October 12, 2005

The vaccination approach to presenting research

Researchers often acknowledge the likelihood of distortion, bias or flaws in their approach and data. This is commendable of course, except that they then typically continue unabated. It seems merely listing possible gremlins in the works immunises conclusions from any ill-effects. All manner of things can be vaccinated against in this way – contextual factors, unrepresentative test subjects, inexhaustive trialling, suggestive questioning and so on and so on.

Well, now I've said that I'm permantly protected against being accused of glossing over problems in my own research. Funny thing is I had a flu jab today too.

October 11, 2005

Nineteen Eighty Four

Writing about web page http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/1984/

My favourite book is 1984 by George Orwell. When I first read it as a teenager it had a profound impact on me. At the time I was just realising that the world is a pretty screwed up place, all in all, yet my peers and most adults accepted it cheerfully and without question, or at least seemed to. In Winston Smith, the book's protagonist, I found a soul mate – another who knew something was deeply wrong but couldn't express it nor find an ally in his plight.

Particularly profound was when Winston obtains a copy of the banned book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by underground resistance leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Just as Winston had found a description of the true nature of reailty in Goldstein's book, so had I in Orwell's book.

I'm older now and naturally no longer have such a messianic opinion of 1984. But I have read it many times and, though I have never studied it formally, have spotted the following apparent flaws and problems:-

  • In the first chapter Winston turns down the volume on the telescreen. Why would he ever have turned it up to need turning down?
  • Why are telescreens unaffected by power cuts?
  • Why do O'Brien and others write the Goldstein book? Is it accurate?
  • Is The Times actually published and printed? If so how can it be constantly rewritten with any credibility?
  • How does Julia obtain real coffee etc? Is it from corrupt inner party members and if so does she sleep with them? – if so why is she interested in pasty outer-party Winston and his itchy ulcer? If she just buys it on the black market then how come Winston never got in on the action with all his visits to prole areas?
  • Is there a genuine affinity between O'Brien and Winston? Does O'Brien take more time and effort over winston than your average subversive?

If anyone has any solutions to these, or any problems of their own with the book, I would be intrigued to hear.

October 10, 2005

From naive clarity to informed fuzziness

As I start my doctorate I have much reading to do into the nature of social science research and how to go about it.

There seems to be a prevailing notion of starting out foggy and unsure and, as the object of study is painstakingly constructed, becoming increasingly focused. Initial ideas and research questions can be expected to change and should not be set in stone. A continuous convergence emerges as one refines the problem until finally it is crystallised and clear.

But that's not how I'm feeling as I take the first step on a journey of 1000 miles. Instead I see myself as starting out with a sense of naive clarity and fairly precise ideas. I hope and expect, after three years, to have moved towards a sense of informed fuzziness. Neither do I feel the need to ensure my current naive clarity be flexible. I prefer to think that it is brittle and inevitably going to be smashed to bits when tested in the field. From the rubble will emerge the phoenix of a new set of ideas – less sure, less clear and all the better for it. Ideally this process will continue iteratively with each working hypothesis getting smashed against the rocks to make way for the next. The whole thing will be messy, discontinuous and painful – but hopefully thorough.

Then again perhaps I should get off Warwick Blogs and go do some reading instead.

October 05, 2005

Jones's Blog or Jones' Blog?

Writing about web page http://www.dreaded-apostrophe.com/

There is a take-away food shop near my house called Wongs.

If it was written with an apostrophe, as in Wong's then the name of the shop would mean "the place belonging to a person called Wong". But as it stands, written Wongs, it means instead "many people called Wong". I'm almost tempted to commit my first ever act of graffiti and go and spray an apostrophe late one night.

A fascinating insight to the origins and usage of the apostrophe in modern English is available at the excellent website The Dreaded Apostrophe. It starts with the improbable-sounding claim that there is one rule, only one rule and nothing but one rule to using the apostrophe:

Use an apostrophe when letters are missing.

Pretty obvious for contractions such as don't but less obvious for possessives such as Wong's Shop.

The website explains that the rule holds for possessives because in old English you used to add an 'es' to nouns. So in old English we would write the bookes title ; the bookses titles ; the womenes hats and so on. In modern English the apostrophe replaces the 'es' in words ending 'ses' and replaces the 'e' is words ending 'es' (without a preceding 's'.) So we have the book's title ; the books' titles ; the women's hats and so on.

Sometimes it's optional. Joneses blog in old English becomes either Jones's blog or Jones' blog and both are correct.

That said it can still be confusing. For example, consider how to rearrange the following to use a possessive form instead of 'of'...

The hats of the mothers-in-law.
The hat of the mothers-in-law. (i.e. many mothers-in-law have shared ownership of one hat – improbable I know!)
The hats of Bill and Ben.
The hat of Bill and Ben. (Bill and Ben have shared ownership of one hat.)
The budget of the union of the students.

September 28, 2005

As sure as eggs is eggs

The colloquial expression as sure as eggs is eggs, meaning absolutely certain, probably comes from the mathematical expression x = x.

It's hard to argue against such an expression. If I were to take place in a debate I wouldn't fancy fighting the corner for eggs ain't eggs.

But then I am not a child. When some researchers asked a 12 year old girl to explain what was meant by '3 = 3' she told them it was incomplete and suggested that perhaps it means '3 minus 0 = 3'.

So eggs ain't eggs after all – eggs with no eggs taken away is eggs.

And that's as sure as eggs is eggs.

September 27, 2005

Another 3 years of voluntary poverty

Yesterday I enrolled as a full-time PhD student and I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it very much. Friends tell me that doing a doctorate suits me down to the ground. I certainly hope so considering the financial hardship that will come with it. It seems I am putting my faith in the adage that if you enjoy what you do, you'll never work another day in your life.

When I tell people what my PhD proposal is about they often laugh.

My PhD is about the equals sign. I guess it's the apparent lack of scope that is funny. Someone suggested yesterday I could spend the first 18 months on the top line and the final 18 months on the bottom line. (Obviously that's ridiculous – I'll also need time to consider the space between the lines.)

But what I love about spending 3 years intensely studying = is the limited scope. Where other students worry how on earth they will slim their proposal down, I have the luxury of deciding how I will broaden mine. And no doubt somewhere along the road I will discover that those harmless looking parallel lines are a can of worms unto themselves.

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