Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

h1

TrumpWatch, part 7: this time it’s personal

February 28, 2017

Here’s the latest in my 100-part series on Donald Trump getting under my skin.

As a white cis-gender heterosexual American man, I am rarely if ever the victim of prejudice. Thus, when Trump blames American problems on, say, immigrants, my objections are more intellectual than visceral. I don’t personally experience queasiness, sadness, rage, or fear in the way that an immigrant (or a child of immigrants, or a dark-skinned native who might be mistaken for an immigrant) might.

There’s one partial exception, though: the President’s recent comment (on Twitter, since repeated at CPAC) that the news media are “the enemy of the American people!”

When my ten-year-old son asked me about this, I found myself choking up. “My dad spent twenty years of his life working for a newspaper,” I stammered. “He did his best to gather good information and explain it clearly. What’s so horrible about that?!?” My thoughts turned to my dad’s sister, a longtime copy editor at BusinessWeek … to their great uncle (?) Robert J. Bender, who covered the White House for the United Press Bureau around the time of Woodrow Wilson … to my own forays into journalism. A few tears fell. My son patted my leg sympathetically.

At that moment, there was no room in my head for cerebral ideas about Trump’s rhetorical strategies or how they might relate to his policy goals. All I could think was: the President of the United States has insulted my family and our earnest pursuit of knowledge. That’s not really what he did, of course, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

The moment passed fairly quickly for me. Before long I resumed my status as a white cis-gender heterosexual American man shaking his head at Trump with detached bemusement. But my heart goes out to the truly vulnerable targets of Trump’s rants, who may not be able to move on so easily.

h1

Recent poems

December 1, 2016

Favorite Fiddle Tune

When the sundial’s shadow has faded from view —
When the red leaves of autumn are gone —
When your workshop is quiet, and your kitchen is, too,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

And I hasten to listen to your voice presently,
While your singing persists, loud and long,
But when the tides lift your body back out to the sea,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

Muggle Snuggle

No incantation keeps our stars aligned;
No wizard conjures us to share one mind.
Yet you are mine and, likewise, I am yours
As utterly as Snape was Dumbledore’s.

For Trisha, Who Is Turning 40

Is it time to retire to a spot by the fire?
Are you fed up with slogging and grinding?
Not likely, my friend! But I do spot a trend:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Be willful! Be stubborn! Be bold and unbowed!
May your path remain craggy and winding!
Your ultimate races have yet to be run;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Well, your mom was a fireball up to the end,
And of that we all need no reminding,
For her life-long momentum continues in you;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Yes, you’re just like her, as your dad would concur:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

* * * * * * *

Snape and dumbledore

h1

Crosscurrents of Heredity

November 13, 2016

Although my son does not especially remind me of myself, my dad does. The “My Track Record” blog as a whole is somewhat reminiscent of his weekly newspaper column from the 1980s; moreover, some of my entries seem to unintentionally recreate specific columns. For example, after posting my own musings on heredity, I checked the archives and found the following.

Crosscurrents of Heredity

By Jack Crowther

[from the Rutland Herald — September 18, 1988]

My first cousin once removed out in Guthrie, Okla., thinks my son looks like my father when he was a boy. Even though she’s only seen our son in a picture, I take her impression seriously. She knew my father as a boy, and I never met the old man until later.

I mention my cousin’s impression because it differs from my own feeling that the boy favors my wife’s side of the family. Of course, these varied perceptions are common. People pick up on different looks and traits and decide that young people take after one relative or another.

Living close to the offspring and knowing both sides of the family tree, parents can see the crosscurrents of heredity mingling in the children and in ourselves.

For example, my wife and son bite their tongues during periods of mental concentration, a trait that is traceable to her father. Biting your tongue is not something you do naturally, and to me it always seemed like a step toward cannibalism. I’m happy to chalk that one up to her side.

Sometimes the similarities between one family member and another don’t last. Our daughter started out looking a lot like my sister but then began wearing aqua. That caused a sea change in her appearance and wiped out any resemblance.

I find traits in myself reflecting my mother and father. Between my father’s hard logic and my mother’s empathy, I swing like a chimp. I ape one parent, then another, sometimes both at once. At times, I hang above the tangled jungle of life for days trying to figure out which way to go.

My wife is a worrier like her mother. And she’s thrifty like her father. Needless to say, she worries about money. It’s a dubious inheritance.

It’s easy to spot some of my wife’s and my habits and attitudes in the children. Our daughter is quick and intuitive, our son deliberate and logical, differences mirrored in my wife and me. Arguments around here are a circus of contrasting styles — like Mike Tyson going up against a voodoo priest. But that’s what makes families interesting.

Ironically, the ways in which the children resemble us parents aren’t necessarily their most endearing qualities. Some traits of the children that vex me are my own qualities.

The children, in turn, are surely vexed by parental habits they judge can only have come from outer space. For now they can’t say much, or we’ll put them to work cleaning the baseboard registers with cotton swabs.

But in our inevitable dotages certain of our traits will become exaggerated, and our children will grow bolder. They’ll quietly complain to each other that we drive them up the wall with this fixation or that nervous habit or some other quirk of character.

Even now, looking inward, I wince to see traits that one day will harden and make me an odd duck. And yet, if we look closely at our children, we can see the seeds of their own idiosyncrasies. They may be entering the years of cool judgment of their elders, but they will be judged in turn.

The circle of life turns a full 360 degrees, and some day our children will have assembled their own resumes of whims and kinks. Hardly anyone who takes the full course in life gets through with a rating of “normal.” There are simply too many frogs in the gene pool, and each of us gets a few of them. Or maybe some of the frogs hop aboard as we pass through the low marshes of life. You tell me.

Another perplexing thing about this subject is the tendency of children to defy their parents’ examples, however excellent. Actually, I find their independence reassuring.

First, it relieves us of some responsibility. Second, it makes the topnotch moms and dads look a little more ordinary.

If a child grows up into a ne’er-do-well, we can always say to ourselves, “Well! They didn’t get that from us. We did our part. The kid must be a throwback to someone in the Oklahoma clan.”

And on the occasions when our children rise above us in merit, we can salve our egos by saying: “Okay, they succeeded where we didn’t, but they couldn’t have done it without our help. The talent was there in us, lying dormant. We passed it on and nursed it to full flower.”

We can also enjoy the times when we realize that no, our children will never be as good as we are at certain things, like juggling or tree recognition. It’s easy to be generous in those cases. We can say, “That’s OK, kids, we’re a tough act to follow.”

h1

My odd son

November 12, 2016

Obviously, there is no single gene “for” math aptitude or punctuality or interest in rainforests. But if Mom and Dad both exhibit a certain trait, shouldn’t the apple fall relatively close to the tree?

That’s what I used to think. Then I became a father.

Two of my defining interests throughout my life, evident from an early age, have been creative writing and competitive sports. My son Phil, now 10, is almost completely indifferent to both.

Here’s me at age 8 or 9, writing about baseball, my favorite sport at the time, while vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Marathon base ball poem

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the fun,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit a home run.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and steal a base,
c’mon, c’mon, let me see that happy face.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch ’em all.

C’mon, c’mon, even if your average is low,
c’mon, work hard, and you can be a pro.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit it over the wall.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon leap high in the air,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon ‘n catch that ball, it’s fair.

C’mon, c’mon, throw the ball up high,
c’mon, c’mon, throw it way up in the sky.

C’mon, c’mon, throw it right into his glove,
C’mon, baseball, I’m in love!

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the game,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and be elected to the Hall Of Fame.

While it’s not the work of a young Tennyson, some craftsmanship is evident, for example, in the commitment to the “c’mon, c’mon” cadence and the clean end rhymes. I proudly shared the poem with Grandma Nancy and relished her rave review.

In contrast, here is Phil writing about a summer camping trip that he basically enjoyed:

First we drove to the place. Then we ate lunch. Then we hiked. Then we set up camp. Then we ate dinner. Then we slept. Then we ate breakfast. Then we hiked. Then we drove to lunch. Then we drove home.

When asked to provide more detail about some part of the trip, Phil offered this:

After we set up the camp Leila set up the stove named the dragon fly. Then Leila made macaroni. And we ate it. Then she made a rice dish we ate it. finally we had roasted marshmallows for dessert.

Notice the apparent lack of interest in telling the story with any humor, any intrigue, or any flair whatsoever. Which is fine — LOTS of people find writing more tedious than enjoyable. And Phil is creative in other ways (especially with Legos). Still, I would have expected him to inherit some smidgen of my wordsmithing tendencies.

Likewise, we differ greatly in our attitude toward sports, as encapsulated in this photo from last Sunday’s PNTF cross-country meet (courtesy of Win Van Pelt):

PNTF 2016

Dad kicks fiercely toward the finish while Sonny Boy (in hat) looks away, uninterested.

Again, it’s fine that he is not (currently) a jock — just surprising to me.

Of course, we do have a few things in common: a love of soft blankets and sweat pants, for example. And similar views on Donald Trump.

That’s right — the man who has fractured the country into bitter factions has brought my son and me closer together.

Here’s Phil reacting to Donald Trump during the first presidential debate: “It seems like the only thing that he cares about is money.”

Weeks later, here he is, trying to explain Trump’s plan to make America great again: “It seems like Trump wants to repair America … by bombing it.” (I’m not sure exactly what Phil meant by that, but I took it to mean that “draining the swamp,” Trump-style, might do more harm than good.)

And here’s his response to a classmate’s claim that Trump will do some good things, like lowering taxes: “His tax cuts are for rich people. What about an African family working the entire day for 20 dollars?”

Preach on, Brother Phil!

h1

Crowther & Crowther (2015)

June 24, 2015

Two recently completed collaborations with my 8-year-old son:

1. Green revolution: salad spinning superseded. Bricolage 33: 110-112, 2015.

2. STEM songs: not just child’s play (display case installation, Discovery Hall, UW-Bothell)

h1

Stephen, Be Heard!

September 14, 2014

The Dynamic Ecology and Phylogenomics blogs drew my attention to a new “must-read” article: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? by Stephen B. Heard (Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7:64-72, 2014). The abstract is below.

While scientists are often exhorted to write better, it isn’t entirely obvious what “better” means. It’s uncontroversial that good scientific writing is clear, with the reader’s understanding as effortless as possible. Unsettled, and largely undiscussed, is the question of whether our goal of clarity precludes us from making our writing enjoyable by incorporating touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty. I offer examples of scientific writing that offers pleasure, drawing from ecology and evolution and from other natural sciences, and I argue that enjoyable writing can help recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read. I document resistance to this idea in the scientific community, and consider the objections (well grounded and not) that may lie behind this resistance. I close by recommending that we include touches of whimsy and beauty in our own writing, and also that we work to encourage such touches in the writing of others.

To this nicely argued piece, I just want to add a few examples of indifference or hostility to my own attempts at whimsy, humor, and/or beauty.

(1) My grant proposals to the NWRCE and PNWRCE, 2010.

Striving to keep readers with me through the Conclusion section, I wrote:

We believe strongly in the importance of the central goal of this proposal, i.e., linking antibacterial compounds to Burkholderia proteins in a manner that will facilitate validation of new drug targets. This interest in compound-target links is not simply a fetish of the investigators involved in this project; within some pharmaceutical firms, knowing the target of a compound with activity against cells is considered absolutely vital for progressing compounds to leads.

A colleague discouraged me from using the word “fetish” on the grounds that “it reminds me of foot fetishes.” Perhaps she was right, but I kept it in as a tiny rebellion against unrelenting formality.

The proposals were rejected.

(2) G.J. Crowther et al., Identification of attractive drug targets in neglected-disease pathogens using an in silico approach, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 4(8): e804, 2010.

This paper contained numerous lists of possible drug targets. Since one of the pathogens covered was Leishmania (the cause of leishmaniasis), the paper was known internally as the “Listmania paper” throughout 10 months of writing and revising. Meanwhile, we searched and searched for a compelling title distinct from that of our first paper on the same topic … while carefully avoiding the most interesting and evocative bit that we had come up with — i.e., the word Listmania. A coauthor killed the term by arguing, reasonably enough, that a pun about a pathogen might be insensitive to the pathogen’s victims. But a “catchier,” less cautious title might also have raised leishmania awareness more effectively.

(3) G.J. Crowther, The SingAboutScience.org database: an educational resource for instructors and students, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40(1): 19-22, 2012.

The submitted manuscript included this:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of FTE’s, is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

Once the journal’s copy editor got ahold of it, it became:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE’s), is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

To me, this change reduced the sentence’s rhetorical punch and humor. Yet the edited version was (slightly) clearer, and I knew better than to argue for style over clarity. I reluctantly accepted the edit.

(4) G.J. Crowther et al., A mechanism-based whole-cell screening assay to identify inhibitors of protein export in Escherichia coli by the Sec pathway, Journal of Biomolecular Screening 17: 535-41, 2012.

Our submitted manuscript included the following:

While previous studies had included beta-mercaptoethanol in assay buffers, presumably to maintain cytoplasmic beta-gal in a reduced and active state, it did not appear necessary to preserve beta-gal function under our assay conditions; EC626’s response to maltose was similar with and without beta-mercaptoethanol (Fig. 3). Thus, in performing this assay, the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol may be avoided.

A reviewer wrote, “The sentence which includes ‘the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol’ is not appropriate.”

Here was another chance to stand up for ever-so-slightly-less-orthodox, ever-so-slightly-less-dry writing. This time I stood my ground and got my way.

“We respectfully disagree,” I responded. “It is a minor point, but the omission of beta-mercaptoethanol provided much relief to the rest of our lab, and this is worth noting.”

h1

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

h1

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.

h1

Roger Ebert and the art of grading

January 30, 2014

I didn’t know Roger Ebert, but I miss him.

From about 2003 until his death last April, I faithfully read his reviews of every movie I saw, plus many more.

Why was I so interested in Roger’s opinions? He was smart and funny, but there was more to it than that.

Last month I belatedly recognized another aspect of Roger’s appeal while reading The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj of Cornell University.

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj advise against grading students’ essays right away. Instead, they counsel, “First sit back and read through each paper receptively, letting it communicate whatever it is trying to say.”

This is how Roger treated movies: as works to be experienced first and critiqued second. In his memoir, Life Itself, he says that he learned this from Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”

To be this open-minded is admirable. To stay this open-minded after having literally viewed thousands of films would be almost miraculous.

Roger became the Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967. Here he is in 2007, reviewing Alvin and the Chipmunks:

The most astonishing sight in “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is not three singing chipmunks. No, it’s a surprise saved for the closing titles, where we see the covers of all the Alvin & company albums and CDs. I lost track after 10. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would want to listen to one whole album of those squeaky little voices, let alone 10.

Sure, the chipmunks are an easy target. But my point is that Roger stayed through the closing credits, still curious about what might come next and still capable of being surprised.

His review continues:

…Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, who accidentally brings them home in a basket of muffins, discovers they can talk and is soon shouting “Alvin!” at the top of his lungs, as Chipmunk lore requires that he must.

David Cross plays Ian, the hustling tour promoter who signs them up and takes them on the road, where they burn out and he suggests they start syncing with dubbed voices. Now we’re getting into Alice in Wonderland territory, because of course they are dubbed voices in the first place. Indeed the metaphysics of dubbing dubbed chipmunks who exist in the real world as animated representations of real chipmunks is … how did this sentence begin?

That said, whatever it was, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is about as good as a movie with these characters can probably be, and I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this movie. I am even sure some readers will throw it up to me like I liked the “Garfield” movie better. Yes, but Garfield didn’t sing, and he was dubbed by Bill Murray. My duty as a reporter is to inform you that the chipmunks are sorta cute, that Jason Lee and David Cross manfully play roles that require them, as actors, to relate with empty space that would later be filled with CGI, and that at some level, the movie may even be doing something satirical about rock stars and the hype machine.

Does he sound annoyed that he had to sit through this two-star kids’ flick? Not really. He came, he saw, and he noticed some things that amused him and some things that he could grudgingly admire. It’s a privilege to get paid to watch and judge movies, good and bad, and Roger enjoyed it until the very end.

Getting paid to read and evaluate student writing is also a privilege of sorts. If decades pass and I become an old man and I’m still doing it, I hope to be doing it with the patience and good humor of Roger Ebert.

h1

Civil discourse

December 30, 2013

A recent, typically excellent post at Dynamic Ecology addressed the question of “How do you critique the published literature without looking like a jerk?”

While I like Brian and Jeremy’s suggestions, they don’t capture the extent to which perceptions of jerkiness depend on very specific choices in wording, rhetorical structure, etc. I want to emphasize here that small changes can make a big difference in how you are perceived.

Brian and Jeremy did provide the following language/writing tips (paraphrased by me):

1. Don’t make ad hominem attacks.

2. When possible, identify possible solutions to the problems you’ve identified.

3. Don’t heap too much scorn upon one individual paper or scientist if the problem is common to multiple sources.

4. Focus on facts rather than opinions.

To these, I add the following additional pointers for avoiding the label of “jerk.” (Some were taken from A guide for new referees in theoretical computer science by Ian Parberry, which I consider relevant because standards for pre- and post-publication review should be similar.)

5. Define the viewpoint from which you conducted your evaluation. What do you know about and care about? What do you NOT know about or care about? Confess possible biases.

6. Acknowledge the positive aspects of what was done.

7. Be as specific as possible in your criticisms. Statements like “the data in Figure 5 were misinterpreted” are both more justifiable and less catty than “this study adds nothing to the field.” If you are questioning one particular paper, consider your target to be the paper rather than the scientist(s) who wrote it. “What’s wrong with this paper?” is usually a reasonable question to ask, but “what’s wrong with these scientists?” often registers on the jerk-o-meter. Also be specific in providing references. Claiming support from unspecified sources is sloppy and rude, but even incomplete citations such as “Johnson 2012” may be more ambiguous than helpful.

8. Give the most space to the most important problems. Don’t dwell on minor flaws. Harping on spelling errors makes you seem like a jerk.

9. Avoid unnecessarily dramatic language. In a manuscript review, I once identified four problems as “critical flaws.” A colleague noted that my concerns would be just as clear if I used a softer phrase such as “main flaws.”

In compiling this advice, I became curious as to how well I follow it, so I rated my past critiques of Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, Born to Run (part 1; part 2) by Christopher McDougall, “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners” by Benjamin Rapoport, Wheat Belly by William Davis, and “Misconceptions Are So Yesterday!” by April Maskiewicz and Jennifer Lineback. Results are below.

self-critique of my critiques

By my own reckoning, I’m not a complete hypocrite, but there certainly is room for improvement.