The Love Competition

A wonderful experiment, set up as a competition: Six people subject themselves to a brainscan while they think of someone they love. As they concentrate fully, the dopamine, the serotonin and the oxytosin wash through their brain, showing up in the scan. This is not only a beautiful study on kinds of love, it’s also a stunning reaffirmation of the power of thought to steer feelings. The two winners are wonderful.

The Love Competition from Brent Hoff on Vimeo.

Helmut, for 20 years.

Thanks to Willow for the link

Agenda-setting at a teachers’ association

Exciting times for me: I’m honored to be the events coordinator for ELTABB, the teachers’ association for Berlin-Brandenburg. I was only able to volunteer for this job because I can draw on wonderful teacher networks that have grown over the years.

At the moment I am a classic “fast follower”, looking at what other associations are doing and taking my leads from them. When I was a member of the board at MELTA, we embraced the idea of, in addition to our free, membership-based workshops, hosting an income-generating course that provides participants with an internationally recognized certificate. That course has in fact just taken place. Helen Strong, the events coordinator at MELTA, ran Mark Powell’s certificate course in Coaching One to One in Munich, and it’s run elsewhere as well. I’d like us to follow the model here: We charge a fee that is lower than the price charged elsewhere and saves the cost of travelling and staying abroad. Unfortunately, our expenses are higher here than those of our sister organisation, but the course will still generate a bit of income that we can invest in other workshops.

I love the idea. But what signal does hosting a big, fat, expensive course send out to those trainers who can’t afford it? Berlin is not Munich. Even a fee that is far lower than that originally charged may be out of reach for many, if not most of our members. It would be devastating to communicate to our members:

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzig Jr.

So if we offer this, we need to balance it out with an equally attractive offering that is aimed specifically at skilling up and providing a market advantage to those teachers who are willing to invest a bit of time regardless of their income.

I think providing a high-end workshop on how to incorporate technology in teaching, a free members-only event subsidized by the membership fee, would be just the thing. So that is my agenda. And the wonderful Carl Dowse (the mind behind and manager of BESIG Online and a Cert ICT tutor for TheConsultants-E when he’s not lecturing fulltime (!) at the University of Applied Science in Essen), bless him, would consent to do it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this not only finds acceptance, but also turns out to be highly attractive to our members.

Nancy Duarte: The secret structure of great talks

In her great analysis of famous speeches, presentation guru Nancy Duarte ( says that the most effective talks, the ones that make people change the way they think, move back and forth between what is and what could be. She analyzes Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone speech and shows that the way he marvels at his own products is what compells the audience to feel the same way. She also shows how Martin Luther King built emotion by evoking song and scripture.

Every genre of speech has its own way of moving between what is and what could be, and engaging the listeners, and what’s right in one genre can not be transfered to another. In science, I’d say it’s the enticement of unexpected results, a good challenge to accepted thinking, and the outlook onto new horizons worth exploring that make an academic audience not only sit up and listen, but want to engage in science.
Since there is unfortunately no transcript on the TED site for Duarte’s talk, unlike for many other talks, you might as well watch it here.

Watch it on the TED site.

Online tools and resources for scientific writing

I’m still struggling to teach scientific writing to a diverse group of PhD candidates that I only see occasionally. My latest attempt is to give them a set of online tools to analyze their genre of target texts (published works and their own work in progress), and to tell me how they like what the tools do. These are tools I use myself when I explore a genre to analyze them within the overall corpus of English and present typical collocations. In class we’ll then look at selected texts on one topic comparing different genres (i.e. in a general publication, as opposed to a scientific journal) to determine typical collocations and rhetorical and stylistic devices.

MacMillan Dictionary
handiest online dictionary, with a thesaurus, examples, audio

COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
BNC British National Corpus (GB)
How are your words generally used in context?

Word cloud generators:

How frequent are key words in a text you read or write? Copy it into a  word cloud generator that makes the more frequent words larger. Tips: In Wordle, create strings of words, or multiword units: Edit your text before you copy it in, joining the words you want to keep together with the tilde character: ~ (e.g. “cataclastic~rock”). Also, reduce the word output number (Layout/Maximum words) to simplify.

Just the word
This collocation thesaurus concordancer shows frequency and produces word clouds. Clicking on a given collocation gives you samples from the BNC. (e.g. precipitation)

A set of tools to analyze the text you copy in:
a. Concord Writer
Work in progress: Write text in the window, and your text is dynamically linked to multiple examples as you write.
b. Vocab Profile (BNL)
A published article: Copy in your text, and the tool will output a word list.

Google Ngram Viewer
How has your word been used over time? Has it changed in meaning? Study a word over time based on the word’s occurance in the Google Books library (those published since 1800).

5 modes of search for collocations: find one word (e.g. the missing word in a phrase – e.g. verbs, prepositions, possible modifiers), several words, alternatives in the phrase (so: find a better synonym), and word order (e.g. adverb placement). Follow links to find sample sentences. Caution: the Internet is your database.

If a scientist wants to read just one article on writing a thesis: George Gopen and Judith Swan show that where you place information in a sentence makes a huge difference. Their article The Science of Scientific Writing was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Some excellent websites to surf for university writing skills:

And when in doubt, try a grammar quiz:

Diagnostic grammar quizzes, especially recommended for connectors/ transition words

These are not online tools, but books I recommend for the research library:

  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
  • Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009. (The answers to the tasks in these two books are available online.)
  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. Second Edition. The University of Michigan Press 1994/2009. Also get the commentary by same authors: Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills.
  • Rowena Murray: How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press2002/2011.
  • Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press 2006.
  • Michael McCarthy/ Felicity O’Dell: Academic Vocabulary in Use. 50 units of academic vocabulary reference and practice. Self-study and classroom use. Cambridge University Press 2008.

Do you have any resources to add?

PS: There is an online scientific writing tool called Swan, the Scientific Writing Assistant, The concept was developed by Jean Luc Lebrun, formerly at Apple and now a scientific communication skills author and trainer. It requires Java version 6.0 or higher, and runs on various operating systems, working on Apple OS 10.6 and higher. Its USP is that it helps you organize your thoughts and content (rather than your language and grammar) by working around the placement of key words.

PPPS: Graham Davies created a fantastic online site dedicated to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Language Teachers, initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, which he has continued to maintain himself. It contains pretty much everything teachers need in ICT. I’m finding the section on using concordance programs in class and the one on corpus linguistics helpful. It makes me want to take a week off and do nothing but dip into this world, and finally read the books I’ve got on the subject from cover to cover. Graham also keeps a blog.