Sunday Judgment II

Today’s subject: punctuation.

Let’s demonstrate today’s bifurcate Sunday Judgment topic with a few interesting links from today’s Sunday Times: “Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama Senate,” “A ‘Bold’ Step to Capture an Elusive Gas Falters,” and “It Really Takes Years of Hard Work.”

Let’s be brief.

(1) In American usage, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks. For cryin’ out lout, it’s not that difficult. I don’t necessarily agree with the rule (it introduces some ambiguity), but the alternative is aesthetically atrocious.

(2) The serial (or Oxford) comma is crucial for eliminating ambiguity in some cases. The AP Style-ists forbid it solely for space reasons, and even they admit that sometimes it’s necessary. Courtesy of the far superior (though admittedly harder to use) Chicago Manual of Style, here’s an example I tweaked a bit to better demonstrate my point:

The meal consisted of soup, salad, macaroni and cheese, and rice and beans.

The point is that when you’ve got simple and compound items in a list, we need all the commas we can get to impose a little order. There are no doubt more subtle and sophisticated examples out there as well. Holler if you have some.

Sorry to go all Lynne Truss on you. I’ve never agree with “zero tolerance” policies of any kind, but I admit that it’s easy to get worked up about some off this stuff. As I’ve said before, when you’ve worked as a copy editor, it’s easy to take some of this stuff personally.

By the way, the latter link above contains some crucial remarks on the hot subject of innovation:

“The most useful way to think of epiphany is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems,” explains Scott Berkun in his 2007 book, “The Myths of Innovation.” “Most innovations come without epiphanies, and when powerful moments do happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.”

Go With The (Nework) Flow, Part I

Some preliminaries:

(1) I couldn’t resist posting a link to this New York Times piece about eHarmony, et al. The “Algorithms of Love” in the headline alone made it worth it. (By the way, I love it when copy editors choose to force “EHarmony” and the like when these ridiculously capitalized words come up at the beginning of a sentence. It’s like a little “screw you and your trademark” from the folks for whom sloppy capitalization is almost an affront. Speaking of which, sorry for the up-style headlines on this blog. I abhor up style, but I somehow backed myself into this corner and am not about to back down now.)

(2) My friend Rachel just let me know that you can hear David Foster Wallace reading “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” from Consider the Lobster on “KCET Podcast: Hammer Conversations” (Episode 16), which is available on iTunes. I listened to it this evening, and it’s terrific. Copy snobs will love the little explanation about his use of em dashes, but anyone will almost certainly be moved by the story. Plus Wallace’s reading voice matches his “authorial voice” really well, in my opinion.

OK, on to the main event. I mentioned a couple posts ago that I hope to use this space as a sort of whiteboard for trying out ideas, and I’m expecting to need such a space in the coming weeks. I’m getting ready to start working on the algorithms for matching material offers and requests in GENIUS and as such am learning about solving network flows problems. Wanna learn a little bit about them with me? If so, read on.

We’ll start with the basic first lesson, which I sat through just the other day. The gist of flow networks is that you’ve got a collection of nodes with material traveling between them along directed connections called arcs. Nodes are either sources (supply nodes that create material), sinks (demand nodes that consume material), or transshipment nodes that simply send a material along.

What we try to solve for in these problems is an optimal flow vector, which is just a fancy name for a long list that says how much of the material flows along each arc. The vector is optimal in the sense that it represents the flow for which the problem constraints are met in the cheapest way possible (there’s a cost associated with moving a unit of material along each arc). The problem constraints are flow bounds (upper and lower limits on how much flow must move along an arc) and conservation of flow, which says that the outflow minus the inflow at each node must equal either zero (for transshipment nodes) or the supply or demand of the node (for sources and sinks, respectively). The second set of constraints are also called divergence equations.

Brief mathematical note for those who are interested: network flow problems are special cases of linear programs, albeit much easier to solve ones (via the network simplex method, rather than general linear programming’s modifier-less simplex method). There are also, apparently, special algorithms for solving various special-case problems that can be posed as network flow problems, including Euler’s famous Konigsberg Bridge Problem.

What does all this have to do with the nuclear fuel cycle? Stay tuned as I try to figure that out.


Thought this article about MBA-like degrees for scientists was interesting. Here’s something you don’t see every day:

Sloan left engineering out of its grant specifications because, said Carol B. Lynch, PSM director at the Council of Graduate Schools, “engineers get it and already understand the value of a master’s degree.”

I actually agree with her opinion; it’s just a bit of a shock to the system to see a quotation that gives engineers this kind of credit.

The credit’s due, though. I tend to ignore the business side of engineering ed., but it’s something we need to be doing, and it’s something we’re getting right increasingly often, I think.

Sunday Judgment I

Today’s subject: chagrin.

At last, I’m unveiling today the probably-not-so-highly-anticipated Sunday column I’ve been promising for three or four weeks. Column isn’t really a good word for it. Weekly feature might be better; I’ve realized that the key to maybe keeping this thing regular is to keep it short.

My advisor puts a premium on his students developing engineering judgment–that quality that allows one to make wise, technically sound choices on issues that do not have a black-and-white answer. Deciding which parts of a system to model and which parts to omit is a good example of a situation calling for engineering judgment. Two parts technical experience and one part common sense, engineering judgment still eludes me in many situations.

However, this quality is closely related to an analogous one: editorial judgment. You develop editorial judgment in much the same way, and after numerous jobs in writing and editing, I think on this front I can at least say I’m on my way. Thus, in hopes that you might occasionally find them useful, I’m going to share with you a particular judgment every Sunday.

The subject of this first installment of Sunday Judgment is the usage of the word chagrin. This one drives me crazy, so it occurred to me first, though in future installments I’ll try to choose some more practical examples.

Anyway, chagrin has nothing to do with anger, at least not in and of itself. It has to do with embarrassment. Sure, annoyance may spring from those feelings of embarrassment, but don’t say “much to his chagrin” if what follows is an account of something that simply made a fellow mad, rather than embarrassing him. Of course, people ignore this advice all the time, which is probably why American Heritage‘s definition mentions the annoyance angle, whereas Merriam-Webster ignores it.

That said, the whole essence of editorial judgment is that it is (semi-)subjective; reasonable people can disagree on these matters. If you do, I hope you’ll let me know, either by posting a comment or via email.

That’s all for this week. See you next time on Sunday Judgment.

Speaking of Sunday fixtures (or at least would-be ones), I’m currently listening to this week’s Prairie Home Companion rerun (I seldom remember to listen Saturday evening). Good stuff, especially from Roy Blount, Jr. and Nellie McKay. The former’s frequent mentions of Roger Miller (see the previous post’s “Kansas City Star” link) in his bit on “honky tonk philosophy” made me happy and nostalgic, and the latter’s “Mother of Pearl” was both hilari- and venom-ous. You should be able to checkout highlights soon on the show’s Web site.

News Dump

I’ve only sort of mentioned GENIUS (Global Evaluation of Nuclear Infrastructure Utilization Scenarios) in passing on this blog, but it’s a huge part of my life. I’m developing Version 2 of the code for my master’s degree work, which is supported by a fellowship from the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative/Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program. The “elevator talk” about my research work (at least the Gen X/Y version) is that we’re trying to build the nuclear fuel cycle version of SimCity. Once we get our “SimFuelCycle” up and running, we get to wreak havoc on it ala the SimCity 2000 monster. Except our monster manifests itself as uranium supply shortages and eroding political agreements.

Anyway, in order to do non-proliferation analysis, we’ve set the ambitious goal of tracking the isotopic histories of each nuclear reactor fuel assembly in this fuel cycle systems analysis code (after an assembly is taken out of a reactor, its composition has changed substantially; we want to track this isotopic inventory for each assembly). Why is that an ambitious goal? Because each reactor contains hundreds of such assemblies, reactor cores are reloaded every eighteen months, and we want to simulate thousands of reactors and other fuel cycle facilities over the 1200-month simulation. That means we need to store a TON of data, and I’ve spent the week getting the code to periodically dump this information, which is stored in memory as the code works, to an SQLite database.

[Here comes the segue.]

When I troll through various news sources each morning, my similarly ambitious goal is that I’ll email myself the articles I find interesting and then comment on them on my blog each night. As you can see, that seldom happens, and eventually I lose all hope of commenting extensively on each story and just have to get rid of them. Thus, I’ve stored the topic history of my week’s news reading in my inbox’s memory. Without further ado…

CSC.dumpNewsHist(& inbox) /* Dumps all the news items from my inbox to standard output via CSCout. */

/*For you data structures-savvy folks, I usually treat my inbox like a stack rather than a queue, so my order here will be LIFO (last in, first out).*/


New York Times
| “With Third Title, Sharapova Shows She’s Back” | What a boring match. Ivanovic only looked sharp for like a four-game stretch in the first set. She’ll be back though; the three young Serbs (Ivanovic, Jankovic, Djokovic) are too good to not start winning some slams.

New York Times | “Beating Federer, Djokovic Has Look of a Champion” | Case in point. I’ve always thought Tsonga’s been underachieving, but I don’t give him much of a chance tomorrow against the Djokster. Also, I’m kind of irked by Scott Van Pelt’s comments on yesterday’s Mike Tirico Show about what a snooze this final will be because of who’s playing. I love Federer’s game as much as the next guy, but Djokovic is really something special and I was glad to see him pull off the upset.

Science News | “Big Foot: Eco-footprints of rich dwarf poor nations’ debt” | More from the haves and have-nots front. Kind of makes you nauseous. No surprise, though.

Science News | “Mercury, As Never Seen Before: MESSENGER visits innermost planet” | Special delivery: sweet planet pics.

Chicago Tribune | “Scientists posited to create life” | “I didn’t know we could do that.

USA Today | “S.E. drought could idle nuke plants” | I’m blown away by a spokesman from the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network being critical of nuclear power. How about you raise awareness to the fact that we don’t indiscriminately dump our waste into the air?

PHD Comics | “Your Research Interests” | Hilarious, although I’m lucky enough to actually share many of my advisor’s research interests.

New Scientist | “Origami spaceplane aims for space station descent” | How badass is this?

New York Times | “Los Angeles Editor Ousted After Resisting Job Cuts” | Sad, but I’m glad to hear he took a stand. Made me sort of yearn for my high school days of wanting to be a journalist.

Education Week | “Lawmakers kill bill requiring students to apply to college” | How this ever made it to becoming a bill is beyond me.

Kansas City Star (“that’s what I are“) | “Missouri, Kansas engineers studying bridges with gusset plates after Minnesota disaster” | Paging Henry Petroski: your next book has arrived.

That’s all I’ve got time for, so I guess the rest of those stories are gone forever.

Wouldn’t That Be Nice

About a year-and-a-half ago, I started to get into tennis. My friend Emily taught me how to play, but I also learn a lot from David Foster Wallace. His essay “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” (from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is one of my favorites (I also like “Federer as Religious Experience” from the TimesPlay Magazine). Part of what’s cool about it is his commitment to showing you what the networks won’t; he talks, for instance, about the psychological implications of the players warming each other up before the match, and his overall thesis is pretty well summed up by his observation that

The realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin.

You know what you should at least be able to see on TV? Those lush finals! Neither the men’s nor the women’s Australian Open final is on broadcast TV, so I’m now forced to choose between going to the bar next door and begging them to switch one of the TVs off the Badger men’s hockey game and onto ESPN2 or heading back to my office to watch it over the internet (Charter Internet doesn’t carry the ESPN360 online channel, but the university’s ISP does). Since it’s a Friday night, I’m gonna go with the former.

I get that most Americans don’t care much about tennis (especially when there aren’t any Americans in the finals), and I know Australia’s especially challenging when it comes to carrying live events, and I know that in today’s information climate watching tape-delayed sports is borderline pointless…But for crying out loud, this is a Grand Slam!

Sorry for the rant. I’m just really sad that nobody much cares about my second-favorite sport. At least my favorite’s only a few months away.

Balancing Act, Part III: King Day Cold

All day in the back of my mind I was thinking about what might make a good Martin Luther King Day post (unfortunately, I did go into work, so in the front of my mind I was thinking about SQLite–a scaled-down database tool I highly recommend). Maybe the coolist MLK Day coverage I heard was a nice impromptu interview with former basketball coach George Raveling on today’s Mike Tirico Show (ESPN Insiders can get the audio).

What I came up with was this excerpt from Craig Werner’s Higher Ground: Steview Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rist and Fall of American Soul. It’s freezing today in Wisconsin, so Stevie Wonder’s remarks from a pro-MLK holiday rally on a cold January day in 1982 are perhaps especially appropriate to pass along. Wonder and co. were successful at making the holiday happen, but these words sound no less urgent today:

I know you’ve been standing in the cold for a long time, but I hope your spirits are warm. Many times in life things happen and we question God as to why. These are not easy times, yet they are not hopeless times. We must refresh our souls and uplift our spirits and harmonize with our brothers and sisters. Dr. King left an unfinished symphony which we must finish. We must harmonize our notes and chords and create love and life. We need a day to celebrate our work on an unfinished symphony, a day for a dress rehersal for our solidarity. I hope your spirits are hotter than July!

Balancing Act, Part II: Scott, Free

I mentioned in my last post that the timing of the launch of this blog was no mere coincidence. Indeed, I don’t think I could have started one at any other time than during a holiday’s week away from the place where I practically live.

But the other motivator was that over the break I thought a lot about blogs, thanks to my friend David Meerman Scott. I connected with David back when I was interim copy editor over at EContent. He offered me some editing work on early drafts of his book The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly. The book became a best-seller and made BNET’s list of 10 Underrated Business Books. It was my first crack at any book-length editing, and I had a really great time working on it.

Since then I’ve been fortunate to work with David on a couple other projects, one of which was released yesterday. You can download his new e-book, The New Rules of Viral Marketing: How word-of-mouse spreads your ideas for free, from his blog Web Ink Now. And as you’d certainly guess if you’re familiar with his ideas, it’s available for free.

What I appreciate most about David’s work is the way he teaches with analogies (a subject I’ve written on a bit myself). My favorite is his simple admonition against creating content the consumer has no interest in: “Think like a publisher.” That’s wise counsel, and it’s an analogy rich with plenty of takeaway examples. (It also reminds me of the advice we give engineering students in writing classes about the similarities between the writing process and the design process.)

Anyway, his most recent analogy is that those keen to harness the power of viral marketing would do well to “think like a venture capitalist.” The research university is increasingly spinoff-centric, so David’s comparison of the success rates of startup companies to those of viral marketing campaigns immediately resonated with my otherwise not-at-all business-savvy mind (I’ve spent some time on the receiving end of the laughably one-way PR pitch “cycle” [David describes it as “begging the media to write about you”], but I knew absolutely nothing about marketing before I started working with him).

Anyway, you can’t work with David for long and not see the value of having a blog. Even if you don’t draw huge numbers (I don’t) and can’t post every day (I can’t), David reminds you that everyone benefits from having a forum for bouncing ideas off a few friends, colleagues, or total strangers.

CSC is now such a forum for me, and it probably wouldn’t exist but for the spark David’s books lit in my head. Whatever your business, some of strategies he suggests should probably be part of your stock-in-trade.

Balancing Act, Part I: Introduction

If you’ve been following CSC, you’ve probably noticed that it’s been a little science-heavy for a blog that aspires to straddle the letters-and-science spectrum. Blame the lopsidedness of my life, in part, but also blame the NFL playoffs.

You see, my not-so-double life as a full-time engineering grad student and part-time freelance writer and editor (the latter more to preserve my sanity than to pay the bills) dictates that almost all of my freelance work gets done on weekends and semester breaks (the timing of this blog’s launch is no coincidence). Thus, the writing/editing/humanities-grab-bag aspect of this blog is (I believe) going to take shape on the weekends, which is when I try to temporarily forget about science (at least when GENIUS is behaving itself and the homework situation is favorable). But since I’m a good green-blooded Wisconsinite, that weekend shape-taking has been usurped of late by Packers playoff games–at least until yesterday’s frustrating loss (what happened to the run game, Mike?).

So, to even things up, I give you a trifecta of posts that don’t mention science any more than I already have (unless I just can’t help myself or it becomes genuinely necessary, which latter would only serve to reinforce this blog’s complementary M.O.).