29 February 2008

the google dance

I'm happy to report that it is 29 Feb and I have finished two (unbelievably rough) chapters! huzzah. Now to the real work: rewriting.

I have discovered in my process this month a new way of googling (which is I'm sure old news to many of my 4 readers) in which you can limit your search to a particular 'site' using this difficult-to-remember command: 'site:' This came in handy when I was trying to find the records for certain archives on the Cambridge Centre of South Asia webpages. They don't have a universal search feature, and the navigation is a bit haphazard, so it's unclear from the surface of the site exactly how much info is on there. Putting my search term next to the 'site:[URL]' was genius at finding either what I needed or that it wasn't on the site.

Google has been (for a while) a very powerful search tool. With the expansion of Google scholar beyond its initial science-focused framework and with Google Books, it's almost like cheating. No more struggling through notes to try to find that full reference. No more running back to the bookshelf or library to check the exact quote. No more guessing by title and subject heading whether that book is really the one you want to buy or check out of the library or ILL. I find it to be a huge help, and a lot of fun, for I am a complete geek.

But like all tools it is on some level just a very good tool. My students can't seem to use it to find anything beyond wikipedia. Not because they don't use the interwebs, but because they don't have any idea that 'research' is not a treasure hunt in which one has clues and there will always be a treasure at the end, but instead an on-going, never-ending, semi-choreographed dance. While they follow the dance steps chalked out on the floor and thereby think they are actually doing the rhumba, the rest of us are, at the risk of overestimating my talents--and certainly at the risk of overextending the analogy--performing convincing interpretive modern dance with some of the best companies in the world. I'm not saying I'm the principle in the company. Far from it. I'm just saying that it's an art. And it's one that must be practised and performed regularly. And one that is helped by better lighting, a lovely theatre, advances in synthetic fabrics, and sometimes even props. But those props and lycra ain't doin' nothin' for my students. Except giving them two left feet.

21 February 2008

Drink up: coca-cola or motor oil?

In my youths, I used to imbibe beverages that come in cans and are called 'cola' or 'pop' or 'soda' depending on the region of the US you are from (and 'soft drink' here in the UK which seems so refined and high-falutin' in a way). I realised sometime in late high school/college that those pains in my stomach seemed, fascinatingly, to be correlated to the aftermath of drinking said beverages. I kept on drinking them for a bit and then just stopped. Weirdly, the pain went away. huh.

Fast forward to 2003: we move. I find in move's aftermath that I own a rather rusted-out cast iron skillet. I google to find out whether I can resuscitate it. The answer: yes (for it is google and people in the world have too much time on their hands). The solution: Coca-cola. Soak rusty cast iron skillet in Coke overnight and voilĂ : clean as a whistle. Sure, I'd heard about the dissolving penny/nail trick, so while this is, er, disgusting, especially when pondering the amount of such beverages myself and those I know consumed/still consume. But I was happy, I had cast iron skillet, I cured it (thanks to google) and was on my way.

Fast forward to this week: F buys a putter on e-bay. Seems the putter has a factory coating on it to protect the head and face (I have another post about the anatomical metaphors related to golf and their weirdness, but that's for later). This particular type is also prone to a bit of spotty light rust. There are two solutions to this.

One: follow method above used for cast iron pan. This works, but the Coke takes the rust and the coating, which isn't optimal.
Two: soak head of putter in motor oil. Much milder than the Coke, it only takes the rust and leaves the coating behind! Wonderful!

Stoat: You're not really taking into consideration the toxicity of the motor oil, chemical properties that might effect humans more than putters, and really, why don't you ease up? Coke's the national drink! Get over yourself!

Me: er, what are you doing here?

Stoat: voice of reason my friend. voice of reason.

So, we conclude: patriotic duty. But please, drink motor oil. Much milder.

19 February 2008

A Virtual Tie?

The Press's presentation of polling data along with the popular understanding of what poll results actually mean are both so awful that I place them into that category of things about which I consistently resist ranting. But this morning I seem to have lost my self-control, when I read this:
50 percent of likely Democratic primary voters support Clinton as their choice for the party's nominee, with 48 percent backing Obama.But taking into account the poll's sampling error of plus or minus 4½ percentage points for Democratic respondents, the race is a virtual tie.

First of all, I'm going to put aside the fact that if the sampling and polling techniques are not done properly than any poll tells us absolutely nothing (since it conveys information only about the sample and not about the entire population). Anyone who knows anything about polls knows this, of course. But the press never mentions it at all, and over the years I have discovered through my students that many readers of press coverage on polls therefore have no idea that a poll could ever be more wrong that the sampling error. (OK, I didn't put aside that fact.)

Let's assume, however, that this poll was properly conducted. Does it tell us that Obama and Clnton are tied? What, for that matter, is a virtual tie? Read straightforwardly the poll tells us that Clinton's support lies somewhere in the range between 45.5% and 54.5%; Obama's support lies somewhere in the range between 43.5% and 52.5%. Therefore, it is true that they could be tied. It is also true that either one could be ahead of the other slightly. Moreover:
  • Clinton might be ahead by 11 points
  • Obama might be ahead by 7 points

Is that a tie, or a virtual tie? No.

I think what the reporter means to say is that the poll cannot indicate clearly whether either candidate is ahead. Saying that they are in a virtual tie is like... (this analogy took me a while to come up with, and may not work, so bear with me)...the following:
The score in the football game is 7 to 10.
I hear a news report that one team has just scored, but I don't know which team.
So, assuming no safeties or missed extra points, the score could be
  • 14 to 10
  • 10 to 10
  • 7 to 13
  • 7 to 17
Whatever we want to call this situation, 'virtual tie' is the wrong choice.

Let me just close in noting that this is a ridiculous subject for me to blog about. I'm guessing there are about 5 readers of SecondAmericano: 3 of them know far more about politics and polling than I do, and one of them knows far more about statistics than I do. Still, if you can't preach to the choir, then what good is preaching (and besides, if I screwed something up here, I'm sure to be quickly informed). 

18 February 2008

not enough words

You are witnessing procrastination in action. Perhaps not 'live' as such, but nonetheless, the words here represent a small sum of energy that I should currently devote to writing the next chapter of the book I'm working on.

Two chapters in February. Why does its shortness matter so much? two days isn't really a lot of time, but psychologically it feels like half a month, right?

Others are busy composing albums this month; in November many people write entire novels...I'm shooting for 1000 words per day. This is working more or less. One chapter is drafted (roughly) and the next has begun (3000 words and counting). I do find myself dreaming in sections of about 1000 words, or the dream-unit equivalent thereof.

I must get back to it. Writing is difficult.

[133 words]