Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What is the best possible grade?

What is the best possible grade a student can possibly get in a course? The answer seems to be obvious: it is an "A", or maybe "A+", right?

But imagine a student with 4.0 GPA. Would not it mean that this student did not challenge themselves enough? That they took courses that were too simple for them, like CalcI when they ought to have taken CalcII? Would not it mean that they never struggled with the material? Arguably, if you are smart, the easiest way to get a 4.0 GPA is to always pick courses a notch lower than your current level. Then you will surely shine, like a superhero among normals.

Which is curious because from behavioral studies in animals and humans we know that we learn best when we fail in about 50% of the cases. It maximizes information transfer, and so maximizes learning. It is surely very uncomfortable, even humiliating, and it would surely make you question your place in science if you fail on every other attempt, but curiously, all other aspects being equal, that's when you would have learned best.

I obviously don't suggest that we make students fail in every other assignment (it's not middle ages anymore, and we just don't have the mental and emotional preparedness for it), but to learn they should fail at least every now and then. Which typically, for an honest and hard-working student, corresponds to a grade of A minus. Maybe even B plus.

Does not it suggest that grades are useless though?

Anecdotally, it seems to be the case. When I grade objectively, on a rubric with fixed thresholds, I see that non-specialists (students of different majors) and prodigies (students who take senior-level classes in their sophomore year) typically get about half a grade lower than similarly hard-working majors and seniors respectively. But is not it silly? They surely learn more, and in a way the very fact that they take harder courses than they are expected to speaks of their resilience, enthusiasm, and brilliance. But it's not reflected in the grade (although I can comment on it in a recommendation letter).

And if it is silly, what should I do? Just give all sophomores a boost of half a grade? This would not seem fair. Grading on "effort"? I don't think it is possible to grade the effort objectively; some people would just suffer silently, and also it would send a wrong message to students. I have no good solution here, but sure it is an interesting question.

And at least at the personal level I can tell that if I needed to hire an assistant, I would probably always prefer an A minus student to a straight-A student, as A minuses just seem to be more persistent and / or adventurous.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Research / teaching balance

This semester I meant to keep Fridays (one day a week I don't teach) for research exclusively, and resist the urge to catch up with teaching prep work on Fridays. But lo and behold, it took me exactly 3 weeks to relapse. The first week went well: I was writing a research paper. The second week was fine as well, but I had to come in on Saturday for a few hours to catch up with other work. But the third week came, and I'm defeated, at least temporarily. I need to rework a lecture that failed last year (the one about normal distribution - hard topic to conceptualize), write some lab assignments, and so on.

Don't get me wrong, it obviously get easier with time: it seems that had I stuck exactly to my previous year lesson plans, I could have saved about half a day, maybe a day worth of time every week. But I am trying to rework both courses, to make them better: to introduce more group work and primary literature in my intro, and to move the emphasis away from probability theory and towards data presentation in my biostats class. And it means prep work, and weekly firefighting.

Now, here's an interesting blog entry (from 2011, but relevant and very well written) about what it takes to get a tenure in a major research university:

It may seem like a non-sequitur, but actually it's intimately related to the existential threat of research Fridays. The question is: how should I balance research and teaching, in an ideal world? Is research only for vacations and weekends, or is it possible to do it during the week? And also, should it be possible, from the administration point of view, thinking in their shoes? Should we (the people, the faculty) encourage a more even split between teaching and research? We are a teaching college, but an aspiring one: we are a SLAC, as in "Small Liberal Arts College", but we want to become a SLAC as in "Selective Liberal Arts". We are trying to boost our profile, and it means that while teaching takes most of our time and effort, surprisingly, it is research that mostly comes up during tenure evaluations. I mean, if you are bad at teaching, you are fired. But once you are good, or at least decent, everybody just shift to weighing and assessing your research. Is it sustainable? But is it ambitious enough? Are you stretching too thin? Or maybe too narrow? Too many collaborations? Too few? Too little work with students? Too much student work? There are many dimensions to assess, and many considerations to balance.

In a way, it came to me as a surprise that our tenure discussions are actually not that far from that in a major research university, at least in spirit. Granted, we can collaborate with our former advisers, we can be third authors, and the expectations for productivity are much lower; perhaps as much as 5-10 lower (depending on what weight you ascribe to collaborative papers). But the criteria themselves become more and more research-oriented.

There are aspects of this shift that are worrying. For example, I don't quite like the shyness with which the older tenured folks refuse to set clear criteria for the publication record. The reasons for this shyness are actually good and valid: in a small college the same group of people has to discuss publication records of a computer scientist (all conferences), theoretical physicist (all arxive), molecular biologists (typical paper has 30 pages and 12 figures), and synthetic chemist (typical paper has 2 pages and 2 figures). It's hard to come up with clear criteria when every single case is so unique. Yet it is a bit annoying, as in theory this flexibility can be used both to save a case, and to sink it.

But at the same time, there are upsides here as well, and not just because I personally like research. Perhaps the most curious one is that with research emphasized so strongly, our tenure goals are now not that far, in terms of CV building, from job search goals for a person who suddenly decides to leave for another institution. So in way now we can try to just "be successful" as potential job candidates. If we are successful, we'll probably get tenure as a collateral, but if for some reason we won't, we'll still have some decent chances of finding another job. It feels that in a teaching-only college there would be a stronger fork here, a bigger difference between tenure goals and job search goals. In our case it's not that bad, which makes the situation less risky.

And in practice it means: publications, publications, and some more publications. No popular books no textbooks, minimal service. Teaching should be good, but pedagogy related publications, conferences, grants and projects are more important, as they are more objective and more visible to outsiders.

That's the plan.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Thoughts about tenure evaluations

It is the season of pre-tenure and tenure evaluations in my college, and all faculty are encouraged to write "testimonies" for their colleagues who are up to evaluation. These testimonies are supposed to be used for the tenure and reappointment discussions, one way or another. I wrote a few as well, and now I'm wondering whether I should also send them directly to the people in question; those who are about to be evaluated.

There are some strong arguments in favor of sharing the evaluations openly and directly. Most importantly, my evaluations are actually very positive, and I think that we humans generally don't get nearly enough praise in life. It's all competition, benchmarking and impostor syndrome all the time. So maybe it would be nice for them to read something good about their teaching and research, for a change. Especially in this relatively stressful time when the meetings are about to happen that will (supposedly) decide their fate for nearest few years, and that they won't be able to attend. Also arguably it is useful to receive some real open feedback every now and then. Of course, they will receive the "evaluator's report" a few months later, but most probably not a single row of my original testimony will be quoted in this final report, or maybe half a sentence at most. Supposedly, testimonies are somehow "integrated" and "summarized" in the evaluation document by the evaluator, but not more than that.

On the other hand, one could argue that if you send nice letters directly to people, you forever wave a possibility of writing a negative letter. Or actually not writing a letter when you are torn or indifferent. Because you would not probably share a negative letter, yet if you are known as a "sharer", but don't share anything next time, the person would infer that the letter was probably negative. That's the whole reason people use secret ballot voting to begin with. Also, I am kind of concerned that some of my praise may be not to the point, as I don't quite understand some of the aspects of other people's scholar work. What if I'm praising them for things that are not actually relevant in their own eyes? Who knows, different disciplines are different... At a risk of sounding paranoid, is it possible to inadvertently "damn by praise" - not even because it is faint, but because it is somehow idiosyncratically not to the point?

For now I don't quite know what to do. Maybe I'll toss a coin really. I really like the idea of transparency and clarity, but at the same time there is a good reason tenure votes are always done by a secret ballot. I am not sure there is an ideal solution, but I am wondering what an optimal solution could be.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Advice to computational postdocs: apply to math and CS jobs

If you are a computational neuroscientist, and would like to teach, consider marketing yourself not only to neuro and psych departments, but to math and computer science as well.

Why? Because I'm looking at our place, and how we totally struggle to get good candidates in both computer science and applied math. I guess the cynical way to put it is that both fields are so incredibly useful these days that any person who is skillful in them, and who can also teach (which implies good management and interpersonal skills), can probably find jobs in the industry with much higher salaries. And with similar levels of enjoyment. Either way, the fact seems to be that applied math and computer science are understaffed, despite the high demand from the students. During job searches, for each decent job application we get in computer science, we get 10 applications in psychology, even when the research topics are actually quite comparable.

In practice it means that a good postdoc or grad student in computational neuroscience can at least triple their chances of landing a great TT job if they create two more sets of application documents: one tailored for applied math jobs, and another - for computer science. And while it may seem scary, it's actually pretty easy to do.

Let's give it a close look. In a SLAC, faculty typically teach 4 types of courses:
  1. Intro courses (something every major needs to take in lower college)
  2. Core courses (something every major needs to take in upper college)
  3. Fancy stuff (electives of various kinds)
  4. Crazy fun (like math for lit majors, or computer science for historians)
Basically, if you apply to math or CS dept as a neuroscientist, you need to make them know that you can teach all types of courses from this list, plus establish some "street credibility", so to say. Type (1) is never a problem: it would be "calculus I, II" in math (every computational person can do it), or intro to object-oriented programming in CS. You can do it. Type (3) is also easy: it would be what you do for a living, as a researcher, or maybe some one-two fields nearby; something like modeling, numerical computation, big data analysis, dynamical systems, machine learning, methods in Bayesian statistics, or something like that.

Which means that basically you just need to invent one crazy fun course (which should be relatively easy; just draw inspiration from your hobbies and side interests), and to convince the committee that you can teach core courses: something like linear algebra, differential equations or vector calculus in math; or data structures, algorithms, and discrete math in CS. That is a bit harder, but once you cover some of these courses (one may be enough), you are fine!

Now just reword your research statements accordingly, to compensate for the relative lack of "appropriate" education in these fields, and you are golden. You can apply to 3 times more positions than a straight neuro person would apply, and you would compete in a market with a much higher demand and lower supply, boosting your success rates.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Best way to create custom color palettes for visualization

Colorbrewer is awesome, but quite restrictive. After browsing the web for some time, here's the best too I found, with tools to create very nice-looking, yet usable and informative custom color scales in any aesthetics you want. It's called the "chroma scale helper":,gray,teal,indigo|steps=5|bez=1|coL=1

Here's the description of how it works (it's very clever, and worth the read on its own, even if you never use the actual scale helper"

Here's a table of color names it uses (you may have to browse for the color you like, but it's very doable)

And finally, the source of these links (with some more advice on the matter of colors):

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Teaching scientific critique

A very nice text on teaching how to critique scientific literature:

Main idea of the text: too many teaching assignments we use essentially encourage students to "bullshit"; to generate some plausible-looking, but empty rambling about the topic, or post-hoc interpretations of their results. It's hard to grade, it does not teach students real scientific thinking, it's just generally bad. The author then gives some good pieces of advice about how not to fall into this trap:
  1. Be more specific: offer a critique yourself, evaluate the paper, and, potentially, vindicate it. Send a clear message that our goal is not to find a flaw, but to be able to asses whether there's a flaw in the study. 
  2. Clearly separate critique of methods from critique of results. I fully agree here; students tend to conflate hypothesis-building, experiment design, and results interpretation; they somehow combine it all into one horrible bezoar ball in their heads, and then try to describe it all at once. For example, they tend to perceive negative results as failed studies. Being very clear about what aspects of the study we are actually trying to critique should help here.
  3. My favorite: instead of discussing papers, talk about pop science (post-press release articles that appear in the press). I think that's the most productive idea of all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Slow Professor (book review)

"The Slow Professor" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber is a manifesto-like book about some important problems in modern academia. It was published a few weeks ago (I actually pre-ordered it), and if you have anything to do with academia, I do totally recommend that you read it. It's also rather short, which means that you can read it quickly (I hoped it would be a bit longer). Let me summarize what I liked and what I did not like about it in two lists below:

What I liked about "The Slow Professor":

  • It tackles one of the most important problems in modern academia: everybody are perpetually busy (applying for grants, publishing, working on committees), and nobody has time to think. People are ashamed to think (it does not feel like working); moreover, people are ashamed to read (in modern culture it does not feel like working either). And that's bad. The chapter about "what is bad" is the most relatable and passionate part of the book; the description is perfect, and to the point.
  • The book makes you think; it is definitely thought-provoking. It is also written a bit like a manifesto, so I felt energized after reading it. I wanted to change something! This feeling wears off in a few days, as it usually happens with manifestos, but it is definitely not a depressing book, which is really a feat for a book that in its core describes some important problems. Well done!
  • It is short, so you can read it quickly.
  • It actually offers some meaningful solutions, or at least points at some possible directions where these solutions may be.
  • It offers a nice slogan ("The slow professor" is a nice slogan!).

What I didn't like:

  • It is woefully short, and the solutions it offers are very limited. I guess it's the inevitable tradeoff, and I'd really rather read a short passionate book now, than a long thoughtful book in five years. It may be too late in five years! But it is really more of a manifesto than a guide; a pamphlet that names the issues and sets the goals. It is not a self-help book that would guide you through a series of exercises. You need to find the solution yourself. It invites you to be a part of a community though, which is really nice!
  • The book is relatively full of really bad neuroscience and psychology. It mentions serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and neural plasticity - all incorrectly, and in ways that are totally irrelevant for the topic and the message of the book. As a neuroscientist, I don't usually read pop-science pieces about the brain, because it hurts, so I was not quite aware that the pop-science surrounding the mystery of the brain got that bad over the years. When you buy this book, please just ignore everything it says about how neuroscience "proves" which teaching and research methods work, and which don't. Just skip it without reading, it's all a bunch of nonsense. Also it cites a bunch of retracted and non-replicated (but famous) studies in psychology, so take all psychological claims with a spoonful of salt.
  • Finally, I find it annoying that when professional academics try to write a popular book they still default to academese, or at least half-academese. If feels that every sentence in this book is half-way between the world of the living and the world of the dead; even though sentences are readable and clear, they still have a strong smell of dusty, deathly, cryptic, mummified academese. It feels that the authors fought this tendency to the end, but still could not quite shake off the suffocating embrace of academic writing.
A great book though; I really recommend it. After reading the first half I felt that I need to buy a copy for every person in my department. After finishing it I felt a bit less passionate, but still told everybody about it and encouraged them to buy it. It's a very worthy read!

And also, on a personal note, I am so happy that teaching colleges, and Bard in particular, and maybe even Biology program in particular, are in a relatively good shape, as far as the problems described in the "Slow Professor" go. We actually do talk to each other, and it feels like we have a bit of time to think. We have teaching and grading in place of grant writing, so there is still a monster of "busyness" to fight, but it seems that we are actually fighting this battle already; driven by a slightly different motivation (trying to become better teachers), but still fighting. And there is definitely lots of space for improvement!

If there were a pin with a snail (from the cover), I'd totally buy it. The "slow professorial movement" is something I'd love to belong to!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On endorsing grad school to students

It's exam time, and seniors are about to leave the college. By now most of them have firm plans for next year: some have secured a job (usually as a research  assistant or technician in a lab), some will do a post-bac to finish their pre-med curriculum. We generally encourage students to take a gap year between college and applying to grad schools or med schools, as it seems to make lots of sense: they don't ruin their last semester in college by traveling to interviews, they get a chance to taste some "adult life" before plunging back to school. Try to work 9 to 5 before you commit to another giant educational project. Maybe you will like it, maybe you will not - either way it will give you a better point of reference.

What I find a bit hard about this whole fledgling stage is the grad school discussions, as they never feel comfortable. Students don't typically realize that the job situation is relatively abysmal, so it's probably my job to scare them. At the same time, it feels like many of them are strong enough, and actually have a good chance of succeeding in this game. Should I encourage them? Or should I scare them? What about students who seem to "default" to grad school, even though they are not that strong? Or what about those who suffer from impostor syndrome (or at least behaved really insecure for last 2 years, despite being brilliant)? How does gender and race play into it?

I have no idea how to even handle it. I guess that's another reason why I feel so strongly about recommending a gap year between college and grad school: it feels better, because it reduces responsibility. You know what, dear student of mine, don't make a decision now (while I'm kind of semi-responsible for it), but take a year off (forget about me), and then you'll be able to decide (and it won't be my fault anymore if you regret your decision later). Is it what I am doing? It feels like there's a hint of it actually.

But it doesn't seem a good solution, does it?

One good thing I can do is to maintain and foster connections with alums that followed different careers. For every weeping postdoc on the web there's at least one depressed and burned-out medical student, and a couple of office workers who claim to be "dead inside". If we, the faculty, show that life after college is multifaceted, in both good and bad, hopefully it will help our students to make good decisions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


One thing that stoke me as strange and alien this spring are the dedication pages on the honors theses I read (in this college we call them "Senior Projects", but it's essentially the same genre). I don't really know whether it's a local thing, or a general american tradition, but each senior project I read so far comes with a really long, tearful, exalted dedication. Both parents are mentioned, sometimes siblings and other relatives, a couple of teachers (typically including all three board members - because you cannot really praise one without praising all three, right?), some friends, and always the significant answer (gosh, so risky!).

My memory is weak, and I don't really quite remember whether we had dedications in Russia. I think some people would put something like that in their works, but it was never more than one short row. And even then it was always kind of frowned upon. Especially before the grade was given. Or at least I remember it so.

But here it evolved into some kind of competition of praise. And these dedication pages really read like obituaries, or farewell addresses. So teary, so high-strung!

Sometimes it feels that the weaker the project - the longer the dedication page, but it is probably an illusion. I guess when the project is short, it just makes a long dedication page more noticeable. Still fun!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Does citation network topology change over time?

A book I am reading makes in passing, and without a reference, a broad sweeping claim that "Internet is killing good research habits". It claims that in the olde times people would go to the library and actually read, while these days they just google, find a paper with most citations, and use it in their work.

It sounds plausible, but it feels like the opposite statement would also sound very plausible. In the old days you would read 3 papers, get used to citations from these papers, and got stuck with them for the rest of your career, while these days you can google-scholar or pubmed for any combination of keywords and find papers from far removed disciplines, institutions, working groups and subfields that you would have never found on your own.

In terms of citation network topology, the first claim implies that in the past the distribution of node orders was more uniform than now, while the second line of thought suggests that actually it might have been more extremely non-uniform (skewed) than now.

I tried to find out the truth by googling about "Citation network evolution" and other stuff like that, but could not find anything. Apparently the distribution was very skewed even in the past, with few papers receiving a status of "classics", and getting thousands of citations. This phenomenon is alive these days as well. But whether it became better or worse - I don't actually know. It would be a nice thing to look into, although I figure the process of generating the "citation inequality" is so slow (it takes about 10 years or more for a paper to become classics) that we probably just don't have access to old citation networks, as they are probably not fully digitized yet.

Or maybe I'm using wrong keywords.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tenure evaluations are awkward

Tenure as an institution is good (for several different reasons), and even the process of obtaining a tenure is good. But it is also weird, because you are judged by your friends and colleagues.

I mean, it's obviously the best thing that can happen. It's democratic, and you are welcomed (or rejected) by people with whom you would ultimately work (or not work). Every other alternative is objectively worse. Being judged by some random people who don't know you, for example, would be both cruel and inefficient. Collecting all hiring power in the hands of one (or two, or three) people would also be random, psychologically damaging, and bad for the institution in the long term. Being judged worthy by your friends is the best thing that could possibly happen to you, right?

But still it's also weird, because if you let yourself dwell on it for too long, it could totally poison several years worth of your life. If you allow yourself to fixate on this whole "tenure process" thing, you could start to strategize and calculate what to say and what to do instead of just talking to people and working with them; you would aim to please and "fit" instead of productively contributing to discussions, etc. It would just become weird.

So not only the tenure process is paradoxical (the optimal solution feels weird and almost "wrong" intuitively), but also the best way to go about it seems to be to pretend that it kind of does not exist. It's like in this most lovely article from 2013 about a 7-years-long postdoc: the first rule of getting a tenure is not to try to get a tenure. But live the full life instead (mostly scientific and pedagogical life in this case, but still).

I guess this last conclusion can be generalized to most things in life, from cooking to dating and child-raring, so it's not even that unique to career planning. Still funny though.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Scarcity mindset

Here's a link to a nice review of a new book called "If you're so smart, why aren't you happy?", by Raj Raghunathan, in the form of an interview with the author:

If the review is to be believed, the book, while a self-help book, is rooted in some science, and cites some studies. But what I found particularly interesting is this quotation: they are talking about the "Scarcity mindset", and how humans have a tendency to value their goods, and food, and (sic!) time; and how actually it may be counterproductive. Raj says:

I think that as intelligent beings we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back. If I'm at an advertising agency, for example, or in software design, those are the kinds of fields where it is now being shown in quite a lot of studies that you actually perform better if you don't put yourself under the scarcity mindset, if you don’t worry about the outcomes and enjoy the process of doing something, rather than the goal.
What I find curious about this statement is how it resonates with another book I'm reading right now, called "The Slow Professor" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. I'm not ready to tell yet whether this other book is good or not, but it's definitely provocative. The subtitle is "Challenging the culture of speed in the academy", and so the book is exactly about how modern academia inflicts the ultimate scarcity mindset upon its members - the one of scarcity of time. And then fosters it through seemingly "helpful" advice on the ultimate time management.

But so far I'm reading the descriptions of how everything is bad and sad, which is an easy part to write =) The ultimate test for the quality of the book is in its "self-help manifesto", which is still to come. We'll see. I'll keep you, invisible 10 or so readers, posted.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tay bot

The most interesting thing about the Tay bot (the chat-bot started by Microsoft, which was promptly seduced by trolls and trained to be a Nazi), or at least the aspect of this story that I find most interesting and troubling, is how people immediately started talking about it as about a person. If you google for "Miscrosoft Tay", you can find all kinds of titles, from "Microsoft kills its first sentient AI" to "Microsoft deletes a teen girl for racist tweets". And even when the title itself is more objective, it seems to me that the language tends to antropomorphize this programming experiment a lot.

Which is actually not that surprising. Humans are really good in ascribing agency to everything, from earthworms, to cars, to weather. No wonder an AI bot that was marketed as a model for a "teenage girl", and was given an avatar-like userpic, registered in the collective subconsciousness as a kind-of-sentient "somebody" rather than "something".

And I think it's both cool and troubling. Cool because it means that humans are, in a way, ready for AI: they are ready to interact with AI as with another being. Which is good, as it means that human-robot interfaces are really easy to build: humans like to be gullible; they jump at the opportunity. But it's also bad, as it means that the ethical nightmare may start much earlier than one could have expected. I may be overreacting, but from posts about Tay it seems that people may be opposed to "unplugging robots" years before any AI passes a Turing test.

And that's a fun thought. How do you even troubleshoot a sentient AI, from the ethical point of view? How do you troubleshoot an AI that learns and "develops" psychologically, similar to a human child? It does not have to be exactly like a human child, and the process may be much faster, but there almost bound to be some similarities. The only way to troubleshoot a program is to run it, look at its performance, kill it (stop it), change something, and then try again. Can this approach be applied to an AI? Or to a project like a "Blue Brain", where a human cortex will be modeled? Or to an "uploaded personality" (another recent fad)? At what point troubleshooting "virtual humans" will become unethical? Or, on a more practical note, at which point will the human community rebel against this troubleshooting?

And here is a really nice youtube video, also post-Tay, but with a twist. Still extremely relevant:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Strange compliments

Yesterday I got the most weird compliment in my entire life (so far). A nurse, who was about to draw some blood for a test, looked at my arm and said in an almost sultry voice: "Mmm, you are so nicely hydrated!"

Monday, January 25, 2016

"Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh

Over last few years I read a dozen books about doctors and hospitals; mostly neurology and psychiatry, with some other specialties thrown in. And for some time these books fit rather neatly into two distinct categories: "inspirational" books (like "Hot Lights Cold Steel" by M. Collins), or challenging books full of woes of disillusionment (like "The House of God" by S. Shem). Books that paint medicine in light colors and make you want to become a doctor immediately, and those that describe its underside, and encourage you to run.

I would tell putative premed students that they need to read "The House of God" before they start studying for MCAT, before they commit to the track, as if they still want to be a doctor after reading this book, they can probably be a doctor (a phrase stolen from some review on Goodreads; I obviously have no idea whether it is true, but it sounds good). And then, while studying, they can read "Hot Lights Cold Steel" every time they feel low and need some encouragement, because reading this book makes you want to take MCAT.

For many medical semi-non-fiction books these two large categories work surprisingly well. All Oliver Sacks for example counts as inspirational. Books by Atul Gawande (especially his "Better") mostly feel like "deterring books" that could warn a naive student about some issues ahead. And so on.

But anyways, all this long preamble is only to state that the relatively recent book "Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh really does not fit these two categories. It starts totally like an inspirational book would, with wonderful matter-of-fact descriptions of neurosurgery, where an experienced doctor invites you to the operating theater and makes you an awed spectator of their craft. But then it quickly plummets in a quagmire of dark meditations on two topics that clearly cause the author lots of pain: bureaucracy and paperwork that steal his vocation from him, and imperfection of his skill and knowledge as he faces inoperable tumors, untreatable conditions and medical mistakes. As he faces pain, death, and human suffering.

As I read the book, I kept mentally reassigning it from the "inspirational" shelf onto the "deterring" one, and then back to "inspirational". Moving it back and forth. Now as I finished it, it seems that overall the book has more questions than answers, and unanswerable questions at that, so I guess it belongs to the "read it before taking MCAT" shelf after all. But at the same time it is not dark, it is not disillusioned. The inspirational thread is also strong in this one. It really should be on the "must-read" list of any neuro-inspired premed student.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Internet disappointments

Every time I post an anti-Soviet comment on Reddit (like in "Soviet Union was a rather bad thing overall") I get downvoted to negative numbers in the morning, and then into positives again in the evening. Get it? When Russian users are active (around US late morning, early afternoon), any critical statement about, say, Stalin, or geopolitical role of the USSR is downvoted, but then it is upvoted again twofold once US users come back from work (or maybe rather get tired at work).

Which is kind of sad, as every time it reminds me that modern Russian users, even those who read and write in English, and routinely browse English-language forums (a tiny subset of the population), are on average to some degree mildly Stalinist. Not too strongly, but a tiny little bit, you know. Which is quite understandable psychologically, but still kind of sad.

But Internet is generally full of disappointments. Here's another one: many people got really riled up about Ted Cruz saying that he's a Christian first, and American second. There were statements about how he should now be disqualified as a candidate, and so on. Mind it, I don't sympathize to the dude at all, but, the interesting fact is that it's a normal statement for a Christian. Moreover, it is a required normative statement for a Christian (backed by several rather imperative passages from both the Gospels and the Epistles). So saying that it disqualifies somebody from the office is like claiming that all Christians should be disqualified, which would be somewhat weird. It's like saying that humanists should be disqualified because they could claim to be "humanists first and american second". There's an inevitable hypocrisy in Cruz's claim of course, but it's a more subtle, and because of that much more important hypocrisy, stemming from a de-facto special status of a majority religion. The context, in which this statement was made, ironically defies its literal meaning; but it is a nuanced contradiction, and it was lost on most sources.

Notably, Vladimir Putin is known for repeatedly saying that he is Russian first and Christian second (or something to this effect). For example, he is famous for claiming that St. Boris and Gleb (two spiritually respectable historical dudes from the 11th century who refused to preemptively kill their evil brother, thus letting him kill them) are not good Russian saints. Because, you see, in his opinion good Russian saints should be enemy-slayers (like St. Dimitry Donskoy, St. Alexander Nevsky and alike). They are patriotic, and are never into all this pacifist non-violence nonsense. In a way, proper saints (according to Putin) are Russian first, and Christian second. In this context I find it somewhat funny that /r/atheism is essentially advocating for Putinesque solutions on the issue of morality. But, oh well, that's really none of my business.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks

As I was sitting through job talks for several job searches in a row, and as I was writing my responses to these job talks, I realized that I was gradually converging on a rubric.

You know, in the very beginning, during the first talk, you just notice something that you like here and there, or something that you don't like. But at some point you start comparing candidates to each other, even if you don't really want to. Alice did something cool, and Bob did as well, but Caitlin did not. A point off from Caitlin! She was good in this other thing however, which Bob totally skipped. Extra point to Caitlin for that. After about 10 candidates I ended up looking for some specific clues: first question to the crowd, first use of humor, and so on. I developed a grading rubric.

Of course it is very much my personal opinion on what is good and what is bad, and what counts, and what does not. Also I guess in real life there would be weights attached to each of these points, and these weights would be very different for different people. Yet let me share my version with you. Maybe you'll find it interesting.

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks:

Each statement is either true (one point), or not true (no points). In some cases it is possible to get half a point (if there was an attempt, but it was not quite successful).

  • The talk is not pitched too high (ideally it should speak to 2-3 year undergrads)
  • The talk is not pitched too low (contains actual details, data, conclusions)
  • Starts from the beginning (good introduction, all special terms are introduced before they are used in the talk, and introduced well)
  • The motivation for the research is clear
  • Demonstrates the breadth of research interests (models, approaches, questions) - important for a small college
  • Advertises past work with undergraduates
  • Hints at future projects with undergraduates and makes them sound fun, meaningful, and possible
  • Good visuals
  • Makes the talk uniquely specific for our institution (alludes to some of our realities, be it campus location, some of the faculty, our history, or anything else)
  • Uses humor successfully
  • Asks questions to the students (full point if they are meaningful and if they are answered)
  • Invites questions from the students (full point if students ask questions)
  • Connects to other areas of science
  • Connects to topics outside of science (society, arts, philosophy etc.)
  • Helps listeners to summarize one message before transitioning to the next one
  • Uses emotion to communicate science; marks statements as emotionally charged (explains what is good and what is bad, what data we are happy to see, what data is sad or confusing, etc.)
  • Good language
  • Shares a bit of their personal story (shows the human side)
  • Feels more excited towards the end than in the beginning (it is my personal theory that good teachers accelerate through the talk as they are carried away by love to their subject)
  • Answers after-talk questions nicely
You sum all points up, and thus identify the best candidate =)