"Occupy Oakland October 11" CC-BY quinn norton

the “value” of protesting

"Occupy Oakland October 11" CC-BY quinn norton

A quick thought, inspired on twitter:

Money is protected as “free speech”, hence lobbying is legal. We can give money to other persons to speak for us.

Could we nail down the “value” of protesting? That is, what is the amount of money I would need to donate to my cause such that I could stay home and sit on my couch instead of protesting?

If we have a given bill (say to tighten gun controls), lets say that the pro-gun folks dedicated $100 Million against and had 1000 protestors outside of congress, while the anti-gun folks rummaged up only $1 Million, but got 100,000 protestors.

For simplicity, lets say that the vote is a tie, meaning that both sides were equally effective.

We could then just solve for x, where x is the value of a single protestor…

100,000,000 + (x * 1000) = 1,000,000 + (x * 100,000)
999,000,000 = x * 99,000
x = $10,091

… which sounds very high to me (made up numbers, of course).

Analyzed across, say, all of the bills before congress during a given session, though, one could perhaps get an estimate of the value of protesting.

Hmm… surely a political economist has done this?

“Occupy Oakland October 11″ CC-BY quinn norton

"Low hanging fruit" CC-BY Caza_No_7

moving beyond the low-hanging #altmetrics fruit

"Low hanging fruit" CC-BY Caza_No_7

Here are the #altmetrics that I want to see for individual research papers:

  • How many journal clubs are discussing this?
  • How often was this mentioned at campus pubs?
  • How many entrepreneurs saved this into their Mendeley library?
  • How many lives were saved because of this?
  • How many patents were inspired by this?
  • What is the increase in GDP attributable to this research?

Ultimately, any efforts to move beyond basic citation metrics to assess the impact of scientific research should move us closer to actually measuring the actual impact of said research. Scientists often cite the benefit of basic research for the advancement of economic prosperity and human health and this is the kind of impact we should be trying to assign metrics to.

“Low hanging fruit” CC-BY Caza_No_7

"TED Talk" CC-BY Steve Jurvetson

the fundamental “purpose” of brains… maybe I should give a TED talk

"TED Talk" CC-BY Steve Jurvetson

I have this pet theory that nervous systems are fundamentally organs for predicting the future so the organism can respond appropriately. And to do this, nervous systems rely on correlations in the environment and temporal precedence to infer causality. Which is part of why we are so quick to apply causal explanations to spurious correlations.

The major differences in “complexity” or “intelligence” or “consciousness” across animals are largely just differences in the scope and resolution of the inputs and the temporal scales of evidence accumulation and prediction.

This definition of “nervous system” would then expand to include whatever non-neuronal components all organisms (bacteria, venus fly traps) use to accomplish similar inference/prediction goals and would emphasize that the differences between human and non-human animals is one of degree (and specificity), not kind.

But I don’t have any data. Just a pet theory. Maybe I should give a TED talk.

Edit: dammit, someone’s already done it: Jeff Hawkins on How Brain Science Will Change Computing

“TED Talk” CC-BY Steve Jurvetson


(mis)representations of impacts


This is a draft post from a few months ago that I forgot about, so the links a slightly dated, but the topics are still relevant.

As I’ve been going through graduate school, I’ve been struggling with how I represent and justify the work that I do. Part of this is trying to explain to my family why I would sign up for what they perceive as simply “more school” (which I think I’ve gotten down). Part of this is ensuring that I am finding fulfillment in the projects I pursue for the next few years… making sure that I enjoy what I am doing daily and find inspiration in the larger context of the work. And part of this is justifying the work for grants and colleagues in terms of the science (will this work shed new light on a problem?) and society (how will this benefit other people?). I spent a lot of time during college trying to make sure that I was putting my skills to use for the benefit of others. And my initial inspiration for a career in neuroscience was music therapy, a field which needs a better understanding of music’s effects on the brain.

But it is tough to draw a line connecting the daily work in the lab to the benefit to society. Any “basic” scientist working on understanding some obscure sliver of how the world works has no idea if or when her work will benefit society. When I explain my research to family, after clarifying that I will not be qualified to perform brain surgeries on humans, I typically say, “In 20 years, the work I’m doing might be useful to doctors working with patients.” That’s OK for family, but it is not such a good sell for the public whose tax money is supporting me and my research and the entire institution that allows it all to happen. The ROI isn’t clear.

But that doesn’t keep scientists from making outrageous claims about how their work will benefit society. It isn’t a new theme, though it has been a recent topic of discussion in Nature, Newsweek, and the New York Times. Many scientists I’ve tried to talk to about this get edgy and defensive and worry about such criticisms being fuel for “anti-science”. But ultimately, scientists make absurd promises in order to keep the grants coming (see “Science built on empty promises“). And they can get away with it because there is no way to measure whether or not those promises have been fulfilled. When, 20 years later, the breakthrough doesn’t happen, scientists simply say, “Oops, guess that didn’t work. It’s science, not engineering… you know how it goes. Give us more money and we’ll cure cancer. Someday. Maybe.”

I think that the problem here is largely one of misrepresentation. The uncertainty in the ROI (which every scientist I’ve talked to acknowledges) is not made clear to the public. Many scientists don’t think that there needs to be an ROI… they believe that the public should support them to simply discover new things regardless of the potential for impact. And that is all well and good if you are receiving funding from a source which expects you to simply discover new things about the world. But those sources are few and far between. Most public funding sources for science want solutions eventually… for curing diseases (NIH), for preventing economic catastrophe due to climate change (DOE & NASA), for maintaining US military dominance (DARPA).

It just doesn’t seem to me that the uncertainty  of the implications of a researcher’s work justifies inventing potential impacts, then insisting that one can’t be held accountable to those impacts.

“Eruption” photo CC-BY spettacolopuro

Stereotyped Makeover! Graduate Student Edition

With yet another indicator of how ill equipped this university is to help graduate students prepare for non-academic careers, I got an email inviting me to a workshop to help grad students learn how to dress themselves.

Here is the description of an upcoming workshop titled “Professional Attire for Your Professional Life!” (note the exclamation mark, indicating that this is going to be a very fun and exciting seminar)

Transitioning from a graduate research assistant (GSR) to the professional world is often bewildering endeavor for many graduate students.  Along with your knowledge and skills an individual’s demeanor and appearance are also qualities that companies and institutions consider when hiring—especially in careers beyond academia.  Graduate students thinking about, or ready, to make this transition can greatly benefit from knowing the basics regarding professional attire and self-presentation.  During this gathering you will learn how and why first impression count, how to “stand out “ by your demeanor and attire,  the critical elements of a “professional” look, including what “formal,” “professional,” and “business casual” attire really mean?

Never mind the fact that there was no reason to make an acronym out of  “graduate research assistant.” Based on the summary, the questions that this workshop proposes to answer can be easily addressed with a quick Google search for “business casual.” For more advanced studies, all I need to do is pick up a copy of GQ or watch a few episodes of TLC’s “What Not To Wear.”

Perhaps the “Lizzie” episode from Season 8? You know, the one that found a PhD student that gets a makeover? Oh wait, that’s the one where they highlight every stereotypically nerdy thing about her and her clothing, then make her look “sexy” with a new wardrobe.

I have a hard time believing that this workshop will be any less trite and condescending. Information presented in workshop form that can be easily found with a Google search? That would be a waste of my time, but not offensive. The offensive part is that the very office that is supposed to be helping grad students find careers seems to have taken very seriously the joke that grad students have poor personal hygiene and are ignorant of standards of attire.

The thing is, grad students dress like slobs because that is the culture of academia. It is a choice. Walk around a poster session at an academic conference and pay attention to what people are wearing… the formality of one’s attire is inversely proportional to their expertise. The ones in suits? Those are the undergrads attending their first conference. The ones with torn jeans and flip flops? PIs. The grad students make up a gradient between these two extremes.

If you break too far out of this mold, people think that you are hiding something. It’s as risky as giving a research presentation where you actually pay attention to font selection, color schemes, and composition.

An inability to properly dress is not the greatest hurdle to grad students securing jobs in industry.

why do auditory neuroscience talks always have bad audio?

It never fails.

I show up to a presentation by an auditory neuroscientist that wants to show an example of their stimulus. Maybe its some crazy synthetic stimuli or an ultrasonic frog call or maybe they just want to play some music. And the audio doesn’t work. Someone runs to get a pair of cheap speakers off of their desk and fiddles with the poser and audio cables for 3 minutes. Then the speakers buzz or crackle.

A labmate and I were lamenting this the other day when I remembered the little expandable omnidirectional speaker my friend plugs into his iPod. Would something like that work for a smallish presentation, like a journal club, lab meeting, or brown bag? Maybe for researchers in the auditory sciences, a nice portable speaker should be as critical a part of a one’s presentation arsenal as the laptop, VGA converter, and laser pointer.

That said, I think I’m going to get one of these:

This is like what my friend used for his iPod and it certainly worked well…
However, this Altec Lansing version looks pretty solid AND it’s usb powered…
This one doesn’t look as convenient on the portability front (0.8 lb)…

by Justin Kiggins