Detonation Aftermath

Sunday was a Big Day in Frankfurt. Next to the building where I work there is – or rather was – an ugly tower block, the AfE tower. We only move into our building last summer, and the whole time there has been building work on both side of us (on the other side of our building, workmen have been repeatedly digging an filling in the same hole). The AfE tower has been scheduled to be demolished, so a lot of prepatory work was needed, which mainly seemed to involve making loud noises, and even cutting our network cables, so that for a couple of weeks this was our connection to the internet:
Our connection to the outside world

The big day arrived when the tower was to be brought down arrived on Sunday. There was a nifty animation that showed how it would be done: first blow off the outside, and then bring down the main part of the tower, in two pieces.

The lower piece was aimed right at our building (my office is on the other side; the labs would take most of the damage of the bottom half of 32 floors of brutalist architecture falling on top of it), so we had lots of preparation to do: wrap half of the building, turn almost everything off (our servers are in the main Senckenberg building, which is only about 100m up the road), and make sure nobody is in the building on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning I was 4.8km away, as the google maps, streaming the live coverage from Hessischer Rundfunk over the web. All went well – we even heard the sound live, a couple of seconds after the building went down. Although all of the humans were outside an exclusion area, the Senckenberg’s T. rex was allowed to stay inside (would you argue with him?), so he managed to catch this footage from a camera that seems to be attached to his left leg:

Sunday afternoon was busy for some people, running around checking that everything was OK. Our building was intact – there wasn’t even any dust in my office, even though there was a lot outside a couple of hundred metres away:

And this is the remains of the AfE tower:

Now we just have to suffer the sounds of this pile of wreckage being taken away. And then they’ll probably insist on fiulling the space with a new post-Brutalist tower.

Posted in Aaaaaagh, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

This week, in Frankfurt

This morning the latest blog post on the Grauniad’s science pages was the annual complaint about crap news stories about ‘Blue Monday’. I’ve no idea if these stories have reached Germany (and there doesn’t seem to be anything about it in the Frankfurter Rundshau), but surely it can’t be a coincidence that this week Frankfurt Messe, our exhibition centre, is hosting Christmasworld this week. It even has its own professionally made sales video, with all the emotional impact of a slushy snowball:

And not content with that, they’re also hosting Paperworld and Creativeworld this week too. So we can look forward to a full week of fun festive origami!

Unfortunately we have to wait until October for Cleanzone to get rid of the mess.

Posted in Silliness | 2 Comments

Come and work with me in Frankfurt!

BiK-F logo

We’ve got an EXCITING(!) EXHILARATING(!!) ENTERTAINING(!!!) EXASPERATING(!V) opportunity for someone wanting to do a post-doc in Frankfurt, working in the Data and Modelling group here at BiK-F. I’ll be one of the people supervising the project. The official announcement is here (pdf), and below. Although it’s initially for about 15 months, there’s a reasonable chance of getting an extension, depending on how things go.

Of course, I think Frankfurt is a great place to work. BiK-F is an institute connected to the Senckenberg museum, and the Goethe university. The project itself is part of a German project to create a biodiversity database for German research: this part is to show that such a database would actually be useful.

The full advert follows. Feel free to ask about this in the comments below.
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Posted in Ecology, Science Blogging, Statistics | 4 Comments

The most pathetic journal spam yet

After the Bohannon fun, we’re all more aware of predatory publishers trying to get our money to publish any old crap. You would have thought they would have been aware of his, and at least made an attempt to look more legit. Well, apparently not. I jut got this unsolicited spam in my email:

Dear Colleague,


Pinnacle Journal Publishes peer-reviewed, open access journals covering a wide range of academic disciplines.

We invite you to submit your research paper for publication in PINNACLE JOURNALS. Send your paper via e-mail attachment only to:


Pinnacle Journal Publication

Note: To opt-out from our email list, simply send a blank message with STOP as subject.

Impressive, no? Not even a web page. This may have come from Pinnacle Journal Publication, but the email came from a domain (which is, apparently, a US internet provider), and the gmail submission address just shouts professionalism, doesn’t it?

Ah well, at least it amused me for a few minutes.

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How old is your method?

Over on the Methods in Ecology & Evolution blog, Sam (our Assistant Editor) has just put up a podcast she edited from interviews made by Barb Anderson at Intecol this year. She wandered the meeting with a sonic screwdriver asking assorted ecologists to talk about the methods they use – the oldest, the newest, and what method they would want to see invented. The results are here:

Old Methods
(which, alas does not seem to give the full Soundcloud plugin experience on this page. Poo.)

and check the MEE blog post for a list of who said what.
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Posted in Ecology, Silliness | 4 Comments

Attack Budgies: leaks from the secret labs of GrrlScientist

This morning I was gravely offended by being described as an “attack parrot”. The offender’s mitigation was that he had originally wanted to call me an “attack budgie”, but had refrained, presumably because he thought an attack budgie sounded less threatening.

Now, it’s little known but a few years ago GrrlScientist actually experimented with breeding attack budgies. They sound all cute and harmless, and indeed on their own they are. But it is as a group they are the menace Grrl requires for her work.
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Posted in Friday Fun, Silliness | 4 Comments

Simple models can lead to generality in ecology

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s always nice to read a paper that is obviously wrong, but where you have to think about why it is wrong. Because it makes you, well, think. And sometimes learn something new. So when I see a paper in TREE with the title “Do simple Models lead to generality in ecology?“, it’s clear that it’s going to answer “no”, and that I’m going to disagree.

In there paper, Evans and a plethora of co-author present this argument:

[W]e argue that there is usually a trade-off between simplicity and generality, such that simpler models are, all other things being equal, less general than are complex models. For example, a nonlinear population growth equation such as dN/dt = αN + βX1+a represents a large family of models, the members of which correspond to the constant parameters α and β being set to particular values (whereas a can take any value). If β is set to zero, we obtain a simpler linear equation, dN/dt = αN. Obviously, the nonlinear equation includes the linear one as a special case. Thus, the more complex equation represents a larger family of models than the linear ones and, therefore, is more general. It can pick out all the real systems that are described by the linear equation plus a range of others.
(I have slightly changed the equation from what the authors presented, to make my argument clearer. I think the original argument is unchanged, though)

i.e. simple models are less general because they cover less of the model space. Which is odd, because I think this is precisely why a simpler model is more general.
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Posted in Ecology, Research Blogging | 11 Comments

Off to the other side of the world

This is just a brief announcement to explain that as this publishes I should be off on my travels again. This time I’m going further than ever before (no, I’m not travelling by standing on the shoulders of giants). I’m off to…
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Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

On the Evolution of Camouflage in Urban Environments

One of my offices is in the Geozentrum in the Goethe University here in Frankfurt. This morning this was on the side of the building:
Today's Mystery Bird
I only saw it because it was flapping about a bit in the wind. If you can’t ID it, then here’s a cropped photo:
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Posted in Silliness | 5 Comments

Making reviewing boring stuff less boring

Over at the Scholarly Kitchen, everyone’s favourite source material for winding up OA advocates, Phil Davis asked about something only tangentially related: Do Uninteresting Papers Really Need Peer Review?

In it he lays out a view that is perhaps selfish, but understandably so. He outlines why he only agrees to review few papers, and what sort he will review:

For me to accept an invitation to review, a paper has to report novel and interesting results. If it has been circulated as a preprint on arXiv, then I don’t benefit from seeing it a second time as a reviewer. Similarly, the paper must also pique my interest in some way. Reviewing a paper that is reporting well-known facts (like documenting the growth of open access journals, for instance) is just plain boring. Test a new hypothesis, apply a new analytical technique to old data, or connect two disparate fields, and you’ll get my attention and my time.

The only other category of manuscripts that I’ll accept for review are those that are so biased or fatally flawed that it would be a disservice to the journal or to the community to allow them to be published. These papers must really have the potential to do harm (by distorting the literature or making a mockery of the journal) for me to review them.

Which; I guess, means he’s only interested in reviewing a small percentage of papers that come his way. As a journal editor, I find this attitude worrying, but as a potential reviewer, I understand it perfectly: there is only so much time in the day, so I don’t really want to spend it reading boring manuscripts (a plea: if you find yourself wanting to not review a manuscript, please suggest another victim, e.g. a post-doc or senior grad student. That really helps me, and whoever gets to review gets experience).

Davis’ solution to the problem is to suggest that a boring paper doesn’t need to be reviewed fully:

Perhaps all that is needed is to send null and confirmational results through perfunctory editorial review. These articles may only require passing a checklist of required elements before being published in a timely fashion. The result may be a cheaper and faster route to publication, and for some kinds of publications, this is exactly the desired outcome.

As an editor, my reaction to this is “eek”. In the comments, Kent Anderson lays out an important complication:

The purpose of peer review is both to improve the paper and to help it find the right outlet.

But let’s not kid ourselves — not every paper needs to be peer reviewed as rigorously as some, and there is no single thing called “peer review.”

Finding the right outlet is something that editors can certainly help with through a perfunctory review. At Methods in Ecology & Evolution, we receive quite a few papers that are not suited to us, and I try to suggest alternative outlets. But improving a paper is something that often needs more time: someone who knows the areas has to read a paper more carefully, and look for areas where it can be improved. As an editor, I often don’t have enough knowledge about these areas, which is why we ask reviewers.

But I am also sympathetic towards reviewers who agree to review a paper that turns out to be boring papers. The sorts of papers Davis is discussing are ones that are boring because they replicate other work, without adding much novel. So they are a priori identifiable as not terribly exciting, but worthy, and this should influence the choice of which journal the paper is sent to. In particular, somewhere like the Journal of Negative Results – Ecology & Evolutionary Biology might be a typical choice. But given that we already know such a paper is going to be difficult to find reviewers, and is also not going to have a huge impact, can we not try to make them more palatable for readers, without compromising on the reporting of the work? My feeling is soo 2008: Yes, we can.

Most papers we receive at JNR are written like standard papers: an introduction that lays out the problem and the literature, the methods describing a sanitised version of what was done, the results, and finally a discussion explaining why this work is so important that Nature should have accepted it at once. My feeling is that we could improve the readability of papers if we cut down the introduction and discussion massively. This is especially so when the paper is a replication: the intro could be pretty much “We repeat the seminarsemolina work of Gee & Grant, but in the Greater Rumple Horned Snorkack. Read their paper for why this is so interesting”. And the discussion could be similarly brief: “We found similar results, but with a stronger effect of Ewok urine. This might be because of the smaller size of the Greater Rumple Horned Snorkack.” There is probably no need to explain why this is important for global warming: if it was that important, either someone else will have already said it, or you would be publishing the work in a journal with a higher impact factor, like PLOS One.

Would this help? I guess if we told potential reviewers the word count, it might. It also might help to get more negative results published, by making the barrier to writing them up lower. Would losing the text harm science? The only harm I can see is that students writing up negative results might not learn to put their work in context, but one would hope that not all of thesis is like this, and if that was seen as a problem, extra discussion could be added to the thesis rather than the paper.

Is this something we should try at JNR-EEB? And for those of you not in ecology or evolutionary biology, does this sound familiar, or is the tedium of the discussion section one only we face?

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments