I just restumbled over the Daily Routines blog. The blog is about “how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days” and is basically just excerpts from interviews with famous creative folks. The blog appears to be “on hold” pending an upcoming book, but I definitely recommend pulling it up some lazy afternoon and working your way through how some of the most creative people around structure their days.
The Ecological Database Toolkit
Large amounts of ecological and environmental data are becoming increasingly available due to initiatives sponsoring the collection of large-scale data and efforts to increase the publication of already collected datasets. As a result, ecology is entering an era where progress will be increasingly limited by the speed at which we can organize and analyze data. To help improve ecologists’ ability to quickly access and analyze data we have been developing software that designs database structures for ecological datasets and then downloads the data, processes it, and installs it into several major database management systems (at the moment we support Microsoft Access, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite). The database toolkit system can substantially reduce hurdles to scientists using new databases, and save time and reduce import errors for more experienced users.
The database toolkit can download and install small datasets in seconds and large datasets in minutes. Imagine being able to download and import the newest version of the Breeding Bird Survey of North America (a database with 4 major tables and over 5 million records in the main table) in less than five minutes. Instead of spending an afternoon setting up the newest version of the dataset and checking your import for errors you could spend that afternoon working on your research. This is possible right now and we are working on making this possible for as many major public/semi-public ecological databases as possible. The automation of this process reduces the time for a user to get most large datasets up and running by hours, and in some cases days. We hope that this will make it much more likely that scientists will use multiple datasets in their analyses; allowing them to gain more rapid insight into the generality of the pattern/process they are studying.
We need your help
We have done quite a bit of testing on this system including building in automated tests based on manual imports of most of the currently available databases, but there are always bugs and imperfections in code that cannot be identified until the software is used in real world situations. That’s why we’re looking for folks to come try out the Database Toolkit and let us know what works and what doesn’t, what they’d like to see added or taken away, and if/when the system fails to work properly. So if you’ve got a few minutes to have half a dozen ecological databases automatically installed on your computer for you stop by the Database Toolkit page at EcologicalData.org, give it a try, and let us know what you think.
Some days I really wonder whether the bureaucratic infrastructure at institutions of higher education has any idea whatsoever that their job is to support the research and teaching missions of the university.
Successfully doing creative science is hard. The further along you get in a research career the more things are competing for your time and energy and the more distracted you are from your primary goals. This distraction becomes increasingly problematic when it distracts your subconscious as well as your conscious mind. A short post by Paul Graham does an excellent job of describing why this is the case and how you can manage access to that creative part of your brain. In particular he recommends minimizing the amount of time spent chasing money and being involved in disputes. These are both things that we end up doing a lot of in academia and in my experience Graham is right about their ability to consume the productive thought processes we rely on. I also love this quote from Newton:
I see I have made myself a slave to Philosophy, but if I get free of Mr Linus’s business I will resolutely bid adew to it eternally, excepting what I do for my private satisfaction or leave to come out after me. For I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new or become a slave to defend it.
(via James Horey)
If we embrace the fact that no one can or should ever care about the health of our passions… [Quote]
If we embrace the fact that no one can or should ever care about the health of our passions as much as we do, the practical decisions that help ensure Our Good Thing stays alive can become as “simple” as a handful of proven patterns—work hard, stay awake, fail well, hang with smart people, shed bullshit, say “maybe,” focus on action, and always always commit yourself to a bracing daily mixture of all the courage, honesty, and information you need to do something awesome—discover whatever it’ll take to keep your nose on the side of the ocean where the fresh air lives. This is huge.
– Merlin Mann
A great quote from an interesting article about Future-Proofing Your Passion that includes lots of great advice for young and old scientists alike.
Transient Theorist is planning on doing something with his Spring Break that most of us don’t do often enough – take a week to think. In the rush to do all of the things that have to be done, we often lose track of doing the things that are really important to our core mission – advancing scientific knowledge as quickly as possible. A large part of accomplishing this mission is taking the time to think, explore ideas, consider the broader contexts in which one’s interests lie and develop linkages beyond the narrow confines of one’s discipline. It also includes taking the time to develop new skills, be they in the lab or on the computer. These activities rarely have short-term benefits and they practically never have meaningful deadlines. As such, it is easy for them to be sacrificed for things that need to be done now. So, I’d suggest that you go read Theo’s post for inspiration (and check out some of the posts in the Study Hacks Primer), start saying no so that you have a chance to assign time to bigger things, and try to find at least a few days over this Spring Break to really think about where your science is going over the next year.
In a couple of days I’m participating in a panel to help young faculty be ready for their 3rd year review (the halfway step to tenure, which is kind of a big deal at my institution). This is the sort of thing that I normally say no to, but I’ve been to a couple of these things and I just couldn’t bear the thought of another group of young faculty being told that what they really needed to do to get tenure is to have a really spiffy tenure binder… so I’m going to talk about what they actually need to do to get tenure – get stuff done – and I thought it would be worth posting my thoughts on this here for broader consumption. This advice is targeted at assistant professors at research universities, but folks in other situations may be able to adapt it to their individual circumstances (e.g., if you’re at a small liberal arts college or other teaching centered school try swapping research and teaching below). Since the goal of the workshop is getting through the first phase of tenure, this is about what you need to do to accomplish that goal, not what you should be doing in any sort of broader philosophical sense. This advice is built on the lessons that Morgan (my wife and co-blogger for those of you new to JE; in fact she was so instrumental in developing these ideas that even though I’m using the first person singular this will be listed as a co-authored post) and I have learned during our time as assistant professors.