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Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: a debate with my 7-year-old

August 1, 2014

tire store

“What is that place?” asked my son, pointing to a tan building at the corner of North 80th Street and Aurora Avenue North.

“They sell tires,” I said.

“Are they good?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never bought tires there.”

“But you do THINK they’re good?”

“I really don’t know, Phil.”

“If you had to guess, what would your guess be?”

“Well, they spelled the word ‘tires’ wrong, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”

“How did they spell it?”

“T-I-R-S. They left out the E.”

“But you could still read it, right?”

Yes, I could. It was a fair point.

USED TIRS

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More juxtapositions

July 18, 2014

I have a soft spot for oddly juxtaposed teaching materials, e.g., a handout covering both lab-grown meat and the structure of the song “Hound Dog.”

Here are some strange bedfellows that appeared in animal physiology this spring and summer.

2014_06_24_sodium_gradient_border
Above: two ways to convey the idea that most sodium (chemical symbol Na) is outside cells rather than inside.

2014_07_17_Botox_border
Above: Clostridium botulinum toxin, an inhibitor of the salt glands of marine birds … and the facial muscles of wealthy humans.

2014_05_20_Goldilocks_border
Above: In retrospect, this illustration of the importance of blood pressure regulation may have been too oblique.

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The neurobiology of celebrity worship

July 8, 2014

The 5th edition of Biological Science by Scott Freeman et al. includes the following figure.
The Jennifer Aniston neuron.

Summarizing the study (R.Q. Quiroga et al., Nature 435: 1102-7, 2005) on which this figure was based, the textbook says, “Through experience, at least one of this patient’s neurons became singularly devoted to the concept of Jennifer Aniston.”

With this example, the textbook authors raise the issue of whether memories are stored in specific neurons rather than in distributed networks.

Are they are also implying that we collectively devote too many neurons to Jennifer Aniston and not enough to, say, Rita Levi-Montalcini?

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Dear Mr. DJ…

June 15, 2014

First of all, I want you to know how lucky I feel to have you DJing my wedding. What a relief it is to know that this critical aspect of the event will be in such good hands! You know music, you know me and Leila, and you know how to read crowds, so you’ll do a terrific job. We trust you completely.

Nevertheless, since you’ve asked for guidance on what I want to hear at the reception, the following thoughts may be helpful.

For starters, can we please avoid “I Will Survive”? Yes, it gets people dancing, but it’s basically a tale of stalker-ish behavior — not great source material for this particular occasion. Ditto for “Every Breath You Take” (The Police) and “Possession” (Sarah McLachlan). Actually, beyond stalker songs per se, let’s just veto all songs about ill-advised romances. Even ones like “Stacy’s Mom,” in which the relationship is mostly hypothetical. That still leaves us with plenty of good, wholesome songs, right?

Speaking of wholesome: since many family members of varying ages and tastes will be present, we probably shouldn’t use music that is fixated on specific body parts (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” comes to mind), the physical act of making love (“Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood), or one-night stands (“December, 1963 [Oh What A Night]“). Likewise, I have no interest in tracks that condone excessive drinking (“Margaritaville”), drug use (“Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35″), reckless driving (“Fun Fun Fun”), belligerence (“Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting”), lying (“Better Man”), larceny (“Been Caught Stealing”), egotism (“Big Time”), or jingoism (“God Bless the USA”). Or carelessness with baked goods (“MacArthur Park”).

Not everyone who will be at the wedding is married or in a relationship, so we should avoid songs about the hardships of being single. But if a song sounds too lovey-dovey, that gets uncomfortable as well. I guess what I’m saying is that you should play realistic love songs — stuff like “Love The One You’re With.” Well, not that one, because it seems to advocate “settling,” and this marriage is NOT an example of that. But you get the idea, don’t you?

I hope it goes without saying that any song over five minutes long (“American Pie,” “Stairway To Heaven”) is tedious and unwanted. This is a wedding reception, not a Grateful Dead show.

We’ll probably need some mellow tunes for the cocktail hour, but let’s not use Dar Williams. She’s an alum of Wesleyan, and, as you know, Leila and I went to Williams — Wesleyan’s rival in the Little Three. So we really want to feature Williams artists if at all possible — for instance, Fountains of Wayne, co-founded by Chris Collingwood ’89 and Adam Schlesinger ’89. Just don’t play their biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom” (see above).

Some songs, while safe according to the above criteria, are just too sad for a wedding. Any Beatles song, for example, will remind people of John Lennon’s tragic demise. So please do not feature anyone who died prematurely. (This includes Mozart, by the way.)

I realize that these restrictions are a lot to keep track of. Would it be easier if I just provided a list of songs that you CAN play? You know, totally uncontroversial material like, say, “99 Luftballons.” Oh, wait a minute — the accidental release of the titular balloons supposedly causes a war or something. I’m not sure, because the lyrics are in German, but just to be safe, let’s skip that one too.

Tell you what — let me think about this a bit more and get back to you.

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Random thoughts while procrastinating, #2057

May 31, 2014

Whenever I hear “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” or “Knock Three Times,” I chafe at the preposterous scenarios therein. How can Tony Orlando & Dawn have not one but TWO #1 hits celebrating convoluted communication strategies? Why can’t their characters just use words?

That thought is often followed by another one, though: given the existence of these two atrocious nonverbal-communication songs, wouldn’t it be nice if TO&D had a third one, just to complete the set?

I’m imagining something like, “If You Can’t Stay Away, Make Me A Soufflé; Otherwise, Pasta Is Fine.”

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Mumbling towards clarity

May 13, 2014

Here’s a lesson that faculty like me need to re-learn every so often: our assignments aren’t nearly as clear to our students as they are to us.

My biology writing course (ENGL 299C at UW) currently requires the paper described below. It’s a modification of a previous assignment, so I’ve had a chance to polish it. Feel free to admire its elegance for a moment.

If I had passed out this assignment in class, then immediately asked the students if they had questions, I probably would have gotten few to no inquiries, and would have congratulated myself on another masterpiece of lucidity.

Instead, I made the students submit questions about the assignment along with their first draft. Their responses, when solicited in THIS way, suggested danger lurking around every turn of phrase! Would they as reviewers know the identity of the authors? Should the review be written to the authors, or the editors of the journal? If several different methods are used, what constitutes an “experimental strategy”? What’s the difference between evidence and data? If supplementary figures are cited in the references section, should they be considered “previous literature”?

We spent about 35 minutes of class time discussing these excellent questions and many others.

If we want useful feedback from students, we need to ask for it in the right way, after they’ve had a chance to reflect on an issue and are motivated to talk about it.

Paper 2: journal-like peer review (final version)

This “paper” will be a peer review of the article you’ve been reading (Wahl et al. 2013 or Vlad et al. 2014). For this assignment, we will imagine that the Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. manuscript has just been submitted to a journal, and that you have been asked to review it for the journal.

Most review forms ask reviewers to summarize and assess a paper’s hypothesis, the claims and evidence, use of previous literature, and writing effectiveness. You will address all of these issues in the discrete sections listed below. You should keep these discrete in your submission, rather than combining them into a single narrative. As with a real review, your audience is the journal’s editors and the manuscript’s authors. However, note that journal editors are in charge of many articles on diverse topics, and that English is not the native language of many editors and authors; thus, your writing should be clear and straightforward even in this context. Your tone should be somewhat formal, although you can still write from the perspective of a reader (“I was confused by…”) rather than making pompous pronouncements (“This was confusing…”).

1. HYPOTHESIS

Please write 150 to 300 words (1 to 2 paragraphs) that address the following questions.

What is the central hypothesis of this study? (Be as specific as possible. Use one or more direct quotes from the paper to assess whether it is defined clearly.)How was this hypothesis tested in this study? (What was the experimental strategy? What predictions does the hypothesis make?)

2. CLAIMS & EVIDENCE

Identify the 2 to 4 most important conclusions of this study, and write a paragraph (150 to 300 words) about each. How does each relate to the central hypothesis? What is the evidence on which each is based, and how strong is this evidence? Consider the appropriateness of the organisms chosen, the measurements made, and the data reported. What alternative or additional measurements might have strengthened the evidence further?

3. PREVIOUS LITERATURE

Among the sources cited by Wahl et al. or Vlad et al., identify 2 that are especially important. For each one, directly quote (with quotation marks) what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about this source, then rephrase this in your own words to demonstrate your understanding. Briefly state how this source adds to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s paper. Go to the source itself (you should have full-text access to it) and compare it to what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about it. What specific parts of the source (figure/table number, etc.) correspond to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s claims about it? Did Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. encapsulate the source accurately? Briefly explain.

4. WRITING

Identify one paragraph in Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. — not the abstract or first or last paragraph — that you think would benefit from rewriting. Use at least 2 concepts from ENGL 299C (reader expectations, omission of needless words, transitions/pointing words, reverse-outlining) to explain the problems that you see. Rewrite the paragraph and briefly explain how your version addresses these problems.

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Best DNF ever

April 15, 2014

About 46 miles into Saturday’s Mad City 100K, I slowed to a walk.

For a minute or two, walking felt AWESOME! But then even that became difficult, and my race was over. I got a ride from the arboretum aid station to the start/finish area, reported my status to the race director, and took shelter in a friend’s vehicle.

It was a disappointing outcome, to be sure, but it felt different than my past racing failures (e.g., Mad City 2008). This time I was more ready to accept the result, less worried about whether it was “fair” or avoidable. I began the race aware that it would be hard to reach my very specific goal of breaking 7:20; I took my shot; and I came up short. It’s a shame, but it’s no Greek tragedy.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get to this point. And congratulations to the Mad City finishers, especially women’s winner Pam Smith and the five (!) men (Zach Bitter, Joe Binder, Nick Accardo, Jim Sweeney, Kevin Grabowski) who did go under 7:20.

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Mad City 100K preview: I’m running it. So are some other people. Any questions?

April 9, 2014

On April 12th I will run the Mad City 100K — my 27th ultramarathon, but my first since 2010.

Much has changed over the last four years. Here’s one telling example.

Before my 2010 ultras (Rocky Raccoon 100, Mad City 100K, White River 50), I researched the competition and wrote detailed race previews.

Right now, all I have to say is that I’m glad to have gotten in some decent (though unorthodox) training, and I hope to break 7:20. If I succeed, I’ll probably place in the top 5, though probably not in the top 2.

… And it will be nice to see race director Timo and his wife Ann, my Williams College classmate Pam, and my uncle Scott and aunt Katrien.

… And I hope that the thunderstorms predicted to hit Madison on the 12th hold off until mid-afternoon.

OK, I’m done. Really.

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Prof Don’t Preach

March 24, 2014

The song below is dedicated to the hordes of students in PhD programs at the University of Washington and elsewhere — especially those who remember the 1980s. It’s not my best or most polished parody … but the idea came to me in a dream, and when I woke up humming, “Ohhhh, I’m keeping my thesis,” I was tickled enough to spend an hour fleshing out the lyrics. So here you go!

Prof Don’t Preach
(a parody of “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and recorded by Madonna; new lyrics by Greg Crowther)

Professor, I know you’re going to be upset
‘Cause I was always your protege,
But you should know by now (that)
I need to finish.
You’ve been my adviser for seven years;
I need your help, professor — let’s be clear:
If we can’t work this out,
I’ll convene my committee….

CHORUS:
Prof don’t preach!
I’m in trouble deep.
Prof don’t preach!
I’ve been losing sleep.
But I made up my mind:
Oh, I’m keeping my thesis!
Oh, I’m gonna keep my thesis!

The firm says that it’s going to hire me
As soon as I receive my PhD.
Maybe I’ll be all right; it’s a sacrifice.
But my friends keep telling me to give it up,
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up.
What I need right now is to schedule my prelims….

CHORUS

Professor Gray, if you could be in my place,
With three full square feet of office space,
You’d give me your blessing right now,
‘Cause I’m not in love
With this life any more….

CHORUS

madonna-wearing-eyeglasses
Doctoral candidate Madonna L. Ciccone. Photo from celebie.com.

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A bridge too far

March 20, 2014

A Matter Of Trust – The Bridge To Russia, a CD and video set based on Billy Joel’s 1987 concerts in the Soviet Union, is available for pre-order.

An “Editorial Review” at amazon.com says the following:

Billy has always considered that going to Russia was the most important thing he’d ever done. The freedom and excitement of his presence permanently affected the country and played no small role in the ultimate dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

I fear that this “Piano Man Diplomacy” hypothesis has not yet had a fair hearing among 20th century historians. Aren’t many of them still naively attributing the Soviet Union’s collapse to economic problems and the like?

the music that toppled an empire

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