Thursday, May 10, 2018

ngram Shenanigans

Despite growing concerns about the attention economy[1], I love two Google innovations with untainted passion: Google maps and the ngram.[2]

You see, since Google has all the books - like, seriously, all of them - they are in a unique position for cultural data mining.  The beauty of the ngram is that it exposes the capability.  The ngram allows users to test historical hypotheses about cultural trends by computing time series of word occurrence.

In other words, you can plot the relative-frequency of terms or vocabulary through two centuries of texts and then make wild speculations[3] about the cultural trends behind those plots. 

For example, vampires have always been more popular than zombies:

There was a brief, single decade spike in vampire interest in the mid 19th century…and a recent phenomena that blew them up…though I can’t imagine what that would be.

Zombies on the other hand are a twentieth century monster, rising up in the wake of each world war.[4]  But the thing I like about the Zombie plot is that it is slowly and steadily creeping up…you know…like a zombie.

In a future post[5] I will use these to test some linguistic hypotheses that Robert Nisbet made in 1953.  But this is not that post…this post is the confluence of the many interests explored in this space, and this analytical tool.

So now that you know how these work, here are a few more.


First, I often use this one when I explain my work at conferences or public meetings:

Dam building in Europe and North America peaked in the early 20-th century.[6]  But as they built at the best sites and our understanding of the ecological impacts grew, we stopped.  But dams also trap sediment, which fills the reservoirs.  So, about 80 years after the dam peak, interest in sediment follows a similar trend.


I know that the name “Stanford” peaked in the 20’s and the railroad magnate is in play here and the time series is confounded by the university…but I can’t parse the strands of those influences here:


I don’t feel like I need to add commentary here...


Also…without further comment.

…and rescaling contentment:


The ngram also weighs in on the religious illiteracy of our information institutions.  They use words like “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” as if they were interchangeable[7] and recent, with self-evident referents.  I’d suggest that any pundit who can’t explain the time series in this plot should probably educate themselves a little before the start throwing around religious labels:

Though, I suppose it would be fair to counter that many American Christians don’t know our heritage enough to parse these threads either.


All the major theological vocabulary are down. Church and worship follow the same trend on larger scales.
This should surprise no one, given secularizing trends and that devotional and theological texts composed a higher proportion of literature in the nineteenth century.  But a couple theological terms work against the trend, suggesting that certain emphases of twentieth century American Christianity are novel[8], and maybe not native to our belief system.


Speaking of innovations, I’d be lying if I said I expected this:


But this was pretty predictable[9]

…as was this[10]


… lightning round…


And finally…

This post was “written” to the soundtrack of the Civil Wars Pandora Station

[1] I may do a post on this…and baseball…but for now:  I’ve been influenced a lot by Simone Weil who advocated for dull activities in our educational process for two reasons:  1) learning to sustain attention* is far more important than acquiring content for children and young adults.**  Everything good comes from the compounding interest on sustained attention.  But, more importantly, 2) attention is the raw material of love, which makes it the active ingredient in relationships and worship. 

So, an industry that competes for attention is a particularly pernicious “tragedy of the commons,” monetizing our most important resource.  And yes, I have switched my phone to black and white permanently.  Try it for one day and see if it doesn’t divest that thing of some of its illicit power.

But this isn’t my technology lament…this is a celebration of some of the beauty that can also come from that ferment.

*my favorite Weil quote goes something like “attention is the purest form of generosity”
**and not-so-young adults if our own educational experience did not help us train our attention

[2] Both of these are underrated.  I realize it is difficult to believe that google maps are underrated…but adding historical maps makes maps an unprecedented tool for fluvial geomorphologists and forensic contaminant engineers (fields I work or have worked in).  But I cannot believe I haven’t seen more ngrams in TED talks or tweets or other forms of multi-sensory speech.

[3] These trends are confounded by many data artifacts, mostly sample size non-stationarity.  Random preservation bias and directional preservation bias affect the early record disproportionately.  I’d expect both variability and uncertainty to be high earlier in the time series and potentially skewed by surviving texts…and also texts Googlers* deemed worthy of pursuing.

*I have so many thoughts about this word since I just finished Lazlo Bock’s book.  But I’ll leave them on the table.

[4] Born out of the ashes of the expectation of monotonic progress and the false hope of pax-tencologica.  Zombies are dystopic in a way vampires aren’t, and often have a culture-scale morality-tale built into their narratives, while vampires feature individual-scale morality-tales.

[5] Which I can only promise because it started as part of this one and is complete.

[6] For the one or two folks who are hydro-minded…the joke that always works here in water crowds is something like…”the dam time series is shaped like a hydrograph, with a steep rising limb and a gradual receding limb…and the sediment time series is the same hydrograph, with an 80 year translation time.”  I know…I’m hilarious.

[7] And even religion non-specific.  “Fundamentalism” is a specific movement of early 20-th century American Christianity, but the religious categories of our information economy are such blunt instruments that it gets foisted on Muslims in the Middle East and Iran and Hindus in India.  

[8] Like Jazz and baseball dispensationalism is an American innovation and export.

[9] Happiness follows the same trend as joy, just steeper…but I find joy to be a much more useful idea, and frankly, was surprised at the happiness trend.

[10] “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”  Pascal - Penses

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Top 10 Study Tips

This week I’m giving a talk on cultivating ‘tenacious curiosity,’ which makes a case from the book of Daniel that studying hard, even when the work is tedious or dull, can be part of Jesus following, God loving, faithfulness. 

It may or may not have included a clip from everyone's favorite song about Ashurbanipal.

The talk focused on the ‘why’, of taking studies seriously, but did not expand on the ‘how’.

I have no formal training on pedagogy.   But I have studied a lot, so I thought I’d pass along the results of my anecdotal experience.

Here are my thoughts on how to discipline curiosity and thrive academically in undergrad:

1.  Understand the Concept of Flow and the Value of Momentum.

Momentum is the currency of all creative work.  Whether you are writing a paper, or solving a problem set, or generating a lab report, or learning a language, 90, consecutive, undistracted minutes are much more valuable than 90 minutes interspersed with 30, or 60, or 90 minutes of ‘study breaks.’  

Creativity isn’t magical or mysterious.  Our brains are wonderful and even mystical organs, but they can be trained.  Creativity inhabits a mental space psychologists call ‘flow.’ The key to productivity in and after college is to learn how to create and sustain flow.

2. Create Sustained Undistracted Time Windows

The environment for flow is a substantial, but tractable, block of undistracted time.[1]  I think for most people it generally works best if it is in a regular, predictable time and space.   

Predictability and structure may seem like the opposite of the conditions for creativity, but creativity is a discipline not an emotion.  

If you learn to create a habitat for creativity, it will become a regular companion.  Buy a timer,[2] set it for 60 minutes at first, then 90, then 120 and, don’t go online or check e-mail.   See if you don’t learn to create and sustain momentum.

3. Track Your Time and Budget Your Hours

How many hours a week do you study?  If you don’t know the answer to that question ±3 hours you are probably working reactively rather than proactively.  Time is a commodity, and if you are going to spend it wisely, you need to budget it.  Here’s my recommendation:

i. Lay out a week in your favorite medium (graph paper, calendar, Excel, dragon skin and the blood of a newt,[3] medium doesn’t really matter).[4] 

ii. Subtract a healthy amount of sleep. If I was to make one change in the many regrettable study practices of my undergrad, I’d sleep more.[5] 

iii. Then block out the non-negotiable activities that are ‘above the line,’ activities that you prioritize before academics.  For me, in undergrad, it was church, participation in Intervarsity large and small groups, and, in my senior year, a Saturday date with my girlfriend.[6]  For some this will include exercise, close friendships, a sport or club.  With the rising costs of school, for more and more students, this includes non-trivial hours, working to pay the bills.  If video games or television are non-negotiable, budget a reasonable (and I would argue, a reasonably brief) time for them, and then stick to the budget.  Sabbath is a good principle here.  Make time for rest[7] and protect it. 

iv. Then find the blocks of time for work and study.  Mark some in stone as non-negotiable, the same time and place where you are not likely to be interrupted by friends or internet, and make others flexible in time and place, experimenting with what is most conducive to flow…but assess that critically and don’t self-deceive.[8]

v. Whatever you are doing, be fully present.[9]  Don’t watch Netflix during study time.  Don’t worry about the test while you are enjoying time with friends.  Just like with money, if you make a budget and stick to it, it not only keeps you from wasting the resource, it makes enjoying the part set aside for fun guilt free.

4. Find a Study Group for Problem Set Classes

This one is particular to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math).  A good study group can be hit or miss in the humanities, social sciences and even the descriptive sciences.  They can sometimes waste more time than they save for reading, essay exam, discussion, and term paper based classes.  But for classes based on problem sets (Math, Physics, Chem…) find a study group, or make one.  The best study groups meet at the same time each week to tackle a regular problem set, early enough before it is due so that you can each visit office hours to get help on problems that you get stuck on.

It is ideal if there is someone else in the group as good or better than you at problem solving.  Often if there is at least someone of your caliber in the group, you will figure out different problems or different parts of the same problem, saving time.  But a study group is valuable in STEM even if you are the strongest performer in the group.  As long as the others don’t simply copy your work, if they solve the same problem even with your approach, they can verify your solution independently (or catch mistakes).

5. Go to Class…Always…and Early

Class is the best use of your study time.  There is no better return-on-investment for your time than going to lecture.  The time cost of reconstructing the material from a class is almost always much too high to make missing  class worth it, even if you have a test in your next class.
Also, if you get to class 5-10 minutes early and review the previous class’ notes, you will get more than 5-10 minutes of value from that time, because it is close enough to the first introduction to plant it more firmly in your memory, and because it will help you understand the new material (that will, presumably, build on it).

6. Notes > Text

This might not be true for English, but in all the STEM classes I took, and most of the liberal arts classes, the professor was far more interested in what he or she told me than what the book had to say.  In many cases the professor has forgotten what was in the book.  I have a very close friend whose GPA jumped a full point when she stopped spending all her time reading the text and really metabolized the notes. 

Granted, this is a tip for grad chasing rather than learning, but it is best if your learning manifests as grades, and your time is limited.

And while we are talking about grade optimization rather than learning, the best thing you can do for your grades is to read the syllabus, carefully, paying attention to the percentages, and apportioning your effort accordingly.

7. Stop Telling Yourself You Work Best Under Pressure…Seriously, Just Stop

“I work best under pressure” is self deception.  Work under a deadline is rushed and unreflective.  What you are experiencing ‘counterfeit flow’ is a truncated version creative productivity that comes from finally giving yourself a small, sad, exhausted block of undistracted time.  But you would have had the same experience, only sharper and more productive and more creative, if you had given yourself the same block of time a week earlier, in the morning or mid-day.  

Necessity is the friend of productivity but the enemy of creativity.

You might work fastest under pressure, but real learning requires time to reflect, and creativity is a middle-distance race not a sprint.[10]  You are most productive when you capture a state of flow (see #1) which usually requires regular, predictable setting of undistracted time.

8. Work While You Aren’t Working…By Working Ahead

Most creative work happens when you aren’t actively working.  While you are eating or exercising or at a job or talking with friends…shoot, I once dreamed the solution to a physics problem.  But you can only take advantage of the ‘work when you aren’t working’ phenomenon if you start early enough to have the basic ideas you are working on in the cognitive hopper for a while before the deadline.[11]

If you have a paper outline in your head, you will fill it out while you walk to class, then when you sit down to work, momentum is close at hand.

9. Ask Yourself “Why Did my Professor Find this Subject Interesting Enough to Dedicate her Life To It?” and Then Try to Contract the Virus.

Your professor dedicated her life to this topic.  At one time or another she found it that inspiring.  Surely there is enough beauty and value in there for you to squeeze 4 quarter credits of attention out of it.  And if your professor is seriously done, like out to tenure pasture done, long past inspiring anyone, then try to figure out what is so enchanting about the topic that your TA is committing her future to it.

You don’t have to make the topic your vocation, but you’ll have a lot more energy for the quarter if you find the secret to their passion.

10. Experiment with Academic Generosity.

I’m convinced that generosity is the most powerful prescription for worry and discontent.[12]  The problem is that we generally think of generosity in terms of money, and undergrads have none of that…in fact, given the loan situation, most undergrads actually have negative money.

But the most precious resources in undergrad are time and GPA. 

Experimenting with academic generosity, giving time and donating insight when your time and insight can make the difference for someone else.  This will deconstruct the competitive power of the academic life.

So that is my eccentric, anecdotal top 10.   

I also reached out to some of my professor friends to ask them.  I posted my friend Prof. Rich's, Prof. Teresa's, and Prof. George's thoughts in the comments and rolled Prof. Tiffany's thoughts into a second post here.

This post was written while listening to In the Aeroplane Over The Sea[14] by Neutral Milk Hotel

[1] I have a friend who used to work in increments of ‘one laptop battery’ (which used to be just over two hours).  For him, that enough time to achieve flow, but stopped  for a break before the point of diminishing returns.
[2] Like a real, life, physical timer.  Don’t rely on an internet timer, because you want to be going to the internet as little as possible.
[3] Actually, dragons are apex predators, so even in an imaginary world, commoditizing their pelt is probably morally dubious, and if you are handling dead newts, be aware that the contain one of the most toxic neruo toxins in the animal kingdom.  Maybe better to go with a moleskin and a pen…or at least sheep hide and frog blood.
[4] I use software for this, but I’ve had friends tell me that is weird
[5] The sleep deficit I ran made me exhausted in class, so even though I was there, I had to re-learn the material and had horrible notes, and when I tried to work, I was too tired to be creative.  It is a psychological reality.  You are more creative when you are well rested.  Red bull does not provide the same brain chemicals as sleep…espresso does not consolidate and reinforce neural pathways.  Sleep is part of learning.
[6] My now, wife.  This was the best investment I made in undergrad.
[7] Rest gets confused with as entertainment.  In your very limited non-work time, make sure to actively choose activities that are life giving.
[8] If you don’t have enough time in iv, revisit iii and your definition of ‘non-negotiable,’ or lower your academic expectations and be cognoscente of the future costs of that decision.
[9] This was my friend Tiffany’s approach to her first year of Grad School at a top 5 English program (where she measured the reading she had to do that year in meters).  I stole it, and it has served me well.
[10] I think the ‘marathon-not-a-sprint’ metaphor is overused and mostly inaccurate.  If an all nighter is a sprint, by simple temporal upscaling, writing a paper carefully and reflectively over the course of 2 weeks is a middle distance race, something like an 800m or a 1600m.  Nothing in the quarter system is a marathon, but it’s also better if it’s not a series of sprints either.
[11] This may seem to contradict my advice to ‘be fully wherever you are’ but it doesn’t really.  The ‘be fully present’ principle is about worry and distraction.  If you have learned why your topic is fundamentally interesting or even beautiful, thinking about it recreationally does not violate the boundaries of Sabbath.
[12] I actually did a talk about this.
[13] I have reached out to some of my professor friends to provide a few thoughts of their own.
[14] It was also written IN an aroplane, somewhere over Nevada.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Qh6+!!: An Advent Reflection on the World Chess Championship

Apparently a dramatic world chess championship blows up my twitter feed.  That might tell you something about me or twitter or both, but probably nothing you didn’t already know.  

In the recent championship a pair of 27 year olds played to a 6-6 tie, pushing the contest to (I kid you not) a speed round.  Defending champion Magnus[1] Carlsen appeared to be on the ropes against the crafty Russian in a final, 25 minute match.

Then the internet lit up.  Every post included six cryptic characters: Qh6+!![2]

Magnus Carlsen not only won, but had won in startlingly sublime fashion.  Everyone agreed.

Here’s the problem.

I couldn’t see it. 

I stared at the final board, sure he’d given the game away.

He slid an unprotected Queen into a space where his opponent could easily take her…two different, and apparently costless, ways.

Now, I was once a competent recreational chess player.  I was never in the tournament “scene” but I was undefeated in my high school chess club senior year, including a “celebrated” win against a teacher.[3]  I once got a parking ticket in front of the Watertown public library because I lost track of time reading a book on chess openings.[4]  My nerd cred is pretty tight.

But as I starred at winning move, I only saw a colossal blunder.  I knew it wasn’t.  The Russian[5] conceded before Magnus took his hand off the move.  The masters saw something I didn’t.  To me, the decisive blow that ensured victory - the creative stroke that blew up (a particularly nerdy corner of) the internet - looked like an error my 5 year old committed in his first game.[6]

Duh, the pawn can take the queen.

Or the king for that matter.

Not only did I see a senseless queen sacrifice, I saw impending defeat.  The Russian was just one move away from his own victory.  He simply needs to slide that rook-backed Queen one space[7] to clinch the match. 

One commentator summarized the position like this:
Karjakin threatened no less than four checkmates, and there’s no way Carlsen could have sidestepped them all. The only problem for the Russian: It was Carlsen’s move.[8]

The move: Qh6+!!

I had to set up the board and work scenarios for maybe 8 minutes to figure out how Qh6+!! won the game.  To my amateur eye, the master stroke that ensured victory looked like a colossal blunder.

A couple weeks later[9] it occurred to me: the first Christmas was like Qh6.

God’s decisive victory presents as weakness. 

Like the queen sacrifice, the incarnation is such a heedless invasion of enemy territory, such a reckless act of regal self-donation, that at first glance it looks foolish.

The sheer scale of the apparent error might mystify casual onlookers, God going all in[10] on an infant incarnation.  But those who understood, the angels and the shepherds, messengers cosmic and very very terrestrial, wizards walking west and eccentric temple hermits, those who saw it for what it was, nodded knowingly.  They gasped, not with horror, but with delight.[11]

They saw the victory secured. 

God’s plan for human redemption, wrapped in poo soiled swaddles, under the shadow of Roman oppression, into the mess of our ingenuity for injury, looks like a colossal blunder…like Qh6.  It is a bold royal invasion, but it leaves the Prince of Peace vulnerable and exposed and unprotected.  And we know how the story goes.  The move requires royal sacrifice.  It ends with self-donation.

Except that’s not how it actually ends.

Christmas is a master stroke, so startling and sublime that it looked like defeat…until it didn’t.

The angels and shepherds gasp at its beauty and brilliance.

And in the fleeting moments, amidst the falling leaves and downtown lights, when the story behind the story behind the story of Christmas really dawns on do I.

Luke 1:18+!!

This post was written while listening to Through The Deep, Dark Valley by The Oh Hellos.[12]

[1] The best chess name ever.

[2] Seriously, the whole internet, maybe you were doing something else at that exact moment.

[3] I played soccer in the fall and ran track in the spring and used to tell people chess is my winter sport.

[4] Can you believe the founder and president of the chess club had a social calendar that afforded him time to read chess books?

[5] He only had 10 second, he was down to the incremental move time which was 10 seconds a move.  He needed none of them.

[6] The UC Davis chess club sometimes sets up boards during the farmer’s market, which is just one of the many delightful things about my town.  They taught me my favorite strategy for playing chess with children (without throwing the game, which I just can’t do…not just morally – it models bad chess and undermines the pedagogy).  They played for a little while, until the expert had a clear advantage, and then, switched sides and played some more until the other side gained an advantage, and then switched again.  The final switch came when the expert was within a few moves of check mate, and could coach the beginner through it.

[7] Or down…

[8] My favorite line from this slate article describe the “somewhat unusual mating patterns” of the two rooks…which is the sort of thing I’d expect to hear about in an ecology seminar, not a chess blog.*

*Speaking of mating chess pieces (a clause that has never been written and never should have been), my buddy and I tried a variant of chess in high school where both knights (horses) from one color could occupy the same space, which we called a “breeding” move.  A certain number of moves later, that space sprouted a new knight. 

[9] During a @steveluxa advent sermon.  He laid out a couple evocative illustrations of the incarnation, and it got me thinking of this one.

[10] Theological pun…I’m hilarious.  Turns out puns about the incarnation flirt a little with heresy…but then again, words about the incarnation flirt a little with heresy, that’s the nature of mind bending mystery.

[11] The Slate article describes the move as a “gift” Magnus gave us.  I love that.  This is actually one of the reasons I follow sport.  It is genre art.  Each event is a collaborative making.  Some are tedious or lop sided.  But each holds the potential for transcendence.

[12] OK, I’m a little obsessed.  But if you haven’t heard them, check out their NPR tiny desk concert: