Godwin's law, Slaves, Hyperbole and Reality

(by potnia theron) Dec 09 2016

Holy Cow. Quote from the comments:

2-That there are people saying and documenting that the USA has not being an independent country for a long while, and that the legal status of the citizens is that of slaves.

What this brings to mind is Goodwin's Law:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1"

Aside from the fact that there are numerous characteristics that distinguish even the average working class single mom from a slave, this is a truly insulting comparison.

So first, how different? There are lots of social specifics: slaves do not get to chose spouses, and marriage in the church or state of your choice was unavailable. Slaves could not chose where they live, and what they ate. Legally, slaves were property and could not own property (such as a car). Slaves could not enter into a contract, however beneficial or not it is. Slaves did own the fruits of their labor.

And, today, whether you chose to do so or not, whether you believe it makes a difference or not, adult citizens in the US can vote. And those votes can make a difference. We only think about the president, and maybe the senate. But there are lots of local elections. There are school boards that decide whether "alternatives" to evolution get taught, whether high school sports happen, whether art and music classes are available. There may be problems. It may not work everywhere. But I have seen it work enough in places I have lived to know that it can work. If you want it to.

These are the ways in which adult citizens of the US differ from slaves.

But this is not why the comparison bothers me.

It bothers me because such a comparison at its heart is insulting to those who were slaves. Who did not have the rights we have now, even if you think those rights are a sham. The men and women whose children were taken from them, who did not get to practice the religion they were brought up in, whose ability and right to escape and abuser was limited if available at all.

Again, I am not saying that things are perfect, that problems don't exist. I am sure that if you search the internet you can find, in the US or in Europe examples of situations where these things do not work for the "free citizens", where women are abused, and children taken (wrongfully) from their parents. But, they are exceptions, and you had to search for them. It is not the experience of most Americans, who own a car, a phone, the clothes on their backs. Who have the option to send their kids to school. To pick the trade they learn.

Slavery in the US was shameful. The case for reparations needs to be discussed and considered. It is not sufficient to say "those weren't my ancestors". You need to read this article  [The Case for Reparations Ta-Nehisi Coates]. You need to read this book [The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson]. But most of all, when you talk about what is wrong in the US today, for the average citizen, you cannot call it slavery. Get yourself a different word. It is shameful to fail to acknowledge what slavery really was.


6 responses so far

Push the fledglings out of the nest

(by potnia theron) Dec 08 2016

This paper (pdf) from the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?", and summarized here, got a fair amount of publicity when it came out about a year ago.  Aside from the fact it supports everything DM has to say (uh, see here but also see here for other issues of entitlement), there is additional value to understanding the study. I think that the analysis of the results suggests another course of action for PI's.

So what does the NBER paper  say? It is a data-driven analysis of publishing rates in life scientists. They looked at folks who died in the saddle at the height of their prowess, what they called super-stars, but I think of as Big Dogs. They measured changes in publication rates of Big Dog collaborators vs. non-collaborators of  over the time period that included the death of the big dog. They found that publication rates of the collaborators dropped, and of the non-collaborators increased. They also implied that the papers of the non-collaborators are "disproportionately likely to be highly cited".

From their conclusions:

Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone.

[note: love the use of "she" in the quote]. So what is your average, run o' the mill PI to make of this, beyond confirming what we have always suspected?

I think it suggests a strategy with respect to trainees. I think it suggests moving them on as soon as you can. Now if you are a Big Dog, the data implies they do better with you and co-authoring. But! You might die! You might get hit by a bus, get a glioblastoma, or pancreatic cancer or all of these. What then? Your poor little trainees will be in terrible shape, and suffer more than the amount that they will from just missing you. If you care about their success (an if, I know), they will do better the sooner they are on their own.

But what, I hear you say, what if you are not a big dog? Ah. I am not a big dog, although I am old. I suppose if I was a serious scientist, if I was a good scientist, a serious scientist, really smart and really good, I would be a big dog by now. But alas, alack, I am not. Any of those things. So, for me, small dog that I am, what does this tell me? That my trainees will not necessarily benefit from my co-authorship. But, and this is an extrapolation, they will be poised to benefit more from the death of the big dogs if they are out there on their own.

Actually, this paper suggests nothing of this kind at all. It does not look at the children of little dogs, nor does it separate the children of little dogs from the older little dogs themselves. And actually, when push comes to shove, I am not so much a little dog as a meerkat or an ermine living in someone else's burrow. But that's an aside.

This is a thought about trainees, in general. In general, I think that trainees benefit from being pushed out of the nest. From being pushed to think of their own stuff and develop their own programs. Of course! It is so damn tempting to keep that incredible student or postdoc. They do well. They make your lab not only run, they make your lab HUMMM. But that is about *you* oh mammal of intermediate size. Think about them. Think about what is best for them. And getting them independent, getting them on their own, finding some new trainees for yourself: everyone will benefit. Whether your trainees will be able to challenge the dominant paradigm, publish more or less, and whether in the end the rate of publishing, beyond a threshold really matters, are all things we have and will continue to debate for the near and distant futures. But meantime, independence is the goal of our training, and we are making more type II errors (not seeing independence when it exists) than type I (seeing false independence when it doesn't).



11 responses so far

Update on Ugh and Double Ugh

(by potnia theron) Dec 06 2016

A while ago I had something to say about Cyagen, which I titled "Ugh and Double Ugh":

This is wrong. This is very very wrong. When did how we look become important?

An update from faithful reader KQ:

Looks like they went through with it. I just received the following email:

Good morning!
Cyagen Biosciences is excited to announce that our 2017 “Smart is Sexy” calendars have arrived! The calendar features over 160 researchers from around the world, and 12 months of promotions for Cyagen’s animal model services as well as custom vectors, virus packaging, and cloning services from VectorBuilder.com.
Pick up a free copy by visiting Cyagen at any of our upcoming vendor shows and seminars, or click here to request a free copy for your lab!
Please contact me if you would like a list of upcoming shows/seminars for the month of December Cyagen will be attending.
Kind regards,

The world is not becoming a better place.

2 responses so far

Problems with Grant Reviews: conflict of interest with study section members

(by potnia theron) Dec 05 2016

The rules about conflict of interest (COI) are not something that most of us think about when we write the grant. After all, isn't that the problem of the study section and the SRO? Yet, there is impact worth thinking about.

Office of Extramural Research (OER) that runs the study sections has explicit rules about conflict of interest for its reviewers. There are two COI's that can have a significant, but overlooked impact on getting your proposals reviewed by people who know about your sub discipline. These are things you need to consider both when you write a proposal, in terms of  who you include,  and when you start publishing with collaborators.

Aside: of course you need to do the best science. Of course you need to include the best collaborators on your proposal, and write with the best collaborators. The point of this post to start thinking about what you do.

The two rules are, from the reviewer's perspective:

  1. You can't review anything from anyone at your institution
  2. You can't review  anything from someone with whom you have co-authored in the last three years.

So when you include a co-I or consultant, you need to remember that any reviewer from their institution, or any reviewer who published with your co-I or consultant cannot review your proposal. One implication of this are the big review/consensus papers that get published with a long list of everyone in the field can create problems. If you have a consultant or co-I from that list, then NO ONE on the list can review your grant. Of course its wonderful to be asked to be one of those authors. It looks great on your CV, and all of a sudden you are only 1-degree of separation from some Very Big Dogs. I am not saying turn down the offer, it's important. But, keep in mind what it means for proposal review. One of the frequent, yet plaintive cries of young ESI folks (as well as older, jaded but-still-brown-hair PI's) is that there was no one on the list of reviewers that new diddley about their discipline.

You can't suggest reviewers for your proposal, but you sure as all get-out can eliminate many. Think, think, think about who you include for those co-I and consultant positions. You need them to demonstrate expertise. Take a look at who is a standing member of the study section you are targeting. (You are targeting a study section, aren't you?). And use that information as you build your proposal.


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On reading

(by potnia theron) Nov 28 2016

This morning I was reading a great article in the NYTimes magazine. It was about a cook, a person who is a chef at their own restaurant, putting together a meal for friends, a meal at which she could sit down and enjoy. The recipes are interesting, and some of them maybe worth trying.

But what hit me, when I was done, was the writing. This chef runs some fancy-pants restaurant in New York. I probably couldn't get a reservation there. But when I was reading this, I felt that I'd like to know this woman. I felt that she had opened up a part of herself, and that I understood some of those parts. I could make the leap from chef to scientist and see things about myself in what she said about herself.

I know lots of people who "don't have time for reading". Reading in it and of itself is just a stand-in for getting information, knowledge, stuff flowing into your head. Reading is just an efficient way to do that. To cut oneself off from that flow, to limit that flow to things that one already knows, to things in one's own narrow sphere, is to cut one's self off from life.

We do not know where our ideas come from (for the most part). We do not know what will nudge us one way or the other, in our professional lives, in our personal lives. But if we do not read, we will certainly miss out on many opportunities to be nudged. To grow. To change. Change is good. It is life itself.



3 responses so far

Professional Hint for People Management when you get to be A Big Dog

(by potnia theron) Nov 22 2016

Image result for christmas party science fictionEven if in your mind there is a good justification, do not ask the senior women in the department to organize the Christmas Party. Especially when... I was going to add a bunch of other stuff (like personal loss, grant deadlines, etc) and some other advice... but you know what? We can just leave it at that.


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Dementia is an Insidious Disease

(by potnia theron) Nov 21 2016

When the experts, of which my mother had been one, say a disease is insidious they mean the symptoms may not be obvious at first. Other definitions:

An insidious disease is any disease that comes on slowly and does not have obvious symptoms at first. The person is not aware of it developing.

A disease existing without marked symptoms but ready to become active upon some slight occasion; a disease not appearing to be as bad as it really is.

In my book: a disease that lets you fake it for a rather long time.

Insidious in common parlance has a very strongly negative sense: evil that lurks and only gradually emerges. That part of the definition seems just right for thinking about dementia. Dementia is an evil disease, more so than the fact that all diseases, all illnesses are evil.

Is it worse to lose your mind or your body? Let's set aside for a moment that one's mind is part of one's body. This dichotomy may or may not be particularly useful for understanding health and illness. Yet, if you talk to the elderly (and I don't mean functional bluehairs and greybeards, I mean the folks staring hard at the end of their life), they make a very clear distinction in this.

My father lived well into his 90s. He was physically slower, but could still get roused for a good argument about what my (my!) CV should look like, why this or that politician was full of it, or whatever cause-du-jour attracted his attention. But he could barely move; years of playing handball, running and lifting weights had destroyed his knees. I am pretty sure he was depressed for all sorts of reasons, including that my mother's dementia precluded their massive arguments about everything. Yet, he could set that depression aside to tell me the truth about whatever he had just read on the internet. His favorite site, btw, was Arts & Letters Daily (a good compendium of ideas, thoughts and stuff you had no idea was as interesting as it proves to be).

Physical decline is less insidious: its there and obvious and in your face each day when you wake up in pain. From his perspective, his body, gradually to be sure, failed to keep its half of the bargain with his mind. When my father died, he was tired. He went to sleep and didn't wake up. My mother never thought she'd outlive him. But she did. By many years. But she never knew this, and never will.

She was in complete and entire denial that anything was wrong, and that is part of the cruelty. My mother came from less-than-working-class family. My grandparents were illiterate, and had gone to work in factories as young children in New York City. Her mind, her brain, her personality is what carried her out of poverty to being a med school professor in the days when such women were counted in single digits at any school. I can imagine there was nothing more terrifying to her than losing that by which she defined herself. Her response differed only slightly from aging athletes who know, deep down know, that they cannot recreate the triumphs of their youth.

This is the evil part, but what about insidious? All of my immediate family had large arguments about what was happening to my mother. I saw signs before my sibs and father. One of them actually said: "you really hate Ma, don't you? You want her to be demented." My mother and I never got along. She was a marvelous mentor, and I loved her, as a daughter loves a good mother. But, we fought bitterly through my adolescence. We struggled to define a good relationship in my adulthood. But irrespective of that relationship, I was not anxious to see her ill or see her demented. We fought, but I did not, do not, wish dementia on anyone. I didn't know why this scared me so much at the time, but the caretaking I've done over the last 15 years gives me exquisite hindsight.

My mother has died. What was it, what, 3 weeks ago, already? More? It still feels like yesterday to me. I know it was time for her. But, for me, why did it have to be so soon?

17 responses so far

Ode to Friends

(by potnia theron) Nov 18 2016

This post was going to be about my mother. But I realized as I wrote it in my head that it was really about my girlfriends.

A few days ago, I was feeling sad about my mother, and I saw a picture, taken at some local fundraising event, of me with six of the most marvelous women in the world. They are marvelous because they are my friends.

When I see a picture like this, one of Urusala LeGuin's short stories pops into my head. It's a story set in her universe from Left Hand of Darkness, a powerful book unto itself. The story is framed as a series of snapshots, a this device that echoes one of the themes of the story, how our memory is often frozen like a picture.

The picture with my friends is still fresh, it was only last week. But in a month or two, I will remember the event, but not feelings exactly at that moment.  Maybe in a year or two, I will not remember even where we were at the time.

I look at the picture, and I know similar ones exist, ones with a different mix of people's faces in them. I know, because I've seen them. And while I don't know the faces in those pictures, on Facebook, on Twitter, in miscellaneous blog posts, I know the feeling.

These women love me and each other. And it doesn't matter how smart or thin you are. It doesn't matter if you work in a factory (as one does) or teach school (as another does) or have several squillion NIH dollars (or not). It doesn't matter if you are fat or fit. It is a friendship born out of shared time together, of helping when things are tough, and looking out for someone else.

I have not always had time for women like this in my life. And now, looking back, I know why I didn't have time. I am not even sure, as wonderful as having such women in my life is, I am not sure that I would be here, now, where I am if I had. Family and job often sucked everything out of me. But there were also times and places in my life when I thought these women didn't exist, or at least exist for me. And that was wrong.

When I moved to almost-MRU in the Middle-of-fracking-nowhere (as it seemed to me at the time, I know better now), I was emotionally devastated. I had probably hit 5 or 7 of the top 10 stressors in life (although not getting funded by NIH isn't on most standard lists, it is on ours). As I have at other times in my life, I plastered "I can make this work" smile on my face, and stood up and taught large classes of frequently indifferent students. I sat in front of a computer and lost myself in data. Or in grant proposals. But I was not happy in my Potenmkin Village of life.

And I found these women. They didn't just fall into my life, although that is possible. I found them, and made an effort towards friendship. Without meaning to, they saved my life. I know that I have, on occasion, saved theirs. These women are there for you. They are worth finding. They are worth the energy of reaching out to. They will save your life.



One response so far

The comfort of small work

(by potnia theron) Nov 14 2016

The world is full of challenges, for all of us: professional, political, personal. Sometimes challenges and sorrows cross those lines. An intersectionality of sorrow.

Today, I am grading. I am part of a large team-taught course. We give a practical exam that must be graded by hand, and then scored for the computer. The exam is given in thirds, so we start grading at about 9:30 when the first group is done. If we are good, if everyone shows up, we are done by 5pm, although there are times it has gone later. My contribution is Pandora-mix station that appeals, after a fasion, to everyone from blue-hairs to head-banging millenials.

Today I am grateful for grading. It takes my attention. It will last all day. It must be done, and at the end of the day it will be done.

One response so far

Thoughts on Voting as a Spiritual Activity

(by potnia theron) Nov 07 2016

First off, I am not a spiritual person. Never really have been. But, I have many spiritual friends who try and reach out to me and help me see what I am missing. I am not sure about that either. But, from one such friend (who is part of a interfaith get-out-the-vote group...)

A reflection from Dr. Mel Scult (biographer of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan) on the spiritual meaning of voting as well as other ways of participating in the democratic process in our country: Dr. Scult writes, “Democracy for Kaplan meant far more than majority rule, but rather a whole culture built on the encouragement of certain values and certain kinds of behavior which were basic to an ethical life. . . Democracy, therefore, was no mere political system; it was a way of life that, if successful, penetrated the inner core of one’s being, one’s entire consciousness.” One of the ways that Kaplan applied this idea was to compose a prayer book that addressed all of the holidays of the American civic calendar, including Election Day. For him it was critical that we understand walking into a voting booth as a sacred act.

This friend also sent along a prayer for voting. While this friend is one of our Jewish brothers and sisters, I believe it will work for our siblings of other faiths. Whether I believe in anything is aside from the point. What I do find is the alt-right's deathgrip on religiousity to be irritating at best, and ugly at worst. Thus, for all my brothers and sisters and siblings of indeterminate gender, I share this with you:

May it be Your will, at this season of our election, to guide us towards peace.

By voting, we commit to being full members of society, to accepting our individual responsibility for the good of the whole. May we place over ourselves officials in all our gates…who will judge the people with righteousness (Deut 16:18), and may we all merit to be counted among those who work faithfully for the public good.

Open our eyes to see the image of God in all candidates and elected officials, and may they see the image of God in all citizens of the earth.

Grant us the courage to fulfill the mitzvah of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and place in our hearts the wisdom to understand those who do not share our views.

As we pray on the High Holidays, “May we become a united society, fulfilling the divine purpose with a whole heart.”

And as the Psalmist sang, “May there be shalom within your walls, peace in your strongholds. For the sake of my brothers and sisters and friends, I will speak peace to you.” (Ps. 122:7-8)

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