Monday, July 15, 2013


I've just gotten back from a rather intense set of conferences, having spent the majority of my time for the last week just plain networking.  This is something that most definitely does not come naturally to me.  I am not a politician, in the sense that I am not good at estimating what people's wants and desires are, or how my actions will be interpreted by them.  Sometimes, this happens even for those friends and family who I most know and love.  It's not that I don't understand emotions---I don't fall anywhere on the autism spectrum---but that I simply get too swept up in my own momentum and my own desires and feelings and stop paying close enough attention.  And I do have to work to put myself in others shoes---again, not because I can't, but because the pull of my own perspective is so compelling to me, and I'm often quite bad about making assumptions that I should not and don't even realize that I am making.

It's a flaw.  It's especially a flaw in science, though perhaps there is a bit more margin for error there than in other entrepreneurial professions. After all, if what you can deliver is valuable enough, then there are many sins that can be forgiven.  But it makes a difference, and a big difference at that.  For those of you not scientists, this fact may be surprising.  Is not science the land of the fact, the truth, the existence of rightness against all odds?  Eppur si muove?

What you have to remember, dear reader, is that the classic image of the scientist as lone scholar or brilliant genius is rooted in a time when the practitioners of science were by and large the lordly class, set apart and at idleness to think by their wealth or their position.  From the classical Greek philosophers to Confucian scholars, medieval monks to Indian astronomers.

Over the past two to three centuries, however, the democratization of science and its fusion with technology have expanded the breadth of participation in science by many orders of magnitude.  At the same time, the advance of technology enabled by this democratization has been tying us ever more tightly together into a single large, global community.

Scientifically, there are so many things going on now and with so much complexity, that one person alone is quite limited in what they can accomplish, even if they were in the privileged position of one of those ancient lords and could take things like food, shelter, and internet access for granted.  To be really effective in the world we live in now, a scientist must collaborate: colleagues bring problems to solve and techniques to help in solving them.  Working together strengthens your ability to publish, to seek funding together, to think of new ideas, and in all other ways to go out and get your science done.  So any scientist who wishes to pursue their ideas in research, as opposed to being a technician in the lab of another person, will of necessity need to learn to be effective to at least some minimal level in the land of networking.

For me, I hate the necessity of having goals in mind for networking.  I basically like people.  I like a lot of my colleagues, and I really enjoy debating things.  If networking just meant socializing, shooting the breeze and debating the nature of facts, I would have no problem with it.  But it's also important to get things done, to avoid offending people accidentally, and to step beyond "interesting discussion" and forward to "mutually beneficial action."  These are the things that I struggle with, and above all else I fear offending colleagues, for I know that is something I can do all too easily, especially if I think I'm debating a bit of science, but they feel like actually I am attacking them.

This last few days went well, I think, with lots of exciting discussions and the opening up of new opportunities, though if there are any ways that I have screwed up, the most important mistakes are the ones that I am least likely of all to know about.

But on I go, to live, to learn, and hopefully to keep making good progress: in my science, in my relations with colleagues, and at simply being a decent human being.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Scientific Posters

I have a confession to make.  Posters are the method of scientific communication that I like the least.  I've just been preparing three right now, for presentation next week---two on synthetic biology and one on representation for electromechanical design.  The problem is really the logistics: design, production, transportation, and presentation.

Let us consider the poster's two main forms of competitor, the paper and the talk.
When I produce a paper, these four stages are:
  • Design: Assemble the document in LaTeX, a system extremely well adapted for this task, using figures built however I feel like it.
  • Production: Run LaTeX on the document, admire the beautiful PDF.
  • Transportation: Upload electronically to the publisher's site.
  • Presentation: The publisher does everything automatically, and the paper is disseminated to some fragment of the scientific community.

Talks are not quite so smooth, because I usually have to deal with PowerPoint.  I resisted this for a long time, and still use OpenOffice when I can.  The problem is that a lot of material from collaborators comes to me in PowerPoint form, or is explicitly required to be in PowerPoint by the US Government.  So I just have to put up with substandard editing software, giving me a workflow of:
  • Design: Curse the Beast That Dwelleth in Redmond as I wrestle with its Hideous Offspring.
  • Production: Flip into presentation mode and walk through to make sure nothing weird is happening with animations or videos.
  • Transportation: Get myself to the conference, bringing my computer and its precious, precious bits.  Leave a copy of the presentation accessible to myself via SSH, in case my computer self-destructs and I have to download it and try it on somebody else's machine.
  • Presentation: Stand up in front of a room full of scientists and talk to them, take a few questions, continue the interesting bit of discussion in the hallway after.

Posters are also very graphic heavy, and so they tend to end up in PowerPoint also, if only to ensure smooth transfer of images from existing slides to the poster design.  But that's only the beginning of the trouble.  My poster workflow is:
  • Design: PowerPoint was never intended to edit poster-sized images, and so it goes very slowly.  This interacts with its already iffy UI to result in lots of waiting for updates, discovering that event processing lags have resulted in PowerPoint changing the wrong object, undoing, trying again, etc.  It also really wants to resize text pasted in from smaller documents to fit the poster, turning some things into 80+ point font and leave others the same, in a pattern that I haven't entirely figured out yet.  Eventually, though, the beast is tamed, and I've got a PDF that PowerPoint isn't resizing down to 8.5x11 because it has decided I can't really have wanted A0 format.
  • Production: Print on a specialized piece of hardware for that is generally temperamental and poorly maintained, because it's not part of the daily workflow.  Then get a pair of scissors and trim the poster down to size because the size requirements of the poster session are always different from the width of the poster printer.  Or, like today, discover that the poster printer is down, everybody's taking the day off, and desperately search for an outside shop that can print my posters before my flight leaves.
  • Transportation: Roll the posters up, putting them in a tube if you can lay your hands on one, then carry giant delicate pieces of paper through taxis, airports, planes, and public transit while attempting to preserve them from crushing, rain, etc.  If something bad happens, you're out of luck.
  • Presentation: Give an interactive talk like you're singing a round: as people arrive and leave, you'll generally have a mixed audience who have all come in at different phases of the discussion and have missed different parts of the material.  It's essentially the following (please hum along, to the tune of "Row, row, row your boat"):

Primi:                    Secundus:             Tertio:
This is my abstract
Methods over here         This is my abstract
Here you see experiments  ...                   This is my abstract
Conclusions are so clear                        ...
Moreover, you're probably doing this in a crowded hall with dozens to hundreds of other posters all being presented simultaneously.  At the end of a good poster session, I'm always hoarse.

So posters are just much more of a hassle than the other forms, from A to Z. It does have its advantages, though, in that it's much more interactive than any of the other forms.

Now, dear readers, I'm sure that somebody is going to want to suggest that I could solve all my software problems by ditching Microsoft.  Let me head that off at the pass by saying that, much as I think Beamer and Prezi are awesome, Beamer just can't illustrate or animate worth a damn, and Prezi has some serious usability issues.  Don't talk to me about Keynote.  Network effects mean my world is going to be dominated by PowerPoint, with OpenOffice/LibreOffice the only hope of salvation.

But for now, I'll carry my precious cardboard tube and be thankful the production nightmare is over...