Join, or Die

So, apparently, there is an auction going on right now for a 1754 newspaper that was the original publication of Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join, or Die” editorial cartoon. In reading the description for the item, I learned some things. (Reading, who knew?) While this cartoon is primarily associated with the Revolutionary War, and the need to unify against England, it was actually originally a call for the colonies to unify against the French in the run-up to the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War to non-Americans). Shortly after the publication of the cartoon, Franklin attended a meeting of colonial delegates in Albany, where he proposed the creation of a Federal government charged with coordinating defense among the colonies.

Everyone else said no.

Franklin’s editorial cartoon lumped the New England colonies into a single unit, presaging the NFL. The slogan, of course is a long-time favorite of many religious movements.

Despite not forming a Federal government, the colonies came out of that war just fine, and the war’s outcome actually paved the way for the colonies’ westward expansion. Which has to make you wonder if, at the outset of the Revolution, Franklin didn’t seem a bit like the boy who cried wolf.

Kate Beaton, the genius behind the history-themed webcomic Hark, A Vagrant, already knew that Franklin was repurposing the cartoon:

If you want to own this, you can place your bid here. The minimum bid is $50,000, and the auctioneers expect a final price between $100,000 and $200,000. As of now, the number of internet/mail/phone bids that have been places is, um, zero. I guess newspapers really are dead.

via Boing Boing

Todd’s new webcomic: The Avengener!

So, perhaps inspired by Darwin Eats Cake, Todd, the potted bamboo plant from Darwin Eats Cake, has begun writing his own webcomic. He debuted his work in today’s strip:

Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:

For reasons that are lost to the recesses of time, I’ve been using Adobe’s InDesign to make Darwin Eats Cake. Todd decided to make The Avengner! using Illustrator, which seems the more sensible and obvious choice. I may try it myself in the future.

Hat tip to Tasey (rhymes with “spacey”) and Cim (alliterates with “cantankerous”) for Evolötion.

My goals for independent scholarship

So, I’ve already received a number of very thoughtful responses to my previous post, in which I asked for people’s thoughts about the needs of an independent scholar — particularly those needs that could potentially be filled by an outfit like the Ronin Institute. I’ll start sharing those ideas (along with my own thoughts about what is doable) in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I thought that I would share my own goals in starting my own institute. Basically, it is about escaping the constraints of the (university) academic system. Now, that sounds a bit odd when you say it. After all, as far as jobs-with-a-paycheck go, academia provides you with more freedom than most things, in that you have control over both what you do and when you do it.

At least that’s what we all tell each other in grad school.

This recent entry from PhD Comics better sums up the reality on the ground:

The fact is, what you work on as an academic is highly constrained by a number of factors, like what is publishable or fundable. To a certain extent, that is as it should be. You need incentives that encourage people to do high-quality, relevant work. After all, at the end of the day, through whatever mechanism, it is the rest of society that is paying for us to live and eat while we are doing our research.

You may be absolutely fascinated by Heidegger’s early correspondence, and it may well be a worthy subject of the book you’re writing, but it is not unreasonable for society to devote more of its resources to, say, HIV.

The real problem, as I see it, is not the existence of market-style incentives, nor the overall distribution of those incentives, but the way that those incentives are implemented through the bureaucracies of funding agencies and universities.

One key issue is the way that the incentives are channeled through the departmental structure. I think of this in terms of a story that a colleague of mine tells about giving a seminar in a physics department. At the end of the talk, the first comment from the audience was, “That’s really interesting, but it’s not physics.”

(Note that the only appropriate response to such a comment is, “Thank you, and, who the fuck cares?”)

Of course, this problem is not at all limited to physics. Most researchers have, at one time or another, stumbled across an interesting question or collaboration, but have not pursued it the way they might have out of a concern that the work would not be recognized by their department. In many cases, they fear that having an outside interest will actually count against them. This is a widely-acknowledged problem in academia, and is often the motivation for establishing interdisciplinary centers and trans-departmental programs. However, these centers and programs tend to have specific missions, which come with their own constraints and dogmas. And anyway, any academic structure will only be as openminded as the people running it.

The other constraint relates to publication, which is the currency of cultural capital within almost all academic fields. Again, nothing wrong, in principle with requiring people to publish their work, and to have that work scrutinized by their peers. But what about those insights and ideas that don’t lend themselves to whatever the standard publication format is in a particular field? I think that most researchers have also, at one time or another, done an interesting little piece of work that they would like to share, but which is, say, too small to justify a full research paper, or, in some fields, a book. Projects like these may lie dormant on your hard drive for years before finding an outlet, if ever.

My personal situation is exacerbated by the fact that my interests are abnormally diverse. I remember in graduate school, when a lot of people seemed to think that I was some sort of crazy rebel for doing work on two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

Yes, two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

In fact, I have interests in neuroscience and behavioral economics, population genetics, game theory, systems biology, philosophy, and linguistics. Beyond that, I write poetry, and this spring I started a webcomic. Finally, I am a husband and a father, both of which I view as deeply more important than any of my academic interests.

There are people who can pull off being a successful university professor while not ignoring their families. There are also professors who manage to pursue some sort of extracurricular interest.

But unless you’re one of those people who only has to sleep like four hours a day, it is nearly impossible to satisfy your department while working across multiple fields, actively pursuing multiple outside interests, and going home at a reasonable hour.

I finally figured out that I was not willing to walk away from any of my other interests, and that I would have to walk away from at least some of them in order to fulfill my obligations to even the most forgiving and open-minded department.

Basically, what I want to do is live a normal, balanced life, and to spend something like 50 or 60 percent of my work time doing things that would be generally recognized as scientific research. Of that “research” bit, only a fraction would fit comfortably within any given department.

The problem is that what I want does not really mesh with the expectations that are placed on you (both institutionally and culturally) within academia.

I am reminded of something that happened way back when I was a biochemistry grad student at the University of Wisconsin. The department organized a sort of career day, where they had people come and talk to us about different career paths. Among others, there were people who were PIs at the university, people working for biotech companies, someone working in forensics, and one guy who was teaching at a small undergraduate college.

The undergraduate teacher explained that the era of the nine-month-a-year academic was over, even at small colleges, as even the smallest colleges now expect you to develop research programs that can involve undergrads and actively pursue grants. However, he said that it did lend itself to living a more balanced life compared with being a PI with a big lab at a major research university.

Then he said this:

“You know, I don’t think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, ‘Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.'”

The room suddenly filled with tension, and the organizers quickly hustled him off and introduced the next speaker.

Grad school is about a lot of things: learning a body of knowledge, learning how to perform independent research, etc. But more than all of that, grad school is about being imbued with a set of academic values. This guy, by saying something that is, with just the tiniest bit of perspective, undeniably true, had violated the code. He had undermined the part of our training that was about internalizing the notion that finishing the next experiment / writing the next paper / getting the next grant was more important than anything else going on in our lives.

I suspect that he was not invited back the next year, but his comment has stuck with me. (I’m sorry I can’t recall either his name or school.) I think most of us start of in grad school because we love whatever it is that we’re studying, but then we tend to get caught up in chasing all of the proximate goals (publication, tenure, society membership) that define the academic incentive structure, and many academics lose sight of the fact that there was ever something that excited them so much that they wanted to spend their life studying.

So, that’s my goal. I want to keep my eye on the thing that drew me to academia in the first place. I want to spend my time trying to say things that I believe to be true, recognizing that some truths lend themselves to being expressed as mathematical equations, some as poems, some as comics, and some as rambling blog posts about founding an institute devoted to supporting independent scholarship.

Calling all Ronin

So, last week I posted about my plans to start my own non-profit research institute, to be called the Ronin Institute. Interestingly, I got a handful of notes from people inquiring — with various levels of facetiousness — about joining up. That matches up with my experience of talking to people in person about this plan, where a significant fraction of people ask to join up in a semi-joking sort of way.

In fact, one of my long-term goals for this venture is to create an organization that can help to connect and support scholars who, by choice or by chance, do not have an affiliation with a university or other research institute. Originally, I had viewed that as something that I would start building in a couple of years, after getting the basic place established. However, it seems that even the semi-joking responses point to a genuine desire by a lot of people for something.

I’m not sure exactly what that something is, but I have a couple of guesses.

[I go on here at some length about my guesses, but at the end of the post, I get to the point. If something like the Ronin Institute seems even vaguely appealing to you, send me an e-mail at, and let me know what is appealing and why. If you were to join the Ronin Institute, what would you hope to get from the affiliation?]

The thing about academia is that it requires a certain level of competence at / interest in a variety of activities. I think that most people who go to grad school do it with the idea that their life is career to be about scholarship and research. They usually know that, for most jobs, they will also be expected to teach, which is a plus for some people and a minus for others. These are certainly two of the most important things you do as an academic, but many professors will tell you that this is not what takes up the bulk of their time. Successful academics tend to spend a large fraction of time worrying about raising funding, through grants or donations. In the sciences, being a successful academic also requires being a competent manager, since most science is done in laboratories that include graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. And finally, for all academics, you have to be able to navigate the politics and bureaucracy of the university (national laboratory, pharmaceutical company, think tank, etc.).

I think it’s that last bit that is most surprising to people: the fact that your career depends so heavily on your ability to deal with deans and provosts, and to negotiate the (often quite poisonous) interpersonal dynamics of your department. I’ve known several people who are absolutely brilliant, but who have been marginalized in academia owing to their inability to play the politics game. I’m not talking here about the bullies or budding psychopaths who need to get flushed out. I’m talking about people who are kind, honest, and principled, but perhaps fail to recognize that, as they say, discretion is the better part of of valor. So they get crosswise with someone higher up in the academic power structure.

My other guess is that people are frustrated by the constraints of the academic treadmill. I think there are two aspects of this. The first is geographical. The fact is, if you are really committed to pursuing a traditional academic career, you have to go to where the job is. This is hard not only on two-career families, but on anyone with other geographical constraints on where they live. Maybe you have children and are divorced, or maybe you have a chronic illness and need the support of family, or maybe you just really love where you live.

The other constraint of the academic treadmill is temporal. This has been much written about, so I won’t belabor it here, but it is well known that a gap in your trajectory (due to, e.g., illness or having a kid) can derail your career in a way that can be difficult to recover from. Academic life is also constraining in that it tends to be an all-consuming job. Many academics feel that they don’t have time for outside interests. A few are good at cordoning off and protecting their personal time, but the fact is, it is rare to see university professors who have the time to coach their kid’s soccer team.

Now, there are certain realms of science (like high-energy physics or virology) that really require the infrastructure provided by a university (or university equivalent). However, there are many domains where an individual scholar can still make significant contributions. I’m thinking of most fields in the arts and humanities, as well as theoretical or mathematical work in any of the sciences. Even in those aspects of science that incorporate an experimental or field component, there is a lot that an independent researcher can do, particularly if they have collaborators who are at a university.

Basically, one of the things that I would like the Ronin Institute to be able to do is help all of those people who want to engage in research, but who are not in the standard academic track. What I need to know from you is this: what would you need? Send me e-mail at with your thoughts.

Keep in mind, I am not sitting on a big pot of money, and will not, at any time in the near future, be in a position to provide support in the form of funding. The sort of thing that the Ronin Institute could potentially provide would be more along the lines of an institutional address (for e-mail or for running grants through), and perhaps a community of like-minded independent scholars. What I would like to get is a sense — in as much detail as you can muster — of where you’re coming from, where you want to get to, and what specific things you think might help that a community of Ronin could provide. Also, if the Ronin Institute were to acquire a modest amount of funding in the future, what would be most helpful to you as an independent scholar (e.g., funds to pay page charges for publications, funds to pay for IRB review of proposed research, funds to pay travel to scientific meetings, etc.).

In case you’re wondering, “Does this apply to me?” let me give you some guidelines. Here is who should write in:

  • Academics who have left their university positions (by choice or not), but want to continue with their work.
  • Academics who are fed up with the university politics/bureaucracy, and are interested in investigating an alternative model for research.
  • Aspiring academics who have taken a hiatus in their training (by choice or not), and are trying to figure out how to return.
  • Aspiring academics who are looking at the academic job market and despairing, and want to think about alternative paths.
  • People who love research and scholarship, but who, because of personal constraints (or personal preference) can’t commit to the full-time academic lifestyle.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, but want to connect with independent scholars.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, and have thoughts about what they would find most lacking if they were to leave the university.
Also, if you know of anyone who might benefit from something like this, or might have ideas or suggestions, please forward this post to them.
Once I have a sense of what people are looking for, I’ll try to find the intersection of that with the set of things that I believe to be tractable in the short to medium-term future.

Observations from the road

So, I have now completed the three-day, 2100-mile road trip from Santa Fe, NM to Montclair, NJ with my father and four dogs (thanks Dad!), which means that our move is nearly complete. Today we will have the internet turned on in our home, and all that will be left is to unpack all those boxes full of things that make you ask, “Why did we bring this?”

Every time I drive across the country, I’m struck by just how beautiful so much of it is. And every time, I say to myself that I need to come back and drive it in a leisurely way, stopping to see all the stuff like the world’s largest rocking chair. Of course, I never actually do this. I suspect that’s a good metaphor for something, probably life.

A few observations along the way:

The first night, we stayed at a hotel in Shamrock, TX (very slow start the first day). Interestingly, the place was hopping. The hotels were filled with people who were there working in the oil fields. I’ve made many trips to and through West Texas in my life, and all of my memories for the past thirty years are of sleepy, dried-up oil towns. One of the silver linings of the high gas prices we’ve been seeing is that they’ve created a whole bunch of jobs. (Of course, the other silver lining is that it helps to drive investment into alternative energy sources and more efficient technologies.)

Driving through Oklahoma, you see a ton of windmills. You know, those huge white ones for generating wind power. In many of these wind farms, a significant fraction of the windmills were not spinning. What’s up with that? Are those ones broken? Do they shut some of them down when demand is low in order to reduce wear? Anybody know the answer?

The Mississippi river is freaking huge.

The second night we stayed in Vandalia, IL.

There’s a town in Illinois called Vandalia.

There’s also a town in Ohio called Vandalia.

No sign of elevated crime rates in either of those places.

There are a lot of trucks. This makes sense when you think about it, since trucks are how stuff gets places, and no matter where you go in the country, if there’s one thing you’ll find, it’s stuff. Still, the sheer volume is impressive.

You can easily find multiple country stations on the radio along the entire route, until you get to within about 50 miles of New York City. I assume that’s because New Yorkers all listen to their country music on their satellite radios.

As we drove into New Jersey on Saturday night, it was raining. And when I say it was raining, I mean that in the way that one might say that Glenn Beck was lying. At times, it felt as if we were actually underwater, scampering between air pockets. Now, I’ve never lived in New Jersey before, so I was relieved when I turned on the radio this morning and all of the DJs were talking about record-breaking rains over the weekend. Because, for all I knew, that might have been normal.

As of now, I have lived in 50% of the states that contain the word “New.”

I have lived in 100% of the states that contain the word “Ass.”

On ronin and the future

So, for the past six years, I have been on the resident faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. As I am writing this, I am sitting at a laundromat in Santa Fe, preparing for a cross-country road trip to Montclair, New Jersey, where I am going to be founding my own research institute.

What does that mean? Well, technically speaking, I will be forming a non-profit dedicated to research. At least to start with, the non-profit will consist of me, so, practically speaking, it’s like I’m becoming a freelance scholar.

My new outfit will be called the Ronin Institute. Ronin refers to a masterless samurai. It may be familiar to you from this:

or maybe from this:

Since this is a career path that is a bit different from the one that most academics follow, I thought it might be interesting to write about it here. I’ll share some of the details of what is involved in establishing a non-profit, and the process of becoming an independent scholar. This is a new venture for me, one that is going to involve some trial and error. As I go along, I’ll let you know what’s working and what isn’t. Most of you are probably not going to start your own institutes (although I hope a few of you will), but many of you may be interested in thinking about alternatives to the archetypal academic career trajectory. I’m hoping that my experience will be helpful in thinking about your own plans.

Or maybe it will at least be comforting and entertaining to you in a schadenfreude kind of way.

On the nocturnal penile tumescence

So, here’s the latest Darwin Eats Cake. Once again, Guillaume is gracing us with his adaptationist explanations. This time, he is answering a question from Bastian Greshake (@gedankenstuecke), champion of evolution, creative commons, and all sorts of other good stuff.

If you’re not familiar with Creative Commons, it is an alternative to traditional copyrights. It’s a great option if you’re committed to an open culture, where creations can be shared, but want to protect yourself against having your creations exploited.

For instance, all of the Darwin Eats Cake strips are published under a creative commons license explicitly stating that you are free to share them. You can e-mail them, copy them into your own blog, print them out, pretty much anything you want, just so long as you provide attribution. The only thing you can’t do is sell them.

Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding: