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Malevolent butterflies in the stomach June 7, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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I’m sitting at my computer this morning with somewhat bated breath.  I was supposed to be presenting a paper at a conference about now.  Instead, I am at home, and my major accomplishment was getting out of bed and getting dressed.  Oh yeah…and I ate a bagel and a banana without getting sick.

I was on my way to the conference and decided to leave a day early.  I was going to spend the night in Minneapolis with some friends and then continue on the next morning from there.  I was doing great until about a half hour before I got there, and then I started having stomach issues.  The problem with having celiac disease that was undiagnosed for so long is that I’m *always* having stomach issues, and I more or less ignore them now.  “Oh gee.  I must’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with me,” is one of the most common phrases I’ve used over the past five years.

I met my friends for dinner and then went back to their place.  I found that the stomach pain kept getting worse, though it was coming and going intermittently.  After about two hours, I needed to go to the ER because I was in very serious pain along the bottom of my ribcage.  I spent the next couple hours getting checked for gall stones and pancreatitis and losing my dinner and getting lots of drugs.  The doctor’s conclusion is that I either had a bug…or I did eat something that disagreed with me.  The only problem is that I have no idea what it could have been.

Fortunately, a colleague was also attending the conference, and he agreed to give my presentation for me with the consent of the session chair.  I got to come home (which is a long story in and of itself), and rather than worrying about how I was going to do on the presentation, I get to worry about how my colleague will do.

The whole situation is ironic, however.  I’ve always told people that I get sick to my stomach before I have to give a presentation, but I guess this time it was literal.

Florida or bust February 18, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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After my lamentation that I had nothing to write about, I realized I was actually wrong.  This week, I have to write up an abstract for a talk I was invited to give at one of the primary conferences in my field.  Amazingly, I’ve never been to the conference.  This is because the conference is always held in Orlando, and on top of the fact that I don’t tend to go to a lot of conferences, this one is particularly expensive.  I consider it every year and decide against it despite the fact that I’ve never been to that part of the country before.

However, I was invited this time.  Or I should say, both Mike and I were invited.  The project was mine, however, so I get to be the unlucky one to give the talk.  I’m not one that relishes giving talks.  Teaching is fine, but it’s a whole different ball of wax to give talks in front of peers.  I know I can’t be the only one that feels this way.

The up side is that the Minion will hopefully be there, and there are apparently plans afoot to hit Harry Potter World.  I may get to accompany him so that he doesn’t look like a creeper around all the kids.  Is it horrible to admit that might be more fun than a conference?

A flair for the mundane February 7, 2013

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A few months back, we had someone from one of the local papers interview some people from our group about one of the widgets we’d been working on.  We were in a different lab than the one where we’d done all the work on the widget.

As we were talking about it, the reporter seemed rather interested and asked a lot of good questions.  Before he left, I suggested we give him a demonstration of the widget.

That was an awful idea.  We turned on all the equipment, got things set up, and…nothing.  It didn’t work.  There were a couple of points where we got something, but it was all bad data.  As we were trying to get this figured out, I could see that the reporter was obviously losing interest.

There never was an article about the widget in that paper.  After the awful demo experience, I’m not surprised.

The lesson I took away from this was to always make sure your demos work before you show them to anyone.  We did eventually figure out what the problem was (some sort of hardware incompatibility), but I wish I’d known the demo would’ve been a no-go and not made us look like dorks in front of the reporter.

When I finally get organized… March 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, writing.
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I spent the day at the conference with a nasty headache.  I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel so that I could take some (OTC) drugs, get a hot shower, and pass out.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.

I got back to find out that the toilet, which I had told them about this morning before I left, was still inoperable.  Also, the dishwasher apparently had a leak.  Their maintenance people were gone for the day, however, so my only choice was to move rooms.

Efficiency always bites me in the butt.  The one time I actually decided to unpack all my clothes and belongings in the drawers and closet, I end up having to pack everything up and haul it into another room.  Also, I have a kitchenette so I can do my own cooking, and this meant I also had to haul a couple bags of groceries and a couple bowls of refrigerated food up and down the hallway.  So that sucked up another hour of my already short evening.

The conference itself was very enjoyable.  I’ve been to conferences where people jump on you for the slightest error.  I was very impressed at how positive the dialogue was.  I also like the fact that it’s a smaller group of people.  There were about 100 people or so, and about six women.  I was thinking that was pretty awful until I remembered my signals class – 3 women out of 60, so I guess it’s about on par or even better than some of my engineering classes.

The down side is that everyone assumed that I was a grad student.  And no, I wasn’t dressed like a typical grad student.  When I corrected them and said I am a research engineer, half of them said I looked young enough to be a grad student and the other half wanted to know what a research engineer is.  (Best answer I could come up with is that it’s like a post-doc…but with a choice between benefits or flexibility.  I chose flexibility – working half-time so that I can work on a dissertation and haul my kids around after school is a pretty sweet deal in my book.)

I also had a lot of people, particularly industry folks, come and talk to me about my poster.  However, I was chagrined to discover that I put a lot more text on my poster than pretty much everyone else.  Most of the posters had a paragraph or two and were otherwise covered in pictures, plots, and equations.  I was surprised at this because my experience at other conferences is that mine was on par or even low on text.  Mike said that it was less wordy than a lot of them he’s seen.  I can’t figure if this is a shift that’s happened since I last went to a conference (it’s been about 4 years) or if it’s unique to this conference.  Admittedly, most other conferences only require you to spend a half hour or so at your poster, so they are unattended most of the time and that extra explanation is helpful.  This poster session was about 2 1/2 hours long and it was strongly recommended to be there the entire time as there are no talks going on during that time.  Anyone have any thoughts on this one?

The right way to give a presentation September 18, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineerblogs.org, research, teaching.
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I reposted my PowerPoint rant a couple days ago on EngineerBlogs.  In it, I basically discuss how people give presentations like they are papers.

Part of the reason this bothers me is that there is research showing that text-filled slides not only make it difficult to understand, they can actually impede learning.  Our brains don’t process things in parallel, and when we’re trying to deal with two different forms of language, it puts too much stress on the brain’s verbal pipeline.  It doesn’t take much to max out that capacity.

So that means don’t use powerpoint, right?

Wrong.  In fact, I highly recommend using PowerPoint…but not for what you think.

Humans are very strongly visual, and even those who seem to do better with verbal topic matter still will learn best with information presented in a visual format.  Therefore, go to town on PowerPoint – just without words.  Your slide show should be replete with pictures and diagrams.  In some classes, I can’t imagine NOT using this type of resource.

When explaining something, talk.  In fact, talk a lot.  And then, when you are done talking, write out a summary on the board while NOT talking.  This serves two purposes: first, you’ll repeat the information in a different form, making it more likely that a student will remember it.  Second, some students are going to have problems with auditory processing, so a summary really helps them.

The temptation is usually to write a lot out on the board or to put them into a slide show.  This is probably not going to help, especially if there is someone talking over the text.  If you have a lot to write, my method is to provide very detailed notes electronically after the class.  They can review those to get all the details they may have missed.

Therefore, the proper way to give a presentation is use slides with pictures, speak to describe the scenario, and then write short summaries on the board.  Don’t put text on your slides, and certainly don’t talk over any writing, whether it’s on the board or on the slides (which you don’t have, right?).

Linkety Link January 4, 2011

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Pictures of the eclipse…with a bonus ISS transit!

Gumby is great for explaining geology…but now he seems to be missing

Hopefully he didn’t donate his body to science for reduced funeral costs.

How to give a five-minute talk. And don’t forget your posture.

Visual Presentations: They Aren’t Papers August 23, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, papers, science.
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If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that I am anything but succinct. It may surprise you to know that in my technical writing and presentations, I go too far the other way in many cases: I tend to make the assumption that people have a pretty good idea of what I’m saying. This has, on more than one occasion, left me with someone giving me the deer-in-the-headlights stare. I really don’t mind going back and explaining some of the information necessary to grasp what I am discussing, but I often don’t realize it’s not something that people are familiar with. As time has gone on, however, I’ve gotten better at gauging and addressing areas where my audience may be need extra knowledge.

When I’m doing slides or a presentation, my version of being succinct is to create slides that have only a brief outline (2-5 bullet points with a few words) or a plot or two. The reason I’m doing this is because there is almost always a report that goes along with such a presentation. The report, in my opinion, is the place for the details. Talks are for the ‘big picture’ with enough evidence included to make the point.

My frustration with presentations usually comes when people turn them into report or papers. Yes, one often wants to give data in their presentations, but I get frustrated with those who want to include everything plus the kitchen sink. I had a great discussion with someone at a conference (who was giving me feedback on one of my talks), and he was of the same opinion: people are only going to remember 2-3 main points from a talk. You should only give the data you need to make those points and no more. One should also make sure to keep that data easily digestible.

A couple years ago, I attended a talk by a well-known and respected geologist. This researcher had a very interesting talk, but I became lost very quickly. She had tons of plots in her presentation comparing concentrations of various minerals (around 8 different minerals) at between six and 8 field sites. She would decide to discuss a mineral, say molybdenum, and show a bar graph of that mineral for each site. She did this for each mineral. That would have been alright, except that she kept referencing back to previous minerals, and after the third, I had lost track of how the concentrations appeared with the field sites. I found myself thinking that, with a little Excel wizardry, it would have been nice if she had just shown a plot for each mineral with a trace for each field site. Failing that, a spreadsheet with the numbers would have been nice. It is just too difficult to compare 8 or more sets of data when they cannot easily be referenced because that data is three slides back!

Another frustrating talk I attended was probably the epitome of everything wrong I have ever seen in a presentation. The speaker not only didn’t have a powerpoint ready, but they literally put the PDF of their paper on the projector and talked through it. (He also spoke in the most monotonous voice I have ever heard. It was comparable to my seventh grade math teacher.) I had already read the paper and was expecting an animated overview of the highlights. I think that is the only time I’ve walked out in the middle of a talk. What a waste.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated with having to sit through bad talks and busy, confusing, or cluttered power-points. One need not condense information to soundbites to effectively deliver information, but it seems like the tendency is to go too far the other way. I am also becoming frustrated with papers that fail to communicate information necessary to proceed with research. And I am mostly frustrated because these are the kinds of things one learns in first year English and speech classes.

The next time I hear a student say that they don’t need to worry about English or grammar because they’re going into engineering, I think I’m going to force them to read and attempt to use an incomplete journal paper. And the same goes for complaining about speech class.

The Power-Pointification of Papers August 19, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, papers, writing.
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One thing about working with simulations, especially when using commercial software, is that I should have an easy time replicating others’ results, especially when I’m using the same software.


The reality is that between half and three-quarters of the papers I have pulled from journals and conference proceedings have had huge glaring mistakes or did not include a lot of essential data. On more than one occasion, I have written to the author of such papers, having tried everything I could think of, only to find out that some of the information in the paper was just plain incorrect. And some of these papers have come from extremely reputable programs.

So what’s the deal? I have come to the conclusion that there are two possible reasons for this sort of thing.

One is that the author(s) of such papers are not organized. I’ve had people tell me that they wrote up papers in a hurry, after they’ve done their projects, and have failed to remember at least a few of the essential details. Hence, there are errors or omissions in their papers.

I understand where they’re coming from. I did similar things myself when I first started grad school. However, after doing this a couple times for class projects, I was introduced to the concept of writing the paper or report first (which was the topic of yesterday’s post). I usually write as much of the paper as I can, including the gory details, and then I start digging into the project. As I am putting together my project, I add anything and everything that I do, turning the report into a sort of lab notebook. I realize there are people who are full of awesome when it comes to the art of keeping a lab notebook. I’ve also noticed that with the type of labs one normally does in school anymore, the emphasis on keeping a notebook has really gone downhill, especially when one is learning about computational techniques. This has been my solution to the problem. Once I have a complete record of what I did and have added my results, I can simply cut things out (e.g. comments such as “Damnit! It didn’t work again!”) to turn my record into a paper.

The other issue that may be a contributing factor is what I call the “powerpointification of papers”. If you ever take an old paper, say something written in the 50s or 60s, you’ll notice that the paper has a different flow than a lot of the ones we see today, especially if you’re dealing with papers covering an analytical approach to a problem. (It’s hit and miss with experimental papers, although I will say that it’s better in general.) Because so much of the paper is dependent on the reader understanding the mathematical logic involved, the author is more apt to write out steps involved in getting from A to B. If they skip steps or use approximations, they will at least mention the method used to get from A to B.

My training says this is the way to do things properly: in a paper, you should include absolutely all the information required to complete an experiment. A presentation, on the other hand, should cover the ‘big picture’.

It seems to me that there is a blurring of the two ways of presenting information. I know that some people have a preference for one or the other. However, it seems like the notion that “people don’t want all the gory details” has seeped into writing papers. The idea of a paper no longer seems to be a detailed description of the procedure so that others can replicate it…it’s becoming an overview of what people have done with the level of detail dependent on how picky your reviewers are.

My thoughts are that anyone who questions whether or not they should leave something out of a paper ought to put it in. If you’re doing emag simulations, for instance, how and where you applied any excitations could be rather critical to replicating your results, particularly in some software packages. No, you don’t have to explain the basics of how the software works, but you should bring up specifics about how you solved your problem.

I realize there are magazines and journals where this isn’t appropriate, such as where strict page limits are involved, but such venues are generally meant to catch the eye and inform the reader of advances in that particular area of research. In that case, leaving things out may be essential. However, it also ideally means that it points to another paper that contains the full set of information required to replicate the findings.


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