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Living in the UK for 3+ years has allowed my spouse and I to hone our European travelling skills to a considerable extent. We’ve done our fair bit of travelling, trying to take advantage of our proximity to the continent whilst we’re here. Recently we were been amazed at how comfortably and easily we get about countries even where neither of us speak the native language. I never thought I could feel so at home in Europe, and especially the UK. Just to give some context, this is where we’ve been in our time here: France (x5), Germany (x2), Italy (x2), Norway (x2), Spain, Scotland, England, Wales, and Finland.

As you can imagine, considering that we up and moved to the UK from the US, we don’t like to experience foreign countries as the typical tourist does. Our preference is to get an authentic taste for the tremendous variety of cultures that Europe has to offer, as that is truly its bounty. Whilst we realize we can never genuinely penetrate the nuances of a local culture, particularly given that neither of us is even a bad imitation of a polyglot, we’ve still learned how to see a few of the threads that weave a local community.

The key to this is quite simple really, and not entirely uncommon in Europe: self-catering accommodation (e.g, http://www.homeaway.co.uk). We weren’t familiar with this concept as a general way to travel before moving here, but essentially you stay at an apartment/home, often owned by an individual, instead of a hotel. This provides several advantages over staying at a hotel:

  • Typically the individuals who rent out places are natives of the area. They can give you much better recommendations of attractions and (especially!) local restaurants. This is particularly useful if you are like me, and prefer relatively small, cozy, friendly, authentic restaurants. The caveat here is that such restaurants may not have menus in English or English speaking staff, so be prepared for an adventure in gastronomy…but typically many pleasant surprises!
  • You can cook your own meals. This provides two advantages:
    • You can reduce costs, especially for meals like breakfast and lunch. Eating dinner in a few nights helps too, that way you can splurge and really enjoy some of the great food and drink Europe has to offer.
    • You get to go shopping at local markets/supermarkets. I know this doesn’t sound quite like a typical tourist destination, but it’s great fun food shopping in Europe, especially in countries like France and Italy that are passionate about food (the variety of pasta available in Italy boggles the mind!). This is something that a fair amount of time should be set aside for upon arrival to stock your shelves, as it can take awhile to sort out where to find things and what you’re looking at (typically not a lot of English here!). The other great thing is that you can often get a taste of local food/produce at a much reduced cost of what you’d pay in a restaurant (i.e, last time we were in Germany, white asparagus was in season; dirt cheap to buy and cook up!). For example, in France, if you cannot find a local fromagerie (cheese shop) to explore (or are too intimidated to step in), a supermarket is a great place to find and buy a few chunks of cheese you’ve never heard of and store at your apartment. And let’s not forget access to inexpensive, but tasty, wine! (Can you tell I’ve fallen in love with France?!)
  • You can gain access to local neighborhoods and small towns where hotels may be difficult to come by. For example, at a recent stay in Paris we stayed in a small apartment in a neighborhood well outside the main city centre (but a few steps from the metro). It was fantastic; we were on a block that had two bakeries, a cheese shop, a pastry shop, two butchers, a chocolate shop, several cafes, and a fruit/veg shop. Granted, very few of these people spoke English, but they were also ridiculously friendly, and mostly happy to help as I stumbled through my marginally coherent French. It was far and away one of the highlights of Paris, although it was dangerous leaving the apartment in the morning, as I would always come back with some cheese, wine, bread, pastry or (what made the spouse quite happy) chocolate.
  • It’s typically considerably less expensive than an equivalently furnished hotel. For example, on that recent trip to Paris, we paid 60 EUR a night. Sweet deal.

If you’re up for an adventure and want to get a deeper experience of Europe than just seeing the major sites, I highly recommend going the self-catering route. However, doing self-catering is not without some annoyances:

  • You typically (but not always!) need to transfer a deposit to whomever it is you contact to book the apartment/home. This tends to be more common in cities than in smaller towns or rural areas where more old fashioned rules tend to apply (i.e, I trust your word that you’ll show up). To transfer a deposit to a European account, I have used www.xe.com. Worth going through it and understanding how to send money before booking a place, but it’s quite straightforward.
  • Keep an eye out for fees for final cleanings and linens. Since it is self-catering, often times they are frequented by people from the country that may drive there and bring their own towels and linens. You can typically request towels and linens (sometimes for a small fee). Also, since this is not a hotel, there won’t be any maid service to clean up after you, so it’s up to you to keep the place reasonably tidy. However, it’s expected that the apartment is relatively clean when you leave, so it’s worth asking if the final cleaning is included in the price. If not it usually costs between 30-50 EUR, but is definitely  worth paying for so you don’t spend the last few hours of your holiday cleaning up.
  • Often time’s appliances don’t work the same in Europe as they do in the US. Especially dishwashers and washer/dryers. And sometimes you’ll find unexpected amenities, such as bidets (especially in Italy), or saunas (Finland). We are still continually surprised at what we find from our self-catering experiences, but a pinch of salt and a lot of laughter go a long way!

 

Finally, the language barrier can be intimidating and frustrating at times. However, we’ve found throughout Europe, speaking and interacting with kindness and respect is universally understood, even if the words are not.

A provocative piece was recently published in Science concerning the relationship between paylines (i.e, priority scores) for grant submissions to NIH for bread and butter RO1s and the resulting impact of publications arising from those grants. Now, I’m no NIH peer review wonk*, but I found some of the results a bit surprising.

In the research discussed, grants funded at NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) between 2001-2008 were divided into three tiers: better than 10th percentile (best), 10th to 20th percentile, and 20th to 42nd percentile. And, well, I think the figure in the article says it all:

The data suggests that the relationship between the percentile scores on a grant does not correlate at all with publications per grant or citations per millions of dollars spent.  However, a closer look at some of the original research that this Science article data is based off of does actually suggest that there is a weak relationship between those grants published in the top 10th percentile and citations in the first 2 years post-publication (oddly, this fact was left out of the Science article). Nonetheless, this appears to confirm much of what was discussed in the comments section of a recent post by FunkyDrugMonkey where priority scores seemed to be all over the place for most investigators with no obvious relationship between self-perceived best and worst ideas. Taken together, it looks like the priority scores are an extremely poor predictor of “impact”, at least as judged by citation counts**.

So what does this all mean? Well, to me it suggests that either A) the peer review grant system at NIH is really rubbish or B) the system is wasting a lot of time and money in trying to discern the undiscernible. I suspect the answer is B (as pointed out in the comments section of the article by a Scott Nelson), that these committees at NIH are getting a lot of really good quality proposals, and differentiating between them is an inherently impossible task resulting in a lot of noise in the system. If all the proposals are roughly equal with respect to the quality of the proposed science, then what gets higher/lower scores is going depend more on the idiosyncrasies of the reviewers/review panel than anything particularly objective or obvious (or to take a more cynical tone, the name of the PI on the grant application).

If it is the case that NIH study sections are largely trying to discern the undiscernable, then it suggests that there would be straightforward ways in which to streamline the entire process. Perhaps after proposals are deemed to meet some acceptable scientific threshold a subset of them are chosen randomly to be funded and another subset chosen by program officers or others at the NIH based on certain strategic priorities, something like that. Seems like it could be a fairer and less expensive and time intensive system that would result in similar outcomes.

Even if my ideas here are a bit off, findings such as this at the very least suggest that we need to check our assumptions with respect to the best and most efficient ways in which to assess grant applications. A priori, I certainly would have expected a reasonably strong positive correlation between priority scores and citations. I would love to hear how the findings from this work jive with anecdotes of any readers out there.

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*I’m very much a tyro when it comes to NIH grants, so feel free to take me to task in the comments section if I’m dead wrong on my understanding of the NIH grant peer review game.

**I’m not sold on the idea that citations are a good marker for impact. I think impact is a much more ephemeral concept than can be captured in any single or suite of metrics. Given the inherent unpredictability of science, true impact is not apparent when squinting into the bright light of the future, but when taking stock of the past.

I mostly like Google Scholar for altmetrics; it’s quick to check out any recent citations to my work and it updates much more rapidly than Web of Science (WoS). The downside (or the upside…), of course, has always been that Google Scholar tends to give higher citation counts than WoS by including things like dissertations, non-English language publications, books, etc. (basically anything published under an institutional domain as far as I understand; which can be gamed quite easily apparently, as discussed here). So the absolute numbers for Google Scholar always have to be taken with a grain of salt, but a recent change in the citations to one of my papers suggest that the citation counts should be taken with more like a 1kg bucket of NaCl.

I have a nice review article I published back in the hey day of my PhD which has garnered a decent number of citations. However, a couple of weeks ago I noticed that the citation count quickly increased by about 30. I didn’t think the paper all of a sudden became a blockbuster, so I did a little snooping. Turns out the boost in citations is from a book published back in 2010 that has several chapters (about 30), one or two of which pertain directly to the topic of my review and probably cited it. What is disturbing, however, is that it looks like every single individual chapter in this book is also included as a citation to my review article. Are the algorithms for Google Scholar really this poorly designed? Seems a bit ludicrous and really shakes my faith in Google Scholar as a reasonable (if inflated) source of citation counts. 

I’ve emailed Google Scholar to point out the issue, but I doubt it will even be read by a human being, let alone considered. I’ve emailed them in the past when Google Scholar was in beta to make suggestions and never heard/saw anything…just another small ripple in the salt filled sea that is Google Scholar…

Many of us have seen it, the inclusion of impact factors on a CV. I’ve even had a senior PI suggest putting an impact factor on my CV in the event that I publish in a journal that some of those in my sub-field aren’t as familiar with. I cringed when I was given this suggestion, and balk at CVs that contain impact factors. We all know how useful impact factors are (well most of us anyway), and it has been discussed ad nauseam in many places (e.g, here). So then what’s a wee postdoc like myself to do to promote how totally and completely awesome my publications are (or not…)?

Well what about adding citation statistics to a CV for each paper? Would require some constant updating, but not too much for a young chap like myself with under 20 pubs. Alternatively, a link to a Google scholar profile would do the trick as well I suppose. Such an idea is not without downfalls as it doesn’t say much about newly published work (but article views would if they were available form all journals like they are from PLoS as they accrue quite quickly and if I had to guess are correlated to a degree with later citations). This would certainly draw attention away from focusing on just where something is published as opposed to a more “objective” measure of article impact.

Of course the other caveat here is that perhaps citations aren’t the best method of judging how good someone’s work is. I don’t disagree with this point, but it’s got to be better than just using the journal name/impact factor, right? At least a step in the right direction….hhhmmmmm….

Of the many European countries I have visited whilst living in the UK, Italy and France by far have had the best food (you can guess which has the worst….). Here are three of my favorite restaurants I have had the pleasure of dining at when visiting Italy. One in Roma, one in Venice, and one in Northern Italy near Aosta. They are all rustic and frequented by locals; great places to go to get a taste of authentic Italian cuisine away from all the damn American tourists (well mostly)!

La Vrille (http://www.lavrille.it/) near Aosta, Italy near the Italian Alps.

This is a very welcoming family run farmhouse located in the Italian Alps. We recently had the most amazing xmas dinner here. It was an 8 course, 3.5 hour meal accompanied by wine made from the local vineyard. The food was sophisticated, yet comforting, showcasing a mix of Italian and French cooking styles (as would be expected so close to the border of France!). Despite the 8 well presented courses, the atmosphere was downright homey…homey. To top things off, the chef (who didn’t speak of lick of English!) came to visit each of the 5 tables at the end of the meal that was served by her two children. Reservations are a must!

 

Alla Vedova (http://www.in-venice.com/restaurant/ca-doro-alla-vedova/) in Venice, Italy

I first visited this restaurant over 10 years ago when I went on a 5 week backpacking trip through Europe following my college/university graduation. At the time it was not very well known to tourists, and I had my first, and only, artichoke lasagna that was delicious. Since then I’ve been back and it has clearly made it onto the radar of many American tourists. Nonetheless, my squid ink linguine was great, and the service still friendly (if not a bit rushed). Just don’t ask for parmasean cheese on your seafood dishes!

 

Ristorante La Moretta (Via Monserrato, 158) in Roma, Italy

This is a nice, simple restaurant with decent food. It is a welcome break away from the craziness of the areas run over by tourists in Rome. I had a wonderful spaghetti alla vongole (spaghetti with clams) here, but you can also get pizza and other dishes (although I cannot speak for how good they are). The prices aren’t exorbitant either, and the staff is exactly what you’d expect in a traditional Italian restaurant (i.e, relaxed about service…welcome to Europe!). 

 

That’s it…great choices for simple yet delicious dining. Any other suggestions for great, unpretentious, European dining leave below…I’m always on the hunt for simplicity elevated…

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile in response to an article from the NYTs back in November and a post from Reaction Norm. I’m a little late to the game, but the issues haven’t changed in the past month and a half…

By way of prologue, I’ve always wanted to have children and plan to do so once my partner and I move back to the good ole’ US of A. It’s never really been a serious question for either of us. And until recently I had always figured we’d have two kids, but lately after reading up a bit more on demographics I think 3-4 is more appropriate (although my wife thinks I’m nuts, but read the analysis below and see what you think…she may very well be right!)

So the argument for not having children whilst married seems to be, in part, a financial one. Children are expensive, retirement is expensive, so let’s put money towards an ideal retirement instead of having kids. The other primary argument is with respect to time. Kids take a lot of time, careers and hobbies take a lot of time, I (and my spouse) want a career and hobbies (and the money to enjoy those hobbies) so forget the kids let’s just focus on ourselves.

The other offhanded sort of reason for not having children is: “And if we decide against [having children], it will partly be out of concern for the welfare of others. My husband in particular worries that creating more human lives strains an already overtaxed planet.” (From the NYT article).

Yea, well that’s all well and good for trying to make oneself feel better about the decision (one has to wonder why couples deciding not to have children feel they need to provide a litany of reasons to mollify their apparent feelings of guilt). However, the truth of the matter is you wouldn’t be having the 7 billionth child in some 3rd world country, but in a 1st world country. And there are major demographic issues in all 1st world countries that threaten the stability and economic well being of those countries and the ability of the countries to provide support for an ageing population (e.g, Japan is a worst case scenario!).

With respect to the USA, we’ve always thought of ourselves immune to the demographic problems that are facing countries such as Italy and Japan due to massive amounts of immigration. However, it has become evident over the past 5 years that US demographics are becoming more European like. Whilst a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is required to maintain a constant population (not even a growing one!), the fertility rate in the US has dropped to 1.9 and there is a fear we will head to a European-like 1.4-1.6.

So what’s the big deal if the US starts to look like Europe fertility wise? The problem is that with a declining population and an increase in the number of retirees (read baby boomers) that live longer (thanks biomedical research!), an increasing number of tax paying workers are required to support the retired through social security and medicare (it’s discussed in a bit more depth here if you’re interested). This demographic time bomb is set to hobble the economies of the European Union (see e.g, Italy, Japan and Spain for a prelude). Is this the future we want for all of Europe or the USA? What would be the global effect of the US economy losing its dynamism because there’s not enough workers to support an aging population? You think our current economic situation is bad? You just have to look to parts of Europe or Japan to see how much worse it can get if left alone. And the scale would be much grander in the US due to the size of the US economy and our role in security (for better or worse) throughout the world.

Thus, while your life may be more enjoyable and you may make it further in your career more easily by not having children (but seriously, who are you kidding, are you some fucking wonder dynamo that is needed to save the world? Even Einstein had children, one before he published his groundbreaking special relativity shiznit in 1905). The decision not to have children is selfish (i.e, by definition thinking only of oneself and not others e.g, your country and all the elderly that require support) and unpatriotic; and collectively it is undermining the economic health and security of your country (if it’s a 1st world country) and the world (assuming you think it’s a good thing that the west/US are/is the dominant military power, by no way a forgone conclusion!).

How’s that for some over dramatic shit!

So get in the sack and start making babies already!

Apparently after being a postdoc for just about 2 years I’m distinguished enough to be invited to speak at an eminent international conference….unfortunately the conference is a “BIT Life Science World Congress” based in China. I’m particularly enamored by the fact that at last years BIT world congress there were 200 speakers, 100 posters and 300+ participants…I think you can do the math.

I also love the line in the follow-up email I was sent after I didn’t respond to the initial email: “Maybe there some problems with my mailbox and I haven’t received your kindly reply yet”…..hmmm, yea, seems like they think I’m British!

Oh yea and: “On behalf of the organizing committee, we cordially invite you to deliver a brilliant speech”…but don’t you dare deliver a lame ass speech, that shit will get you thrown in jail!