A new manifesto

March 11, 2013


Every once in a while its good to take a step back, look to the horizon, and figure out the principles that got you where you are.  Call it a mission statement or what have you, when I put together my first webpage in the mid 90’s, I wrote a manifesto. Which is now updated. You’ll have to check it out to see what went before (accompanied by the above photo of me collecting army ants). But here is V 2.0, written 17 years later.

After 17 years, it is time to update the manifesto. Much has changed. The beard is now grey; the “Coon hunter’s special” hooked up to the motorcycle battery has been replaced by a Penz with 10 LEDs; and I seriously doubt I could achieve, let alone maintain, the above posture. Mind you, the old manifesto (below) is still valid. It just needs a little updating. If it seems a bit more operational, and little less aspirational, re-read number 1; 2-6 are a roadmap toward achieving it. 


1) Change the world. Why else are we here? The world could use some help right now.


2) Always be finishing something. Wonderful advice, courtesy of Dan Janzen. It is always easier to begin a project than it is to wrestle it from 95% complete to over the finish line.


3) Quality = style * content. Style makes content go down easy; content makes it satisfy. 


4) Teaching = Writing. A corollary to 3. Writing is not dumping your thought processes onto the page. Good writing, as David Foster Wallace says, is considerate. It is empathetic. Know your audience and write for them.


5) Become the authority on something. The joy, and the responsibility, of scholarship is in becoming the go-to person on something that the world cares about (or should care about, see 1).


6) Work is play. Academia is hard, science is hard. But where else can you discover something truly new? We are the lucky ones: we exist in a civilization that values discovery. Keep the long view, and cherish those moments of transcendence. 

QOTD: Charlie LeDuff on the two rules of good journalism

February 13, 2013

QOTD: Charlie LeDuff on the two rules of good journalism

1) Get it right
2) Don’t be boring

The curse of “but have you considered?”

February 13, 2013

Why is academic writing so hard to read, and so painful to craft? Peter Elbow nails it. 

No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”. Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one. (“Elections tend to favor those who… You know what’s interesting here is the way in which political parties just… Still, if you consider how political parties tend to function…” and so on.) Alternatively, we drift intosentence interruptus: a phrase is left dangling while we silently muse — and we never return to finish it.

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:

X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.

And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.

We breed such a suspicion of anything smacking of generalization that we contort our writing to hedge, dissemble, and CYA. This is one reason why I find theoreticians to often be the best writers, at least in my field of Ecology. 

Two small steps toward remediation?  

1) Treat every appearance of the words “could”, “should”, “may” with deep suspicion.

2) When citing, focus on the first paper that dealt with the issue, the best such example, and a recent good paper in the journal you happen to be sending your manuscript to.

HT Andrew Sullivan

New Word: Inundata

February 12, 2013

Inundata (v. “I inundata”, “you inundata”, “She inundata’d”). 1.  To present and overwhelm with information that fails to address any hypothesis. 

Of course, Darwin was well aware of the phenomenon. 

QOTD: Martin Vasky on Time

February 12, 2013

 I see time as sailors see wind, or photographers see light, as something to use, manage, and shape, not as something to be a victim of, or to see go by.


Happy Friday: On deconstructing a conspiracy theory

January 25, 2013

Rationality with a slight tinge of snark, a lovely snack when served with a frosty beverage

One key to writing well: editing

January 21, 2013

Emily Temple at Flavorwire has a nice bloggy-style compilation of quotes on an unappreciated part of writing: the fine art of editing. All are great; two are special.

Pithy, but true….

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler


And I love this one. 

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

We so desperately want to get a completed manuscript off our desk that we forget that it needs to incubate a bit. When we return, our ideas have matured, and those sentences we loved (or tolerated) before, look atrocious.

OK, I’ve procrastinated enough. Time to start editing that manuscript.