Sixes and Sevens

It’s all been rather unsettling but I guess that’s life these days.

Moving the blog to its new home was a bit more fraught than I had been anticipating. Though I can piece together a rationale for Nature Network’s rather precipitate decision to change the locks, I’ve not really had a satisfactory explanation from them for their actions. I have been surprised at how disturbing this has been to me over the past week but I guess it will come soon enough to be seen as a trivial episode.

Time to unpack

In the meantime there is the physical and technical reality of moving the blog to cope with. It’s a bit like moving house. If you look down the side-bar on the right hand side you will see that I have imported my archive of blogs from Nature Network. However, as with moving house, dumping the boxes in your new living room is not the end of the job. You still have to unpack them and that’s what I’m now trying to sort out.

My more recent posts — those written since March 2010 when Nature Network switched to Movable Type 4 — were imported more or less smoothly but earlier ones are still wrapped in a heavy layer of Textile markup code, making them a bit ugly to look at. So I suggest you don’t, at least for the time being.

I am on the case but it may take a little time to sort this out. If you have expertise in Textile to HTML conversion I’d be glad to hear from you.

At the lab, where the science is supposed to be happening it has been a difficult time. Few will be unaware of the redundancies announced by the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College where I work. Though not affected most directly, those of us who remain on the staff are inevitably perturbed by events of this kind. (I hope it will be obvious that I cannot discuss the specifics of the situation here.)

In the midst of this I am trying to write another grant application. Of necessity — I won’t bore you with all the other things that I have been trying to get done — this one has come together rather late in the day and I am unsure whether I can meet the 5th January deadline. Going for it will mean a major disruption of Christmas with my family. Having messed up Easter with an earlier application, I am reluctant to put them through the same thing again. But needs must. Mustn’t they?

In the few quiet moments that I can snatch on my commute I have recently been reading Greg Petsko’s column at Genome Biology, which is available as an eBook for Kindle, iPad or iPhone.

Petsko is a protein crystallographer (like myself) and works at Brandeis. I was already aware of his scientific output. Indeed, I suspect we probably sat in the same seminar rooms while I was working in Boston in the 1990s. I only came across his column recently when a piece (A Faustian Bargain) that he had written as a letter attacking the decision of the President of the State University of New York at Albany to close several of its humanities departments was flagged up on Twitter. It was articulate, passionate and struck a chord with many people.

From there I found my way to his back catalogue and have gone all the way back to 2000 to start from the beginning. Although I found his Faustian Bargain letter a little overblown, I have warmed to the easy style and clear intelligence of his writing. I’ve not read many yet, so I may eventually tire of articles that have to maintain some link to genomics. But so far so good.

A column entitled Perpetual Motion of the Worst Kind seems particularly relevant to some of the malaise I am experiencing:

“If I could change one thing about modern science, it would be this constant busyness. It robs us of so many things: the peaceful contemplation of our results; the time to get to know our students better; the challenge of planning an experiment carefully instead of just rushing to get more data; the simple joy of working with our own hands. It exhausts us, emotionally as well as intellectually and physically. And genomics is only going to make it worse, if in no other way than simply by increasing the pressure for more results, faster. If we don’t do something about it soon, we will wake up one morning to find that science has become work instead of fun. (And personally, I’ve never wanted to work for a living.)”

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25 Responses to Sixes and Sevens

  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    I’m still sorting things out from my move more than a year ago (and subsequent renovations), so you’re absolutely right – delivery of goods isn’t the end of the move by any means.

    I managed to miss the en masse departure from NN till after it was over (have sort of caught up now), but was interested in it not so much from the vicarious ‘fight fight’ perspective but because this is the second major dustup amongst science blogging networks in the last half (last third? quarter?) of 2010. I’ve had invites to join blogging networks and have considered them. Something’s always intervened – usually a new project or client – so I’ve never got around to doing it. In retrospect, I’m glad I haven’t. My view has always been that I’ve got two blogs for which I’m not doing a very good job of creating content on a consistent basis, and I would just feel more pressure to generate content if I joined a network (I do have days on which I muse that a blog called ‘No Thought Left Unexpressed’ would capture the zeitgeist perfectly).

    This has been a good lesson for me though in terms of building profile for clients. Joining a high profile network has definite pros in terms of quickly building a readership and putting yourself on the blogging/social media map. The troubles you’re having getting your previous posts sorted out is just one of the cons, and I think on the whole I’m going to stick to advising clients to maintain control of their own content, even if takes a couple of years to build their blog readership and social media presence.

  2. cromercrox says:

    I think Petsko is right to bemoan the constant ‘busyness’. But whence does it emanate? From my perspective as a longtime editor at your favourite weekly professional science journal beginning with N, things have just gotten steadily busier. More and more scientists send us more and more manuscripts, which are more and more complicated (with supplementary information and other bells and widgets), and yet we (rightly) maintain the same pagination, which means that competition is fiercer. Doing things online rather than snailmail makes things quicker, but this only seems to increase the demand for rapid turnround – you can bet that authors of manuscripts submitted on Christmas Eve will complain that their ms hasn’t been peer-reviewed by New Year’s Day. Referees rightly complain of demands on their time, especially now that journals are proliferating, so that we editors take even more care in deciding which of the manuscripts we receive to send for review… the result being that we get a lot of appeals. nd so it goes. But who will dare to be the first to say ‘stop the world I want to get off’?

  3. Heather says:

    Stop the world; I want to get off.

    Well, but I am having some fun during parts of the ride, as well. So I won’t opt for the ultimate out as just yet, perhaps waiting to be flung off rather, instead.

    Eloquent post as ever, Stephen. It’s definitely unsettling to be so unsettled, and the time of year is really not helping. I sympathize more than I can say, but having kept your company for a while now I can say with confidence that you will meet these challenges with your usual aplomb and wry humo(u)r. And things will settle down once more, as you know they shall.

  4. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your comment Ruth. For me it was certainly a good thing to start blogging on NN because if I’d set up shop on my own, I’m sure I would soon have given up. The main advantages of NN were a ready-made audience and a existing network of bloggers to try and keep up with, which I’m sure kept me going and was a bit of a game-raiser.

    I don’t think there necessarily had to be an exodus from NN but there are interesting questions to be asked about the fit between blogging – an independent-mined activity par excellence – and the demands of a large publishing corporation. But if you want to build profile from starch, it’s probably still tough to do that on your own.

    @Henry – as usual, you have got straight to the nub of the matter. Who indeed has the courage to step forward and say “Enough!”. Petsko’s rather original proposal was for all academics to take February off from all the routine admin, teaching and research activities and spend those four precious weeks thinking and reflecting about our research. However, he recognised that it would have to be enforced by rather draconian measures.

    I wish I had the guts to seize control. I met a scientist earlier this year who had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the strain of trying to get a paper into a high-impact journal. This person now works part time and is much happier as a result. Tempting.

    • cromercrox says:

      We find August a miserable time. Editors have to do their own work while covering for colleagues who are on vacation or at conferences, and it’s practically impossible to find referees because they are … on vacation or at conferences. Or doing field work. A colleague once suggested that we simply close the office in August. Anything submitted in August would just have to wait. I do wonder whether this would really be such a bad thing. Would our competitor journals take advantage of this, leading to an inexorable decline in our fortunes? My feeling is that competitor journals would follow suit. But it would be a big risk, being first. Thinks: must raise it with the Editor in Chief. After all, one of the reasons he pays me is that I am a rich source of mad visionary ideas …

      • Stephen says:

        Good luck with that!

        Actually I remember seeing a TED talk from a New York based designer who regularly shut his office to allow himself and his employees time off to refresh. Must see if I can dig out the link.

        • cromercrox says:

          Most of my colleagues seem to have been working at home today, prevented from commuting by the snow. And yet the world didn’t come to an end. I wonder what this portends …?

  5. Stephen says:

    @Heather – you comment was stuck in the waiting room (for the first and only time) as I was responding to Ruth and Henry. Thank you for your warm and wise words.

    I’m sure you’re right. I suspect I may be spending too much time in my office hunched over papers and a computer keyboard. Though I do like the scholarly aspect of science – the digging up of facts – I should probably get out more – at least to traipse the corridors – and not sit stewing.

    • Bob O'H says:

      That makes you sound like one of those professors – the one who appears at the lab door every 6 months. The denizens usually get a warning, after which one unfortunate soul is dispatched to side-track the professor, whilst the rest get the lab cleaned, and try to find their lab books, so they can look like they’re busy at work.

      You’ll notice that the experienced lab hands don’t write a year on the dates in their book.

      • Stephen says:

        I’m not that bad (though you’ll have to ask the people in my group for their opinion).

        And I insist on dated notebook entries!

  6. steffi suhr says:

    The entire world is going to fast!! I’ve run out of steam for the rest of the year, and out of cleverness and creativity as well. I’ve ordered a new batch for 2011. Too bad I still have a ton of stuff to do this year – ah well, it’ll just have to be second-rate.

    The very best of luck with the proposal, Stephen. And don’t worry about messing up Christmas for the family – being a pastor’s daughter, I have many fond memories of helping with the preparations for the big easter service and not getting to open presents until after the collection from the last Christmas service was counted and locked away….

  7. Stephen says:

    @Steffi – as my mother-in-law likes to say, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” Seems counter-intuitive at first but there is plenty of good sense in this philosophy. Trouble is, I don’t think it’s a winning strategy for grant applications.

    It sounds like, as a pastor’s daughter, you had a huge reserves of patience and understanding. I’m sure my kids will understand – it’s just that I don’t really want to put them to the test. Maybe I should give up sleeping…

    • steffi suhr says:

      It sounds like, as a pastor’s daughter, you had a huge reserves of patience and understanding.
      New Year’s resolution: I will give up on irony.

  8. Jenny says:

    Stephen, can you at least work on the grant in the living room surrounded by your family with a nice glass of port over the holidays? I spend far too much time at home working, but at least it’s sort of nice to be with the ones you love, even if you can’t devote 100% of your attention to them.

    Being stuck in the office/lab is another matter.

    • Stephen says:

      I wil be able to do some of it at home but will have to squirrel myself away to avoid distractions. I’m simply unable to work surrounded by other people. Or when drunk.

      Will try to pop out of my home office from time to time…

  9. Tideliar says:

    nice post Stephen.

    Leraving the lab for me was a mixed bag – I desperately miss ‘doing’ science, although not necessarily the hands on experimental side. I don’t think i was very good at that bit of it really; but the thoughtful, researching, Holmsian quest for facts and details to string together That illusive and ultimately rewarding “AHA!” moment.

    but what I’ve gained instead is a more normal 40-ish hr work week, much less stress and a chance to *do* things I never had a chance to do before. Join a gym, hang out with friends, take trips. Far more often now I can leave my work in the office when I leave at 6PM(ish). And the simple joy of taking a day off here and there…

  10. Stephen, you are an old hand at blogging, I am a comparative novice, but I have this sneaking feeling that blogging only adds to the stress. It’s too tempting to go to look to see if anyone’s responded, or to read someone else’s writing, and it’s not ‘work’ so it doesn’t feel the same as sitting down with a grant (to write/referee) or paper (ditto); those pleasures are easier to forego. But it never goes away….Maybe one adjusts with time, and this is merely my novitiate? Anyhow, delighted to be in your company here.

  11. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I feel your pain, Stephen – I found out last week that some PIs have decided to submit a (long and complicated) letter of intent for a new grant application, with a January 6th deadline. I only have a half-day of vacation time left this year, so I was going to be working all this week and then (from home) on Wednesday to Friday of next week, too. But I was rather hoping to use that time to catch up on all the important-but-not-actually-critically-urgent stuff that tends to get shunted to the back burner during the busier time of year.

    Sigh – I guess I won’t be heading into 2011 with a clean slate after all…

  12. Jenny Woods says:

    What a very moving quotation that is. Time is so important – to ruminate over the unexpected data point or puzzle over better approaches. Sympathies to you and and to your colleagues in Life Sciences at this stressful time.

  13. Stephen says:

    These replies are from my phone and will, of necessity, be fairly brief.

    @Ian – glad to hear you’re enjoying your new lifestyle, albeit with regrets. I suspect there’s no real escape from stress for people who are the type to push themselves. But wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to have the time to do science properly? Maybe I have the wrong spectacles on, but lab-life did seem more fun 5 or 6 years ago.

    @Athene – an ‘old hand’, eh? I’ll take that as a compliment. A distraction it may be at times, but I have got a lot of pleasure from writing this blog over the past couple of years. And it is I who am honoured to be doing so in *your* company, your FRSness! 😉

    @Cath – bad luck! Sorry to hear you got landed at the last minute. At least in my case the burden is self-inflicted. Or is it?

    @Jenny – thank you for your kind words (and welcome – don’t think we’ve ‘met’ before.)

    @Henry – You speak truth. Must remember to focus on the important things in life. Now, where did I put that beer…?

    • Jenny Woods says:

      We’ve not been introduced IRL, but I had just summoned up courage to start commenting at NN when you all moved over here!

      • Stephen says:

        Well Jenny, I’m glad that you found the nerve to leave a comment. It always seems like quite a hurdle (though it’s a lower one here at OT than on NN). I remember when I left my first comment on a blog, oh {sucks on pipe} way back in ’08. I was quaking in my boots.

        Soon got over it though.

        Hope you’ll stick around!

  14. Stephen says:

    Blog archive now sorted – thanks to the generous assistance and super-abundant genius of Richard P. Grant!

    If you spot any residual formatting oddities, please let me know.

  15. rpg says:

    You’re most welcome, Stephen.