Archive for: April, 2017

quote of the day: looks edition

Apr 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Thoughts on look-ism from J.K. Rowling:

“Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her.

I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me; but then, you might retort, what do I know about the pressure to be skinny? I’m not in the business of being judged on my looks, what with being a writer and earning my living by using my brain…


What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate! --J.K. Rowling

3 responses so far

Making decisions - Part 1

Apr 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In the morning, I have taken to listening to podcasts whilst I do my morning stretching. In general, I find podcasts frustrating - by and large they are too slow and I just would rather read, and absorb the information more quickly. But since I can't read and stretch at the same time, I listen.

This morning, I was listening to a TED program. Usually I can't stand the TED talks, even the abridged "radio hour" version. The people talking are way too smug and sure of themselves. It's even a bit, as my Brit friends would say, Twee.

But this one, about making decisions, had some insight that I appreciated (thank you, my dear friend. Denise for suggesting this). The woman was Ruth Chang, a philosopher, talking about: How Can Making Hard Choices Empower Us?

I took away two core messages from this excerpt of her talk. Firstly, separate the concept of "hard decisions" from "important decisions". Decisions are hard to make because the resolution is not obvious, that doesn't mean they are worthy of great swathes of your attention. It may feel that making a choice is difficult, because you don't know enough, about your desires or about the outcomes, to make it. But, it is not worth losing sleep over what to have for breakfast.

Secondly, embrace the hard decisions, the ones that are not about what to have for breakfast. They are a chance to decide, but also a chance to make yourself into who you are. The decision gives you the chance to chose who you are going to be. Agency, she calls it. It is a chance to commit (her word) to who you are going to be, a chance to determine your path.

Embrace the difficulty. Usually we who like to embrace difficulty, or embrace the concept of embracing difficulty, embrace the difficulty of doing something. We want to climb the physical or intellectual mountain. It's part of the reason we are scientists. But the difficulty of deciding is, at least for me, harder to do. It's triggered a whole range of thoughts, some of which are part of the path through the end of my life. So this is just part 1. Parts 2 through n, to follow.





One response so far

Quote of the Day: Olde Farte Survival

Apr 14 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Apropos ongoing discussions about giving time of day to evil human beings:

If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. ― Sun Tzu

No responses yet

What is important to one's sense of self? Reflections on Star Wars and Star Trek and LOTR

Apr 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

When I was growing up the single most important thing was to be smart. Bright. Intelligent. There was some vague distinction between knowing things, and being able to know things. The most telling insult in my family was "you are stupid". Even now when I get angry at someone or something, that's the word I go to in my head. "Don't be so stupid" implied that one could choose to be smart or stupid.

That is part of the problem I have with much of popular science fiction. One's fate is set at the outside, by genes, by birth, by how you look. My biggest issue with LOTR, which I go to when I need encouragement (the scene where the elves show up at Helm's Deep, with the military version of the Elf Leitmotif in the background makes me love my friends all the more), is that Evil has bad hair, bad skin, bad teeth, whereas Good is damn fine looking. Star Wars: either the force is strong in you or not. Talk about hereditary leadership.

TOS Star Trek was a bit better, there was, for the time, for the time, a message of inclusiveness, and trainees who could learn, in addition to all the boobs and scanty-clad women. But for me, at the time, when I was in junior high, it was a good send: Real Live Scientists! As heroes!

It was hard, back then, in the dark ages to find inspirational Stuff For Girls. Compared to the messages that came to me through most sources ("do not have sex or your life is over") or cartoons of my childhood (boys have fun, girls care about, what? Hair & music?) (except for Moose and Squirrel. <insert heavy Russian accent> Get moose & squirrel), there was little for me to hang my hat on. But it was still Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman.

Smart instead of pretty can be a strong message. To me, it was. Smart was something I could control. Something I could work towards, something I could cultivate, instead of the looks I got in the genetic lottery.

My views of this have changed over the years. I used to worry about being the smartest. Hahaha. Grad school will kick that stuffing out of you. No way. There is always someone smarter. And someone who works harder. And wants it more than you. I absorbed that message maybe not easily, but quickly: I wasn't ever going to be the smartest or even the hardest working. But it became ok. Underneath all of these concerns was an underlying love of the natural world and science and doing research, the things that pushed me in this direction in the first place.

Now when I worry, waking up at 2am, it's usually about the Supreme Court, my friends of color who have young sons, my married gay friends, and my transgender friends who get outed easily (when you apply for a new job, you have to usually supply all of your past legal names. Having been "Barbara" and now being "Jacob" is a pretty strong signal). It's about the young trainees who are struggling to find a job, and my friends who don't really have enough money to retire, but are too tired to keep working (think 2nd grade teachers or waitresses).

Yes, there is lots of room for me to get pissed off about popular culture, a culture that still promotes beauty over brains, that makes young people believe that they could be running the world if only they were... whatever more than they are right now. I don't have to worry about not being the smartest any more. And while the world isn't perfect, there are a lot more role models for young females, and enough people who really don't care about how you look. I can stop worrying about that, and work on something more important.

2 responses so far

Being statistically rational about generation

Apr 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, once again, some Gen-X-er had to say something snarky about generations on the tweets.

I've gotten tired of arguing the stereotypes. I've gotten tired of pointing out the flaws in the statistics.

This time the fight, argument, er discussion had to do with "where do you draw the lines betwixt generations?"

This fight reminded me of one of the things I used to teach when I taught data analysis to biology grad students.  Say you've got two variables, oh call them X and Y. You are interested in the relationship between X&Y, and maybe even have some hypotheses about what that is. You've measured both, and let's even say you have reason to want to call Y the response variable (or even dependent) and X the carrier or independent. X looks a little "grouped". There seem to be some "natural" breaks.

Point the first: unlikely to be natural. If this is data you set out to collect: copoopods in the river, rabbits hopping on the bank, you may have, unintentionally, not on purpose, whatever, introduced that bias. Departures from random sampling are rampant and insidious.

So you plot the data and those breaks may or may not still be there. The temptation to turn "X", a continuous variable, be it distance on your transact, size of bunny lower limb or whatever, into a categorical variable is huge. Your slope of Y on X is small and the significance is marginal (.06 or so).  The relationship is there. You know it. But it's weak as that cup of coffee you stole from the pot before it was finished brewing.

So you take X and turn it into categories. Every 10M or 100M on the transact. Reorganize the data and push it through an ANOVA. And lo! Your eyes were opened, and there is a Significant Relationship. Victory is within your grasp.

Point the second: What is bad here? You've violated many assumptions:

In an ANOVA, membership in category is not random. The difference between random and fixed predictor or categorical variables in a linear model is critical and frequently overlooked.  Understanding the difference separates out the JV from the varsity, Serena Williams from my sweetie's tennis group, the undergraduate from the postdoc. The calculations are different, the implications are different, and the conclusions you can reach are different. What are these differences? Well, if you still believe in inferential statistics, you cannot make inferences about levels in a random variable (i.e. Is group 1 different from group 2?). Further when you test, you can't just take the ratio of MSR/MSE  to arrive at an F-stat. Small technical point, but one that influences that measure of significance.

Other points: did you check within group variation? I thought not. It's supposed to be equal, and if you divvied up a continuous variable, it's not likely to be.

You can call yourself a fire hydrant, but it doesn't make you one. This *was* a continuous variable, and your groups are not "real" biologically, and if it is, the group variable will be random, not fixed.

So where does it leave our stalwart warriors of GenX?

Well, "generations" is the imposition of categories on a continuous variable. This problem is evident when people start arguing about at what year the boundary occurs. It's a continuous variable that one is trying to parse into categories. And then! Treat the categories like the belong to a fixed variable, and not a continuous one. Are people born in 1963 more "like" those born in 1968 than they are like those born in 1948? Probably in many ways. There is a continuous distribution, with many traits, response variables and over all "philosophy" or culture changing, relatively gradually over time.

The idea of a generation is a convenient trope for the glossy news machines, and the bitter folks trying to blame their problems on others. Yes, there are people who did BAD things and took alz teh grants muney. There are historical trends, there are patterns. Finding those patterns may or may not be useful to either advancing a hypothesis (somewhat likely) or effecting change (much less likely, but tremendously satisfying). Knowing history is a good thing.

There are bad people in every generation. There are BSD and Big Dogs and kindly hearts who mentor you. If you start classifying by this construct we call "generation" you are likely to make mistakes about who and what people are, because you are judging them on their age.

Things *have* changed. There is no doubt of that. There are many, many things that are much harder, right now, for young scientists. There are also some things that are easier. Some of these things were active, evil and selfish, things done by older people that have downstream impacts on younger people. It may be very satisfying to demonize a group, and blame them for all your problems. But it won't solve the problems. It won't turn members of that group into your allies to help solve the problems.







One response so far

Quote of the Day: St. Augustine edition

Apr 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Quoted by Graham Greene (yes, still working through that one):

How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity. -- St. Augustine

Well, maybe. We can see beyond the end of our noses and look backwards and forwards.

No responses yet

Your chance to make a difference: how do you get your info from NIH?

Apr 05 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Someone with a vested interest in making NIH better at outreach contacted me. He has asked for anonymity because its a personal thing he's doing, not through is employer. He's got a survey, not Official NIH, so he's asked for help in getting the word out.

The big question is:

how [do] investigators/applicants [become] ... aware of new funding opportunities announced by NIH (PA, PAR), particularly RFA from individual ICs.

He also said:

It is not uncommon that sometimes RFA from ICs did not reach to the research community as well as we expected, and certainly there are something NIH can do to improve outreaching with many social Medias are available.

So he's put together a survey [only 6! questions]:

Also, feel free to leave comments here, as he will pick them up.


2 responses so far

Sally Rockey on IDC

Apr 05 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The ever insightful Mad Mike reminded me of this:


From the youtube link: Published on Sep 11, 2015 Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, explains indirect costs and how they support research. See her blog on this topic at:

No responses yet

Graham Greene and Life

Apr 04 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

When I was at MRU, I lived near the hospital and walked to work. I sometimes listened to music, but mostly I listened to the city.

Now, there is nowhere to live in walking distance, so I drive. While I drive I listen to books. I try to listen to things to improve myself, as if improvement was really possible. Then I go through a spasm of irritation at my absurdity and go back to listening to bad murder mysteries, and science fiction when available, the things I enjoy.

My car is old. There is no USB port, no connection to the internet, no maps. When I bought this car, I was thrilled to have a CD player, as opposed to the tape decks of previous cars. So, to listen I check out books on disks from the public library. My selection is limited to what the local library, in this small town, deems worthy. There are more murder mysteries than  science fiction, and I just refuse to read or listen to fantasy any more.

From time to time, I am revisited by the urge to hear something different. I check out a book that my old book club would have read. Something Irish and depressing and filled with alcoholic people who cannot control their lives or futures. Something that is to science fiction what this post is to my usual fare of professionalism and grantsmanship.

Of those literary books, I get past the first disk of about half of them. One of the freedoms I have given myself in old age is the peace of mind not to finish a book. I suspect I lose some that had I but read or listened for another chapter or three I might enjoy it. But mostly I save myself a week of boredom.

So last week I pulled Graham Greene's End of an Affair from the shelf. I do not know why. I have never particularly like Greene and his tortured Catholicism, though I have read some of his more entertaining books. I certainly do enjoy some of the ones that were turned into excellent movies of the 40s and 50s: The Third Man (Orson Wells at his near finest), 21 Days, The Quiet American, The Honorary Consul with Michael Caine. Some have been remade - Neil Jordan made The End of the Affair with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore and Stephen Rae in 1999, but I haven't seen it.

I was very prepared for not finishing this one. My car audio system has not been working well, which is the problem with old cars and old audio systems, and I never quite have the time to go get it fixed, or more likely replaced. Perhaps that's why I picked it - so I wouldn't be frustrated if I got in the car wanting to hear the book and not being able to do so.

But the book is pulling me, despite expectations. It is read by Colin Firth, and he is perfect for the material. Or perhaps this one of his voices that he has selected as perfect for the material. When I walk to my car at the end of the day, I buoyed to think I will hear more of this story.

The buoyance is odd, as the story is self-described as being about hate and jealousy and anger. I usually listen for story, for the history, the what-happens-next. But the words of this have me.

Pain is easy to write. In pain we're all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?”― Graham Greene 

One quote, by the narrator, who is a novelist, about writing struck me as being about doing science, too:

So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.” ― Graham Greene   

I don't hate the way the narrator does, but I do remember the emotion. The quotes about his writing though, speak deeply to me. And of course, one of his most famous quotes:

One has no talent. I have no talent. It’s just a question of working, of being willing to put in the time. ― Graham Greene 

5 responses so far

« Newer posts