Posts Tagged ‘much ado about nothing’

(This is what blogs are for, so…)

If you ever, particularly in scientific writing, find yourself saying “the process of …” (e.g. the process of evolution, the process of adaptation, the process of speciation), STOP. You are writing three extra words that add no meaning. Evolution is a process. Speciation is a process. You could just use those single words. Using fewer words is usually the classier choice. It’s certainly the sensible choice when you’re writing something with a word limit. Similarly, there is seldom any need to say (to pick an example) “the evolutionary process”; again, “evolution” suffices. I defy you to find a situation in which the wordier construction adds vital meaning.

I have spoken.

(Ask me sometime about starting papers with “Ever since Darwin”.)


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My dear friend and colleague at Alien Plantation has a post up about the frustrations of vernacular names: when people call the same organism by different terms, or mean different organisms when using a particular name. And one classic example of this frustration, one that I seem to find myself explaining often, is yams versus sweet potatoes.

What’s the difference, you ask?

The orangey (but sometimes yellow or purple) root vegetable that you may have eaten topped with marshmallows, or nibbled in french fry form at a pub with that not particularly good but ubiquitous “chipotle mayo”, is called “sweet potato” in most places, but also “yam” in many parts of North America. (Including where I grew up, so, for the record, I call them yams.) This yam/sweet potato is properly called Ipomoea batatas. (Ipomoea is usually pronounced “eye-poe-MEE-ah”.) Also in the genus Ipomoea are the morning glories, those vines with wide, trumpet-shaped flowers in many gardens and roadsides.

There is another root vegetable commonly called “yam” in English that’s a dietary staple in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These yams belong to several species in the genus Dioscorea, distant relatives of arrowroot. Like Ipomoea tubers, Dioscorea tubers can range in colour from yellowish to purple, but they (at least the cultivated varieties) tend to be much larger and have a thicker, rougher skin. Also like Ipomoea, Dioscorea species are usually vines. However, they have tiny, inconspicuous flowers, often arranged on an inflorescence or flower stem.

Dioscorea and Ipomoea may have some superficial similarities, but they’re only distantly related. One of the fundamental divisions among flowering plants is that between monocots (including grasses, palms, lilies, and onions) and dicots (including most non-coniferous trees, roses, and sunflowers); Dioscorea is a monocot while Ipomoea is a dicot.

If you’re in North America (and if you have the yam/sweet potato problem you almost certainly are), unless you’re at a particularly fancy/”exotic”/”ethnic” grocery store*, anything labelled “yam” or “sweet potato” is almost certainly Ipomoea batatas. (I have seen different varieties of the plant sold as “yam” and “sweet potato” right next to each other in the same store!) So if someone asks you if they’re eating yam fries or sweet potato fries, the answer is “yes”. If you’re at an African or Asian restaurant, though, there may be Dioscorea yams in your meal. One of the more common varieties, ube (Dioscorea alata), is used in the Filipino dessert halo-halo. (Sweet potato rolls and tempura at sushi restaurants in North America are Ipomoea.)

Wikipedia tells me that there’s another tuber, that of Oxalis tuberosa, native to the Andes but also grown elsewhere, that’s called “yam” in New Zealand. The local variety of Ipomoea batatas there is called kumara, so you shouldn’t have too many problems.

Here I present, in convenient, printable, wallet-sized form, a brief guide to yams and sweet potatoes:

*Stop the presses! After I finished the draft of this post I went grocery shopping, and lo and behold there were Dioscorea tubers.

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Consider this a public service announcement.

Do you know the warning signs of satire? Many don’t—til it’s too late, and they’re left saying, “Well, it’s not very well-written anyways”, or “That’s certainly not as good as A Modest Proposal“.

You may be at risk of satire if you’re reading about a controversial topic. If you notice plentiful stereotypes, a cliche-laden or overly-serious style, and an opinion that just seems too outrageous to be possible, consult your sense of humour immediately*.

Satire can be hard to spot, but remember, early detection saves face. Learn the signs. Together, we can defeat satire.


Okay, serious time now. I only found out about this microcontroversy after the fact, but it got me right in the pontifical cortex (a part of the brain that I just made up).

This sort of story happens relatively often. Someone writes a satirical piece; some people interpret it as serious and FREAK OUT; then they realize they’ve been had and make bumbling statements like “well it was bad writing so OBVIOUSLY no one could tell it was satire” and/or “well it’s not even good satire”.

Actually, it often is.

The best kind of satire is the kind that almost makes you believe it’s real**. Often that’s because it’s on an extremely polarizing topic, so that there may exist people loony enough to hold such “satirical” beliefs. As a result, there will always be a number of people who get taken in by clever satire and react to it publicly. Then they look pretty stupid. And yeah, maybe they should feel stupid for a little while, but you can’t blame them very much. But those standard defenses they mention—bad writing, and bad satire—annoy the frak out of me. For one, given a basic level of writing competence, perfectly polished prose is not required for biting satire—though it always helps. And anyways, the writing in question is not always bad! Take the “perfect husband” editorial at the centre of the most recent controversy as an example. I’d say the writing is about average, maybe a bit ahead of average, compared to what I’ve seen of undergraduate-level writing. It does shed cliches like a cat sheds fur (ahem), but it does so effectively, using them to make the tone flippant and parody the breezy style of women’s magazines.

The other reflex defense is to claim that the satire itself is bad. This is mildly amusing, but mostly annoying, because the fact that they believed it at first demonstrates that it was good satire. This particular claim also always seems to invoke Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. As if it were the Platonic ideal of satires. I suspect that fewer people have read it (or remember it, at least) than refer to it. (Here, you can discreetly visit this link! I won’t tell.) A Modest Proposal is undoubtedly a classic, but saying “It’s not that I can’t recognize satire; it’s just that you can’t write it!” is such an obvious tell. Don’t be embarrassed about it: congratulate the person who duped you!

There are, of course, cases where the converse was actually true. This usually happens when truly tasteless racist/homophobic/sexist etc. things have been said or written, and then fauxpologies claiming that satire was intended were issued. I would argue—though data on this are probably nearly impossible to obtain—that in most of these cases, the vast majority of people reading/hearing these things did not take them as satire. Is satire, then, entirely in the eye of the beholder? To gloss over a myriad of issues, the context, author’s identity, and writing style should at least provide a few clues either way. And, though it hurts me ever to have to identify something explicitly as satirical (e.g. with mock-html <satire></satire> tags), sometimes those are a good idea. I once casually mentioned how *excited* I was about the Sex and the City movie in an email, and the recipient wasted hours of his life watching several episodes and writing me a concerned reply to say “Is this really you?”

Or we could go back to the 90s, and end all our sarcastic statements with an eyeroll and “NOT!”


*Or stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes the real thing is indistinguishable from parody. Sometimes you have to pretend the real thing is a parody in order not to lose all faith in humanity.

**You’d think that The Onion can’t get away with this any more, but apparently it can.

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Today’s adventure in pedantry is brought to you by a certain biological journal that shall remain nameless to which I’m preparing to submit a manuscript. The author guidelines for this journal are detailed, and clearly have been given much thought. Yet there are multiple aspects of the bibliography formatting requirements that are simply idiotic. In some cases they waste space; in others they are simply visually unappealing or distracting. Bibliographies are hugely important parts of a scientific publication because they link claims made by the present paper to previous findings or hypotheses in the literature. They should be designed to make information retrieval, i.e. finding the item you’re looking for in the list and getting the details you need from it to retrieve the cited paper, easy. Furthermore, there are ease-of-reading considerations when formatting in-line citations, as well as ease-of-typesetting and printing. Bibliographies should be useful and they might as well look decent too. Here are my thoughts (supported only by my own brain and not the result of any sort of controlled research) on how this should be accomplished. (I do not address the issue of numbered versus alphabetical (author-year) citations, as I think there are good uses for both. I’ll be talking only about author-year formats throughout.)

Perhaps you think this matter is unimportant, because software exists that formats your bibliographies for you—you don’t have to spend time changing font styles or indenting meticulously. Perhaps use BiBTeX to generate your bibliographies. Good for you! So do I! But alas, there are yet some prehistoric publications that refuse to accept LaTeX submissions. And sometimes your advisor wants you to submit your manuscript to them.

Aha, you say, but I also have EndNote/Mendeley/whatever the kids are using these days to put bibliographic information into their Word documents. To you I say, at least have some consideration for your readers! Do you want them to read a paper that looks ugly? Don’t you ever wince when you read a paper from that one journal with the painful typesetting where it takes you forever to find that thing you’re looking for in the works cited list?

Consider: There is absolutely no reason to put a comma between the author’s last name and the publication year in your in-line citations (e.g. “Lennon & McCartney, 1966”). It is a waste of space that does nothing to ease the reader’s understanding. If anything, this makes lists of in-line citations more difficult to read: compare “Lennon & McCartney, 1966; Jagger & Richards, 1966; Wilson et al., 1966” to “Lennon & McCartney 1966; Jagger & Richards 1966; Wilson et al. 1966”.

Nor is there a reason to insist that citations of papers with three authors list all the authors the first time you cite them but “Firstauthor et al.” subsequently. Mind you, I’ve only ever seen one journal insist on this policy. (Bonus points if you know which journal.)

As for the actual bibliography, simplicity should be paramount. There is really no need to put the author’s names and/or the year in bold, or the journal’s name in italics. Really the only italicization should be of scientific names. All this extra formatting is distracting. A simple indent to draw the eye to where different entries start is enough.

The list of authors’ names should also be as easy to read as possible. My preferred format is sans periods and with commas only to separate authors, thus: Lennon J, McCartney P, Harrison G, Starr R. Adding periods after the authors’ initials is mildly visually distracting. Worse still is putting commas between the last name and initial as well as between authors—e.g. Lennon, J, McCartney, P, Harrison, G, Starr, R. Worst of all is listing the first author in Lastname, Initial format but subsequent authors as Initial Lastname—e.g. Lennon, J, P McCartney, G Harrison, R Starr. As to whether to separate the last two authors in a list with “and” (or &), I have no preference, but (and this is the case in the journal to which I’m planning to submit) it seems logically inconsistent to insist on listing all three authors (with an “&”) in in-line citations but not putting “&” in the list of references.

Finally, can we please stop italicizing “et al.”? Everyone uses this phrase. It’s not really foreign. I can see italicizing more obscure Latin terms like sensu latissimo, but et al. shows up in literally every scientific publication.

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I have to admit that Margaret Wente’s SlutWalk critique made me squirm a little.

Yeah, I get that there are bigger problems in the world than some cop saying women in a first world city shouldn’t dress like sluts. I get that women’s studies/academic feminism does some navel-gazing that isn’t always/often productive, and I get that some dialogues within feminist circles are oblivious to privilege. *squirm*

But (a) if everyone only went after the biggest problems in the world, we’d have Africa wallpapered with condoms and mosquito nets and no treatment for the flu or something, (b) do you mean to say that some of those “incident[s] of being groped by some 20-year-old drunk” are okay, and (c) really, are we going to settle for “better than the 1970s”?

Is it really safe to assume that many of these SlutWalkers only engage in this particular sort of activism? (I honestly can’t say; I haven’t been to one.) Isn’t it possible to be involved both in helping those less privileged get to where you and in trying to raise the standards set by your own society?

Also: “So, is violence against women a non-problem? Absolutely not. It is a very large problem in a number of Canada‚Äôs South Asian communities, including some not far from York University.” Yep. Because pointing fingers at others while you’re guilty of the same thing yourself isn’t hypocrisy. I believe there is a saying about this that involves kitchenware, but I wouldn’t know, I’m too empowered to even go near a kitchen.

I note that Wente doesn’t disagree with the message of SlutWalk per se, and this is great. It’s just that she’s content with how things are because others are worse off. Can’t we fight both battles?

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Please meditate on this for just a few minutes.

Google.com’s autocomplete options for “death by”:

The first option is apparently a band. The second is something delicious but emblematic of indulgence. The last three pretty much summarize the corporate rat-race and imply that the greatest thing we have to fear is boredom. Damn it’s a dangerous world out there.

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I analyzed the instructions for making good black tea in essays by four prominent male British authors. All studies required boiling water and a warm pot for making adequate tea. All preferred loose tea leaves to teabags, but the rigidity of this preference varied. Dismay at the practice of offering a teabag with a pot of warm water in restaurants was also nearly ubiquitous. Authors were evenly split as to whether tea or milk should be poured first. (more…)

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