Category Archives: writing

How my favourite poet introduced me to my favourite editor (or…vice versa?)

April is National Poetry Month. As many of you know, I’m not much of a poet, and not much more a reader of poetry. It seems I struggle with everything that makes poetry, well, poetic. There’s either too much freedom in form or not enough, counting syllables one minute, dropping capitals and punctuation the next. As in art, there is a fine line in poetry between what counts as a masterpiece and what looks like someone kicked over a paint can. I’ve never really gotten it.

And yet, the most memorable book of my childhood — not my first book, but the book I can still largely recite from memory — was a book of poetry. My first grade teacher used to read every day from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I still have my copy, faded and worn and much loved, with my name etched in practised elementary school scrawl on the inside front cover. The book is home to some of my most beloved literary characters: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would NOT take the garbage out!), Ickle Me, Pickle Me, and Tickle Me (who went for a ride in a flying shoe), and dear old Reginald Clark, who was afraid of the dark, and begged each day, “Please do not close this book on me.” (which of course we did, every day before lunch time…and I still do, as a rule, anytime I feel the need to look up a Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.)

It’s a book that’s lost little of its charm over the years.  Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the book’s dedication, “For Ursula” referred to the legendary Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the woman who, over the span of a fifty-year career, revolutionized children’s publishing. Ursula Nordstrom not only nurtured some of the greatest creative talents in 20th century children’s literature (e.g. Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown – to name just a few!), but she also dared to publish what she called “good books for bad children,” shattering the strict moralistic standard of children’s books in favour of books that catered to the real emotions and imaginations of children.

Nordstrom began her career at Harper & Brothers in 1931, when she accepted a position as a clerk in the College Textbooks Department. Although Nordstrom expressed an early interest in writing, she did not join Harper with any immediate ambition to become an editor. Instead, she climbed the ranks as an assistant to her friend, Ida Louise Raymond, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. When Raymond retired from the post, Nordstrom was named her successor, and would remain in a leadership role within Harper for the next forty years, amassing a long list of notable firsts: she published one of the first juvenile books handling the subject of menstruation (The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh) and the first novel for young readers that explored homosexuality (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip). And when Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, was censored and burned because it depicted a nude boy, Nordstrom publicly decried the “mutilation” of the book and maintained that “it is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.”

Though widely revered by authors, artists, and librarians, she sometimes faced staunch criticism from self-proclaimed authorities on children’s literature. One such critic, Anne Carroll Moore, famously asked Nordstrom what qualified her to be a children’s editor, given that she had no formal education, no children, and was not a teacher or librarian. Nordstrom was undaunted, replying matter-of-factly: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.

Her letters — many of which have now been published as a collection — are an absolute delight to read. Most are letters between her and her authors and artists, which capture the special bond she had with them. But there are also letters to her readers — mainly children, but also some critics — which are as heartfelt and honest as many of the books we grew up with, thanks to her.

It’s difficult to imagine that Shel Silverstein — who began his career as a songwriter (most famous for Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue“), and whose poems were originally published in Playboy – would have gotten a second look from any other children’s editor of the time. But Nordstrom actually helped convince a reluctant Silverstein that he should try his hand at children’s poetry — and I love her for it.

Because what fun would have been growing up without Me Stew and The Loser and the Crocodile’s Toothache?  (I think I’d rather have been eaten by a boa constrictor!)

Happy Poetry Month!


Science: It’s about people, people!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve no doubt heard that scientists have recently uncovered a major piece of evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory. Maybe that matters to you. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you understand what it means. Or not. Maybe the headline only reminds you of that geeky sitcom by the same name.

But whatever your reaction to the science, there’s another piece to this story that went viral this week, and you don’t have to be a physicist to appreciate what it means:

I think it’s beautiful. This video documents a side of science (and scientists) that the public rarely gets to see. Passion, excitement, validation, discovery, connection — suddenly it’s not just a story about physics, but a story about the pursuit of knowledge — about what physics means to people.

One of the things I’ve always disliked about academic communication is how we intentionally strip our own voices out it. We’re afraid to get personal, to tell a story, to reveal how invested we are in our work. We think that a flick of a pen will make our words “objective,” but this is, and always has been, an unrealistic expectation. The emotional and intellectual investment, the tension of not knowing, doesn’t go away — indeed, it’s often what drives us to research in the first place. There’s an inherent disconnect between what we value and how we talk about it. We claim to be seeking “truth,” but we routinely leave out the most inescapably honest part — that there is a human voice and a human story behind every advance.

I don’t mean to suggest that academic writing should read as personal narrative, or that we should place ourselves in the spotlight that rightfully belongs to the knowledge we generate. But I do think there’s a part of the story we’re not telling, and the omission isn’t benign. It represents a real gap in our cultural perception of what it means to do science, and of what science means to people.

Too often when we talk about making science accessible to the public,  the focus is on simplifying the technical concepts, what many call “dumbing it down.” I hate that expression — not only for what it implies about the audience, but also for what it implies about science itself.  Science doesn’t operate apart from the rest of the world; it’s not something we have to bring down to the masses.

I think we just have to be more human about the stories we choose to tell. We have to learn to recognize when it’s important for our audience to understand what “five sigma” means (or not), and when it’s important just to let them see what excites us about our work, and about the world we share.

Writing, not thinking: an experiment

There’s a scene in the movie Finding Forrester where Sean Connery sits down at his typewriter and without pause for thought, immediately begins to spill words. “No thinking,” he says, “that comes later.”  The key to writing, we’re told, “is to write, not to think.”

It’s a great scene, but at face value, it’s hard to reconcile with the notion that clear writing reflects clear thinking. Yet, I can see an element of truth in it. My best work is often the work I’ve had little time to dwell on — it has a kind of raw, feral quality that resists too much editorial polishing. And almost without exception, it’s the work I’ve had the most fun writing, even under pressure. 

Why then, is it so hard to stop thinking and just write? How do we train ourselves to get out of our own way? 

That’s what I’m working on this week. I’m on vacation, my own self-imposed spring writing retreat, with no particular projects in mind. This week, it’s all about process — practising habits that are conducive to writing, not thinking. 

I’m not unaware of the things that tend to get in my way, and over the years, I’ve played around with a lot of different strategies, with varying degrees of success. But when I think about it, they all sort of fit into four overarching themes, which I’m trying to bring together this week: 

1. Being attentive: I almost hate to bring up the concept of mindfulness — it seems like something everyone is talking about right now and almost no one is doing. (Yup, you can go ahead with the obligatory eye roll.) But whether you believe all the media hype or not, there’s something to be said for practising that moment-to-moment awareness and paying attention to all the details that escape our notice when we’re preoccupied with our ordinary routines. How much of our time do we spend in our own little iWorlds, only to later find ourselves staring at that infernal blinking cursor, searching for the richness and detail that’s all around us, every day? 

Yesterday afternoon, I left all my devices at home and spent two hours in a space I walk through daily. I came back with ten pages of details I never notice — shadows cast by familiar objects, sounds too soft to hear over passing traffic, what people’s gestures suggest about conversations too distant for me to overhear. Who knows whether a woman’s shiny purple boots or a man’s random offer of a toothpick will ever find its way into anything I write…but they’ll never have a chance if I don’t notice them in the first place.  

2. Taming perfectionism & self-doubt: Here is the great paradox of my writing life. As an editor, I take great pleasure in being able to untangle a bad piece of writing and reshape it into a good one. But when it comes to my own work as a writer, I hate letting it get tangled in the first place. While I’m fairly certain that this tendency helped sharpen my editorial skills, I really have to work hard at separating one process from the other. It’s one thing to be able to write something badly and trust your editorial ability to fix it, but for me, it’s quite another thing to not feel compelled to fix it immediately

I have two strategies that help with this. One is writing longhand. I find it much easier to silence my inner-editor when a) the Backspace key is not within a pinky’s reach and b) I know that whatever I write longhand will be edited as it’s typed. Usually a paragraph or two is all I need to shake off the page fright. 

The other thing that helps is time constraints, even artificial ones. I discovered this in my rhetoric courses, where we would be given a new composition each week and only an hour to do it. An hour isn’t a lot of time to digest new course material and put it into practise, but after a few weeks of fighting the clock, it started to a feel like a badass writer version of Iron Chef. Turns out an hour is ideal: it’s just enough time to force you into taking some creative risks, but not enough time to entertain any ridiculous notions of perfection. It’s intense — and extremely effective. 

3. Writing out of your comfort zone: What would Iron Chef be without the mystery ingredient? Granted, there are times when I am really glad I’m not a judge on that show (octopus pot pie, anyone?), but it’s a great exercise in creative problem-solving. Writing is no different. Every writer has certain stylistic and thematic tendencies — it’s part of who we are. But I think a lot of creative confidence comes from challenging those familiar patterns and learning to trust our instincts. 

This hasn’t always been easy for me, and I have to be intentional about forcing myself to do it on a regular basis — even if the thought of writing an “ode to an onion” makes me itchy, as it did this morning. Okay, so my idea of randomly selecting prompts from “642 Things to Write About  got off to a rough start this week. But, it’s only an hour, right?  

4. Reflecting on process: All those timed writing exercises from my rhetoric courses came with an unusual follow-up. After each composition and the resulting class discussion, we had to write a reflection on the process. It was the first time in my entire post-secondary career that I was ever asked to comment on how I felt about an assignment. (Too bad, since there are plenty I would have loved to have shared my feelings about…which is perhaps why I was never asked!)  But strange as it seemed at the time, I learned a lot about myself as a writer. What works? What doesn’t? What’s easy? What’s hard? Why?

It took the trial and error out of understanding the process, and gave us a structured way of working with our strengths and weaknesses. In essence, we learned how to give ourselves feedback, which is different, and in many ways much more powerful, than the self-criticism that comes naturally.

So that’s the plan for the week. Writing, not thinking. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

And if all else fails, there’s always that old, unforgettable voicemail (turned mantra) from one of my best friends and mentors, sent the last time I was crazy enough to think writing a novel was a good idea:

If you’re not writing, then GET WRITING! If you’re thinking about writing, well quit thinking about it and do it! If you’re writing, please disregard the foregoing. Please replay this message throughout your life, as needed. Bye!

Five common grammatical mistakes explained with pancakes

Tuesday, March 4th (March forth, get it?) is National Grammar Day. This year, it also happens to be Pancake Tuesday, the day when we’re all supposed to confess our sins and stuff ourselves with pancakes before Lent.

I’m not so crazy about Lent, but grammar and pancakes? On the same day? You mean I can make pancakes in the shape of punctuation marks for…um…educational purposes?

So, here we go — five grammatical sins explained with pancakes:

1. Using “comprised of” when you mean “composed of”

This is my all-time biggest grammar peeve. Frequent readers and former lab-mates will have no doubt heard me rant on this before. When you are describing the parts that make up a whole, for instance, the ingredients in a pancake, you might say, “Pancakes are composed of eggs, milk, and (because it’s a Monday night and I’m lazy), pancake mix.” Or, you might say, “Pancakes comprise eggs, milk, and pancake mix.” Either of these would be correct.

You would not say, “Pancakes are comprised of eggs, milk, and pancake mix.”

The word comprise means “to include,” so when you say “comprised of,” it’s like saying “included of.” It’s gibberish. It’s painful. And I’m pretty sure a unicorn accidentally steps on a kitten somewhere on the internet every time you use it. You wouldn’t want any murderous unicorns on your conscience, would you? Good. So please stop the madness.

Just remember, the whole always comprises its parts:


2. Plural-possessive confusion

The other day I saw a sign that said, “WANTED: Auto’s dead or alive.” Of course, we all know they really meant “autos,” as in more than one automobile. So why the wayward apostrophe?

Here’s the rule:

  • If you are making a plural (i.e. more than one of a thing), you don’t use the apostrophe. (e.g. three pancakes)


  • If you are making a possessive (i.e. signifying that a thing belongs to someone), then you use the apostrophe. You do not use the apostrophe to signify a plural, unless you want to be stabbed with a fork, like this:


  • Exception to the possessive rule: “its” — see #3 below for clarification.

3. Confusing “its” and “it’s”

“It’s” is a contraction of two words: “it is.” As in: “Look, it’s a pancake!”

1 pancake

“Its” is a possessive signifying that something belongs to “it.” As in: “You spread butter on its surface.”


4. Fewer vs. Less

We’ve all seen the express checkout line at the supermarket that reads “15 items or less.”  Now, I’m with Stephen Fry on this one — for the sake of keeping the express line moving, I can let this one go. But if you aren’t sure when to use “fewer” or “less,” here’s the rule:

  • If you can count the thing, and you can reduce its quantity by countable amounts, then you use “fewer.” For example: “Two pancakes are fewer than three.”


  • If you can’t count the thing, you use “less.” For example: “I have less pancake batter than I had before.”


5. Where punctuation goes relative to quotation marks

OK, I’ll admit, this one can be tricky, because the rules are sometimes different depending on where you are and what style you’re using. In the US and Canada, the following rules are most commonly used:

  • Periods always go inside quotation marks.
  • Commas always go inside quotation marks. (Revision 3/4/14: my original pancake comma was backwards! Eeep! All fixed!) 


  • Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.


  • Question marks & exclamation marks go inside quotation marks if they form part of the direct quote; otherwise, they go outside.

Okay, now here’s my confession: This post was supposed to be about seven deadly grammatical sins. But all these pancakes made me hungry. So I ate them. :-)

There’s a (writing) app for that — Part 2: Writing Kit

Yesterday, I introduced you to Scrivener, my go-to writing platform for Mac. Scrivener does two things extraordinarily well: it supports my messy, nonlinear way of collecting my thoughts, and it offers a distraction-free space where I can focus entirely on writing. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t offer (yet) is an iOS version.

On my iPad, I turn to Writing Kit. While it obviously can’t do everything Scrivener can do, it does have some advantages over other iOS apps I’ve tried. The heart of Writing Kit is a minimalist text editor that supports either Markdown (e.g. for web writing) or Fountain (e.g. for script/screenwriting). If you don’t know the syntax for either of these languages, that’s okay — it works just fine as a plain text editor. Personally, I like Markdown because it’s a pretty simple and intuitive way to format plain-text without compromising readability, and it easily converts to HTML. (If you’ve ever tried to use a fully-formatted Word file as the basis for a web document and dealt with all the random formatting issues that arise, you’ll understand the virtues of plain-text with minimal markup). There are in-app cheat sheets for both Fountain and Markdown so it’s easy to get started if you’re new to either one.

The major advantage of Writing Kit is that it has a built-in web browser and embedded search engine, so it’s easy to quickly look something up without having to leave the app and open Safari. From the browser, you can also directly insert links into your document, without having to copy and paste, which I’ve always found a bit awkward on an iPad. I haven’t used this function, but if you are an Instapaper, Read It Later, or Pocket user, you can also send links directly to your reading lists.

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I also like Writing Kit’s gesture-based text selection and undo/redo functions, as well as its support for standard keyboard shortcuts (although I have encountered a few glitches with shortcuts). It also supports a variety of export formats — Markdown, HTML (or HTML source code), rendered PDF, or direct-interface with external apps, such as Pages.

All in all, it’s a pretty decent option for iPad. But truth be told, I don’t rely on my iPad as much for writing as I did even a year ago. It was great when I was taking courses and doing most of my work away from home, but now I rarely carry my iPad with me. After I finished taking courses, I started making a conscious effort to reduce my screen time, which means I actually do most of my “mobile” writing on paper these days. Notebooks are lighter, never need recharging, and they support my stationery addiction. Turns out there’s really no app for that.

There’s a (writing) app for that — Part 1: Scrivener

Since I’ve been on the subject of technology and writing, I thought it might be a good time to talk about some of the tools that I do use. I should preface this by saying that this is a subject that I tackle with some trepidation. At heart, I’m still very much a purist in the sense that writing is writing; it’s just putting words on a page, and at the end of the day, the only “app” that really makes a lick of difference is the one between my ears. There’s a part of me that couldn’t care less whether I’m writing with a pencil on a napkin or the latest offering from the App Store. But having said that, I do also appreciate that sometimes it’s easier to focus on writing when you’ve got tools that are compatible with your process.

For me, there are two things that are important for the way that I write. First, I’m a nonlinear thinker when it comes to composition. It’s a bit of a blind-man-with-an-elephant process — it might begin with a tusk here, a trunk there, a tail, an ear — I know they all fit together, but I need time to think about how and where everything connects. That’s a visual process for me; I like to spread things out, move them around, and look at the whole shape and structure of a piece before I start writing things down in a specific order. I’ve always hated linear or hierarchical outlining methods, and traditional word processing applications like Microsoft Word are linear by design. For this reason, I tend to do a lot of preliminary work in my head or on paper before I even start making notes on my computer. (If you’ve ever seen my office, you’ll know I am always scribbling things on post-it notes and it looks random and disorganized— but for me it’s just a kind of “buffer” for new information until I decide where it fits and what to do with it.) 

Second, when I do sit down to write, all I want to do is write. I don’t want to be bothered by auto-formatting, auto-correcting, or helpful suggestions from animated paperclips. I don’t want my software guessing at what it thinks I’m trying to write, or highlighting my spelling and grammar mistakes as I go. It’s hard enough for me to tame the editor in my own head without having my software second-guessing me at the same time. This is where the apps I use make the biggest difference for me — I now do the majority of my writing in a minimalist, full-screen, distraction-free mode, and it really helps me focus. 

With these two principles in mind, I’ve experimented with a variety of different apps, for both desktop and mobile platforms. They all have their pros and cons, but now I’ve pretty much settled on two that work very well for me — one desktop, one mobile. 

Today, I’ll introduce the desktop tool:  Scrivener

Okay, first things first. The biggest con of Scrivener is its price tag. At $45US, it’s priced well ahead of a lot of the other apps out there, and for that reason will not be on top of everyone’s list of favourites. There’s also no iOS version (yet; more on this later), which is problematic for those of us who love our iThings. But Scrivener is an absolutely beautiful piece of software, built by a writer with the needs of writers in mind — endlessly customizable and refreshingly unobtrusive. 

Scrivener is designed to operate as a kind of electronic writing studio, a single virtual space that brings together everything you need for a particular project. You can store all of your drafts, notes, and research (including external files such as images, PDFs, videos and webpages) within a single project “binder,” organized in whatever way best suits your needs. There are some preset binder templates that suggest ways to organize yourself based on the type of work you’re doing, but everything is customizable. For example, I manage everything related to this blog within one project binder in Scrivener, with folders for posts, links, images, and other notes, as well as quick-links to resources I use often.

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It’s a dream for assembling elephants in the dark — Scrivener is the only software I’ve ever used that really allows me to work in a way that feels natural to me. Anything in your binder can be displayed and manipulated on a virtual corkboard, and files can be easily merged, split, or compiled in any arrangement you want. Even in composition-mode, you can seamlessly shuffle text and manage ideas as they emerge without ever breaking out of full-screen composition. At any point, you can select text from the current composition window and send it to another destination within your binder. Or, if you’re struck with an idea that relates to an entirely different project, you can use the virtual “scratch pad” to save the idea outside of your binder (or send it immediately to another project) — again, without any toggling between windows, and with minimal disruption to your train of thought.  Got many different files you want to view or edit together without committing to a permanent merge? Scrivener will display them together, in one window or in a split-screen arrangement — whichever you prefer. 

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There are all kinds of handy tools for formatting, revision, tracking changes, importing/exporting different file formats, setting and tracking writing goals, support for speech recognition/dictation, automatic backups, and so on — it’s all there at your fingertips, but it’s never in your face when all you want to do is write. To me, that’s the real beauty of Scrivener; so much power, with so little interference.

I will confess — the transition to Scrivener wasn’t an overnight process. It’s a no-brainer to download and just start writing, but if you’re used to working with traditional word processing software, Scrivener is a very different experience. I had to get out of the habit of expecting Scrivener to behave like a word processor before I really began to appreciate how to use it most effectively. But now? Scrivener lives in my dock where Word used to be, and I don’t feel like anything’s missing. 

I should also note that Scrivener would be great for academic writing. It’s compatible with bibliographic management software, and supports both LaTeX and MathType. I never used Scrivener to its full potential for academic work, in part because I had been a longtime user of Reference Manager (Windows only), and at the time, Scrivener was only available for Mac. There is now a Windows version available, but since I left the lab, cross-platform compatibility hasn’t been an issue for me. 

There is an iOS version in development, but no firm release date at this stage. In the meantime, Scrivener is designed to sync with Simplenote or Index Card for iOS — I don’t use either of those apps, but it’s easy enough to import files from other apps (or sync via Dropbox), that this isn’t a crippling flaw, particularly in light of Scrivener’s other advantages. 

More on my favourite iPad app tomorrow. 

Rage against the (essay grading) machine

Today, a friend posted a link to this article in the New York Times describing new software designed to automate essay grading in large university classes.  It’s not the first I’ve heard of this technology, and the article  in the Times is a year old — hardly breaking news, but I remain disturbed nonetheless by the notion of machine-based assessments of students’ writing.

Proponents of the technology claim that the software produces results similar to human graders, and even, as one researcher claims in the Times piece, exceeds the capacity of human graders to provide feedback to large classes. I’m skeptical, but not for all the reasons you might expect. When it comes to speed, reliability, and the ability to analyze writing for common structural and grammatical issues, I’ll admit that the software has the potential.  Not long ago, I spent some time playing around with a piece of software called Swan (an acronym for Scientific Writing Assistant), and I was rather surprised and impressed with how advanced the analysis was, even with difficult scientific text. While I wouldn’t recommend it as a substitute for human feedback, it does a thorough enough job that I could see it being a useful editorial tool, particularly for those writing in English as a second language.

But as an assessment tool for student writers? I have a big problem with that.

First — and foremost — I think teaching and learning is fundamentally a human interaction, and nowhere is this more true than in writing and communication. Writing is about human connection, whether it’s between a writer and a reader, a viewer and an audience, or a student and a teacher.  A machine might be able to provide reliable feedback about the structure and content of a piece of writing, but there’s no connection. A machine can’t judge whether a piece resonates with its audience. Do we really want to be teaching a generation of writers how to communicate effectively with empty boxes?

Second, the demand for automated grading stems from ever-increasing time pressure on instructors. As someone who has spent many hours reading, grading, and providing feedback on student writing, I understand that pressure all too well. But at the same time, I’m troubled by the implication that this isn’t a valuable investment of an instructor’s time.  The idea that an instructor’s time is better spent elsewhere begs the question: what’s more important than providing students with thoughtful, meaningful, and constructive feedback?

Deep down, I have the same complaint about automated essay grading as I do about the use of machine-gradable multiple choice exams for assessing higher-order learning outcomes. It places so much of the emphasis on the assessment and the assessment tool, but assessment is not the point of education. Learning is. When we reduce the process to inputs and outputs from a machine, I wonder if we aren’t missing the point.

Can a machine recognize a “teachable moment”?

There’s so much more to becoming a writer than mastering the black and white (and sometimes grey) issues of how words work. The development of one’s own style, judgement, and intuitive grasp of the language — our ability to discern for ourselves the difference between the “right word” and the “almost right word” — requires much more thoughtful feedback than even a sophisticated machine can provide. 

When I decided to go back to school to study professional writing, I already had a firm grasp of the language. I’d have passed any machine’s assessment with flying colours. If I knew I was going into a program where my work was going to be assessed by a machine, I wouldn’t have bothered.  Even with real instructors grading my work, most of the courses posed little challenge.

What made the entire program worth my time — what made a real difference to my writing — were the one or two instructors who looked beyond my basic mastery of the language and asked, not “Is this an A?” but “Is this the best you’re capable of?” I never worried about getting good grades — what kept me up at night was the spectre of a handwritten margin note: “Not good enough for you.”

There’s a world of difference between the ability to assign a student a grade based on some arbitrary standard, and the ability to judge a student as an individual and dare them to do better, not for a grade, but for themselves.  That’s where real teaching and learning happens.

Technology has a place in the classroom, but this isn’t it.

Grab a match, light a spark, and let the games begin

Notwithstanding my previous objections about New Year’s Resolutions, I did start the year off with the intention to blog more frequently. Five weeks into 2014, we can see how well that’s going so far, but I do know one thing for sure: it’s time to play with matches.

By playing with matches, of course, I don’t mean in the “Oops, I set the house ablaze way.” I mean in the daringly creative, try anything once, hakuna matata, “slimy, yet satisfying” kind of way.

When I started this blog as part of a class assignment back in 2011, it was meant to be fun — a light-hearted look at life in the lab — something I needed as much as anyone at the time. Even with one foot out of the lab, academic matters still flowed naturally into my writing. But now, almost two years removed, it’s not that I can’t connect with life as a scientist anymore; it’s that I neither need nor want to. As a writer, I find myself craving something more than to see and write about the world through a scientist’s eyes. And that’s been my struggle with the blog of late — what is it about, if it’s not about life as a scientist?

It’s a question that’s prompted me to get back to basics, back to the things that made writing fun before it was an academic and professional obligation. I’ve always found a kind of joy in writing, even academically, but as the jargon and acronyms and pressure to publish have made their way out of my life, that ticklish sense of writing as play has slowly crept back in.  And that means anything could happen. The last time I tossed aside the rule book, I landed in a workshop on “Writing as Play, Discovery, and Invention”, where, much to my immediate distress, our first assignment was to write surrealist poetry.

I don’t write poetry.

But I (reluctantly) wrote poetry:

Muse — care and feeding of: 

If you must, then hold it back, but only to let it grow. Trim it like hedges in the autumn, but only so it can blossom in the spring. Wear it like a trusty pair of shoes as you go out and soak up the world, otherwise you’ll outgrow it while it languishes in the closet, wanting, ignored. If you expect a waterfall, crashing down upon the rocks, you’ll hear the melancholy song of a cello warming a dark room. Expect peace, and you’ll find yourself wrung out like so many soggy towels left unfolded on the bathroom floor. Expect gratitude, and it will take you on a journey filled with deception, half-truths, and long-buried secrets. But expect a friend, and it will hoist you up on its shoulders and carry you up the mountain, to a place where the air is cold and too thin to breathe, but where a whole world lies before you, and the view is spectacular. 

This time, I’m hoping to steer clear of poetry, surrealist or otherwise. But I am still veering off the beaten path — tonight, I begin round one of NYC Midnight’s Short Story Competition. It’s a tournament-style competition. Writers are assigned to heats, given a random prompt and a limited amount of time to submit a story, with the prompts changing and the time limits decreasing with each subsequent round of competition.

Short stories aren’t my usual thing either but…I now have seven days to write an action/adventure story about a newly discovered animal, featuring a pilot as a principal character.

Like I said, anything could happen…


Resolution Zero: Ten things I did this year that were better than my New Year’s resolutions

I have issues with New Year’s resolutions. For starters, the new year doesn’t, by definition, stay “new” for very long. By my estimation, the new year only lasts until about the third week of January, when residual holiday cheer and New Year’s resolve is subsumed by the grim reality of at least two more months of bitter cold and darkness. Second, of all days to make a fresh start, why January 1st, the universal day of hangovers, sleep deprivation and Honeymooner’s marathons?

I’m also annoyed with the commercials. We spend the entire holiday season eating and drinking in excess, while simultaneously being bombarded with ads for exercise machines, fad diets, gym memberships, and the countless other products that seem to crawl out of the woodwork in time to cash in on our newfound but short-lived New Year’s willpower.

For the last few years, I’ve done little more than go through the motions of setting resolutions, which is to say, I’ve sat down with a friend and we’ve dreamt up outlandish things for each other to do that we know neither of us will actually get around to doing. None are out of the realm of possibility — I could go on a moonlight picnic or I could get my handwriting analyzed, but I could also just as easily make myself a peanut butter and tofu sandwich at midday and read my horoscope.

Stranger things have happened, and without any resolving on my part.

The other day I thought — rather than resolving to do a bunch of stuff I probably won’t do, why not celebrate all the random things that did happen that I couldn’t have planned for?  Isn’t spontaneity the spice of life?

So here, in no particular order, are some things I did this year that I probably would never have resolved to do — and probably wouldn’t have done if I had:


1. I made mittens. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering the Great Costume-sewing Adventure of 2012, in which I spent 10 days hand-sewing a Snoopy costume that I completely improvised despite having no practical sewing experience, I felt redeemed by my little mitten project. It only took three hours, two attempts, and one incredibly patient textiles student as my guide, but look Ma, two hands!

2. I drank iceberg beer, got “Screeched-in”, and attended my first fashion show — in rural Newfoundland.  I also got to spend three days with some pretty awesome people, learning about topics we care about, with no acronyms, jargon, biochemical pathways, or crimes against PowerPoint. Long may yer big jib draw!

3. I convocated (again). Or is it “convoked”? In either case, I guess the third time’s the charm — I won the Dean’s Medal for academic excellence in my program. And while GPA-based accolades make me a little itchy at this stage of my career (I just don’t think that GPA means that much outside of the classroom), I must admit I’m glad I had a reason to attend the ceremony. A lot happened in the three years between my MSc and my professional writing diploma, and academic recognition aside, it was the right time for a bit of symbolic closure on the whole transition. Onward!

4. I stopped for geese. And a wayward cow crossing the road in Idaho. Just one footnote on all of the great times shared with friends this year. I don’t often get the opportunity to say so without sounding mushy and sentimental, but I have amazing friends — my life wouldn’t be what it is without them — they’re like a family unto themselves.

photo 1-2

5. I learned to juggle (sort of). It would be more accurate to say that I learned a strategy for learning how to juggle. Whether any actual juggling takes place depends on how coordinated I can manage to be on any given day — but that hardly matters — it’s still fun. This is what happens when you spend a weekend hanging out in a freezing tent and the juggling club happens to show up. (and no, it wasn’t a circus tent!)

6. I took up running, and kind of learned to like it. Which is monumental, considering how much I hated it when I started. I still cannot claim to be a very strong runner, but the grinding monotony that I detested so much in the beginning has slowly given way to a more satisfying, even peaceful routine.

7I watched a campfire debate that looked a lot like this: 

The final score? PhD: 1, Person who “saw a program”: 0. Sitting by the fire watching the sparks fly: priceless.

8. I didn’t publish…and I didn’t perish. This year, there were no impact factors, no citations, no  arbitrary and nebulous measures of “productivity” — and it was probably the most creative, productive, and meaningful year of my career to date. Now more than ever, I wonder — what could science be like if everyone focused less on publishing and more on creativity? What could happen if everyone had just a little more time to slow down and think?

9. I gained a new appreciation for mathematics. This might come as a surprise from a former scientist, but I’m not really mathematically-minded, at least not at a theoretical level. Calculus was my Achilles heel as an undergrad — so much so that I once summarized a lecture in physical chemistry as “blah, blah, magic, answer!” No amount of professorial wand-waving helped — it wasn’t until I got deeper into biochemistry and into the application of the concepts that they made any sense at all. Consequently, I went through my entire scientific career viewing math merely as a tool, until this year, when a first-year undergrad explained fractals in a way that made the math inherently interesting, accessible, and really quite stunningly beautiful. Cool.

10. I took an extended holiday. Well, three weeks may or may not qualify as “extended” depending on your definition, but it’s the longest voluntary, non-conference related, e-mail and guilt-free holiday I’ve ever taken. Two weeks in, I am definitely more than 66.67% relaxed and refreshed. :-) Maybe Santa does exist!

Happy holidays, everyone! Onward and upward in 2014!

Ten papers demonstrating unequivocally that scientists have a sense of humour

Of all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of academic or scientific writing, there’s one I’d bet sinks to the bottom of the list regardless of the audience. You might think a paper is unintelligible, incomprehensible, jargon-filled, complicated, detailed, sometimes exciting, often boring, but certainly not funny. I mean, science is serious business, and no researcher in his or her right mind would dare compromise citations for laughs.

Or would they?

Every year the scientific community waits on the edge of its collective seat for the announcement of the IgNobel Prizes, celebrating real research that “makes people laugh, and then think.” The lucky winners become the laughing stock for awhile, but the giggling is often followed by a sober realization: “Someone actually studied that? Seriously?”

Part of what makes the IgNobels so unabashedly funny is that often, they start out with a completely serious question. Does a person’s posture affect their estimation of an object’s size? (Apparently so, especially if you lean slightly to the left). Can a doctor accidentally make your butt explode while performing a colonoscopy? (Turns out it’s rare, but I’m sure…um…relieved that they did the research).

What’s a little harder to find in the scientific literature are examples of researchers being intentionally cheeky. But such examples do exist, and they call out for a Top 10 List.

Here it goes:

10. The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of writer’s block.” (D. Upper. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1974)

The reviewer’s comment on this paper sums it up best: “Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper’s failure.” 

Which is precisely what other investigators set out to do. That it took 33 years and a research grant of $2.50 underscores the scope of the problem. Writing, it seems, is hard.

Many papers tackling such a difficult problem are lost to researchers outside of the discipline, but the beauty of Upper’s pivotal work is that it can be readily applied to different fields. Consider its recent application to a study in molecular biology:

Screen shot 2013-06-25 at 5.55.09 PM

Excerpt from Lorenz et al. (2011) ViennaRNA Package 2.0; Algorithms for Molecular Biology, 6:26 (Click to enlarge)

Only time will tell whether science will have the last…or first…word on this mystifying phenomenon.

9. “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” 

What at first seems like just another paper full of jargon about faster-than-light particles reduces to a simple and elegant conclusion: “Probably not.”

8. Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules: the NanoPutians” (Chanteu & Tour, Journal of Organic Chemistry, 2003)

They drew stick figures. With molecules!

Ever vigilant, however, of illustrating their nano-peeps in a way that would not be representative of their equilibrium state, the authors add this caveat: “…the liberties we take with the nonequilibrium conformational drawings are only minor when representing the main structural portions; conformational license is only used, in some cases, with the NanoPutians’ head dressings.”

Science…solving bad hair days, one molecule at a time.

7. “Trajectory of a falling Batman” (Marshall et al., Journal of Physics Special Topics, 2011)

This study is exactly what it sounds like. They analyzed the path of a falling Batman to determine whether our beloved caped crusader could indeed survive on a Batwing and a prayer. Their grim conclusion? Splat.

Or, as the authors put it (albeit far less eloquently in my opinion): “Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used, such as a parachute.”  Noted.

6.  “The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute” (Lim et al, British Medical Journal, 2005)

Don’t you just hate it when your co-workers steal all the teaspoons?  If you’re a real scientist, you don’t get mad. You get a publication!

5. Chicken, chicken, chicken.

There are few things more satisfying in science than publishing a really important paper, and then being asked to present it at a really important conference. This is one of those truly remarkable papers that must be seen to be appreciated.

Now, you might think that a study such as “chicken chicken chicken” could have little application outside the poultry world. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, I know at least a few people who have adopted “chicken chicken” as the universal code word for a scientific talk that has gone on way too long. So here’s my public service announcement to researchers everywhere: if you’re ever speaking and the audience starts muttering “chicken chicken” to themselves, they’re not hungry — they want you to stop.

4. Santa and the moon” (Barthell, CAPJournal, 2012)

Do you remember when you were a kid on Christmas morning, and how you carefully examined the wrapping paper for its scientific accuracy before meticulously unwrapping the toy you’d been waiting for all year?

I totally thought so.

This one belongs in the category of “You might be a scientist if…”

Parents: If your child ever exhibits signs of trauma from the inaccurate portrayal of moon phases on wrapping paper, it might be time to have a serious talk about graduate school. Might I recommend this book at bedtime?

3. Absolute dating of deep-sea cores by the PA(232)/TH(230) method and accumulation rates: a reply” (Journal of Geology, 1963)

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, scientists make mistakes. Luckily, when this happens, there are usually other scientists happily willing to point it out. Such was the case with this paper, in which some scientists pointed out an error in the original paper, and the authors simply replied, “Oh well, nobody is perfect.”  Gotta admire their honesty.

2. Two body interactions: a longitudinal study

Who says romance is dead? Nothing quite says “publish or cherish” like a marriage proposal embedded in a scientific paper!

1. 20 more hilarious scientific papers in five minutes.

Thanks to Seriously, Science?  (or, the artists formerly known as NCBI ROFL).


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