Saturday, November 29, 2014

Spellcheck, Read over for grammar, Use paragraphs and topic sentences.

Spellcheck, Read over for grammar, Use paragraphs and topic sentences.

I have been reading over some written work, and since it is the end of the semester and papers are due:

I find that most students shower and look at a mirror before they go out on a date or before a job interview. Every time you write you are being interviewed by the reader. So clean up the obvious problems (see below), and reread what you have written.


a. Be sure to spellcheck. Red underlining in Word.  (Note that proper names are usually indicated by italics.)  Blue underlining indicates something seems wrong: too when you mean to. If you have written material as part of a website, it pays to check out that material by pasting it into a blank Word document to see if you have any obvious problems.

b. Read aloud what you have written. Native speakers of a language usually speak grammatically, so if you read it out loud you will find things that don't sound right. Word uses green underlining for grammatical problems, but also for two spaces between words and other mistakes. If English is not your native language, the green underlining may be helpful, but it is not always reliable.
If you have typos, usually green underlining should help.

c. it's/its, to/too/two, there/their . . . are frequently confused by native speakers. Lots of other such homonyms. This is much like being color blind, and wearing mismatched clothing.

d. Make sure your written work has sensible paragraphs, each paragraph beginning with a (topic) sentence that summarizes the paragraph. (This is too rigid a prescription, but at least it is a start.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Learning from Special Ops

In McRaven's book on Special Ops in the military he lays down the principles of successful operations:

Planning should lead to a Simple plan.

Preparation requires Repetition (role-playing on a rough set) of the proposed actions, and Security so that the enemy does not know of the plan and preparation.

Execution needs Surprise, Speed, and a focused Purpose. Surprise and Speed deal with the friction of war, Purpose is moral.

What you want is Relative Superiority. The probability of success goes up as you perform preliminary key events, but you then have to build relative superiority so that the probability will rise sufficiently so that you can complete the mission.

All of these categories should be thought of descriptive and analytic, to be observed as present or failing in an account of an operation.

I am not sure what to do with this in ordinary life. But I like the category system.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

History and Justification: Forgetting When We Were Much Less Canonical

I have been reading about early Jewish history (David, Ezra, Nehemiah). What has interested me, here and in early Christian history, was how what we see now was once much less clear and canonical. Of course, this is a very limited viewpoint, since we are giving our attention to what at one time was rather inconsequential but in retrospect now is quite important.

My point here is that when we talk about projects, plans, and policies, and give them concreteness, that makes sense in terms of how they come to be articulated and canonized. However, if we are interested how things can be changed, we need to look at the more inchoate moments, the failures along the way, the transformations of the original ideas into orthodoxies.

Physicists are rarely so historical, for example. There is the currently correct theory. But it may be useful to have a sense of previous accounts or ways of thinking. I am not sure of this, but what comes to mind is Maxwell's fluidic electromagnetism, something we have more or less erased (since there is not ether).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Asking good questions at seminars, or when reading a paper.

How do you ask good questions of research presentations and papers? 

If the following are not answered, they have to be brought out.

The first thing you must do is ask, What is the story here? What is being claimed? 

Second, are there any obvious problems with the work, whether in the data, in the argument, in the theory, that make it hard to credit the work. In professional work, this should be rare. 

Third, is there a proposed mechanism that makes sense of what is being claimed: where a mechanism might be a market, a social interaction, a political process  ...

Fourth, what did the author(s) actually do?

Now, here are some other considerations.

1.  Imagine that you had only one shot, one chance to ask a question, and you had perhaps 100 words in which to phrase it. That might help you focus better. As important, if you put yourself in the shoes of the people who are being studied, say underground residents in Beijing, you might be able to think more clearly about what is interesting in the study of their lives. While we put a lot of emphasis in methods courses on hypothesis testing and the null, much research is about finding out what is going on--even roughly, and perhaps not with the confidence you might get with large N. 

2. External and internal validity are useful notions. In practical work, affecting policy and planning, one is trying to find out something at all. Of course, you want a sense of how reliable is that something. My impression is that your knowledge of the situation is very weak, and so that something is a vast improvement. Better to have an example or two to generalize from than nothing. 

3. Analogy and comparison are powerful strategies. If something is new or foreign to you, look for similar situations in what you know. That may well be biased and unreliable, but at least you are now starting out with something rather ignorance.

4. Most effects have many causes, and most causes have diverse effects. But can you at least connect two phenomena, even if they are not simply connected?  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"I always get an A." : Negotiating, our limited talents, and showing up on time.

Undergraduate students look better and better in terms of indicators.  We should be able to have stronger, better-prepared students in our classes. But there would seem to be a fraction, perhaps 1/4? that have yet to get the message. [I  believe that similar issues come up in promotion and tenure.] 

0. Some people just cannot show up on time. They are late for classes, meetings, with school work,  . . . And they seem to be owned by their phones and laptops, as if no one notices that they are rude and disrespectful. 

1. Students want the imprimatur of our approval and authority, but want to negotiate. So if they do not receive an A, say, they want to know exactly why, in terms of a rubric or specific failings. This makes sense, except that any such grading system is likely irreproducible at the level of perhaps 1/3 of a grade: we might grade the quality of the work as B+ or a B. So it could make good sense to negotiate. It could be that we assign points to particular features, as in a formal rubric, but then there is room to argue about those points. A student's prior is likely that the grade is unfair in that it undervalues their performance, rather than it is too generous. But we are not in a bazaar or in a financial negotiation, and as significantly, they have yet to learn that you need to leave something on the table so that your opposite is willing to deal with you in the future.
a. I have noticed, and this is at least a 25-years old phenomenon, that students will try to wear you down in a negotiation. (I am reminded of a crying baby who will not stop--for they really are needy.) If two students are negotiating, they can alternate, and if they are really talented they can act like inquisitors.

2. "I always get an A." "You are destroying my GPA." Again, the prior is that the previous grades were accurate, and that precision is great. Now if they have "always" received A's, is that for many performances, for undergraduate work but now they are in graduate school, or is it just two other courses? My inclination is to believe that they were lucky, or that their other instructors were too generous. 

3. "How can I get an A?"  As in "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?", the answer is "Practice," but also it may be that you need to have more talent than you possess: Hard work will only go so far. 

4.  In part, students are concerned that they be treated fairly. This is an appropriate concern, and an authority that is unfair or biased loses its legitimacy.

5. Basic skills need work. 
a. Spelling, grammar, and diction may well be inadequate. And, what is most striking is that have not spellchecked or noticed the red/blue... underlining Word and other such provide.
b. High School math has been forgotten: plotting a line, fairly simple algebraic manipulation. 

6. As important, those basic skills would appear to some to be irrelevant to their future professional ambitions. If they want to be pole dancers or gigolos, that may well be the case. (But then other skills and talents are required.) But in their first jobs, if they cannot produce coherent brief memos, without typos and in good form, if they cannot do some basic analysis of data, they are likely to be severely handicapped. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Wrangler and A Missionary (to Students)

I often say that I am a missionary, and my job is to take students as they are and do my best with them. You don't complain, you just move forward.

Recently, I thought that another description would be as a wrangler. Wranglers control and care for... horses, bugs (as in movies, where there are bug wranglers), or underwear (as in advertising photography, where an underwear wrangler makes sure the garments are properly put on and reveal just what they want to reveal).  That is, my job is to corral, control, and care for my students, who like most creatures want to go their own way even if that does not serve their interests or the university's.

I am both a missionary (in my attitude) and a wrangler (in my actions).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Focusing Your Research: Memos, Advice, and Work--even in Tragedy, Illness, and Crisis

If you write yourself a memo, say every six months, to describe what work you are doing and where you think you might be going--say in the next two? years--you will find that it helps to focus your work. The memo need not be long, surely no more than a single-spaced page. It could be a list.

If there is someone whom you trust and believe is reasonably sensible, even wise, share that memo and see what they say. Indicate its tentativeness. For you are not asking for criticism of your work, you are seeking suggestions for a better path.

And of course, you need to work. Probably 5-7 days/week. If your work is thinking and trying things out, as in mathematics, say, then that is what you will be doing mostly. If it is archival work, for the moment , . . . If you are writing a paper, or writing a book (do it chapter by chapter, section by section, . . .

Don't let anything get in your way. Death of family or friends, chronic or serious illness, disappointments, bad news--perhaps you should stop for a week. But in general, work is healing--and you need not do it all day. An hour or two, snatched from the chaos around you, might be calming and good for you, no matter how bad things be.

If you have too many overlapping tasks, writing say two books at the same time, you might alternate, but for most of us one-at-a-time is likely better. So keep a notebook where you write down stuff relevant to the other tasks, or perhaps just annotate a draft.

If you are feeling ill, depressed, wasting away,... see your physician as soon as possible. Take your medications, practice your regimes, keep your appointments. 

Do not let mechanical stuff get in your way--committees, teaching in so far as it is more of the same, cleaning out your office or garage. Surely, they need to be done but a bout of work before those tasks is likely to be good for your soul. 

Finally, People are More Important than just about Anything. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Recently, I got in hot water, when something I supposedly told someone turned out to be confidential and I was pointed to as the source. I am usually quite circumspect. But, I don't remember what I didn't say.

Whether it be about promotion and tenure, or journal reviewers, or faculty meetings, or personal information--no matter how outrageous it might be--you'll have to swallow it, or send a note to a higher-up with your concerns. The problem is that the higher-up might well hold it against you, or may share that note with some other higher-up who is not happy with your expressed concern.

Most of the time, I do not much recall any details of stuff that was confidential. Of course, it is rarely so confidential as portrayed, since it is likely that others have already spread the information, often others who know they should keep it confidential and are in higher positions.  (Confidential information is a currency, used by people to cement their relationship with others.)

Some universities and journals make it a policy of sharing letters of reference, reviews, and memos of administrative processes, often under the rule of open meeting laws. Others do not. From what I have been told, neither method assures better and more fair decisions.

Intelligent but Not Brilliant. Four Statements: I don't know. I was wrong. I'm so sorry. I need help.

In scholarly work, we depend on well-trained reasonably-intelligent people to advance the field and fill in its lacunae. Some people make major advances, sometimes by chance or good fortune, sometimes by their extraordinary imagination and persistence, and sometimes because what would appear to be an interesting but not spectacular piece of work (to all, including the author) turn out to have much wider implications than originally imagined.

In a novel I was reading, someone was described as "a very intelligent man who's not really brilliant." The problem arises only when you think you are brilliant, and "all" you are is very intelligent. "Very intelligent" is all you need, plus good work habits, diligence, and persistence. Don't worry if you are not spectacular--it does not matter.


The Four Statements are taken from Louise Penny's The Long Way Home, taught by the master detective to initiands as ways of approaching the tasks at hand when things might go awry.