the brain, in pictures, in newsweek

Newsweek has a beautiful set of graphics illustrating some of the things we’ve learned about the brain in recent years. One or two of the graphics are a bit hokey (e.g., the PET slides showing the effects of a seizure don’t show the same brain slices, and it’s unclear whether the color scales are equivalent), but the arteriograph and MRI slides showing the cerebral vasculature are really amazing.

The images are excerpted from Rita Carter’s new Human Brain Book, which I’d buy in a heartbeat if I wasn’t broke right now. If you aren’t so broke, and happen to buy a copy, you should invite me over some time. We can sit around drinking hot chocolate and staring at illustrations of the fusiform gyrus. Or something.

[via Mind Hacks]

i hate learning new things

Well, I don’t really hate learning new things. I actually quite like learning new things; what I don’t like is having to spend time learning new things. I find my tolerance for the unique kind of frustration associated with learning a new skill (you know, the kind that manifests itself in a series of “crap, now I have to Google that” moments) increases roughly in proportion to my age.

As an undergraduate, I didn’t find learning frustrating at all; quite the opposite, actually. I routinely ignored all the work that I was supposed to be doing (e.g., writing term papers, studying for exams, etc.), and would spend hours piddling around with things that were completely irrelevant to my actual progress through college. In hindsight, a lot of the skills I picked up have actually been quite useful, career-wise (e.g., I spent a lot of my spare time playing around with websites, which has paid off–I now collect large chunks of my data online). But I can’t pretend I had any special foresight at the time. I was just procrastinating by doing stuff that felt like work but really wasn’t.

In my first couple of years in graduate school, when I started accumulating obligations I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) put off, I developed a sort of compromise with myself, where I would spend about fifteen minutes of every hour doing what i was supposed to, and the rest of the hour messing around learning new things. Some of those things were work-related–for instance, learning to use a new software package for analyzing fMRI data, or writing a script that reinvented the wheel just to get a better understanding of the wheel. That arrangement seemed to work pretty well, but strangely, with every year of grad school, I found myself working less and less on so-called “personal development” projects and more and more on supposedly important things like writing journal articles and reviewing other people’s journal articles and just generally acting like someone who has some sort of overarching purpose.

Now that I’m a worldly post-doc in a new lab, I frankly find the thought of having to spend time learning to do new things quite distressing. For example, my new PI’s lab uses a different set of analysis packages than I used in graduate school. So I have to learn to use those packages before I can do much of anything. They’re really great tools, and I don’t have any doubt that I will in fact learn to use them (probably sooner rather than later); I just find it incredibly annoying to have to spend the time doing that. It feels like it’s taking time away from my real work, which is writing. Whereas five years ago, I would have gleefully thrown myself at any opportunity to learn to use a new tool, precisely because it would have allowed me to avoid nasty, icky activities like writing.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose the transition is for the best. It’s hard to be productive as an academic when you spend all your time learning new things; at some point, you have to turn the things you learn into a product you can communicate to other people. I like the fact that I’ve become more conscientious with age (which, it turns out, is a robust phenomenon); I just wish I didn’t feel so guilty ‘wasting’ my time learning new things. And it’s not like I feel I know everything I need to know. More than ever, I can identify all sorts of tools and skills that would help me work more efficiently if I just took the time to learn them. But learning things often seems like a luxury in this new grown-up world where you do the things you’re supposed to do before the things you actually enjoy most. I fully expect this trend to continue, so that 5 years from now, when someone suggests a new tool or technique I should look into, I’ll just run for the door with my hands covering my ears…

the genetics of dog hair

Aside from containing about eleventy hundred papers on Ardi–our new 4.4 million year-old ancestor–this week’s issue of Science has an interesting article on the genetics of dog hair. What is there to know about dog hair, you ask? Well, it turns out that nearly all of the phenotypic variation in dog coats (curly, shaggy, short-haired, etc.) is explained by recent mutations in just three genes. It’s another beautiful example of how complex phenotypes can emerge from relatively small genotypic differences. I’d tell you much more about it, but I’m very lazy busy right now. For more explanation, see here, here, and here (you’re free to ignore the silly headline of that last article). Oh, and here’s a key figure from the paper. I’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, which effectively makes this a 1200-word post. All this writing is hurting my brain, so I’ll stop now.

a tale of dogs, their coats, and three genetic mutations
a tale of dogs, their coats, and three genetic mutations

diamonds, beer, bars, and pandas: the 2009 Ig Nobel prizes

Apparently I missed this, but the 2009 Ig Nobel prizes were awarded a couple of days ago. There’s a lot of good stuff this year, so it’s hard to pick a favorite; you have people making diamonds from tequila,  demonstrating that beer bottles can crack human skulls, turning bras into facemasks, and reducing garbage mass by 90% using… wait for it… panda poop. That said, I think my favorite is this one right here–the winners of the Economics prize:

The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic Banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.

And yes, I do feel bad about myself for finding that funny.

[h/t: Language Log]

younger and wiser?

Peer reviewers get worse as they age, not better. That’s the conclusion drawn by a study discussed in the latest issue of Nature. The study isn’t published yet, and it’s based on analysis of 1,400 reviews in just one biomedical journal (The Annals of Emergency Medicine), but there’s no obvious reason why these findings shouldn’t generalize to other areas of research.From the article:

The most surprising result, however, was how individual reviewers’ scores changed over time: 93% of them went down, which was balanced by fresh young reviewers coming on board and keeping the average score up. The average decline was 0.04 points per year.

That 0.04/year is, I presume, on a scale of 5,  and the quality of reviews was rated by the editors of the journal. This turns the dogma of experience on its head, in that it suggests editors are better off asking more junior academics for reviews (though whether this data actually affects editorial policy remains to be seen). Of course, the key question–and one that unfortunately isn’t answered in the study–is why more senior academics give worse reviews. It’s unlikely that experience makes you a poorer scientist, so the most likely explanation is that that “older reviewers tend to cut corners,” as the article puts it. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed this myself in the dozen or so reviews I’ve completed; my reviews often tend to be relatively long compared to those of the other reviewers, most of whom are presumably more senior. I imagine length of review is (very) loosely used as a proxy for quality of review by editors, since a longer review will generally be more comprehensive. But this probably says more about constraints on reviewers’ time than anything else. I don’t have grants to write and committees to sit on; my job consists largely of writing papers, collecting data, and playing the occasional video game keeping up with the literature.

Aside from time constraints, senior researchers probably also have less riding on a review than junior researchers do. A superficial review from an established researcher is unlikely to affect one’s standing in the field, but as someone with no reputation to speak of, I usually feel a modicum of pressure to do at least a passable job reviewing a paper. Not that reviews make a big difference (they are, after all, anonymous to all but the editors, and occasionally, the authors), but at this point in my career they seem like something of an opportunity, whereas I’m sure twenty or thirty years from now they’ll feel much more like an obligation.

Anyway, that’s all idle speculation. The real highlight of the Nature article is actually this gem:

Others are not so convinced that older reviewers aren’t wiser. “This is a quantitative review, which is fine, but maybe a qualitative study would show something different,” says Paul Hébert, editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal in Ottawa. A thorough review might score highly on the Annals scale, whereas a less thorough but more insightful review might not, he says. “When you’re young you spend more time on it and write better reports. But I don’t want a young person on a panel when making a multi-million-dollar decision.”

I think the second quote is on the verge of being reasonable (though DrugMonkey disagrees), but the first is, frankly, silly. Qualitative studies can show almost anything you want them to show; I thought that was precisely why we do quantitative studies…

[h/t: DrugMonkey]

creation! …and duplication.

So, I thought I was being clever, but apparently there are at least three other “citation needed” blogs. Curiously, all three have the same square parentheses (what do you call those things anyway?). Actually, strictly speaking, one of the citation neededs is an x[citation needed], and not just a [citation needed], so that’s technically a bit different. But I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of innovation quite yet, so for now I’m sticking with plain vanilla [citation needed]. Granted, it’s been done before, but originality is probably too much too expect in a blog named after the reflexive request for prior literature.