Monthly Archives: May 2018

The fetishization of entrepreneurship

Image: Cash, images_of_money CC BY 2.0

Warning: curmudgeonly.

Last week I went up to our campus conference centre to see my 11-year old son’s display at the school district’s “Invention Convention”.  I found a room full of students showing off their clever inventions, most of them bubbling with energy.  They had on display, not just their inventions, but searches for prior art, pricing strategies, marketing plans – the works.  It was the second such event I’d been to in a month, actually; at the school’s open house, there was a Grade Eight Marketplace where the students were actually selling the gadgets they’d designed and made.  The latter event, I’ve learned, won a National Entrepreneurial Award.  All this was clearly supposed to impress me and make me proud, and in a way it did.  But it also saddened me.

It’s not that I object to kids learning about entrepreneurship.  Continue reading


Making people angry

Image: Rage, Deiby Chico via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’ve been posting here at Scientist Sees Squirrel for three years and change, and in that time I’ve learned a few things.  I’ve learned that some posts are wildly popular, while others sink like very quiet stones.  I’ve learned that writing a post is a good way to find out what I think about something, and that leaving the comments open is a great way to find out what I’m missing in my thinking.  And I’ve learned that some topics make people very, very angry. Continue reading

Posts for conference season

Image: Empty session room, CC0 via

See that room in the photo above?  Soon I’ll be sitting in it, and you probably will too (most of the conferences I attend, at least, happen in the summer).  I just booked some travel, and that got me thinking conference season. Continue reading

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Image: Oxford English Dictionary, Mrpolyonymous CC BY 2.0 via  But no, the Oxford Dictionary is not in charge.

Who’s in charge of the English language?  Nobody, of course.  You might think that would make our writing easier; but actually, it makes it considerably harder.

Here’s something you see all the time: someone either asks a question about the rules of English, or insists that somebody else is breaking them.

  • “Can I start a sentence with an abbreviated genus name?”
  • “When do I use which and when do I use that?”
  • Decimate really means to kill only one in ten.”
  • “Everyone knows you can’t split an infinitive.”

If English were a set of rules, with some body in charge of enforcing them, then all questions like those first two would have simple, short, unambiguous answers, and all opinions like the latter two would be objectively either right or wrong.  But English isn’t a set of rules.  Continue reading

From ego naming to cancer screening: type I error and rare events

Image: Unicorn fresco by Domenichino (1581-1641), in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome, via

Sometimes, thinking about science, I make odd connections.  Often, they seem odd when I first make them, but then I learn something important from them and wonder why I’d never made them before.  A good example cropped up the other day, when I realized that a peculiar feature of the scientific naming of organisms connects, via some simple statistics, to the difficulty of cancer screening, to reproducibility, and to the burden of proof for surprising claims.  Curious?  Here goes. Continue reading

Steal this syllabus! (or, how I taught Scientific Writing)

Image: Writing, CC0 by Startup Stock Photos from

 This semester, for the first time, I taught a course in scientific writing.  I was very scared going into it, but now that the course is over I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.  Several people who have taught similar courses were kind enough to share their syllabi with me, and that helped – so I’m going to pay it forward here.  If you might teach a writing course, or if you have colleagues who might, or if you’re just interested in how one might do such a thing, read on.  I’ll tell you a bit about the course, and down at the bottom I’ll post the syllabus and other course materials, which you are welcome to download and adapt for your own use. Continue reading