just to see what it may look like. I promise not to fill it with my daily minutiae. Just with some silly ideas. In a faint hope that one sunny day somebody agrees to fund them.

Friday, 26 March 2010


There are only a few buzzwords which irritate me more than this one. But what exactly is crowdsourcing? According to Wiktionary, it means “delegating a task to a large diffuse group, usually without substantial monetary compensation”. While Jeff Howe, who coined this horrid word back in 2006, gives us two definitions:
The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.
Thus, according to the White Paper Version, crowdsourcing is kind of outsourcing. Which, like it or not, is a means to increase capitalist exploitation by paying less for the same job. I like the the Soundbyte Version better even though it is a bit too vague. But what it has to do with crowdsourcing?

Folk music is not created by some amorphous Volk mass but by the individual musicians, most of whom do have names. Similarly, the open content is not created by a crowd. In words of Dan Woods,
There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. Frequently, these innovators have been funded through failure after failure. From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.
Take this call to the community regarding stereochemistry of digitonin (mentioned on my other blog). Where is a crowd? Everyone who responded is an expert. (Yes, that includes me, even if I say so myself.) And was the problem solved? No.

Wikipedia’s list of crowdsourcing projects include Wikipedia itself, “despite objections by co-founder Jimmy Wales to the term” (and, I bet, to the annoyance of many authors of Wikipedia articles); InnoCentive, Goldcorp and other companies which give cash prizes to individual solvers responding to a challenge; a few nice examples of citizen science; and, wait, some bona fide crowdsourcing:
In January 2008, the State of Texas announced it would install 200 mobile cameras along the Texas-Mexico border, to enable anyone with an Internet connection to watch the border and report sightings of alleged illegal immigrants to border patrol agents.
Now you’d think that this latter initiative, being not as intellectually challenging as, say, virtual protein folding, may actually work. But no: all these millions of web hits so far failed to translate “into much law enforcement work”.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

my yawning gap year

28 February 2009. I woke up in the morning (hey, that sounds like blues!) realising that I am not going to work today, or next week, or next month. Freedom!

When I were a lad, the concept of gap year was unheard of. After the school, young men were facing a choice of either university or a two-year spell in the army — or, with any luck, three-year spell in the navy. As exciting as it was, the military stint never appealed to me; six years in the university looked so much more prudent. I started working full-time couple months after graduation (and I was working part-time for almost three years before that). Work, work, work. Work.

We were taught that regular employment is good and absence thereof is bad. I don’t know, I quite enjoy the fact that I can sleep as much as I want while I am, er, on me career break. Speaking of which: according to Wikipedia,
The <gap year> market demographic is split into those aged 18—24 (pre, during and post university), 25—35 (‘career gap’, also known as ‘Career Break’ and ‘Career Sabbatical’) and 55—65 (pre and post retirement gappers).
Now I know: mine is post-sabbatical pre-preretirement gap — apparently underoccupied ecological niche.

Friday, 19 February 2010

no landing cards for me

Yesterday, while waiting in a queue to the passport control at Stansted airport, I was pondering how lucky I am to have British passport. I don’t have to fill the landing card anymore. I cannot tell exactly how many of these I have completed during my first ten years in this country. A lot. I never could understand what is the point of these scraps of paper in the era of computer-readable passports. And yet, according to Wikipedia,
Failure to complete a Landing Card when this is required is a crime punishable by a fine or 6 months in prison.
I wonder how determined one should be to end up in prison. I mean, they just won’t let you in unless you complete it, right?

One has to do that even after obtaining indefinite leave to remain in the UK. I remember the first time I entered the country with my brand new ILR stamp in the passport.
“For how long are you going to stay?”
“For EVER?!”
You had to see the immigration officer’s face. It turned out that he never saw the (then) new-style ILR stamp before.

If I still had to fill this form, what would I put as “occupation”? Probably “none”. I can only guess what would be the reaction. Alas, my Russian passport has expired so I am postponing this experiment. Indefinitely.

Friday, 12 February 2010

back in my student years

Circa 1986. The professor at our department of biophysics is saying (to nobody in particular):
«Я только что сказал моим студентам что работать в науке надо много. А теперь я надеваю пальто и иду домой.»
“I just told my students that in science one has to work a lot. And now I put on my coat and go home.”

Monday, 8 February 2010

what’s wrong with science blogging?

There was an interesting post by David Crotty entitled Science and Web 2.0: Talking About Science vs. Doing Science on The Scholarly Kitchen blog.
Even without new online technologies, scientists already spend a substantial portion of their time communicating. They share results with peers, plan future experiments with collaborators, give talks, write papers, teach, etc.
Frankly, I don’t see why any of these activities are incompatible with blogging. Quite the reverse: blogging can be a way to improve the communication. If you give a presentation, whether at a conference or in a classroom, why not to post it online? And is there any better way to share your results than to blog about them?
New social media endeavors ask scientists to devote even more time to communication, but it’s unclear where participants are supposed to find that time. Every second spent blogging, chatting on FriendFeed, or leaving comments on a PLoS paper is a second taken away from other activities. Those other activities have direct rewards towards advancement. It’s hard to justify dropping them for activities backed by vague promises that “you will be one of the early adopters and will be recognized and respected for this in the future.” That’s a tough gamble for most to take, and scientists are unlikely to risk current status for a leg up in the event that sweeping societal changes occur in how we fund, employ, and judge scientific achievement.
Thus, it is inherent conservatism of those who are “unlikely to risk current status” that prevents the scientific community from embracing new technology. If so, then that’s too bad for science. But really, should we worry?

The author discriminates between scientists and people who talk about science, for example... teachers. Excuse me. I heard there are many people in academia whose positions include a lot of teaching. On the one hand, “scientists are no different than other humans” (and most people don’t blog, ergo most scientists shouldn’t either). On the other hand, it is implied that they require the communication tools different from “mainstream” ones. I do recall that in 1980s there was a belief that scientific computing should be done on specialised workstations, not PCs or Macs. Now most of the scientific computing is done exactly on the same PCs and Macs.

The blogging in science may never become a mainstream activity. Or maybe it is the future of scientific communication. Consider this: people blog because they like blogging, not because they have nothing else to do. Also, people go to science because science is fun. While writing grant proposals and, in most cases, writing research papers is not fun. (That also explains why reading grant proposals and most research papers is not fun either.) The sooner scientists leave these not-fun activities behind, the better. Or so one can hope.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

i use the eighty/twenty rule

The Pareto principle, widely known as 80-20 rule, has been used, abused and ridiculed innumerable times. Perhaps the funniest joke involving the rule is this one:
Chicago Driving 80/20 rule: 80% of your waving will be done with 20% of your fingers.
To quote Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel:
Another good utility phrase is “I use the eighty/twenty rule”. Toss it into conversation at any time. This will generate strong agreement because it fits any situation where you have no data. It doesn’t even matter what part is eighty and what is the twenty. It just always sounds right.

For example, if you’re waiting for people to arrive for a meeting you could say, “For any business meeting, eighty percent of the people come on time and twenty percent are late”. That sounds totally reasonable. But if you say it the other way around it sounds just as reasonable: “For any business meeting, twenty percent of the people come on time and the other eighty percent are late”. It’s like magic.
Granted, it may sound reasonable to those who never heard about the Pareto principle, but the business meeting example is not the illustration of the 80-20 rule.

The Pareto principle is a special case of the Pareto distribution. The two numbers do not have to add to 100 because they apply to different things entirely. In the example graph below, “20” correspond to 20% of whatever the horizontal axis stands for, while “80” corresponds to the green area above it which takes 80% of all area.

Back in 1998, Sidney Redner analysed “popularity” of scientific papers in terms of citation. It turns out that there is no such thing as a typical number of citations received by a published paper. He counted the citations for the ISI list of papers published in 1981 (783,339 papers) and found that
most publications are minimally recognized, with ≈47% of the papers in the ISI data set uncited, more than 80% cited 10 times or less, and ≈.01% cited more than 1000 times. The distribution of citations is a rapidly decreasing function of citation count but does not appear to be described by a single function over the entire range of this variable.
Couple of years later, two Brazilian scientists, Constantino Tsallis and Marcio de Albuquerque, analysed the same data set and, contrary to Redner’s conclusion, found that there exists a single power law-type function N(x) along the entire range of the citation number x.

What, if anything, does it tell us? If scientific papers exhibit universality, that is, behave in the same fashion as sand piles or earthquakes or stock markets (and it looks like they do), then there is no way to predict whether a paper will be popular or not. Moreover, this kind of distribution has nothing to do with scientific qualities of a paper. The authors should stop worrying — or boasting — about impact factors and concentrate on important things, like getting a life.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

i ask too many questions

I am getting tired of constant rewriting of my CV. (Not that I did any this year, you understand, but this is besides the point.) But then, I am easily tired of any repetitive useless work. Why don’t they have an analogue of OpenID in the world of CVs? That would save everybody’s time and effort, right? Right. And the answer is: maybe they (whoever “they” are) don’t want to save anybody’s time and effort. That will put all those CV writing agencies out of business, and it’s bad for the economy.

Consider this template for application for employment. The template itself is only six pages, however I guess the complete application should be the size of a short monograph. Here are some highlights (colouring is mine).

The application must be structured as specified by the template below,
or else.
Describe your vision and your plans for the future with respect to both scientific and educational activities, within the framework of the employment sought (maximum one page).
5.1 Description of research activities
(maximum two pages). <...> The description should include an assessment of the applicant’s independence and productivity.
6.1. Self-reflection over the role of teacher

The description of teaching expertise should make clear not only what the applicant has done but also how it has been done, why it was done in just this way, and the results. The applicant is to state his or her fundamental educational principles and the way these are expressed in practice.
What could be the “results” I wonder. “90% of my students became managers”?
The self-reflection is to have a maximum length of five pages when applying for employment as professor or senior lecturer, and a maximum length of one page when applying for employment as postdoctoral research fellow or associate senior lecturer.
You see, even poor research post-docs are not free from writing this nonsense.
The applicant should describe his or her own personality in a manner that makes it possible to assess the ability to work with others, and the suitability for employment as described in the job announcement.
(Isn’t it the job of the evaluation committee to decide on the suitability for employment? Is anyone going to write “I am not suitable for employment” anyway?)

My first reaction was: are they bonkers? I mean, who is going to write all this rubbish? And perhaps more importantly: who is going to read it?

Calm down, I tell myself, there must be some sense in it. I can think of two reasons to insist that the application conforms to this template. First: to reduce the number of applicants. Most people have better things to do and therefore won’t even bother. Second: to pre-select those candidates who are ready to sacrifice a few days of their lives to write a long meaningless document that nobody is going to read. It gives the prospective candidates a taste of things to come. In academic world, it is not reading that counts, it’s writing.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

loose ends

Ten years ago or so, I attended the lecture of Sydney Brenner. And what a treat it was. He managed to keep the audience’s attention for an hour without showing a single slide or using any other prop. I remember his notion that bioinformatics is to theoretical biology as accountancy is to economics. I don’t think it went particularly well with that (sizeable) part of audience which was comprised of bioinformaticians. Including me. Ten or so years later, I tend to agree with Dr Brenner.

Loose Ends is a collection of columns written by Brenner for Current Biology between 1994 and 1997. I got this book as a gift, back in 1998. Apparently, it is out of print now, which is a shame. It should be made a compulsory reading for every biologist.

Molecular biology has been a great leveller and has made thinking unnecessary in many areas of modern biology. With the disappearance of theory has also come the decline of experimentation, and the practice of science by hypothesis and testing is not known by many students in the field. So powerful are contemporary tools for extracting answers from nature that pausing to think about the results, or asking how one might find out how cells really work, is likely to be seen as a source of irritating delay to the managerial classes, and could even endanger the career of the questioner.
(In Theory)
The best publication list I have ever seen was that of a candidate for some official post who was engaged in defence research. The two first papers were: Landing aeroplanes on aircraft carriers I & II, Restricted circulation. The remaining items, numbered 3 to 9, were labelled “Secret”. I would have been tempted to inflate the list of secret publications to 19.
(Citation matters)
For better or for worse, some of Brenner’s predictions of nineties became reality in the noughties. Mostly for worse, I’m afraid.
Before we develop pseudoscience of citation analysis, we should remind ourselves that what matters absolutely is the scientific content of a paper and that nothing will substitute for either knowing it or reading it.
(Citation matters)
Nowadays, the said pseudoscience is flourishing.
I predict that very soon every grant application will have to include a strategic mission statement and a business plan, as well as an organogram outlining the structure of the laboratory with a clear definition of who reports to whom. Perhaps as time goes on and science gets more difficult to do, the actual research project will come to be a smaller part of the application. Eventually it may disappear all together. This would fulfil the ultimate dream of every manager and administrator, which is simply to have pure management with no content...
(A tiresome business)

Monday, 4 January 2010

debating tenure

In one of Friends episodes, Ross is getting tenure and is very excited about it. (You can tell that the series was drawing to the end.)
“You know what the best part about this is? I can never be fired.”
Here is another thing Ross gets wrong, although he simply repeats a popular myth. But what exactly is tenure? The latest (October/November 2009) issue of Academic Matters is dedicated to this strange creature, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

In words of Michiel Horn,
Tenure is not without drawbacks. But these are the price that has to be paid to protect the innovative, the unconventional, and the unpopular, those whose fields of academic specialization have fallen into disfavour and, most of all, those who do work, sometimes very important work, that takes a long time to complete and leads to no commercially useful results.
On the contrary, Michael Bliss argues that
The claim that tenure is a necessary precondition of academic freedom is inherently and monstrously unjust to non-tenured academics. These are the scholars, often more adventurous and outspoken than the old and established, who most need academic freedom. To them the institution of tenure is as though society offered a guaranteed annual income to everyone but the poor. Words like “hypocrisy” and “dishonesty” come to mind.
The essay of Mark Kingwell is probably the best-written one:
All in all, tenure remains sacrosanct because nobody with any standing has a stake in criticizing it. There is another major factor in tenure’s culture of belief and that is simple psychology, exacerbated by the rampant professional envy of the academic world. The main reason people want tenure is because other people have it. Many academics do not admit this, maybe not even to themselves, because standard arguments about academic freedom are available to them, arguments that make tenure’s critics look crass.
But now try offering a few deeper objections. Who needs academic freedom in a constitutional democracy, where freedom of expression is already guaranteed? Or, more slyly, what possible objection could there be to speaking frankly about topics in which most people have utterly no interest?
In his view, instead of protecting academic freedom, tenure actually stifles it:
Unfortunately, but to nobody’s surprise, the institution of tenure tends to make academic departments conservative. Since tenure decisions are made by senior faculty, all of them tenured themselves, there is a natural tendency to reproduce the status quo. Academics deny this, but their acts betray them.
Sandra Acker investigates whether the tenure is still a gender issue.
The various forms of appraisal and evaluation may incorporate unacknowledged gendered norms. Most of the assessors (senior faculty) are men, and the reward system is biased toward research and publications rather than teaching and service. In one study, the “successful academic” was described in interviews as “someone whose first priority was research, who worked long hours, who defined themselves in terms of their work, who had experienced no break in career, and who had an uninterrupted forward movement in their career profile.”
Pat Finn advocates the abolition of tenure in favour of granting academics the same job security as ejoyed by other professionals.
Academic freedom is special, prized, and to be defended at all costs. Tenure is not.
She acknowledges, however, that her opinion is unlikely to be embraced by academia anytime soon:
So tenure will likely remain unchanged. And academics will continue to defend it when challenged by critics who believe in the myth of “a job for life”.