23 October 2011

Thought of the day: Why is scientific writing so bad

A frequent complaint about scientists is that they are generally bad writers. I was wondering why that is so. One reason is that we simply tolerate bad writing. We let people get away with it. You can imagine that if people's papers were rejected from journals due to poor writing, they would improve their writing in a hurry. The scientific establishment doesn't value good writing enough. Another reason (I speculate) is that scientists don't expose themselves to good writing. They don't read literary works or essays that are the quality of The Atlantic [1].  So they have no idea what good writing is like. The poor quality of scientific writing certainly doesn't help.  I've attended some wonderful writing seminars and they seem to attract people who are already decent writers.  They know what good writing is like.  But where are the people who need help the most?

I think the best way to address this problem is to require students to spend time learning how to write, from a specialized writing teacher. Most advisors are probably bad writers themselves or they have no idea how to teach their students. Advisors have too much work to do; they don't have time to teach people how to write. Frankly, teaching writing is time consuming and tedious. My experience with professors is that their "writing instruction" consists of telling students, "I don't like X. Change it to Y," with no explanation. This is not teaching. Some students who are bright or already good writers will figure out what the professor really meant, but most people need an explanation of "why." Otherwise, they will simply make the same mistake in the future.

[1] The Atlantic is just an example.  I'm not implying it's the best magazine or my favorite.

21 October 2011

Song of the day: "Til There Was You" by Meredith Willson

A beautiful romantic ballad that is one of Barbara Cook's signature songs. Kristin Chenoweth also sings this one a lot.

From the musical The Music Man
There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.

There were birds in the sky
But I never saw them winging
No, I never saw them at all
Till there was you.

And there was music,
And there were wonderful roses,
They tell me,
In sweet fragrant meadows of dawn, and dew.

There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!

20 October 2011

Song of the day: "I'm Still Here" by Stephen Sondheim

This is a show-stopping, tour-de-force of a song about strength and survival.

From the musical Follies
Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.

I've stuffed the dailies
In my shoes.
Strummed ukuleles,
Sung the blues,
Seen all my dreams disappear,
But I'm here.

I've slept in shanties,
Guest of the W.P.A.,
But I'm here.
Danced in my scanties,
Three bucks a night was the pay,
But I'm here.
I've stood on bread lines
With the best,
Watched while the headlines
Did the rest.
In the Depression was I depressed?
Nowhere near.
I met a big financier
And I'm here.

I've been through Gandhi,
Windsor and Wally's affair,
And I'm here.
Amos 'n' Andy,
Mahjongg and platinum hair,
And I'm here.

I got through Abie's
Irish Rose,
Five Dionne babies,
Major Bowes,
Had heebie-jeebies
For Beebe's
I lived through Brenda Frazier
And I'm here.

I've gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,
Gee, that was fun and a half.
When you've been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover,
Anything else is a laugh.

I've been through Reno.
I've been through Beverly Hills,
And I'm here.
Reefers and vino,
Rest cures, religion and pills,
And I'm here

Been called a pinko
Commie tool,
Got through it stinko
By my pool.
I should have gone to an acting school.
That seems clear.
Still, someone said, "She's sincere,"
So I'm here.

Black sable one day.
Next day it goes into hock,
But I'm here.
Top billing Monday,
Tuesday you're touring in stock,
But I'm here.

First you're another
Sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career
To career.
I'm almost through my memoirs.
And I'm here.

I've gotten through "Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis?
Wow! What a looker you were."
Or, better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis --
Whatever happened to her?"

Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.
I've run the gamut,
A to Z.
Three cheers and dammit,
C'est la vie.
I got through all of last year,
And I'm here.
Lord knows, at least I've been there,
And I'm here!
Look who's here!
I'm still here!

19 October 2011

Song of the day: "In Buddy's Eyes" by Stephen Sondheim

This is a sweet and beautiful song from the Broadway musical Follies. But if you actually see the show, you realize the song is a poor attempt at a self-convincing lie. The character's marriage to Buddy is a shambles.
Life is slow, but it seems exciting
'Cause Buddy's there.
Gourmet cooking and letter writing,
And knowing Buddy's there.

Every morning -- don't faint --
I tend the flowers.
Can you believe it?
Every weekend, I paint.
For umpteen hours.

And, yes, I miss a lot
Living like a shut-in.
No, I haven't got
Cooks and cars and diamonds.
Yes, my clothes are not
Paris fashions, but in
Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes
I don't get older.

So life is ducky
And time goes flying
And I'm so lucky
I feel like crying,

In Buddy's eyes,
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes,
I can't get older.
I'm still the princess,
Still the prize.

In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's arms,
On Buddy's shoulder
I won't get older,
Nothing dies.

And all I ever dreamed I'd be,
The best I ever thought of me,
Is every minute there to see
In Buddy's eyes.

13 October 2011

Link of the day: Program your daily tasks on your calendar

I was glad to learn that I'm not the only one who puts mundane tasks like "gym" and "schedule haircut" on my calendar.  Whitson Gordon (who seems to be the best writer on Lifehacker these days) wrote a very nice post about how he schedules basically everything on his Google calendar

I like doing this for many reasons.
  1. You don't have to waste your cognitive energy on worrying about when to do these boring, routine tasks.
  2. The calendar tells you when to do it. Think of it as your electronic mother. If you tell yourself, maybe I'll clean the bathroom this week, it's not going to get done. If your mother tells you to do it this afternoon, you are much more likely to get it done.
  3. The calendar enables you to get the chores done on a regular basis so you keep your life in order.

12 October 2011

Thought of the day: Different kinds of maturity

I've started to think that you can attain maturity through two channels: 1) experience and 2) learning indirectly through media like books, internet discussions, etc.

People who are thoughtful and empathetic but shy and/or anti-social tend to pick up maturity through #2.  I think I fall into this category.  Learning indirectly (method #2) is efficient.  You can learn a lot very quickly.  The problem is that it's very hard to develop emotional resilience by learning about other people's experiences.  You can read about what it's like to suffer a divorce or a life-threatening illness, but that can only prepare you so much.

People like me can be mature and seem exceptionally mature for our age, but when we run into a difficult situation, then our lack of experience is exposed and basically, we're screwed.

However, I'm not recommending that people should stop reading and learning about other people's experiences (method #2).  Direct personal experience is great, but it is very limited.  There simply isn't time to live in different places, travel to every country of the world, try out different careers, etc.  I would be wary of people who claim that experience is king and that reading is a waste of time.

Simply put, we need both experience and learning to become a wise, mature person.

01 October 2011

Link of the day: Hacking your own job

Michael Ellsberg wrote a fantastic essay explaining how to become a self-made freelancer. Summary of the essay:
  • Something like 80% of jobs are obtained through networking, not resume dropping.
  • You can't "hack" the credential oriented jobs like being a doctor or lawyer, but you can hack all other jobs (side step formal credential requirements) by reading books, talking to people, networking.
  • There are many successful people who have pulled off this hack through self-discipline and devotion to learning on their own.
  • This post outlines a plan on how you can achieve success without formal credentials.
But what I like most about the essay is that it alludes to the American ethos of the self-made man:
Most people who drop out of school also drop out of learning... However, there are people who drop out of formal education, while still maintaining an absolute passion and discipline for learning—informally, non-institutionally, in the real world... I’ve interviewed almost 40 millionaire and billionaires, all self-made, and none of them finished college. In interviewing them, I was consistently struck by one thing they all had in common: a complete lack of regard for socially-sanctioned formal “requirements” for bringing success into their lives.