Transatlanticism. This is the 165th post on this blog. My wife Katie read every single one of them, correcting my Denglish phrases, adding Oxford commas, and giving me valuable feedback from her unique perspective as a certified genetic counselor with a research background in epilepsy genetics. Today is Katie’s birthday, and I would like to dedicate this post to her by saying thank you and I love you. Katie and I met at the Epilepsy Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. In 2007, while driving around Lake Alexandrina in South Australia on a road trip, we listened to Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie. This song became emblematic of our relationship for the years to come while we maintained a long-distance relationship between the US (Katie’s Masters in genetic counseling) and Germany (my residency in Kiel). In 2009, after two years of living on different continents, we were finally reunited. If you were to ask me about the main lesson I took away from this time apart, I would sum this up in a single sentence: “Relationship quality equals bandwidth”. This post is a reflection on why quality matters in the communication between geographically separated individuals. It won’t be a purely romantic post. That’s not my style, and that’s ok with Katie – she has corrected this post, as well.
Skype. In the fall of 2007, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Katie and I had planned to talk over iChat using the crystal-clear quality of our MacBooks, but Katie’s network provider had throttled the network speed after two minutes, leaving us with slowly moving, pixelated images and a distorted audio transmission. We could have talked on the phone, but our plans for living apart were based on the premise that we could actually see each other every day through video. After a flurry of different experiments, we changed to Skype. And Skype basically saved our relationship by giving us the opportunity to see and talk to each other face-to-face every day. For the very same reason, I like using Skype for teleconferences. I really enjoy our weekly RES teleconference with the Antwerp group. We can see each other while talking. You can’t help smiling a lot, and I don’t know of any other regular teleconference with so much laughter on a regular basis. Communication is less stressful if you can see the person you’re talking to. You can pick up on subtle cues and use gestures. Exactly because of this, Skype can be brutally honest. You simply can’t lie. In 2008, I wanted to surprise Katie by flying over to the States and proposing to her. I managed to keep this a secret, but it wasn’t easy. If you really aim to keep secrets from your collaborators, you better use that noisy transatlantic phone line.
Collaborative editing. Probably few people have ever heard of SubEthaEdit. This small program pioneered collaborative editing, the possibility of working on a document online simultaneously. You can see your collaborator typing in real time, which gives you the opportunity to work on a document while talking about it. Large sections of “Navigating the Channels and Beyond” were written with SubEtha. More recent free online tools like Etherpad have pretty much replaced SubEtha, which was limited to the Apple Operating System. However, I still use this program for nostalgic reasons as my favorite editor for Perl and Unix. Don’t underestimate how productive you can be with a collaborator if you have the chance to work on the same document simultaneously.
A website, blog and images. When Katie and I planned our wedding, we were faced with a challenge. How do we keep families on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean updated on our wedding preparations? We soon realized that we needed some kind of information platform to do this. Facebook wouldn’t be sufficient. Katie decided to start a small blog that would inform our family on the state of the preparations, and soon we also found ourselves writing about our life in Kiel for our family and friends. This was our first experience with wordpress.com, which is also the platform for this blog. Another important thing I learned from Katie was the importance of images and photos. Our initial blog is now defunct, but when I searched for remaining traces in cyberspace, I realized that our wedding photographer still has our photos online. Visual aspects matter, and I don’t think that this a superficial thought. More than 50% of the time that I need for a post is spent on generating the slide or diagram. That’s also the reason that I eventually abandoned Keynote for Powerpoint. It simply looks better.
Communication in a nutshell. Relationship quality equals bandwidth. Neurogenetic research is a small niche that will always depend on collaborations between people who work in geographically separated centers. Hence, we will increasingly rely on tools that make this communication easier. We should be aware that such tools should not only simplify communication but also add to the quality and bandwidth of our communication. Providing sufficient bandwidth for meaningful, decisive communication already is important and will become increasingly relevant in the future. The concept of a critical mass implies that certain projects are only possible once a sufficiently large number of people join together in a single location. If we want to use the momentum of a critical mass online, we need to make sure that our communication flows naturally. One final thing I learned from Katie is that in a fast-paced, ever distracting work environment quality time with your partner really matters. Accordingly, quality equals bandwidth is worth investing in. Happy birthday!