amoebae are the new dinosaurs

Looks like I'll be going to Göttingen in early April, as the abstract Marjo van Koppen and I sent in for this year’s GLOW was accepted for a poster presentation. The abstract builds on earlier work Marjo and I did both separately and jointly, but (a) ties it together into a unified account, (b) provides a quantitative analysis of the data (along the lines of what I did with verb clusters), and (c) discovers some surprising correlations and anti-correlations among the phenomena we discuss. The title of the abstract, which—credit where credit is due—was Marjo's invention, basically says it all: a microparameter in a nanoparametric world. It's a play on words on the title of this excellent paper by Mark Baker, where he argues that it's not microparameters all the way down (or up?), but that some parameters by design have a broader reach or impact (and these are his macroparameters). Similarly, we claim that when you start looking at how microvariational phenomena pattern together, it's not just nanoparameters freely combining with one another; there too, some points of variation seem to target a higher level. The scale is quite different from Baker's paper, of course, but the principle is the same: he's saying that a diplodocus is bigger than a compsognathus, while we're comparing Chaos carolinense with Dicty the amoeba.

As an aside, it was funny how the reviews we got for this abstract reaffirmed my continued belief that no matter how good the intentions of the conference organizers or the quality of the material, having your abstract (or paper or project proposal or ...) accepted always remains something of a crap shoot. We received a total of 9 reviews, of which I suspect—on the grounds of having been a part of this committee before—that the final two were from the selection committee. Most of the reviews we got were informative and clear (though not always positive), one was even quite long and extremely helpful (and not hard to figure out who it was from). Reviewer number 5, however, merely wrote: "I find the paper weak." Now, just to be clear: I have absolutely no problem with people disagreeing with my work. On the contrary, some of the most informative and helpful exchanges I've had came from people who were very critical. It's just that this review is unhelpful on all fronts: it's of no use to the authors, who can't use the review as a basis for addressing the weaknesses in their paper, and it is also maximally uninformative for the selection committee, who don't know if this reviewer actually has a valid, critical point to make, or whether s/he hasn't even read the abstract and was just in a particularly bad mood or simply doesn't like the authors. All in all, I'd say that reviewing, in all of its shapes and forms, is another area that’s ripe for disruption.

  1. This is what you get when your four-year-old is obsessed with dinosaurs.

  2. This is what you get when you start googling for amoebae of different sizes.

  3. The abstract was anonymous of course, but it wasn't hard to guess who it was from.