“Flowery” language, global English, and scholarly communication

I really love language, but my desire to be idiomatic often runs athwart to the goals of scholarly communication. Especially when motivating a paper, I enjoy writing sentences such as this:

In the data-rich setting, at first blush it appears that learning algorithms can enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility.

(Yes, I know it’s passive). However, consider the poor graduate student for whom English is a second (or third) language – this sentence is needlessly confusing for them. If we are really honest, this is the dominant group of people who will actually read the paper, so if I am writing with my “target audience” in mind, I should eschew idioms, literary allusions, and the like. Technical papers should be written in a technical and global English (as opposed to a specific canonized World English).

Nevertheless, I want to write papers in a “writerly” way; I want to use the fact that my chosen career is one of constant writing as an opportunity to improve my communication skills, but I also want to play, to exploit the richness of English, and even to slip in the occasional pun. Am I a linguistic chauvinist? Unlike mathematicians, I never had to learn to read scholarly works in another language, so I have the luxury of lazily indulging my fantasies of being an Author.

When I review papers I often have many comments about grammatical issues, but perhaps in a global English of scholarly communication it doesn’t matter as long as the argument is intelligible. Do we need so many articles? Is consistent tense really that important? I think so, but I don’t have a philosophically consistent argument for what may appear, in situ, to be a prescriptivist attitude.

The cynical side of me says that nobody reads papers anyway, so there is no point in worrying about these issues or even spending time on the literary aspects of technical papers. Cynicism has never been very nourishing for me, though, so I am hoping for an alternative…


The Wizard of The Crow [N’gugi wa Thiong’o] — This is an epic political farce about an African dictatorship. It’s a bit slow getting into it, but once I was about 70 pages in I was hooked. It’s absolutely hilarious and tragic at the same time. I’ve not read a book like this in a while. Ngugi’s imagination is broad and open, so the absurd situations just keep escalating and mutating. One of the effects is that if you looked at the situation midway through the book, you would ordinarily have no idea how things came to such a state, but thanks to the storytelling you can see the absurd (yet stepwise somewhat reasonable) sequence of events that led there. From now on I will always have the phrase “queueing mania” in my head. Highly recommended.

Proofs and Refutations [Imre Lakatos] — “Why did I not read this book years ago?” I asked myself about a third of the way through this book. Lakatos breaks down the process of mathematical reasoning by example, showing how arguments (and statements) are refined through an alternating process of proof-strategies and counterexamples. It’s a bit of a dry read but it made me more excited about trying to take on some new and meatier theoretical problems. It also made me want to read some Feyerabend, which I am doing now…

The Crown of Embers [Rae Carson] — a continuation of Carson’s YA series set in a sort of pseudo Spanish colonialist fantasy land. It’s hard to parse out the politics of it, but I’m willing to see where the series goes before deciding if it is really subverts the typical racial essentialization that’s typical of fantasy. The colonial aspect of it makes it most problematic.

The Wee Free Men [Terry Pratchett] — a YA Discworld novel. Feels fresher than the other later Pratchett Discworld books.

Equal Rites [Terry Pratchett] — an early Discworld novel. Feels a little thinner than some of the others, but it had some cute moments.

The Republic of Wine [Mo Yan] — Another political farce, this time set in China. This has to be one of the more grotesque and crass novels I have read… maybe ever. The title might be better translated (and Americanized) as “Boozelandia.” The novel is part correspondence between an author (named Mo Yan) and an aspiring writer from the state of “Liquorland,” partly short stories by said aspiring writer, and partly a story about an investigator sent to ascertain whether state officials are raising children to be eaten at fancy dinners. It’s got a kind of gonzo style that will definitely appeal to some. I liked it in the end but I was also totally unaware of what I was getting into when I opened it.

Postdoc opening at UCSB

There’s an opening in Professor Madhow’s group at UC Santa Barbara:

We are looking for a postdoctoral researcher with a strong background in communications/signal processing/controls who is interested in applying these skills to a varied set of problems arising from a number of projects. These include hardware-adapted signal processing for communications and radar, neuro-inspired signal processing architectures, and inference in online social networks. In particular, familiarity with Bayesian inference is highly desirable, even if that is not the primary research area for his/her PhD. There are also opportunities to work on problems in next generation communication systems, including millimeter wave networking and distributed communication. While the researcher will be affiliated with Prof. Madhow’s group in the ECE Department at UCSB, depending on the problem(s) chosen, he/she may need to interact with faculty collaborators in other disciplines such as circuits, controls, computer science and neuroscience, as well as with colleagues with expertise in signal processing and communications. Thus, in addition to technical depth and talent, a flexible attitude and openness to interdisciplinary collaboration is essential.

Interested candidates should send a brief statement of research experience and interests and a CV (including the names and contact info for at least three references) to Prof. Upamanyu Madhow.


The English version of the Japanese cooking site Cookpad was launched recently. The launch means more lunch for me!

In case you wanted to listen to old African vinyl albums, you’re in luck.

I have a burning-hot hatred of payday loan places, so this Pro Publica piece just stoked the fire.

Talking robots… in spaaaaaaaaace!

A tumblr on how we make progress in research.

My friend Amrys worked on the Serendip-o-matic, a tool that may be more useful for those in the humanities than us engineer types, but is pretty darn cool.

Obama nominates Córdova as new NSF director

Via Inside Higher Ed I saw that Obama has nominated France Anne Córdova as the new head of the NSF. Córdova may be most famous as NASA’s Chief Scientist, but after leaving NASA she had a series of administrative positions, most recently as President of Purdue.

Do any of the readers of the blog have an opinion about this choice? Also, given the GOP’s oft-expressed dislike of the NSF, will she ever get an actual Senate confirmation?