Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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Update on Crowdsourced Letter of Recommendation

A couple of weeks ago I put out a call for a letter of rec from the Internet. Since then I've gotten a lot of requests for an update. It seems like I hit a chord with the academic science blogging and outreach communities. Before I get to specific details of the responses I've received, I have a few comments.

First, I'm honestly blown away. I'm so damn happy to hear that any of this stuff I've been doing for the last few years means anything to anyone. The positive feedback in this blogging/writing world is rare and I'm humbled and reinvigorated as I'm reminded of why I'm doing this.

As an academic and a scientist putting yourself out into the public at all--especially when you use your real name--opens you up to a lot of criticism. Academic researchers think you're wasting your time when you could be doing "real work". The Internet snark machine is happy to jump on any error you make and let you know how stupid you are. And you can easily fall into the page-view trap of writing pieces just to drive traffic, moving you ever farther from useful, constructive scientific discourse.

People often ask why I do this. I've summed it up thusly over on Quora:
Social media is a way for me to continue sharpening my understanding of difficult concepts. The time investment isn't important to me--my job is to learn and discover, and this is another aspect of that. And if in the process I make something more clear and accessible to a possible future scientist, all the better. No scientist achieved their breakthroughs because they communicated less.
This whole public communication thing helps me find holes and weaknesses in my thinking. Sure, it's also fun sometimes. And I like to know that people think the stuff I know is interesting. But deep down it's about continuing my training and making my thinking less lazy.

As for the letter, the why of that is summed up in my associated statement to the hiring committees that I'm including along with the letters themselves:
Much of my outreach and education efforts exist in an invisible space where metrics and assessments cannot easily reach. To try and give an index of my extracurricular outreach, education, and science communication efforts I reached out to my digital network of people who read my blog, watch my videos, and follow my writings on twitter and other social networks. I asked them to submit to me a statement of what—if anything—my blogging, public speaking, etc. has meant to them. Below is an unedited collection of the comments I received: some anonymous, some pseudonymous, and some signed.
As I said above, many academics think this online social media stuff is, at best, a waste of time and at worst an exercise in the narcissistic pursuits of an egotistical sell-out.

What I'm trying to do is provide some metric that shows that any of this might be useful or helpful, and to show that it does have some positive impact that can be wrapped up nicely into a metric that can be easily referenced.

As of today I have about 20 letters from people ranging from a C*O of a huge tech company, Quora as a company, clinical workers, undergrads, PhD students, post-docs, and a tenured faculty member, a health care professional, and others.

Some are hundreds of words, some are tweets. This process has itself spawned a meta-article about the process.

But I've still got a few more days before I hand everything over the the search committees. And it will be many months before I know if they even give a shit. In the mean time I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing armed with the knowledge that maybe it matters to someone out there.

Thanks everyone.


Voyteks and Guerrilla Science at SfN!

If you're at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in New Orleans right now, my wife Jessica and I each have a poster, plus one special feature.

My wife is presenting one of only 9 dynamic posters this afternoon. This is a new format SfN is trying out that incorporates multimedia into their poster format.

Her dynamic poster is at 1pm today over in aisle JJ, and is titled, "User Experience Design for Children's Neuroscience Education" and is about creating their Ned the Neuron education eBook (now available for the iPad!) I'm currently waiting for our napping son to wake up, but I should also be there around 2pm.

My scientific poster is tomorrow (Monday) morning over at CCC58. It's titled, "Phase/amplitude coupling supports network organization in human frontal cortex" and it doesn't totally suck. (Seriously I'm pleased with this research, so if you're at all interested in functional coupling, cognition, ECoG, and/or signal processing, come by!)

Finally my zombie neuroscience collaborator and fellow guerrilla scientist Tim Verstynen and I have an unofficial poster up over at GGG35 titled, "Advances in neuroprosthetics for Detroit law enforcement personnel: Building a better RoboCop today".

It's worth checking out. You can also download the reprint here (PDF).

TED pulls pseudoscience talk

A few months ago TEDxCharlotte released a video from its event of a guy named Randy Powell just talking a bunch of pseudoscientific-but-grand-sounding nonsense about "Vortex Mathematics".

Carl Zimmer mentioned it in his evisceration of TED's weak science draw (specifically Philip Zimbardo's talk) which lead me to ask a question about the talk over on Quora.

Specifically, I asked, "Is Randy Powell saying anything in his 2010 TEDxCharlotte talk or is it just total nonsense?" It got a lot of great answers (which is what I was hoping for) including the currently top-rated response from Jay Wacker, Stanford professor of theoretical physics:

Wow. Such fucking bullshit. Well, I am theoretical physicist who uses (and teaches) the technical meaning of many of the jargon terms that he's throwing out. And he is simply doing a random word association with the terms. Basically, he's either insane a huckster going for fame or money doing a Sokal's hoax on TEDx I'd bet equal parts 1 & 2.

and this one from Joshua Engel (one of my favorite Quora users):

This is one of the reasons I'm not crazy about TED talks. The argument is gibberish; not a single point makes any sense. But without a transcript, it's tricky for me to make a point-by-point refutation. I have to stop, transcribe, then explain. It's a slow and tedious process. The question is, is anybody engaging in that kind of critique for the talks that aren't obviously deranged? Or is everybody just accepting what they hear and then letting the video move on to its next point? Video is a poor way to make an argument. It's a good teaching tool, since it's very convincing when the subject is actually valid. But it's equally good at making an invalid argument with little opportunity for critical thought.
 You can get a feel for Mr. Powell's work in this video:

Well it would appear that TED has officially responded by removing Mr. Powell's talk from their TEDx YouTube channel. Specifically, TED editor Emily McManus left this response on my Quora question:

Randy Powell's talk onstage at TEDxCharlotte 2010 came under criticism for its lack of scientific validity. Criticism came from mathematicians and science writers as well as threads on specialist science and math blogs and other online communities. Members of the TED and TEDx teams watched the talk, sought further advice from experts, and ultimately agreed that the criticisms had merit and were serious enough to warrant removal of the talk from the TEDx official YouTube channel, in compliance with our policy.
Randy Powell was given several opportunities to directly defend his work, but did not do so. In a phone conversation with members of the TED and TEDx teams on September 12, 2012, Powell stated that his brief onstage talk at TEDxCharlotte did not include complete data on his work. He could not point us to that data online during the call, but agreed during the call to email TED his data, including a detailed 10-page paper, for a further independent review by a mathematician and possible replication of his experiments by a physicist. Neither the paper nor any other data was ever received. We consider the matter closed.
In response to this incident, TEDx has clarified its policies on the scientific validity of talks and is working with independent TEDx organizers to help them access more and better resources for vetting speakers.
Personally I don't think that removing the content to scrub its record is the best way to go but it's interesting to see that TED is at least taking some steps to clean up its scientific appearance.


Crowdsourcing a Letter of Recommendation

I've got a huge favor to ask of you all.

At the behest of some of my friends and colleagues I have decided to go on the academic job market earlier than I expected and apply for a (very) few tenure-track faculty positions. My chances are slim, but several people have told me I should take a shot since the cost is low.

Over the course of running this blog for just shy of three years I've had some amazing conversations and interactions with all of you, however these kinds of conversations are hidden from the traditional academic metrics, and that sucks.

In addition to a research statement, part of the job applications require letters of recommendation as well as a teaching statement.

I've decided to include as an additional letter of recommendation and as part of my teaching statement a recommendation from... well... the Internet. From you all.

If anything I've written on this blog or elsewhere, any lecture I've given, any research I've done has had an effect on you (positive or negative I guess), I would be immensely grateful if you would be willing to take a few minutes to email a statement to me explaining how.


Send me as long or short of a note as you'd like. Because academia is such a hierarchy-obsessed group, the more information about your real-world self you can include, the better: name, title, university or industry affiliation, etc.

But please know that I don't care as much about those things. I'd love to hear from you regardless of your job/title/pedigree. In fact, I personally believe the more non-academics I've reached the better.

If you ask me to keep your comments anonymous, I will do so. If you want to just leave an anonymous comment on this post, I'll be moderating them all, so I will receive your comment but it won't be published here.

Maybe you liked something I wrote on here, Twitter, Quora, the SciAm guest blogs, O'Reilly Radar, whatever. Maybe you liked my TEDxBerkeleyGoogle, or zombie talks. Or hated them. Maybe brainSCANr inspired you to hack your own scientific project or maybe you saw a lecture I gave in real life or on Google Plus. Some of you may have started reading this blog as an undergrad and are now off doing amazing things as graduate students, or in industry.

If anything I've done online has had an impact on you, please let me know.

We in the scientific blogging community are always looking for alternative metrics. But we rarely ask on another for help. I'm asking now.

The idea of having a letter of recommendation from the Internet seems awesome to me. I really hope this works.

(And if you're curious, you can read the draft of my Teaching Statement (PDF) and check out my publication record.)