Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A quick note on journalism (in defense of BuzzFeed and Brooke Borel)

This note is quick, but for it to make sense, please first read the excellent article by Brooke Borel, Seed Money: How Kevin Folta got entangled with Monsanto, created a shady podcast alter ego, and spurred a hot public debate over conflicts of interest in big ag. I want to summarize the article, but the story is so bizarre and the writing by Ms. Borel so good, I can't do it justice with a summary. Just read it.

While the article is good, for me personally, it is painful. It's painful because I have been actively defending the scientist Kevin Folta over the past few months against media attacks on him. I am 100% pro-GMO. I know that the science Kevin promotes and teaches is sound and correct. I deeply appreciate the efforts by Kevin over all these years to dispel the myths around GMOs.

The problem is that Brooke Borel's article is not a smear campaign or a hit piece. It's an example of excellent journalism. When I first clicked on the article, I was ready to push back and defend Kevin. By the end, unfortunately, I found Kevin's actions indefensible.

And I know that many scientists and GMO-supporters felt the same way as I did. Many of us said this publicly or privately to Ms. Borel. The problem is that some people felt the same way, and given that there is really no way to defend Kevin here, decided to instead attack Ms. Borel or BuzzFeed. I won't point to the many different tweets on this, but essentially these are as follows:
  • BuzzFeed is clickbait and they just published it for views.
  • Brooke Borel shouldn't have covered it because it doesn't advance the conversation on GMOs.
  • This topic is too important to focus on Kevin Folta - should talk about GMO issues instead.
  • We've talked about Kevin Folta enough; why write another piece?
  • There are bigger problems in the world.
Journalism doesn't work this way. Good journalism is not about promoting an agenda - it's about good and important stories. GMOs are important. This story is good. Kevin was doing things that are likely to result in the opposite of his intentions - less trust in science and GMOs. If you know anything about journalism, it's almost unfathomable that Ms. Borel shouldn't have written this. 

It's not okay to bully journalists when they have written a thorough and factual article by telling them, "you are hurting a cause, so shut up." It's not okay to tell them, "there are bigger problems, don't write about this." If you do, you are practicing the My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage.

So I understand that it's unpleasant when we read something that we wish weren't true. But if it's true, we have to deal with that. If you can't defend the actions or dispute the content of an article, there's a problem, and it's not helpful to tell the media or the journalist to shut up. Most importantly, we should all strive to avoid doing things that will give us coverage like this. But when we accidentally make mistakes, which we all do, instead of attacking the journalist, we should apologize and work to prevent them from happening in the future.

P.S. I emigrated from what was then still USSR. That was a country where journalism worked with an agenda. Today, Russia still has a deep problem with free speech. A Russian citizen recently tried to defend Putin to me by saying, "We do have freedom of speech; we just don't have freedom of the press." There are good and healthy reasons to have freedom of the press and to have journalists decide what they want to cover, agenda aside.

Monday, October 5, 2015

VCs to startups: No food for 3 days? Well, you should really force yourself!

A few days ago, Neil Murray wrote an excellent post detailing the unethical startup conference Web Summit/Rise/Collision and how it hurts the startups it's supposed to help. Paddy Cosgrave, the head of the Web Summit group, wrote a non-defense where he decided to attack Neil and others instead of addressing the concerns. That didn't work too well as Robin Wauters, the EiC of, then responded with "Is Web Summit a scam? Well, if you have to ask." What is truly devastating to the Web Summit folks is the comments section, showing beyond any reasonable doubt that this conference is indeed a fraud.

Our startup nearly fell for the Web Summit scam back in April and I detailed our experience to warn other founders. After the comments above, there's really not much left to discuss about Web Summit itself - it's a lavish party, financed by the people least able to pay, with no benefit and a huge loss to the startups falling for the scheme.

There should be nothing left to say, except that I am deeply bothered by a condescending reaction to Neil's and Robin's posts from people who say that the startups falling for this scam deserve it. Many statements such as:

The reason scams against startups are so successful is that there is a fresh and steady supply of inexperienced first-time founders. Inexperienced and stupid are not the same. First time founders are, by definition, novices.

The notion that founders should carefully weigh the ROI for attending a given conference and ought to skip ones like Web Summit if the startup can't afford them reminds me of the joke:
A beggar walks up to a Jewish mother on the street and says, "Lady, I haven't eaten in three days." The woman replies, "Oy vey! Force yourself."
Even we nearly fell for the Web Summit scam, despite being a 3-year-old startup with great advisors, board of directors, at UC Berkeley's excellent Skydeck accelerator. I imagine founders in Ukraine or Brazil, spending the only money they have to travel to these conferences, hoping to raise capital for their effort. The Web Summit is a brilliant and successful scam, run expertly, and it's not trivial to spot that it is in fact a scam. It preys on the desperate and the inexperienced, as most successful scams tend to do. Blaming the founders for not spotting the sham is like telling cancer patients who resort to homeopathic placebos, "You deserve to die because you are so stupid."

Some VCs consistently forget that not all founders are serial entrepreneurs (I wrote before about this). And that's the part that allows these scams to persist. There would be no Web Summit if the VCs didn't attend it and didn't give the keynotes there. But when people like Mark Suster attend and defend such conferences, it lends legitimacy to the events and makes the inexperienced founders pause and say, "Well, perhaps this is exactly how you raise venture capital. If we can connect with people like Mark there..."

It is absolutely true that startups and founders learn from mistakes. But it doesn't mean that Web Summit is a mistake one should make. And it doesn't mean that scams are harmless and somehow select for good startups - that's bullshit. These scams waste money and more importantly time, both scarce resources for startups.  For some, attending Web Summit can be a lethal error, for reasons entirely unrelated to the strength of the startup's team/idea. It's important to take the side of startups rather than scammers in this case.

Note1. I am happy to see Mark making it clear that young startups should not attend Web Summit and the like. But he makes it hard for startups not to by going to them himself.

Note2. Some people have asked why thousands of people attend these conferences and don't speak up. If a scam and waste of time, wouldn't we know that? Well, they do speak up - see the comments here. And those who remain silent - can you blame them when people react with "you are so stupid your startup deserves to die"?

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Ugly Neighbors: From #IStandWithAnn to Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins

I am not worried about racists and anti-Semites who sport Nazi avatars on Twitter. It's the smart and respected bigots like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins - these are the ones who really bother me.

It just so happens that it's been an ugly ten days of racial/religious hatred in my feed. Started with this article about Russian Islamophobia. Then Ann Coulter tweeted "fucking Jews", I made a comment about it, and suddenly I experienced direct anti-Semitic vitriol for the first time in 25 years.
To be honest, the scum in #IStandWithAnn simply made me reflect on the fact that since leaving the USSR in 1989, no one has called me a kike. The vile hashtag led me to ask if there is an example of a liberal analog to Coulter - someone with over half a million Twitter followers, many of whom can erupt in a parade of racism and xenophobia (still looking, by the way).

But today, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins took the hatred prize. Richard Dawkins asked if Ahmed actually wanted to get arrested and then attacked the 14-year-old for not truly "inventing" the clock. Meanwhile, Bill Maher essentially said that the reaction to Ahmed is reasonable because Muslims blow shit up.

Maher ended the segment saying that adults should have told Ahmed, "maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is that in our religion we’re responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombing, the London bombing, the Bali discotheque bombings, the Kenya mall bombings.” (see at 7:23 below)

My question to Maher - if my daughter is called a kike, do I have to tell her the following?
Maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is that many Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis are Jewish, and Bernie Madoff is a Jew, and in general, there are and were many Jews who are terrible people.

Ann Coulter is a fringe clown with a xenophobic hateful base. I don't care much about them. But many people that I respect listen to Dawkins and Maher. I see these people pausing and starting to question Ahmed, not realizing that the seeds of doubt are planted by smart bigots who can carefully craft their words so that the hate is almost masked. It's part of the "we listen to Nobel prize winners even when they are spewing nonsense" and I think the Nobel/Dawkins/Maher bigots do way more damage.

P.S. For those wondering, no, Richard Dawkins didn't just lose his mind. His mind is fine; it's just that he is a bigoted jerk. Examples here and here and below.

In fact, there is a special chart giving guidance for when to ignore Dawkins:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Please stop referring to growth hacking scams as "data science"

I just bumped into an exposé by Data Science Renee of sleazy practices by DataScienceCentral to attract readers to their site. Apparently they create fake profiles of women and minorities and post articles under these profiles because it brings good traffic to their site.

The person behind DataScienceCentral is Vincent Granville. He obviously doesn't like Renee.

On Vincent's Linkedin page, I saw as key accomplishment of his regarding DataScienceCentral:
Delivered $2,500,000 in sales to one of our clients within a 12-month time period, providing a 1,000% return on their ad spend. All our large clients are consistently renewing and expanding their advertising programs with us, as we find new ways to bring new quality leads all the time. 
Leveraged state-of-the-art data science to grow internal revenue and profits by 500% in less than two years, while maintaining profit margins above 65%. Grew traffic and membership by 300% in two years. Introduced highly innovative, efficient, and scalable advertising products for our clients. Used proprietary growth science techniques to outperform competition.
And this language was so familiar and reminded me of the scam artists behind the Web Summit, Collission, Rise conferences (really same scam conference, cloned to different places). I wrote about them before here and here. They pretend to offer free venue to startups, pretend to filter and select you, and then try to squeeze thousands of dollars out of the people who can least afford it. Sleazy folks who also pretend to be data science geniuses:
It’s taken us 4 years to scale Web Summit from 400 attendees to 20,000 and a bunch of physicists have played a big part...
With each passing year an increasing number of people ask how has it grown so fast? When I share the answer it’s almost never what people expect, so here it is:
Our growth has been largely propelled by data science. Or more correctly, in my view, network science. While conference companies hire event managers, we hire physicists with PHDs in areas like complex systems and network analysis...
 If your growth hacking stands for spam, scam, sleaze - please don't run around talking about the physics and data science behind your remarkable growth.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Milo Yiannopoulos destroyed by Emily Grossman in a debate

I just watched the 10-minute debate between Milo Yiannopoulos and Emily Grossman on the scandal surrounding Tim Hunt. It was stunning. Yiannopoulos uttered a stream of unsupported and inflamattory nonsense, and Grossman just dismantled him with facts. I know I would have lost my composure and temper in a debate with him, but Grossman magically remained professional and unfazed by his debate theatrics.

To be honest, I felt slightly bad for Yiannopoulos. Grossman so eloquently and forcefully showed him to be a fool and a clown, it's impossible to watch without sympathy for him. I even heard a rumor that Yiannopoulos cried after the debate and asked for it not to be aired. (Can anyone confirm if this is true or not?)

However, after the debate, in an attempt to recover and spin his poor performance for personal benefit, he wrote Why do feminists cook up stories about misogyny when they lose debates? This is the part where my sympathy for Yiannopoulos evaporates. When you lose a debate, admit it and move on. Write a blog post apologizing for stupid and offensive stuff you said, admit that Grossman destroyed you, and try to do better next time.

Friday, June 19, 2015

An argument FOR electronic lab notebooks

Most existing electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are terrible. There is a good reason why the vast majority of scientists still use paper. But these are not arguments against ELNs - these are arguments against poorly-designed ELNs.

Below is my e-mail to a professor from a few months ago on this topic.
From: ProfessorX
Date: Sun, Jan 4, 2015 at 9:51 PM
To: Lenny, ProfessorLab

The attached article [How My Mom Got Hacked] is about the latest form of malware.   There is no way in the world that I could ever get authorization to pay the ransom to get any of out data back for reasons you will see.   So beware…..and keep a real note book.

From: Lenny
Date: Sun, Jan 4, 2015 at 11:24 PM
To: ProfessorX, ProfessorLab

Dear ProfessorX and lab,

I think this is a fascinating article and is in fact an argument for a digital lab notebook as envisions it.

ProfessorX, we have repeatedly discussed electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) over the past two years. You argue that the paper notebook has reliability and persistence that is not matched by the ELNs. You cannot access anything from the digital files on the floppies from the 90s, but you can still read your paper notebook from the 70s. You've also told me that the ELN business is the Afghanistan of startups. 

I agree with everything you point out, and these considerations have influenced our approach to the digital notebook since the birth of I agree with everything you point out, but not with your final conclusion that the paper notebook is the best way of keeping records. It is indeed today, but that's just because the existing ELNs are shitty, not because the ELN concept is flawed.

Now for the details:

1. Formats change and startups fail, so you can lose all of your data.

Agreed. That's why we made sure that our journal can be exported as .txt and PDF. You can export the whole thing, print it, put it on dropbox, thumb drive, and anywhere else. And it's good practice to do so periodically, as we do with all of the data that we generate. The important aspect is that your records belong to you and not to

2. ELNs have not been adopted by biomedical scientists because the paper notebook is best.

Agreed that ELNs have not been adopted and paper is best today. However, that's because most ELN companies have been solving the wrong problem. Labguru, eCAT and LabArchives all think they are competing with each other. They are not; their real competition is the paper notebook, and paper wins by a long shot against them because all of them have a terrible product. The existing and dead ELNs all thought the problem they need to solve is the retrieval of information, which is infinitely better in digital format. No. The problem is the entry of the information in the first place. That's where the paper notebook shines in contrast to websites and desktop software. My takeaway here is that as a mobile company, if we really do this right, we can come close to and possibly beat the paper notebook for the entry of the information (e.g. ability to write over the gel image, directly on the iPad). If we do that, we have a shot at adoption.

3. Hard drives can die and computers can become infected, as outlined in this article.

Agreed. This is an argument for backups. Hence we have a daily snapshot of all user data going back a month and a monthly snapshot beyond that. As the article itself points out, this is also an argument for cloud storage. Chances of losing your notebook on a laptop or single hard drive are high, but chances of losing it entirely on our Amazon server or on Dropbox are lower than the chance of losing or burning your paper notebook (doesn't have to burn as the drowned notebooks during Sandy at NYU showed us).

4. The paper notebook stays in the lab and can be easily read by anyone forever.

I agree it stays in the lab forever, but disagree it can be easily read by anyone. Most notebooks can only be parsed by the person who wrote them. So when that student moves on, her inability to physically access the notebookeffectively makes the entire record useless. My PhD notes from 2003-2009 may be physically in the Berkeley Lab, but when I am in Boston for my postdoc, good luck trying to answer a reader's question without me, just from flipping through my notebook. In fact, a paper notebook can't easily be used by anyone, including the author. That's because looking for a primer number or some note, without the ability to search digitally, requires hours of flipping through the notebook.
When students or postdocs leave the lab, they should re-assign their digital lab notebook to the professor. At the discretion of the professor, the student continues to have access to the notebook after leaving the lab. So when ProfessorX gets a question about a 2007 paper from a previous student, he forwards it to that student, student logs in, does a quick keyword search, reads the relevant page, and answer the question precisely. That's how the journal will work.

The inefficiency of the paper notebook, in the electronic age, is staggering. That's why both Novartis and Merck moved last year to ELNs for their chemists and are currently in the process of moving the biologists to ELNs as well. The arguments against the existing ELNs are arguments for a better digital lab notebook product, but they are not arguments that the paper is best. After all, we don't transcribe RNA-Seq or ChIP-Seq data into our notebooks. Nor do we transcribe our qPCR readouts from Excel. We are firmly in the digital age. We need a good ELN, be it from or someone else, and we need good practices to make sure the electronic records are accessible long into the future, without wasting trees.



P.S. I'd love to hear more arguments from everyone, for and against the ELN.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The PhD Misconception

[This is an anonymous submission]

Currently, I'm nearing the end of my undergraduate career in Biology/Environmental Sciences. From the start, I thought I was doing everything right. I was studying a STEM major and getting involved in the environmental field, a supposedly "booming" part of the economy. I started research my first semester of freshman year, got to know all of my professors, participated in four internships, led tutoring sessions, and kept on the President's List, all while being extremely active with organizations on campus. I always thought I would stay in academia and become a professor - or that is what all of my professors assured me would be the best route. I wanted to do something important that bettered the earth we live on for future generations. 

But, what they didn't tell me about were the messed up hours, extremely low wages, and countless postdoc years. I started to observe all of the graduate students in my department. Most of them did really cool stuff while they were here - ecological restorations, public health microbiology, etc. - but most either ended up chasing postdoc after postdoc, waiting for a faculty position to open up, dropping out, or just...disappearing after graduation, never to be brought up in alumni news or updates.

Now with graduation nearing, I've almost entirely ruled out attending graduate school for the sake of working in academia. While I believe the work I'd most likely do to be extremely important, especially considering the environmental challenges we face now, I also want to be able to live my life fully, and be compensated accordingly for the effort I put into my work.