Monday, July 26, 2010

And This Was Odd Because It Was the Middle of the Night

You ever have that experience of waking up in the middle of the night with some brilliant idea that you write down in the dark (or in the glow of your watch or alarm clock), but then when you see it in the morning, it's illegible (e.g. is that the word "porcupine"?), nonsensical (e.g. crocodiles release the queen's ugly moat), or just dumb/ insipid? I have done this dozens of times.

Last night, between the hours of 1:15 and 2:30 a.m., I kept falling partly to sleep, then thinking some thought about my statement of purpose (that I had been working on before bed) or my research that I came into my office and wrote on a piece of paper. I filled up one side of the page and about a quarter of the other. Shockingly, when I looked over these notes this morning, they were actually good ideas. I'm not sure that it was completely unprecedented in my experience, but it was odd.

If you think we're alive you ought to speak to us!

Friday, July 23, 2010


I sometimes talk about getting into a grad program at, or later getting a job at, a low-quality sounding fake directional state university, so I was quite impressed with how unimpressive this fake institution sounds - Southern Appalachian State Community Technical College.

A part-time instructor from said college is the purported source of a persuasive message about mandatory comprehensive exams in the "low credibility" condition of several experiments I'm reading about. The experiments were conducted at a midwestern state university, so the inclusion of both "southern" and "Appalachian" no doubt helped make this person sound stupid above and beyond what "community" and "technical" college implies because clearly, no one with intelligence would choose to work at a community college in the south or Appalachia. (And yes, I empathize with the implicit negative reaction to the idea of "Southern Appalachia" myself.)

I would also like to take this opportunity to point out this article to my reader who mocks my pronunciation of said region (and any interested others). Given my proximity to the area, and after the whole Colorado pronunciation debacle, you'd think I would have some (ahem) credibility on these things, but I guess not. Hence, I provide these other sources for your consideration.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rabbit Round-up

Readers suffering from leporiphobia (rabbit phobia) should...well, you should know by now that Empirical Question is a rabbit-happy blog that strongly believes in the goodness of More Rabbit. If you can't handle the bunny, get out of this vegetable garden.

In the last two days, three people have sent me bunnalicious items for me to share with you:

(1) D. sends this Soviet air mail stamp featuring the Soyuz-5 spacecraft and a rabbit. She notes, "I'm not sure what role bunnies played in the Soviet space program, but it's good they were recognized." Indeed. My only guess is that the combination of a spacecraft and a hare is intended to evoke speed by air.

All fear the New Soviet Rabbit

(2) Jen forwards this lovely little lolbun. It makes a nice (if strange) companion piece to the dormouse having his head stuck into a teapot in Alice.

Pour little bunny

(3) Robert sends this Slate "Explainer" about treatment for rabbit phobia that also includes a few more fun rabbit-fear links, including a discussion of Jimmy Carter's swamp rabbit drama. (Robert also makes a very pop culturally literate statement about a certain Buffy character's fear of rabbits that will have to wait until my mom catches up with her voracious viewing of the show. I think this idea is introduced somewhere in season 4, if wikipedia can be trusted.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Attempting to Appreciate the Necessity

A couple years ago, I mentioned that one thing that has stuck with me very strongly is my 10th grade English teacher writing "Sally is a tireless reviser of her work."

This week, at the beginning of my meeting with my advisor, he pulled out a copy of The Language Instinct, which he's been reading recently, and read me this quote: "A banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively. Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts before releasing a paper. Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer."

Pinker also writes, "Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensive. Overcoming one's natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and--probably most important--intensive exposure to good examples."

I am really trying to keep this in mind this week as I work on version 5 of Experiment 1 and version 3 of Experiment 2. Fortunately, this evening as I was basically re-writing the results of Experiment 2 from scratch (and with the stats from what I think is Experiment 2 analysis version 4 or 5), I realized that I was making improvements that I want to incorporate in Experiment 1 as well, even though the Experiment 1 results section is looking pretty good at this point already. So yes, I'm seeing evidence that supports this whole revision thing in my own work right now.

I also realized that I have been thinking of myself as working on the same 15 pages for weeks now, but that actually my two experiments together are up to 29 pages...and counting. This helps satisfy the part of my mind that is occupied with the calculation of the ratio of pages written to total number of pages needed (about 60).

And I will just say that I find writing empirical papers much harder than review papers. Clearly and thoroughly presenting the results of a somewhat large number of 2 x 2 x 2 factorial design experiments and tying the results together in a way that makes sense is hard. (We are not "biologically designed" to understand the results/implications of our own three-way interactions, let alone someone else's.)

I should enjoy the fact that I am currently writing a paper that is supposed to be long because one of the hardest things of all is to be clear and thorough and insightful and concise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Crazy, Charismatic, Vegetarian

In the past month, I've read two novels that feature extreme health food cultists: Millroy the Magician by Paul Theroux and The Road to Wellville by T. C. Boyle.

Millroy, a fairground magician who nevertheless apparently has the capacity to do Real Magic due to taking control of his bodily functions through a vegetarian eating plan based on the Bible (think: Ezekiel bread) and ritualistic elimination, takes an unhappy teenage girl into his trailer and his life. They leave the fairground behind them, with the girl posing as Millroy's "son," and venture into television (first a children's program, then Sunday preaching), where Millroy becomes a star. A diner devoted to Millroy's eating plan opens. This part of the story is actually pretty interesting, but the whole thing just becomes too much. Once I figured out the only way the story was going to resolve itself, I thought, Oh god, no, please, not that, NO. But yes. Yes, the book ended in an utterly annoying manner.

The Road to Wellville juxtaposes the monotonous existence of the pampered, half-starved, prodded, enema-ed, sexually-deprived rich patients of Dr. Kellogg's sanitarium and the machinations of desperate breakfast cereal speculators (celery-flavored cereal: mmmm) in the crucible of turn-of-the-century Battle Creek, Michigan. I found the first couple of chapters rather boring and difficult to get into (suffering from some of that "now we establish all the characters" problem often afflicting television shows), and put the book aside for a time. But when I was drawn back to it later, I found it a jolly ride.

One sort of disturbing things about these satirical novels is that their nutso health gurus appear to advocate super narrowly defined diets that are, however, more diverse and balanced than that of my two raw-foodist aunts who, last I heard, eat basically the very same thing at every meal. (OK, they do better than the poor guy at the sanitarium who was on the milk diet, then the grape diet, but those were merely short-term treatments, not intended to be diets for a lifetime.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gigantic Conference

This week I submitted my first year project to a poster session at the big conference in my field. Currently, there are 598 submissions, and the deadline isn't until Tuesday. Knowing how grad students deal with deadlines, I think there are a lot more of them to come. This made me feel like it must be impossible to get one's poster accepted against so many other applicants, but Robert tracked down last year's conference materials - there were over 2,000 posters at the conference last year. So...yeah, I guess this conference is even huger than I imagined.

I don't know when we find out if we're accepted or not, but if accepted, I already know that I will be happy at the time, when this represents an opportunity to present research and an accomplishment in my budding career as an academic. However, as the end of January (and hence the conference) draws near, I am going to be focusing on what an utter pain in the ass it is to put together a poster, get travel arrangements made, and miss a few days of school and thus will increasingly wish I had not been accepted after all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


You will not want to miss this epic battle between venomous snake and badger of death. Thanks, Tam.

(I'm now really starting to hope that it wasn't a honey badger we saw in town.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Holy Exploding Lightbulb, Batman

My small excitement of the day: a lightbulb in the ceiling fan above my reading desk exploded and showered fine specks of glass all over the desk and floor (in addition to the main part of the bulb that came down in one piece). Fortunately, I was sitting at the computer desk a few feet away and did not get glass on myself. Well, I needed to vacuum up the tiny pieces of cloth and thread that got on the floor from the flag shirt project on Friday anyway, and I cannot remember the last time I dusted that desk.

And yes, the sound scared the hell out of me.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Three to One

It's been a long time since I've done a refashion, but on Thursday evening, I decided I wanted to finally do something with these three shirts that were screaming to be combined into one shirt - these were three nice knit tops from my mom that were both too short (petite size) and too narrow for me. I spent a bit of time playing around with different color block patterns and finally decided on what seemed like a simple approach. Au contraire.

Making small stuff bigger is a lot harder than making big stuff smaller. I quickly discovered that I would not be able to use the method that worked so nicely with the Mondrian shirt for which I pieced together the fabric first and then cut the pattern from it. I didn't have enough material to make that happen. So I had to cut the different pieces and assemble them all together in the shape of the shirt itself. This allowed for all kinds of errors, and I made most of them. I made it even trickier for myself because I really wanted to keep some of the features of the original shirts, including the bottom hem of one shirt and both the side seams and the hem of another. Luckily, the shirt was two layers of fabric thick on the front (one on the back) - without that extra material to play with, I would have been sunk.

So how did I screw up? Let me count the ways:

(1) I made a pattern for the neck and arm area of the shirt, but the material was so limited I ended up making it out of 5 separate pieces of material. For the front piece, I cut the fabric on the wrong side one time so I had to sew one front and one back of the material together. Fortunately, this isn't very noticeable at all from any normal distance.

(2) I also misjudged or miscalculated my measurements and ended up with a front that was larger than the back when it was pieced together. Luckily, my chest is also larger in the front than the back, so it was okay.

(3) I sewed the shoulders together inside out, so I had to cut that off, reshape the arm holes, and sew it together again.

At this point, I had one piece of fabric that went over my neck and under the arms. Because of the shoulder-seam debacle, the section was also about an inch shorter than I'd planned. Now I needed to make the bottom part by making a tube of the correct dimensions to sew onto the top part. This proved more challenging that it would sound. One difficulty is that it wasn't a perfect tube I was aiming for; the bottom part of the shirt needs to be trapezoidal-looking from the front and back (incorporating the original seams, bottom hem, and those cut-out notches that some knit shirts have at the side seam).

(4) The bottom section had stripes of color. I cut one of the stripes too narrow and had to cut another one.

(5) Again, despite doing the math, I ended up with a bottom section that was not only too wide, but was too wide on both the front and the sides (I wanted the side seams of both parts to match). I was able to take in some of the extra volume without it being a huge problem, but there was fiddling involved. The stripe I'd thought I'd cut too narrow would have actually been fine.

The shirt did not turn out precisely as I'd hoped, and took a long time to put together (probably close to 7 hours from design to putting the sewing machine back into working condition to finish), but it is wearable. Here I'm modeling it with my container garden.

Robert said he thought it looked like a flag, which it does (though actually less than another one of the designs I was considering). None of the state or national flags look like this one, but it could represent the pastel flag for the merger between Austria and a municipality of Lichtenstein called Triesen (which appears to be geographically possible, oddly enough).

One thing about being a grad student on an insanely small summer stipend is that your time is worth very little money. I am working on my research this summer for about $1.50 per hour. (And if I were putting in a full 40 hour work week, it'd be worse!) So essentially, I ran my own personal sweatshop on Friday to produce this shirt: The Pastel Austriesen Sweatshop Shirt.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Local Warming

It is currently 99.9 degrees. This is wrong.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Student Ratings of Teaching: Part 1.5

I do not share Lee's sense of irritation that articles about student evaluations of teaching too strongly convey the idea that students are incompetent judges of professors' teaching ability.

As you may recall, in SRT Part 1, I agreed with fellow curmudgeonly critic Olivares that “to think that students, who have no training in evaluation, are not content experts, and possess myriad idiosyncratic tendencies, would not be susceptible to errors in judgment is specious.” And in addition to potential problems in students' ability to rate teachers accurately lies the extent of their motivation to do so. Perhaps many to most students do want their ratings to reflect their true perception of their professor's teaching effectiveness, but others will clearly have other agendas. Especially in a small class, it would not take many students who are dissatisfied with their expected grade to tank a professor's ratings. This is not to say that SRTs have no informational value; I agree with the SRT supporter Olivares quotes as saying, "Student ratings provide information on how well students like a course." But that is a pretty limited amount of information, and it's unclear how much we would want this evaluation to influence important decisions like tenure.

This article provides information about some higher education reforms of extremely dubious quality that are being considered in Texas public universities, with TAMU at the vanguard. I admit that I have a bias here: in the many years I spent working for a Texas state agency, I saw zero instances of governor or legislative intervention in the internal operation of departments that made any sense whatsoever and a zillion examples of idiotic and/or ill-intentioned meddling. (My god, I never blogged the lawnmower incident? the Survey Monkey incident? The "why don't we replace state parks with privately-funded amusement parks" incident? What self-control I had.) Thus, I am inclined to view any plan that comes from a conservative Texas think tank with full endorsement of Governor Goodhair Emptysuit with severe skepticism on the basis of source credibility alone.

Indicator of Idiocy #1: Their goal to "create a 'simple tool' to measure faculty efficiency." Oh by all means, let's make sure it's simple. We wouldn't want to get bogged down in any of the complexities of measuring this construct. Note that they are suggesting the following data be collected: "salary and benefit cost [huh?], number of students taught over the last year, average 'student satisfaction rating' and 'average percentage' of As and Bs given." If that last metric isn't enough to make you weep until you laugh at the obvious strategy that profs can immediately employ without improving their teaching at all...

Indicator of Ill-intentions #1: Their goal to split teaching and research budgets, ostensibly for the sake of transparency. OK, there's the fact that any graduate program is going to find it impossible to distinguish between teaching and research (since grad students spend so much time with faculty being taught to do research), but let's ignore these picayune details for now. Is it credible, for even a moment, that the goal of this proposal is not to reduce research budgets? When they talk about "cost containment," what they mean is "eliminate all that useless research that those lazy, self-indulgent professors are doing on obscure topics like, you know, how to define and measure teacher effectiveness."

Actually, I guess I should be relieved that they have not (yet) suggested turning the state universities of Texas into for-profit companies providing coursework 100% over the Internet. And if it's over the Internet, they could outsource all teaching to the Philippines or wherever labor is cheap these days...though it doesn't get much cheaper than using grad students and adjuncts, so there may be no savings there after all.

[UPDATE: And lest you think my negativity toward a lot of weight being put on SRTs stems from my getting bad evals, I got a 4.6 / 5.0 this past semester that would have put me on track to get the $10,000 bonus at TAMU.]

You Know He's an Evil Bastard When

"The dim road hurtled towards us. A village, a huddle of houses, flickered by like ghosts. Ahead two eyes gleamed: they stared, then darted like fireflies as the rabbit turned to run. Paul Very gave a little laugh, and deliberately thrust down his foot. I heard the rabbit squeal as we hit it: behind me Rommel [a dog] whined, sharply. Paul Very laughed once more."


"He [Richard] corked the flask and put it down beside me. 'You seem a lot more worried about this dog than you do about friend Paul [who was injured when the car crashed and is still unconscious].'

'It's David's [a boy] dog. Besides, Paul Very ran over a rabbit,' I added, as if that explained everything."

The man is a murderer of humans as well as rabbits, but I can sympathize with her reaction.

(Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart)

An Excellent Soccer Ad

I really loved this ad, especially the table tennis game against Roger Federer. That laughable loss was perhaps prophetic - Federer's not done well this summer on clay or on grass.

And for the record, I would totally watch a soccer movie starring Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Good Ratios

My weekend:

4 days
2 Creatures of the Dusk outings
1 morning birding outing
6 (wild) rabbit sightings
0 badger of death sightings

Average of 1.5 rabbit sightings per day = Bliss