October 29th, 2009 by dario

Procrastination, the mother of all productivity sins (or virtues), is the theme of this infographic video by John Kelly.

(via Information Aesthetics and Cool Infographics).

AutoVer (windows) gives you easy versioning

October 27th, 2009 by jose

About two years ago we talked about filehamster. It was  screen-composite-smfree, unobtrusive, and simpler than doing version control ‘by hand’ (adding numbers to filenames) or ‘by machine’ (using a proper versioning tool such as subversion or mercurial).

Well, since then filehamster has moved on to be a pain in the ass. Now the free version nags you a lot, and the paid versions are not really giving us any outstanding features. Plus as a .NET application, it eats up RAM.

Enter AutoVer. Completely freeware, no nags, and a much better interface to boot. The GUI and options make more sense too. I even use it for coding when I’m doing something small and a mercurial repo would be overkill.

Eventually, all writing applications should enable smooth versioning and real-time collaboration (Office 2010 beta does! Wave and etherpad are not alone anymore). The slider that controls versioning as in a time machine is fantastic. AutoVer would not give you that. The AutoVer model also breaks when you send the manuscript to a collaborator, and he edits it on his machine (often changing the file name). Still, it’s much better than not doing versioning at all or doing it by hand.

By the way, does anyone know an alternative that is cross-platform?

What’s Wrong with Probability Notation?

October 22nd, 2009 by jose

Sometimes I wonder why many humans (me included) have trouble understanding probability. In cognitive science, probabilistic models are taking over most areas. Still, most people struggle with them. Could it be that the notation is just hard to swallow? What’s Wrong with Probability Notation? is a magnificent post that gives some basic reasons:

The first two issues arise in the usual expression of the first step of Bayes’s rule,

p(x|y) = p(y|x)p(x) / p(y),

where each of the four uses of p() corresponds to a different probability function! In computer science, we’re used to using names to distinguish functions. So f(x) and f(y) are the same function f applied to different arguments. In probability notation, p(x) and p(y) are different probability functions, picked out by their arguments.

This is one clear communication problem. Ideally we want more people to follow probabilistic reasoning. Doctors, judges, etc all show significant struggles when given probabilities (see e.g., Helping Doctors and Patients Make Sense of Health Statistics).

But how do we tackle this problem? Changing notation is easier said than done. In fact, anyone departing from traditional notation will have to convince reviewers that his notation is better… and add to the risk of cause a less-than-ideal impression.

Any ideas?

Google Scholar API

October 16th, 2009 by jose

Google Scholar is probably the most useful tool on the web today for academics. However, there’s no API for it, and seems to add little to no features with time. I don’t think Google is going to give it the Axe any time soon, but … I can’t imagine ads getting clicked on scholar pages. And Google is a for-profit, so one never knows. In any case, it would not hurt to show Google that we care, and there’s one simple thing to do. If you want to support the creation of the API, you could drop by the and express your interest.

Alternative talk styles

October 12th, 2009 by jose

I went to a toastmasters meeting, and found some interesting tricks to improve presentations. For example, they count the "ahhs", "hmm" etc. Since then I’m surprised at how many scientific talks are filled with those. A minor thing, but very effective. I didn’t keep going to meetings because it looked to me that the presentation style they use is not very compatible with the academic one (e.g., practicing improvisation). But it got me thinking… what alternative talk styles are out there? Is the ‘standard’ one the best? In a way, flying people all around the world to ‘see’ the talk is a bit of a lost cause, because body language doesn’t weight as much as in other communication styles. Of course, the networking and face-to-face time, to work on ideas on napkins, may make up for it, but still…

What follows is a walk through alternative talk styles that you may want to try in your next conference. Some require you to be the organizer, and enforce certain rules. Others, you can try just being the speaker. On with the show!

Pecha Kucha is a presentation format in which content can be easily, efficiently and informally shown, usually at a public event designed for that purpose. Under the format, a presenter shows 20 images for 20 seconds apiece, for a total time of 6 minutes, 40 seconds. They took the name Pecha Kucha from a Japanese term for the sound of conversation ("chit-chat"). It was being aimed primarily at creative industries professionals.

A Lightning Talk is a short presentation given at a conference or similar forum. Unlike other presentations, lightning talks last only a few minutes and several will usually be delivered in a single period by different speakers. This has actually being already adopted by academics (I’ve been to one!) and in my experience, it’s adored by the audience and well attended.

Ignite is a style of presentation where participants are given five minutes to speak on a subject accompanied by 20 slides. Each slide is displayed for 15 seconds, and slides are automatically advanced.

Last we have the TED talk. The motto of TED is ‘Ideas worth spreading’. If you are an academic, you should ask yourself, ‘is any of my ideas worth spreading?’. So if someone invited you to give a TED talk, what would you talk about? What if you make your next invited talk a TED-like talk?

Feel free to report your experiences with alternative talk styles in the comments…