Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Filename incomplete

Browsing New Kid's blog today, I noticed she sported a lovely word counter in the sidebar. So now I have one too. Mine doesn't look as nice as New Kid's, because the border feathering doesn't work on my Doom-'n'-Gloom® black background. I find that disproportionately disappointing (in keeping with the law of nature which governs the fact that things like the formatting on your blog and the ordering of your cutlery in the kitchen drawer become Very Very Important during the writing of theses). This makes me wish I was more of a hacker. Or anything of a hacker, for that matter.

So in the interests of full disclosure, the number controlling the level of the mercury in my little temperature gauge there is pulled directly out of my ass. OK, so no PhD student is surprised. But the thing that got me was the idea that anyone would be able to make sense of the progress of their dissertation in this way. Are there really people who start at 0 words, and then by some process akin to the geological, reach N words? That sounds so soothing. I wish I were fossilising the dinosaur bones of my ideas in this way. As it happens, I have vastly more words written than the N required for submission. But in my world, that has almost nothing to do with the neat, linear, soothing incrementalness of the schematic in the sidebar.

My writing is much more like one of those little plastic hand-eye co-ordination games we used to have as kids -- the ones with some small steel ball-bearing type beasties inside and a corresponding set of little dimples that you had to get the little ball bearings to sit in. You'd tip and turn and nudge until all the ball-beasties were sitting in their allotted spots. Your nudging and tipping had to be juuuuust so, because otherwise you'd get one beastie in the dimple, and then in the process of getting the next one in, the first one would be knocked out of position. And so on and so on until you stuffed it under the car seat in frustration and played I Spy with your brother instead.

It's pretty clear when you're finished with one of those games. All the balls are in the spots. But the point of this analogy, roundabout though it is as always, is what you're going to say before you're done. Suppose your mother says to you from the driver's seat while you're messing with one of these things, 'Say, honey, how are you doing with that?' So far, you've got five beasties in the dimples, and there are seven left. Do you say, 'Great mum! Five down, seven to go!'?

Maybe you do, because it's a dumb question and you just want your mum to stop talking so you can concentrate on perfecting your nudges. But the truthful answer would be, 'That all depends.'

Two minutes from now, you might have no balls in the dimples.

But this doesn't mean that you don't have any ability to know how close you are to finishing. If you know you're very good at this game, then having five out of twelve is closer to being done than not, because you can make a reasonable assumption that your skill will prevent you from going back to square one before you get finished. But you know that there are some random factors you have no control over, you know that your skills aren't perfect, and you also know (this one's the real kicker) that your assessment of your skills probably isn't perfect either. So there's lot of noise into your judgement about how damn close you are to finished.

So you've got some vague, fuzzy-edged, unreliable information about how done you are. But to the nearest helpful approximation, there are only two states you can know you're in: not done, and done.

My word counts are just balls in dimples. Tomorrow they might be spinning pointlessly around the edges again, waiting for a nudge. Or flung out the car window. So don't ask me how close I am to done, because the answer is "That all depends".


Heidi the Hick said...

And that is why I will never earn a degree of any kind: I hate hate hated that little ball bearing game!

(windows=unreliable. Good one!)

Xtin said...

Hehehe. Thanks Heidi! But hey -- never say never. Plus, there is always the pleasant prospect of honorary degrees when we become hugely FAMOUS!

Well, we can dream.

Scrivener said...

Maybe this is partially just my own frustration with the ball-dimple-dissertation thing that I've been avoiding this week, but this post really is absolutely brilliant. What a perfect analogy.

Xtin said...

Thanks Scriv. To be honest, since I posted this I've had moments of wishing it had never occurred to me ... I can hear the little balls spinning around the inside of my skull right now. How's your avoidance coming along?