ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

How to generate, capture, and collect ideas to realize creative projects.

2014

Using Videos in Presentations

“Seeing is believing.”
“Is it? What about touching?”
Little Red Riding Hoods Father and Little Red Riding Hood, about the paw of a wolf that turned into a human hand, in “The Company of Wolves”

A while ago I watched a presentation by professor working within the domain of educational technology. She was the head of a department developing video tools. Her presentation included a couple of videos. Or should have. There were technical difficulties. A website with an embedded video that stopped in mid-play. She knocked down the speakers. Then she knocked down something else.

It was not pretty.

Perhaps it’s because she works with videos that I would have expected more … competence. I don’t mind people researching what they do not know, but I think that when they are doing a presentation, they should have mastered it at least a little. Especially given that this is just the craft of presentation, nothing more.

I think the only thing that really impressed me in her presentation was with how much confidence she reacted to these “mishaps”. That was impressive. But still, I wonder why — in 2014 — videos in presentations are still such an issue.

In part I think it’s due to the confusing number of video formats, and audio and video codecs. Videos can have different file endings (e.g.: .avi, .mp4, .mpg, .m4v, .flv), using different codecs for the video image (e.g., H.264) and for the audio (e.g., MPEG 4 audio, Apple Lossless). If your computer cannot understand this video or audio codec or does not recognize the file ending, you’ve got a problem.

So, if you use videos in your presentations, here are a couple of tips:

  • Convert the videos in a widely supported format. Personally, I usually use .mp4 with H.264 and AAC codecs. MPEG Streamclip handles the video conversion for me (Mac and Windows program).
  • If in any way possible, use your own computer for the presentation. Given that the computer you are using might miss some codecs, use your own computer. If you have tested it and it worked, it will likely work during the actual presentation as well.
  • No updates prior to the presentation. Sometimes updates can break things. Apple I am talking to you about your Keynote update! So, avoid doing updates prior to the presentation. I really hate Mavericks for its update dialogue. It does not show you what will be updated and only gives you the choices between “do it now” or “try later”. If it’s shortly before a presentation, always chose later. Then kill the network access.
  • Don’t trust PowerPoint — close, reopen and check it again. Last week, I was forced to use PowerPoint and found out that a compatibility mode converted my videos into images (saved the presentation as .ppt compatible to 97). PowerPoint did not even inform me about it. Well, I think it was an important information. But I was dumb too. The file size should have been a dead giveaway, but I missed it. The problem was solved when I used the .pptx file format.
  • Don’t rely on the videos in your presentation. Some programs behave rather strangely (see above). You also might be using another computer which cannot play that particular kind of video. Use the notes field of the slides to write down the keywords for a short recap of the video. During the presentation you might not remember the content well enough, or the crucial parts of it.
  • Embed the videos, but keep a version without the videos. You can usually embed the videos (= copy them into the file). This makes it easier to transfer the presentation to another computer — everything is included and you do not need to be careful about file links. However, sometimes there are issues with videos when you move to another computer. Worst case, the file cannot be opened. If this happens with keynote, see this posting. So keep a file without the embedded videos.
  • Keep the videos separately available. If the embedded video does not start, open the video in an external player. You usually have more control this way.
  • Rehearse with these videos. You should rehearse your presentation in any case. If you have an external display, that’s usually the easiest way to go. If not, there is usually a “Rehearse slideshow” option (in Keynote, look under “Play”).
  • Never depend upon videos in websites. You can control a lot during a presentation, but Internet access is usually outside your control. And while you could use cellular data for individual websites, downloading a video via a cellphone connection is tedious at best. If you need to show them the website with the video, create a video of you using that website and show this video. Quicktime can do screen recordings (albeit without sound). You can then play the video and explain what happens unencumbered by having to show it as well. If that video is on YouTube, use a DownloadHelper to download that video. Sometimes you might have to convert that video from .flv to another file format.
  • Do the presentation offline. If you do a presentation, go offline or use a dedicated presentation account with no active internet access. As you want to show a video, you likely have speakers connected to your notebook, or the sound is on maximum. This means that every eMail “bing” sound, or any other message, will be very noticeable.
  • If there is an audio feedback, connect the audio only during the videos. Some audio installations produce a feedback signal that is rather loud and unpleasant. This seems to happen frequently with Apple notebooks. Whereas there are ways to cancel that noise, not all venues have these measures installed. So be prepared to disconnect and connect the audio cable during the videos. And don’t fiddle with the audio cable. One push into the audio jack.
  • Have external speakers available as backup. Notebook speakers reach their limits quickly. If possible and the sound is important, bring active speakers as backup. If they do not come with their own power cord, they usually lack … uhm, power.
  • Test the Setup. Test the presentation if in any way possible. At the very least, make sure you have found the right level for the volume. You might want to play a suiting song prior to the presentation (for a course on self-directed learning, the intro-song was “Another brick in the wall”). That gives you an opportunity to adjust the volume and maybe attract a few more participants.

And above all, stay calm. Mistakes also happen because presenters get nervous and don’t give the computer the time it needs.

 

P.S.: It had a certain irony that on the day this posting went online, I did a presentation using videos. Well, there should have been videos. Switched from Mac to PC and I got the information that the videos did not play on the device a short time before the presentation. Like written, prepare to be able to do the presentation without the videos. In my case, I gave out the actual devices instead of showing videos about them. Worked as well. Next time, I should have just used my Mac.

2014

Hierarchy of Agreement

“Hush, minion.”
Unknown

Yesterday I wrote a posting about online discussions. One topic was Graham’s “Hierarchy of Disagreement”. It provides a hierarchy of different ways people can disagree and the value of these disagreements.

I wonder whether there is also something like a “Hierarchy of Agreement”. After all, there is a long research history regarding persuasion and different ways to get people to agree. Thinking about the issue I came up with the following hierarchy. Essentially it mirrors Graham’s “Hierarchy of Disagreement” (link to his essay) and it shows “how to agree” (well).

hierarchy_of_agreement.png

Hierarchy of Agreement, based on the “Hierarchy of Disagreement” by Paul Graham (essay).

It might sound strange to apply different value to different kinds of agreement. Isn’t all agreement good? After all, who cares why people do what you want, as long as they do it?

Personally, I think that “agreeing well” is as important as “disagreeing well”, perhaps even more so. I am very critical of “unreflected praise”, “blind loyalty”, or “style over substance”. It’s one thing to make a point or win an argument. Demagogues can do this quite easily. Sway the public, get them to agree. But it is quite another thing to ensure that people understand the issue and carry on the position on their own. To not only win one battle, but the war.

This issue becomes more clear when looking at the different levels and why you may or may not want people agreeing with you this way. Again I follow Graham’s essay.

AH0: Unspecific Praise (was: name calling)

The lowest level is unspecific praise, something which you can give to anything. Comments like

“Love it.”

or

“+1″

are essentially useless. So someone loves it, so what? It’s usually a short-term gut-reaction. This is actually a pet issue for me and one thing I try to convey to students. “I liked it” is nice feedback — but not good feedback.

Just imagine if you only have fellow campaigners on this level. People who like it, but can’t say why. Not convincing. And without the material in front of them, they would probably move on. Not a basis to build anything on.

AH1: Personal Praise (was: ad hominem)

Getting praise as

You have/are/have experienced x, you know what you speak about.

carries little weight. You have to show the effect in the arguments themselves. This level is similar to an “ad hominem”, but positive. I thought about reusing the term, but “ad hominem” is usually used for disagreement.

This form of agreement is fairly common and extensively used in advertisement when it comes to so-called “experts“. Yes, expert statements carry weight, but not because experts make them. It’s the quality of the arguments and evidence that should be convincing, and experts should have better arguments and evidence.

Likewise, people with personal experience might have a better perspective and more knowledge. But they also might not see the wood for the trees. Even worse, personal experience can provide a strong bias. There is a good reason why victims of violent crimes should not be part of the jury to determine guilt and innocence. What works for them and what they want might be different from what is best for you, because they have made experiences you do not share.

If a campaign would rely on this level, then you probably have some figure-heads. These people know the truth and that’s it. Adherents would still not know why they agree, it would rely on blind trust. And without the figure-heads, the movement would lose its direction.

AH2: Praising the Tone (was: Responding to Tone)

Good writing is a joy to read. But just because something is written well does not mean that it is true. Frequently, writing that appears to be deep is without substance. A “postcard philosophy”. Also, one of the easiest ways to get agreement is to make fun of the opponent. If done well, it might even get people on the other side to laugh at one of their own. However, this does not mean that it is also true and it carries no weight. Beautiful writing does not equal true writing, and you can make devastating jokes about anyone.

Thinking in campaign terms, well-written essays can start change or provide additional punch. Ridicule and satire can be very effective. But style is no replacement for substance. Even worse, sometimes irony can work like a pressure relief valve. It can also turn into a “Bread and circuses” situation, where it is more fun to watch the opponents claw at each other than improve the situation. And the people agreeing still don’t know why they agree.

AH3: Agreement with Arguments (was: Contradiction)

In contrast to the previous levels, here the person states to which arguments s/he agrees to. At the very least, it repeats the arguments for others to hear and gives the author feedback on which arguments are effective. It does not add to the discussion, but at least it addresses the actual arguments and evidence.

For a campaign, people agreeing on this level can repeat why they agree. So there is a chance that this position might spread. The question remains whether they are actually able to hold their ground when they are confronted with counterarguments and rebuttals. They might if they have been provided with them as well (“innoculated“), but it’s unlikely that they form their own. Still, if it’s a movement, here the movement might spread.

AH3 also marks a qualitative change. The arguments become important, not the peripheral aspects of the discussion. Using the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion, it is now the central route, not the peripheral route, that is used.

AH4: Add to Arguments (was: Counterargument)

This is the first level where the discussion is moved forward. The writing not only convinces, it stimulates the person to provide additional material. Here, the person who agrees provides an additional argument to the author and anyone who reads the comments. Perhaps it’s something the author did not see, or did not deem important enough to mention because it might be peripheral. In the later case, his/her readers disagree and close this gap. It is a more additive and thus quantitative improvement.

From a campaign perspective, you can reasonably expect that the movement moves forward. Other people might improve the position and carry on.

AH5: Qualitative Improvement (was: Refutation)

No argument is perfect and there likely will be imperfections in the provided arguments. A qualitative improvement addresses these and removes contradictions. It shows ways to deal with borderline cases. It can provide additional evidence for links between the arguments. Even more important, it addresses and refutes criticisms. It improves the position in a perpetual discussion with its opponents.

Here you not only have people who advance the cause, you have intelligent people who invest effort in understanding and improving it.

AH6: Improving the Central Point (was: Refuting the Central Point)

It matters what you address, in disagreement and agreement. Here, the improvement deals with the central point.

From a campaign perspective, you have people who not only advance the cause and invest a lot of effort. You have smart people who do so.

“What It Means”

As with Graham’s “Hierarchy of Disagreement”, the level of agreement is not related to the truth of the position. But it can be used to evaluate positions and followers.

Unless you need a high body count (for demonstrations or retweets), everything below AH3 can be discarded. And even if you “only” need a high body count, you better pray that no-one asks hard questions why they agree. You might have just fielded an army, but destroyed your recruitment efforts.

With AH3, you have at least people who understand the arguments and can repeat them. But if you want a movement that improves, is resilient to disagreement, and continues without figure-heads, you need more. AH4 and higher is desired, and the higher the better.

I think that improvement is only possible if people discuss on the higher levels of the “hierarchy of disagreement” and the “hierarchy of agreement”. In this case, people argue for their positions on the higher levels of agreements and react to criticism on the higher levels of disagreement. They make good arguments and provide evidence and that is why people agree to this position. When faced with disagreement adherents can improve their position. They advance the discussion with new arguments. They might even advance science by requesting new evidence.

Thus, high level agreement and disagreement might advance society.

2014

Online Discussions

Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite.
Excerpt from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long in “Time Enough For Love” by Robert A. Heinlein

Over a decade ago, I was active in discussion forums “debating” atheism against theists. I had a couple of Post-Its on my monitor, reminding me that I did not need to reply immediately, and that I should not post while angry.

It helped me to learn self-control in forums populated by people looking for chinks in your armor. After all, “debates” sometimes are about making the other side lose control and get angry. And by the rules of that forum, getting angry meant that you lost. And you lost publicly.

Thinking back, it might have been a case of “Someone is wrong on the Internet.“, but it also was helpful for me. It made me question my values, especially those I was redefining after leaving a rather conservative home. It helped me find the weak links in my arguments and identify my self-deceptions.

I stopped discussing when I realized that I couldn’t learn anything new about myself, nor improve my skills any further. The discussions were also inconsequential, because, well, it was just talk in an online forum. Today, religion only becomes a nuisance for me when someone tries to influence policy or social norms on religious grounds. I am for personal freedom, which includes freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Everyone is free in his/her belief, but state and religion should be separated. And for policy decisions, even regarding social rules, science is a better guide than faith. So when any religion tries to influence policy … that’s when things stop being inconsequential.

So it’s perhaps no wonder that the current brand of “feminism” bugs me just like religion did all these years ago. I mean the kind of “feminism” that talks about “patriarchy”, “privilege”, and “rape culture”. Whose goal seems to be “equality only where women are seen as disadvantaged”.

Sure, there is talk about “equality” and “feminism cares about men too”. Yet I see no efforts to argue for equality when it would remove advantages that women have. Just take education. Increasing the number of men in colleges/universities in general or in specific disciplines? Nope, the focus is only on getting more women into MINT disciplines. It’s the “Animal Farm” kind of equality: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

And the solutions? I totally agree with equality of opportunity. I am a big fan of the “Veil of Ignorance” (Rawls). But equality of outcome is an abomination. It compromises quality standards, and even worse, it negates personal freedom. It is “separate, but equal” all over again.

Under a pseudo-moral cover it’s just so self-serving for its proponents.

This kind of “feminism” behaves like a religion, relying on dogma instead of evidence. And the arguments are also shoddy and frequently ad hominem. Calling someone “sexist”, or “privileged”, or invoking “patriarchy”? Replace these concepts with “sin”, “sinner”, or “original sin” and you get a religion.

These are ideological/religious concepts, not the basis for a rational discussion.

But what is a basis for a rational discussion?

Funnily, while looking into this issue I stumbled upon “You just got logic’d” (highly interesting site, esp. for tumblr) and via that site upon these two interesting graphics:

“Rational Debating” by JT

The first graphic is a nice flowchart to determine whether a discussion makes sense by JT from atheismresource.com. An atheist created it. But due to the similarities between religion and “feminism”, it works without modification for discussions with “feminists”.

Really useful to save time.

“Hierarchy of Disagreement” by Paul Graham

Paul Graham wrote a couple of interesting essays, I highly recommend his site. One essay is about what it means to disagree well. Short, to the point, and brilliantly done. He comes up with the following hierarchy of disagreement (illustration from his Wikipedia page, it’s not in his essay):

Grahams_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement

Hierarchy of Disagreement by Paul Graham from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Graham_(computer_programmer)#Graham.27s_hierarchy_of_disagreement

For a more detailed description of the levels look at his essay.

I think this disagreement hierarchy is useful to determine whether to engage with comments. After all, “Responding to Tone.”, “Ad Hominem.”, and “Name-calling.” do not merit responses. They do not have any value. It’s disagreement above these lower levels that show intelligence and are worthy of engagement. Perhaps one day we’ll all surf with a spam filter removing all that lower-level crap.

Really interesting to save a lot of unnecessary grief.

 

So, in a sense, that renewed interest in online discussions has provided me with an interesting flow chart and an interesting essay/pyramid. I’ll probably take it as basis if I ever feel the need for an online discussion again. It sure it easily applicable to all those who try to “reason” on moral or emotional grounds.

And given the “intellectual” closeness between this kind of “feminism” and hard-core theists, it’s no wonder that this kind of “feminism” has tried to attack and split the atheist community. Rational thought is the enemy of any ideology.

But perhaps “feminism” is not even such a big issue it appears to be. Perhaps it’s just the Internet giving a couple of “feminists” more exposure. These isolated nut jobs form a community and appear bigger than they are. Which then makes it easy for large numbers of … economy class thinkers to retweet or like. And the active and passive filter bubbles just home in on them.

But whatever the case, at least I now know some good criteria for an online discussion.

2014

The traitor on your skin (Android OS for wearables)

“You ask why we give our Ships’
Computers normal Emotions?
Do you really want a Warship
Incapable of Loyalty?
Or of Love?”
The Unshattered Allegiance, High Guard Frigate,
Artificial Intelligence Rights Activist, C.Y. 7309
Andromeda

Recently I read that Android is working on an operating system for wearable technology.

On the one hand, I am really looking forward to it. Whether it’s smartwatches or smart clothes, just having technology available … yeah, I like it. I even use an old iPod nano on a wristband to listen to Podcasts. The huge advantage is that the iPod-nano-watch is quickly accessible. When I met someone in the streets or reach the cashier in a store, I can just double click the on-button and the Podcast stops. Much more convenient than using an iPhone, getting it out of my pocket or fighting with the earphones cable.

But on the other hand, their advertisement for it makes me squeamish. They advertise it by stating that the information is there, right away, without even having to ask for it. This might sound extremely comfortable, but it gets scary when you look at what this entails. To give you the information right away without having to ask you, this operating system has to know you really well. And with a complete log of your movements, your activity on the device, on the net, etc. pp. it will know you extremely well. So it can predict where you are going. It might even one day make terribly astute observations.

It could really assist you, but more likely, it will sell you out.

An operating system that knows you so well to give you the information right away, without having to ask you, also knows you well enough to be of incredible value for companies. It can predict your needs and behaviors perfectly. It can tell them what you interests you and what you want. It can tell them what works on you, e.g., which stimuli catch and hold your interest. And much, much more.

If you think that “recommendations” based on the eMails you write and read in Google Mail are scary, well, then you have seen nothing yet. With wearable technology, technology gets really intimate.

And frankly, I don’t want Google, and the advertisers it caters to, to be that close.

Not unless I can ensure that this piece of software shows an undying loyalty to me, and not to its creators.

2014

I can see and hear you now

“It’s paranoia until it happens to you.”
Some militia guy on 60 Minutes.

You know that camera in your display that is really useful for video chats? Do you notice that it does not have a hardware button, or even a mechanical cover? You activate it via software. Funny thing, you are not the only person who can turn it on. And when someone else turns it on without your knowledge, that nice LED light does not switch on.

The camera looks like it’s off, while the video image is send somewhere else. To someone who might be interested in what you wear in the evening, when you undress for bed. Or how you look after the shower, when you just want to check some messages. Or when your hands are busy, but not with typing.

Got the picture? Oh, yes, that other person too. And the audio. Oh, and everything is recorded as well.

And while we are talking about cameras — did you notice the camera on your smartphone? You might even have two. And that tablet also has one or two. Do you remember the places where you use them? What those cameras can see? What they can hear?

Seriously, I love technology. And I love mobile technology. But the scenarios here are not unrealistic. It’s possible to hack computers and turn the camera on while keeping the camera LED off. Yes, also for Macs. And I am pretty sure that it’s possible for smartphones and tablets as well. After all, they are not phones — they are powerful computers with frequently high speed wireless network access.

The problem here is not (necessarily) the NSA, which you just allowed to spy into your living room, or bedroom, or bathroom. But the script kiddie who finds it funny to spy on you — and post pictures and videos of you, and your partner, and your children, online.

While this kind of hacking is reprehensible and highly illegal, I doubt that there is much you can do against it. And as usual, prevention is the best cure.

Keeping your computer free from spyware is one thing, but that can fail. I am not even sure that my computers are free of backdoors which would allow someone else to control my hardware. But at least for the video image, there is a failsafe solution: duct tape.

camera cover

Piece of duct tape, one side folded in to allow for easy removal. Another piece put on the adhesive area with the blank side up to protect the camera.

Yup. I use black duct tape, folded on one side to allow easy temporary removal for video conferences. There is a piece of duct tape taped to it in the middle where the camera is. This protects the glass above the camera from the adhesive of the duct tape. Without it, I would have to make sure there are no traces of adhesive that might degrade the video image.

As far as I know, there is not much you can do regarding the audio. There is no hardware switch for the microphone either. Putting a cable without microphone in the audio jack does not work either. At least if there is one one input/output jack. Software controls how it is used and it could be switched to audio output again.

cover.jpg

How it looks on the device. Hardly visible and much more durable than a Post-It note.

But at least you can block the camera image — and I highly recommend it. I use the same solution for my iPad and my iPhones. It takes only a second to pull to the side when I make a photo, but it prevents it being used to record … potentially compromising situations.

P.S.: Given that some people have difficulties with what is meant seriously and what not: I don’t engage in this type of hacking. I am just making the posting more personal.

2014

Recommendation: How to Survive a Plague

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

how_to_survive_a_plague.png

DVD Cover of “How to Survive a Plague”

How to Survive a Plague” finally arrived on DVD. It’s a 2012 documentary covering the AIDS epidemic and ACT UPs / TAGs efforts to deal with it.

Definitely not a fun movie to watch.

And at times I would have wished for more background information on the people involved, or on the movement itself. Especially some further reflection where exactly the movement did make mistakes, so that further movements can avoid these mistakes. But despite inevitable mistakes that happen when you fight for something, ACT UP / TAG were incredibly successful.

And with this said — it’s a really good movie. Heartfelt and hopeful. Not only because they covered the people in the movement but went beyond it. They included video footage of people who objected to the development of treatments on so-called “moral” grounds, something which is completely alien to me. And they even looked at their own movement critically.

A really good movie to show what is possible when people fight — literally — for their lives. And some of the protests … I mean, walking up to the White House and emptying the ashes of your partner on the grass to protest government inaction — prrrrmmmhhh.

Like written … a sometimes incredibly sad yet also incredibly hopeful movie.

Highly recommended.

Update: Ah, YouTube (VISO trailers) has a trailer available (*sigh*, so not the best cover image).

2014

Science without Art is Bleak, Art without Science is Terrifying

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein supposedly once said the quote above. I think something similar holds true for science and art.

Science without Art is Bleak,
Art without Science is Terrifying.

Science without Art is Bleak

Science surrounds us, but yet, few scientific findings make an impact. It’s just too complex, too number-heavy, too boring. But there are exceptions. Just think about Astronomy. Why would anyone care? Well, they did when someone put Astronomy in relation to their lives. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is certainly not a scientific text, but it is artistic and puts things into perspective. Or take the images that are distributed: They are incredibly beautiful. Some you could put up as artwork and people do.
Thing is — without art science is bleak and uninteresting. Images, illustrations, well-written easily understandable texts makes science come alive.

Art without Science is Terrifying

If you look online, there are a lot of interesting artworks. Some spread as memes. Given their artistic power they might even change minds. But this does not mean that they are true — and many are not. Yet they elicit the imagination and trust of masses. There’s a word for this: propaganda. Unfortunately, many people are very good artists, but terrible when it comes to critical or skeptical thinking.
I strongly argue that creativity needs organization, and likewise, art needs science. Art can be too powerful to sway minds, it should move them in the right direction.

And yes, “right direction” is a dangerous term. After all, there is no “right” in science — just a less wrong. Science is a continuous, socially driven and controlled endeavor. And science can be wrong, spectacularly in some cases. And “thinking the issue through from different points of view” is not really conductive to art.

But I think at least a little bit of both is needed — art and science — to make a positive impact.

2014

Why correcting student papers is a bad idea

I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.
English professor, Ohio University

I took part in another workshop on teaching last week. The focus was on managing students’ term papers and correcting them efficiently. So far, I’ve usually used written examinations in the last session of the course. But in one course, I asked the students to write essays as term papers. Many students were glad to get detailed feedback on their writing. But correcting a 15-pages essay took me about 4 hours. Much too long. So I was curious about correcting them more efficiently. And the workshop did deliver.

You should not correct a paper, you should evaluate it

There is a large difference — esp. in time spend — when it comes to correcting a paper vs. evaluating it. In correcting, you are essentially making the student paper ready to be published. It’s something Academics are used to do. But this is not needed for a student paper. It won’t get published. The student will not revise it. It’s done. It gets the student a grade and that’s it. Even learning from the corrections is difficult if the corrections are detailed. The student cannot identify the patterns.

Instead, the instructor should evaluate the paper. This means highlighting instances of typical mistakes — but only as examples. This means pointing to areas of improvement, e.g., have a look at the rules of citation, but not correcting them for the student. A list of recommendations might do more for the students’ future works than a detailed correction. Except for the content, it’s even okay to skip looking for, e.g., spelling or grammar errors if the paper is already below a certain level.

Prerequisite: Make the standards transparent

Evaluating the paper requires a comparison standard. The evaluation criteria should be broken down into sub-criteria, and the best performance and the minimum standard should be made explicit. You can then measure the deviation of the work of the student to these criteria. Giving student a checklist might also help them in improving the paper before submitting it.

I am not sure whether I can manage to evaluate a paper and not drift into correcting it, but I see the value of this mindset. In any case, the workshop was pretty useful. I’m glad I took part in it, even if it is not required at my university. Even worse, it is usually not seen as important either. But I think we are shortchanging the students if we don’t improve our teaching. Shortchanging students, who are, after all, the next generation of scientists and citizens.

2014

Both Purging and Keeping Your Study or Thesis Paper Notes

I save about twenty drafts — that’s ten meg of disc space — and the last one contains all the final alterations. Once it has been printed out and received by the publishers, there’s a cry here of ‘Tough shit, literary researchers of the future, try getting a proper job!’ and the rest are wiped.
Terry Pratchett

abo_page.jpg

Page from my notes on organizational psychology.

During the end of your studies — whether it’s going for a diploma, M.A. or the like, or for a PhD — you probably have a wealth of paper. Despite the prevalence of digital media, many people still like to learn by making paper notes. Likewise, many people develop their best ideas on paper. Not to mention correction of written chapters — also on paper.

But when you have finished your work, got the certificate, done the articles — what do you do with all that paper?

Given that I finished my studies at the university about 8 years ago, and my PhD about 4 years ago, I’ve seen both work out well and badly.

People who purged their notes being happy about it (not having it take up space = opportunity costs; not having to carry it when moving; “It’s outdated anyway!”) as well as missing the material (“I had notes about it and I threw them away!”). Likewise there were people who kept them and were happy about it (“I’ll have something about it, I’ll look it up.”) and those who were unhappy about it (“I kept it for years, never once did I need it.”).

Purge it or keep it? Both.

Personally, I kept my notes, but like the rest of my books I digitized them (Creating a Virtual Library, 109 scanned books later …). A good document scanner works wonders. I use the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M for Mac, although given its age, there are probably newer and better ones available.

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Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M

Paper notes are even easier to digitize because the pages usually do not need to be separated. Using Acrobat’s “reduce file size” brought the file size down to manageable values. Even 888 color pages take up “only” 240 MB, and that’s my longest script (see page from it above/right).

The only disadvantage is that you cannot use OCR. However, I never tried Evernote — supposedly, it might be able to recognize handwriting. If you want to assist in finding specific places in the PDF you can use bookmarks.

Just make sure to create multiple backups and store them in different places. Use external hard-disk drives and DVDs. Never trust a single medium.

This way you can purge your material, get rid of all the stuff you might (or might not) desperately need (not) again.

 

2014

“… because woman.” Seriously?

“The bunny did not get the job because the bunny is cute. The bunny got the job because the bunny knows WordPerfect.”
New Yorker Cartoon

One of the most depressing things that bug me on Twitter are Tweets following this basic formula:

Something negative happens + the person it happens to is female = It happens to her because she is a woman.

Whether it’s flak due to postings or tweets, experiences of violence, job offers retracted when the person tried to negotiate, or whatever else the negative event was — there is the quick gut-reaction to attribute it to the gender of the person. Women have it harder than men, women are discriminated against, women are victims. Meh.

Don’t get me wrong, sexism does exist. And sexism, defined as prejudice based on gender, goes both ways. (Don’t get me started on definitions of sexism that fix one gender as perpetrators and the other as victims. Definitions should establish clarity in what people talk about, not exclude a group of victims for ideological reasons.)

But before one goes for sexism, perhaps it’s prudent to look for other explanations first. Gender is a very visible, much hyped variable. But personally, I don’t care much about it. Sure, it’s relevant when I’m looking for a partner. But in almost all other cases, I just don’t care. And I think the majority of other people feel the same.

And yup, I see the advantages of this sexism-explanation. If you feel you are negatively discriminated against due to an attribute you cannot change (easily), you can feel righteously angry about it. It is a simple explanation providing you with a clear enemy. It removes all responsibility from you. You can even feel superior to all those who negatively discriminate against you. No matter your ability or effort, you at least have the higher moral ground.

Unless it’s not about gender. Then you’re just looking like an idiot.

And I am frequently wondering: So, that happened to you and you are a woman. Those are the facts, no arguing about that. But do you really think this only happens to women? Or even that it happens more frequently to women? That would be the requirement for it to be sexism. But perhaps it happens to men as well. But then these men are not successful and thus usually invisible. And perhaps men have learned not to complain about it, because society strongly discourages men complaining. And yup, that’s sexism, but it makes sense. If more men were complaining when it happens it would make the “because woman” explanation untenable. No wonder that open criticism of this explanation triggers even more gut-reactions.

Seriously, I’m currently unsure about my activity on Twitter. On the one hand, it’s incredibly stimulating and I got a lot of very interesting and useful information and links from the Tweets. But on the other, the prevalent bad reasoning is taxing. Not only because I think it’s the wrong attribution in most cases — and because it’s incredibly sexist and self-involved to reduce a general problem to something that “only affects women”. It’s also absolutely self-defeating and depressing. Usually, I think these problems are general problems. Violence is a general problem — yes, men are victims too, including of domestic violence. The bad situation is Academia is a general problem, with the exception of high-performing golden boys/girls, many Academics suffer under the current abysmal working conditions.

So, why not ditch the crappy ideology and address the actual problems. It’s harder and not as self-serving. And the more complex explanation is more difficult to deal with.

But at least it’s the only way to actually improve the situation.

 

Update 2014-03-16

This posting actually sparked a short interaction on Twitter. While this “discussion” contained what I consider as allegations (e.g., that I want to shut people up) and a tweet telling me to “shut up now” (no, the irony is not lost on me ;-)), it was also interesting in between(*). For a couple of reasons, actually:

  • It reinforced my view that this is a topic that needs discussion. It’s not a fun topic and many people quickly react emotionally, but it screws up things too much to ignore it. I hate bad reasoning and bad theories, as I think they do serious damage. To be creative you need to have (more or less) accurate information — and ideology biases the data.
  • The style of the discussion actually reminded me strongly of the discussions with deists about faith. At that time, I thought it was because few religious people actually make up their own mind about their own religious beliefs. To use Marcia’s theory, the worst discussions I had were with those who had a “Foreclosure” identity status. Not sure whether this is the case here as well, or whether there is something else at work here. Something to look into.
  • Twitter is definitely the wrong medium for such a discussion. Not because you cannot discuss in 140 characters. You probably could. But giving its public nature and public commitment to positions, it’s unlikely to change minds. Yet at the same time, it lacks the public exposure to change those listening in. It’s not conductive to listening into conversations. Even worse, I think Tweets are easy to quote-mine. It’s easy to take tweets out of context, by retweeting them or favoriting them. Redirecting people to the comment section of the blog would probably be more conductive.
  • I think it’s hard to discuss a serious issue without a basic level of humor. The ability to laugh about oneself and others — in a good way. Not to use humor to avoid accountability for personal attacks (to quote Victor Zen), but to keep a healthy distance to the issue and avoid becoming a fanatic. And boy, was that hard to keep in mind. After all, reducing a general problem to a gender specific one does real harm. But I think it’s necessary, otherwise this topic just drags you down.
  • And yup, the amount of attacks and name calling and allegations you get when you ask for evidence is stunning. Not sure why, after all, I did point out an observation I have made and asked for proof. Okay, it’s naive to assume there are circumstances where this is uncontroversial when ideology is involved. But still, while questioning me about an observation is usually helpful, attacks are not.

And the last point leads me to the open question:

When to discuss and when not to discuss? I think good discussions can be really helpful, but they are also extremely hard to do. You have to clarify what is at stake and define the terms. You have not only to agree to disagree but also to agree to agree. And you both need to have epistemological beliefs that are amendable via critical thinking. Not sure yet when investing this effort is a good idea.

I think reducing general problems to gender-specific issues is a problem and a relevant topic with huge consequences. But the ideology and entrenchment … brrrrr. I don’t know, if it weren’t for the negative consequences, I’d take this approach. But given the consequences, I’ll have to come up with a better solution.

 

(*) At least the discussion was interesting for me, I’m not sure whether I still have Twitter followers tomorrow. I guess I’ll have to split my account with one for site announcements and retweets specifically related to organizing creativity, and another one for more personal comments and discussions.

 

 

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