Friday, November 27, 2009

A weird new type of chart

I came across this new type of chart by way of the PST blog. It's a survey taken in connection with the upcoming climate meeting in Copenhagen:

The chart is square divided into 10x10 smaller squares, each representing 1%. I can't understand how this really adds anything to the data, since I count the points to see which area is the largest. It would be way easier just to read the numbers from a table. And to make things worse, they arrange three of these charts into three faces of a cube. And the whole survey is presented as three (none aligned) cubes. In my opinion, a total mess that in best case just adds noise.

In his blog, Jon Peltier suggests another chart. The solution is pretty good, the only improvement I can suggest is formating the questions better (to make them stand out more) and aligning the question with the start of the columns.

But looking into the questions and options, it's not only percentage there. The last question is "How high a priority (0-100) do you think the goverment should place on addressing climate change". First of all, you can't measure that in %.(how do you calculate those who haven't answered or have no opinion?). Second, have a scale from 0-100 is just forcing it into a formate that would fit this particular graph. A scale more with more then 10 steps are too finely divided to have make sense.

Also, I keep thinking of whether the questions could have been planned better. For instance, wouldn't it be better to have a similar scale on each question, for instant a scale from 1-5? To avoid confusion and make the process of answering the survey faster.

Planes, trains and automobiles 3

Day two of the conference, and I'm scheduled to speak as the final speaker before lunch. This being a congregation of academics, the other two speakers spend way more than their allotted time. Don't matter though - I'm focused, and as the speaker before me finishes up his Q&A, I do my mental equivalent of putting on the chain mail and sunglasses, skip in place, rotate my shoulders and loosen my neck. The my music hits - the sirens go off, "Holla...if ya hear me"..and I walk towards the podium.

At least I WISH I'd had intro music. 'Cause the lame reality of it all - and if you've ever been to a conference, symposium or workshop you'll recognize this - is that the appointed chair of the session says something along the lines of "Our next speaker is (your name here), with a talk titled (title of your talk here)".

What possible purpose does this serve? The sequence of speakers is given in the program, so simply reading aloud the name of the speaker and the title of your talk holds little magic. Moreover, as some poor PhD student who "volunteered" to do the technical assistance for the conference (i.e., making sure the presentations appear on screen and running around in the audience with a microphone for the Q&A sessions) already has out the title slide of your talk on the screen, this serves no purpose whatsoever. Unless you assume that your audience can't read, which would be odd, considering that you ask the audience to submit abstracts for posters and oral presentations. If playing some entrance music plus accompanying video ever becomes an option, I'm first in line.

Especially if the chair of your session manages to introduce you first by mispronouncing your name and then screw up the definition of the award that landed you the coveted spot as invited speaker. Which coincidentally was what happened to me. Luckily, I was well enough prepared not to be affected by this, and I started my talk. I linked my story to presentations given before me whenever possible, I connected with the audience and made sure to make eye contact (to the extent this is possible throughout the venue with 150+ participants) and get nods, I was enthusiastic and I thoroughly enjoyed presenting my work. When I was done, I waited for any questions, but none came. At this point, I stated that this could be a good thing...or not, which elicited some laughter, and then the session broke off.

As we went to lunch, I wondered whether I'd bombed worse than a post-Y2K Van Damme movie. Then people started approaching me and asking me how they could use my methods on their systems and I got all sorts of collaboration offers, at which point I figures out that the reason I got no questions was because they'd not only understood what I presented, but also that I'd managed to get the audience to see that this was something they could use in their research.

I can't deny that this was a pretty good feeling. This also marks the second time I use Presentation Zen to prepare a talk, and I'm getting better at it. Not to blindly plug Garr Reynolds and his book, but it really helps to free up slide real estate and focus the attention where it should be - on the speaker.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Planes, trains and automobiles 2

Having successfully reached my destination, it was time to get to the conference venue and get things started. I wasn't going to give my talk until the second day of the conference, so I had plenty of time to check out the venue + make sure that my presentation looked OK on the existing equipment. There was, of course, also ample opportunity to mingle and initiate small-talk with other speakers, etc., as well as reflect over the many potential pitfalls of public speaking, which were on display among a number of the speakers.

Which is not to say that the presentation skills have any real bearing on their qualities as scientists, but rather reflect the time and effort they spend planning and making presentations. Some people I know to be very good scientists gave absolutely mind-numbingly boring presentations, often due to (i) lack of apparent storyline and (ii) way excess detail being put on display. Add to that poorly designed slides (including obvious Frankensteining), no time-management (hence skipping of slides to get to the conclusions..), inability to read audience reactions and brutal lack of enthusiasm/charisma, and you've got a pretty good list of the reasons why I detest conferences. Which is not to say that there weren't good speakers - far from it - but the fact of the matter is that a lot of talks are made and given as an afterthought, which makes for a long couple of days for conferencegoers. When I could sit and listen to a talk - well within my field of expertise - and not understand what they had done and why, it speaks volumes. Assuming that I don't absolutely suck at what I do, what they did was take an entire journal article worth of experimental data and conditions, slam-dunk it down sequentially on PowerPoint slides and present it in all its detail within a 30-minute talk. Worse still, the presenter spent the first five minutes of the talk thanking the organizers and showing slides depicting the university he was from, complete with demographics and maps.

And his was the first talk of the session, with two more to go before we got a coffee break..absolutely ricockulous.

After the talks for the day were over and done with, it was time for poster session with refreshments, which was kind of cool. There were lots of posters - many of which I found interesting - and so I got to bother a lot of PhD students and researchers about their work. Lots of talented people out there, that's for sure.

Universal Soldier is back!

..straight to DVD

Monday, November 23, 2009

Planes, trains and automobiles 1

Last week I was at a conference in Lund, Sweden -the final conference/travel of the year for me. Which is just as good, 'cause while I'm all about spreading the word about my research and doing my David Lee Roth-thing from a podium, I'm not all that gung-ho about the travel. My distaste for the travel aspect increases proportionally with the number of connecting flights I need to get to my destination, and increases exponentially with the number of nights I have to spend away from my wife and kid.

Wednesday morning (to the extent 4 AM qualifies as "morning") I had to giddyup and have some old salt in a taxi haul me to the airport. Just before 8 AM I was in Copenhagen and found myself purchasing train tickets. 40 minutes later I was in Malmö, trying to convince the stupid vending machine to sell me tickets the final stretch to Lund. Clever as I am, I brought with me a stash of Euros, Sweden being a part of the EU and all. That turned out to be more useless than a "Rock the vote" campaign/membership drive for Venstre launched two days AFTER the general election. But not, as it turned out, more useless than a station clerk in Malmö.

After massively failing to purchase a ticket using Euros (what kind of lame attempt is it to cling to what used to be your national currency after you've joined the EU?) or credit card, I tried to solicit the help of a station clerk, who told me that she didn't know how to use the machine. This short conversation happened first in what passes for Swedish in Malmö, and when it became abundantly clear that she might as well have spoken some African language with clicking noises and all. Or Danish. Switching to English improved the communication greatly, but didn't help me much by way of getting tickets.

One semi-meltdown and one visit to the ticket office later, I had missed the express train and was stuck with a local route that stopped at every station at least once. Unlike the swank and roomy express train, the local train was packed, and I got the last available seat.

Lucky me.

On the twin seats facing me was a lesbian couple who made out like it was their livelihood and Spring Break was held during Mardi Gras. This lasted the entire 25 or so minutes the trip took. I'm not exactly shy or prude, but I definitely felt like I was invading something private - which in and of itself is bullshit considering that the couple obviously didn't opt to work blue in a crowded train due to a lack of exhibitionism. On the other hand, leaving my seat would send another kind of signal that didn't appeal to me either, so I was stuck.

Once in Lund, I started walking towards the campus and hotel. I'd asked someone in the organizing committee about the distance from the train station to the hotel, and upon being told that it was only one kilometer, there was no way I'd take a cab. After having walked for about an hour in increasingly crappy weather with my bags, I started second-guessing my decision, not to mention the accuracy of the one-kilometer estimate. I was equipped with what can only be described as a roughdraft of a map, where most of the roads were omitted, which didn't help my navigation one bit.

What also didn't help matters was that I was looking for a hotel on campus that shared a name with every other building within several blocks, in a region with absolutely no signs. Still; I made it to the hotel with about one hour to go before the conference started.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday music

Today, from the Prince of Polyester (how's that for a nickname?) David Lindley with El Rayo X with the classic Mercury Blues. Enjoy this fine piece of steel guitar* playing. Have a nice weekend.

*Just a heads up to warn Wilhelm. ;)

Happy Jason Day

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Say hheellloo to my new metronome practice

"Technical Difficulties" by Paul Gilbert/Racer X:

Monday, November 9, 2009

No bully-register?

Lately, there's been a lot of fuss about the campaign "Stopp Mobbingen" (Stop the Bullying) which has assembled a register of schools where serious bullying occurs more frequently than what's to be expected. This weekend, VG reported that two "high-ranking politicians" demand that this register should be removed. Arguments ensue.

Who are these "high-level politicians", one might ask. Why, it's the Patron Saint of Mediocrity, Trine Skei Grande (Venstre), and the Crown Princess of Unsubstantiated Media Hype, Hadia Tajik (Arbeiderpartiet). Skei Grande is of course the second-in-command and presumed leader-elect of Venstre, which in and of itself should give some pause for Venstre-voters, considering that Skei Grande couldn't win a debate if she was the only participant, and that in the same contest, the lectern would be voted "Most Charismatic Participant". Talk about contrast in leadership change if she takes over after Lars Sponheim. Hadia Tajik is a political advisor rumored to be behind such wildly successful proposals as hijab in the Norwegian police force, and she was also one of the most visible proponents of the epitome of lameness campaign slogan in "Jens vi kæn", not at all a weak attempt to piggyback on a very successful slogan recently employed in international politics.. Both of these "high-level politicians" decry the campaign and their register, and offer instead their own solutions to the very real problem of bullying. Both are also very visible in media - in the case of Tajik, she's been very adept at getting face time in media ever since she got into national politics, whereas Skei Grande obviously has started to take the advice of a media consultant.

Skei Grande vehemently states that bullying cannot be stopped by blacklisting schools where bullying is a disproportionate problem compared to the mean. Rather, she wants to allocate resources towards reinstating the respect for teachers in the classroom. On the vagueness scale, this ranks right up there with her brilliant file-sharing proposal, where she suggests that somebody somehow should find alterantive revenue streams for musicians etc. to make money without limiting filesharing.

Brilliant. I'm sure the red-headed kid with the freckles and daily trips face-first into the toilet takes great comfort in this.

Tajik states that the bully-register has no constructive effect, and that concrete proposals and strategies are missing. According to her, bullying can be stopped by other means entirely. For example, the government will present a new, holistic approach to learning environment before Christmas. They also want to strengthen the victimization-sensitivity training among teachers and principals. But wait - there's more: The coalition government also want to allocate more funds to attitude campaigns in the schools.

Again, I'm sure that li'l Per is better able to hold on to his moral while on the receiving end of wedgies and beatings when he knows that the government is thinking about putting down a committee to investigate the problem and possibly allocate funds towards a future campaign no doubt featuring children of all colors rapping about how bullying is whack, yo.

These lame-ass attempts to make political hay of a very real (to the children involved) problem by launching some vague, non-committal nonsense that they never have to be held to is very low - even for beta politicians like Skei Grande and Tajik.

As far as I can tell, the register in question only lists schools where the bullying has been so severe as to necessitate students to change schools despite attempts from parents to enter a constructive dialogue with the school in question. Seeing as how the register doesn't even begin to list the majority of schools, we're talking about schools where bullying is a much greater problem than the norm. Isn't this information valuable in and of itself? Unless you're gonna claim that the students at these schools are more evil or more prone to bullying than other students, there is a need to realize that the problems are disproportionally present in some schools. And thus a general solution encompassing all schools nationwide probably won't do much. While I don't think the teachers and principals at these schools should be put in the pillory of constant media attention, I also don't think that they deserve a medal for either not being aware of the situation or not doing enough to fix the problem. Ducking responsibility is a poor trait in educators.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mexican flu vaccine reality check

Yes - I much prefer the American name for the new flu.

As the vaccines are becoming available for the general population, there's still a lot of debate within the population about whether or not to actually get vaccinated. A pro and con list meant to guide you to a decision can be found at

Below said list you can also read what a fine selection of the populus feels about the vaccine. A staggering number of people argue against vaccination due to the possibility of side-effects, e.g. from the mercury-species it contains. Sure - all the other vaccines we take also contain the same species, but that's somewhat overlooked.

The irony is that among the naysayers who whine about possible side-effects you'll find - statistically speaking - a significant number of smokers, as well as people who regularly drink moonshine or have tried recreational drugs like X, both of which have at best sketchy quality assurance protocols.

So; if you don't want to take the vaccine due to the possibility of unknown side-effects yet smoke regularly or have tried moonshine or home-made recreational drugs at some point in your life: know your role, shut your mouth and get your ass to the back of the bus.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Tuesday I finally got to give the award acceptance talk/lecture in (or rather just outside of) Goth'N'Burg. It was supposed to happen back in August, but some kind of flu totally kicked my ass and I had to cancel, which major-league sucked. Thus I was pretty dead-set on a) showing up and b) giving one hell of a performance this time.

The presentation went well and I was able to connect with the audience, which in an ideal world would've had a few more asses in the seats. I also got a bunch of questions pertaining to extrapolations of the presented data, which was a good sign, as opposed to questions which can be answered by restating material that's already presented, which might indicate that I didn't do a very good job of explaining the data set. A lot of the questions came from a researcher orginally hailing from California. Although she spoke Swedish just fine, I shamelessly used her as an alibi to give the presentation in English "so as to avoid any kind of ambiguity". The Scandinavian languages are exactly different enough as to be the cause of confusion when presenting scientific data based on terminology which is translated from English to begin with.

Said Californian also provided a conversation partner during lunch, where we could do the patented "what kinds of food from the US do you miss in Scandinavia" bit. After rattling off Taco Bell and Johns, Christy mentioned that she missed this quaint Southern restaurant chain called the Cracker Barrel that she always stopped by when she drove cross-country. It's very unlikely that someone not familiar with the southern US is familiar with this chain, and so one of the Swedish people at the table asked what Cracker Barrel was.

This represented an opportunity for a pun too good to pass up, so I turned to the guy and said something like "In Norway, we call it 'Utendørs badestamp' (Outdoor hot tub)."

Tumbleweeds flew by. Quizzical faces were turned in my direction. Epic joke fail.

Turns out that Christy wasn't familiar enough with Swedish/Norwegian to get the joke, and the Swedes weren't familiar enough with American slang to connect the dots. Oh well.

Come on; it's pure comedy gold - Cracker barrel = outdoor hot tub, 'cause the only ones insane enough to buy these things in Norway and think it's a good idea to sit in a tub of water while it snows are whiter than Caspar the friendly ghost washing down a piece of white bread with a big glass of milk whilst wearing a knitted sweater featuring a moose.

That's Demetri Martin funny right there.

The only thing I would've done differently has to do with the fact that the PowerPoint slides were made before I read Presentation Zen, and there was absolutely no way I could justify spending a lot of time making a new one from scratch. I was actually quite happy with this talk back when I made it, but looking at it post Presentation Zen, it could've been SO much better. It didn't look amateur-like, but I never would've used that many bullet point slides now, despite the fact that this made the job of presenting a lot easier, with less to remember. This presentation, compared to the talk I gave in Oslo a couple of weeks back, also served as an example of why you lose a lot of flexibility and slide real-estate by using a company - or in my case laboratory - template.

I REALLY recommend the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.