Blog: July 2017

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Oh, *you*

Our camp's Pennsic prep is a little unusual:

Me: dials phone
Her: Castle Towing1
Me: Hi. I'm going to need some towing at Cooper's Lake this weekend. Can I book that in advance?
Her: Oh you don't need to. We offer 24x7 road service; you can just call.
Me: It's a 20' trailer. Probably 3-ton, but we don't really know.
Her: ... oh. Uh, I don't know if we can do that.
Me: For what it's worth, you did it two years ago. That's why I specifically called you. But I understand things can change.
Her: I need to check with a driver. I'll call you back.

Return call:
Her: He remembers you. When did you say you need him?

With luck, this will be the last year we have to do our own towing for the house. The Coopers declared it too heavy for them to tow a couple years ago. A lot of what makes it too heavy is the kitchen structure and furniture we store in it. We are well under way with building a new kitchen trailer, which will replace most of that and store the rest between Pennsics. And that will make the house light enough that the Coopers should be willing to tow it to and from our campsite like they had done for years before the new rules. And hey, kitchen trailer instead of having to build and take down our current structure every year.

1 Yes, that really is their name, and yes they're familiar with the Pennsic site.

Embedded geek

A friend shared this with me earlier today and I literally laughed out loud:

Jeopardy board with columns 'shaka' and 'when the walls fell


The second-last column is about a famous Zulu leader. The last one is about walled cities under fire.

"Shaka, when the walls fell" is a key phrase in a rather unusual episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, named "Darmok". The famous universal translator doesn't work when the Enterprise encounters these particular aliens, because their language doesn't work at the word level. They speak in what the crew calls metaphor. I've seen discussions of this over the years ("could that really work?" "improbable, because..."). The post about the Jeopardy episode links to this Atlantic article about the episode that argues that we're looking at it all wrong. I found it an interesting read.

Also, Atlantic does in-depth articles about episodes of SF shows? Who knew?

Gathering information online (evaluating sources)

A student asked on the SE site for writing about how to do online research, and specifically how to evaluate the information returnred by Google. This is the answer I posted:

In doing research, whether online or offline, there are two types of assertions you can encounter: supported and unsupported. (Just like on Stack Exchange!)

An unsupported claim isn't worth very much. Some blog post says "X", but somewhere out there is another blog post saying "not X". This happens at sites that look more credible than blogs, too. And some of them might sound credible, until you realize that the author has a vested interest or the post is 7 years old and things have changed.

This is why Wikipedia, for example, bars original research and demands citations. When you come across a (well-written) Wikipedia page, or some other source like it, you'll see a bunch of citations at the bottom. Those citations explain where they got their information.

Don't just say "there are citations; done!", though. Citations can be misunderstood or misrepresented, particularly in works that aren't carefully reviewed. You have more work ahead of you.

If you need to verify a claim, find its citation and then go look at that source. If it has what you need, great. If not and it has citations, follow those. Iterate until you find what you need or you reach a dead end on all threads.

When evaluating a source, look for these key factors, taken from this quick guide to evaluating a source's credibility from UC Berkeley:

  1. Authority - Who is the author? What is their point of view?
  2. Purpose - Why was the source created? Who is the intended audience?
  3. Publication & format - Where was it published? In what medium?
  4. Relevance - How is it relevant to your research? What is its scope?
  5. Date of publication - When was it written? Has it been updated?
  6. Documentation - Did they cite their sources? Who did they cite?

In this answer I've talked mostly about #6, but everything on that list is important.

Investigating sources is a standard tool of academic researchers, reference librarians, and (good) journalists, among others. If you don't have access to an academic researcher or a journalist to learn the technique from, make friends with the reference librarian at your local library. That person will be able to help you decipher references, hunt down obscure sources, and so on.

You might find these resources collected by Tulsa Community College about evaluating sources helpful. (Many universities have such guides for their students; that's just the first one I found.)