I was tidying up old paper files in my office last week (don’t ask) when I came across the records from my tenure review, 20 years ago. You’d think 20 years of perspective would make me less angry – but you’d be wrong. What 20 years of perspective has done, though, is let me diagnose exactly what I was angry about, and convince me that there’s an important lesson there for academia. And life.
First, I guess, a little history. Continue reading
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
Photo: Me hijacking my own talk at CSEE 2016 to shamelessly plug my book. I don’t look all that old, right? Photo © Alex Smith, with permission.
I’ve just (as I write this) come from my favourite yearly conference: the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. It’s my favourite for a number of reasons – among them, really superb science, a broad range of topics, and a lot of friends. (The latter makes a big difference when you’re conferencing as an introvert.)
I’ve realized something a little bit disturbing. When I went to my first conference (the Ecological Society of America meeting in 1993, I think), I was young, and a rookie. I watched the grey-haired old fogeys whose names I knew from the literature, and I knew I should introduce myself and get to know them, but it was hard. But now, in 2016, I have become a grey-haired old fogey*. Continue reading
Photo: “I’m stumped” (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). Geocaching Hanley Park, by Martyn Wright via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
As I write this I’ve just come from a great talk: Kim Hughes’ SSE Presidential Address at Evolution 2016 (Variety is the spice of life: death, sex, and the maintenance of genetic variation). Presidential addresses are very much a mixed bag: sometimes a ramble from a superannuated blowhard with a big captive audience; sometimes a charmingly offbeat mix of reflection and experimentation. This was neither – it was just a terrific talk. Continue reading