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Neighbourly

I have a habit of waving or nodding at people I see around my neighbourhood on a regular basis. It doesn’t really matter if I know them well. If I see someone often enough, the odds are pretty good that I will either wave at them if they’re on the opposite side of the street or nod at them if we are passing each other on the footpath. Since I live in a fairly friendly neighbourhood, I will usually get a wave or a nod back.

You’re probably starting to wonder where I’m going with this. Well, sometimes, waving or nodding at someone can get complicated.

You see, one of the people I encounter regularly is this lovely, old Chinese woman. She goes walking at roughly the same time each day, and she always wears the same jacket and the same bright red hat. She isn’t particularly quick on her feet, but that’s completely understandable. She is old. Very old. So the fact that she’s walking regularly should be commended.

As someone who walks/jogs along almost the same route as her each day, it wasn’t long before I started to wave or nod at her, and she would always wave or nod back. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the neighbourhood can beat her enthusiasm when it comes to waving or nodding back.

After a few weeks of this, something interesting happened. She started talking to me in Chinese.

There was just one problem. I don’t speak a word of Chinese. Well, technically, that’s not completely true. Some of my best friends over the years have been Chinese, so I can recognise the language and sort of swear in it if I have to. Of course, being able to recognise the language or toss out the occasional swear word were not going to help me communicate with this kind, old lady.

It got worse.

I am generally a polite person. So even though I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, I would always do the polite thing and smile and nod. After all, even if I couldn’t understand what she was saying, her big smile and happy voice made it pretty clear that she was trying to be friendly. Alas, my attempts to do the neighbourly thing and be friendly backfired.

She now thinks I speak Chinese.

Whenever I see her, she will now deliver between thirty seconds to a minute of Chinese… and I will smile, nod, and pretend I understand, which does precisely nothing to clear up the misunderstanding. Oh well. It seems to make her happy (she lives with her family but none of them ever go walking with her), and it doesn’t cost me anything to smile.

I’m just morbidly curious now to see how long I can keep up the charade. Or I could learn Chinese.

 

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, education, and other subjects, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

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Progress Report (11-12-2017)

I’m back with another progress report, and I come bearing mostly good news. I’m not finished… but I am very close.

The current collection of short stories that I’m working on is set in The Unconventional Heroes Series, and the stories occur at various points in the timeline. For example, some occur prior to Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf while others occur after Two Necromancers, a Dragon, and a Vampire.

The good news is that I have finished writing it. It weighs in at roughly 157, 000 words, which makes it just shorter than Two Necromancers, a Dragon, and a Vampire. The collection contains fourteen stories, and you can expect to see all of your favourite characters, along with some you’ve heard of but never actually met before.

The bad news is that I haven’t finished proofreading it yet. I hope to have that done in the next fortnight or so.

In any case, I just thought I’d let all of you know what’s going on.

Handwriting

I have always been enamoured with beautiful handwriting. There is something distinctly old-fashioned yet appealing about a handwritten letter, as opposed to something more contemporary, like an email or text message.

I want to believe that the very formation of the letters in each word gives some clue as to the mindset of the writer. Harsh words written in a harsh hand are far more striking than harsh words neatly typed in Courier or Times New Roman. Likewise, a sentimental expression of deepest affection in the inimitable hand of a loved one can linger for far longer in the heart than a similar message delivered in a well-known and utterly standardised font.

Alas, my handwriting is terrible. Yes, that’s right. It’s terrible. I’m not sure whether it is more accurate to describe it as resembling an archaic form of runes or as simple chicken scratch. Either description would be quite apt, much to my dismay. It is not, I assure you, due to laziness. Like many a dutiful primary (elementary) school student, I studiously worked my way through those handwriting books the teachers claimed would endow me with the awesome power of neat handwriting. I got through all of the books, slavishly following each and every instruction, only to emerge with awful handwriting all the same. It is a remarkable testament to my consistency, albeit the wrong kind of consistency.

Apparently, one of my super powers is the ability to complete all of the exercises and not actually get any better. My bad handwriting is therefore impressive in the same way that drug-resistant bacteria is impressive: you can’t help but admire how hard it is to kill, even as you look for a new way to kill it.

As an aside, my handwriting is almost identical to my brother’s. Indeed, if you were to show our handwriting to someone who did not know us well, they could be forgiven for thinking that the same person had written both. In a more exasperating vein, my twin has stellar handwriting that very much puts mine to shame. Perhaps she somehow stole all my handwriting powers in utero.

This is probably why I do not write a lot of things by hand. I can decipher the cryptograms with ease, but many other readers cannot. For example, if I were to write someone a note pledging them my affection, they would probably respond by wondering if I had given them some sort of puzzle to complete, possible a code of some kind written in a heretofore unknown variant of hieroglyphics. It would not, I imagine, make for the most moving love letter.

It is also ironic that my writing has only made my handwriting worse. That is to say, my extensive use of a computer to write my stories, as opposed to handwriting the drafts as some authors prefer to do, has reduced even further the amour of actual handwriting I do. My already less than stellar handwriting now has the added benefit of lack of practice to help it reach its full potential.

Oh well.

Recently, one of the family friends that I am tutoring apologised for his messy handwriting. Had his tutor been someone else, he might have had a point. Instead, I simply smiled and pointed out that the correction’s I’d written on his essay were hardly any neater. Birds of a feather, I suppose.

Nevertheless, I continue to admire people with excellent handwriting. In the same way that man once envied the bird’s ability to fly, so too do I envy their ability to turn handwriting into an art form. However, unlike mankind eventually learning how to fly, I doubt I’ll ever get my handwriting to be anything but serviceable.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, education, and other subjects, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Good, Better, Best

Good, better, best.

Most of us have heard words to that effect in which we are encouraged to constantly work to improve, making our good better until we can give our best. I think this is good advice, but it can often be misinterpreted, especially when it comes to writing.

One of the single most common mistakes that I see in writing is people trying to perfect something too quickly. For example, I’ve seen many students over the years spend far too long on a first draft of an essay or report because they don’t think it’s good enough. They want it to not just be good or even better. They want it to be their best.

But that doesn’t make any sense.

A first draft is precisely that: a first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be good. The whole point of a first draft is to provide a rough idea of what direction a piece of writing is taking, so the writer can get some sense of what works and what doesn’t. The real improvement comes in the subsequent drafts that eventually give rise to a final copy that is either submitted or published, depending on whether the writer is a student or an author.

Good, better, best is a process. You start off with something that is ‘good’ or even just okay, and then you try to make it better. From there you keep making it better, iterating through multiple drafts, until you arrive at something you are happy with.

Trying to skip good and go all the way to best is a recipe for disaster. It is far, far easier to improve and fix something than it is to come up with something in the first place. Rather than trying to do everything in one draft or version, split the work load. The first draft might just be proof of principle or a rough outline. The second draft might flesh out the ideas/story, and the third draft might add even more detail. This will allow you to focus on one thing at a time, which is generally much easier than worrying about multiple things at the same time.

To be honest, my drafting process often looks more like this:

Bad, less bad, kind of okay, good, better, best.

And that’s fine. If you have the luxury of being able to make use of drafts, then you’d be foolish not to take advantage. There’s nothing wrong with striving for perfection… just don’t expect to get it first try. Instead, worry about getting your writing off the ground. Once you’ve done that, then you can begin the process of honing and improving it until you’re truly happy with it.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, education, and other subjects, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Progress Report (09-11-2017)

I’m sure many of you are wondering when I will be releasing something new. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories set in The Unconventional Heroes Series. I had originally planned to have this collection released some time in perhaps August or September. I was, it seems, far too optimistic.

But that’s the bad news.

So what’s the good news?

The good news is that when the collection does come out, it will be a lot longer than I originally expected. It’s currently trending toward ~140,000 words, which is almost triple the length of the first draft, which is the chief reason for the ongoing delay, apart from some personal issues that I won’t get into here since they’re not particularly salient to the discussion.

Simply put, I ended up adding to and expanding all of the short stories. I wasn’t happy with the shorter versions, so I’ve been working on them until I am happy with them. The first short story (which features our two favourite necromancers doing a bit of tomb raiding) is ~12,000 words long, which makes it about a third as long as Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf. And that’s just one story. There are a total of fourteen in the collection.

So, yes, the collection is behind schedule, and I do apologise for that. I know you’ve been looking forward to it. However, I don’t believe in just throwing stuff out to meet a deadline. In exchange for it coming out later, there will be a lot more of it to enjoy, and I think the quality will be much better as a result too.

In any case, don’t worry. Things are progressing.

Sample Sizes and Representativeness in Psychology and the Social Sciences

One of the biggest issues in psychology and the various social sciences (e.g., sociology) is that they involve people, and people are not always easy to work with. To apply the scientific method correctly requires devotion to both adequate repetition and adequate samples.

Consider a coin. If we assume that a coin is unbiased, then flipping it should result in heads coming up 50% of the time and tails coming up the other 50% of the time. Coin flipping is also an excellent way to illustrate the danger of small samples. What happens if you flip the coin twice and it comes up heads on both occasions? Would you consider the coin biased? I doubt that anyone would. Certainly, if you accused someone of using a rigged coin just because the coin came up heads twice in a row, most people would think you were crazy.

But how many times would the coin have to come up heads before you started to wonder? If you flipped the coin fifteen times, and it came up heads all fifteen times, I’m sure most people would begin to wonder. If you flipped the coin two hundred times, and it came up heads each time, then almost everyone would guess that the coin is biased.

Why the change of heart?

Even if most people can’t express it mathematically, most people do have an intuitive grasp of what’s going on. In small samples, seemingly extreme outcomes are often not that unlikely. The probability of a coin that is flipped twice coming up heads on both occasions is 25% (50% x 50%). But as the sample grows larger, the probability of seeing extreme events becomes increasingly small. For instance, the probability of a coin being flipped fifteen times and coming up heads on each occasion is 0.003%.

How does this relate to humans?

Obviously, humans are a lot more complex than coins. However, the basic principle still applies. If you want to learn about general human behaviour, then you need to look at a lot of humans.

Consider the question of intelligence. If you want to know how intelligent the average person is, how many people should you test? I think everyone would agree that testing one person is a terrible idea. Ten? That doesn’t sound very good either since there are billions of people in the world. What about a hundred? How about a thousand? What about ten thousand?

But it gets more complicated.

If we assume that the manufacturing process is good, then coins are, by and large, extremely similar in terms of their weight, composition, and shape. In contrast, humans are known to vary along a great many physical (e.g., height, weight, body shape) and psychological (e.g., intelligence, personality) dimensions. How meaningful is the mathematical average calculated by ‘averaging’ across different people?

The answer, as it so often is with psychology and the social sciences, is that it depends.

It depends on how much error you’re willing to accept and how general you want your conclusions to be. For instance, if you want to rank order the mathematical ability of students in a particular class, then giving them a mathematics test isn’t actually that bad an idea.

But what about if you want to examine the cultural knowledge of an entire country? In many countries, there are large differences in what different areas consider to be culturally important (see e.g., the cultural differences between different parts of the United States, as well as the different parts of places like France, China, and even South Africa). Even within the same area, different groups of people may consider different thing to be culturally important. Just look at the differences in culture between different neighbourhoods of a large city like New York or even cities like Sydney, Tokyo, or Hong Kong.

The point of this discussion should be getting clearer. When dealing with people, it is not enough to have a large sample. That sample must also be representative. In other words, the demographics of the sample should reflect the demographics about which you wish to draw conclusions.

If you want to talk about the personality of the average Australian, then you need to look at not only a large sample of Australians but also at a large sample of Australians that reflects the characteristics of the general Australian population. Confining your sample only to people from Sydney or only people above the age of fifty would be experimental malpractice. Likewise, focusing only on Melbourne and young people would also be extremely poor conduct.

As you can imagine, this has implications for psychology and the social sciences, which often rely on student volunteers from university to conduct their experiments. Strictly speaking, it is not valid to generalise findings from studies that rely only on university students to the general population. University students are not representative of the general population. They are typically young, and their mere presence at university generally indicates a certain level of education and intelligence. It is entirely possible that university students do not psychologically resemble the general population. Why should they when simply getting into a university requires going through a selection process? It would be like trying to estimate the fitness of the average person by looking only at athletes.

Most researchers have at least passing familiarity with these issues, and the more astute have railed against them for decades. However, the simple fact of the matter is that obtaining a truly representative sample for human research would essentially require a form of conscription. Simply relying on volunteers (even including volunteers from outside of university) would not fix the problem because it is quite possible that there is something psychologically different about people willing to volunteer for research.

Of course, I am not advocating that we forcibly conscript people into participating in human research. That would be crazy. One approach that has been tried is offering to pay people for participation. Unfortunately, this runs into the same problem. Not everyone is willing to participate in research, even for money, so how do we know that the people who are willing to be paid to participate are the same, psychologically speaking, as those who are not?

These problems sound horrible, but they do not invalidate psychology or the social sciences. What they do suggest, however, is that more caution be exercised when interpreting the results of research that often relies on samples that are relatively small and less than representative (e.g., a large quantity of research relies on sample sizes less than two hundred and made up entirely of university students). Likewise, efforts should be made to expand sample sizes and their representativeness. Indeed, many statistical techniques (e.g., Factor Analysis and Structural Equation Modelling) are essentially worthless on small sample sizes, making their growing use in certain areas plagued by small sample sizes (e.g., abnormal/clinical psychology) quite worrying.

Research into psychology and the social sciences has the potential to bring about great good but it also has the potential to do great harm. Care should thus be taken to ensure that the best possible samples are used: samples of sufficient size that are also representative of the populations the research wishes to generalise to.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, education, and other subjects, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

 

A Note On Spelling

As some of you have undoubtedly noticed, I am Australian. However, I was not always a proud citizen of the mighty land of koalas and kangaroos. I actually spent some of my formative years in the United States. As a result, I am something of a linguistic curiosity.

Ask another Australian, and they will swear that I sound like an American. Indeed, I still pronounce words like ‘comfortable’ and ‘water’ in a distinctly American way. However, if you ask an American, they will swear that I sound like an Australian, complete with that unmistakable Aussie twang that we’re so famous for.

When I was younger, this was something that came through in my writing as well. Despite both Australia and the US claiming to use English as their language of choice, they do not spell all words the same way. For instance, words like honour, colour, humour, metre, realise, and so on are spelt differently in Australia.

As you can imagine, I received more than a few queries about my spelling from my teachers while I was going through primary (elementary) school. And this brings me to the point of this little post. If you’re going to use regional conventions (e.g., US or British spelling), then make sure that you stay consistent throughout the text. For example, if you use the British (or Australian) spelling of the word ‘colour’ at the start of a story, then you should probably keep using it throughout the story.

Consistency is the key. If you use the Australian (or the US) spelling for a word, it won’t take long for someone to get used to it since differences in spelling tend to be fairly minor. However, jumping from one spelling to another is bound to aggravate people, and that’s the last thing you want to do when it comes to your readers.