Tag Archives: blogging

Teach to Do – Lessons from Louise Glück

Somewhere along the lines I remember learning the line “those who cannot do, teach.” I’m sure there are many instances where this is true, it’s just not what I remember when I think of the great teachers I have had, or my own experience.

Part of this crystallized for me a couple of weeks ago when I had the pleasure of being part of the Academy of Achievement Summit. Of the numerous, insanely gifted people who came and spoke, one was Louise Glück – a poet and former poet laureate of the United States.

After her brief presentation and reading she said something that really struck me in response to the question “What do you do when you can’t write?”  I tried to copy down her answer verbatim, so forgiving some possible minor errors, it went like this:

What do I do when I can’t write? After two years of not being able to write I started to teach. Rather than being jealous of students I found I wanted to help them and I applied my brain to them in the same way I apply it to my work. And I found over time things become unstuck and it renewed me.

There are all sorts of good reasons to teach – I’ve often heard professors talk about how students always ask them the hardest questions – sometimes without knowing it. But what I loved about Louise’s example was rather than having her students push her – she found energy from them in a different way, in a way that matters a great deal to those in creative spaces. My sense is her students forced her to really think through her process, to unpackage and test it, and by doing that she wrestled with what was blocking her.

I don’t necessarily teach in the traditional way. I occasionally have classrooms where I teach people – but it is pretty rare. But I do teach – mostly I teach people how I think about innovation, about strategy, about incentives and cooperation. We don’t call it teaching, sometimes, in my case, we call it consulting and sometimes it is public speaking, but there are important pieces of teaching embedded in it. And I find it enormously rewarding to unpack how I think – which students and clients (and blog post readers) often force me to.

So if you can, get a chance to teach. You’ll be richer for it. In many ways.



The Future of Academic Research

Yesterday, Nature – one of the worlds premier scientific journals recognized University of British Columbia scientist Rosie Redfield as one of the top 10 science newsmakers of 2011.

The reason?

After posting a scathing attack on her blog about a paper that appeared in the journal Science, Redfield decided to attempt to recreate the experiment and has been blogging about her effort over the past year. As Nature describes it:

…that month, Redfield took matters into her own hands: she began attempting to replicate the work in her lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and documenting her progress on her blog (http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com).

The result has been a fascinating story of open science unfolding over the year. Redfield’s blog has become a virtual lab meeting, in which scientists from around the world help to troubleshoot her attempts to grow and study the GFAJ-1 bacteria — the strain isolated by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, lead author of the Science paper and a microbiologist who worked in the lab of Ronald Oremland at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California.

While I’m excited about Redfields blog (more on that below) we should pause and note the above paragraph is a very, very sad reminder of the state of affairs in science. I find the term “open science” to be an oxymoron. The scientific process only works when it is, by definition, open. There is, quite arguably, no such thing as “closed science.” And yet it is a reflection of how 18th century the entire science apparatus remains that Redfields awesome experiment is just that – an experiment. We should celebrate her work, and ask ourselves, why is this not the norm?

So first, to celebrate her work… when I look at Redfields blog, I see exactly what I hope the future of scientific, and indeed all academic research, will look like. Here is someone who is constantly updating their results and sharing what they are doing with their peers, as well as getting input and feedback from colleagues and others around the world. Moreover, she plays to the mediums strengths. While rigorous, she remains inviting and, from my reading, creates a more honest and human view into the world of science. I suspect that this might be much more attractive (and inspiring) to potential scientists. Consider, these two lines from one of her recent posts:

So I’m pretty sure I screwed something up.  But what?  I used the same DNA stock tube I’ve used many times before, and I definitely remember putting 3 µl of DNA into each assay tube.  I made fresh sBHI + novobiocin plates using pre-made BHI agar,, and I definitely remember adding the hemin (4 ml), NAD (80 µl) and novobiocin (40 µl) to the melted agar before I poured the plates.


UPDATE:  My novobiocin plates had no NovR colonies because I had forgotten to add the required hemin supplement to the agar!  How embarrassing – I haven’t made that mistake in years.

and then this blog post title:

Some control results! (Don’t get excited, it’s just a control…)

Here is someone literally walking through their thought processes in a thorough, readable way. Can you imagine anything more helpful for a student or young scientist? And the posts! Wonderfully detailed walk throughs of what has been tried, progress made and set backs uncovered. And what about the candor! The admission of error and the attempts to figure out what went wrong. It’s the type of thinking I see from great hackers as well. It’s also the type of dialogue and discussion you won’t see in a formal academic paper but is exactly what I believe every field (from science, to non-profit, to business) needs more of.

Reading it all, and I’m once again left wondering. Why is this the experiment? Why isn’t this the norm? Particularly at publicly funded universities?

Of course, the answer lies in another question, one I first ran into over a year ago reading this great blog post by Michael Clarke on Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already? As he so rightly points out:

When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991, it was with the aim of better facilitating scientific communication and the dissemination of scientific research. Put another way, the Web was designed to disrupt scientific publishing. It was not designed to disrupt bookstores, telecommunications, matchmaking services, newspapers, pornography, stock trading, music distribution, or a great many other industries…

…The one thing that one could have reasonably predicted in 1991, however, was that scientific communication—and the publishing industry that supports the dissemination of scientific research—would radically change over the next couple decades.

And yet it has not.

(Go read the whole article, it is great). Mathew Ingram also has a great piece on this published half a year later called So when does academic publishing get disrupted?

Clarke has a great breakdown on all of this, but my own opinion is that scientific journals survive not because they are an efficient means of transmitting knowledge (they are not – Redfield’s blog shows there are much, much faster ways to spread knowledge). Rather journals survive in their current form because they are the only rating system scientists (and more importantly) universities have to deduce effectiveness, and thus who should get hired, fired, promoted and, most importantly, funded. Indeed, I suspect journals actually impede (and definitely slow) scientific progress. In order to get published scientists regularly hold back sharing and disclosing discoveries and, more often still, data, until they can shape it in such a way that a leading journal will accept it. Indeed, try to get any scientists to publish their data in machine readable formats – even after they have published with it -it’s almost impossible… (notice there are no data catalogs on any major scientific journals websites…) The dirty secret is that this is because they don’t want others using it in case it contains some juicy insight they have so far missed.

Don’t believe me? Just consider this New York Times article on the break throughs in Alzheimer’s. The whole article is about a big break through in scientific research process. What was it? That the scientists agreed they would share their data:

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

This is unprecedented? This is the state of science today? In an era where we could share everything, we opt to share as little as possible. This is the destructive side of the scientific publishing process that is linked to performance.

It is also the sad reason why it is a veteran, established researcher closer to the end of her career that is blogging this way and not a young, up and coming researcher trying to establish herself and get tenure. This type of blog is too risky to ones career. Today “open” science, is not a path forward. It actually hurts you in a system that prefers more inefficient methods at spreading insights, research and data, but is good at creating readily understood rankings.

I’m thrilled that Rosie Redfield has been recognized by Nature (which clearly enjoys the swipe at Science – its competitor). I’m just sad that the today’s culture of science and universities means there aren’t more like her.


Bonus material: If you want to read an opposite view, here is a seriously self-interested defensive of the scientific publishing industry that was totally stunning to read. It’s fascinating that this man and Michael Clarke share the same server. If you look in the comments of that post, there is a link to this excellent post by a researcher at a University in Cardiff that I think is a great counter point.


How the Globe Editorial Board is Misleading You About Journalism

It was completely fascinating to read the Globe and Mail’s editorial board crow over its “victory” last week regarding the protection of confidential news sources.

Standing up for newshounds!” screamed the headlines, with a bold opening paragraph proclaiming:

The Supreme Court of Canada demonstrated respect and understanding on Friday for news reporting that depends on confidential sources. It set an appropriately high bar for judges who may wish to order journalists to reveal those sources, in civil or criminal cases. The court has in effect given the organized news media the tools to do investigative journalism in the public interest. [Emphasis mine.]

Wow, organized media has been *given tools* to protect the public interest? Yes! (According to the G&M…) Well, if this is true… Cue self-congratulatory text that plays into the trope (and myth) that traditional news media is essential for democracy!

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions. [Emphasis mine.]

The Supreme Court – again, according to the G&M – has ruled. Only journalists for the big news companies are real journalists that can enjoy the protection of the court.

This, if it were true, would be really big news. It might even justify such self-congratulatory rhetoric. The ruling however, is not this cut and dry. In truth, it provides no real new tools; the Globe‘s lawyers extracted little from the courts in the form of new protections; and the protections that do exist exist for everyone, not just journalists.

As a result, what is really disappointing about all this is that the Globe‘s editorial is at best misleading, attempting to lure Canadians into believing that traditional news media companies enjoy rights that are special and unique to them (and further, implies those rights are new). At worst, the piece suggests the editorial board clings to a world before the web – confined to an outdated worldview where “creators” who could legitimately report on or talk about the news were separated from “consumers” who passively absorb it. Previously, this worldview was made possible by the technology of the printing press, which kept production in the hands of a few; now that publishing is available to virtually anyone, the Globe‘s editorial board seems interested in finding a new way to limit this freedom – when they should be expanding it – by attempting to cast the law as a restrictive force whose benefits are enjoyed by only a few (them) and not everyone (us). It’s a dark perspective for the country’s leading editorial board to take.

Intrigued? I hope so, because what the ruling did say matters.

So what did the ruling say and what does it actually mean? Let’s look closer.

This Was a Draw, Not a Win.

Conversing with the eaves.ca legal team*, the consensus is that the ruling is a draw, not a win for the media. Very little has changed. Prior to the ruling, ascertaining if a confidential source deserved protection was up to the courts who used the four part Wigmore framework to make their assessment:

  1. the relationship must originate in a confidence that the source’s identity will not be disclosed;
  2. anonymity must be essential to the relationship in which the communication arises;
  3. the relationship must be one that should be sedulously fostered in the public interest; and
  4. the public interest served by protecting the identity of the informant must outweigh the public interest in getting at the truth.

Nothing about this case changes this framework. Courts, not the media, continue to determine if a source should be confidential, and the criteria have not changed. In short, the media has not been given “new” tools. Essentially the same tools as before apply.

Indeed, this case is at best a draw (albeit an important one) for the Globe‘s lawyers. This is because they were arguing for new and special rights, specifically the recognition that “the basis of the journalist-source privilege is a constitutional one.” In other words, they wanted to court to state that journalists have an inherent right to protect sources in the same way lawyers have a special solicitor-client privilege or medical doctors have doctor-patient confidentiality privilege. However, as the decision states:

the Court was unprepared “[t]o throw a constitutional immunity around the interactions of such a heterogeneous and ill-defined group of writers and speakers and whichever ‘sources’ they deem worthy of a promise of confidentiality and on whatever terms they may choose to offer it.”

Ouch. That’s not a victory, it’s outright defeat. Indeed, the court doesn’t even think journalists are a group with any unique rights as it:

also rejected the existence of a class-based privilege, on the basis that there is no formal accreditation or licensing process for journalists in place, as there is for lawyers for example, and no professional organization regulates the profession and maintains professional standards.

But that’s not it. On the fourth Wigmore criteria – the question of public interest – the Globe‘s lawyers also wanted the onus to shift to the party seeking production/testimony. In other words, to keep a source secret it shouldn’t be up to the Globe to persuade the courts that the story IS in the public interest, but up to the other party (person, corporation and government) to persuade the courts that it ISN’T in the public interest.

But the court did not agree with this request either:

The Court rejected this argument. Given that the evidence is presumptively compellable and admissible, the burden of persuasion remains on the media to show that the public interest in protecting a secret source outweighs the public interest in criminal investigations. The Court ultimately concluded that every claim to journalist-source privilege — be it in the face of testimonial compulsion or the production of documents — is situation specific, with the public’s interest in the freedom of expression always weighing heavily in the court’s balancing exercise. [my bold/italics]

Strike two.

So, to recap so far: First, the court has not made journalists a special class.  We all enjoy the rights to publish content and if that content were tested legally, the Wigmore framework would be applied to our sources. Second, the court essentially preserved the Wigmore test, so it has not “given media the tools”; it has simply preserved and reaffirmed the tools that already existed. Essentially the courts mostly sustained the status quo that existed before the lower court upset the apple cart.

I don’t want to belittle this outcome. This is an important victory for all Canadians as it preserves everyone’s ability to engage in investigative journalism if they so choose.

So what’s with the language in the Globe‘s editorial? Why claim a big victory and dump on bloggers? What you are really reading is a lot of spin. Which is part of what makes the editorial so frustrating – I hold the editorial board to a high standard, and I expect them to not spin stories, especially about themselves and a subject as serious as freedom of speech.

So let’s unpack that spin…

Mixed Messages

The first is the effort to qualify the victory.

As we previously saw, the Globe‘s lawyers argued that journalists should be a protected class and journalist-source relationships should enjoy constitutional protection. As we also saw, however, the Supreme Court did not agree. But look at the quote from the piece below:

“Bearing in mind the high societal interest in investigative journalism, it might be that he [Mr. Leblanc] could only be compelled to speak if his response was vital to the integrity of the administration of justice.” That is a high bar, indeed. The protection of sources should never be absolute, but the Quebec Superior Court will have to give it full consideration, in light of the important public interest at stake, when it ultimately decides the matter.

So first, the bar did not really move. Yes, the court overturned the lower court, but it essentially re-affirmed the Wigmore framework. Again, this is great news, but this is something preserved, not gained.

But more intriguing was the editorial board saying that the protection of sources should never be absolute. A constitutionally protected journalist-source relationship either is absolute, or if I understand it correctly, pretty close to absolute. So why say it shouldn’t be absolute when this is what your legal team was essentially asking for? One suspects that had the court given journalists a special, constitutionally protected relationship with sources (which really would have demanded a dramatic editorial) than the paper would have argued that the journalists sources had finally achieved the absolute protection they so richly deserve and need.

Burying the Lead

But what is particularly interesting about the Globe‘s editorial piece is its treatment of pretty much everyone who isn’t employed by the mainstream media. The entire framing of the piece is that this is a win for journalists and the media, even though the court goes out of its way to say they are not a protected or even recognized class.

Indeed the real story is that important rights that belong to all Canadians have been preserved! But that story is buried.

Rather, the Globe seems very keen to divide the country into two groups – creators (that’s them) and (passive) consumers (that’s you).  Coming back to the first quote from the piece, the Globe notes that.

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions.

In fact, the court does no such thing. First, the Wigmore framework applies to anyone who publishes. That would include people like myself who blog. That also means you (since really anyone can blog, or tweet, or publish something these days).

Second – and this is where it feels like the editorial board really misleads the public – the court did not put great stock in organized media. Indeed, if anything, it went out of its way to say it put very little stock in it.

The basis of the above line in the editorial is, I presume, this part of the ruling:

Justice Binnie put particular emphasis on the significance of the third and fourth factors [of the Wigmore framework], in the journalist-source context. The third factor, whether the relationship is one that the community should sedulously foster (para. 57), introduces a certain degree of flexibility in the evaluation of the different types of sources and different types of journalists. He suggested that whether the relationship is between a source and a blogger, or between a source and a professional journalist, will impact upon the court’s weighing exercise.

So yes, the credibility of the person will matter. But this also means a fly-by-night newspaper may not enjoy the same protection as an established blogger. But even here the wording is quite conservative – “a certain degree of flexibility” and the difference is “suggested.” This is all pretty qualified, and hardly a sign of the court putting “great stock” in established media.

Of course, what little there is gets watered down even further in the next line of the ruling:

But, according to Justice Binnie, the fourth factor [of the Wigmore framework] does the lion’s share of the work, and the court’s task is to “achieve proportionality in striking a balance among the competing interests” (para. 59).

So the public interest is what really matters – not who (e.g. blogger or newspaper) is seeking to preserve the confidentiality of the source.

In Conclusion

This piece is, in many way, a continuation to a piece I wrote in December after a previous Supreme Court ruling which the court went out of its way to put journalists, bloggers and citizens on a equal footing. In the same vein, my problem with the editorial board’s piece isn’t that they played up the significance of their victory – it is still an important victory. It’s that the piece suggests the victory is the (large) news industry’s to enjoy exclusively (or at least, that we ordinary citizens may only enjoy its benefits through them). This is not the case and it does a disservice to citizens, bloggers and journalists to suggest as such.

The Globe and Mail will likely have a long and illustrious reign as the newspaper of record of Canada – but that reign is more likely to continue if it provides credible insights into both the technological and legal realities of the digital world. This editorial suggests that it does not; and I believe that the country, and the paper, are weaker for it.

*Thank you for those who helped me with the legal legwork on this piece, and for those who’ve stuck through to the end; I know this is an unusually long post.

The week in review (or… why I blog and a thank you)

Here’s a few snippets of comments, emails and other communications I’ve had this week in response to specific posts or just the blog in general. Each one touches on why I love blogging and my readers and why this blog has come to mean so much to me.

Venting, and finding out your not alone…

So, yesterday I got a little bit into a hate-on for Statistics Canada’s website. It wasn’t the first time and pretty much every time I do it I find another soul out there whose had their soul crushed by the website as well. Take this comment from last week:

Re: Stats Canada’s website being unusable. I completely frickin agree. God. Has anyone in government actually tried to use that website? An econ professor gave our class an assigment last year that involved looking stuff up on Statscan. Half of our class failed the assignment because they gave up and the other half had the wrong data, but got the marks anyways for trying. I think he actually took that assigment off of the grading at the end. It’s a bloody gong show…

Sometimes it makes me feel more human knowing that others are out there struggling with the same thing. StatsCan does great work… I just wish they made it accessible.

…and then having some kind souls find some solutions for you.

But as nice as knowing you’re not alone… even better is how often the internet connects you to others who just happen to have that esoteric piece of knowledge that saves the day.

I agree, Stats Can is one of the worst government websites out there (specifically those stupid CANSIM tables), one that, as a policy analyst with XXXXXXXX Canada, i frequently have to use to get data. I had the data for XXXXXXX and it wasn’t hard to get it for the country.

This kind soul led me straight to a completely different page on statscan that happened to have the data I was looking for. (for those interested, it was here).

And they weren’t the only one. Another reader posted a link to the data over twitter…

Thank god there is an army good natured amateur and professional experts experienced in navigating the byzantine structure of the statscan website!

So… thank you! I’m going to try to grind out an updated pan-North American version of the Fatness Index this weekend.

Impacting Policy

But this week also had that other rewarding ingredient I love to get: hearing about a post helped, incrementally, foster better public policy. This came in via email from a public servant about yesterday’s blog post:

Your blog today provided a good example in a meeting with government colleagues about the benefits of opening data. It illustrates the implications of not releasing data to the public (e.g. stifling innovation)… It resonated well with them.

This is a huge part of why I blog. Part of it is to explore ideas, part of it is to introduce ideas and thoughts, but a big piece of it is to enable public servants and do just this, helps small internal government meeting (on subjects like open data) go a little more smoothly.

So to everyone out there, be it policy wonks, students, public servants, politicians or ordinary, engaged citizens. Thank you. It was a good week. We wrote some good posts, some good comments, had an original story on the stupidity of the census, and maintained sanity in the face of the StatsCan website. Thank you everyone for making it so fun. Hope you all have a great weekend. – Dave

Your friday funny: This blogger is at the wrong blog

For those who haven’t seen it yet, I strongly, strongly, strongly encourage you to watch the “This Drummer is at the Wrong Gig” video embedded below. I discovered the clip a few weeks and have been sharing it with all my friends. It’s awe inspiring, hilarious, amazing and, just keeps getting better and better as you get deeper into the clip.

Watch the drummer. Pure genius.

What’s better, the drummer – Steve Moore – is just flat out nice. Check out this interview with him about his youtube fame. He’s everything you’d want in a bandmate: loyal, talented and doing it for the right reason.

Indeed, the best part of the interview is him talking about how he couldn’t care less about money but how getting the respect from drummers he looks up to is what has been the biggest pay off.

Anyone whose felt passionate about something likely feels the same way. Personally, I hope I blog half as well as this guy drums. And nothing feels better than getting an email or tweet about a blog post from someone I really respect. Those really are the best moments.

Nice work Steve Moore. You’re an inspiration. And just plain awesome.

Banned Blogs

So I’m fed up. I’m tired of hearing about fantastic blogs written by fantastic people that are banned by different federal departments of the Canadian public service.

Banned you say? Isn’t that a little dramatic?

No! I mean banned.

The IT departments of several federal governments block certain websites that are deemed to have inappropriate or non-work related content. Typically these include sites like Facebook, Gmail and of course, various porn sites (a list of well known mainstream sites that are blocked can be found here).

I’ve known for a while that my site – eaves.ca – is blocked by several departments and it hasn’t bothered me (I’ve always felt that blocking someone increase people’s interest in them), But as whispers about the number of blogs blocked grows, I find the practice puzzling and disturbing. These are not casual blogs. One might think this is limited to casual or personel blogs but many of the blogs I hear about are on public policy or the public service. They may even contain interesting insights that could help public servants. They are not sites that contain pornographic material, games or other content that could be construed as leisure (as enjoyable as I know reading my blog is…).

So, in an effort to get a better grasp of the scope and depth of the problem I’d like your help to put together a list. On eaves.ca I’ve created a new page – entitled “Banned Blogs” that lists blogs and the Canadian Federal Government Ministries that ban them. If you are a public servant and you know of a blog that is blocked from your computer please send me a note. If you know a public servant, ask them to check their favourite blogs. If you know of a site that is blocked you can send me an email, at tweet, or an anonymous comment on this blog, I’ll add it to the list. It would be fantastic to get a sense of who is blocked and by which departments. Maybe we’ll even knock some sense into some IT policies.


(Post script: Douglas B. has some great suggestions about how to deal with blocked sites and lists some of the ancient policies that could help public servants fight this trend).

What April Fools' Says about the internet (and eaves.ca is not ending)

So yesterday, as an April Fools’ Day prank I announced that I was retiring my blog. Nothing could be further from the truth of course. I love blogging and, for the foreseeable future, find it hard to imagine not putting thoughts to words to posts. It’s also been heartwarming (and guilt inducing) to get dozens of emails and tweets from friends and readers I’ve never met expressing disappointment and congratulations.

But also interesting is how social media – and the internet generally – has revived April Fools’ Day, made it more widespread and protected us against it.

More sophisticated:

Now That's a Prank!

I’ll confess I have no data to support this argument, but I feel like there are more April Fools’ pranks these days. Part of this is because April Fools’ pranks have to be gentle and non-permanent (or at least the prankster should have both the responsibility and capacity to  reverse the prank). In the physical world this is harder to do. But in a virtual space a prank is easily undone. Unlike disassembling a car, creating a misleading and humorous story is a lot easier. It is also, most of the time, easy to correct.

More people:

Of course, creating stories is not new. Just look at the BBC’s famous 1957 April Fools’ prank in which the TV news show panorama featured a story about Swiss-Italian farmers harvesting their spagetti crop (pure genius). Huge numbers of viewers fell for the joke (and many were, apparently, not amused). But just as we are now all journalists, we are now all pranksters. It is also easier for more of us to do April Fools’ jokes since more of us tweet and blog. It also means that a joke or prank is likely to spread wider and faster.

Internet as protection:

But just as the internet makes it easier for everyone to engage in April Fools’ pranks, and for those pranks to disseminate more widely, it also provides us with new tools to assess their veracity. Just take a look at the comments on my own blog. Many of my readers new immediately that the post was a hoax, and said as much right below the story. Same was true on twitter and facebook. Indeed what was interesting is that most people who commented on facebook knew the post was a joke, whereas tweets were more likely to have taken the piece seriously. Not sure what that is… Possibly because facebook has more people who know me personally and were more likely to be skeptical of me… :) Either way, in a world where the audience speaks back our capacity to sniff out – and notify others – of problems in a story are there, and we use them. It was much harder to do this in 1957 with the BBC.

All this to say, I never meant for this to be a petri dish experiment around critical media skills but what a wonderful demonstration that the medium is the message. I love that the internet has renewed a great tradition but I’m even happier to see how it empowers us all to be skeptical and to warn others.

Hopefully, I haven’t lost too many readers in the process. Hope you had a good April Fools’ day yesterday.