I was going to turn the page black and just have that flag in the middle, but the General is right. You should also read Glenn (also here), hilzoy (also here), Scott and Bora.
Seriously, read those links: it’s a short list, deliberately so. If you want more, Bora has another good list here. Update: read this too.
I came to this country to be with my wife, and I’d have gone anywhere for that reason alone. But I was actively pleased to be becoming an American, because I’ve always had the sense that (beneath a conspicuous layer of buffoonery) the US had a core of decency, of values that were in accord with my own. This is the country whose constitution is the model and gold standard for democracies everywhere, a country literally born of a war for religious and political freedom. This is my home now. George W Bush, if he is not stopped, will destroy it. I’m going to do what I can to stop him.

Ray: thanks man, I needed that.

Ray wrote this little song for his daughter, who is having a hard time at work. I hope it gave the young lady in question as much of a lift as it did me.
Ze Frank has a couple of dozen remixes in this gallery; I like Brother Klez’s Feel-The-Spirit Revival Mix, Psycho Dragon Joe’s HateMyJob Club Mix and the Portishead-Style Mix, but the original file is still my favourite.
Thanks, Ray.

Free the Tripoli Six

I don’t know what my tens of readers can do that Nature‘s millions (?) of readers can’t, but Declan and everybody else is right — we have to try.
Briefly: five nurses and a physician are in danger of being executed by Libya for deliberately infecting children with HIV while working at al-Fateh Hospital in Benghazi in 1998. The court rejected an investigation by Luc Montagnier and Vittorio Colizzi (full report here, pdf) which found that the infections were in fact caused by poor hospital practices. The science is being ignored in favour of the political expediency of blaming some foreigners for an internal problem (the nurses are Bulgarian, the doctor Pakistani). The Libyans are not the only parties guilty of racism here: can you imagine the outcry if the nurses were, say, British and the doctor American?
This is utterly unacceptable to law, science and common decency. Please do what you can. I’ve swiped the contact information below from Mike; in addition to letters/faxes/phone calls to the people he suggests, consider supporting Advocats Sans Frontieres and, if you have a blog, writing about the case (as Bora suggests, make sure you have the words “Tripoli Six” in your entry so that Google/Technorati etc will pick it up).
People to contact:

1: Libya. This is probably going to be the least
effective, but it’s still worth a try – and you never know, it might
just work. The Libyans have invested a huge amount of effort in trying
to regain international respect, so there’s at least a small chance
that they might be responsive.

I’d suggest mailing letters to a Libyan embassy. For Americans, the best choice would be the Libyan UN Mission.
Mission of Libya to the United Nations
309 – 315 East 48th Street,
New York, NY 10017

The phone number for the UN mission is: (212) 752-5775

Email: The Center for Nursing Advocacy has an online form and form letter.
The email address that they are using is: libya@un.int I have not used
that address myself, and cannot vouch for whether or not it works.

2: Your own Congresscritters.
Get in touch with your own representatives. Feel free to remind them
that you vote in their districts (if this is true.) Contact them even
if their political views are totally opposed to your own, and
particularly if they also sit on a key committee.

As long as you know your zip code, this website will quickly provide you with the contact information for your representatives.

3: Key congressional committees.

Contact the majority and minority leaders of the House Committee on
International Relations and the Senate Foreign Relations Committees.

Committee Chair: Richard Lugar
Ranking Member: Joseph Biden

Mailing Address:
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-6225

Majority Phone: (202) 224-4651
Minority Phone: (202) 224-3953

Chair: Henry Hyde
Ranking Member: Tom Lantos

Mailing Address:
House Committee on International Relations
2170 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Other contacts:
Phone: (202) 225-5021
Fax: (202) 225-2035
E-Mail: HIRC@mail.house.gov

4: Executive Branch Officials.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Main Switchboard:

President George Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Comments: 202-456-1111
Switchboard: 202-456-1414
FAX: 202-456-2461

How to hold an effective (lab) meeting.

Lab meetings are an unavoidable part of lab life. I’ve worked or studied in seven labs in two countries, and in all of them a regular, usually weekly, meeting was part of normal lab function; I’d venture to say that it’s pretty much a universal. The format doesn’t change much from lab to lab, either. The “body” of the meeting consists of either everyone presenting a quick rundown of what they’ve been doing, or one person presenting their latest work in more detail, and general lab business is an “anyone got anything?” sort of affair tacked on at the beginning or end. No one has a defined role, there is no agenda, no records are kept. And then, of course, everyone complains about wasting time in lab meeting.
This entry was prompted by our (Hurlin lab) meeting on Friday, where we complained about wasting time and talked about ways to improve our meetings. It struck me that if you’re going to do something 50-odd times a year, you might as well get good at it, and with our meeting format currently being overhauled this is the perfect chance for me to try things out. I’m going to go over this with the spousal unit, who is something of an organization junkie/expert, and I’m hoping that the Lazyweb will chime in as well. I’d be very interested to hear about what works, or doesn’t work, in your lab meetings.
So why do we even have lab meetings? There seem to be three basic functions — that is, three things we want to achieve. First, it’s a chance to get everyone together for announcements, organization and joint decisions: do we need more gel rigs, who’s going to be the new safety officer, that kind of thing. Second, it’s a way to keep everyone, particularly the PI, in touch with everyone’s projects. Finally, it’s a way to get everyone’s feedback on your project and any problems you might be having — to get the combined lab brainpower focused on one question or set of questions.
Most of the information on the web relates to (*shudder*) corporate meetings, but I’ve picked out the bits I thought were applicable to lab meetings. Fwiw, here are most of the sites I used to put this list together.
1. Make sure you need a meeting.
Given the functions I listed above, we need the meetings, but perhaps not weekly? Would monthly be too infrequent? What about every two weeks? It probably depends on the size of the lab and how much time the PI spends actually in it, but for most labs I guess weekly meetings are best. Also, should we try to accomodate all three functions in one meeting, or would we be better off splitting the “admin” and “research” functions? Since “admin” doesn’t usually take much time, I think the fewer meetings the better.
2. Start on time and end on time.
Nearly every site I read emphasizes these two points, and that timekeeping is crucial. Another common suggestion is to give people defined roles, including facilitator (see below) and timekeeper. In small meetings, I guess these two roles could be combined, but there might be benefit in keeping them separate.
The question this raises for me is, how long should a lab meeting be? Ours start at 09:30 and can easily stretch until 12:00, which more or less wipes out half a day. I think lab business should take no more than 20 minutes (and often much less), which leaves presentations. One way to get them down to a more reasonable time might be to make them a bit less informal than we currently do (photocopied pages out of someone’s lab notes are not uncommon!). If the presentations were more structured, they could more easily adhere to a time limit. I think I’ll suggest that it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to present your last 6 weeks’ worth of work, especially if you focus on questions you want answered by the lab Hive Mind. Supposing that questions and discussion take up a full hour, that’s still a two hour meeting.
3. Have an agenda.
For a lab meeting, I think this means something more like set a format:

  • Lab business first or last? (Last, so there’s incentive not to drag it out. We currently do it first, and tend to yap.)
  • Who will speak?– one person at a time, or several, or everybody? I think this depends on the size of the lab. We have 6 people, so if only one person speaks we each present every 6 weeks. I think this is about right, but some of my coworkers would like to get the Hive Mind’s and Peter’s undivided attention more often.
  • Should each presenter follow a general outline, so that talks have a structure? As above, I think so — it will help keep the presenter and the meeting focused on what we’re trying to achieve. I think I’ll suggest something along the lines of: background (what project is this again?), current results, problems, future plans.

4. Keep minutes.
Another nearly universal recommendation. Minutes can be used to start the meeting with action items from last meeting, which can be useful to nudge people along with their commitments. (In the same vein, action items should always come with an attached Person Responsible.) Minutes should be archived in a communal place (like our shared disc drive), so that everyone can refer back and you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. Keeper-of-the-Minutes is another role, like timekeeper and facilitator, that needs to be assigned or rotated.
5. End the meeting with a summary.
Mostly for lab business: what are we going to do? Who is going to do it?
6. Get feedback on whether the format is working.
We’ll be experimenting with these ideas over the next few months, so it will be important to keep track of what’s working. (I’ll report back here.)
7. Facilitation is crucial.
Universally acknowledged, and may well be the most important point. Having someone to keep everything on track seems to be critical for what I am trying to achieve here: avoiding timewasting. Some ideas that seem good to me:

  • the facilitator shouldn’t take sides on an issue, but strive to find out what the consensus is (may be difficult in small meetings)
  • the role of facilitator could be rotated around, so everyone shares the task (and if someone should prove to be especially good at it, they could take it up permanently)
  • a good way to avoid sidetracks is to have a sheet of paper or whiteboard on which to “park” deferred topics
  • a good way to encourage lurkers and dampen the dominant is to go round-robin and get everyone’s feedback as a way of finalizing a topic

So, that’s my first pass at improving lab meetings. Any ideas, Lazyweb?

When life gives you melons…

Breasts, breasts, breasts, breasts, breasts.
Breasts, breasts, breasts.
Breasts, breasts, breasts, breasts, breasts, breasts, breasts!
Breasts, breasts, breasts.
Breasts, breasts!
There. Now, if Ann Outhouse wants to accuse someone of using breasts to drive traffic to a blog, let her accuse me!
It’s a shame about BoobGate, because Terrance has a more interesting point to make, but except for one noteworthy outbreak of vileness it seems to have been (uh-huh, uh-huh) overshadowed by Jessica’s breasts.
(Title shamelessly stolen from Ann.)

Gone fishin’

OK, not really. I don’t fish (why would I? I don’t eat ’em). But I will be away for the next three days, including away from email and the internets. I’ll be here if you desperately need me, but it had better be an emergency.
Be good to each other, ‘k?

The cold equations; or, suppose I were a selfish jerk…

Zuska has chimed in on Chad’s pipeline problem post, about which I had my say below. Once again, I’m not going to address the substance of the post, except to say: I already said what I thought Chad got wrong, and to that extent I agree with Zuska; however, I also think Zuska should lay off Chad some, as much by way of realpolitik as anything else (see Rob Knop in Zuska’s comments).
Instead, I want to take up something that Lab Lemming said in comments:

At the risk of becoming an advocate for the white, male devil, what is the incentive for those of us who are white male repressors to change our wicked ways? More competition? Removal from our comfort zones? Fulfillment of somebody else’s abstract cause? Obviously disadvantaged people have an incentive to level the playing field, but why should we traditionally privileged Americans make it easier for them?

It’s an interesting point: why should I, a straight white male, actively try to undermine my many privileges? I have, and will have, no children, nor do I believe in any kind of life after death. My interest in this world stretches, at most, another hundred years or so.
Even if a level playing field meant maximally efficient use of “human capital”, such that a world without prejudice would be better even for straight white men than the world we have now, we won’t have a world without prejudice in a hundred years. Whatever steps we might make towards that goal in my lifetime will probably serve only to decrease my advantage.
Even if I had children, it might be argued that I could best provide for them not by working for a more level playing field but by making sure they got a damn good head start (which I could most easily do by maximizing my own advantage). The same could be said of my wife, for whom I could perhaps best provide by taking full advantage of the slope of the playing field, and whose own best bet might even be to work towards her material ends through me.
The same could not be said, however, for all of my female relatives and friends. These are people about whose welfare I care (for my own selfish reasons!), but for whom I cannot plausibly “provide” — even if I were filthy rich, they’re not going to want my charity. If I want them to prosper, I should do what I can to eliminate sexist obstacles in their way.
Further, even supposing I were to provide for the material wants of any female I favor, not all of most people’s goals are necessarily material. If what my wife wants is a scientific career, for instance, I cannot buy that for her; nor will she be satisfied with a position obtained through my influence. I will do best by her if I work towards a culture of science which does not disadvantage women.
(One might argue for a completely selfish viewpoint whereby I need not bother with the interests of anyone but myself. That way lies an empty, materialistic pyschopathology that I am not going to bother rebutting. My interests necessarily include those of at least a small circle of other people.)
There are at least two further objections to the idea that my best interest lies with the status quo. To the extent that a rising tide lifts all boats, I stand to benefit from social improvements that come about from a level playing field. Advocates of a free market should find this idea congenial, that having the best person in any given position regardless of sex (or race, or whatever else) will maximize the efficiency with which society utilizes the available talent. Thus the idea I put forward above, that movement towards equality will only disadvantage me, is not true: I stand to lose my unfair advantage but also to gain from improved social conditions.
Finally, and this is an idea that seems to escape the sociopathic weaselpack currently in charge of this country, there’s no guarantee that we Straight White Men can keep the upper hand we have currently got. As Rob Knop puts it in Zuska’s comments, what happens if the tables turn? You better believe we will be squealing our heads off for equal opportunity then.
So, even on the most selfish view that seems plausible to me — narrowing down my social and family circles, excluding children or any kind of afterlife and not even accounting for any value I might place on doing good or living according to principle — it is at least defensible on rational grounds for me to work against those prejudices which currently favour me. If nothing else, when the revolution comes my cries of “Comrade! We are victorious!” won’t ring quite so hollow.

(Update: apologies to Rob Knop for misspelling his name.)

So what can I do?

Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad is a bit frustrated with some of the discourse around the Pipeline Problem (that is, why are so few women retained in higher positions in science?):

One of the things that ends up bothering me about the discussion of how to get more women in science is that it tends to focus on the college and professional level. Everybody seems to have an anecdote about a creepy physics professor, or an unpleasant graduate student, or a sexist post-doc.
This bugs me for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that I’m a college physics professor, and I’m not that guy. I’m not fool enough to try to deny that unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession, but I’m not one of them, and neither are my immediate colleagues, and sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me.

Now, Chad’s larger point is about intervention earlier in the pipeline; I largely agree, but I want to focus on something else:

sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me

I’m a postdoc, and I try not to be That Asshole. When someone says something that effectively lumps me in with Those Assholes, I have an algorithm that allows me to avoid taking it personally:

  1. whatever cogent criticisms of sexist behaviour this person is making, do they in fact apply to me?
  2. if yes, fix problem (that is, fix self)
  3. if no, do said criticisms apply to anyone around me, or the environment I work in?
  4. if yes, how do I fix that? can the person making the criticisms also give me constructive advice?
  5. if no, there would appear to be nothing I can do here but be pointlessly offended, therefore *shrug*

Here’s my point, and I think it’s an important and somewhat underappreciated one: I think that not taking such things personally is one of the most important things I can do about the fact that “unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession”. Allowing the people who bear the brunt of said pigs’ actions to vent without shutting them down just because “hey, I’m not like that” is a way to contribute to an anti-pig environment. I think of it this way:

Angry Female Scientist: my fucking profession is riddled with sexist assholes! Jesus fuck! I hate you bastards!
Male Option 1: I’m not like that/don’t generalize, you’ll alienate your allies/don’t be so emotional/etc
(This translates “shut up and keep your place”, not just immediately in the AFS’s mind but in a larger sense, in which an angry woman is immediately confronted, dismissed, argued with and ultimately ignored. Think about what happens when a man gets angry and makes overly general statements; he generally gets cut some slack, or at least left to vent.)
Male Option 2: Dude1, what happened? Did I do something?
(This translates “I accept that there’s a problem, that you have a right and a reason to be angry; I’m on your side, go ahead and vent, maybe tell me how I can help”.

I prefer MO2. I don’t want to be That Asshole, and I don’t want Those Assholes to feel free to be assholes in my presence. So I speak out, and when someone else speaks out — especially if it’s an AFS — I try to figure out if they’re legitimately mad at me and if they’re not, I let ’em vent and don’t take it personally. It’s healthy: there should be a hint of anger in the air, when women are still being raped on the job.
I’d rather be That Humorless Liberal than That Asshole.
P.S. Further to Chad’s opening point, it does indeed seem that everyone has an anecdote about some sexist creep or other. I take that as an indication that there are way too many sexist creeps in my profession: those stories don’t make themselves up.
1American for “mate”; like “mate”, has become a unisex term.


stolenfromrob.jpg Rob Helpy Chalk is a philosopher and a teacher and has a brain approximately the size of a planet (note: not a pluton), so I am very pleased to see that he’s interested in scientific communication. I’ll weigh in on his ideas later, when I have some time, but I’m posting this now to alert people I think will be interested. If you read me at all, you will probably be interested in Rob’s thoughts on scientific communication and I’d really like it if you’d take a look at the linked post and give Rob some feedback. This has all the makings of a fun, useful conversation.
Comments are off here, go talk to Rob. Mind you don’t put links in your comments though, his spam filter has got teeth. The comment I tried to post is below the cut; I’ll wait until tomorrow and try again if it still hasn’t appeared. it’s now up at Rob’s post. PZ Myers’ comment thread also has some good stuff.
Update: Arunn of Nonoscience has put together an alternative chart and generated even more good discussion.

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