Citing Your Sources

writing-828911_1920
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

While reading a post from A Learning A Day, I thought I’d keep the irony train rolling by linking to Rohan’s linked post from Derek Sivers about the perceived need to quote an idea’s source.  Specifically, I wanted to respond to this point:

2. School teaches us to reference. But we’re not trying to impress a teacher anymore. And every unnecessary fact dilutes our point.

I often reflect on the learning objectives I expect to achieve in a course lesson while teaching.  I try to parse out the meaningful things I want students to learn from rote procedural tasks that don’t serve a purpose.  The last thing I want to do is to reinforce the wrong lesson or derive the wrong conclusion from a student’s performance (e.g. did a student do well on a test because they understood the material, or because they are good at taking tests?).

Derek’s point above about references is well-taken and got me thinking: why do I want students to cite their sources?  I brainstormed a few reasons and listed them below with comments.

Reason

Thoughts

I want a student to be mindful of their research process (procedure). Having gone through writing my master’s thesis, it’s easy to lose track of references and citations if you don’t stay on top of it.  This isn’t super relevant to most assignment learning objectives, but it’s a good practice to have before launching into a bigger endeavor or capstone project.
2. I want a student to critically examine their own knowledge (what do they believe to be true facts, where did that fact come from, and why do they think it’s true). I’m not sure if making students cite their sources achieves this aim on its own, but I suppose I could use citation requirements to help guide them through this process.
3. I want a student to be mindful of idea ownership and give credit to people who have done work.

 

I’ve used this mostly in plagiarism cases where students copied work and submitted it as their own.  I try to distinguish between sloppy citing and outright theft, and I remind students that they shouldn’t get marks for work they didn’t do.  I’m still undecided if this is a rule of the academy or a legitimate thing to prevent fraudulently passing work off as your own in the future.  This point, though, is mostly relevant in academic contexts as opposed to Derek’s notes about doing this during conversations.
4. I want an easy way to see if the student did the work. This is a trick I’ve developed to see whether a student giving me their opinion is right by chance, or if they have informed their opinion by doing the course reading.  The same result could be gained if students inserted relevant information without citations, but the citations help to highlight this when I’m reading through their submission.  In other words, it makes my job easier.
5. I want to reinforce good academic writing habits. Using references is part of what it means to write academically, and is used as part of the integrity process.  This is only a good reason if my objective is to teach/reinforce academic writing for students.
6. This is the way it has always been done.

 

More cynically, requiring citations is part of the tradition, and who am I to question it?  It’s not a good reason to require it, but it is what it is.  I won’t included in the list to the left, but a more sadistic version of this is “I had to do it, so you have to (go through this rite of passage) too!”
7. I want to remain consistent with departmental policies and culture. Whether written or unstated, most departments adhere to some level of standards.  This was less the case for me in undergrad and it depended largely on the preferences of the prof.  By the time of my thesis, I ended up developing a hybrid referencing system that did not strictly follow any of the major citation methods.  I received no comments from anyone who reviewed my thesis on my citation practices.
8. It’s important to trace an idea’s lineage as much as possible to spot fabrication. If you are going to insert facts or conclusions into your work, it’s important to point to where you found them.  Without a citation or an adequate way of accounting for how you know what you purport to know, it’s possible that the information is made up.  Being able to trace these things helps, albeit this is more useful from a scholarship point of view, as I suspect a lay-reader isn’t concerned with checking a text for factual accuracy and instead takes it on authorial authority.

9.

Related – to see if a student is able to either properly reference work, or at the very least charitably restate ideas without dropping important content from the idea. This perhaps falls under sloppy citation practices, but on occasion students will misunderstand a piece of text and paraphrase or summarize information incorrectly.  Knowing where the student is drawing their source from can have pedagogical merit if you take the time to compare the student’s work with the source and discuss the divergence.

10.

Related – when an author cites their sources, a reader can use the bibliography of sources for further reading.

 

This is perhaps more for book nerds, but I love having references to be able to learn more for things that pique my interest.  This is, however, not the context Derek is referencing when he discusses giving citations during a normal conversation.  If Derek’s conversation partner was interested and want to know more, I’m sure they would ask Derek for more information.

11.

More abstractly, knowledge and academics is a web of mutually reinforcing facts, so academic writing is an extension of that reality. This one is a bit of a stretch as to why a student who is not adding to a body of knowledge is required to rigorously cite their sources in a pedagogical exercise, but I include this more epistemological point to try and be exhaustive.

12.

It’s a symbolic representation that the student (in most contexts) is not generating new or novel work/insights that creates new knowledge, but instead is remixing ideas from other sources. I think this is a good reminder of what the goal of the assignment should be (students are often far too ambitious in what they think they can reasonably achieve in x-number of pages), but I wouldn’t consider this to be an adequate reason to insist on proper citations.

13.

Like other skills, the act of referencing needs to be practiced. I’m sympathetic to this, but as Derek is implying, you should be practicing skills that transfer into other domains or that you will need.  In most instances, outside of school you don’t need to cite sources.

14.

Citing references is part of the argumentation process.  In order to build a successful argument, you must clearly express and state your premises, which includes any premises taken from the work of others (either their premises or their conclusions). I’m also sympathetic to this as I think everyone should keep in mind that arguments need to be made to help convey ideas.  It shows the logical chain from premise to conclusion and seeks to make the implicit explicit, and the unstated stated.

Other than a subset of the reasons above, a strict requirement for citations is often unnecessarily enforced in the classroom, and is almost never required outside of the academic setting.  I think there are some good pedagogical reasons to have students go through the effort  to cite their sources, but you should be intentional when teaching as to when those cases apply.  For instance, I am less strict about my students citing sources and instead I look for them to directly apply material from the course in their assignments (instead of giving me their opinions).

I enjoyed Derek’s point about how citing sources is a common trope in pop non-fiction, which sounds like a convergence on my ideas concerning animated bibliographies, or Ryan Holiday’s “15 academic studies” comment from a few weeks back.  Maybe Derek’s right – we should have more courage to integrate knowledge into our existing schema and be prepared to state things as facts instead of citing our sources.  I’m not sure I’m prepared to abandon the practice wholesale, but it has given me something to chew on.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Five* Digital Tools I Use

Last week I shouted from the rooftops about reaching zero unread messages in my inbox.  This feels like a good opportunity to geek out a bit on some cool digital tools I use for my process flow.  Below are a handful of applications and services I use to keep on top of things, which supplement any physical systems I use to stay organized (like my notebook, for example).  None of the referenced products below are sponsors and I have no business ties with them.

Boomerang (Paid)

I was introduced to Boomerang for Gmail a few years back and made use of their free tier for quite some time.  However, last year I made the jump to unlock some additional functionality and allow me to boomerang more messages per month.

Seamlessly integrated into Gmail, Boomerang allows me to kick messages out of my inbox and set to return at a predetermined time.  You may have noted in a caption that I mentioned “boomeranged messages;” this is what I was referencing.  If I have messages that I want to come back to, but I don’t want them to clutter my inbox, I use Boomerang to remove them temporarily without me forgetting about it.  Boomerang has other features, such as being able to append notes to myself or asking a message to return if no one responds within a certain time frame.  All in all, a great little service that doesn’t cost much for the year.

Evernote/OneNote

I use both Evernote (free) and OneNote (Enterprise).  I don’t really have a preference one way or the other at the moment, but I tend to use Evernote for personal items (saving notes, planning blog posts, etc.) where I use OneNote for Board work and my main job.  I was urged to go paperless by my boss, so I slowly adopted the services and moved away from extra notebooks and loose papers on my desk.  Especially within OneNote, I can use the attach document feature to put “print outs” of documents within a notebook page, then use my tablet’s stylus to annotate the document with handwritten notes.

Scanbot

Speaking of embedding print outs, I started using Scanbot for Android to capture paper documents and port them into my digital notes.  I like Scanbot over the regular camera because the AI recognizes the page and will use algorithms to digitally morph distortions of the page.  Instead of requiring perfect lighting and standing perfectly over the page, I can capture documents on camera and Scanbot flattens out and crops the image for me.  I’ve also found it handy for taking pictures of overhead presentation slides, and whiteboard writing.

Pushbullet

Pushbullet has a lot of features for pushing documents across devices, but I mostly use it as a way of preventing myself from always looking at my phone.  Instead, I can avoid temptation and quickly reply to text messages from my wife before jumping back into my task.  I know myself well enough that picking up my phone is inviting a trip down the rabbit hole of distraction, so Pushbullet really helps keep my monkey brain in check.  (Note: if you’re wondering about how I avoid distractions on my computer, I use the StayFocusd extension to block website during certain hours of the day)

Trello

Month over month, I will have lots of To Do items that are left incomplete.  I used to copy them over manually to the next notebook, but over time the list grew.  Out of laziness, I started porting those tasks over to Trello for longer term storage.  Yes, I should either discard those items I’m not doing or clearing my plate by completing the tasks.  However, there are items that are not urgent and not important enough to do at the time.  Instead, I’ve set up a kanban board that allows me to move tasks from a pool to an active list, then to a complete, abandon, or hold list, depending on the status of the task.  It’s a handy way of keeping on top of tasks that are not immediately pressing and allows me to use my notebook for day-to-day pressing concerns.

There are a few other tools I’m trying out, such as Toggl, RescueTime, Microsoft Teams, and Notion, but I’ll save those for a future post.

The five-ish tools above are a few things that makes it easy for me to keep on top of several process flows for work, my personal projects, and my volunteer work.  Without them, I would be drowning in trying to keep everything fresh in my mind.  Let me know what kind of tools you use (digital or analogue) in the comments below.  I’m always interested in learning what different people have set up for themselves.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Knowing When To Quit

A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting.  Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something.  Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect.  Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing.  I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.

The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar.  I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience.  I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting.  However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends.  I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early.  But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open.  Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.

I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host.  I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore.  I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.

I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on.  I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it.  I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting.  It’s not about actually quitting or the how.  Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.

Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate.  We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride).  But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like.  It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go.  It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere.  The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Making “Good” Choices and Aging

I’ve noticed something about myself: as time goes on, it’s getting easier for me to make “good” choices.  I’m not sure if everyone shares this and it’s a common thing as we get older, but I’m finding it easier to do things that I struggled with when I was younger.  Through some combination of experience, changes in my living conditions, and physiology, my ability to adopt certain habits and mindsets has improved.  Here are a few examples I’ve noted.

First, sometime around turning 30, I found it easier to start going to the gym and exercise.  Maybe it was the tail-end of the quarter-life crisis, but going to the gym (and paying for it!) seemed like a more important thing and it was easier to embrace.  The trick is to make the habit stick.

Also around the time I turned 30, I found it important to stop pirating media content.  Instead, I sought out legitimate sources for content, such as the library, paying the $1 for song and app purchases, paying for Spotify, renting movies on my gaming system, etc.  I’m not perfect – I still pirate foreign shows from fan sites that subtitle the content and I make liberal use of an adblocker, but overall I have shifted away from feeling entitled to content to valuing paying for it.

Recently, I found it super easy to start flossing.  This might also be an existential issue, where my teeth aren’t going to get any better, so it’s important for me to take care of my gums.

Even turning down junk food is getting easier.  I appreciate that my body is changing, and it no longer has the resiliency to allow me to eat whatever I want.  In my 20’s, I could eat anything I wanted at any time and I never felt sick because of it.  Now, I find that those same poor choices lead me to feeling off or ill in the hours that follow.  The food was never good for me, but in my 20’s I didn’t experience the short-term negative feedback that told me it was bad to consume junk (instead, it was just hurting me long-term through slowly accumulating body fat and other bad stuff).

This is not to say that I’m now perfectly virtuous.  I can’t get the gym habit to stick quite yet, I binge on Nibs and Netflix when the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy my craft beers, and I never go to bed on time.  I’ve been experimenting with systems to help stem my poor self-control (such as intermittent fasting or connecting my router to a timer) in order to give my rational brain a leg up on my monkey brain.  It’s a slow, steady, incremental slog towards progress, but I keep at it.

I suppose a common thread that runs through all of this is that the short-term downsides that come with bad decisions are finally manifesting themselves, which provides near-immediate feedback.  Rather than putting off the negative outcomes to some indeterminate point in the future, my body and attitude are giving me early signals that bad choices have consequences – consequences that can be mitigated if you address it now (exercise, good nutrition, and flossing are all forms of preventative maintenance, which Jim and I talked about on our podcast a few years ago).

This reminds of an exchange between Socrates and Cephalus from Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, when Cephalus is talking about what it’s like to be old and free from the passions of youth.  Being in my 30’s is a far cry from “being old,” but I think we can derive wisdom from the speech:

“I will tell you, Socrates, (Cephauls) said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is –I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, –are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.”

Source

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Looking at Shadows – An Indirect Input for Decision Making

omer-rana-rZ7aO1lorLU-unsplash
Photo by Omer Rana on Unsplash

I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning.  The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available.  The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side.  This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.

In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search.  This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded.  However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars.  Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.

If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event).  I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.

My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:

  1. My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door.  This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
  2. My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots.  Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
  3. I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots.  These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.

Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.

First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots.  By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly.  Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time.  If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.

Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there.  Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.

Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots.  I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps.  When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row.  If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot).  If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.

The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row.  There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined.  This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot.  Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.

A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from.  That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.

All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.

If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???).  I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem.  I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria.  In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.

It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time.  For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time.  Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.

When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time.  So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options.  Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want.  It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.

While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Short Term Content Bias

I admit that the kinds of videos I watch on YouTube and the kinds of books I read tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of self-help genre, where some productivity or business person is giving me a set of systems and protocols to follow to help me “hack” my way to a more fulfilling work and life.  These kinds of content are usually well-made but suffer from a shallowness of insight.  It’s not that the authors are deliberately trying to dupe me (at least I hope not!) but the unfortunate reality is that the incentive structures that lead to engagement online and sale of products means that in order to publish, you need to publish fast and loose.

Books that get published are usually a small essay that gets padded out with animated bibliography research or a year-long experiment where the author tests out the ideas in the short-term and reports back on what they experienced and learned about themselves.  There might be small kernels of originality and insight in there, but the rest of the book is a repackaging and restatement of the research and writing of others.  It is without irony that I wager that the same 20% of landmark examples appear at least once in 80% of the books out there.

YouTube videos run into some similar issues.  Often, I find that the videos are short think pieces and experiments that people run as a blog series or retrospective.  The editing is fast and smooth, and the experiments are reported on based on impressions from the first week, month, and sometimes quarter.

In both of these mediums, we see a presentation of the short-term result with little follow-up on the long term impacts.  On small occasions, a writer might follow-up on some of the ideas in a second book that is a direct result of the first, but by and large we don’t have insight into the impact the changes had over the long-term.

This bias towards short term content make sense.  Authors and content developers need to create products quickly in order to ensure a viable revenue stream, and once you write about your niche and experience, life moves too slowly for you to be able to keep up with that pace.  As a result, they would start to publish on things that are more nebulous and propped up by the work of others (hence, animated bibliography).

The best books with the deepest wisdom are often, as Taleb notes, ones that have been around for more than 50 years.  I’d add to that that books published as the culmination of one’s life work also fall into that category.

This is not to say that content coming out of the short-term process is worthless.  In my opinion, my life and satisfaction has improved in quality over the last 3 years of intentionally reading these books.  The problem is that after a while, very little surprises you and you start to see the same examples getting recycled.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan