science and design are both about communication

Mike Dickison’s blog Pictures of Numbers is fab. It’s all about clear, simple, effective data visualisation for scientists. Three posts that I thought were particularly useful were:

Better Axes: improving readability, increasing the information content and decreasing the clutter in your graphs.

Fixing Excel’s Charts: Surgery for the annoying defaults that Excel has, and how you can actually get an effective and high-impact piece of data presentation out of the poor maligned piece of microsoftery. [I spent a fair bit of time mucking about with building custom templates for graphs while I was writing my thesis, and they’re really worth the time investment.]

Maps for Scientists: Two posts, one about choosing maps and one about using them. Both sensible and aimed at presenting and highlighting the right types of geographical information.

His tip list is also a good reference, as are the handouts on his workshops & handouts pages

My colleagues are probably bored to tears when I bang on about design and science, so it is great to see a kindred scientist out there. 

too many ideas, not enough blog

I have been blog-blocked since before December last year and need to make a concerted effort to move beyond it. Part of the problem has been journalistic–I’ve not wanted to write about anything that isn’t (a) news and (b) an exclusive. Considering the proliferation of science blogs, and considering that I too like to read multiple perspectives on different issues, I have no idea why that block took over my brain.

So, onwards.

There’s a real tension in talking about your work and your ideas in a public forum. I have three or four ideas for future projects that I feel quite excited about. One is really relevant to what I’m doing at the moment and is just waiting for me to get my head around some genetics. One is a sortof logical extension of the types of cultural phylogenetic work I do, and I have a masters student potentially interested in getting that strand of thinking out of the abstract and into real work. Another is a similar sort of project that I’d like to write a grant about in the future but I need to do some hardcore networking as it would encroach on other people’s databases. And the final one is totally left-field and while it’s evolutionary anthropology, it has nothing to do with phylogenies, the Pacific, and is only marginally kinship related.

I think it’d help me to articulate thoughts about these ideas, leave me some brain space for the other work I’m doing at the moment. But with most of them I do feel like I’ve actually had original and important ideas, and the urge to be discrete and cautious is winning out.

Still, the aspect of competition is motivating.

looks are everything

The Smithsonian Institute Libraries have this wonderful resource available:

Portraits from the Dibner Library of Science and Technology

Everyone loves pictures of the scientific personalities behind abstract concepts. The wackier the better! In general, images are an absolute neccessity for academic talks. I’m pretty strict that my slides contain an image (be it a picture, a figure/graph, or text presented to make a graphic point). When I’m presented with a slide that contains nothing but text, I switch off the slides and just listen to the speaker (I try to listen to the speaker rather than read their text as a general rule). The exception would be the Steve Jobs one-phrase slide, which I recently saw Rod Page use to nice effect at the Evolution 2007 conference. I’m trying to evolve towards a style that has nothing but an active statement or question as the title (for focus), a figure of some sorts, and (optionally) no more than ten words. Sometimes that’s not possible, and sometimes I am lazy, but a talk is a presentation. It’s not a reading.

Anyhow, images are terrific as they sometimes suggest metaphors or new ways of explaining concepts. My idle time spent browsing flickr and other image websites is never totally idle (honest!), as I’m always looking for images that relate to research concepts. Graffiti, signs, and travel photography are often real gems in that regard. I’ve built up a good collection of pictures for talks. Now, if only I had a systematic way of tagging them and remembering their attributions…

evolution 2007

Radio silence for the last couple of weeks as I was in New Zealand at the Evolution 2007 meeting. Yes, there is internet access on my small island home, but I’m not one of those superstars who can multitask a big conference and blogging. So before it all dribbles out of my brain, here’s a brief rundown. [link to program pdf]

Russell Gray and I organised a symposium on Cultural Phylogenetics. There are pictures, but they will have to wait another day.

Our speakers (Mark Pagel, Michael Dunn, Simon Greenhill, Quentin Atkinson, Russell, and myself) spoke on different aspects of applying phylogenetic and comparative methods to interesting and cool questions in linguistics and anthropology. Click on the picture for an overview of the talks.


Given that it was early on a Sunday morning we had a great turnout (80-120 people) over the three hours. Really fabulous to have the hardcore evolutionary biologists come along to see some novel applications of “their” methods, and it seemed to be well-received!

The conference had about 900 people in attendance with up to eight simultaneous sessions going on for the four full days, so it was hectic running about from room to room to catch talks. Luckily most of what I wanted to hear was fairly systematically (haha) grouped, so I got to attend a number of talks on phylogenetic theory and methods, behavioural/social evolution, sexual selection, coevolution, and teaching evolution. The last day also had a great session on molecular anthropology, most of which was concentrated on questions about Pacific dispersals and human migrations.

Conferences really are great for making your brain swim 24/7 in a soup of ideas, whether they’re directly related to your work or not. It’s simply stimulating being around loads of other people who like to ask questions and think of clever ways to answer them.

While I was away I read Evolutionary Pathways in Nature: A Phylogenetic Approach by John Avise. It’s a collection of short essays that tackle questions about different critters, from spider-web building to the tracking of the AIDS virus in humans. What they have in common is that moledular phylogenies have been used to help with the detective work. It was a fun book to dip into (it’s the book the ultra-geeky biologist has in the loo), but the theme was only a thin thread on which to peg the various stories. Although the Introduction and Appendix gave a little background to phylogenetics and molecular systematics, a complete newcomer would no doubt be confused. Sadly (or perhaps not…) I think the popular science book on phylogenetics remains to be written.

a thoughtful piece about thoughtful work

There are any number of articles available on the internerd about How To Give A Good Academic Talk, or Ten Tips To Get Your Paper Published. Etcetera. Current Biology has a piece by Mark Ptashne: On speaking, writing and inspiration. It’s not a how-to guide, but a really nice exposition about the elusiveness (both as a listener and a speaker) of the simple, clear species of academic presentation.

Current Biology is a gem this month, with interesting articles on imitation in dogs, female-led infanticide in chimps, and a new look at sexual selection in barn swallows. Like, actual organisms and behaviour in more than one article!

the two cultures revisited (ad nauseum)

A short while ago I attended one of a series of talks set up to create some dialogue between evolutionary and interpretive approaches in archaeology. I was only able to attend the last of the series, but others who attended earlier talks reported that the presentations themselves (one from each of the two “styles”) were interesting and informative, but that the discussions that took place afterwards, where, ostensibly, the dialogue was to get into full swing, were quite fraught, full of misunderstandings and tense “science versus post-modernism” exchanges.

Which is, as always, a shame. I think to most scientifically-minded archaeologists and anthropologists–indeed anyone in the social sciences who appreciates the scientific method–the lack of useful dialogue, collaboration, and proper communication with our colleagues who have other approaches is felt as a keen deficit. From afar, we can observe the wealth of rich material (dare I say “data”?) collected by social anthropologists (for instance). More importantly, we can observe their ability to contextualise, interpret and suggest new or alternative hypotheses for what we, with the necessity of abstract or simple models, are sometimes missing in our approaches.

However, after attending the last talk, I don’t think that they (“they” being in this case those in the social sciences who probably prefer the term humanities) really feel any keen need for such dialogue in the other direction. I could be (and would be delighted to be) very wrong about this. I got the sense of a lamentable misunderstanding how science as applied to human affairs. Misunderstanding the scientific method is of course a more general malady, from the sub-editors at the Evening Standard right on through to nutritionists with dodgy qualifications.

But at this talk there were some SHOCKERS. Continue reading →

the shape of things to come

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for me, what with conferences and talks and meetings and trying to settle into a post-thesis work routine. As always with meetings I came away with my mind buzzing about potential ideas for the future, and as is usual with me, I just assume I will remember all the details and never write anything down! I will write a little about the EHBE meeting once I dig out the program, and I have a half-written post about tensions in the social sciences that I really should finish so I stop brooding over it.


Huzzah, have submitted the magnum opus to the Ministry, and am now gainfully employed in one of those fabulous postdoc things. More on the exact nature of that later.

I started composing a list in my head of things NOT to say to PhD students in the final death throes of writing up, but decided that actually, what was necessary was a blanket ban on any conversation that wasn’t (a) offers of help, whether practical, material, or emotional; (b) idle gossip about celebrities; (c) “Have you heard X’s new album? Here, let me give it to you.” That pretty much covered it.

This last week has been strange without the hour-to-hour countdown; at the end of writing-up I got into this interesting rhythm of not even needing a to-do list. Hadn’t looked at iCal since the beginning of February. The immediacy of writing the next paragraph, fiddling with the next table, doing the colour-coding on the next figure–they all slotted into their own timetable without needing me to arrange them.

Now I have all this perceived TIME and I notice I have become enamoured of scheduling and organising. It’s all patently false of course; I have huge amounts to do, but I have the leisure to think in terms of alternatives (which of these things shall I do, rather than which of these things shall I do next?). And, obviously, the leisure to make blog posts.

So, while I was writing up, my friends have been doing exciting things.

Simon @ Auckland has set up Henry, the Human Evolution News RelaY, which gathers all sorts of newsy tidbits from the scientific literature and press. You can contribute stories, too, as long as you pass Simon’s stringent journalistic criteria.

Mhairi @ Bristol and Eshetu @ Addis Ababa have won a 3-year British Academy grant for the UK-Africa Partnership to investigate population change in 21st century Africa, with a focus on Ethiopia.

Laura @ UCL has set up the Ethnographic Database Project, which aims to gather cultural information on Indo-European societies in a systematic and freely-available fashion. This is a pilot for what may be a larger venture, and one close to my academic heart, so if you can contribute, please do!

Later this month is the second European Human Behaviour and Evolution Conference, at which I’ll be presenting and which looks to be great fun.