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    Cogito, Ergo, Sum, Multitasking?

    I appeared yesterday on the great video podcast Futures in Biotech.  Rather than rant on about it, I thought I would post the video here.  I was cohosting with regular host, Marc Pelletier.  We interviewed neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley.  We talked about Adam's work on the neural basis of distraction and how to train people not to be distracted using video games, it was great stuff.

    (I wanted to call the episode 'Cogito, Ergo, Pwn' alas, I had no support...) 




    Why Did Steve Jobs' Death Affect Me?

    When Steve Jobs died the other day it affected me in an odd way.  I felt sort of empty.  I felt like something was suddenly missing.  I have not felt this way about someone I have not met for a long time.  I remember when john Candy died, and Pierre Trudeau, and Rocket Richard.  I did not know any of them either of course (though I did shake Trudeau's hand when I was 12 while on a class trip to Ottawa, alas that is another story).  

    To be sure, this was nothing like losing my Dad to cancer, or my friend Duncan to the same disease.  Those two guys influenced me probably more than any two men in my life.  (When I don't know how to solve a problem at work I think 'WWDD' meaning What Would Dad/Duncan Do?  Oddly, the solutions are almost always the same...)

    No this was different.  Why did I care so much about a billionaire?  I mean, I understand Trudeau, hell, when I was a kid, until I was 19, he was the Prime Minister, ok except for that brief Joe Clark thing....  So, he affected me every day, I lived in Trudeau's Canada.  The Rocket, well, I am a Habs fan, and we are big into tradition and history we Habs fans, so, I guess that made sense.  I had heard the stories, I had seen grainy film etc.  But Jobs, I mean why?  He was, by some accounts, a ruthless and arrogant businessman.  Then again, Trudeau was a ruthless politician, and often seen as arrogant.  The Rocket was ruthless on the ice, and also often seen as arrogant.  I remember when Gretzky came in the league, and the Rocket was asked how he would do in the 50s.  His reply was something along the lines of 'He would win the scoring title, if he was on my line'.  Jonathan Mak's excellent tribute logo. 

    Was this arrogance though?  Trudeau had an IQ of 180.  The Rocket was, up until the arrival of Lemieux and Grezky, the greatest goal scorer ever.  They KNEW they were great.  Did everything they did in their work turn out?  No.  The National Energy plan was a disaster politically for Trudeau.  Maurice Richard was not the easiest teammate to have.  

    Jobs was a visionary.  He guessed what we would like, before we knew we would like it.  He saved Apple when he returned.  He did this by doing stuff other people had done before (mp3 players, phones etc) better than they had.  He was bold enough to use UNIX as basis of OS X.  He, by all accounts, did not use focus groups.  He somehow just knew.  Oh he had his fuckups.  The iPod HiFi, the Cube, Mobile Me (oddly, I sort of like Mobile Me...)

    However, he did not let his screwups get in the way.  He moved on.  He came across, to me, as a genius, but as a flawed one.  Not some fatal flaw, just flawed like all of us.  As an academic I have known/know many people with the sort of drive, vision and flaws that Jobs had.  Maybe that is why he resonated with me.  He also made geek cool.  

    Strangely, I hated Macs until OS X.  I had no interest in them, when I used them they bothered me, it all seemed clunky.  OS X changed that.  I did not have an mp3 player until the iPod came out.  The first smartphone I bought was an iPhone 3Gs.  His sense of what worked usually worked for me.  Plus, it is way easy to zoom in on a Mac, and that helps me a lot what with the blind thing and all.

    As he said in his famous Stanford address: 'stay hungry, stay foolish'.  Maybe that is where Candy fits in....



    What the hell does 2+ mean?

    Our 10 year old son Jon has autism.  He is quite high functioning, in a regular class with normal kids (yes I said 'normal', I am using that in a statistical sense, if you don't like it, get your own blog) and mostly does the same course work they do.  Indeed, his grades put him somewhere in the middle of the pack on average.  He rocks spelling, and French, he loves reading, and like a lot of kids his age, he is not much on math....  There are other classes of course, including gym and art.  Now I get the utility of art and gym.  They are important.  Physical acticivty and creative stuff are good things, and a well rounded person does these things as well as academic pursuits.  

    I may be wrong (as unlikely as that seems....) but I think that part of the point of art is to express emotion.  Now if you know anything about autism you know that emotions are hard for people like Jon.  They have trouble reading them in other people, and expressing them.  Jon wants to understand emotion in others, he often asks 'what feeling do you have?' when he does not know (which, by the way, is VERY cool).  

    Well, the kids had an art assignment, and it seems it was to make posters for being good people.  You know, that sort of touchy feely fuzzy stuff they do to encourage good behaviour.  Jon did a poster of two people holding hands and wrote over top of it 'Be a friend'.  When I saw it it brought tears to my eyes.  He was expressing emotion with a drawing, not just drawing plane crashes or writing up reports on plane crashes (Jon like plane crashes.....).  My poor quality photo of Jon's drawing. Drawing (c) Jon Brodbeck, 2011

    So I was very proud of this work.  Hell I still am.  I then turned it over and saw a grade on it.  He got a '2+'.  I asked Jon what the heck that meant and he explained that things are graded out of 4.  (He got a 4+ on a spelling test yesterday, and that was perfect, so you get the idea).  So, apparently, according to Jon's art teacher, his work is barely a pass.  OK, look I know the kid is no Ken Danby (thought I would throw a Sault Ste. Marie reference in there) but it frankly is no worse than what I would have done at that age.  (Honestly).  Plus, it seems to me that he worked within the parameters of the assignment, he successfully is promoting being a good person.  Finally, HE IS A PERSON WIHT AUTISM WHO JUST EXPRESSED EMOTION THROUGH ART.  (I was shouting there, if you are wondering, oh and I left the word 'FUCKING' out...)  

    I know this is not a big deal for him, I asked, he couldn't care less.  But, this is to me.  I wonder, what was the objective criterion used to grade his work (or the other kids in his class?)  So this is just barely a pass is it?  For a kid that has trouble expressing and even UNDERSTANDING emotion.  Seems to me this is a 4 at least.  

    Now please, I am not saying that in say spelling or math or French or whatever that he should be given some special consideration if he is in the regular program.  He should be graded like everyone else (and he is).  But, in this case, let's be impressed shall we?  He did something that was harder for him than it would be for anyone else in the damned school.  

    We have expressed our concerns and I am confident all will be well.  I can also tell you that I am now using this picture as my desktop and we are framing this picture, 2+ be damned.


    I Don't Live In My Basement With My Mom....

    You hear a lot of crap out there about how people that spend a lot of time online are, by definition, anti social and somehow addicted to the internet.  I spend a lot of time online, I like twitter, facebook, G+ etc.  I listen to a number of podcasts, and produce a few as well.  I play online games on xBox Live and the PSN.  I comment on blogs now and then, and even have this blog here where I apparently think you want to listen to my rants...

    I am, however, also plugged in to my family, my job and all of that other normal stuff.  

    My online life is no different than my offline one.  Indeed, I find it hard to separate them in my mind.  I use the 'net for work a great deal and for play.  Ken, Me, the Dude and Tom at PAB 2010, photo credit Bob Goyetche

    I get really pissed off when I hear people say 'you should get out more' or 'this is anti social'.  That is pure bullshit.  I have met people through online interactions that are real friends of mine.  I now consider people that I have met through this medium to be friends.  I mean real actual friends, not just people I know.  Indeed, I feel more oh, let's go with kinship, with people like Bob, Mark, the Dude and Tom than I do with many people that I see every day (I typically see these guys once a year for 2.5 days, and for all I know, they can't stand me....)  

    These are people I never would have met without the internet.  OK, maybe with some weird sort of pen pal thing like we used to do in school when I was little, but that seems unlikely...

    A couple of months back a person I know only through their username on wikipedia announced on his talk page that he was ill.  This was pretty shocking.  Many people on there announced their hopes for him, some even said they would pray (which was a joke of sorts, as he is an atheist).  He came back on a few weeks, perhaps oh 2 months, later and announced he was in ICU, but doing ok.  I was really happy with this.  I have never met this person, I have no idea what his actual name is, but I cared enough that it made me damned happy to see an update.  Is that anti social?  

    Oh and for the record, I sort of do live in my basement, as that is where the family room is and where my beer fridge lives....


    Peer-Review: Please, Tell Me It's Worth the Time and Effort To Do It Right

    Many thanks to Dave Brodbeck for inviting me to vent where he vents.

    I have more than a few ruminations to share, but only one today, and I promise not to be cynical. Really. Instead, I want to try to do something positive whenever I write for public consumption, and that includes when I'm complaining. My goal is to raise issues that affect science students and the community at large, and hopefully inspire at least a few students or researchers who read my comments to have similar discussions so that they might somehow contribute to solutions -- or at least avoid being part of some problem or another. Oh, and of course by that I mean problems, in my view.

    Today, the problem I want to discuss has to do with the peer-review process in science and research. Before I start railing, however, I want to be clear about something: I believe peer-review is currently the best way we have to apply quality control to what counts as knowledge, useful information, or sound ideas. It is not a perfect process, however, and academic folks have been debating its various problems for decades. I will make no attempt here to contribute to an academic discussion about any of the oft-mentioned limitations and imperfections of the peer-review process. Instead, I'm going to gripe a bit about something I encounter, from time to time, when I serve as a reviewer for some science journal editors.

    As a university professor with an active research program, I spend a lot of time participating in the peer-review process. I am often asked to review research reports that have been submitted for publication in scientific journals, or grant applications that other researchers have submitted to some funding agency or another, in either Canada, the U.S., or the U.K. Serving as a peer-reviewer is something that one normally does on a purely voluntary basis (although I recently received a small honorarium for reviewing a grant application for a special award competition -- that was the first time, and it wasn't necessary, but I took it without any hesitation or guilt). I don't agree to serve as a reviewer every time I am asked. I receive about 3 or 4 requests from journal editors each month, and I accept about two-thirds of them; I decline to review when I am unable to give a manuscript the time and attention it deserves because of other obligations. I accept all requests to review research grant applications.

    I consider service as a peer-reviewer to be an extremely important part of my job, even though it is all voluntary, and I receive absolutely no tangible reward or recognition for this service. Except in rare cases, reviewers are anonymous and only the journal editor knows who provided the reviews. In most academic departments within a large university, no one really has any idea how much time a colleague is spending on peer review. It is not normally listed in a c.v. (although it could be, perhaps should be, and I am sure some people include it). Deans and department heads normally have no idea how much a particular faculty member contributes to peer review, and most of them probably do not care very much, as this activity does not bring any obvious returns to the department or the university. Only my wife and I really know how much time I spend on it. So, peer-review is kind of like making an anonymous donation to some charity -- you do it because you want to help, you know its the right thing to do, and you don't need any recognition or payback for doing it.

    My guess is that a lot of my colleagues get about the same number of requests to review as I do, and that some get more and some get fewer. I would also guess that, like me, many of my colleagues refuse some, but accept most invitations to review work submitted for publication in their areas of expertise. There is probably a lot of variability, though. It's also my guess that, like me, most of my colleagues also readily agree to review grant applications whenever they are asked to do so. I'm just guessing, but I'd bet that most of them also take the responsibility of peer-review seriously, and that the majority of them do an excellent job on a consistent basis.

    Today, my rant is about those other peers of mine who agree to review, but then do a lousy job of it, primarily because they just aren't trying hard enough and putting in the time needed to be thorough. In my opinion, the only good reason for wanting to be a reviewer is because you have intrinsic motivation to help assure quality and integrity of the data, and the scientific soundness of the arguments, that get published. What other justification is there? Yet, sometimes I get the feeling that some people have different reasons for agreeing to review for science journal editors. I mean, if you really care about something enough to repeatedly do it voluntarily and anonymously, then wouldn't you want to spend as much time on it as needed to get it done properly?

    Here is what set me off, and made me decide to write about this topic: A couple of weeks ago, I spent the better part of two days working on my evaluation and review of a manuscript that had been submitted for publication in the highly-regarded journal, Brain Research. The manuscript was about 40 pages (near the average length), and it was a general review of previous research on an interesting and somewhat important subject. Two days was not an unusual amount of the time for me to spend evaluating and writing my recommendations for a paper like this one. I take the responsibility very seriously -- after all, once a paper is published, it becomes part of the public domain of knowledge for posterity. Millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars are spent to support scientific research, and this is one of the main reasons why I care about the integrity of the "facts" that are reported by other scientists, and the soundness of the interpretations and theories they put forth. I even feel somewhat honoured that I have this privilege to contribute to something that I think is important, and I want to do my best job of it at all times, using my most unbiased and objective scrutiny. Editors typically give reviewers two or three weeks to evaluate a manuscript and submit a report that indicates the reviewer's disposition and concerns, requests for changes, etc, concerning the manuscript. I almost always submit my review a few days after the deadline. I seem to need the sense of urgency I get from the courtesy email reminder from the editor that the deadline is looming. I procrastinate, but when I eventually start the task, I put most everything else aside until it is done. Some times of year are a bit busier than others (grant review season), but averaged over the whole year, I estimate that I spend about 8 - 10 hours on peer-review in a typical week. That's a little more than one full workday, for people with a regular 9-5 job. I think its worth it. I have no doubt that authors and editors are happy to know someone is willing to put in the time.

    For this manuscript, the editor sought three reviewers. As is usually the case, after the editor received all three reviews, a decision was made about the fate of the manuscript, and there was an opportunity for each of the three reviewers to see the decision letter, and to view the other two reviews.

    To be blunt, I was pissed when I saw the other two reviews. Both consisted of a point-form list of comments, none of which reflected any kind of deep analysis. Most of the comments pointed out minor errors, or asked for clarification on some tangential point or issue. Both seemed like a list of comments that one might make while reading through a manuscript for the first time; you know, short notes on all the obvious shortcomings that jump out at you, like inconsistent arguments, errors of logic, certain typos, or bad grammar.

    Its not that any of the comments from the other reviewers were off-base -- in fact, I didn't see any that I disagreed with. Both reviewers also gave pretty clear directions about what the authors needed to do to address their concerns. (That last part is really important. It can sometimes be frustrating for authors when a reviewer has a problem with something in a manuscript, but does not say what he or she believes should be done to fix it). But I really doubt that either of the other two reviewers read through the manuscript a second time, let alone a third time, or that either of them checked the references to see if there were any obvious omissions, or checked to see that important previous work was being cited properly, or stepped back to consider whether the paper actually accomplished the objectives it stated at the outset, or whether it was an original analysis versus a run-of-the mill literature review. These bases take a lot of time to cover, but if the peer-review process does not do it, they will not be covered. There are many other big-picture analyses or beneath-the-surface assessments that a reviewer can try to accomplish when evaluating a manuscript. No individual reviewer can be expected to undertake more than a few of them, but at least a few should be expected and delivered.

    Again, I want to be clear -- I'm not disrespecting the intelligence or abilities of my peer experts. I don't think very many of them are actually unqualified to evaluate the scientific work of others. Frankly, I think the problem is just a combination of laziness, lack of pride in good work, and in some cases, a dishonourable reason for wanting to do the job in the first place. I wonder…, Does anyone ever agree to help editors with the review process with the hope that it will make that editor more likely to be positively disposed toward their work if they submit it to the same journal? Do people ever agree to review so they can be in a position to quash any data or arguments that challenge their own conclusions? Can any of them actually have such contempt for the noble pursuit of scientific knowledge? Absolutely, and without a doubt, some of my "peers" are just that dastardly in their thoughts and deeds. I know there are jerks and bastards out there. I have met many of them over the years.

    So, what can be done? I sure don't know. But, by talking about these kinds of things with my graduate students, I hope to instill in them a sense of responsibility and a desire to keep their integrity while their careers develop and evolve. This way, I hope, they are likely to do a good job of providing peer-review when the time comes for them to contribute. Other than that, I just wish more editors had the balls to give reviewers frank feedback on the quality of the reviews they submit. Maybe some of the editors don't care enough? You know, I have some thoughts about that one.

    If enough people want (enough is only 2 or 3), I'll write again, next time about why I believe science and research in the academic world has systemic flaws that encourage certain bad behaviors by scientists and researchers. Some of the flaws in the system can even explain the half-assed or disingenuous peer-review that I've been complaining about. But even worse, the problems in the system account for a great deal of squandering of taxpayers money -- millions of tax dollars that are allocated to support scientific research. The industry is such that there is an incredible amount of waste and inefficient expenditure, and a lot of money is used in ways that aim to benefit some peoples' research careers more than they aim to benefit science.

    Actually, I think I'll just keep writing about this stuff whether or not anyone else is reading it. It's like therapy.

    Dave Mumby is behavioral neuroscientist and a professor in the psychology department at Concordia University in Montréal. He and his students study memory and brain functions. Dave is an academic advisor, and the author of Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In. He also has a blog and is a frequent contributor to, a website that helps undergraduate students prepare and apply successfully to graduate school.