Friday, October 25, 2013

In which David interviews a rock star.

For the first few weeks, the MOOC's quiz software asked us to rewrite clunky sentences into graceful ones, then showed model responses, and asked us to grade ourselves on whether we had improved the originals. I got consistently high marks, and probably not even because I was grading myself. The simple truth is that fixing sentences is my life work and I'm good at it. As the song says, "It's the only thing I can do half right."

But then came the MOOC's first real writing assignment: a 300-500 word piece which could be either a report on a scientific paper "in your own field", a review of a science book, or a profile of a working scientist. 

The first option was not applicable, as I don't have my own field of science. Sentence fixing is an art, not a science.

Writing a book review initially sounded appealing, so I checked Gordon Shepherd's Neurogastronomy out of the library, hoping it would be full of fantastical neurobunk I could make fun of. But it turned out to be a very responsible, science-based work with low bunk content, so I lost interest.

That left one choice, profiling a real scientist. I browsed the Middlebury College website, picked out a couple of junior faculty science stars, and emailed them. One, a geologist, responded immediately and we made an appointment. To prep for the interview, I read everything about his work I could find online, including a chunk of his doctoral dissertation. 

(I would tell you the title of the thesis, but it has no title, except for the word "Thesis."  Titles or the lack thereof is a subject of considerable interest, which I will take up in a later post.)

The interview was set for last Tuesday morning. Just before I left the house, on impulse, I grabbed one of my household rocks, a dense two-pound speckled stream cobble I use as a doorstop. Some primal instinct told me I could not visit a geologist without bringing a rock to show him. 

And the rock turned out to be a superb conversational icebreaker. After sitting down, and getting permission to start my voice recorder, I pulled the rock out of my bag and handed it to him. The geologist hefted it, turned it over and over, then offered his diagnosis. (Yes, the word for identifying a rock is "diagnosis," don't you love that?) Pointing out my doorstop's sparkly bits of actinolite, and rusted-out brown flecks of magnetite, he pronounced it to be an actinolite-magnetite schist from the Green Mountains.

My doorstop was extremely pleased, after millions of years as an anonymous oblong the size and shape of a mango, to finally be recognized for what he truly is. It perked him right up. It also raised my own estimation of him so much that I have promoted him to paperweight.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Teacher, Teacher! May I go to the Google?

An anonymous student posted this on the SciWrite discussion board. I swear I'm not making this up.

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

Sentences too technical (Unit 2 homework)

anonymous 3 days ago

I love the course, but I think some of the sentences are too technical (e.g. Unit 2 Homework Question 2.6 -> what is a "raised nevi"(it is not in Cambridge online dictionary)? should I search on Google the meaning of words?).
This is very annoying in homework exercises, because I am not able to correctly understand the meaning of the sentences in order to rephrase them. I have a computer science background and I am not a native English speaker. It would be great to know if others are having the same problem and if so solving it could be a big plus, especially for an online course.
Thank you :-)
The mind boggles. Where to begin? A student who claims to have a computer science background has asked, in public and presumably with a straight face, fully 15 years after Google came online and changed the entire world, whether he or she is supposed to search to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word. The student finds the use of words he or she does not know as "very annoying."
I typed "define nevi" into the Google search bar and got over 150,000 hits. The first five were more than enough. A more specific query, "raised nevi," yielded over 1,000 results. 
Has this person been trained up to avoid search engines, or been told that using them is cheating? Impossible. Even Middlebury College's history department, when in 2007 it banned the citing of Wikipedia in research papers, conceded that the online encyclopedia wasn't a bad place to start a search; they just didn't want it cited as a source.
Or is this one of those poor timid souls for whom everything that is not mandatory is forbidden?
If I were the teacher, I would very kindly explain that checking Google is a natural bodily function, that everyone does it, sometimes several times a day, and there is absolutely no shame attached to it. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Teacher announced today that the SciWrite MOOC's enrollment is up. First I heard was 22,000, then it jumped to 28,000, and today it's 30,000. Let me put that in perspective for you. Fenway Park has 37,065 seats. My classmates would fill it to 80% capacity. 

Is the world ready for 30,000 newly educated science writers? But not to worry, that won't happen. Although Red Sox playoff tickets average $322, a MOOC ticket is free. The cost of signing up is zero, it hardly takes a minute to do so. The course itself, on the other hand, is supposed to occupy 4-8 hours per week. How many will persevere and finish? Completion rates vary widely. The most often quoted figure for MOOC dropout rate is 90%.  (I'll cite more precise data in a later post.)

A college in the non-virtual world that lost 90% of enrollment in every course would not exactly make the top of the U.S. New & World Report rankings. MOOCs are different, right?

I wonder what the enrollment number would be, and then the retention rate, if signing up cost as little as $10. People like to get their money's worth. Charging $100 would drastically cut enrollment, but I'll bet retention rate would skyrocket. 

Should we care? Are enrollment and dropout rates relevant? Is the MOOC a horse of such different color than older forms of education that none of the old rules apply? Is this college, or is it a new flavor of public television?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Can Good Writing Be Measured?

Word Count Tool Online

The SciWrite site wiki recommends a free text analysis utility, but don't go there yet, I'm talking. The program can be used on the web or downloaded as a Chrome browser extension. It is easy to use, and has generous capacity --  I dumped in a 25,000 word fiction manuscript and it went right to work. It counts up words, sentences and paragraphs; Microsoft Word's spellchecker does that too, of course, but you can't consult it until you've slogged through the spellcheck. Also, there are some bonus extras, of which three sound most useful.

1. A tally and percentage of "difficult words," defined as those not found on this list of 3000 "familiar" words. My ordinary non-scientific  prose runs about 22% unfamiliar; compare that with Einstein's 1905 paper "The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" at 43%. (This refers to the 1922 translation by W. Perrett and G.B. Jeffery.)

2. Average sentence length, which you could easily calculate from Word's report, but I like having it faster. My typical sentence runs just under 10 words in length. 

3. A list of all the words you have used, in order of how often you have used them. (You can choose to view top 10, top 20, or whatever number you're curious about.) Why would you want to do this? I use it to police my overuse of certain words, notably "but." Too many buts gives my prose an argumentative tone, and I'm scary enough already.

Here is Word Count Tools' main display, giving the lowdown on this very blog post you just read.

Friday, October 4, 2013

In Praise of Shitty First Drafts

Creative writing people, echoing Annie Lamott's advice in Bird by Bird, recommend writing "shitty first drafts." SciWrite professor Kristin Sainani said something similar:

My biggest tip for the first draft is don't be a perfectionist. A lot of scientists are perfectionists, and they want to get it right on the first try. But writing is not the place to be a perfectionist, especially writing the first draft. When I write a first draft, my goal is to get down my ideas in complete sentences, that's the bar I set for myself. Complete sentences, in order. And that's it.

In Dream Song 54, John Berryman said, "Write as short as you can, in order, of what matters." And that should apply to any draft, from first to final.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Day 9. Binge-watching the MOOC

M​ore of the SciWri ​video modules opened up, and I'm watching them like I watched "How I Met Your Mother"--one episode after another, for hours.

The videos all have closed captioning, apparently produced by either voice transcription software, or a human court reporter who is uncommonly devoted to getting every word. So it becomes very noticeable that informal speech is a thousand miles from written language. Unless you are accustomed to reading transcripts, you'll be surprised by the number of kinda's and gonna's and sort-of's in her lecture. Yet the prose she is showing the class how to write is, while not excessively formal, always extremely correct.

Sometimes the transcriber (robot or human, I haven't decided) doesn't hear quite what the teacher is saying. Today, "abutting" turned into "a budding."

In a few more days, the part I'm really waiting for: the first essay assignment. Stay tuned.

P.S. Here's a big Same-Day Archaeology hello to the Russian spammers who have suddenly noticed the blog and are giving it their full attention. Thank God for comment moderation.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bill Buckner and the sublime dash of Angell's

Most people, even most writers, would not sit still for a 41-minute lecture about punctuation. But I ate it up. It was a thrill to hear the real truth about how English punctuation works, what it does, what it can accomplish.

Punctuation creates pauses in a sentence. In rising order of the length of pause created, we have comma, colon, dash, parenthesis, semicolon, and period, each one suited to certain moments.

To dramatize the expressive power of the dash, Prof. Sainani, who grew up a Red Sox fan in Vermont, told a baseball story, quite a long one, involving the indelible memory of first baseman Bill Buckner's tragic between-the-legs fumble in the 1986 World Series. The punch line is that in the last play of the 2004 World Series, when the Boston pitcher caught a grounder and ordinarily would have fired the ball to first base, he remembered Buckner's fumble. So instead of pegging it, he ran closer to first until he could send an easy, guaranteed catchable underhand throw to the first baseman for the final out and the World Championship. Now here comes the dash, the two dashes: this is what New Yorker writer Roger Angell wrote about that moment:

Baseball is the only game that’s played every day, which is why its season often seems endless, right up to the inning and the out—the little toss over to first base—when, wow, it ends.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sounding scientific, and other bad habits

Scientific formality
The resistance continues. In a thread titled "Against the Active Voice," one of my 28,000 classmates wrote:

I think that in Lecture 1.3 some nice passages from the articles where the passive structures have been transformed sound too simplified for the written text. They do not sound scientific, I mean, after paraphrasing they are meant not for specialists but for ordinary people who know nothing about the subject. 

"They do not sound scientific."

In my experience as a writing teacher, the worst thing that can happen to a poem is the author trying to sound poetic, or worse, poetickal. A poem can aspire to be true, or beautiful, or entertaining, or moving. Merely sounding poetic is too low an ambition. 

Formality does not disappear all at once; today's academic robes, for example, are nearly medieval. In America we don't wear them often, except at convocation and commencement, but when my father was a professor in Australia, there were many occasions to wear the regalia, including weekly dinners. Today's scientists no longer wear frock coats and tails in the lab. Why would they want to write as if they did?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Science should be popularized

My MOOC Blog, Day 6. So why am I studing science writing anyway? I'm not a scientist, nor a science journalist; I'm barely a journalist at all, despite occasional articles in newspapers. No, I am simply more interested in science and math than the average English major. And I read about science.

Writers who "popularize" science for the rest of us--Lucretius, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Gina Kolata, Rebecca Skloot--are sometimes looked down upon, but I look up to them all. Science is too important to be left to the scientists. If more writers were explaining climate change and global warming right now, there might be fewer politicians talking nonsense about it.

In 1962, when it was still being said that only a dozen people in the world understood Einstein's theory of relativity, Martin Gardner (1914-2010) brought out a book, Relativity for the Million, that a 10-year-old could read, so I did. My favorite part was about how the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved the existence of the ether wind. 

I also devoured Gardner's books of mathematical games and puzzles, drawn from his Scientific American columns, and The Annotated Alice edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which contains hundreds of what may be the most enjoyable footnotes ever written.*

I've been thinking about other books I read as a child. I had absolute permission from my parents to read any book I found, as if they could have stopped me. I seem to have opened up every book in the house, although if it was boring or too far over my head I would put it back down after a few pages. In adult life since I have often started a book and instantly realized that I'd already read the first couple of pages decades before.**

But here's the thing I really wanted to say. Martin Gardner was one of my favorite writers, and he was quite prolific, with dozens of books to his credit. Why have I read only a few? Why haven't I collected them all?

Some readers and many book collectors just "Gotta catch 'em all." Gardner's list would be both achievable and affordable, especially if I opted for "reading copies" instead of first editions in mint condition. I know of a collector who did that for Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, finding every possible edition and translations in every language from 1776 onward.

But that's not how I read or buy. I find a book I like and read it again and again. I have read the entire oeuvre of very few writers I care about, and only if their corpus is relatively small and important. James Joyce? I've read all five books. JK Rowling? Ten out of 11. Isaac Asimov? If anybody in the entire world has read every one of his more than 500 books, I'd like to meet him.*** Or her.**** 

* I have decided that all of my footnotes ought to be extremely entertaining. Sorry about this one..
** There is some dispute about whether there is any such thing as a photographic memory. I read that somewhere. 
***  If you are that person, I will buy you lunch and hear your explanation for this bizarre act of fandom.
**** You also get lunch, but will have even more to explain.

(This essay is re-posted with some revisions from my other blog, Waiting For Hungry.)

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why are scientists nervous about plain speaking?

On the SciWri discussion board, several of my classmates have posted objections to our teacher's simplification and dejargonization of example texts.  One student did not approve of "cancer" replacing "malignant transformation." Another disliked "newborns" for "neonates."

All specialized training teaches new vocabulary, and part of the initiation into any profession includes adopting that new language, and if you don't, you won't be fully accepted into the tribe.  Problem is, you won't always be writing for people who share your private dialect. Even if they are also scientists, they might hail from a different specialty that calls things by different names, or even from exactly your own specialty but from a different era, before the latest, hippest lingo was current.

Or they might not be native speakers of English, and are struggling with the material, made worse by specialized jargon. (Unless they are Dutch and speak far better English than you do.)

You know how cops talk in court?  How they "exit the patrol vehicle" instead of getting out of the car? (See Val Van Brocklin's tell-all article "Cops Talk Funny," at ) The thing is, I'm certain that cops don't talk that stilted way in the locker room, to other cops. They "code-switch" to plain English when they want to tell the real truth.

Imagine if we could all code-switch to plain English and never switch back.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Strunk & Who? or would that be Strunk & Whom?

There is no required textbook for the course, only a list of recommended readings, mostly style guides like Zinsser and Strunk & White. But there's another Strunk you might want to consider: Strunk & Pritchard.

Stanford Pritchard lives here in Middlebury. He's a jazz musician, a novelist, and generally a man of letters. Stan discovered that the original Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., published in 1918, had gone out of copyright. So he did exactly what E.B. White did in 1959: he entered into a posthumous collaboration with Strunk,updating the older book. Strunk & Pritchard is a steal at $2.99 for Kindle or $9.95 in paperback. You can buy your copy at the Vermont Book Shop, or at Amazon.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

My MOOC Blog, Day 3: Editing Oscar's New Legs

I'm sprinting through the course. It's only Day 3, but I've already watched all the modules for Weeks 1 and 2, taken all the pertinent quizzes, and finished the homework. I'll probably be slowing down, though, because by the end of the Week 2 material, the problems were getting harder. Here's a passage we were asked to make shorter and clearer.

"The lower external joint moments at the knee and hip joints, the lower mechanical work at the knee joint during stance, the lower energy loss in the prosthetic ankle joint, and the lower total body mechanical work in each ground contact leads to the assumption that running with dedicated prostheses allows the double transtibial amputee sprinter to run at the same level of performance as able-bodied controls, albeit, at lower metabolic costs."

That's a 72-word sentence. It's not only opaque, it's built upside down. The point, buried at the end, is that a person with both legs amputated below the knee, like Oscar Pistorius, can with the right prostheses sprint as fast as a person with two intact legs, and in fact, can do it using less energy. How do they do that? With all the advantages created by their new blades, painstakingly enumerated in the first half of the sentence, to a reader who doesn't yet know why he's being told all this stuff.

My version, in only 49 words, was this: "Even after double amputations below the knee, with the right prostheses, a sprinter can run as fast as an able-bodied runner, and use less energy doing so, because these prostheses offer lower moments at knee and hip joints, less mechanical knee work, and less energy consumed by ground contact."

The course, after showing me a model answer but assuring me that I did not have to have matched it exactly, asked if I thought my version had improved upon the original. I said it had.

Two ways this is different from my first time through college: I’m doing all my homework, turning it in early, and then getting to grade my own quizzes. It’s a thrill.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My MOOC Blog, Day 2

MY MOOC BLOG, Day 2. In the library parking lot yesterday I ran into Bryan Alexander and because I know he is interested in such things, I told him I had signed up for a MOOC. He was with his son, who excitedly said that it was his dad who invented the term MOOC! Bryan confirmed that he was indeed one of the devisers of the acronym; Wikipedia identifies the other as Dave Cormier. 

(In case you didn’t know, I should add that MOOC is pronounced MOOK, and not, for example, MOO-CEE. You might think this because ROTC is ROT-CEE, and GUI, the acronym for Graphical User Interface, is universally “GOOEY.”)

Hail to all namers! Giving new things their first memorable names is an important act. I recall the exact moment, probably in 1980, when I first noticed the word “hypertext.” It appeared on a sign posted next to a glowing blue computer screen in the downstairs hallway of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.  On the screen was text with certain words marked as clickable, although we didn’t have that word yet, because this was all in the dark pre-mouse days. Maybe you used the arrow keys? I clicked around on a few words, which were linked to other pages. After a few minutes I decided that hypertext was theoretically a good idea but wasn’t going to amount to anything.

What can I say? I’m a notorious late adopter in all areas of technology, as I have publicly confessed at  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My MOOC Blog, Day 1

I'm taking Stanford University's Writing in the Sciences course, taught by Kristin Sainani. MOOC means Massive Open Online Course. "Massive" in this case equals 22,000 students, and this is a writing class. Can Prof. Sainani grade that many essays? Of course not; when it comes to that part of the course, we will be commenting on each other's writing. I must hope that my classmates are sincere seekers of wisdom, not Internet trolls.

As for "Open," that should mean that anyone can take part, but we're already hearing from students in Pakistan whose access to YouTube is blocked by the government and will need to find another way to view the videos.

So I watched the mini-lectures, a set of short videos, very well done, very straightforward. Sainani says that even when writing scientific papers, we may use plain and direct English. The discussion board immediately erupted. Won't simple style fail to impress editors? The question must come from somebody who has never met an editor. The ones I know sing hosannas of joy when they receive manuscripts that are already clear and readable, and which they will not need to spend hours untangling.

Stay tuned as I undergo my 8-week education in science writing. Maybe after that, Gina Kolata will finally approve my friend request.