The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 9

May 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I wrote before that there are lots of versions of the Moscow Rules out there; so far, I’ve used the ones codified by the International Spy Museum. Today’s post is the exception, because I love the source so much. The idea for this series of posts on the Guest Blog came about because I loved hearing Wendy shout with frustration, “Moscow Rules Number 9!”

And what is rule number 9, according to The Middeman?

Technology will always let you down.

I can kick your ass even without this gun.

I know this to be true, because I do electrophysiology. It is black voodoo magic. Sometimes it works: you have a clear signal of neurons spiking away, happily generating their little action potentials. You come back the next day, haven’t touched a single cable or setting, and you can’t see a damn thing because of all the 60 cycle.

I think my colleagues in molecular biology will also recognize the truth of this. Sandra Porter wrote a couple of posts a few years ago about the problems of using kits versus doing it all from scratch. Here’s one comment from PhysioProf:

In my opinion, kits have a very dark side, in that they allow--and sometimes even encourage--ignorance about what you are actually doing. This makes it very difficult to troubleshoot when things don't work.

And another one from commenter by the handle of quitter:

I've seen it again and again, if people don't really understand what each step is doing they'll make critical mistakes, as even very good kits... aren't idiot proof and often if you don't know the molecular biology it might be inappropriate for your experiment.

Technology fails are hardly limited to the lab, either. As I wrote elsewhere about presentations:

There are two types of speakers: those who have had slide or visual aide disasters and those who haven’t had one yet.

When I was interviewing for the job I had,PowerPoint was not as ubiquitous as it is now. I had my laptop with my slides, but we were having problems getting it to work. Because I knew Moscow Rules number 9 (even if I didn’t know it by that name), I had 35 mm film slides (yes, I’m old) with me, and I was loading them into the carousel when the problem got fixed.

A few months ago, I was invited to give a seminar at another department. I put a lot of work into polishing the figures. I had made a couple of new videos, and embedded them, and checked before the talk to make sure they would display. But I forgot to check the sound. Two of my three videos were silent, but the third had dialogue and nobody could hear it. Technology mocked me. The good news was that the video wasn’t essential.

One of the questions ask my students (and myself) as a measure of how ready they are to give a presentation is,  “Can you do it on the radio?” If Moscow Rules number 9 comes into effect, can you give your talk with no slides, no notes, just with the story that you have inside your head? That’s when you’re ready to give a talk.

A favourite quote of mine from the book Observing Interaction by Bakeman & Gottman:

Although paper can be lost, it almost never malfunctions.

We scientists love our high tech, but it always helps to be ready to go low tech.

During exam week, too.

Has technology let you down? Tell your story in the comments!

External links

Things that go wrong in the lab
Molecular biology in the age of kits
The Zen of Presentations, Part 3: Can you do it on the radio?

One response so far

  • DJMH says:

    In my first committee meeting as a grad student, I royally fucked up the whole power point copying/saving process and all my graphs showed up as big empty spots with that little hated X in the middle. So I had to give it as a chalk talk. Super embarrassing but boy did I learn #9 in a hurry.

    Similar effect when I borrowed someone else's laptop for a TA presentation I was giving, only to discover the laptop was password protected. Had to generate several drawings of DNA without the use of visual aids, until the laptop owner turned up. And I'm not a molecular jockey. Made it through, though.