June 29, 2016

…for what is done can't be undone.

So much talk, so much ill feeling, so much turmoil about this whole Brexit affair. It is tiring, it is depressing, it is soul-killing. To sum up with no more wasted words (for, they say, a picture is worth a thousand of those):


May 18, 2016

You talkin' to me? Huh?...You talkin' to ME?

deniroIt’s been a while, I realise. In the meantime, university happens. The spring (or what was that?) ended into the exam revision time weeks ago, a period of intense intellectual and personal effort for most of us.
For the past good month, I’ve been amongst students at the peak of their study efforts. Not many, understandably, are at their happiest. Some would like to be anywhere else but here. It would be ideal – would it not – to always be able to come to the university and talk to students who want to be there, rather than not.
Some students change their behaviour quite a bit during such times. Yet, all this struggle is only a matter of personal choice. Study frustration comes with the territory, as they say. Casting it towards those who are here to primarily help you will not solve your problems, I suggested to one of my advisees last week. If anything, such tendency speaks more about yourself, than your problems. Not wise.
Irritability is one of the classic symptoms of frustration. It belongs to the emotive domain, that about which we can do nothing; it is a given. That, however, is not a reason for certain behaviours (which belong to the cognitive domain, that which is highly under our control) ; behavior is a matter of choice.
Another student stopped me at the end of one of my courses and asked what they should do in order to avoid upsetting or alienating those around them, as well as maximise their revision efficiency.
I have never been fond of, or favoured, the “walk-and-talk” formula because it intrinsically, to me, erodes somewhat the given chance of learning. I do it often, however, because there is no other choice (nor could we offer appointments to all students). Therefore, given such circumstance, I briefly advised the student to consider that:

1. the University/your degree means you no harm whatsoever
2. you are here, doing this, by your own choice
3. your problems are not necessarily somebody else’s fault
4. your problems are never somebody else’s responsibility to solve
5. your well-being should not be constructed (by yourself, that is) so that it relies heavily on others
6. consider your reasons for wanting to be at the university

Another truth is that when/if you are determined to see something in black, it will stay black no matter what help may be around you.
Something to think about.

December 17, 2015

The Daily Drop of Caffeine (the one before the Holiday)

“There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.”

Erma Bombeck

erma bombeck

September 24, 2015

A guide for 1st Year PhD students (from those who've been there, done that)

During the past couple of years, I’ve talked to several final-year PhD students from various departments who have kindly given their advice, from own experience, on matters related to first year challenges. Therefore, from those who have “been there, done that”, here’s the extent of this collected knowledge for the benefit of all our new PhD students (as received, with minimal grammatical editing):

What matters most to a new PhD student?

• Becoming part of a project (own project)
• Worry about developing knowledge
• Will I enjoy doing a Phd? How will it fit with life?
• Money situation: job, finding a job.
• Relationship with supervision: supportive enough? Sufficient guidance?
• Finances
• Knowing where to get what/ who to contact for what
• Being confident in your area
• Working space (accommodation and in your department)
• The current resources that a student can utilise for the study
• What is the current stage of research in your narrow field/subject? What are the shortcomings and what have people already done, what are their limitations? Basically this is the literature review. This should be greatly emphasized in the first year of study.
• Get rid of the “PhD style” and be self motivated because all the time you will be working alone […].
• Reading a lot will help to learn from others’ mistakes and achievements.
• Clearly set the target from day one, […] the aims and objectives. During the first few months, these aims and objectives might be primitive, but they will gradually build up to the final version. Don’t let this happen in your last year.
• Consider own motivation for your PhD (what you intend to obtain from it – teaching? Publication?)
• Supervision
• Find out what the expectations are (examinations, documents submission, etc)
• An initial plan for the PhD project, a good environment to work in and building a good team with his/her supervisor.
• Orientation (in general, but also in project related terms)
• Knowing what to do / having a plan
• Getting started with reading and research
• Getting help from peers

Challenges ahead

• Money
• Time
• Motivation (life gets in the way)
• Trying to establish self-confidence
• Availability of resources.
• Relationships with colleagues and supervisor
• Plan your time well
• Make your own deadlines and stick to them
• Find balance between deadline success and realistic expectations
• Isolation
• Time management
• Too many opportunities / decision making
• Literature review: defining scope and limitations
• Teaching (is a valuable experience, though)
• The initial PhD plan will always change with time, quick adaption is important.
• You and your supervisor may have different work strategies. You don’t have to change yours to match his/hers. Work with your supervisor on finding a strategy that suits you both from the very beginning of your PhD. • Be organised, put things into place (diary)
• Relax now and then (sport and yoga)
• Find support group (other PhD’s)

Methods and strategies to handle these challenges

• Investigate funding possibilities (talk to supervisor)
• Find a suitable job (which does not distract from PhD)
• Look for teaching possibilities (money, contacts, and practice)
• Engage in multiple activities which contribute to development
• Find best time of the day for work
• Don’t be discouraged by unproductive days
• Take a break
• Work from basic to complex. Don’t try to address very complicated issues from the beginning. Example: My subject involves maths, physics, and structural engineering. The focus of the study is applications for researchers and structural engineers. In the first two years, I was in a mixed stage trying to address problems that I couldn’t solve (of course, nothing is impossible, but maybe I’m not that smart to solve). If I have to combine all the maths, physics and structural engineering, it would take couple of PhD studies to resolve them all. Luckily, I realised this in time, and therefore I reduced the level of maths and physics, focussing the work on structural engineer, and as a consequence, I can now establish a simple model (simple in maths and physics), and can do the job in structural engineering. Overall, it’s still a complex model, but it’s doable.

• Doing things you enjoy, not related to your research
• Seek help and support (outside supervision) if you get stuck
• Share your ideas outside your department if possible
• Look at what’s going on in other departments (interdisciplinary activities, etc)
• Engage in some extracurricular activities with people outside academia
• Planning
• Prioritisation
• Self discipline
• Don’t be afraid to say no
• Read, read and read relative papers/books to your project from the very first days of your PhD. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at the beginning; this is normal.
• When you set a timetable to finish certain tasks, be realistic. Associate enough time for each task even if you think it could be done faster. This is better than getting used to missing deadlines. • Talk to department if Supervision not adequate
• Open relationship (be honest about problems)
• Ask for help, but don’t expect spoon-feeding
• Be independent (see over-reliance on supervision)
• Be aware you are in charge of your project
• Know your rights as a PhD student (request meetings if inadequate)
• Build a rapport with supervisor
• Set targets together
• If joint supervision, identify the strong points for each Supervisor
• Be on time for meetings and have clear view of the purpose of each meeting. If you can write reports before and after each meeting, it will help to collect materials (gradually) for the thesis later on.


• If any problems occur, try to address and change supervision if necessary
• Come prepared for your meetings
• Keep a record of meetings and agree content with supervisor
• Don’t be afraid of seeking academic help outside supervision if necessary
YOU need to shape and manage it to get the feedback you need
• don’t rely on your supervisor to tell you exactly what to do
• ask for help though, be clear what you need help with
• Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask your supervisor about things you don’t understand even if you think the answer may be very basic. No one can remember everything he/she learnt in their first degree. It is the duty of your supervisor to answer your question or refer you to the right reference/direction where you can find the answer yourself.

What you must do! (i.e. the essential ingredients for a successful 1st year, at least)

• Do the admin: enrolment, bank details, scholarship, student card)
• Organise 1st Supervision meeting
• Develop a working tactic/schedule

• Focus of end-of-year assessment (or upgrade)
• Have time scale in mind right from the beginning
• Organise your resources
• Finish the literature review, if not a final version (wording and formatting), then at least a comprehensive version of what’s going on in the field up to your point.
• Master the facilities/computer programs/equipment/skills that you will need for the next two years.
• Practise your writing.

• Position your topic in the field – Establish a habit of reading.
• Make sure your thesis design is coherent (build a solid starting point)
• Talk to others about your research so that you develop a clear understanding about what you’re doing and build confidence
• Make a plan for your work – and stick to it, revise it, keep it up to date
• Write up results early on
• Take time off / don’t work too hard (you won’t be able to keep it up for 3 years..)
• Write down everything you do. For example, once you finish reading a new article, write few lines about it in your own words. Write down every single calculation/thought/question you come across during your PhD. This will be of so much help in the years after.

Integration with life

• Having a job alongside
• Managing time
• Priorities (should be the PhD)
• Stay focussed on your phD

• Have a network of support (in or outside the university)
• Keep up hobbies (i.e. things which help you relax, such as cooking, playing instrument)
• Keep balance between these and the PhD
• Consider your relationships and the potential implications
• Time management, i.e PhD commitments vs other life circumstances (e.g. family)
• Take time off at time of personal crisis
• Deal with life issues so that you can then concentrate on your PhD
• Exercise in order to counteract “sitting down” time required by PhD work and refresh your mind/disconnect
• Have working hours
• Keeping a work/life balance is important
• Societies are a good way of meeting people outside your field/department and for doing something other than work
• Getting a PhD is a long process. It may sound or seem complicated but it is just a process that almost anyone can go through successfully if they decide to. This doesn’t imply having no social life. On the contrary, work and life balance is one of the most important ingredients for a successful PhD student. Try to socialise with other PhD students too; sharing the good and bad moments with them will make the whole experience more exciting and enjoyable.

August 31, 2015

Lest we forget…

berlin tiles

A street in Berlin August 2015

August 25, 2015

Developing coherent narrative

Telling a story in a captivating way is not that easy. Writing university essays is not that… different. All essays require us to tell a story to some degree. The success of that story, from the examiner’s point of view, depends on the writer’s ability to construct a narrative using specific ingredients at the right time and in the right places for the right reasons.

I’d like to illustrate the notion of coherent narrative (in simple words, a story that is easy to follow from beginning to end, and is clear to read throughout) using an example from an online blog which talks about a complex set of events, frequently using a cause-and-effect pattern, and ending with an argument.

The following text speaks about a magic show event, a performance of which you can also watch at the end of this post.

The story is written by Richard Carrier, and reads like this:

“Penn asked the audience for volunteers who had experience with firearms. They had already brought up several volunteers for other tricks in the show before this, but this would be their last and most spectacular marvel of the evening. Hardly anyone was raising their hand. I had the experience he was asking for, so I thought “what the hell” and raised my hand. I was sitting beside my wife, Jen, near the aisle in the fourth row. Penn, still on stage, asked me where I had my experience with firearms from and I shouted out, “the United States Coast Guard!” (I was a qualified marksman with the handgun and rifle, a skill I maintain to this day). He found another volunteer from the U.S. Air Force, and called us both up to the stage.

Jen was freaking out. I think she was worried I’d be gunned down in some bizarre news-making accident. Hell, the way we’d seen that weekend had been going in Vegas, I can’t blame her. But really, what are the odds? So I went up. Penn had us say our names and chatted a bit. We each went up to a different side of the stage, which at this point had been divided by a large yellow sash. On my side was Penn. On the other was Teller, along with the active duty airforce guy. Penn instructed us never to cross the sash to the other side, and said neither would they. And I am certain they never did.

Then Penn and Teller drew enormous .357 magnum revolvers (more specifically, Colt Pythons [...]), complete with laser sights, and Penn started talking about their specs. They handed us the guns and asked us to inspect them as much as we wanted to confirm they were real. As best I could tell, they were. I had complete possession of the weapon and could handle it and look it over. The action worked, the rest of the mechanics were correct and working, the weight was right, and so on. Although from such a brief sight inspection it would never be possible to rule everything out, I’m pretty sure they were in fact real guns and probably had not been tampered with in any way. I confirmed this to the audience, as did my air force compatriot on the other side of the stage.

Next Penn and Teller showed us each an ammo sleeve full of bullets and asked us to choose one of those bullets, and confirm as best as we could that the bullet was real. Again, that’s not entirely possible with a mere sight inspection, but I confirmed everything I could: I shook it to confirm it contained powder, I tried to remove the bullet from the casing and found it as secure as it should have been, I tested the weight, confirmed the primer was intact, and made sure the bullet was real by tapping and hefting it, etc. It had a full parabolic copper jacket, but though hollow points are usually the load of choice for magnum revolvers, parabolics in this case were required to wow the crowd, since they are easier to write on and they don’t easily mushroom, which would destroy what we wrote, making it impossible to “confirm” the trick.


Penn and Teller then each gave us a selection of colored pens and asked us to choose one. I chose blue. Penn then told us to write our initials on the bullet. My initials only covered about a third of the radius, so he asked me to keep writing whatever I wanted, all the way around. Altogether I wrote RCCIXI, but I was very nervous and shaking like crazy, plus writing on a small, parabolically rounded metal surface, so it came out a bit wobbly, but still clearly recognizable. In fact, I think all this made backstage forgery essentially impossible, as well as any kind of tape transfer, as I’ll explain later.

Then Penn and Teller had us choose another pen. I chose to stick with the one I had. Penn asked us to draw something on the casing, anything we wanted, and to tell the audience what it was. My colleague chose to draw a smiley face. I chose to draw a flower. I already suck as an artist, but with my shaking hand and the curvature of the metal cylinder the flower I drew was a bit wonky, just like my writing on the bullet.

Then Penn asked us to load the round we had just marked up, bullet and casing together, into the corresponding revolver. In my case, it was Penn’s revolver, held in his hand, wheel extended so I could put the bullet into any chamber I chose. He then locked the wheel in place, explaining to the audience and seeking assurance from me that he had to position the round exactly one chamber in advance of the barrel, which is indeed correct for a revolver—unless you’ve cocked it before loading, which would not be a safe procedure, especially in a crowded theatre.

So far so good. Now Penn said for insurance and safety reasons we had to be off the stage for the actual trick. Although no doubt that’s true, I know there was a more important reason to have experienced gunmen off the stage at that point, but I’m not gonna spoil anything yet. They had special front row seats for us to occupy until after the trick, when we would come back on stage to confirm what happened. As we were seated, he explained to the audience that the guns are pretty damned loud (oh, yes, believe me, a .357 magnum is indeed damned loud). So he said he would announce when they are about to fire so everyone could plug their ears. Meanwhile, he and Teller put their guns down and donned bullet proof goggles, helmets and vests. And the backstage curtain rose, showing that the yellow sash that was dividing the stage extended back and all the way up into the rafters.

There were also glass plates on small poles, face-high, one each, which Penn and Teller positioned about ten feet in front of themselves. They got behind these, on opposite sides of the stage, and pointed their laser sights at each other so the bullets, when fired, would pass through both glass plates and into each other’s mouths. Penn announced they were about to fire. Everyone plugged their ears. BOOM! Penn and Teller’s guns fired with magnificent gun flare and chest-thumping sound. Their heads reeled back from the impact. Then they showed the audience: lo and behold, they had caught the bullets in their teeth!

We were immediately called back up to the stage. I was now asked to walk to the edge of the yellow sash to catch the bullet from Teller’s mouth. My air force partner did the same, catching the bullet from Penn’s mouth. I can assure you my bullet was in and fell out of Teller’s mouth. No doubt about it. They asked us to check the bullets and confirm they were ours. They were. Damn if I hadn’t seen it, but Penn had actually fired my bullet right across the stage into Teller’s mouth! And vice versa.

Woooooah, dudes, you’re like totally blowing our minds!

Now Penn and Teller brought the glass plates up to the front of the stage so we could see they had bullet holes in them. The one on my (Penn’s) side had actually shattered almost in half, but the rest of the bullet “hole” which had caused it to shatter was still visible. The glass was otherwise cracked as one might expect if something had violently passed through it. And I could see even from my side of the stage that the plate on Teller’s side was also cracked up and had a nice bullet hole clean through it. The glass was also completely unstained and crystal clear: there was no stipling from paraffin or smoke or any other byproducts of blanks or explosives. Sure enough, it looked as if bullets had been fired through both glass plates.

Now Penn and Teller opened the chambers of their revolvers and asked us to remove the casing (which, unlike an automatic, remains in the gun after being fired). We did. They asked us to confirm each casing was ours. It was. Mine was still in Penn’s gun, and vice versa, yet the bullet attached to it had crossed the stage into Teller’s mouth, and vice versa. Like I said, minds are being blown.

Okay. Now for the big finish…

After we caught the bullets from their respective mouths, Penn asked us: Has your bullet been fired through a gun? Yes, it had. It had ballistic scoring from the rifling of the revolver barrel, stipling and indentation from the impact of gunpowder on its base, and several slight impact deformities on its forward slope, as if it had actually been caught and scraped to a halt in someone’s superhuman teeth. All these marks crossed and in some cases even mashed my writing. There is no doubt the actual bullet I had written on had actually been fired by a gun. Indeed, even if the writing had been forged (though I’m certain it wasn’t), beyond any doubt the bullet had still been fired after any writing was placed on it. So there is no way this marked bullet could have been prepared in advance.

Likewise, when we withdrew the casings from their revolver chambers, Penn asked us: Has your casing been fired? Yes, it had. The primer was impacted, the smell of gunpowder coming from the scorched interior was clear enough, and there were even traces of unburned powder still inside it. And since I took it out of the chamber myself, while Penn still held the same gun he had fired, it definitely came from Penn’s gun. There is no doubt the actual casing I had written on had actually been fired in his gun.

So. My bullet had been fired and crossed the stage, leaving its fired casing behind right where it should be. And yet apart from the bullets having supposedly been fired across, no person or thing ever crossed the stage, which was open for everyone to see. The sash was about an arm’s length in width, and neither Penn nor Teller nor anyone or anything else even came close to crossing it. Until, of course, they bent over it to drop the bullets in our hands, but even then they were nowhere near each other. And I watched the whole time: the bullet that fell into my hand was the bullet in Teller’s mouth. And when I was up there, there were certainly no mirrors or anything hinky like that, and I doubt any were sneaked on and off the stage in the interim.

And that was it. Thank you very much. Please be seated. They let us keep the bullet and casing [...].

How the frackin’ hell did they do that!?

You can watch a video of the whole trick performed by Penn and Teller at a completely different venue on YouTube. But the version we saw was a lot better, since they didn’t have the bullets examined and marked while in the audience, but stayed far apart from each other on a clearly-divided stage, and had us come up to the them, so the whole thing was more clearly organized. No one could claim any switch was made in any moment of confusion. There was more care taken to show each step and there were more jokes, too. Overall, what we saw was even more impressive and entertaining.
Did they forge my bullet and casing? In my work with manuscripts and papyri I’ve learned a lot about tracing the actual path of ink stains on parchment or papyrus, since identifying a letter often requires observation under a magnifying glass or 3D microscope tracing where ink crosses over itself, as well as hesitation marks and blobs, and changes in thickness and shape due to changing velocity and angle of the pen. To recreate my scribbles, down to all those changes in angle and velocity, with the exact same shakes and overlaps, even after days of effort, much less in a matter of minutes, would simply be impossible for any mortal, no matter how brilliant a forger. Indeed, this would have been more amazing than the bullet trick itself. They could just have the guy do it right there on stage and get gasps and applause! So no, I don’t think that’s how they did it. Although I do think forgery played a role in the trick, I won’t say how until I’ve warned you I will.

I should also point out that we were given permanent markers, and the ink sunk into every pit and groove. Even jacketed bullets are not smoothe, nor are their casings. They look it, but close up you can see they have very tiny scores and pits from the manufacturing process. Thus, a tape transfer would also have been impossible, without the attempt being quite obvious. I did notice that the ink on the bullet was starting to wipe off after I retrieved it, but only a little and not enough to destroy the evidence. I don’t think this had anything to do with the trick, nor was it because it had gotten wet from being in Teller’s mouth (water would not affect permanent ink). It was simply an inevitable effect of the fact that now there was (and indeed there was) gun oil on the bullet, and oil messes with permanent ink. Both the chamber and barrel of any well-kept gun would be oiled, so there is no great mystery there.

However, by having us draw a picture on the casing instead of writing our initials like we did on the bullet, this did make it harder to remember exactly every stroke I made or how the picture should look, so forgery (and hence a switch) would have been more feasible for the casing. And with a revolver there is no way to tell if a casing has been fired before or after it was drawn on. But even still, a forger would have required incredible skill to fool me, given the particularly wonky flower I drew. I have a hard time believing it was forged in a matter of minutes, and an even harder time believing Penn and Teller would trust that this would work on every show.

Besides, there is a much easier way to do the trick, one that doesn’t require paying heaping wadges of cash to a secret backstage forgery expert.

Spoiler Warning: Stop reading right here, right now…if you don’t want to know how this trick was done. And don’t read the comments either. Just walk away.

The clue that bugged me for days had already hit me immediately on stage: after the guns went off and I was called back up, when Penn opened the chamber of his revolver and told me to take out the cartridge, I hesitated and looked at him. A casing that had been fired only moments before would be hot. Possibly searing hot. Was he crazy? His look of confidence instinctively told me he would not be asking me to grab a casing out of the chamber with my bare hand unless he was sure I wouldn’t get burned. There wasn’t time to ponder this out, so I assumed I’d lost track of time and that it had been long enough since he fired for the chamber and brass to be safe to touch.

But even on that assumption, the brass would be warm. It would take several minutes for it to cool back to ambient temperature. I knew at once something was up when I ended my hesitation and took the casing out of the gun and found it completely cool to the touch. It wasn’t even warm. Penn has quite a commanding presence, and words his questions carefully, so when he asked me if that cartridge had been fired, I answered yes (after all, it had) and he quickly moved on before I could think to opine for the audience, “Yeah, but it isn’t warm. What’s up with that?” Not that I would have. I’m not that big of a jerk.

As I was leaving the stage, with the bullet and casing he let me keep, it further occurred to me that the bullet wasn’t warm either. How could both the casing and bullet have been fired through a gun only minutes before and already be cool to the touch? This was a clue, I was sure of it. But how did it explain anything? I admit I was stumped. And I’m still not sure. But here’s what I think happened…

The Minor Bit: The Glass Plates. I’m not an explosives expert, but I think it’s safe to assume there are squibs or special types of glass that can explode without leaving traces on the glass itself. Several websites suggest that the wax from a blank would shatter the glass or put a hole through it, but vaporized wax would be obvious, being plastered or stipled across the glass, and it wasn’t. And in my opinion, anything that could smash a hole in glass at ten feet would be too dangerous to use on stage anyway.

Likewise, though there was nothing obviously on the glass before it exploded, since I don’t know enough about what’s possible here I can’t say the glass wasn’t simply rigged to explode the way it did, by some means not visible to the naked eye. What I can say is that the holes in the glass plates were too big to have been made by bullets. Even assuming that two bullets passed right next to each other, we would see two small holes, apart or overlapping, with some corresponding cracking and shattering, not one big hole, which in my estimation was larger than would be made even by a 12 gauge slug. I’ve seen bullet damage to glass, and you either get the total annihilation of the glass, or tiny holes, no bigger than the bullet itself, with a web of cracks radiating from that. I imagine this is because a bullet passes through the glass much too fast to pull any of the glass along with it. At any rate, on stage, that night, no matter how those holes were made, they weren’t made with bullets.

The Trickier Bit: The Casings. I originally thought they used a tool shoved up the chamber to extract the bullet after I had inserted it, and maybe they did. Though my wife and I can’t work out exactly when, I am sure at some point, even if only for two seconds, Penn and Teller had the guns out of the audience’s sight, for example by innocuously turning around. Though I could not remove the bullet from the casing, there is nothing preventing a special tool from doing so, especially if the bullet was rigged so it releases when quickly pushed, twisted and pulled. Such a tool could have been palmed and used in a matter of seconds without anyone noticing. Throughout the show Penn and Teller had proven this fact a dozen times over, demonstrating fantastic skill in sleight of hand.

One clue is that Penn made a point about the cartridge going in one chamber before the barrel, which is not in itself suspicious. But Pythons, like most modern revolvers, have cylinder chambers that are open to the front (unlike many earlier revolvers, as you might see in Westerns, which had chamber covers, a practical design feature in dusty or mucky environments). Though some Python models have that chamber partially blocked by the barrel, others do not (see below).

Thus a bullet extracting tool could be inserted down the front of that chamber without swinging the chamber open or moving the wheel at all.

Once extracted, the bullet would have been tossed to an accomplice backstage. The curtain had been raised to show nothing was going on backstage, but in fact this made it much easier to toss a bullet to a hidden compatriot, in effect greatly multiplying the places they could hide to catch a tossed bullet. This would leave a bulletless casing in the gun, the very casing I had marked. Thus, the casing would never have to be switched or dinked with in any way. If packed with a thin wad of wax behind the bullet, then with the bullet gone the powder would stay in place and the cartridge could still be fired, with all the noise and flash expected, but no projectile.

But I’m not sure that’s how it was done. I thought one of the important technical differences between the trick shown on YouTube and the trick I saw on stage at the Rio was that I held the bullet from the moment I examined it, marked it both times, and inserted it into the revolver, and I immediately watched them close the chamber, whereas in the YouTube video they are carrying the bullets around before they have them put in, and there are other messy moments where someone could accuse them of pulling something, all of which, you might think, would be ruled out by the way they did it at the Rio.

However, my memory is hazy here, and possibly wrong. After all, Penn truly is a god of misdirection. I honestly can’t recall if he had the cartridge in his hand after I had marked the bullet, and then handed it back to me when I was told to mark the cylinder. The switch might already have been made at that point, now with a fake dissolving bullet—yes, marked with a forged inscription on the bullet end, but due to the circumstances I wasn’t asked nor had time to check it, so it didn’t have to be good enough to fool me on close inspection. I can’t remember if that’s how it went down at the Rio, but in the YouTube version this tactic is more obvious, since the bullets are kept hidden by Penn and Teller’s fingers when the volunteers mark the casings (and thus, I suspect, the switch had already been made before then), and they are still kept hidden from the volunteers as they are inserted into the revolvers. However, in my case they had me choose the chamber and insert the bullet, which seems a riskier procedure. What if I had paused to look more closely at the bullet end?

There are pros and cons to either explanation. Those watching the video, and those in the audience at the performance I participated in, might raise an eyebrow at the fact that Penn makes a very vocal point of saying what color pen we chose. Even when I chose to stick with the pen I had, he said so out loud, which is certainly odd. I admit this looks like a signal to an accomplice backstage as to what color pen to use to forge a copy, perhaps by watching us write from a hidden camera. Possibly a camera in Penn’s glasses, since he did inspect everything I did, closely and carefully. Now, I simply don’t believe such a forgery is what I went home with. But it could have been used as a stopgap to conceal a switch. As long as I never got to look closely at the forged bullet, I could have been fooled.

But the other technique I mentioned is also a possibility, albeit a harder one to pull off, though less risky. So I don’t know for sure. They also might use different tactics at different venues, so examining the YouTube version could be misleading. But even from prior probability we can be sure Penn and Teller do not have superhuman bullet-catching powers, therefore we can be equally sure there was a switch of either kind. Because we do know Penn and Teller have amazing, ass-kicking sleight of hand powers.

The Trickiest Bit: The Bullets. Okay, somehow, at some point, the bullets were switched or extracted, and then passed to backstage accomplices. If extracted, then they were swiftly reloaded into new casings using a common bullet press backstage. A skilled technician can reload a bullet into a readied casing with such a loading press in a hot second. But if, instead, the entire cartridges were switched, then they would be ready to fire as-is. In that case, my marked bullet was already backstage as I was marking a completely different casing with a forged bullet on stage. This would also mean backstage accomplices had already passed the forged bullets to Penn and Teller, unnoticed, while we were on stage, in the seconds between my writing on the bullet and then writing on the casing. That is not inconceivable, but it would be a remarkable feat well worthy of a whistle and a smile.

Either way, I’m sure our marked bullets were backstage before Penn and Teller fired their guns. These backstage cartridges were loaded into a second set of guns manned by accomplices above the stage in the fly gallery. So when Penn told everyone to hold their ears because they were about to fire, this was actually an announcement to the fly gallery assistants, so they could fire their guns at exactly the same time. The YouTube version has the announcement far in advance of the firing, and their guns going off at slightly different times, but the physical circumstances were different, and other cues were available to match up the trigger pulls on either side of the stage. As long as they got the timing right, it would be impossible, especially in a cavernous theatre, to tell the difference between two guns firing at the same time and four guns firing at the same time.

Impossible that is, except for an expert standing on the stage. Hence we could not be there. That’s why we were escorted down for this bit. Had I been standing within ten feet of Penn, I could probably have told you additional guns were fired above me. In fact, I suspect the stage cartridges were loaded not with gunpowder, but flash powder, or at any rate some light explosive, so that they would not have made anywhere near the noise of a real gun. Which I would definitely have noticed. But off stage, with the echoing typical of a theatre, there was no way to tell the sound wasn’t coming from Penn and Teller’s guns, but from above them instead. So the illusion was complete.

I thought the off-stage gunmen would have fired their guns into ballistic tanks filled with water and quickly extracted the bullets, but there wasn’t time, which is even more obvious in the YouTube version. I think they must have an apparatus, the off stage guns are precision mounted to fire into a ballistic tank and the bullets are thus slowed and then shunted into a drop shoot positioned precisely above their stage marks. Including my bullet. The one I had written on, and which had now been fired, passed through a gun’s barrel, and perhaps struck the interior of a collection tank, dinking the bullet up just a bit. The reason this must have been done in the fly gallery is not only to get the right matching sound effect, but more importantly because there would be less than a second to extract the bullets from the collection tanks…and drop them into Penn and Teller’s mouths.

That’s right. When Penn and Teller fired their guns and they feigned “catching” the bullets, their heads arched back…at the Rio, slowly. Too slowly. Had they really caught bullets in their teeth, and hence if they were simulating this realistically, their heads would be yanked back and forward rapidly, exactly as you see they did at the YouTube venue. But at the Rio, I thought it was odd at the time, and especially so in hindsight, that their heads moved back and then forward…slowly. In both cases, their heads arched back all the way, far enough to be staring straight up into the fly gallery. The reason for the slow impact movement at the Rio is to give the bullets more time to drop down into their mouths, since the stage at the Rio had a much higher gallery.

Of course, the bullet I wrote on would have been loaded into a backstage gun on Teller’s side of the stage, so the bullets had actually “crossed” to the other side of the stage before Penn and Teller’s guns ever went off. This unseen crossover would have taken place below, beside, and above the stage. There had to have been at least two superbly trained assistants backstage to make the trick work.

So that’s my theory. Incomplete and uncertain as it is, it does explain how the bullet I marked had clearly been fired through a gun and yet was cool to the touch. Having been fired into a ballistic tank, the bullet would have passed through water, thus cooling very rapidly [...] . And this explains why the casing in the chamber was not even warm, much less hot. Since it was loaded only with flash powder or something equally low yield, the explosion that generated the flash for their guns was visually convincing but not powerful enough to heat the chamber or casing.”

Source: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.co.uk/2007/05/penn-tellers-magic-bullet.html

Now, if you’ve read this to the end, ask yourselves: what made you do so? The answer to that question should tell you what you should put into your written assignments and how. Simple!

Some things to consider after reading this text:

Simple, simple vocabulary
Subject-specific terminology
Clear structure from A to Z, very easy to follow
Short syntax
Ideas fully developed using cause-and-effect norms.
Placing all relevant details for clarity, but never over-loading

July 30, 2015

The rather delicate matter of emotion in Academic Writing

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/scs/skills/awp/online/knowledge/6/

Delicate thing – no? – this emotional… stuff. Bad idea, I’ll say it straight, if it comes anywhere close to your academic assignment. Anywhere else, I’m the first to uphold its epic power in making us what we truly are.
To illustrate this in written context, let us imagine that your assignment is titled Innovation and Tradition (or, indeed, the other way around – although, of course, the semantics would change somewhat; anyway, I digress). tapsSuch title, I’d argue, may be featured under/by any academic department you could possibly think of. But I’m digressing again. The point is, you choose to respond to the task via exemplification, thus using a well-known, dare I say, well-established, cultural idiom, namely the British SINGLE water taps (capitals well intended).
Now, like any subject within a given cultural context, you have your own views and feelings on matters. These are yours and should never ever be judged by anyone for they are – are they not? – your God-given right. Therefore: writing the assignment.

One way to develop the topic would be this:
“Single water taps can surely redefine any laws of engineering stupidity written or unwritten simply because they are gloriously stupid! Magnificently so! If unwritten, inspiration provided by single taps alone is more than sufficient to start writing these laws into an earth-shattering best-seller. How in the name of God I ask anyone are single taps of any use to any sane being? The hot scalds, the cold freezes. End of * beeeep * story! In which specific, examinable situation could anybody need to use single taps??! In which scenario, upon the invention of the merciful and rather practically clever, mixed tap could anyone say, oh, hang on a minute, chaps, this can’t do what single taps can?
The answer we can only hope lies within respect for tradition for the sake of tradition. Now, that may well be, but there’s tradition and there’s tradition. In it all, of course, things such as quirkiness are respectable attributes for cultural values, including those of stubborn magnificence. Maybe, just maybe, there is an aspiration somewhere out there that single taps have stayed on because they simply are so… culturally idio*syncra*tic. (isn’t it a shame, just, that 6 letters – dropped right in the middle – happen to spoil such an otherwise beautiful word?)”

Back to our narrative. As true as the above may well be, please, I must solemnly advise you, NOT to submit such thing as part of your assignment. Emotional criticism in academic writing has the (rather awesome) quality of annoying everyone. It reads as subjective and unsubstantiated and, well, plain aggressive. Besides, you’ve missed a whole load of commas!
The bigger truth here is that you, as a student, have relatively few readers, but they are invariably your examiners. It’s wise to remember so.
Instead, you can write that very same content in a style which is appropriate for academic submission. For instance:

In use, single water taps are of little practicality due to the extremes of water temperature which cannot be adjusted at all. As such, they seem to be part of British cultural tradition, and have endured in time despite the better design and functionality provided by mixed taps.

There you have it: 48 words, all in.
Sure, nothing compared to the full-blooded rhetoric of the previous paragraph, some might observe. Oh well, life’s unfair, isn’t it…

July 16, 2015

When the despair is just too…desperate

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/scs/skills/awp/online/knowledge/6/

Now, who was the genius who said that a picture is worth 1,000 words?
cow 2

Am using the attached (captured very nearby) to say that no respectable academic reader likes embellishments, or mooings, of any kind in academic writing. Even worse when such nonsense may (have) be (-en) inserted for “political” reasons. The reader is likely to hate it even more! Hey, nobody likes a politician!
Employing kindergarten-level stories in order to flog emotive allusions (to “lift” your content) is not only poor (in judgement, above all else), but also very amateurish. And cheap. Adjacent trivia of any kind should never, ever trot onto your page. In the end, all that’s achieved is a degradation: that of content and style.
If your reader wants your text, they do so in order to see what your content is and how adept you are at presenting it. Much like going for a coffee: am interested in the caffeine, not the rather depressive divinisation of local farm milk. Take that to a church (if you absolutely must spoil the congregation)!

P.S. It tastes rubbish anyway.

And, P.P.P. S: how exactly does any of that conclusively “help breed happy cows”??

One last gasp for punctuation

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/scs/skills/awp/online/knowledge/5/

Perhaps it would’ve been a stellar inclusion in one of Little Britain ’s monologue creations. Only it isn’t… As it stands, I think it would be great practice (with a “c”, not “s”) for the hold-your-breath-whilst-reading-and-hope-to-survive-as-no-comma-is-gonna-save-your-soul contest.

gaspingHi my son was in a bar last February 2014 a bottle was thrown by an unknown male which hit his friend a fight broke out and in a matter of minutes an unknown male was kicking and stamping on his friends head he tried to get the male off his friend the police arrived and two of his friends got arrested and three unknown males and him self were held over night in a police cell my son was questioned with out legal representation and got confused when questioned he was bailed to go back the station in March June and finally charged in August of last year with affray he attended the magistrates court in September but due to the grevious bodily harm charge of the unknown male it was transferred to crown court in January of this year bear in mind my son had by then was on his second legal firm to represent him in court the solicitor advised that due to being charged with affray that he advised my son to plead guilty even though the cctv showed that my son played only a small part he was actually attempting to pull the unknown male off his injured friend his solicitor stated that the prosecution had strong evidence that all off the males would be found guilty I advised that my it was unfair that my son was helping the victim and he ends up pleading guilty which he did in the crown court this year the court case was held last week and two unknown males pleaded guilty before the end two of my sons friend pleaded not guilty alongside an unknown male the cctv was shown several times during the trial at the summoning up the judge advised the jury that self defence always over rides an affray charge and the jury found them not guilty my point is that my son has played the least part in the incident and has lost his job will end up with a criminal record when even the co defendants legal time asked several times why did my son pleaded guilty they even requested the name of his legal time I feel that he has been mis guided or they have been negligent with their advise I was wondering is there anything we can do at this late stage he is due back in court for sentencing in August any advise would be greatly received

...so..? Have you survived?
(Source? I’m not tellin’!)

Now, this is WRiting BAd at its baddest! Have we seen worse? Certainly – the original example in the Writing Bad post below. So, then, that begs the question: can we have something which is “worse” than “baddest”? Well, we can’t have “baddest” at all, but that’s another matter! Whatever happened to the rules of grammatical comparatives, anyhow…??

Who cares about them… by the time we even get to wonder about such complex academic considerations, the text above will’ve left us long breathless (literally). Just sayin’...

July 15, 2015

The daily drop of caffeine: Dr Seuss

*Today you are you! seuss
That is truer than true!
There is no one alive
who is you-er than you!*

Dr. Seuss

July 14, 2015

This Key Won’t Unlock This Door…

A friend at IGGY asked me a few months back to write an article for their Get Caught Reading event… Although meant for teenage readers, something’s telling me the subject is heavy enough to bring it here. Therefore:

For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.
Stuart Chase

Well, I know you’d like me to tell you what makes a great book. For that, though, you’ll have to wait, because what I’m going to tell you first is what makes a bad book. I’m talking here a lousy book, so bad and so ugly that it makes you believe it was a crime to have ever been written, let alone printed and, as a favour to mankind, you feel obliged (as a good citizen and all) to bin it or, dare I say, burn it!
Imagine this: you come back from school, you’ve had a dull, boring day, some guy or another annoyed you, and all you want to do is get home, have something good to eat (for you are starving, naturally) and crash on the sofa, unknown and unbothered, play a game or endlessly watch TV. And as you reach your front door… your key won’t unlock it! Stuck! (do you know a piece by Jimi Hendrix called Red House?). You’re locked out from the world you crave. That key and that broken lock represent a bad book! A thing you want, but which refuses to let you in.
A bad book is one which doesn’t open your mind.
…that means a good book is one which does (open your mind).
You might wonder what kind of writing or subject could do that. That, I fear, is a very subjective matter. What you like to read, other may well hate. In any case, one of the subject environments which is a pretty safe guess here, would be one which challenges common beliefs and the “dome” thing. One which suggests otherwise and, thus, makes you wonder. For a book which offers no wonderment, it can only offer you very little, if anything at all.
Think of a common belief, make it a big one, let’s see, something huge, something like evolution. Now, you know that’s a pretty big one, right? I mean, here, the evolution of civilisation, rather than the biological type (Darwin’s, of species, you see). In it, think of some enormous achievements of man in civilisation terms, all back in the dark ages of Antiquity, like the Egyptian pyramids, or Easter Island statues, or the huge lines of Nazca Peru (mostly images of plants and animals). Traditional history lessons tell you that distant ancestors (owners of primitive tools and yet to discover iron) made them, but nobody, that is, nobody, can tell you…how. That, my friends, is what we call the unexplained.
A book which makes you contemplate the unexplained is a good book. The one I’m referring to here Return to the Stars, by a Swiss writer named Erich von Daniken. It’s a book which speaks about extra-terrestrial influences on early civilisation on Earth.


A book which talks to you as a reader (rather than at you), and takes you patiently through a journey of knowledge, showing how you can look at physical facts and, from there, infer (make logical deductions). It’s like being with the driver on a great holiday bus to the destination of your dreams. The book is a guide, that one thing with tantalising answers, as well as questions you wish you were asked to think of, and solve.
Look at this, just one example:
This is one of the images of Nazca (of 2000 years ago), showing long lines drawn on the barren land. The plateau broken by many such geoglyphs. Pretty precise and neat, right? You can tell, because this is an aerial image, taken from a plane, is it not? Well, if you can see from such a height, then…well, you can’t see it from standing on the ground! You can’t, because it is huge! Miles of lines. It’s like trying to walk out of your front door right now (do try it) and hope to see the entire town at your feet. Can you do that?
So, then, if you can’t see the bird above from ground level, then how can you …draw it? And why would you, since you can’t see what it is? The truth is, these images can only be viewed from the air. It’s a physical fact. Von Daniken, in this book, challenges you to consider that the drawing must have been coordinated, therefore, from the air. Do you know why? Because, it is the only logical explanation! Which then begs the question…why were these built? For what purpose (since they could only be seen from the air)?
You see, what makes a great book, is the ability to dare, to be “crazy”, based, in our example, on things which can be independently analysed, and then being able to put it all in writing in a manner which is easy to understand and follow. It is, as we might say, engrossing, captivating. In other words, this is a great book because it has something (very unconventional) to say and knows how to say it. It is a craft which draws you into the world of the subject and its writer:
In the middle of the plateau stand three boulders with a diameter of 3 to 4ft 6ins. […] it was discovered that two of these boulders are in accurate compass line from north to south. With a minimal deviation the line that runs from the first two boulders to the third cuts the horizon at the point where the sun is at its zenith in summer. Here again we must ask whether an extinct race left behind traces of astonishing astronomical knowledge […].
Return to the Stars is a collection of such mysterious, “unexplainable” things that are abundant around the Earth, all created at a time when human civilisation was barely out of the Stone Age, with no documented scientific knowledge. And yet, all these constructions, quite clearly, were made with very precise knowledge and technology (for it’s impossible otherwise). The book asks you: knowledge and technology from….where? These creations are an all-of-a-sudden event with no prior evolution or knowledge development. None.
This is one book which you should be caught reading one day. It is one of the greats because it has passion, plenty. If someone asks you, tell them straight what it says and observe the reaction. They may well laugh and say it’s – what’s that all-powerful, menacing word? – absurd! Inconceivable! Unbelievable, I mean, com’on!
Oh well, if they do, they ain’t seen nothing yet! Ask them this: have you heard of… 9/11? *

*What is 9/11? Well…0.81818181818.

July 08, 2015

So much reading to do! Why can't reading be short for once, for goodness' sake??

Oh, but it can!

Nice, simple, to the point. No?
I find it rather mesmerising (which does really mean “capture the complete attention of…”).

By the way, you ought not to laugh; this is serious stuff. WD40 has its own website. Did you know that?
...duct tape doesn’t.

July 07, 2015

Get your stuff done!

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/scs/skills/awp/online/knowledge/types_of_writing/reflection

...and that’s all we have to say * about that.

*ok, fine, except this: procrastinating has that sickly sweet taste of icing on a (rather dreadful) shop-bought cake. One of those things people bring in for birthdays and such. Tempting, ey? Truth is, though, all that sugar WILL be falling in love with the insulin in your body (and, let me assure you, vice versa) and that will turn to…the F word. You don’t wanna do it!

**That would be “fat”, what did you think?

What students ask these days (not to be confused with "FAQ", however)

I thought I’d use this post as an updatable database of knowledge. No doubt, it will grow once the new academic year starts.

1. I’m an international student and English is not my first language*. Can I improve my academic writing and how?

Answer: No, you can’t.
If your writing resembles something like this: could you help me to improve my grammar and give me the suggestion of how to write the essay more critical base on the example as attachment – what you must do is improve your English, to put it plainly and simply. If you don’t, your writing will not improve. Our courses are invariably attended by international students in this situation, hoping that a writing tutorial will help them improve their English. Our courses don’t do that. We teach academic writing to students whose English language skills are at required level for academic narrative. What you need is a language course, such as those provided by CAL (centre for Applied Linguistics).

  • * “not good” is the implied semantics, here

2. My essays are returned with lots of comments, but I struggle to understand what they actually mean. What can I do, then?

Answer: You must seek clarification from your tutor. Without delay. If you have doubts about what your tutor is trying to say to you, you will not be able to improve next time.
We have a page dedicated to typical tutor comments here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/scs/skills/awp/online/question

3. This is my first time writing academically and I fear I’ll get it wrong. What should I do?

Answer: Read a lot, to start. Thus, you will see how others write academically in your discipline*. Then practise a bit and get some readers. Readership is essential. Most valuable will be that from your peers (your tutors would be a good start). Ask for feedback. Follow it when you try again. Academic prose is an incremental process.

NB! * writing produced and published by other does NOT necessarily mean it’s good writing (see couple older posts on this page). As one Mister Charles Dickens once told us, There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts. Therefore, cross-checking a number of authors and styles is wise in order to form an idea of standard.

4. My assignment is finished and I’ve been revising before submission ‘cause I really want it to be perfect, you know. Am still not happy, no matter how many times I’ve gone over it…. I haven’t slept in (like) 6 hours! It’s driving me crazy!

Answer: No doubt it is. Perfection doesn’t exist. More importantly: it’s your examiner who needs to be (reasonably) happy with your submission, in the first place. Sometimes, something has to give and you need to be pragmatic. More often than not, the more you go over a text, the worse it gets. Worth bearing in mind, I’d say.

July 02, 2015

Is academic writing a bicycle?

Yes it is!
Here’s one:
bike 2
Pretty, ey? (no, you can’t have it, for it’s mine!)

You see, a bicycle is a marvellous machine! It is incredibly precise and delightfully complex. Now, think of yours (rusty chain, right?) and consider this: not one component on that bike (not even one single, tiny one) may be defective without affecting the entire machine.
Take a component. Any component you like. It will spoil the ride.
Text is similar: everything in it, every component must work properly, otherwise the entire text suffers. A simple test can be observed when revising and editing a draft: a change somewhere (with the possible exception of typos) will have consequences somewhere else in the text (either semantically or grammatically).

Take this post, for instance: have you noticed a missing comma in the first sentence? If it were there, would that sentence be the same?
That is the question.

Saying a lot… yet talking a little

I’m going to (have to, respectfully) suggest that talking a lot is NOT a virtue.
Or a quality.
Or a talent.
Not even an aptitude.
That’s because talking a lot bores people.
To death.
I do have to say this again: talking a lot is boring. Very. Says things about the talker which he or she would certainly not like to hear said out loud.
Same happens in writing: one of the biggest crimes in text is long-winded, redundant ballast (and am still not sure whether I’m emphasising this quite enough).
Anyway, to make a loooooooong story short, the Plain English Campaign has a lot of examples for our delight. Please do read them all.
Here’s one, just to stimulate an appetite:


If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.


If you have any questions, please phone.

p harbourThe point is: have mercy on your reader’s soul (or they shall have none on yours)! Long syntax says, often, very little, and it’s rather sublime at showing how hollow it all is.
The virtue is in concision. That is where the talent lies (and most certainly so in academic writing).
Also, concise expression makes for a greater impact: the shorter something is, the harder it hits! Think film: Pearl Harbour is 3 looooong (and painful) hours. 183 minutes*, to be exact. Yet, the bombing raid scene is a mere 13 minutes or so! With a lot of bang! Clever.
Short and to the point (literally, mind you)!
I hear it’s a stand-alone masterpiece.

*That’s a whole lot of minutes. Aging. Slowly.

July 01, 2015

WR iting GO od

What’s, then, writing “good”? The final subject of the Academic Writing Series talks about how not to write (you get the allusion).

In simplest terms, this:

_Technological aspirations and CGI-ed aberrations, this rancorous dyad, to be precise, embracing those oblique meanderings of a psyche left to toil for the fading laurels of monetary centrism which may or may not ever surface pragmatically, must bring a plea of reverberating forgiveness to all those hurt and torn earthly hearts bleeding in their smoking tracks of illusory ontological advancement. _

...becomes “good” if re-written (read “translated”) as: Modern technology owes ecology an apology. (as Mr Alan M. Eddison once told us)

In more serious terms, I meet so many students from various institutional cultures who have been “raised” with the belief that the more complicated your vocabulary and expression are, the more intelligent your writing and content must be. How do I respond to this, politely?


Writing produced in such mentality is plain and simple…stupid. And (worse) incredibly arrogant.
Simplicity is THE key for access to ideas. Not to be confused with simplism... yet, that’s another discussion.

Think of the following example!


Question: the object in the picture is…?

-an earth moving apparatus
-a soil management device
-a principle utilised to separate components of material origins
-a methodological concept devised to teach harmonious integration with nature
- hang on, it looks like a spade, it feels like a spade, it moves like a spade, so it’s a spade!
A SPADE !!!!

Something to consider: the more you augment expression (i.e the way in which you say things), the more you dilute the actual meaning. So, remember the spade!

As Maggie, one of this Programme’s former lecturers put it, the reasons to write well start here: it will not only be useful in getting a better mark on assignments, in future it will also invaluable!

o -communicating well (in order to get the girl/ guy of your dreams)
o -organising ideas (in order to persuade other to your point of view)
o -expressing self (in order to get a raise at work)

If in doubt, keep the following rules at hand and hold them to be always true: o2

George Orwell’s rules for good writing:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language, London. 1946. (which is not the all-animals-are-born-equal-only-some-are-more-equal-than-others one)

WR iting BA d

..and yet none bad-er than this:

Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self). This is the real exteriority of the absolute outside: the reality of the absolutely unconditioned absolute outside univocally predicated of the dark: the light univocally predicated of the darkness: the shining of the light univocally predicated of the limit of the darkness: actuality univocally predicated of the other of self-identity: existence univocally predicated of the absolutely unconditioned other of the self. The precision of the shining of the light breaking the dark is the other-identity of the light. The precision of the absolutely minimum transcendence heisenbergof the dark is the light itself/the absolutely unconditioned exteriority of existence for the first time/the absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in “self-alienation,” not “self-identity, itself in self-alienation” “released” in and by “otherness,” and “actual other,” “itself,” not the abysmal inversion of the light……

D.G. Leahy, Foundation: Matter the Body Itself, State University of New York Press, 1996 (Honest, hand on heart this is real!...Yo!)

We find a view on this from Athalya Brenner (although nothing, nothing at all, could “wash” the sins of the above), denouncing the ills of academic style when distorted (in rather grotesque shapes) by the so-called expectations>

Scholarly discourse, especially written scholarly discourse, has a certain format. It is supposed to be factual and dry, “objective,” or at least relatively clean of personal influence. It is supposed to contain extensive references to previous and current chains of learning. It is supposed to ignore political (in the wider sense of the term) realities. It is supposed to display the writer’s knowledge to advantage. Notes are expected, and the more the better, so that a text and a subtext run concurrently. A certain degree of originality is demanded, even when it is the result of hair-splitting, but it should not come at the expense of “depth.” Literary style, when too personal, is frowned upon. A clear distinction is made between “literary” discourse and academic or scholarly discourse. And thus, and increasingly so, academic/scholarly so-called research, in its written forms, is becoming more and more boring and less and less aesthetically pleasing.
Athalya Brenner, I Am…Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories, 2005

RIRO, anyone?

Acronyms: most seem to like ‘em, it would seem.
What’s RIRO, then? It’s one of these:

RIRO Right In, Right Out (at an intersection)
RIRO Rubbish In Rubbish Out (computer jargon)
RIRO Respiration Induced Resonance Offset (is that…medical? We shall hope so.)
RIRO Repairable Item Replacement Option
RIRO Repair Item Replacement Option

The one I’m referring to is the RIRO used in computer language. It refers to input bad / poor data which can only result in a bad/poor computer program.
Although it is rare for me (to be tempted) to quote from scientific wisdom, I must admit that same philosophy applies (perfectly) to writing: if we write rubbish on paper, the reader’s comments are likely to reflect precisely that.

Perhaps a follow-up to previous post…but I happen to like this acronym enough to give it own “post” status.

Did I forget to provide an example…well, let’s:

As my story is an august tale of fathers and sons, real and imagined, the biography here will fitfully attend to the putative traces in Manet’s work of “les noms du père,” a Lacanian romance of the errant paternal phallus (”Les Non-dupes errent”), a revised Freudian novella of the inferential dynamic of paternity which annihilates (and hence enculturates) through the deferred introduction of the third term of insemination the phenomenologically irreducible dyad of the mother and child.

(that would be Steven Z. Levine, Twelve Views of Manet’s “Bar ”, apparently)

PS It’s July! Another academic year over. Summer. Tropically hot today, @ staggering British 30 degrees (Celsius, must stipulate). 37 at Heathrow, hotter than Spain, they say. One of those rare life moments where you might be forgiven for believing in global warming in…England. Am sure it will be over in a few minutes.

June 30, 2015

The difference between what you say and what you write…. is that semantics, or…?

I remember the case of an UG student at my previous university (UEA) who walked in during my tutor’s hours with an essay I’d given 45 or 48, I think. Poor, in any case. Badly written, certainly.
Anyway, the student felt that I’d missed some merits of his work and asked me this (imagine, if you will, a drum roll):
Yes, I know my writing is bad, but what about what I’m saying?

Ah, well… there is NO difference. None. What you’re saying can only take the shape of how you’ve written it…. which is all that your examiner can access. Nothing more, nothing less. In other words: what you’re saying IS what you’ve written. What you’ve written (and submitted) is precisely what you’re saying.
Now, portray this (for what’s theory without an example?): a Mediterranean summer morning, crisp breaking of waves all to be savoured from the company of a breakfast abundant with ripest grapes, reddest tomatoes known to man, apples to make eve blush and coffee that only Italians can make. You get the idea…
So, let’s serve it like this:

old food

How will you rate that? Your reader, you see, is not inside your head.

The simple secret for constructing th perfect semantics in writing comes from Dr Seuss: I meant what I said and I said what I meant.

June 2021

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