Saturday, September 06, 2014

Creative versus Scientific Writing

I listen regularly to a podcast called "Writing Excuses," about all sorts of aspects of being a professional author of fiction. It has the wonderful tagline, "15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry and we're not that smart."  Of course, the folks on it are pretty smart, but the 15 minute format does well for them I think, because it forces them to focus tightly on the key ideas that they want to communicate and think about, rather than allowing the meandering self-indulgence that I have encountered on many a longer podcast. I listen because one of my favorite authors is one of the podcasters, because I enjoy listening to the banter and their description of an alternate world they live in right beside my own, because it's precisely the length of one bicycle ride to work, and because I find it to be surprisingly relevant to my own professional life and identity.

As a scientist, one of the things I do is that I need to be constantly able to write.  Last year, for example, Google Scholar says that I generated 19 scientific publications, by its somewhat loose standards.  Besides these, of course, there's a number of white papers and proposals and reports and talks and all the rest of the miscellany that comes as part of professional communication.  Those documents span a surprising number of years as well, with the oldest amongst them having been drafted in 2008 and the youngest only a few weeks before its publication.

Together, those 19 publications comprise a total of 214 pages, of which 102 pages and 14 publications are ordinary scientific papers. The remaining five are standards documents or patents, which get rather inflated because they play by entirely different rules of what counts as a good document: a scientific publication must communicate, while a standards document is intended to constrain the bounds of a complex technical activity and a patent aims to noisomely mark the largest possible territory with legal spoor.  Estimating based on the typical density of 500-900 words per page in scientific papers, that's around 66,000 words of ordinary scientific papers (not standards or patents).  The papers average 3.6 authors each, or 3.1 if I exclude those authors who did no writing.  Interestingly, many of the higher-author papers are also shorter, so if I allocate pages by authors on a per-paper basis, I find that about 29,000 words of scientific publication are attributable to me in 2013.

Interestingly, that's actually much smaller than I would have thought, about 1/3 of a typical paperback novel.  When I compare it with writing that I've done in non-scientific contexts, it is actually surprisingly similar.  For example, the last major live-action roleplaying game that I ran---a 10 day long affair called "Harry Potter Year 7: Hogwarts Under Siege"---was about 490,000 words, according to a quick check of the LaTeX source in its repository.  That was written by six authors over the course of two years, meaning about 41,000 words per year are attributable to me.

Apparently, if I were a novelist, I would produce about one paperback every two years.  But I wonder if that's really a fair comparison or not.  It's tempting to say "No, because science..." but then I look at the roleplaying game number, which I had honestly thought would be much higher.  Even that roleplaying game is very dense with research and cross-links, but then, so are many novels.  I think about the authors on that podcast, who also do a lot of careful background research---one is known for his intricate magic systems, another writes fantastically precise period pieces, another does a lot of math in the course of producing good, consistent hard SF.

So honestly, I think that I should view myself as simply a rather pokey writer, by professional writer standards.  My favorite authors are probably all writing about four times as fast as me, if that comparison is something that is actually meaningful.

The real question is: should I care about it?  I'm not sure.  I do think that my writing is less efficient that I would like it to be, and looking at the numbers, I think that there is reason to expect that I should actually care to improve it, if only so that I can spend less time in my "frustrated" stages of writing.  In that sense, I spend a lot of time on certain sentences in a document, while other whole sections go much faster, and much of that time is spent in a certain type of paralysis, going back and forth between two or three ways of presenting the same idea, writing and erasing and rewriting and chopping it up and back and forth and so on.  I'm sure that there are cases where that level of precision can actually matter, but certainly not at the first draft stage.

The writers on the podcast that I listen to will often say, "Writing is what defines a writer. If you write, then you are a writer."  Just write.  Put it down, correct it later.  Some exercises for myself, I think... dear readers, I will let you know how it goes.

And, hmm. This was not the direction that I expected to go when I had started to write this morning.  I suppose that this is one of the charms of scientific writing, even in a casual and informal venue such as this.  No pre-publication peer review to put out these ~900 words, however, just the post-publication review of comments and who out there finds it actually interesting enough to spend their precious time to read.  And now, in honor of my drifting topics:
Harriet, already prepared for receiving scientific reviews.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Engineers' Song (clean version)

As I wrote in my last post, I found it quite unexpectedly distressing that I couldn't teach the Engineer's Drinking Song to my two-year-old without feeling rather much uncomfortable.  Now, maybe this shouldn't have surprised me at all, I mean, it is a drinking song and says so right there upon the title. But what I really like about it is the catchy tune and upbeat rhythm, which contrast quite strongly with the misogynistic and self-hating nature of the lyrics.  Have a listen and see: this video is about as clean as it gets, being performed for prospective students and all.  And I suppose that this is all to be expected from a drinking song originally from the military and then adopted by stressed out undergraduates, both of which are groups highly invested in being crass for different reasons.  I can appreciate a good bit of crassness myself, but it has its places and times, and singing to toddlers is not one of them.

But I'm really proud to be an engineer, and I think that it would be nice to have a version of that catchy tune that's positive and celebrates the things I value about my life as an engineer, and that I'd like to pass on for another generation. And so, dear readers, in the spirit of Broader Impacts and promotion of STEM field education, I present the following revised collection of lyrics, and in the spirit of our tinkering lives, I invite you all to suggest lyrical improvements, additional verses, and to spread it to the winds:

The Engineers' Song (clean)

We are, we are, we are, we are, we are the Engineers 
We can, we can, we can, we can, make anything with gears
Computers, lasers, DNA, just come along with us,
'Cause anything that we can dream, we'll build without a fuss

An engineer's an engineer from when she first can talk,
While other kids look on with awe, she's stacking up the blocks
The simple phrase "How does it work?" sets fear in parents' hearts
"Go hide the drills and screwdrivers, she'll take it all apart!"

Grace Hopper was the first to tame computers to our will
By making up compilers that let any Jack or Jill
Build network applications at a wild frenetic pace
So any time you use your phone you'd best remember Grace

When someone hires an engineer they know what they will get
A bunch of smarts and knowledge and a willingness to bet
But supervise them carefully and check what they have done,
'Cause otherwise the engineer will just build something fun

Oh, Tesla was an engineer of electricity
with coils and sparks and deathray plans as far as you could see
And when his rival Edison had lost the current war,
Well, Telsa just went to back to work on radio and more

A barbeque was going fine 'til someone dropped a match,
And set off an explosion from where lighter fluid splashed
While everybody else had panic running through their brain
The engineer said "Get some more and let's try that again!"

In great New York the Brooklyn bridge was rising every day,
The old man who'd designed it had just died and passed away
So Emily Roebling stood up and she said, "It's not so hard,"
"I've an engineering spirit, never mind what's on my card."

An engineer and sales rep were a-walking in the park,
The sales rep pitched a product that he thought would be a lark
The engineer was skeptical until he set her right,
And told her that the product would have lots of blinking lights

An engineer retired after a long and full career
Her husband asked her afterward "What will you do now dear?"
She turned back to her husband with a smile lit like the sun
"My love you know, now I'll have time to get some real work done."