Tuesday, June 28, 2011

OT: TAL and WI

Acronymonious title to indicate I want to say a few words about the latest episode of This American Life, a public radio show that posts weekly 1-hour episodes to its website. The format of a TAL episode is a series of stories from around the country that relate to an overall theme. Each current episode can be downloaded as an mp3, and all episodes can be streamed.

This week's episode is themed from the phrase, "A house divided against itself cannot stand," which was used famously by Lincoln and appears to originate from Matthew 12:25. I downloaded and listened to this episode during my bike ride in to work today.

One of the stories this week is about the dissent, even foment, in Wisconsin over the political debate raging about whether a State should forbid unionization of its employees. Activists in WI have triggered recall elections in the state, and the whole debacle has caused a rift and elicited behavior that is foreign to the WI that I know. 

I found the episode to be enlightening, and encourage anyone with a half-hour to kill to listen to the first half of the episode in which the story is located.  If you have more time, listen to the whole episode. The debate in WI is a microcosm of the larger debate of big vs little government. I do not care to discuss that here, and the radio show did a fair job of avoiding the subject by focusing on the people involved and interviewing both sides.

The notion that political activism can so quickly and deeply divide a community is amazing, although surely not unprecedented. I was taken aback when district 12 was highlighted: State Sen. Holperin has represented my home town in one form or another for a long time. I went to school with one of his children. It is odd to hear about the rural community of my youth in a national broadcast. The behavior that is discussed by Kim (I also knew one of her children, though he was ahead of me in school) about her treatment is astonishing.

I suppose the reactions are not that surprising, considering that the legislation affects the lives of so many, especially of beloved teachers. In a state that has little experience with such political strife, the division has polarized people who are otherwise good and reasonable folks.

It is saddening that party lines appear to supersede common sense time and again. Will the house soon stand again?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When to make thesis slides

I've been working on my thesis proposal for awhile now, and I even took one attempt at writing it which turned out to be a bit premature. My advisor suggested that I consider making my proposal defense slides before I write the proposal. I have now finished my first iteration on the slides and found it to be a most useful exercise. The content of my slides covers what I plan to address in my proposal, although the presentation needs a unifying story to tie everything together. A presentation should have a strong motivation and story because it is important to hook the audience in the first couple of slides and to keep them engaged throughout.

My feeling is that if I start by writing my proposal, I would have a sub-par narrative that would be weak when translated to a presentation. I usually start writing with an outline, then I fill in the technical details, results, and conclusion, then write the background material: introduction, motivation, and related work.  Making the presentation slides first will allow me to follow a single story throughout the proposal.

The act of thinking about how to present my work makes me consider more deeply both the organization and narrative than when I sit down to write. By expending more energy on the why and less the how, I can focus on a narrative that puts my proposed work in context and motivates my contribution. After I finish my slides, I will write my proposal using the slides as a guideline. This approach should yield a concise, readable proposal with a flow that is consistent with the presentation.

I also expect that most of my slides will be reusable for the thesis defense (and potential job talks), since the motivation and high-level ideas will be largely unchanged. Although some details and results will change, these will amount to a small delta in the presentation that will be easy to update.