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Tuesday, Mar. 02, 2004 - 11:07 p.m.

My semester has been characterized by not laziness, exactly, but an inability to finish things. This tendency reached its apex last week when I carefully scrubbed a whole batch of dishes but failed to rinse them, leaving them instead in the sink to fill again with pasta water, coffee dregs, cilantro particles, and sweet potato peelings.

I washed them again this morning, finally, this time rinsing them and laying them out to dry on towels. The question now is whether I will ever get around to putting them away.

I was just poking through old files on my computer and found the big folder entitled “Thesis”. A year later, this is some funny shit; at the time, it was not funny at all. Anyway, I thought it might give some hope to anybody working on a big project (Aaah...aiiii..Isaaaaaa-aa-C-KCHOO!)(Whoa; if you say that out loud, it sounds like "Isaac JEW!" So very handy, these ethnico-religious suffixes I have just invented!)

Anyway, first, we have the file names. The folder “Thesis” contains two other folders, one named “Old” and one with the name of a conference at which I presented part of my work. This main folder also contains eighteen files with titles that include:

Anne 3-14
Anne and Carol
Discuss with Anne
Chapter 1 Carol
Whole damn print-ready official copy
Whole revision 5-21
Whole thing in revision

The file “Anne 3.14” is a letter to my director, as are the other Anne files. Its message is as follows:

“Dear Anne,
I hope you’re enjoying your spring break. I leave for Washington, DC today; I’ve never been there, and I’m super-excited. But while I’ve stared at the computer and worried a lot this past week, I have not finished my first draft…mostly, I have no introduction, and no conclusion (which I think will be the longer of the two). I am attaching Chapters 1 and 2, which I believe will comprise the bulk of the paper. The first feels fairly complete, though it needs a conclusion. The second is in worse shape. I still discuss ad hoc concepts a bit, though I am no longer convinced that needs to be part of the pragmatic account of metonymy. Really, I’m no longer sure what to do with that chapter at all.

I’m sure you’re busy, and I’m sorry this isn’t a more final product. I will be back next Wednesday, and I plan to finish up Chapter 2 that weekend, plus a conclusion. If you’d like to read what I have for Chapter 2, I’d certainly welcome any feedback, but if you have limited time, Chapter 1 is probably more ready for real examination.
I’ll contact you when I get back in town – thanks for everything, as usual!
Thanks,
Eva”

God. Desperation sure leaks through the dithering there.

The subfolder “Old” contains thirty-two files -- that’s 32 files all discarded in favor of the files in the main folder. Names of “Old” files include:

Chapter2 intro
Chapter 2
Chapter 2 minus Ralph
Chapter 2 revisited
Data
Goo
Junk
more
pre-analysis
Proposal
Proposal Detritus
RT
RT and metonymy again
Schedule
Tidbits
To Do

“Goo” is the file I reserved for icky meta-meanderings. After a few weeks of writing, I had to vow not to give space in any other file to how crappy my thesis was and how I’d never get it done and how I didn’t know what to write. I forced myself to confine that garbage only to “Goo”, and as a result that file is not fit for anybody to read. But here’s a representative sample:

“I stare at the screen and it doesn’t work. Nothing magically appears. I know I can type…I know I can understand this thing. I just don’t know how to start this section. Why am I even separating Chapter 2 from the rest of it? Well, because this is where I was originally misled. But I don’t think that ‘I’ has multiple characters; every use of ‘I’ depends somehow on the identity of the speaker. This is my point here. Relevance theory and property transfer can explain it all once you get from character to content. So how should I begin presenting it? […] Tonight is when it all has to change for the next three weeks. Staying home for Eva is the plan. And if I can’t figure out what to say in Chapter 2, I need to work on something else. I’m feeling very big-picturey today, but that’s not useful yet, and I need to focus. Too many areas are calling to me at once.

I should eat. I will eat some calzone, and then I will revisit this.”

Other files are full of dead ends. One spends five pages setting up a series of examples about someone named “Stella” who owns a Ford Mustang; I have no idea how this was supposed to fit into my thesis.

My favorite file of all contains only six words. It says: “Given the challenges to a fixed”.

All this crud, these 55 files, produced exactly one sixty-page thesis, which then spawned shorter versions of itself for conferences and writing samples. When I write a 300-page dissertation I’m going to have to buy another fucking hard drive.

But I’m not sad it works like this. I started thinking a few days ago about a minor idea I’ve had about proper names, and I think the meandering is beautiful. I draw flowcharts, categorize and recategorize, test mini-hypotheses, generate possible and impossible sentences. Being a linguist is like having a chemistry lab in your head. You notice something, design an experiment to test its boundaries and permutations, and then you pour your words in and see what precipitates out.

So I’ll keep puttering through, creating dead-end files and moaning as I go, but I’ll love it the whole time.

And finally, a little academic posturing: It bothered me that I didn’t give a citation in my last post for the sweeping statement that humans are bad at probability and good at things like inference and generalization. I looked around briefly at the time, but it’s taken me a few days to find the exact thing I was looking for. Here it is, from Levinson in Goody 1995: Tversky & Kahneman (1997) and Kahneman et al. (1982) found that people are astoundingly bad at understanding and basing predictions on simple statistical principles.

The other part, that we’re good at generalization, symbol-making, and induction, could be credited to sources as diverse as David Lightfoot and Karl Jung; I don’t know where to trace it back to.

I slept with the windows open last night for the first time in four months. Almost nothing makes me happier.

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