Tag Archives: models

Introducing the hard stuff

My class this quarter has gotten used to us talking about the “topography” of any piece of writing. It seems to be a helpful word in many situations, but now I want to discuss the varying levels (or altitudes) of difficulty as one moves through the landscape of the text. Sometimes the writing is hard, and sometimes it’s got to be easy (or the reader will give up). This variation is mandatory in public science writing, but you might be kind enough to give your readers a break in your academic writing, too.

In his (public-focused but pretty difficult) 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolksy writes these two paragraphs as part of the introduction to an early chapter:

This chapter is one of the book’s anchors. The brain is the final common pathway, the conduit that mediates the influences of all the distal factors to be covered in the chapters to come. What happened an hour, a decade, a million years earlier? What happened were factors that impacted the brain and the behavior it produced.

This chapter has two major challenges. The first is its god-awful length. Apologies; I’ve tried to be succinct and nontechnical, but this is foundational material that needs to be covered. Second, regardless of how nontechnical I’ve tried to be, the material can overwhelm someone with no background in neuroscience. To help with that, please wade through appendix 1 around now.

(pp. 21-2)

Notice several things here:

1. He offers “metacommentary” that communicates these messages: “What I’m about to say is important.” “This is complicated, but I’m doing my best to make it as easy and clear as possible.” “If you have not taken neuroscience, then go read Appendix 1.”

2. He offers motivating questions for this section: “how does the brain work?” and “how did the brain get the way it is?”

3. That last question is attached to the book’s overall argument in that first paragraph above: he is trying to explain all the factors that go into our behavior, factors that are immediately present and factors that happened long ago. If you’re going to make readers work hard at something, they need to know that there’s a really important reason for them to do so!

4. He uses numbers. Imagine that second paragraph without the numbers, and you will be seeing a less clear paragraph. It’s very satisfying for readers to know exactly how many ideas they are about to get, and then to tick them off. “Two. Okay: One, Two. Done!”

5. He uses the word “distal.” I probably would have avoided that. I had to look it up. It basically means “distant,” but it’s more specific to anatomy.

If you actually go read the rest of Sapolky’s book, you’ll see him describing the way that our emotional experience influences our intellectual decisions. If your readers get frustrated—especially if they think that this is more your fault than theirs—then they are going to be less likely to make positive evaluation. Their emotions, not just logic, will influence their decisions.

Key words in key spots; paragraphs as musical movements

My class depends  on students bringing in and showing us models, and one student brought in “A Wideband Frequency-Shift Keying Wireless Link for Inductively Powered Medical Implants” by Maysam Ghovanloo and Khalil Najafi (IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems, 51.12, Dec 2004). The full title is here so you can access it yourself (I’d be happy to discuss these writers’ decisions in more detail with you), but I’ve tried to include examples of the two key features mentioned above so that you do not have to go find it yourself.

Key Words in Key Spots

Notice that the authors do not start with data and power transmission via inductive coupling alone. Since they are so intent upon biomedical implants, this idea goes into the first sentence of the introduction, too:

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Note that the sentence begins with “an inductive link” and ends with “prostheses”–both key words, and in the two prime spots in the sentence. Remember that the beginning and end of a sentence are the “prime real estate.”

And later, the first sentence of the last paragraph of the introduction reminds readers of these two important components of the article, (1) increasing bandwidth via the inductive method of FSK, and (2) using this to make biomedical prosthesis work better:

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Again, “FSK” is in one prime position, and “prostheses” is in the other.

Paragraphs as musical movements

The second and third paragraphs of the introduction are very clear, step-by-step discussions/explanations that boil down the problem to these authors’ point of attack. Here’s paragraph two:

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Notice how this paragraph moves from “need large amounts of data” to “a minimum of 625-1000 pixels” to specific numbers of bits in the stimulation commands, to how many bits per command frame, to  how many of those there are, to one piece of good news about lowering the required data rate, to the obvious conclusion that a high data rate is needed. It’s like the paragraph is reaching a crescendo in a musical piece, with one softening part near the end, and then a loud, loud final sentence.

Paragraph 3 does something similar with the data rates that have been achieved so far, although the data rate seems to be getting softer/lower as we add the costs/trade-offs, and then it ends with a strong determination to do better/the goal:

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If you are a musician, or if you just like to listen to music, then thinking about paragraphs as short movements in a musical composition might help you structure them so that they come across more powerfully.

An addition, to underline the importance of key words in key spots:

The American Scholar has a list of what it calls “the ten best sentences.” Here’s one, with the reasons that Roy Peter Clark gave for why it’s great:

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.—Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms”

Donald Murray used to preach the 2-3-1 rule of emphasis.  Place the least emphatic words in the middle.  The second most important go at the beginning.  The most important nails the meaning at the end.  Hemingway offers a version of that here. A metaphor of flowing water is framed by two abstractions Anger and Obligation.  That fact that the metaphor is drawn from the action of the narrative makes it more effective.

Go read Edward Tufte’s books

These are not books you read in the normal way. They don’t offer lists of rules for visually displaying evidence. Instead, these books  beautifully reproduce and evaluate examples of graphs, tables, charts, diagrams, maps, “sparklines” (You’ll have to go find out what that means!), and more. They show examples from centuries of people–such as Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Matisse, Richard Feynman, etc– trying to communicate their ideas clearly and beautifully.

Tufte also argues that producing visual representations of our ideas makes those ideas clearer to us, too. In other words–just as writing is thinking–sketching and drafting and moving visual elements around on the page are analytical tools. I can vouch for this myself. I went to Tufte’s day-long seminar last Friday, and I’ve been able to reconceive and clarify for myself the ideas in an article I finished writing two years ago but about which I am just now creating a poster. I thought I was pretty familiar with the ideas in my own completed article, and yet the sketches (and even watercolors!) have made me see the ideas more clearly and in ways that will make them much easier to talk about.


(The image shows Galileo’s sketch of the changing positions of Jupiter’s moons from one night to the next.)

Drama in an EE paper

I will first not-completely-but-somewhat-jokingly say that this article’s first author is a past student of EE 295, so of course he’d be doing lovely things with his writing! (I will add that he was a good writer when he started in EE 295, and that his advisor’s students are often excellent writers. The advisor is the third author on this paper. A culture of good writing, of valuing writing, seems to develop in some labs.)

This July 2015 article is “Variable-Length Convolutional Coding for Short Blocklengths With Decision Feedback” by Adam R. Williamson, Tsung-Yi Chen, and Richard D. Wesel. Since it is so recent, I will only photograph one short excerpt from the text, although somewhat more will be cited and described.

Drama is developed from the first sentence, when the authors write something along the lines, of “Although the founding father of our field found that feedback was not useful for x, feedback can be used for other purposes”:

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If that’s not dramatic, then what is? It’s dramatic when an important figure in the field is right, or wrong, or just missed noticing something important.

The way that Einstein’s thoughts on the cosmological constant have been cited and argued for and against is perhaps similar. He was right. He was wrong. (Maybe there we even some other back-and-forths, and certainly there were many amendments.) Then, a January 2013 Scientific American called “Right Again, Einstein!” starts, “A new study of one of the universe’s fundamental constants casts doubt on a popular theory of dark energy” (Moskowitz). Almost three years later (Sept 2015), “What Einstein Got Wrong” in that same magazine begins: “Like all people, Albert Einstein made mistakes, and like many physicists he sometimes published them” (Krauss). There’s something exciting and important about great thinkers having limitations, even if they might just be limitations caused by the moment of time in which they lived, and the development of their fields at that moment.

The extensive literature review of the Williamson et al. paper tells a story, too. It’s chronological: this idea was developed, and then that, and then this other one went further. It’s also got characters; the researchers are listed by their names, rather than the papers being listed by reference numbers. Once there are names, some intellectual drama can be introduced: all these authors did stuff in reaction to the work that came before: one name does “pioneering work,” another “formalizes it” or “demonstrates” something else, or “furthers” or “extends” the work. Others “study” or “show” or “provide an overview.” It’s complicated, but there are a lot of people doing stuff, cooperating even, and that’s interesting and appealing.

Storytelling Elements in EE Writing: Personification

My students give me at least as much homework as I give them.

In yesterday’s class, the elements of storytelling were doubted to be of importance in technical writing, or even academic engineering writing. So I’m looking for examples.

Here’s one, in the first article I brought up on my screen, an award-winning June 2000 article by Vítor H. Nascimento and Ali H. Sayed, “On the Learning Mechanisms of Adaptive Filters.”

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Notice the way that adaptive filters are personified in their introduction. They “adjust themselves to an ever-changing environment,” they have a “learning curve,” a “learning process,” and “learning capabilities.” An adaptive filter “reacts.” They are like humans or other species adapting to a habitat.

After seeming to personify adaptive filters, Nascimento and Sayed develop a nurturing relationship with them. The next paragraph of the introduction reads:

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Nurturing in their readers a warm feeling for adaptive filters, the authors say that “special care” must be taken with them (as with human children). “Interpreting learning curves” might be much more mathematical when it comes to adaptive filters, but these authors “care” for the slow and fast learners both, and, like a supportive and patient kindergarten teacher, they believe that slow learners end up “’smarter’” than they appear at first.

Close Reading Gabor

If you bought the EE 295 Sketchbook, then you can (if you choose) review topics such as the types of sentences (simple, compound, complex, and compound complex), the ways good paragraphs are put together (with thesis or topic sentences, moving from simpler sentences to more complex ones and then back, and with coherence), and even the ways that sentences can be written to connect to one another helpfully within paragraphs (“connectivity”). Reading for the authors’ rhetorical choices is a new way of seeing, but I think it’s one of the most useful skills to improve your writing over your whole career.

One other thing to take into account, since we’ll be looking at introductory paragraphs, is that the beginning of a journal article tends to establish common ground, state a problem, and explain the writer’s response.

With all that in mind, let’s look at some examples from journal articles in the field.

Gabor’s classic article, “The Theory of Communication” (1946), starts like this:

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Notice, of course, how the very first paragraph is straightforward: “the purpose of this study” and the organization of the article are immediately specified. The first sentence is long, but it is just a simple sentence: the purpose is to present a method. All the rest are added phrases. The second sentence is complex, but it’s not a difficult one to figure out. There’s a dependent clause (starting with “while”) and then the main, independent clause.

The second paragraph then moves to one of the main goals of any introduction: establishing common ground. But what else does Gabor achieve here? The paragraph reads as as a short, short review article. This works to establish the writer’s authority. And it’s orderly; it’s a chronological story of how one idea develops off of another. After the first sentence or two, every other one begins with a time period. Usually the main subject is the researcher. Then there are specific and varied verbs: “disproved,” “discovered,” generalized.”

And let me emphasize that it’s a story, a narrative, which is an easy way for readers to process information. The engineers become characters in this story, which make the story easier to understand than if the subjects of the sentences were the inanimate “principles,” “claims,” and “convictions.”

Notice that the first two sentences do start with these inanimate subjects, and this is probably to establish the subject of the whole paragraph: principles of transmission. Notice, too, that the paragraph ends with these words, too; the final sentence contains both “transmitted” and “transmission.” It’s hard to get too far off track when reading this paragraph.

I’ll look at other paragraphs from other articles in future posts.