Monday, November 26, 2012

Avoid boring people

Anna-Maria De Mars has some good advice for judo players that is equally applicable to science. What she is saying is, in short: Work harder than the competition, and work with people who are better than you are. Actually, the latter of these was originally advice for scientists from James D. Watson. He wrote a whole book on the subject:
Avoid boring people: Lessons from a life in science. 
Being a sucker for books I bought it immediately. So, thank you Anna-Maria for pointing it out to me (albeit indirectly). The best thing about it is the double-meaning title. Behind this is an autobiography, which is interesting in many ways, but today's subject is the Remembered Lessons at the end of each chapter. There is some very important survival advice there, like:
"Avoid fighting bigger boys or dogs."
 And some advice that will be good for your development no matter what you do:
"Seek out bright as opposed to popular friends." This is really what Anna-Maria was quoting although from a different article as: "Never be the smartest person in the room," which sounds better but not as good as the book-title.
Then, there is some advice for young scientists like:
"Choose a young thesis adviser" that I obviously think all bright young prospects should do now, but which I did not follow myself and do not think I should have.
Or, the more cumbersome:
"Extend yourself intellectually through courses that initially frighten you," which is really good advice, and, like for Watson himself, mostly means study more mathematics and statistics.
"Keep your intellectual curiosity much broader than your thesis objective." This is also one of my own goals, and a recurring suggestion for my students. To some degree it comes naturally to medical students, since they have to be able to handle a variety of patients. However, they (MDs) often have to be induced to read more widely from theoretical literature, while students with basic science degrees have to be motivated to read some clinical medicine as well (and everyone has to be forced and whipped to study more mathematics and statistics). 
The autobiographical part is also interesting. James Watson describes how he was very focused on forwarding his career, and not spending time on things (courses, projects, etc) that would not be of direct use for his research or advancement in science. Anyway, that was it for now. I am going to follow his advice to:
"Work on Sundays."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wish for a responsive pocketable camera

Instead of working, which I should, I have been drawing another camera. I have been drawing space-ships, weapons, robots, and the occasional camera since forever. Mostly without any regard for cost, usability, or even feasibility. However, looking for a camera that fits my way of shooting have prompted a series of ever more detailed camera designs. I think it is getter rather close to what I would like to see, and although camera-makers are getting closer and closer in some regards other are yet to be fulfilled.

The basic design is a pocket-size, window-finder, all-manual camera. The body is all metal, possibly with some grip-friendly cover, and it should be weather-sealed. With weather sealed, I mean submergible. It should be small enough to fit comfortably in a normal trouser-pocket, or a largish shirt-pocket. There is a sharp-edged finger-grip and thumb-grip, which I think is especially important even in a small camera.

The sensor should be large, ideally full-frame 35mm, which balances field of view with depth of field. It should have in-body vibration reduction. The finder should be a frame-line hybrid view-finder with parallax correction. The primary focus-confirmation is by overlay of in-focus edges in the optical finder. The finder can be switched to all-digital for macro. 

The lens as envisioned is a fast non-interchangeable prime 35mm F/1.2 with a metal construction. Focus throw should be short, and the action smooth. Aperture is set on the barrel with click-stops as it is primarily a photography camera, potentially the aperture ring could be pulled out to engage a smooth aperture for filming. Both the focus and aperture rings can be set to auto. The aperture with only a slightly firmer detente, and the focus by pressing the mechanical AF-lock button. However, to get out of autofocus you just turn the focusing-barrel past a detente. There is no reason the lens couldn't be interchangeable, except that I would like to keep bulk to a minimum and lenses tend to keep accumulating if the possibility exists.
The top of the camera has mechanical dials for the other two main exposure settings: shutter speed and ISO. Both include positions for automatic settings, and the shutter-dial includes a T-setting for electronically variable speeds larger than one second, and a bulb-setting. If any exposure control is set to automatic, exposure compensation can be set with the thumb-wheel. Obviously, if you set all exposure-controls to automatic, you have automatic exposure. The small arrows light up to indicate over- or under exposure. On the top-panel there is an O-LED screen where the basic exposure info, including a histogram can be easily seen. In addition, the current focus-distance, photos remaining and battery can be seen. What is shown is obviously customisable. There is a button on each of the dials. Both have three-level shutter-release action. Both have LEDs on top. Finally there is the on-off switch, which is a mechanical breaker. If it is off, the camera is off, no more taking the battery out nonsense because of software malfunctions. If it is on it can go into a sleep-mode to save battery, but should take an image immediately if you press the shutter-release.

Now, the back panel is dominated by a high-resolution (think iPhone retina resolution) touch-screen. In addition, there is the thumb-wheel, two thumb-buttons and four buttons for the left hand. All buttons have LEDs so that they can indicate if a function is activated or not. All buttons and the thumb-wheel are customisable by way of a very easy touch interface. You could set  one to AF- or AE-lock, one to activate live-view, or have different buttons for single and multiple shot shutter-release. The touch-screen is used for organising images, setting up the button-based interface and can be used for composition, auto focus selection, exposure selection et cetera when shooting. It is obviously multi-touch so that it supports pinch-zoom and such. Even in live-view, and up to a scale where individual pixels can be seen so that critical focus can be easily achieved. Finally there is an additional button on the front. This and both thumb-buttons are three-level shutter-release type buttons, so that there are a potential total of five full-function shutter-release buttons.

One of the most irritating things is when you press a button by mistake, or touch the screen and something is changed or just hangs. Therefore there is a mechanical lock-switch. It can be set to lock everything, everything except the shutter-release, or any subset of buttons and touch-screen functions. 

There is no hot-shoe because there is no room, and it is a bit 20th-century. The camera has built-in radio sync that by software settings can control any and all radio sync devices. Sync-speed is very high because of the leaf-shutter lens. 

Basically it is a manual pocket-camera, where the interface can be configured to your shooting style and locked so that nothing is changed by mistake. Since all settings are electronic on the inside you can even set a button to be an emergency shutter-release that ignores even the mechanical settings and immediately takes a picture with some other settings. For example, let's say you are doing manual landscape work at base-ISO and f/16 at 1/30s using touch-screen focus. Resetting the camera to capture a moment would generally mean that you loose both your meticulous settings, and miss the moment. Using the preset emergency release set to take a photograph with f/8, at least 1/125s, and auto ISO,  you can always capture the moment. Or, conversely, if you are walking around doing street photography and suddenly find yourself wanting to take a macro, you could set another button to f/16, auto-focus, auto-ISO, 1/250s. You can even build profiles with different functions for different buttons that are changed all at once in the touch interface with just three actions: unlock, profiles, scroll and select profile.

Anyway, you get the idea. It is mechanical yet customisable.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


There are an insane number of pet pictures on the internet and there seems to be another book of puppies every other day, but when you like photography, books, and dogs you have to try to find something worthwhile. First in line is a thick thing that at a distance looks like any other book of puppies, but isn't. The Taschen published A thousand dogs is a thick (yes, Thick), soft-bound thing with 1000 (I assume) photographs of dogs.
However, instead of a collection of the 1000 currently cutest and cheapest pictures they could find they have collected a comprehensive historical selection of dog photographs. From 1839 and forward. The first are simple posed photographs made with some of the first cameras ever made, clearly showing the central role of dogs in our society across the years.
The book is divided into sections by years and includes some quite well-known photographers and photophraphs. The reproductions are quite good, at least matching the quality of the binding. It is a an interesting book both as a history of photography and for the wealth of images (of dogs), some of which are quite good.
Second out is the leading photographer of posed dogs, William Wegman. He has produced a number of books with his Weimaraner dogs. I picked the book Polaroids with pictures from an impressive 20x24in large-format camera. 
Some are more or less silly Weimaraners in clothes, but some are exquisitely posed humanesque dog photos. Let me just say that these are nor pictures you could make with boxers. No boxer I ever met would stand still matching paws with another boxer posing as it's shadow. At least not for long enough to make a large-format photograph.
Weimaraners, however, seem perfectly suited to the job. Some of the images are accompanied by short stories about how they were made and what Wegman was thinking or trying to create.  The book as such is a quite well-made soft-bound book of a size that is easy to handle. The reproductions are fine, and the dogs are cute.
Another book of posed dogs is Tim Flach's Dogs Gods. It is what we in Sweden call "praktverk", no expense has been spared. The binding is excellent, the format is non-standard. There are different high-quality photos on the binding and the dust-jacket. The reproductions are among the best available for large-production colour printing.
It is not quite as luscious, and not nearly as varied or complete as his book about horses Equus. Almost all photos are carefully posed and lit images. With only a few natural light - natural behaviour images sprinkled on top.
As with Equus there are some images that by their setting must have been taken in the wild but with lighting and posing that are nothing short of miraculous. Among dogphotobooks, this is the most equal of them all.
The nestor of dog-photography is Magnum's Elliot Erwitt. Elliot Erwitt's Dogs is a new collection of some of his most iconic dog photographs, as well as a number less well-known pictures. It includes a foreword in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian (as any proper book should). Elliot Erwitt represents the opposite of Wegman and Flach in that the book is all black and white, and while there are some studio shots the vast majority of photographs are of dogs doing what dogs do. They are ungroomed, sniffing each other, licking themselves or just taking a piss. If they are posed it is just the look-at-the-camera pose, or, they might be barked at. Something Erwitt is known for doing.
The book is a very nice folio hardback with excellent reproductions, although as is common with high quality black and white reproductions there is a bit of gloss differential. The book is too big to hand-hold but just right for opening in your lap while sitting in a leather armchair sipping a whisky.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Physiological illiteracy impedes progress in medicine!

A recent paper in PNAS has caused a bit of a ruckus discussion. The authors (Tim W. Fawcett and Andrew D. Higginson from U-Bristol) have compared citation rates with the number of equations in the text of papers, and found that more equations per page is associated with a lower number of citations in non-theoretical papers, but that there was no effect in theoretical papers. This carries over to all citations as well since the number of non-theoretical papers is much larger than the number of theoretical papers. They conclude that a higher density of equations leads to lower numbers of citations, and that this indicates a worse dissemination of the results to the wider scientific community. They go as far as using the title: "Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists."

This engendered a barrage of more or less agitated rebuttals with titles such as: "Do not throw equations out with the theory bathwater," "Mathematical illiteracy impedes progress in biology," "A suggestion on improving mathematically heavy papers," and "No evidence that equations cause impeded communication among biologists." Anyway, an alternative view is that theoretical papers (with lots of equations) are mostly cited in other theoretical papers, although this sounds obvious and would never have been published in PNAS.

I would wager that the same is true in all fields: Physiologists certainly cite other physiologists more often than they cite clinical scientists (and almost never cite mathematical biologists). It is further easy to extrapolate to the conclusion that detailed physiological data in a paper is associated with fewer citations in clinical medical journals. The obvious interpretation is that overzealous use of physiology in articles impairs dissemination of medical science, and that physiologists should use more common words and talk more about patient-survival and quality-of-life in the same way that mathematical biologists should relegate their equations to the appendix. The idea that they might be comparing apples to oranges (clearly a biological concept) is not even discussed in the paper, which makes the discussion a bit lopsided. More as if they were writing an opinion-piece than an article on empirical science.

Monday, November 05, 2012

First Floor

Finally some days off coming my way. Spent three days in Berlin at Hotel Palace, a really posh place. Morning and evening turn-down, including one-time slippers placed on a napkin (sic) by the bed. Nice spa, excellent breakfast, and the first-floor Guide Rouge star-restaurant: First Floor. No one would call it cheap, but very posh with polished wood-panelling, a total of eleven tables (whereof three were occupied on this Wednesday night), waited on by five waiters.

Some kind of olive-oil appetizer, very strange, but excellent.

Cracker with dill and some other stuff. Also an un-ordered appetizer that was excellent.

The six-course tasting menu with six selected wines was really good. As is common in these, posher, establishments, six-courses turned out to mean nine, and pralines for the coffee. 

Dove-filét with sauce, a light foam of something and some stuff on the side. Just brilliant.

Then, on Thursday, we went to another place with South-german food and wine. Very much simpler, although not in a bad way. A quite rustique atmosphere, small bare-wood tables and at least two booked sittings per night. They actually asked us to leave to be able to seat the next group. So, popular, and very good.

Friday morning I broke my two-day vacation streak with a meeting at the lab of a couple of my collaborators. After that we ate lunch at another rustique but Italian place, right under the rail-way. More brilliant food, I miss Berlin already.