The Letters of Dr. Beth

Earlier today, Cath posted a link to an article 1 in the latest issue of Nature about the importance to science history of archiving correspondence between scientists and how since everyone communicates by emails, and Tweets, and IMs, and texts, and Facebook messages these days (as opposed to the handwritten letters in the old-time-y days of yore), no one thinks to preserve these. The article talked about how scientists should work with archivists to determine which documents – both paper and virtual – should be archived for historians to be able to work with someday and that this archiving needs to be funded. As the author put it: “We want our scholarly successors to be able to follow the twists and turns of the scientific, political and personal pathways” related to important scientific discoveries.

Now I realize that I haven’t stumbled upon a groundbreaking scientific discovery… yet. But perhaps some of my correspondence with my colleagues should be preserved for history just in case. To that end, I give you just a smattering of examples of my daily correspondence with colleagues. The names of other parties have been changed to protect the innocent – “OP” in these transcripts stands for the “other person”:

Email exchanges with a colleague who works in my building:

Me: I noticed the ½ price tea lattes on the white board at lunch today and got all excited about the “½ price” aspect… but then I realized I’ve never had a tea latte. Have you ever had one?


OP: I don’t know! I really like tea, and lattes, so I don’t see where they could go wrong. But that is a question we will probably have to answer by experience.


Me: Ah, yes, experience is the answer. I like your evidence-based line of thinking


OP: Yes, it’s hard, but we must do the field work!


Me: My shoulder hurts, my computer is being slow and I hate MS Word. Care to go get a coffee?


OP: That is a really sad story! I think we must get coffee. 10 minutesÉ Nuts, it happened again… my keyboard switches to Spanish almost every afternoon and suddenly I have É instead of a question mark, and è instead of a single quotation. Every. Single. Afternoon…


Me: Clearly your account is possessed by the ghost of a Spanish-speaking individual who was murdered in the afternoon and now returns to haunt computers from beyond the grave. 10 minutes sounds good. Shall I meet you at the front?


OP: Yes, clearly! I hadnèt though of that. I need to grab my jacket so ièll grab you in the process. (ahhhhh)


Me: Do we need free coffee2 today?


OP: Yup, uh huh, yes.


Me:  Excellent. I like that you provided a second and third opinion on this matter. Very efficient!



Me: Thanks for the feedback! I’ll make those changes ASAP! And coffee at 2 pm sounds delightful! You can tell me all about your conversation with [name redacted]!

I like exclamation points!


OP:  Yes! Me! Too!!!


Email exchange with a colleague who lives on the other side of the country:

OP: I’m currently working on a Google document with 3 other people simultaneously. This shit is awesome.
I’m so living in the future right now.
Me: I was on a webinar with people from all over North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa this morning. Now I’m on a webinar with, among others, peeps from the Institute of Medicine in the US, learning about how they are working on Obamacare re: determining what things actually need to be covered by mandatory health care. And I’m doing all this in my pyjamas!

The future indeed.


Email exchange with a colleague with whom I was collaborating on writing a grant application:

OP: Hey Beth,

How does one modify page numbers? I need mine to start at 11, and Microsoft word is a giant bitch. Have I mentioned how much I hate this program?
In other news, I’m almost done everything. 😉
Me: W00t to almost done everything!

As for page numbers, you just have to do the following:
Insert –> Page numbers — then click “Format”  – then click the circle next to “Start at” and type the page number you want to start your numbering from. And presto! You have the glorious page number!
OP: Ya, that’s the weird thing. I don’t have “Format” or a “start at” circle. I HATE WORD SO MUCH.

No worries. I’ve just created another document with 10 blank pages. I’ll let Adobe fix it for me. W00t!
In terms of the rest of the numbering though – how do we make sure that everything is numbered consecutively? Or do we? I mean, my CV apparently goes first, which would make all the numbering on your CV out of whack. Or do we care about this?
Me: I think the numbering of the CVs is separate for each CV. At least, that’s how I’ve always done it because it would be an insane exercise to get the numbering right when you have multiple applicants. [Name of computer system from granting agency] generates page numbers for the pages it produces, but sometimes it makes pages like 10a, 10b just to fuck with you. Because [Name of computer system from granting agency], like MS Word, is evil. And probably run by spiders. I think the best thing to do is to generate the pdf of all the crap that you put into [Name of computer system from granting agency] to see what page numbers it gives you and then we can number our two documents (“Research Proposal” and “Summary of Research Proposal”) based on whatever the last page of the [Name of computer system from granting agency]-generated pdf is.

I hope that makes sense. Because my brain is so tired right now! So tired!
OP: It does. This grant writing crap deserves a punch in the head. Fortunately I’m going to quiet my demons by feeding them beer in exactly 2 hours.

Science without beer is just torture.
Me: Why can’t we just come up with an idea and then [Granting Agency] & [Other Granting Agency] just give us a bunch of money based on our brilliant idea, without making us do stupid things like sort out page numbers on pdfs? Just give us money and beer and let us get to the sciencing!


  1. Link only works if you have a subscription to Nature though. Sorry about that. []
  2. This exchanged happened on a day when McDonald’s was giving out free coffee. McDonald’s coffee, as it turns out, is not half bad. And when free, doubly so. []

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  • Wait… I have most of my emails (certainly the important ones) going back to the 90s. Are you telling me other people don’t? LOL

    I even have a lot of my IM logs.

    The real problem here is the increasing use of private services like Facebook and web forums and web-based email for messaging that used to be done much more “out in the open” via email (which was then usually POP and so people could easily keep their copies) or on USENET, which was replicated all over the globe. The move to Facebook “messaging” is quite disturbing on a variety of levels that the regular user just doesn’t understand, because if Facebook or some 3rd party wants to just shut off access to all that correspondence, they can. Twitter at least is more open-access and they just released a tool where you can download all your tweets ever. Facebook is like, “We own you, bitches.”

    IMs and texts are a real problem too. It’s funny that, as computer-based communication, there are a gazillion copies of these things initially but probably very few that get archived. And it’s so much easier to archive digital correspondence than paper (in that it weighs very little and takes up very little space, for some reason).

    In fact, I’m the kind of person who took digital photos of texts I wanted to save from my old cell phone when I was switching over to my first iPhone (or maybe it was from one regular cell to another) because there didn’t seem to be a better way to preserve them.

    And yes, I realize I’m totally missing the actual point of your entry by not having read your hilarity as yet.


  • Okay, I’ve read your esteemed correspondence now. Somehow I’m thinking the need for you to archive your “letters” is, in, shall we say, non-pressing. At least in terms of scientific discovery and its processes. For humour purposes alone, you should probably keep everything.


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  • @Jen – I miss you too! Phone date soon?

    @Kalev – I was about to call you a stick in the mud for slagging on my esteemed correspondence, but you redeemed yourself by your last line!

    @Dan – Names have been changed to protect the innocent!!! Also, there were some other rather hilarious emails that I didn’t think were appropriate for this family-friendly blog!


  • I can imagine. My inbox is usually full of clever and witty and academic and science-y and inappropriate emails that may or may not come from you or Rick or my friend Danny.

    Today I stumbled on the following: “It’s a wonderful crotch but it’s not going to teach you math.”

    That really needs to be on a t-shirt.


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