Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sweet ride...all the way sweet ride

Generic brand automobile of years gone by: 20 kNOK

Brutal snap-on plastic styling set in white and pink: 12 kNOK

Can of black spray-paint: 50 NOK

Swingin' sound system with CD changer and all the Absolute Hard Dance mania CDs: 120 kNOK

Wall-to-wall Wunderbaum: 450 NOK

Some people are burdened with an aesthetic sense. For everyone else, this car looks positively mackin'

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

TGIE - Thank God It's Easter.

Just a few hours left before I'll have a couple of days off, so I thought I'll post a little funny bit. Actually, there are some really good bits in there about homoepathy/ pseudo-science and science ("Science know it doesn't know everything. Otherwise it would have stopped")

Have a nice Easter, everybody.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Ballad of Harald and Jørgen

When I was a kid, I read Superman comics up until the point where I found Marvel to be a much better, if not more realistic, purveyor of superhero tales. Much of the premise of the Superman comic depended on the Man of Steel's ability to uphold his "secret" Clark Kent identity. Even for a seven year old kid, this required more suspension of disbelief than I was willing to put up with. While tons of Marvel characters relied on the same premise, Spiderman at least wore a mask. With Superman, a pair of ordinary reading glasses was all that kept his peers from recognizing that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same. Take this fact and add that Clark Kent was never seen together with Superman yet claimed to be his close friend, and it's pretty obvious that the journalistic talent and investigative qualities of the staff at whatever newspaper Kent worked at sucked worse than a toothless vampire.

Still, Jimmy Olsen might have claimed that Superman at least put on a pair of spectacles to conceal his true identity. In my book, that puts him one notch over the soft science schnucks currently lamenting how Harald Eia and the TV series "Hjernevask" make them look bad by showing viewers parts of interviews where the "scientists" are "tricked" into giving pretty much the exact same quotes as they have given in earlier interviews. Moreover, they agreed to appear on the show under the premise that it would be science journalism involved, and thus a serious show wherein they would bask in the glory of their doctorates in what asymptotically approaches science from below.

When the program was announced, some of the interviewees already started their public outcry of having been misled - some six months before the show was supposed to air. Not having seen any of the episodes, but having seen the teasers and followed the subsequent debates in other media, this still struck me as odd. From what I've seen in the teasers - which mirrors what I've read in the ensuing debates - an episode goes a li'l something like this:

  • Eia inerviews some Norwegian "scientist" and appears to ask some critical question.
  • Norwegian "scientist" inevitably provides aa absolute, definitive answer for which he or she has no scientific basis.
  • Eia appears sceptical.
  • Eia asks some foreign (preferably American) scientists the same question and presents them with the comments from the Norwegian soft-science schnuck.
  • Foreign scientist give a different answer, invariably in less bombastic and absolute terms than the Norwegian "scientists"
  • Eia nods in approval like a bobblehead doll in a car with bad suspension during an earthquake.
  • Repeat ad nauseam with different topic.

There's no doubt that Eia appears to be severely biased in his interviews, so that does warrant a fair deal of criticism. Favoritism aside, here's what I really don't get. Harald Eia is a very talented comedian, and has parlayed this into national celebrity and probably significant wealth. Eia's style of comedy can hardly be characterized as sophisticated, and to my knowledge, he has never displayed any public interest in science journalism until this show. Moreover, I notice from the teasers as well as from the ensuing public debate that Eia does the interviews himself, without any form of disguise. Not even a pair of glasses. This means that one out of two scenarios must have taken place prior to the interviews:

Scenario 1: Soft-science schnuck is contacted by Eia directly.
SSS: Yello?
Eia: Hello - this is Harald Eia calling. You might remember me as a TV-comedian famous for showing his private parts on television, for making fun of people from other parts of Norway than himself, and for having skits wherein dogs lick various food items off of Kristoffer Schau's balls. I'm currently working on a science journalism project where I endeavour to elucidate different aspects of human behavior based on nature versus nurture. Would you be interested in appearing on such a program to talk about things pertaining to your research?
SSS: So I'll be on TV, right?
Eia: You most certainly will.
SSS: Sign me up.

Scenario 2: Soft-science schnuck is contacted by some staffer assigned to Eia:
SSS: Yello?
Staffer: Hello there. My name is of no consequence and I am calling because NrK is planning a TV series based on the premise of elucidating different aspects of human behavior and determining whether certain traits can be more strongly linked to nature or to nurture. Being that you have been a vocal proponent for nurture over nature, that you have published several articles on the subject and that you own a sports jacket, we'd like to interview you for the program.
SSS: Who's gonna be doing the interview?
Staffer: Harald Eia.
SSS: The TV comedian famous for showing his private parts on television, for making fun of people with a different dialect than himself and for having skits wherein dogs lick various food items off of Kristoffer Schau's balls?
Staffer: That'd be the one.
SSS: Would I have to lick anything off of Schau's balls to be on TV? I'm allergic to nuts..
Staffer: You'll only be required to give an interview where you repeat the exact same inane statements you have gone on record giving earlier.
SSS: Sign me up.

So assuming the soft-science schnucks weren't contacted under the premise of making a science journalism spoof, where's the deception? At the end of the day, unless the interviews were edited to the level where words from different parts of the interview were combined to form quotes the interviewee never intended to give, they need to STFU. If they really thought that a program designed and executed by Harald Eia would be an unbiased piece of BBC-like science journalism, I've got a piece of land with a tower on it in central Paris to sell them real cheap.

Of all the soft-science schnucks getting their undies in a bunch over the resluting TV show, none have appeared more indignant than one Jørgen Lorentzen. Lorentzen appeared in a televised debate Thursday the 18th of March and claimed that the interview contained lots of footage of him putting over biology and biologists left and right, only that dastardly Eia cut those parts out, leaving him looking like a government-sponsored moron. He luv'd him sum biologists, but he also knew for a fact that the foreign expert Eia had used to counter his eloquent arguments in favor of nurture had done some critical error in his experiment design, thus invalidating the studies and any conclusions derived from it. Eia had actually done his homework and upon asking Lorentzen to state the flaws in the study, was able to counter and negate the two or three points made by Lorentzen. Following this, Lorentzen sulked and argued "well; there were several other critical flaws" before the host mercifully ended Lorentzen's self-burial. Moreover, the statements Lorentzen deemed to have been taken out of context, i.e., not being shown following Lorentzen putting over biology, were shown to have been given in earlier interviews with Lorentzen, where he apparently had no problems with Dagens Næringsliv printing such quotes. Or maybe the problem was that DN never put his quotes next to counterarguments by other experts, and so he only appeared to be caught in a cul-de-sac of his own self-righteousness. On Hjernevask, however, he appeared arrogant AND clueless. Not to mention that he got owned in a debate in a subject where he clearly considers himself an Harald Eia.

While I'm not saying that all the Norwegian soft-science schnucks interviewed by Eia only to have all kinds of issues later are idiots, there's no question that the quotes from the foreign scientists come across as more level-headed. This was especially clear for the Norwegian "expert" and waste of human flesh that on a direct question from Eia answered that each individual was free to choose his or her sexuality.

Tell that to a teenager from a strict religious background in rural Norway who would have to break any ties to family and friends and endure bullying and ridicule from peers if he or she chooses to come out of the closet.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Philip Morris lawsuit

It seems that Philip Morris is taking Norway to court, due to the country's display ban of tobacco (an English article here). PMI claims that the ban has no health effect, and suing to lift the ban.

Since it's a well know fact that reduced smoking does have an health effect, we can safely equal PMI's claim with of "no health effect" to "no reduced sale". Which brings up the following question:

- If there are no reduced sale, why would PMI sue?

Seeing how PMI is taking Norway to court, I assume their sale is affected and thus the ban actaully work as planned. Tobacco companies does have a grim history of "research" on health effect, and this lawsuit and the "research" behind it proves to me that very little has changed.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Haves and the Have Nots of Common Sense

As a general rule of thumb, students are to be evaluated using portfolio assessment, wherein the final grade is determined by more more than a single performance so as to get a better measure of student performance, as well as to avoid "bad luck" singularities. The most common forms of portfolio assessment are either a midterm or mandatory hand-in assignments (typically pass/fail) in addition to a final exam.

If you were in charge of implementing a change in the way the portfolio assessments are being used, would you: a) Announce the changes in time for the new regime to be defined in the study catalogue, which is the binding document outlining what form the course will have. b) Announce the changes the semester prior to changes taking effect, thus enabling the subject teachers to make the changes necessary to make the (mandatory) portfolio assessment work. c) Announce the changes in mid-semester, just before the midterms, with a three working-day time limit to implement the necessary changes.

If you answered c) - congratulations. You just might possess the tridefecta of lack of common sense, inability to understand the linearity of time, and a sociopathic streak which would qualify you for a position in central university administration.

I just received an email the effects of which is that I need to convert from giving midterms to assigning mandatory problem sets. The midterm is Thursday. In order to comply with rules and regulations, these changes should have been announced (i) in the study catalogue and (ii) at the first day of class if any extraordinary events occurred which warrant changes to the course description. While my course does indeed use problem sets, they're not presently mandatory in that students don't have to hand them in and have them graded. Of course; if they want to actually pass the course, solving and understanding the problem sets is mandatory, but that's another can of worms. Being that this is March, we've already gone through three problem sets, and we've also gone through the solutions. As an added bonus, I don't have a TA in this course, owing to administration missing (their own) deadline for approval, leaving me high&dry also in this regard.

My choices are the following: 1) Skip midterm and let the "portfolio" consist only of the final exam, thus breaking the rules. 2) Change the portfolio assessment from midterm to mandatory problem sets, thereby breaking the rules and causing myself tons of hours of extra work. 3) Find a way to comply with the new rules for midterm and keep the system approximately as it stands.

Option 3) is the only one that technically is legal, and also the one which is the hardest to implement. Partly because the midterm is going to take place between 5 and 7 PM, a time frame where no administrators and thus official inspectors are at work. Also because this alternative requires me to bring student information I'm not privy to.

I'm really not a fan of the central university administration.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Guide to Group Workouts I: Midlife Crisis Edition

If you have long since passed 40 and started to work out not too long ago under the illusion that you could still become a professional bodybuilder, fitness competitor or strongman, this simple 10-step guide can help you establish your reputation as a shitkicker as well as help you maximize attention while at the gym.

Step 1.
Before you set foot in the gym, it is important to groom. For men, this means adopting one of the two following regulation hairstyles, depending on your follicular density; 1) shaved head or 2) see-thru ponytail. If you opt for hairstyle 1), you need to follow up with a fake tan and various bracelets. From option 2) follows by necessity a scruffy, unkept beard and a complexion reminiscent of a hung-over vampire, save from a trucker's tan (optional), with a celtic cross necklace as the only allowed accessory. Irrespective of hairstyle, it is adamant that you get yourself tribal armband tattoos. And remember: "Obsession" by Calvin Klein, Axe or rancid sweat work for any occasion as far as fragrances. For women: Dry, peroxide-blond, jet-black or extra-fake red hair. The blond hairstyle requires lots of spray-tan, while the latter two also work with Caspar-the Friendly Ghost complexion. Regardless of hairstyle, apply copius amounts of make-up, lather up with fragrant body lotion and be sure to use at least half a bottle of perfume. Depending on the pay level of day job (hairdresser, cashier, waitress or kindergarten employee), get one of the following regulation tattoos: Shoulder blade dolphin, heart or "authentic" chinese characters, or tramp stamp and accessories: navel piercing or implants.

Step 2:
Before you can arrange for yourself and at least two of your comrades-in-arms to arrive at the gym, you need to assemble the season-independent workout attire. For men, this means one of two acceptable looks: 1) Ca. 1976 Muscle Beach transplant, or 2) Badass biker wannabe. In either case, make sure that the tank top or XS Li'l Boys' tee is extra snug to show off that upper body, and that you're wearing extra baggy work/workout pants to hide those scrawny, never-exercised legs ('cause you've got bad knees and/or a bad back which prevents you from squats and leg you've read that those exercises might hurt the knees or back and they're damn hard). The only allowed exception to this rule is if you belong to the subclass known as "Brightly colored bicycle shorts and tank top delusionites". As far as colors and design, you can never go wrong with camouflage-patterned tank tops, Ed Hardy tees, GASP wear or something featuring the Harley Davidson logo. For women, it can apparently not be tight, ill-fitting and small enough as far as workout attire. Preferably with an exposed belly button, irrespective of fitness level. Make sure that you've got a car that matches your look. For men, this means either a chopper or a truck (season-dependent) for the badass biker wannabe, or some type of horse-power abundant sports vehicle (alternatively a Hummer). For women, either a small black, red or pink sports car or a token BMW SUV.

Step 3.
You're now ready to assemble your crew and get to the gym. Remember: You've got to roll at least deuce deep - preferably three - so if you arrive before the pack is all there, hang out at the counter, talking loudly to the gym staff or in your cell phone. Make sure that the ringtone on your cell phone doesn't betray your physiological age, but rather something from the present top 40, alternatively gangsta' rap (for men only). As you enter the workout area, make sure to carry at least four invisible suitcases.

Step 4.
Did you remember to train, say your prayers and take your vitamins this morning? For the affluent middle-aged male, some hgh and ~600 mg/week of deca and test. For women: Clenbuterol.

Step 5.
Carry a workout bag (GASP) large enough to hold two weeks worth of clothing and shoes. Stock said workout bag with workout gloves, and belt, wraps for every joint on the body, water bottle, at least one shaker bottle containing protein powder for post-workout consumption, towel, amino acid and creatine tablets, little pink tablets, and Icy Hot.

Step 6.
As your crew gets ready to get swole, make sure to occupy approximately 47% of the gym area, including as many benches, dumbbells and machines you can get your hands on in order to mark your territory and make people understand that something big is gonna go down. Get really annoyed if people are trying to cramp your space.

Step 7.
Talk loudly amongst yourselves and shout in order to psyche up/garner attention for the monumental feats of brute force and athleticism to follow. If you can throw some punches in the air in the general direction of your invisible enemies and the mirror, it's a plus. Make sure to start the punch from your shoulder, dropping your guard and sticking your chin out as you menacingly deliver the knockout haymaker to your transparent nemesis. Wonder why that douchebag working out next to you is looking at you with a smirk.

Step 8.
Use 75% heavier weights than your one-rep max for every given exercise and loudly proclaim that you're "Gonna get 10 or 12". At this point, workout partners need to launch a barrage of motivational clichés including "Let's get SERIOUS", "Time to play the GAME", "LIGHT WEIGHT" and "Squeeeeeeze it!". Use full-body movements to complete the reps, no matter the intended muscle group or exercise. As the lifter completes his or her set, and consequently as the spotter completes a set of another exercise (i.e.; spotter does bent-over rows for most of the weight for bench press), make sure to give an "ALL YOU" shout of enthusiasm.

step 9
As you drop the weights to the floor/starting position thus generating maximum noise and resulting attention, walk angrily away from the equipment, shouting that it was easy, and that you could've at least done two more reps. Sometimes the acoustics make it difficult to reach absolutely every corner of the gym, but give it a try anyways. remember; how are people gonna know that you're buff and swole if you don't inform them of this fact? Flex biceps and chest in the mirror (irrespective of muscle groups worked that day). If you're working out with a woman in your crew, loudly remark how you're warming up with heavier weights than her maximum effort. If you're a woman hanging in this crew, it is customary to remark how the males use more weights to warm up with than your maximum effort. Exclaim your intent to use even more weight for the next set. Damn; that motherf*cker with the NC State hat working out next to you is looking at you and shaking his head again.

Step 10.
Smear Icy Hot on all your aching joints and hobble out of the gym while sipping a protein shake and hi-fiving.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The media noise pollution

The media marked is in constant change, which is especially true for the news papers. News on paper is in steady declined compared to online news, even in a country like Norway with a strong tradition for reading papers. There are several good things about news online, like up-to-date news, live coverage, the use of sound and video, etc, etc.

However, I've seen some use of adverstising I'm not very keen on. As a general rule, I feel strongly that advertising and news should be clearly separated. I was just browsing different pages on, when I suddenly relized I was reading an ad. Take a look at it, it is marked at the top, but it's really easy to miss if you're just browsing.

I couldn't remember clicking on any ads, so I vent back to investigate further. On the right hand side of the webpage, there is a column. This column contains both ads and news articles. Check out the example on the left: How easy is it to spot that the top one is an ad and the bottom one is an produced news article? It may be legally valid, but ethically, I think it crosses the border to unacceptable.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"This is not a scientific poll..."

Internet polls. If you just have the slightest knowledge about statistics, you know that internet polls are infamous for have large biases by itself. The design of the questions are often equally bad, with unbalanced wording and lacking of a "Don't Know" or similar option. And also where the poll is posted does matter (do you think a poll on gun legislation would yield the same result on the websites of Guns&Ammo and the Nobel Peace Price?). This has been discussed before, and not my point of this post. And this has been pointed out to the media several times.

But how does the paper deals with this? VG does this by adding a disclaimer under their polls: "This is not an scientific poll. It only reflects the view of those internet users that has chosen to participate." They also refer to it as "Just an assessment of the opinions, not a scientific survey".

Well, guess what, VG. "Not scientific" is not a property like the color of a car. Being "not scientific" means your results says s¤%t about the general opinion, especially on a biased question hidden in an online article where it's possible to vote as many times as you like...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Unexpected Presentation Zen Design fail; I was fixin' to start making a ten-minute sales pitch for my research to potential collaborators at a seminar next Friday. I had a few good ideas on how to structure the talk Presentation Zen-style, and I was going to start off fresh by using some new font combinations. After cracking open Presentation Zen Design to the section on fonts and typesetting, I was ready to carve out a new font identity for myself. Comic Sans and Tahoma before that have served me well, but surely there are other fonts which better suit my needs and profile.

As I opened up PowerPoint and started browsing the ocean of available fonts, it dawned on me that the ocean was but a shallow puddle. Of all the "basic" fonts that "everyone should have at their disposal", only a measly two - TWO - were available in my university edition of Office. Garamond and freakin' Helvetica. No Futura, Gill Sans or any of the other cool fonts.


So I checked shareware on the faculty folder to see if there was a Holy Grail of fonts waiting to be unleashed on the wide open canvases of my slides. Not a freakin' thing.

Relatively undeterred, I opened the "Help" menu under "Where in the blue hell can I find me some more goddamn fonts." Windows directed me to a few websites, some of which were offering up some fonts for free. On the other hand, the fonts they offered were 100%, grade A, guaran-damn-teed useless and butt fugly to boot.

As I went down the list of websites suggested to me by Windows, I came across some which sold all kinds of fonts - including the entire Gill family. With my last shred of optimism I selected this package for pricing information.

1,400 NOK for the Gill family of fonts.

The hell with that - Comic Sans just rose like freakin' phoenix from the ashes.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Selecting a new car is serious business

With an eight months old baby boy, it's a definite limit to how much time one can spend roaming around car dealerships. Not to mention that there is a definite limit to how much time one can stand being around slime-drippin', "Obsession" by Calvin Klein-reeking, polyester-wrapped weasels trying to convince you that purchasing THIS model NOW is the best decision you'll ever make.

Hence, it makes a lot of sense to do a lot of research before you actually enter a dealership. There are many things you have to consider, like what fuel source would you like your vehicle to run on (diesel, since the diesel process is thermodynamically more efficient than gasoline, hydrogen fuel cars won't be launched until 2012 and there is as of today not a single hybrid car of sufficient size on the market), station wagon vs. minivan or SUV (station wagon, since European market minivans typically are shorter, and since the SUV caste is a club I'd prefer not to have a membership in, douchebag-laden as it is), and the key decision; which BRANDS are relevant. Once you pick the brand, there is typically only one car model (with many variables, but still) to choose from, so this seems like a good place to start.

Using a process derived from available statistics and personal bias, my wife and I managed to eliminate most car brands before we ever even looked at their models online. Like:
  • Brands that are way more expensive than their performance and breakdown-statistics can justify. So long, Mercedes, Audi and BMW.
  • Brands that suck at fuel efficiency, which may be problematic getting decent service on, parts to, and aren't made to withstand winter. Sadly, so long every traditional American brand.
  • Brands that are soon to be extinct. Buh-bye, Saab.
  • Brands where the local service providers have given us plenty of reason to distrust their service. See ya, Ford.
  • Brands that are trying to shed their past history of making substandard (in every way imaginable) products, whether or not their new cars are decent (yeah, right). Lo siento, FIAT, SEAT and Skoda.
  • Brands we've had bad experience with as rental cars (a.k.a. the "Just say NO to french cars" clause). Au revoir, Renault, Citroen and Peugot.
  • Brands that don't really have models in the class you're looking for. Sayonara, Honda and Nissan.
  • Brands which have designs which lessen the available trunk volume.
  • Brands that have no business making automobiles. We're not really brand-obsessed, but if the car manufacturer made nothing but vibrators and electric nose hair trimmers up until five years ago, then I won't be caught dead in one of your wannabe vehicles. For one thing, new brands are impossible to compare with traditional brands with respect to for example odds of their ricockulous, cheap-looking, pre-rusted hulks breaking down or spontaneously combusting in shame. So of course the brand offers 36-year warranties, because the manufacturing and material cost is comparable to that of a small stove. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, KIA, Huyndai, Daewoo and other brand names sounding suspiciously like FookHue.

So in the end, there were only two...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Epic justification of own actions...

Two weeks ago I received an invitation to write (and submit) a review article from a journal which thematically is very relevant for my research. Getting invitations to submit review articles don't happen every day - especially not for academics relatively new to the game. The person inviting me did so because she really enjoyed an article we published last year on the very subject we're asked to write a review article on.

Long sentence bonanza right thurr.

Anyhoo; I've actually had to think long and hard about whether we should do it, for three reasons:
  1. The deadline is March 1st, and considering that I'm on 50% leave, and that pretty much my entire reduced workload stems from not having time to do research or write articles, I'm not sure this is feasible. Sure; there'd be three other authors, but they've also got plenty of schtuff to do before March 1st. Including writing articles and teaching.
  2. The impact factor of the journal in question is significantly lower than what we usually aim for with our work. Of course, a review article is more likely to get cited than a "regular" research article, but I'm not overly enthusiastic about the impact factor-dealie. We'd work just as hard writing this review as we would if the IF had been four times higher, so realistically speaking, this is time we could've spent getting manuscripts ready for high-impact journals.
  3. A colleague and good friend of mine has had some "issues" with the publisher of said journal, as has his boss. The publishing house in question charges quite a lot for teh "privilege" of publishing articles there, despite their journals not exactly being PNAS. I am definitely not desperate enough to pay in order for an article to get published in a journal with an unimpressive impact factor.

Still; I can't believe I turned down an offer to write a review article.

Time to play The Game

Being that I'm on 50% paternity leave, and that apart from research, the other tasks have not been reduced accordingly, I told myself that I'd cruise through the teaching of my main subject. In the sense that I would rely on last year's slides, that is, not in ay other sense. Normally I spend a lot of time revamping the slides material each semester the course is taught, because one always discovers ways to make it better (like Presentation Zen), and because each set of new students helps highlight areas where I need to work on my lectures.

It's called progress.

As it often does, however, reality struck in a big way when the supposedly parent-friendly administration dealt me a bum hand with respect to lecture hours.

Thursdays from 5-7 PM and Fridays from 3-4 PM. Snake eyes.

What this entails, is that I have to work a lot harder to retain the same percentage of students in the lecture hall. Consequently, I'm spending at least as much time as before updating slides and coming up with all kinds of things to make the course appealing to the (thankfully large) percentage of students who opt to be there for my lectures.

I might as well start bringing my own intro music and a video entrance package.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book review: Presentation Zen Design

By none other than Garr Reynolds, of course.

This follow-up to the brilliant Presentation Zen (if you haven't bought it by now - what the hell are ya waiting for?) deals more with the practical aspect of making presentations, and so touches on a bit of design principles such as effective use of white space. The book is a veritable treasure trove of helpful sections, including effective use of fonts (brilliant), which I personally found to be very enlightening. Any version of Office is going to be loaded with 4.5 gajillion fonts, so a primer and a set of matching fonts for different occasions sure helps out a lot. Mucho props.

There's also a section of working with colors and selecting color schemes. While Nancy Duarte's Slide:ology contains more material on the nuts and bolts of color schemes, Garr's book more than makes up for it by detailing how you can extract color schemes from photographs, thereby taking advantage of the master colorist - Mother Nature. This is followed up by describing how to incorporate pictures - and video - in your presentation in order to more effectively communicate your story - including some photography tips by Scott Kelby.

Towards the end of the book, there are also some sample slides from various designers (Duarte Design being strongly represented) to show the reader how this can be incorporated in real life. This even includes some slides from a field not too distant from what I'm doing.

Overall, this is a great book and a worthy follow-up to Presentation Zen. I've only got two minor complaints; one being that the book appears at times to be somewhat on the heavy side with respect to Zen lessons. The other complaint is that it would've been great with an expanded section on how to use animation. Then again - that's where Nancy Duarte's book really shines.

Buy two copies - one for the office and one to keep around the house.

Monday, January 18, 2010

They sure saw me comin'...

At the moment, I'm on 50% paternity leave, which in theory means that my expected workload is cut in half. However, on Friday I finally realized that this is not true at all. A quick&dirty breakdown of my overall duties would look something like this: 50% teaching, 50% research.

Right. Back from fairytale-land. A more accurate description would have to include various administrative duties, very few of which are easily boxed into either category. In theory, the 50% reduction of duties should be spread equally across all categories. Let's see if it does:
  • Teaching: During the Spring semester, I am the course responsible for one 4th year topic. I also teach 1/3 of another 4th year course, plus perhaps one or two PhD specialization topics. Out of these, I am only relieved of the 1/3 - which rules, as my first and only choice as replacement accepted the position - which makes my teaching load for the semester significantly larger than 50%.
  • Administration: No reduction in workload at all.
  • Research: ...pretty much where my "workload" is reduced.

In other words; the only area where I feel a reduction in my workload is the area that I actually get credit for in the dept. annual reports.

They sure saw me coming.....

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Air Quality in Bergen charts

Well, here is a graph I found at, and it's a report over the air quality in Bergen. There are two automatic air-samplers in Bergen, one at Danmarksplass and one by the old town hall. The NO2 level and concentration of particles in two different sizes are measured. Each of the components is classified into four different categories, depending on the concentration (as shown in the chart below). The (total) air quality is the reported as one of the categories, depending on the most polluted of the three components. The chart below is from month of November 2009.

Some interesting data can be extracted from this graph. Like that November 2009 where approximately 30 hours longer at Rådhuset compared to Danmarksplass, but on average the years 2003 and 2009 where longer on Danmarksplass.

What I'm getting at here, is (again) that this isn't a very good graph. Personally, I think that they are missing a "no data" category or something, since November has a total of 720 hours, which none of the bars have. And, as I understand the data, the total of all categories isn't interesting, since they are all the same (only depending on how many days in the month). In fact, the interesting data here is the hours with elevated level of air pollution. And due to the large size of the normal (green) bars, the graph does not do a good job in presenting these data. So, here is my suggestion of a redesigned graph, focusing on comparing the data with elevated level of pollution. I opted for a three panel vertical Trellis chart:

To even better compare the individual values, a 1x4 vertical Trellis chart could also been used, wiyh  panels Rådhuset Nov 2009, Rådhuset average 2003-2009, Danmarksplass Nov 2009 and Danmarksplass average 2003-2009. Each panel with three horizontal bars with each of the different level of pollution. 

Another option would be to include a bar for the total hours with elevated pollution (sum of some, much og severely polluted categories).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Slidescapes and slideoramas

So I attempted some of the animation techniques I found in Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. Specifically, I experimented with animating slide transitions to create the illusion of the slides being part of a panoramic view, or what Duarte calls slidescapes or slideoramas. I battle-tested it in my "sales pitch", first lecture of the semester, to show some connections and big-picture things, and let me tell you; I thought it was really cool. It beat the ever-loving crap of my old way of presenting timelines and connections.

Yes; Slide:ology is worth the samoleans you have to plunk down to get your grubby hands on the book.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 experiment

I recently received an invitation to put one of my articles on due to the inviter's claim that the contents in said article is of general interest to researchers in medical sciences. The page looks like a lo-rent, but what teh hell - I think I'm gonna give it a try and see if I can adapt Presentation Zen to this format. If it works, I massively increase my odds of getting citations for my work, and if it doesn't work, this might just count as "Popularization of Science", in which case it counts towards my standing on the department publication list. So it's all good.

I'll get in touch with my coauthors and see if we can make things happen.

Book review: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

Yeah, yeah, yeah - Jobs is the head honcho of Apple, but he's also widely renowned as one of the most charismatic presenters ever. Garr Reynolds says so, as do enough other people to ensure that at least a fraction of the cheerleaders are from outside of the Jonestown/messianic cult of Apple fanatics and Jobs kool-aid drinkers.

And credit where credit is due - Jobs IS a fantastic presenter and public speaker with a distinctive style. That's not really something worth debating - dude's good.

The author of this book - one Carmine Gallo - claims to have distilled what makes a Steve Jobs presentation great and is offering this to the reader in "A three-part framework to wow your audience". Steve Jobs on a bottle, if ya will. That's a tall order for a book. What are the three parts - or acts as Gallo calls it - you might ask?
  • Act 1: Create the story. Plan in analog, focus on the audience and why they should care about your presentation, make simple, clutter-free slides and create twitter-like headlines.
  • Act 2: Deliver the experience. Put numbers into some kind of context for easier visualization of impact, use cool lingo and memorable catchphrases in order to stand out, and feel free to use props in order to give a physical demonstration if applicable.
  • Act 3: Refine and Rehearse. No further explanation required.

Those familiar with Presentation Zen know at this point that one-third of the book is snagged directly from Garr Reynolds, and at least 1/3 of what Gallo makes off of this book by right ought to end up in Reynolds's pockets. The only semi-original part of the first act is the twitter-headline thingy, which actually is a stroke of pure genious. By spending lots and lots of time creating twitter-like headlines, journalists just use the pre-digested headline provided by Jobs, essentially leaving Jobs in charge of his own media appearance. Admittedly very clever. As for act 2, Gallo "borrows" liberally from Presentation Zen once again, and the third act, with its riveting tales of how Steve Jobs makes his presentations look spontaneous and effortless, but how this is actually a byproduct of intense and long rehearsal hours....well gosh now......what's next? Do musicians rehearse before gigs?

By and large I don't really recommend this book although there are some cool parts, like the "make your own press" bit. Garr Reynolds has become the ABBA of presentation design in that everybody and their mother have jacked material from him without necessarily bothering to cite the source. This, plus the fact that Gallo spends way too much time plugging Apple products rather than the underlying principles of the Jobs presentations that launch them, makes this book at least a second-tier manual.

Another thing is that if you opt to buy this book rather than - repeated ad infinitum - Presentation Zen, and you actually follow the advice, you're probably screwed. What Steve Jobs can get away with, you can't, and while there's a section in the book on how you should dress (odd, I know), Gallo fails to mention that Steve Jobs comes off as quite smug and sometimes arrogant in his presentations. Moreover, he is constantly badmouthing the competition. Steve Jobs can do this because of who he is - given his track record and all - you can't. Especially in academia, where odds are that your brilliant solution/theorem/method is more likely to be a step further than the final answer. In order to get away with Steve Jobs' method of badmouthing the competition and - quite literally - introducing some opposition product as the antagonist (rather than simply as the competition), you need to have an enormous credibility, and an h-index approaching Nobel laureate status. Otherwise you'll just come off as a know-it-all douchebag. And if you're thinking of buying a book like this to model your presentation technique after, odds are that you're not of sufficient academic standing to get away with smugness, so just don't.

Plenty of books you'd be better off buying.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Deja vu all over again aftermath

Still stuck with the undesirable time frames for my lectures this semester despite a few more attempts to improve the odds of filling the seats. What's new however, is that the administration asshat never updated the course info on the central university web pages, resulting in quite a few emails from students that showed up to an empty classroom, wondering why I didn't show up. Now; it should be mentioned that had these students checked out the course page on it's learning, they'd have seen the message I posted a while ago with the new updated schedule, but the admin guy still absolutely sucks.

Amateur crap like that really should be beneath the institution of higher learning I'm a tenured faculty member of.

Design tip: Custom colors in Excel (97-2003)

As metioned in the comments section on the Slide:ology review, I've made myself a custom palette in Excel (2003, that is). Since this is the version available at work, I've become more and more frustrated by the colors available in Excel and spent too much time editing colors (see end of this post for "how-to" change colors in Excel).

Anyway, below is my current palette (left) and the standard Excel 2003 palette:

Let me explain the background for this. You can see that the top right colomns are identical in both paletts. The reasons for that is that shades of greys are cool, but mainly because I couldn't think of any useful colors to replace them with. Above the line, you see that the rest of my palett is of different shades of grey, red, blue, orange and greens in the rows. Good to have the options of different shades of one color, but also note how well the colors in each colomn goes together.

Now for the bottom two rows. You can see that the rows consist of pairs of colors, one deep, saturated and one lighter shade. The thing is that all the rich colors goes well together and all the light colors goes well together, if you need multiple colors in a chart. (On a sidenote: The observant reader might have notice the odd couple out, the two colors on the bottom right. I initially made a deep/light color pair there as well, but later figured I needed the strong red. And that orange there is one of my favorite colors, which I also missed a bit). But here is the smart part: As a default, Excel starts choosing colors in charts from the bottom row. Hence, I get some useful colors by default, and saves work! Let me illustrate this with an example. First off, there is my palette (yes, I've removed the grey background and formated the axis, but the series colors are by default):

This is actually a set of good colors, good contrast without overpowering each other. Also the deep colors makes a good contrast to the background, and both lines and text is easy to see. Now, the same graph, with the same formate on the axis, but with the colors choosen by Excel with the default palette:
Quite a difference, no? The deep blue color on "East" is fine by itself, but the colors doesn't go well with each other and makes the graph look tacky. The "West" series is very muted compared to the others and the text is hard to read. The "East" and "South" series stand out more then the two other series.

Anyway, this is a continious experiment for me, and the palette on the top may not be the one I'm ending up with. But I sure gonna make my own palette, because it is so much better then the default one. So, here are my pro's and con's of the current palette:

Good selection of shades of each color. Great for tables, lines, etc.
Almost all the colors in the palette goes well together (as long as I choose the same level of saturation)
Better default colors in charts, at least to some extend.

I really would like some more yellow shades.
The reds aren't shades of reds. They are pink, and makes my chart look like a three year old girls coloring book.
I would love to be able to replace the default grey background in charts with white, but I'm afraid changing a grey to white would affect something else that needs to be grey.

It's worth noting that from Excel 2007 this is not as big issue, since Microsoft changes the whole color tool in that version.

How to change the default palette in Excel.
From the Tools meny, click Options and select the color tab. Select a color, click modify, and change it to whatever you like (bonus tip: On the bottom, you can import the palette of any open Excel-fil). Our palette will be saved for that Excel file and all the sheets in it. Any of the old colors you've used in that file, will be replace with the new you've defined. But once you open a new Excel file, it will still have the standard palette.

If you want to save a custom palette, and have it as default in new Excel files, you have to make it the default woorkbook. Save it as an Excel template file, with the name "bookxlt" (or "bok.xlt" in Norwegian) in the xlstart folder. The folder is usually located at C:\Documents and Settings\USER\Application Data\Microsoft\Excel\XLStart, where USER is you login.

Book review: Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte

This book comes with recommendations from such luminaries as Garr Reynolds and Jerry Weissman, and I've considered buying it for quite a while now. In teh very likely case that the name Nancy Duarte doesn't ring a bell, Duarte design - headed by the very same Nancy Duarte - is the design company that can be credited for Al Gore's recent success and even (arguably) him now being a Nobel laureate. Gore has been talking about global warming and environmental issues for years and years, but it wasn't before he hired Duarte Design to make "An Inconvenient truth" as well as some actual presentation technique coaches that he went from a mumbling black hole of charisma to one of the highest paid and most sought after on the international lecture circuit.

It should be mentioned that this book was published AFTER Presentation Zen, so be warned: The first six chapters mostly deal with regurgitating Reynolds' book, as well as numerous references to Tufte and Weissman. At several points during these chapters I seriously found myself thinking that if there really was a market for a cliff notes version of already condensed books on presentation technique, I'd like a piece of that action. The references are many, the puns and clever catchphrases are abundant, and the amount of new information is scarce. Moreover, the accompanying slide examples look pedestrian and - dare I say it - cheap considering the credentials of the author.

However, the book really picks up after the sixth chapter. The sections on how to select color schemes (consciously rather than by happy accident), typesetting and animation alone make the book well worth buying. Really cool, and I'm gonna get right to applying those lessons. There's also a chapter on making templates which is really informative. Still, seeing as how I've just made the plunge from six years of lab-specific templates (one of which was of my own design) to wide open slides, I'm not yet ready to creep back into the template cage again. The amount of info you can fit on each slide really dwindles when templates are applied. While I admit that this can sometimes (or even often) be a good thing, I often find that building schematics or figures that span the entire slide really works within hard science - often the alternative is repeating the same image with slightly different areas highlighted over lots of slides.

If you're looking for efficient ways to implement animation and color schemes, then this book is definitely worth buying. If you're after a book on designing and delivering good presentations, look elsewhere.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The academic year 2009 in review

Being that the birth of my son completely overshadowed anything else in 2009, I'll roll with a summary of how things went academically. Starting with the mother of all academic yardsticks:
  • Publications: Very happy with the 2009 results in this category - only one publication short of my all-time high. Still, a personal best is there either to reminisce about or to beat, and since I've only just began my academic career, I'll do my very best to beat this number in 2010. We even managed to sneak one manuscript past the nefarious third reviewer in a fairly flashy journal - although that technically happened this year. 2009 is also the year where I surpassed my MSc advisor with respect to number of published articles, and matched her h-index.
  • Public speaking: Especially during the Fall semester, I really did my part of public speaking at conferences and such, which I really enjoy. If only it wasn't for the effing going-to-conference part of it, this would be a good full-time profession for me. I enjoy the making of presentations, the talking bit and the discussions, but I abhor the travel, I detest the sitting through of days worth of potentially interesting talks ruined by poor presentation technique, and I loathe the small-talk during lunches like: "So you're in Norway, huh? That's pretty cold, isn't it? And the roads are bad?"
  • Presentation technique: Alternatively put; before and after Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (buy the damn book already). This book really changed my outlook on how to prepare presentations, and I've seen how it can be applied to others as well - this stuff really works. Still; the limitation is how it can be implemented into teaching, seeing as how students expect to have slides available as handouts, which is sort of what Presentation Zen strives to avoid: the presentation as document syndrome. The solution might be to make additional handouts with the material from the slide written out, but that is a project which is going to take time (more time than what I've got available this semester), plus this already exists - it's called the freakin' textbook.
  • Funding: Not such a banner year - gov't funding has gone WAY down, especially for fundamental science. Within the fundamental science programs, only about 7-8% of the applications get funded, which is laughable compared to other countries without petroleum reserves and our strong economy. In an effort not to come off as too bitter, I'll cut it short..

Here's to 2010 bringing bigger and better things.

Return of the Broski

Oh lawdi-lawd - there's a sequel to My New Haircut - the best thing on the internetz:

There's even a blooper reel + outtakes:

The scene with the two broskis checking out and comparing abs in the gym mirror is ex-'effing-actly like a couple of teh doucheclowns at pretty much every gym I've ever been at.

Don't hate da playa' - hate da game.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Deja vu all over again

Well now; it wouldn't be January if I wasn't struggling with the powers that be at the administration trying to wrangle up decent lecture facilities for the Spring semester. See e.g. my post from last year. Every freakin' year since I started here, I've gone through the same process:

  1. Submit a list of requirements for teaching facilities the preceding semester, including expected number of students and if there are any timeframes that absolutely and legitimately don't work.
  2. Check timetables for the course and realize that I've been given ungodly hours in a room with room for like 6 students, no projector, no blackboard and probably no electricity.
  3. Contact the central admin in charge and point out that I've been given insufficient facilities, both with respect to seating capacity and amenities - like blackboard, projector and - I don't know; walls?
  4. Get a reply saying that they have not registered any such requirements; they've still operating with the 1995 (or so) numbers, and the problem must obviously be on my end. Still, the dude in charge graciously agrees to look into the situation, however I must be warned that the time tables have been all but set in stone at this point.
  5. After a few rounds back and forth and a lot of diplomacy on my part, I end up with adequate teaching facilities.
  6. Repeat ad infinitum

This year - or rather before Christmas -I started the process early, hoping to get a smoother ride duringthe whole administrative debacle. As an added complication, I have just started my paternity leave, which leaves some days of the week inaccessible to teaching in order for my wife and I both to get the work-week puzzle to work out.

As I pleaded with the commaf*cking bastard in charge of room allocation, I argued that I was on partial paternity leave throughout the semester.

End result after going through a few cycles of non-usable facilities: I now teach Thursdays from 5-7 PM and Fridays from 3-4 PM.

That's gonna put lots of asses in the seats. Prime time, babee.