Category Archives: advice

Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice

Image: “A Close Call for Six Citizens of Calais”.* Public Domain.

Spoiler alert: “Outlander” plot spoilers.  Except they aren’t really, which as you’ll see is the whole point of the post.

I occasionally offer advice here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  I’m here today to give you some meta-advice: be wary of my advice (but not too wary). Here’s why.

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel-historical-romance-adventure novel Outlander.** Several times through the book, one of the two protagonists has a close brush with death.  Each time, the skillful storytelling had me on the edge of my seat, but whether it’s Claire Beauchamp or Jamie Fraser, the imperiled one is rescued or recovers.  In the most extreme incident, Jamie has received last rites and his skin shows the greenish pallor of the deathbed, and I found myself wanting to read late into the night so I’d know whether he survives.  But then I realized: of course he does.  There are eight more books in the series!

More generally, protagonists in fiction almost always have close calls (with death or with other unpleasant, if less final, outcomes) – and they almost always survive them.***  After all, the storyline in which the protagonist doesn’t survive their close call is an unsatisfying one,  unlikely to be written, or to be published if it is.  You can think of this as the Anthropic Principle of Fiction, if you like, but I found myself thinking of it instead as a form of survivorship bias.  We only hear the stories of survivors, simply because those make the best stories.

And that brings me to advice. Continue reading

The scientific wisdom of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache

Image: Books 5 – 9 in Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, featuring Armand Gamache.

“I don’t know. I was wrong. I’m sorry”.  Lacoste recited them slowly, lifting a finger to count them off.

“I need help”, the Chief said, completing the statements.  The ones he’d taught young Agent Lacoste many years ago.  The ones he recited to all his new agents.

The Long Way Home, Louise Penny

 

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec, knows a lot about homicide detection.  Gamache is the protagonist of Louise Penny’s Three Pines series of crime novels.  Over 15 novels so far, Penny has portrayed the usual assortment of crimes and their solutions, but also (unusually for the genre) Gamache’s approach to managing and mentoring the earlier-career detectives assigned to his unit.  His management philosophy can be summed up as willingness to utter, whenever appropriate, the Four Statements:

    • I don’t know.
    • I was wrong.
    • I’m sorry.
    • I need help.

These work very well for Gamache in the novels.  I’ve found they work pretty well in science, too. Continue reading

Lemon zest, theory of mind, and the hazards of localized advice

Image: Lemon zest, © Didriks via flickr.com CC BY 2.0

I hate lemon zest.  Yes, that’s trivial; but I’m going to turn it into a point that (I think) matters.

I hated lemon zest even more when I was growing up.  My mother, on the other hand, loved the stuff.  She put it in everything (well, it seemed that way to me), and she was perpetually amazed when I’d sample something new and – after my first nibble – say in an injured tone of voice “Mum, this has lemon zest in it!”.

What mystified me about the lemon zest was the stance my mother was taking.  Continue reading

The “publication power-of-attorney”, and why you should have one

(This is a lightly edited version of a post that originally ran in January 2015. But you probably didn’t see it then.) 

Here’s a problem you might not have thought of: did you know you can submit and publish a paper with a coauthor who’s deceased, but not with one who’s in a coma and might recover?

A lot of people have never thought of this, and a lot don’t think it’s a problem worth worrying about.  Please bear with me, though, because I think it’s a more important problem than most of us realize – but also one that’s easily avoided.

The unavailable-coauthor problem is actually more general than my coma example. Continue reading

How to write, and read, a (manuscript) rejection letter

Several months ago, I wrote about how to write, and read, a job rejection letter.  I know a lot about those.  I also know quite a bit about manuscript rejections (as most of us do).  I’ve received so many I’ve lost track, and I’ve written as many or more as an editor.  Just as with job rejections, there are better manuscript rejections and worse ones. Continue reading

A snippet of my 37-page CV

Why I have a 37-page version of my CV (and why you should too)

Image: just the first six pages of the stultifying detail in my 37-page CV

A while back on Twitter, someone asked which details she should keep track of on her CV – in particular, I think, with respect to multi-authored conference presentations.  All the details, I replied, which answer was promptly and rounded derided.  Why, a bunch of people asked, should anyone care about the 13th of 17 authors, the month or date of the conference, or the city it was held in?  Why bother?  Why keep the 37-page version of one’s CV – the version that’s (metaphorically) clogging up my hard drive*?

I couldn’t convince those who were deriding me, and to be fair, they had a considerable advantage: common sense and logic were entirely on their side. Continue reading

Man working on the beach

Working on “vacation”

Photo: Working on the beach, © Yuvipanda CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia.org. Not a photo of me – you couldn’t pay me enough to sit on a beach, working or no.

I took a 2-week vacation this summer.  I packed some Dick Francis mystery novels, sunscreen, my swimsuit – and a half-dozen theses and manuscripts to work on.

I gather I’m not supposed to do that last part. Continue reading