the power of the default

Our tendency to stick with what’s right in front of us is well-documented.  (I know it’s Wikipedia, but check out the fat list of references and further reading!).  I was at a lecture on obesity a few weeks ago, and I learned that in 2006, Disney World’s fast food places changed the kids’ meal default sides to carrots and milk (rather than french fries and pop) – and the majority of people actually got the carrots and milk, even though fries are way tastier and are still available if you ask for them. Michelle Obama was pleased.

I think we can harness the power of the default.  I’m talking about something on a slightly smaller scale than the national obesity epidemic.  I’m talking about the problem of really terrible academic talks.  As most of my school friends can attest, I’m pretty opinionated when it comes to talks.  I’m really impressed when someone gives a good presentation, and I’m irked every time someone shows up and reads their slides (full of bullet points and equations) to a room full of smart, literate people – WHY OH WHY!?  There is so much advice out there on how to give a good talk.  It’s absurdly easy to find.  So what gives?  I think a major part of the problem is PowerPoint’s default.

That sounds so simple, but I seriously believe that if PowerPoint’s default slide layout was “blank slide” rather than “header and bullet point box,” the overall quality of presentations worldwide would increase significantly.  People wouldn’t be initially prompted, over and over, to fit their research into a bullet-point framework. People would feel freer to add pictures, graphs, schematic diagrams, videos, etc etc, if that bullet point box wasn’t cramping their style.  With less text on slides, people might run through their talk once or twice before giving it, just to make sure they know what they’re saying and that they aren’t going over time.

Don’t underestimate the power of the default.  I think it could do magical things for the academic and business world.

p.s. – “let me google that for you.”  So hilariously snarky.  


failure, grit, and big thinking

Last fall, I read an article in the New York Times called “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  It’s a pretty long read, but I really enjoyed it.  The article centers around Dominic Randall, headmaster of a New York City private K-12 school, and a few other prominent figures who thought hard about what qualities are most important for students’ success in school and how to teach and develop those qualities in their students.

They were figuring out how to predict student success in high school and college, but I have no trouble believing that that the conclusions and findings presented in the article probably extrapolate immediately to graduate school success.  The question was “what kinds of people succeed in academic situations that are extremely challenging, often to the point of discouraging?”

What they came up with as the answer was…inspiring.  Their list of the qualities necessary to really succeed was as follows: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  I call this list “inspiring” mostly because of what it doesn’t contain:  competitiveness, supergenius IQ, hardness…the qualities of the uber-smart but really intimidating people I’ve met and don’t ever feel like I can measure up to.  But no — the big-thinking educators and psychologists mentioned in the article found other qualities more important.  Qualities I’ve found and really value in people I deeply respect.  Qualities that show “character is at least as important as intellect.” Zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity.  The kinds of people that have those qualities are the kinds that succeed.

The most discussed quality on that list (and I believe the one that gave the article its title) was grit, described as:

“a passion for a single mission [combined] with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.”

So grit is mostly developed through failure. It’s hypothesized that kids who have never failed, who haven’t really faced obstacles, who have always been told “great job!”, never develop one of the key elements to success: grit.

But…that means that the most successful academics – the ones with zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, the ones I look up to – developed grit at some point.  They failed at some point.  They FAILED!  This was such an eye-opening realization to me.  Even the best fail.  A lot.  Most successful people I’ve met don’t really advertise their failures, but I think (at some point) they should.  For example: My advisor wrote a whole public blog post on his failures, which I thought was awesome.  When smart, successful people share their setbacks, it teaches students that if you fail at something, it (a) doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough, (b) doesn’t mean you’ll never be successful, and (c) doesn’t mean you should give up or play it safe.  It just means you have to stay motivated, stay confident, and figure something else out.

Then the question becomes this:  how do people develop those traits?  Are they personality traits?  Should they somehow be taught?  (One of the main topics of the NYT article was how the school should go about developing kids’ character).  When you’re in your 20s, how do you work on developing your character?  I don’t really have answers.  I have some ideas – ideas that I don’t implement perfectly, but that I think would help develop zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and/or curiosity:

(1)  Hang around people who already exhibit those traits.  Get to know them.  If they’re your peers, be friends with them.  People with zest and gratitude and optimism and social intelligence are often really fun people to hang out with anyway.

(2).  Read.  Word on the street is that successful people read a ton.  Check out Goodreads to turn reading into social networking (a great way to get recommendations!).

(3).  Work hard, play hard.  Like your work enough to spend a good amount of time on it – enough time to try out crazy ideas (that might fail spectacularly) and to do quality work.  And be social – build relationships, make friends, enjoy your city.

(4).  Be a big thinker.  All my favorite people in our department are what I consider big thinkers: people who have big ideas – ideas that sometimes seem crazy (and sometimes are), people who LOVE what they do, people who aren’t afraid to get enthused about statistics or bioinformatics or computer science, people who proudly and loudly geek out, people who set really lofty goals (and often don’t meet them, but accomplish significant things while trying!), people who speak up when they have an idea or a question, people who encourage others, people who listen to those who are smarter than them.  Be one of those people.

We’ll see how this goes for the rest of grad school (and beyond)!

my software/hardware setup

Inspired by the awesome Hilary Parker and the dawn of a new academic year, I’ve put together a rundown of tools I find essential in my day-to-day as a biostatistics graduate student.  None of this was formally taught to me – much has been recommended, learned on the fly, or found via the “just Google it” method – but I hope to inject some sense of coherence into the whole situation with this post.  We thought something like this would be especially useful for incoming students or anybody looking to change or optimize their setup.  So let’s begin!


My personal computer is a 15″ MacBook Pro, which I got in October 2011.  I was hesitant to make the switch over to the Mac (I had owned only PCs before then), but I’ve never been happier with a laptop.  The work I do on a daily basis is much better streamlined on the Mac.  However, either platform works in our field, so I’ll be sure to note when a piece of software I discuss is Mac- or PC-specific.  The laptop is my main piece of hardware (not counting our departmental computing cluster, which I’ll mention later) – the only other thing I’d mention is my 300GB external hard drive, which I use to back up my computer with Time Machine.  Backups are absolutely essential – I choose to use an external drive, but backing things up in the cloud has become common practice.  I use Dropbox (you get 2GB for free) for backing up my most important files and for creating shared folders.  Other common cloud storage solutions are Amazon S3 and SugarSync.


By far, my favorite piece of software is R – every statistician’s best friend.  It rocks.  In the genomics world, most R packages are published on Bioconductor.  The R GUI on the Mac is pretty awesome, so working with R and Bioconductor locally required almost no setup for me.

What was a bit more challenging was figuring out my R situation when working on our departmental computing cluster – i.e., when working on a remote machine that I’ve logged into from my laptop via ssh.  There are two pieces of software I’ve found really useful when working remotely: Cyberduck (for file transfers) and Aquamacs (for running code interactively from my machine to the cluster – Mac-specific).  I’m not fully convinced that Aquamacs is the best way to go for the interactive code – in fact, the thing I miss most about having a PC is the text editor Notepad++.  Notepad++ is a PC-specific editor that connects beautifully to R (with NppToR – just hit F8 to run a line in R locally!) or to an ssh client (just hit F9 to run a line remotely!).  However, I have a pretty good system worked out using Aquamacs and ESS – I’ll post the specifics in another post.  And, speaking of text editors – I’ve come to like TextWrangler (Mac-specific) quite a bit.

For typesetting anything with more than one equation in it, I (and most of the mathematical/statistical community) use LaTeX.  I use TeXShop as my frontend and MacTeX as my TeX distribution. This setup works like a dream on my Mac – it’s incredibly fast, and it took NO customization to get the two features that are really important to me: (1) automatic PDF refresh when you change your TeX code and (2) a backward search feature where I can click on the PDF and be taken directly to that point in the TeX code.  When I used a PC, I used TeXnicCenter as my frontend and MiKTeX as my TeX distribution, but I also found that I needed Sumatra (an alternative to Adobe for reading PDFs) and some extra customization to get my two required features.

I use PowerPoint for presentations containing zero or one equation(s), and I use Beamer (a LaTeX class) for anything with two or more equations.  I have PowerPoint 2008, which is pretty slow on a Mac, so I’ve been considering trying Keynote.  (Thoughts, anyone?).  I’ve also tried to get the best of both the PowerPoint and Beamer worlds (WYSIWYG + nice equations) by using LaTeXiT.  There’s a PC-equivalent called Aurora, which I used once for 30 days until my free trial expired.

Anything else?

That’s pretty much all I use on a daily basis.  I’ll mention a couple other miscellaneous things:  I’m just starting to use github to manage and share my code – git has great mechanisms for keeping track of all the craziness that comes with doing a shared project.  Lots of people in my department use Sweave, a cool way to integrate R and LaTeX.  I am not one of those people.  Sweave is especially good for putting together manuals, but not so good for working with analyses that take a while to run or that need to be very specifically formatted.

I’d love to hear about any setup tips that you find useful – do share!