Not To Be Trusted With Knives

{December 17, 2008}   That Must Have Been Messy

From a news story on the CTV website:  Dozens rescued after B.C. gondola tower collapses

Emergency crews evacuated dozens of skiers and snowboarders who were left stranded aboard sagging gondola cars when a support tower collapsed Tuesday.


By 6:15 p.m., all of the passengers had been evacuated, CTV B.C. reported.

The skiers and snowboarders were evacuated?  Ewww!

“Evacuate” means to remove things from.  If you evacuate a town or a building, it means you remove all the people from said town or building.  If you evacuate a gondola car, you remove the skiers and snowboarders from the gondola car.

If you evacuate the skiers and snowboarders, however, it means you are taking their insides out.  Messy.

(Fortunately, no one was seriously injured [although this would undoubtedly have been really scary!], so I feel OK about picking on the incorrect word usage in this news story).

{November 22, 2008}   My First Book!

Just received this in the mail the other day1:


That sounds like an interesting book, yes? I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about prenatal alcohol and bone development?

And wait, what is that there?


That author’s name looks awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Yup, that’s my thesis2, in handy book form!

Back in the summer, this publishing company contacted me about publishing my thesis (which they’d found online). At first I thought it was some sort of scam (like they’d require all my banking account and credit card numbers, my passwords, my PINs, my SIN3 and my first born), but I checked into it and it seemed legit. They are a print-on-demand publisher and if anyone buys it4, I get royalties and I also retain the right to publish up to 80% elsewhere5. You can even buy it from Amazon. For the low, low price of $107.53. Seriously.

1Before I left for my trip. I didn’t have time to blog about it, but did have just enough time to snap the pics.
2Technically, it’s my “doctoral dissertation.” I’ve been given hell for referring to it as a thesis before, but I just can’t bring myself to say “dissertation.” It just sounds so snooty.
3for my non-Canadian readers, that means my “Social Insurance Number.”
4Which I am 99% sure won’t happen.
5And since I’ve already published all of my thesis data in scientific journals, I’m not anticipating being able to re-publish anyway.

{November 20, 2008}   Why I Need This Vacation

I promised that I’d snap a picture of my copy of the grant application that I just submitted. Because I knew you’d never believe me about its ridiculous size.  That is me with just one copy of the grant application1.  We had to submit the original, plus five copies.

Ostensibly, that’s a 13 page proposal.  However, 21 CVs, 15 publications, 3 appendices and many, many pages of administrative stuff added to those 13 pages result in the behemoth you see in the pic.

So, yeah, after months of work on that, I feel I’ve really deserved the few vacation days I’m taking to go to visit my family and to celebrate my neice’s 4th birthday. I’m still not done my marking, but I figure that’s what five hour plane rides are for, right?

Update: I added up the pages, plus all the photocopies, and the grand total what I sent in was 4962 pages. Wow.

1Dr. Beth inserted into photo with grant application to give you a frame of reference to judge size.

OK, I have to say this because it’s been driving me crazy.  The election of the first African-American president is an historic event.  I can’t count how many times I have read and heard in the last two days that it was an historical event.  Now, technically it is true that it was an historical event, in that it occurred in the past. But the people saying/writing this are trying to convey that it was a signficant event in history, not merely an event that occurred prior to today.

Historical means something that happened in the past.  So, yeah, the election of the first African-American president was an historical event because it happened last Tuesday. I also drank a cup of coffee on Tuesday, so that’s an historical event too.

Historic means something that happened in the past that is significant.  Like, say, the election of the first African-American president.    The fact that I drank a cup of coffee on Tuesday, while historical, not so much on the historic.

The American Hertiage Dictionary notes:

Historic and historical have different usages, though their senses overlap. Historic refers to what is important in history: the historic first voyage to the moon. It is also used of what is famous or interesting because of its association with persons or events in history: a historic house. Historical refers to whatever existed in the past, whether regarded as important or not: a minor historical character. Historical also refers to anything concerned with history or the study of the past: a historical novel; historical discoveries. While these distinctions are useful, these words are often used interchangeably, as in historic times or historical times.

But just because they are often used interchangeably doesn’t mean they should be used interchangeably.  People use “it’s” and “its” interchangeably, but that doesn’t make it right!

The only reason I even know the difference between these two1 is because of Grammar Girl’s recent podcast on exactly this topic.  If I hadn’t heard that, I would never have known the difference. But since I do, it’s driving me crazy!


1Historic and historical, not it’s and its. I’ve know the difference between it’s and its for a long, long time. Also, there, their and they’re! And to, too, and two!

{September 3, 2008}   First Day of School

In honour of today being the first day of school1, I decided to share with you some education-related podcasts I’ve listened to/watched lately.

First, up from the Philosophy Bites podcast, I give you M.M. McCabe talking about the Socratic Method.

The Socratic Method is:

a form of philosophical inquiry in which the questioner explores the implications of others’ positions, to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas2

It’s an form of “investigation through dialogue” and one of the key things I take from my reading about the Socratic Method is the reminder that in order to learn anything, you need to first recognize that you don’t already know it!  Typically in our educational system, we make students afraid of saying, “I don’t know,” but really, that’s just the thing we need to say in order to figure out what we need to learn.  When I teach using Problem-Based Learning (a student-centred technique that requires students to determine what is the problem they need to solve, what do they already know that can help them solve the problem, and what do they not know, but need to know, in order to solve the problem), I use Socratic-style questions to help students recognize for themselves what they know and what they don’t (and, in many cases, it turns out that people assume they know something, but once questioned, it turns out that they don’t actually know it!). Although the course I’m teaching this term isn’t PBL, it will be student-centred, involving debates and student-led seminars, so I anticipate using a fair amount of questions to get critical thinking happening. Some of my favourite questions for use in this reals are:

  • how do you know that?
  • how did you come to that conclusion?
  • what is your evidence for that?
  • why?

One time, a student got a bit, shall we say “annoyed” with my questions – students are used to asking the instructor a question and being told the “right answer,” so my always answering a question with a question can bit a bit off-putting3. Exacerbated, the student exclaimed: “Can’t you ever just answer a question without asking another question?!”  To which I replied, “Why do you think I always answer a question with a question? What education benefit might there be to my doing this?”  Hmm… I think I’m starting to see why Socrates was forced to drink hemlock and die because he annoyed the hell out of everyone with his infernal questioning.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Next up is an interesting talk I saw in the TED podcast – Ken Robinson’s talk: “Do Schools Kill Creativity.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Ken Robinson says schools kill creati…“, posted with vodpod

And finally, since I teach nutrition, I give you this clip from the Onion Radio News:

Also, as a scientist, I feel the need to share these Onion Radio News clips:

Here’s to a school year filled with Socratic questioning, creativity and french fries.

1Well, technically yesterday was the first day of school, but the course I teach is on Wednesdays, so today is the first day of school for moi.
2Socratic Method. Wikipedia.
3I always explain why I do what I do when I’m teaching and that usually helps. But it does appear to take some getting used to.

{August 19, 2008}   Wanted: Nutrition Ideas

I’m looking for topics in the area of nutrition that would make for good debates (specifically, topics that have good scientific evidence to support both sides of the argument).

So I thought I’d put it out to the blogoverse – any thoughts?  What controversial topics in nutrition would you want to see debated?

Photo by africankelli on Flickr. CC licence.

{August 7, 2008}   Unpossible

Kalev and I were going for a post-dinner walk around English Bay, eating our post-dinner ice cream from Marble Slab1, when we saw this2:

Me fail English? Thats unpossible!

Me fail English? That's unpossible!

Alternative captions for this photo include:

  • Is it unhumble of me to correct your grammar?
  • This cardboard’s unperfection is its lack of spellcheck.

1Mine, I will hasten to add, was misleadingly called “Double Dark Chocolate” when it really should have been called “regular ol’ chocolate with some bits o’ chocolate in it.” If it had just been called “chocolate,” I would have been fine with it, but the name wrote a cheque that its flavour couldn’t cash.

2If you’d like to see more photos of grammar atrocies, check out the Grammar Girl group on Flickr, to which the above photo now belongs.

{July 9, 2008}   Socratic Irony

I was reading up on the dictionary definition of irony1 and came across this definition of the term “Socractic irony“:

Socratic irony
pretended ignorance in discussion.

I’ve never heard this term before. I’m familiar with the concept of dramatic irony, but Socratic irony is a new one for me. I think I would merely have referred to it as “feigned ignorance.”

You learn something new every day!

1What, doesn’t everyone read the dictionary for fun?a
aNote that this sentence is sarcastic, not ironic.

{July 5, 2008}   Unending Jest Finally Ends

I never thought I’d live to see this day. But I have, in fact, finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. A book that I started A YEAR AGO. I mean, it’s not like I was reading it non-stop – I read a few other books during the past year and during the time that I was teaching, I spent all my reading time with textbooks, not novels – but still. And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy reading it – I really, really did. But it was so very, very long1. And the print was very, very small. And many of the words were very, very big. And thus, it seemed like the book that would never end, explaining why my blog is #1 when you search Google for “Unending Jest.”

Infinite Jest is a very hard book to explain. Wikipedia lists it as being in the genre of hysterical realism, and the Howling Fantods2 describes it thusly:

… the story of this addictive entertainment, and in particular how it affects a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts and a nearby tennis academy, whose students have many budding addictions of their own. as the novel unfolds, various individuals, organisations [sic], and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends, and the denizens of the tennis school and halfway house are caught up in increasingly desperate efforts to control the movie -as is a cast including burglars, transvestite muggers, scam artists, medical professionals, pro football stars, bookies, drug addicts both active and recovering, film students, political assassins, and one of the most edearingly [sic] messed-up families ever captured in a novel.

If pressed to describe it, I’d say it’s a novel, set in a dystopic future, about addiction, tennis, entertainment, and Quebec separatism. Also, the book is not written in chronological order and, to further complicate things, years are subsidized by, and named after, products rather than being numbered3, and you don’t find out until page 223 what order the years come in. Also, there are a ridiculous number of endnotes5, meaning that on top of the sections being all out of order, you are also jumping back and forth to and from the endnote section of the book, which comprises 97 of the 1079 pages in the book.

Given all that, this seems like the type of book I’m going to have to read again4. And I think that is part of the point of this book. Many of the characters are dealing with addictions of some sort and the main plot revolves around this movie, called Infinite Jest, that is so addictive that anyone who sees it becomes instantly and irrevocably addicted to it, ceasing to want to do anything but watch the movie over and over again, to the point of death6. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say to say that the book is literally addictive, I’d say that one is compelled to continue reading it. And to want to read it again7 as (a) there are still many questions left unanswered when you finish the book, and (b) things early in the book will probably make a lot more sense the second time through, once you know the whole story.

All in all, I totally recommend the book, but be forewarned that it will require a significant investment of time, effort and looking up words in the dictionary. And now I leave you with the words of DFW himself, in an interview about IJ:

The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through, was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it’s the same thing. […]

Some of my friends got into AA. I didn’t start out wanting to write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it’s also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk about that.

I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn’t the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous. [Source: DFW Interview, on]

11079 pages, to be exact.
2Which appears to be a DFWa fansite, although they don’t have an “About” page to give me their backstory.
aDavid Foster Wallace.
3So, instead of it being 2008 right now, it would be the “Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland.”
4Although not for a while, as I really need to read some of these other books first!
5In fact, the friend who recommended this book to me assumed I was a big DFW fan because I use so many footnotes on my blog. As it turns out, I’d never read any DFW before and just use a lot of footnotes out of my own pure genius.
6One of the defining characteristics of addiction is the compulsion to continue to use your substance despite catastrophic consequences. I think ceasing to eat or drink and being willing to cut off your own fingers to get to watch the movie again qualifies.
7and probably again.

{June 24, 2008}   Comps

Comprehensive exams: com·pre·hen·sive ex·ams

n. an especially cruel form of torture to which Ph.D. students are subjected
—Synonyms 1. comps  2. hell

Props to Erika for passing her comps yesterday!

Today we had a grant application due for a grant we’ve been working on for the last eleventy billion years.  Finishes touches were put on it over the weekend and today it just needed one last read through and then to be photocopied and picked up by the courier.  Last night I had a dream that it was tomorrow and we discovered that no one had sent the grant app in.  I thought my colleague sent it and she thought I’d sent it.  I was panic-stricken at the realization that eleventy billion years worth of work, by a fairly large team of people, was all for naught as we’d missed the deadline.  Fortunately, the dream ended at that point.

When I got into work, I told me colleague about this dream, and she was like “No way!  I had the *exact* same dream last night!”  Apparently we spend so much time working on this grant together that we are turning into one another.  Later on in the day, after we did actually have the grant successfully picked up by the courier (and don’t think that i didn’t go into paranoia mode all day today making sure everything was on track, ‘cuz I *totally* did), one of my other co-workers  and I were chatting in the hallway and she asked how I was celebrating being done the grant.  “I’m going for a run this evening,” I said… only to hear my dream-sharing colleague yell from her office, “ME TOO!!”  It’s official, we are turning into each other!

{May 15, 2008}   Good luck, Raul!

It’s a big day for very soon-to-be-Dr. Raul of Hummingbird604 fame.  Good luck on your defence, Raul!

{May 13, 2008}   Dear Everyone

It is pronounced eSpecially, not eXpecially. kthxbai.

{March 7, 2008}   Still Hot for Teacher

I’ve been a bit neglectful in my posting pictures I’ve what I wear to teach.  Like, as soon as I mentioned that I was in the habit of doing that, I stopped doing it.  But I have been taking the pics… just haven’t got around to posting then.

Well, wait no longer, friends, because here are the last three outfits I have worn while teaching.  The class I’m teaching in only 2 credits (most one term courses at UBC are 3 credits), so we don’t actually have class ever week.  In fact, we had almost all of February off, so these three outfits, combined with the two that I have already posted mean that I’m officially caught up in the “posting pictures of what I wear while I teach” department.


Also amusing, this photo, which shows what happens when you set a camera’s timer to 2 seconds delay instead of 10.


{March 4, 2008}   Happy National Grammar Day

In honour of National Grammar Day¹, I’d like to present you with this funky punctuation mark that I learned about on the Grammar Girl podcast: the interrobang.

This funky punctuation mark is, as it appears to be, a combination of the question mark and the exclamation point and is used in situations where you are expressing both a question and surprise/disbelief at the same time such as “You think the Canucks should trade Roberto Luongo for a 4th round draft pick‽” or “wtf‽” The alternative to the interrobang is to use both punctuation marks, (e.g., “wtf?!” but that’s considered poor style. And is used by people who aren’t cool enough to know about the interrobang.

¹Yes, I realize that I’m Canadian and the “National” in “National Grammar Day” appears to refer to the USA, but if the National Hockey League can call itself “National” despite being made up of teams in both Canada and the US, then I’m willing to honour NGD here in the Great Rainy North.²
²I’m in Vancouver, so it’s not really the Great “White” North.

et cetera