Tonight’s Specials

Something from the bar?

This has to be the lamest question ever uttered, and it’s uttered a million times a day in restaurants all over the world.

It might elicit an actual drink order from a customer who always wants the same refreshment before dinner, and for whom price is no object, but for everyone else it causes hesitation, confusion, reluctance, panic.

We don’t know what you have, how it’s priced, whether your bartender is frugal or licentious, which of the countless ways you might want to take advantage of us is in play . . . .

In other words, it creates an environment precisely the opposite of what the server intended, which was to make the customer comfortable, appreciated, and catered to (in a word, spendy).

Get it? 🙂

Here’s what your customer at Table 13 visualizes when you attack her with your demand that she order a drink:


It’s no wonder that, when you make her select from this ridiculous array of alternatives—on a strict social deadline!—she panics in the moment and says the only safe thing: “I’ll stick with water.”

And you wonder why you don’t get bigger tips!

Hint to the metaphor: Readers do the same thing. Faced with too much new data or too many choices—in absence of clear guidance—they retreat to their bunkers where you can’t begin to persuade them.

How to Serve

You don’t understand your job, which is to serve, and by serving to guide, and by guiding to sell, and by selling to improve your employer’s bottom line, and—by helping out absolutely everybody—to take home bigger tips from happier customers whose enjoyment has been lubricated by expensive cocktails.

The best servers use their power to their advantage.

And when I say “servers” I mean “writers.” You understand this is an extended metaphor, right?

  1. They are the subject matter experts
  2. They have already examined the pertinent evidence
  3. They have come to the right conclusions
  4. If they establish your trust, they can guide you to the right conclusions
  5. Everybody is happy when you come to the right conclusions

How to Write

How to serve; how to write; they come down to the same set of rules. Stay in charge of the subject matter; approach it like the expert you are; keep everybody comfortable; say what needs to be said and not another word; guide your reader (diner) to the right conclusion.

One of the images below demonstrates the right way to offer up hors d’oeuvres. The other is the way we write too often without even knowing we’re doing it.

Hors D'oeuvres

Get it? 🙂

NOTHING is accomplished if I tell you “We have a wonderful assortment of delicious hors d’oeuvres; what do you want?”

You think I’ve offered you the universe when in fact I have seven options and a microwave. Instinctively, you know this too, and you’re afraid to order Amazonian beefcheek if I’m not going to recognize it, so you freeze. You don’t know what I have because I haven’t told you.

But if I extend to you a limited sampling of carefully selected delicacies (by which I mean data and evidence because we’re still talking about writing, remember?) and stand there smiling, offering by my benevolent presence to guide you through the options with pleasant but persistent patience, then we pretty much both understand you’re going to order one of these little beauties . . . probably the one on which the house earns the biggest markup.

But whatever you choose, it will be something I have. I’ve made your options completely clear. And I’ve looked you in the eye with confidence. And nothing else seems reasonable.

Get it now? 🙂

It might even be Amazonian beefcheek, which I had all along, and could have sold you if I’d wanted you to choose it.

Lessons from the Server


  1. Don’t ask open-ended questions.
  2. Don’t promise that you’ll have important information to share . . . later.
  3. Don’t blame the kitchen.
  4. Don’t apologize for what you don’t have.
  5. Never contradict your customer’s preferences.


  1. Instead of open questions: We have spectacular cocktails from our certified mixologist (I know. I didn’t know there was such a thing either, but she has the certificate to prove it! 🙂 ) But if you’re not drinking, I have flavored teas, a full line of soft drinks, fresh-roasted coffee hot or cold. I’ll even put a big bottle of sparkling water in a bucket of ice. (But I won’t let you think that “sticking with tap water” is an alternative.)
  2. Instead of saying there are countless options: For big appetites I have a 22-ounce porterhouse; South Jersey magazine raves about our chicken Parmesan; but the best bargain on the menu is the brick oven pizza: 15 bucks and you’ll take half of it home. (If you choose the pizza, I upsell you in two painless moves to the shrimp version at $23.50 and we’re both happy.)
  3. Instead of blaming the kitchen: We’re not used to being so crowded on a Thursday, but the review that came out in the local paper has us really hopping.
  4. Instead of saying the owner forgot to order seafood: There are no good mussels in the market this week after that storm in the Gulf; fortunately, the Maine lobster was unaffected and the 2-pounder is on special.
  5. Instead of arguing about your customer’s favorite cut: A lot of people say that, and I agree, so this is hard for me to say, but the filet mignon actually has less flavor than the rib-eye which benefits from all the marbling. Our chef handles both cuts really well. Want to try something new? (If you do, you’ll help me unload our excess rib-eye. If not, you’ll be choosing the already over-priced filet. Either way we both feel like winners.)

Metaphorical Payoff

Do I really have to do this, or do you get it?

  • THE KITCHEN is NOT the entire world of knowledge. It’s whatever you’ve been able to gather from your research. You’ve had just a few weeks, for crying out loud. It’s everything you could afford, and everything you could keep from spoiling in your limited refrigerator space (your White Paper; your Brain).
  • THE CHEF is you back there working with dull knives and too little butter on the one working burner that isn’t devoted to all your other classes—the ones that really matter to your major! 🙂
  • THE SERVER is also you. Once you graduate, you can hire someone to do the serving for you, but for now, you have to cook and deliver everything to the table.
  • THE CUSTOMER is your reader. He’s an arrogant blowhard, full of opinions about what’s good and what’s bad about food. You have to figure out what he thinks he knows, charm him into questioning where he got that misinformation, and sell him that the Tortellini-Tre-P that he always thought was cruel to animals happens to be an ecological blessing in exactly three ways, which you delineate for him with pleasant and persistent patience.

Waiter Receives Tip

Everybody wins.

You collect the big tip for introducing him to guilt-free sausage. He goes home with his utterly infatuated date who has no idea what she’s in for, and you—with your obvious command of the data—attract the attention of the stunning brunette with the dangling earrings and those magnificent teeth.

For sticklers keeping score: Yes. You win twice. But it cost you a semester and he only had to pay the check. Fair’s fair.

Feedback, please

If this is exactly like the advice you’ve received in every other writing class you’ve taken, I’d love to hear about your earlier experiences.

If, on the other hand, it’s a fresh way to consider the task of crafting an academic essay, well, I’d love to hear that too.



The Opposite of a Black Sneaker

In Favor of Outrageous Thinking

The goal of all our arguments is not to join a black-or-white debate, but to create a color, or a set of fancy footwear, not the comfortable shoes that “go with everything,” but a pair of high-heeled neon ankle-killing athletic shoes everyone laughs at until the day she buys a pair. If you start with black, and I start with white, we tend to think we should meet somewhere in the middle, and the middle too often looks gray.


Gray satisfies no one. It can’t be what we wanted. Ending up with compromises no more compelling than our starting premises wastes our readers’ time (if we still have readers at the end). Instead we need to realize we’ve misinterpreted our starting points. We haven’t started with opposites. For one thing, we’re both talking about sneakers.

The opposite of a black sneaker

The opposite of a black sneaker isn’t a white sneaker; it’s broccoli, or impressionist art, or the atomic weight of laughter. We’re not obligated to compromise our positions to find something that contains components of both. We should instead be hoping that the tension between the two ends of the spectrum reveals something more interesting than either of the “sides.” First it reveals that we haven’t started on the two extremes. Then we discover there’s something beyond both our positions.


The worst mistake we can make—even worse than settling for gray—is to start with gray, which can only result in more gray.


Gray on Gray.
Also known as “How to Fail.”

The most common misconception with someone who is happy is we think that person has meaning in his life. A person who is happier may even have less meaning in her life than her less-happy counterparts. Happiness doesn’t define meaning; rather, it defines contentment. Having meaning in one’s life runs deeper than the mere sensation that happiness brings. Meaning is about contributing to the world, to something greater than oneself. Happiness is just satisfaction with one’s current standpoint on life, and one’s environment. The world defines happiness as something much greater than it actually is. Happiness is nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s current standpoint.

Color on Color.

Our goal is the colorful conclusion, achieved by beginning with bold and colorful premises, somewhere along a line of reasoning the ends of which are not in sight when we begin.


Color on Color: A Model

Our neighbor Frank seems happy, and would probably define himself as happy, but he’s not. He takes pride in his fine house, where he lives with his presentable family, and he has job security. Let’s call him content. Our neighbor Ernest rents a cramped apartment, lives alone, and scrapes by freelancing. Let’s call him happy. Ernest is tortured by an abiding outrage against injustice. He champions every cause that comes his way if it will better the world or ease the suffering of others. Often hungry himself, he will share his lunch with anyone. We might prefer to be Frank, but Ernest is more likely to be happy.

If you can prove that,
I’ll eat my shoe.

The result of our premises will not be as certain as when we try to start with supposed “opposite sides” of a known argument, but the pursuit of an outcome will be more entertaining, vivid, colorful, and compelling. Maybe even nutritious.


One Side Inevitably Loses any
Black-and-White Argument

EXAMPLE. Today we begin a debate on arming teachers in schools. If anti-gun advocates allow the argument to be phrased as black-and-white options, they inevitably lose. Most likely neither side will get exactly what it wants, but the pro-gun side will win. Why?

The “compromise” solution that will surely be the outcome—the grey in the middle between All Teachers Should Be Armed and No Teachers Should Be Armed—will be to arm “Some Teachers.”  Clear victory for the pro-gun side. Utter failure for the anti-gun side. The outcome lies in the how the question is phrased.

In-Class Exercise

Leave some smart commentary about this lecture as a Reply below. Address any topic I have raised. You might consider:

  • The trap of thinking there are “opposites” to every argument
  • The trap of thinking we know what those opposites are
  • A comparison of the Gray-on-Gray model and the Color-on-Color model
  • Another example of why finding a “compromise” solution always benefits one party to an argument and creates a big loser.

If you can’t comment without having some in-class discussion, then I’ll have figured out how to spark a discussion! That’s a win, but you’ll have to start the discussion with me, not the other way around.

Claims Task

Analyzing Claims

Basic Claim Types

We spoke only briefly in class about types of claims, so I don’t expect you to readily recognize a definition/categorical claim. Obviously, it’s a claim about how a term is defined or what category of thing it belongs to. We can start there. Here are some claim types.

1. Definition Claim. When you say “PTSD is a psychological disorder,” in your first five words you’re making a definition claim.
2. Analogy Claim. When you say, “PTSD is similar to other communicable diseases because it can be spread by a victim to others with whom he interacts,” you’re claiming a similarity of one thing to another.
3. Categorical Claim. A simple categorical claim would be the naming of several examples of PTSD symptoms (hyperawareness, sleeplessness, quick anger). They all belong to the category: Symptoms of PTSD. Similarly, if you claimed, “PTSD is not only a psychological disorder but also one that can be spread to others through close contact,” you could be making a categorical claim of the sort: PTSD belongs to the category of ailments that can be spread or communicable ailments.
4. Factual Claim. A claim that circumstances or conditions exist beyond doubt. Factual claims can be proved by appealing to indisputable evidence. “Ten thousand veterans of the Iraq war have been diagnosed with PTSD” can be quantified and proved. However, “Ten thousand veterans of the Iraq war SUFFER FROM PTSD” is not indisputable since it depends on a clear definition, accurate diagnosis, and an absence of fraud or error.
5. Evaluative Claim. A claim that involves judgment of the characteristics of an item or situation. Evaluations are arguable and can be supported by expertise, authority, credentials, or a preponderance of evidence. They can evaluate the quality of an item, its suitability for a particular purpose, or the effectiveness of a course of action. “Family members of veterans suffering from PTSD are not getting adequate support to deal with their own traumas” is an evaluative claim.
6. Ethical or Moral Claim. A type of evaluative claim that places a judgment on a social situation expresses an ethical or moral judgment. “Family members are not getting the support THEY DESERVE” is an ethical claim that blames the Veterans Administration for a failure to support the veteran’s family.
7. Quantitative, Numerical, or Comparative Claim. Such claims may be factual or evaluative depending on the reliability of the measurements. To say “There are more returning veterans with PTSD now than ever before in the history of warfare” is to make an evaluative numerical claim (it also compares this day with all previous days and is therefore comparative).
8. Causal Claim. Causal claims are assertions of cause and effect, consequences, preconditions, or predictions of what will occur in certain circumstances. An example of a causal claim you’ll likely encounter is that PTSD develops as a result of sustained trauma. The claim is that “Trauma causes PTSD.”
9. Recommendation or Proposal Claim. Authors who write to convince an audience to adopt a course of action (or at the very least to adopt a different point of view on a topic of social importance) are making a proposal claim. The word “should,” or “must,” or
“demand” inevitably appears in a proposal argument.

Similarity of Category and Analogy

Calling PTSD “contagious” also seems like an analogy, doesn’t it? Colds and flus are likely contagious. Measles is; polio is. But if we say a yawn is contagious, or that enthusiasm is contagious, we’re making an analogy to suggest, poetically, that a yawn belongs to the category: contagious things.

Yawning isn’t spread through bacteria or viruses, so it isn’t literally contagious. Neither is enthusiasm. But it spreads similarly to diseases: one person in close proximity to others transfers a condition: a physical yawn or an purposeful emotional energy to a roomful of other people, for example.

So what do you think? Is PTSD transferred from one person to another? If so, is the process more like spreading the flu, or more like spreading enthusiasm? Or a third way you could explain in a different analogy?

Did Brannan “catch” Caleb’s PTSD? Or is hers an entirely new case?

Student Sample

Last semester’s class did not format their exercises as suggested above, so I can’t show you a sample of that technique. They were also not told to identify claims by category. However, the student featured below did a creditable job of informally analyzing claims from the source material. I offer it to you as a sample of a smart student making good observations.


  1. “The house is often as quiet as a morgue. You can hear the cat padding around.”
  • House: The word “house” indicates a wholeness or collectiveness assessed in the argument here. The author wants to show the environmental effects of Caleb’s illness by describing the home.
  • As quiet as a morgue: Perhaps, to make the claim more effective, the author uses a simile to compare the quietness in the house to that of death.
  • The downfall of this claim starts when the cat is introduced because it is irrelevant to the idea presented.
  • The claim would be more effective if the the author had touched more upon the idea of death. The cat fails to paint a picture in the authors head.
  1. “After making sure she’s at least an arm’s length distance away.”
  • A household effect of PTSD
  • Eliminates any type of injury in the bedroom
  • This claim reveals that Brannan’s carefulness is nearly installed into her way of life
  • The distance that the author talks about is not the point at all
  • The “making sure” is a reflection of Brannan’s hesitant and anxious personality that is merely a reflection of Caleb’s PTSD.
  1. “This PTSD picture is worse than some, but much better, Brannan knows, than those that have devolved into drug addiction and rehab stints and relapses.”
  • Brannan infuses her personal opinion
  • Someone who has abused drugs has it bad certainly. But this author has no authority to categorize different levels of PTSD.
  • There is no data to support her point, which leads to a generalization.
  • This claim would have been more effective if she gave first hand examples of people who have devolved into drug addiction in an effort to cope with their PTSD.
  1. “Some hypotheses for why PTSD only tortures some trauma victims blame it on unhappily coded protein, or a misbehaving amygdala.”
  • This is a categorical claim because it groups the opinions of PTSD patients into one category.
  • Some. From the word “some” we can make the assumption that there is at least two people in the argument.
  • There is more opinions and ideas that have yet to be tested
  • This claim is made to amplify that this field of study has a lot more information to uncover
  1. “But whatever people have called it, they haven’t been likely to grasp or respect it.”
  • This claim is unclear, but it seems to be an attempt to stand up for PTSD victims in a sense that not many people can relate to what they are going through.
  • Who is “they”?
  • The term “they” suggests there is more than one person who has failed to understand PTSD and its side effects.
  • This author fails miserably in her claim because the author is not a credible source, therefore, cannot relate to people with PTSD. The claim is entirely subjective.
  1. “You can’t see Caleb’s other wound, either.”
  • This claim makes a comparison between Caleb’s physical signs of distress as opposed to his internal battle
  • The author talks directly to the audience by using “you” to focus on Caleb’s internal wounds.
  • We feel obligated to show remorse for Caleb.
  • See. This sensory detail allows for an effective, persuasive argument, yet could be more efficient if the author used other senses such as feel or sound to paint a more vivid picture for the reader
  1. “The Army has rules about that sort of thing now.”
  • What rules? What “sort of thing” do they have rules for?
  • This claim is technically true, but it does not convince me that the Army is doing everything in its power to help people affected by war.
  • Sort of thing. This broadens the horizon significantly. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a specific sickness that should be identified as such. There are numerous injuries that result from war. The author is being too vague here. The author should focus specifically on PTSD instead of making a blurred claim that may confuse the reader.
  • It seems entirely unclear what the Army is actually doing to support its non-active duty members. This claim fails to specify any sort of moral or physical support for people that suffer from PTSD.
  1. “But there’s still a lot about brain damage that doctors, much less civilians, don’t understand.”
  • This sounds like a repetition of the fourth claim about the lack of knowledge in this field of study, but the addition of society allows the claim to make a connection with the reader
  • Why the writer chooses this point in his argument to add civilians to his argument is unclear.
  • Why is the author focusing more on what we don’t understand instead of giving advice to people with PTSD?
  • This claim fails because it is irrelevant to the subject matter. It is more of a topic sentence rather than an analysis on Caleb and Brannan.



  • DUE BEFORE CLASS TUE OCT 02 (11:59 pm MON OCT 01).
  • Publish your assignment in two categories: Claims Analysis (find it under Tasks) and the category for your Username.
  • Give your post the title PTSD Claims–Username, substituting your own username, of course.
  • Read the Mother Jones article “Is PTSD Contagious?,” or listen to the podcast. Both links are found in the Agenda for TUE SEP 25.
  • Find a paragraph or small section that contains many claims for your analysis. The more claims you can identify in a paragraph, the more impressive your results will be.
  • Don’t count words this time. Just give yourself a time limit of one hour. I’m not looking for volume or gargantuan effort. I want you to work efficiently and produce good results without spending a lot of time.
  • I will critique your responses and grade them once. The grade is not trivial, but it’s small compared to your Portfolio grades.
  • Customary late penalties. (0-24 hours 10%) (24-48 hours 20%) (48+ hours, 0 grade)
  • Non-Portfolio Assignment

“No problem” is a problem.

It’s probably my age, and if so I’ll ask you to forgive me for taking offense where none is intended, but being told that I haven’t caused a problem when I thank a service-provider for a small consideration sounds rude.

No problem

Not a big problem, to be sure, and I’m certain the phrase is not meant to insult me, but when I expressed my appreciation for service, I was in no way apologizing for having caused undue difficulty.

What I FEEL like saying in response, is, “No. You didn’t cause me a problem either. In fact, I was quite pleased with your service to me. That’s why I thanked you.”

But then, of course, I would begin to BECOME a problem, and I really would be an old crank. I understand this trend toward minimizing the negative is part of a long linguistic history that includes the Spanish “de nada” as a way of rounding-off the thank-you exchange with the assurance that the effort of serving me was minimal.

But still, couldn’t everyone adopt the much more appropriate phrase I always offer and which I much prefer to hear?

My Pleasure


The “Give Directly” Hypothesis

A man checks his phone to confirm that the charity GiveDirectly has transferred a cash grant to his account. (Nichole Sobecki for NPR)

In 2013 Daniel Handel, an economist with USAID—the U.S. government’s main agency for foreign assistance—had just moved to Rwanda when he heard about a charity that was testing a bold idea:

Instead of giving people in poor countries, say, livestock or job training to help improve their standard of living, why not just give them cash and let them decide how best to spend it?

Handel had been mulling this exact question. Aid programs were spending enormous sums per person to boost poor people’s income less than the cost of the program. At this rate, Handel thought, why not just hand over the money to people directly? This program called GiveDirectly was doing just that.

So Handel went to his bosses at USAID’s Rwanda office and proposed an experiment:

Take one of USAID’s typical programs and test it against cash aid. His initiative has since grown to encompass six experiments in four countries. He is currently overseeing these tests from a new position, senior adviser on aid effectiveness at a USAID research unit in Washington, D.C.

A pool of families from nearly 250 villages was selected based on typical criteria and randomly assigned to one of four groups.

  • Those in the first were the “control” and received no help.
  • Those in the second group were visited by the teams from the nutrition and hygiene program.
  • Families in the third group were given small cash grants by GiveDirectly equivalent to the per-person cost of the nutrition and hygiene program, which ultimately averaged out at $114.
  • In the final group, families got a much larger cash grant of around $500 – a figure chosen because this was the amount that GiveDirectly estimated was more likely to make an impact.

On Thursday, the government released the results of the first study in the series: An evaluation of a program to improve child and maternal health in Rwanda by teaching families about nutrition and hygiene.

The experiment found that the program met none of its main objectives. Teaching Rwandans about nutrition did not improve their nutrition or health. Neither did giving Rwandans the cash equivalent of the cost of the education program — about $114.

“Our hearts sank.”

The program’s focus on trying to change behaviors is one of the world’s major strategies for ending malnutrition. And, at least in this example, it had failed to achieve any of its primary goals.

A year on, the children who had been targeted by the nutrition and hygiene program were no more likely to eat a better or more diverse diet, and no less likely to be malnourished or anemic than children who had gotten no help at all. But providing a much larger cash grant of about $500 did make some difference.

Supporters of such “cash-benchmarking” exercises are heralding this particular one as a milestone. For years, anti-poverty advocates and researchers have complained that the U.S. government doesn’t do enough to make sure its aid programs actually work. “But when you talk about giving money to people straight up, with no conditions, people at USAID look at you kind of like you’re a crazy person. There’s ‘an inherent sense’ that they can’t be trusted to spend it wisely.” said Daniel Handel’s associate James Carbonell.

In this case, people who were given the cost-equivalent grants used much of the money to pay down their debts.

It remains unclear what, if any, material changes USAID is planning to its nutrition efforts based on the study’s findings.


  1. Did the authors of the study Fail?
  2. Would proving that cash-equivalent grants were as beneficial as the education program have qualified as Success?
  3. Or did the authors succeed by proving that simply handing recipients money without any stipulation was the wrong way to achieve a particular goal?
  4. Could the authors conclude that poor people really DON’T know “what to do with the money”?


Heavily edited from an original story by NPR.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

Link to the original:

This Rich World

We don’t own the world. At best, we’re tenants with rent to pay and a promise to not trash the place. Regrettably, if we screw things up, it won’t be we who pay. And somebody else will have to cover the security deposit.

It’s more than enough.

Sufficient to itself, of course, the world doesn’t need us. It evolved us, so we fill a niche, but without us that niche will fill as fast as a hole in the ozone. Oops. Bad example. We keep making that one bigger.


I suspect that within a few generations the earth will shrug us off like a bad virus and thrive once it’s rid of us.

Meanwhile . . .

While we’re here, the world—its systems in all their complexity, its people and cultures, its rich diversity—is more than enough to occupy our time, fruitfully, wastefully, however we wish to squander it.

My morning.

I’ve never taught in the Wilson building. It might as well be New Zealand. (Where is Old Zealand? I’ll have to look that up.*) I came back this morning to retrieve this item I had left behind in our classroom.


The other side says “HODGES,” as you might have guessed. I retrieved it this time, but if you ever see it in a place distant from me, please reunite us. It contains your photographs among other precious data.

A few feet from the entrance to Wilson Hall, I encountered this unprecedented item:


Intrigued and uncertain, I asked the first person I saw, “Is that a musical notation white board?” She wasn’t sure, and I thought, “How can you work in this building and not want to know?”

Want to know.

This may be the only advice I have for you that matters: Want to know.

The world is so rich in its complex diversity and wonder. It will exhaust you if you try to comprehend it. Or it will bore you if you think you know something.

You don’t. I don’t.

If you’re bored, you’re boring. Look around. The world is far more fascinating than you or me.

The Blues in F

Two doors down the hall from where I retrieved my thumb drive, I heard violin music, immediately followed by piano music. I knocked softly and repeatedly on the door and was ignored, so I opened the door and entered.

This is my second piece of advice: When you knock softly and are ignored, open the door and enter. Apologize if necessary, but enter.

Jacob was seated at the piano. Atop the piano, a violin. “Play that for me, please,” I asked him, if that’s a question. “Forty years ago I heard a classmate play a blues progression like that, and ever since I’ve regretted not learning how to do it.”

I love Jacob, now and forever, because he didn’t ask me why, or object, or hesitate. He just did this:

I don’t know why he did it for me, but I know he wouldn’t have if I hadn’t asked him.

This is my third piece of advice: Ask. People are amazing. They will astonish you. They WANT YOU TO ASK!

So now, forty years later, I know how to do that. I’ll need practice, but you can ask me at the end of the semester, and I’ll show you what I’ve learned. Because I haven’t stopped learning.

Perfect Pitch?

On my way out of the building, thumb drive in hand, the Blues in F in my head, I heard a piano being tuned, so I followed the sound through an open door because of Rule 2: Enter and apologize later if necessary.

The piano tuner couldn’t explain my peculiar ability to start singing the Counting Crows’ “Round Here” at precisely the right note without knowing the name of the note, but neither did he call the police on me, nor insult me, nor object to my question in any way, so the Rule abides: Enter, Ask, Engage, Want to Know.

People are flattered to be approached for their advice, wisdom, expertise. They may actually have something to share. If not: who cares? If so: you win.

The Music Student

Emboldened, I may have pushed my luck. I said, aloud, to a space that only two occupied, “Are you a music student?” and the music student replied, “Yes.”

I asked her about Perfect Pitch, and Relative Pitch. She didn’t help. So I asked her, “What song shares a melody with the Alphabet Song: ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP”? She didn’t know, so I hummed the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She got it. I felt as if I had taught her “The Blues in F.”

Random Vanity

Leaving school, I was following a car from the parking lot whose license plate was G30 JFK.


JFK puts a dagger through my heart, so I saw that first, but quickly recognized that G30 is the name of the Group of 30 nations that meet regularly to advise the world on monetary policy.

What did I do? I knocked (by flashing my lights) and entered (by exiting my car and approaching the driver’s window).

He got it. He knew how amazing his license plate is. And while he may have been a little bit freaked out that I flashed my headlights at him and took a photograph of his license plate, he didn’t call the police.

And that’s all that I ask of the world that has offered me so much entertainment. Don’t put me in jail. I’ll keep paying the rent and try not to screw things up.

[Comp II students, I will always “put myself out there for you” whether you encourage me or not, but engagement is essential. Positive or negative, I thrive on your Replies.]

*Home to the city of Copenhagen, Zealand is the most populous and one of the larger islands that make up Denmark. 

My Hypothesis—ProfPost

A Second Look

The first day of class I introduced you to this post describing the process of developing a hypothesis worthy of a 3000-word research project.

It’s time for you to rise to the challenge. If I’ve prepared you well, you’re ready to embark on an investigation of something worth your while. One week from today, I need to see the hypothesis that will launch your research.

Your plan will be preliminary and open to improvement. With any luck, you’ll revise your hypothesis out of necessity when your research provides insights you couldn’t have predicted.

Step 1. Your topic is too broad. Almost certainly. And because it’s too broad, you won’t be able to write anything surprising, insightful, or new about it. Too many commentators have already made broad general comments about:

1. concussions in football

Obviously, you can’t just gather a bunch of material about concussions in football under the title “Concussions in Football” and call it a research paper. A topic that broad would require at the very least a full book, with chapters devoted to:

  • how concussions occur inside the skull
  • clinical evidence of harm to players
  • numbers of concussions in different eras
  • football injuries compared to other sports
  • cumulative effects of repeated injuries
  • depression and suicide among retired players
  • denials by the league
  • lawsuits by the players’ association
  • rules changes to mitigate dangerous hits
  • helmet design to reduce injury
  • rejection of youth football by parents
  • alternatives to equipment and rules changes.

Any one of those narrower topics might still be too broad for a 3000-word essay. So:

Step 2. Narrow your topic by limiting the range of your terms, and by adding elements that focus your attention to specific aspects of your topic.

2. concussions and helmet design in NFL football

You’ve decided to concentrate on the relationship between helmet design and concussions—a significant narrowing of your topic—but we still don’t know how the two are related. So:

Step 3. Create a logical relationship among the elements of your increasingly complicated topic description.

3. the effect of improved helmet design on the number of concussions suffered by players in NFL games

So far, so good. But “the effect” is so vague that it has no real meaning. If I say, “Lighting a fire in the corner had an effect on the temperature in the room,” I’m going out of my way to avoid the very obvious logical connection: The fire raised the temperature in the room. So:

Step 4. Write a complete sentence that makes a bold, clear claim by clarifying the logical relationship between the specific elements in your narrow topic.

4. Helmet designs that act like shock absorbers to reduce the impact of helmet-to-helmet blows will reduce the number of concussions suffered by players in NFL games.

Now you’re making claims. Your narrowed topic has focused our attention on specific elements: NFL players, helmet-to-helmet blows, design improvements, reduced numbers of concussions. Let’s test it.

Step 5. Share your claim with several classmates. Do they all agree? Will readers automatically concur that your claim is logical, reasonable? If so, your thesis is entirely intuitive, and therefore probably too obvious. Perhaps trivial. Most likely, it’s already been demonstrated by other authors. If not, it will be soon.

This is where the real work begins. Rise to the challenge. Question the essence of the specific claim you have made.

5. Eliminating helmet-to-helmet blows would radically reduce the number of concussions suffered by players in NFL games.

This may look like a step back, but it’s actually a shift to a different perspective. It questions what seemed like a natural and obvious conclusion.

  • Players used to play without helmets.
  • Then they graduated to leather helmets, which mostly prevented split-open scalps.
  • Then they graduated to hard plastic helmets with interior suspension systems that kept skulls from colliding with other skulls and other helmets.
  • But with all that innovation, we still have mounting evidence of widespread lasting damage.
  • Why?
  • It’s not skull-on-skull damage that matters.
  • It’s the collision of delicate brain tissue with the inside of the skull.
  • And no helmet can protect the brain from colliding with the skull.
  • So:

Step 6. Apply counterintuitive thinking to find the unexpected angle.

6. Eliminating helmets from NFL games would reduce concussions more than helmet improvements by making players very reluctant to engage in the most dangerous plays.

It’s a radical hypothesis that may be impossible to prove, but it can certainly be researched. And it makes for a surprising and innovative argument much more likely than the alternatives to result in a rewarding semester of study.

More or Fewer Steps. Your own process may require more than 6 steps, but never fewer. If you start the process with a bold, clear claim that creates a logical relationship among specific elements in an already narrow topic, you’re starting at Step 4. (You didn’t skip the steps; you took them without noticing.)

The Real Work. The most important work begins at Step 5, when you’ve crafted what you think sounds like a good thesis. Further scrutinizing that thesis is painful but essential. We don’t want to abandon our comfortable thesis that seems so provable. But we learn more when we stop trying to prove something and instead research to learn something.

We Research to Test, not to Prove. In the early stages of your research, you’ll search for evidence to prove or disprove the counterintuitive claim you make in Step 6, which is merely a Hypothesis you’ll measure against the academic sources you discover. Almost certainly, you’ll alter your Hypothesis, perhaps several times, during the writing/research process, narrowing or redirecting your claim as you figure out what you can persuasively argue.

The Payoff. A research project that results in a Thesis radically different than your first Hypothesis is doubly rewarding. It indicates that you found a Thesis to prove; more importantly, it demonstrates that you’ve grown academically throughout the course by learning something unexpected.

Task: My Hypothesis

  • In a new post, name a broad topic that you’re willing to invest 12 weeks researching and writing about. That will be Step 1.
  • Title your New Post: My Hypothesis—Username (substituting your actual username of course).
  • Follow all the steps of the illustration above, refining your topic until it resembles a counterintuitive thesis worthy of Step 6.
  • You will not be stuck with what you commit to in this Exercise; however,
  • until you deliberately update your Hypothesis, it will be your research project of record. In other words, I will consider you committed to today’s Hypothesis until you replace it with another.
  • BEGIN THE WORK IN CLASS TODAY so that I can see you know how to post to the blog and Edit your post.
  • COMPLETE THE WORK by 11:59pm WED SEP 19

A completed Task will look like this:

My Hypothesis—davidbdale

  1. concussions in football
  2. concussions and helmet design in NFL football
  3. the effect of improved helmet design on the number of concussions suffered by players in NFL games
  4. Helmet designs that act like shock absorbers to reduce the impact of helmet-to-helmet blows will reduce the number of concussions suffered by players in NFL games.
  5. Eliminating helmet-to-helmet blows would radically reduce the number of concussions suffered by players in NFL games.
  6. Eliminating helmets from NFL games would reduce concussions more than helmet improvements by making players very reluctant to engage in the most dangerous plays.


Purposeful Summary Lecture

Not Quote, Not Paraphrase

For a 3000-word paper with a healthy blend of original scholarship and relevant citation, you may:

  • consult 50 sources,
  • save links to just 30 of those,
  • actively pursue 25 of those,
  • produce annotated bibliographic entries for 20 of those,
  • and directly quote 7.

Too much quotation leaves little room for your own original language and discourages readers from considering your position. Too much quotation also subjects you to the not-always-persuasive rhetorical style of the original authors.

For the dozen or so sources you cite but don’t directly quote, the perfect blend of original material and your own good reasoning is the Purposeful Summary.

Good for What it Leaves Out

“Purposeful summary” reduces sources to their smallest useful content.

  • It eliminates most of the original language.
  • It can eliminate the author’s argument.
  • It can eliminate the author’s logic, rhetoric, ethical justifications, conclusions.
  • It can eliminate the oppositional stance or attitude of the original.
  • It can remove the material from its context.

Better for What it Adds

Removed from its context, the evidence in a source can be used to advance your own thesis. Your Purposeful Summary makes claims and draws reasonable conclusions based on the evidence from the material, whether or not those conclusions coincide with the original author’s argument.

Retaining Integrity

It does, however, keep faith with the original author. It may remove the material from its context, but it can’t misrepresent the author’s position. The author may have squandered or misinterpreted the evidence, which our new Summary remedies, but we either share a fair report of that failure, or we suppress the author’s point of view altogether.

A propaganda film might depict the mistreatment of animals in a factory henhouse, for example, and draw the conclusion that no one can humanely eat chickens. But a Purposeful Summary is not obligated to draw the same conclusion, and might instead take issue with the methodology of the film’s construction or the generalizations it draws from scant evidence, or it could cite the maltreatment to advocate for a more humane approach to farming. The only thing it cannot do is mislead readers about the original author’s position or intent.

1) Ethics of a Three-Parent Baby

It seems counterintuitive that human life, which everyone knows gets DNA from two parents when male sperm fertilizes a female egg, could ever require, or even make use of, the DNA of three parents. But that’s exactly what is happening.

The UK will soon allow in vitro fertilization of female eggs that include contributions from a second woman’s healthy egg to replace defective mitochondrial DNA in the first woman’s egg. While the amount of DNA is small, it nonetheless permanently alters the DNA of all female children born to the (well we can’t say couple any more!) three parents.

The contribution of healthy mitochondrial DNA to the fertilized egg will prevent birth defects that could result in seizures and decreased muscle formation in the absence of the healthy DNA. As usual, critics worry that this first tiny advance in promoting healthy babies will open the floodgates to every sort of god-playing, frankenstein-creating unscrupulous experimentation imaginable.

Others fret that only the rich will be able to afford healthy babies. In all likelihood, both these scenarios will play out just as they fear.

2) Africa Should Screen Americans for Measles

It seems counterintuitive but is possibly true that Africans have more to fear from American visitors than we have to fear from them. Nigerian writer and lawyer Elnathan John earned 35,000 retweets or favorites by tweeting that he was concerned for “measles-ravaged” America and hoped Africa was screening American visitors.

His comment was a sly rejoinder to the demand heard often in the media during the Ebola scare that all Africans should be screened for disease before visiting America. While Ebola is certainly scary, measles is nine times as contagious, and while it isn’t usually fatal, it killed 430 children a day in 2011 worldwide.

Also counterintuitive are the rules for immunizations in the United States. All US immigrants are required to prove they’ve received the full protocol of immunizations, including one for measles. But many American jurisdictions permit US citizens to opt out of vaccinations, including the measles vaccine, on religious or philosophical grounds.

When tens of thousands of Central American children crossed the US border from Mexico last year, they were all forcibly immunized against measles, even though their countries of origin have higher immunization rates than the US (El Salvador, 94 %; Guatemala, 93%; United States, 91%).

Nevertheless, we remain as a country more irrationally afraid of “disease-carrying” immigrants and visitors than we do of our own “anti-vaxxer” citizens who could be immunized if they chose to but choose not to.

[Bonus Source: Here’s how reports on the recent US measles outbreak, as part of a series of posts in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.]

3) Is this Photo Ethical?

It seems counterintuitive that we send photographers into scenes of grave danger on the basis of our need to see, to fully understand, the catastrophes of natural phenomena or disastrous human choices, but then accuse them of sensationalizing their subjects when they deliver precisely what we have asked them to produce.

When the sudden earthquake of January, 2010, killed 230,000 Haitians, nature was not the only killer. Concrete structures built according to lax building codes (or built without oversight of any kind, or after bribing code officials) contributed thousands of deaths when they crashed down on their inhabitants. And when lawlessness and looting followed the quake, flawed humans killed one another; property owners, thieves, and police all clashed until even more blood was spilled over what few valuables remained.

Photographers rushed to Haiti in droves to record the chaos and devastation, perhaps to raise awareness, certainly to assist in the fundraising efforts for disaster relief, perhaps to win themselves some photography or journalism awards.

The images of 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, shot by police while crossing a rooftop with an armload of stolen framed pictures, appear to have been taken by a lone photographer who happened on the scene and shot them with frank detachment. They are shocking but perhaps have value in engaging our passions and our compassion.

But the “other” photo, the side view that reveals seven photographers all crouching to capture virtually the same shot of the fallen Fabienne (one of which was named the best International News Image at the Swedish Picture of the Year Award) shocks everyone who sees it for an entirely different reason: it makes them look like vultures waiting to feed off her corpse.

Consider what we demand of the people we send to do this job. We insist they share us truthful images we can trust to tell the real story of human triumphs and tragedies. But we also want them to disappear, to not be part of the story, to keep their hands out of the situation so that we can believe it. And when they do what we ask, we condemn them for their inhumanity, for their very “professionalism” in the face of suffering.

Journalists Gather

Photographers gather around Fabienne