Thursday, March 22, 2018

The low point for my first job interview trip

It’s spring, and the time when university students go out on job interview trips. I can’t forget a story about one trip with a very low point over four decades ago. That was back in 1977 when I was a Ph.D. student at Carnegie -Mellon University. I had flown to a large city in Oklahoma (perhaps Tulsa, or maybe Oklahoma City) and then was told to take the mid-afternoon 10-passenger company shuttle plane to a small northern city (like Bartlesville or Ponca City) for an interview at a medium-sized oil company. The Iranian-American manager of their materials and corrosion engineering group took me to dinner, and left me at a motel. Early the next morning he took me to headquarters, and I got to meet and talk with several of his engineers.

It seemed they were just going through the motions. One Egyptian engineer who’d graduated from a well-known US university clearly had been hired very recently. (Later I found out that he had filled the position which I interviewed for. Perhaps HR was just burning up their annual recruiting budget.) Right after an early, large lunch in their company cafeteria, someone drove me to the airport and I headed back on the company shuttle. The shuttle flight was relatively bumpy. After I landed I started walking across the asphalt back to the main terminal entrance in direct sunlight. But the combination of a hot day and a queasy stomach were too much for me. I wound up clutching a chain link fence while vomiting up my lunch, and still want to barf whenever I see that company’s logo. (On March 20, 2018 at Forbes there was an article titled The moment I realized my interview was fake – because they already hired someone).

Some advertised jobs aren’t real - they might be called phantoms; some real jobs never are advertised because they get filled via networking. My first job in Ann Arbor came via networking done by the Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science department head. Robert Sekerka had been talking on the phone about an alumni matter with a manager of the Climax Molybdenum Company lab, William C. Hagel. Then he asked if they had any openings, and was told they were looking for someone to work on sulfide stress cracking (SSC) of alloy steels. Sekerka said, well Garber’s been stinking up the halls with his SSC tests, so you should talk with him. He did, I interviewed, and got the job.

But in between there were two other curious interviews. At Youngstown Sheet & Tube the HR guy was more hostile than a Marine Corps drill sergeant, since he’d been ordered to look for a research guy while they were laying off other operating personnel. Timken research in Canton, Ohio interviewed me too. I was impressed by the facilities, except that all but very senior engineers had their desks in an a huge open ‘bullpen.’ Later I found out that Timken almost never hired fresh PhDs – they preferred instead to send employees hired with less education to Case Western Reserve University part time for their PhDs.                

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Speech topics from around your neighborhood

How do you come up with a speech topic? One way is go for a walk in your neighborhood, and look for something new. Back on January 29th I saw a cluster of sixteen portable toilets lined up in a driveway a few blocks from my home, as shown above. Was someone planning on having a colossal Super Bowl party? What were they serving? I guessed that homeowner was starting up a portable toilet rental business, and his shipment arrived before he got set up at his new business address.

On February 3rd I saw a crew cab flatbed truck with a pump, tank, and a trailer for two portable toilets around the corner from that driveway. There still was no business name either on the door or the toilets. But shortly afterwards there was a posting on Nextdoor about that rental business. At howstuffworks you can find a web page on How Porta-Potties Work.

Anywhere you find geese (or other birds like seagulls) you need to beware of poop. For a couple of years I once lived at Salem Walk apartments near the village of Northbrook, Illinois. Their current web page on amenities talks about:   

“beautifully landscaped grounds with its picturesque lake”

when they realistically should have said, as CBS 2 IdahoNews here in Boise headlined on November 15, 2015:

‘You’re walking on a carpet of goose poop out there.’

Travel writers also refer to Seattle as being ‘picturesque,’ which really means that you can’t get around without taking a ferryboat or crossing a toll bridge.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Was your graduate degree worth what it cost?

That was one question asked in a Gallup poll which was reported on February 16, 2018 in an article by Zac Auter titled Few MBA, Law Grads Say Their Degree Prepared Them Well. I was interested, because it also mentioned PhDs and I have one.

A table (click on it to see a larger, clearer view) presents their results for that question and another (my graduate school prepared me well for life outside it). What could we do with that data for a presentation?

One silly thing would be ‘press release journalism’ – completely ignore the real article and instead just talk about one result a news article had focused on, like one at CNBC by Abigail Hess on February 21, titled Only 23% of law school grads say their education was worth the cost. That is what Jane Genova did on February 22, 2018 in a post at her Speechwriter-Ghostwriter blog titled titled Law Degree – Maybe investing in Bitcoin is smarter. We might even put it in a graphic with silly clipart icons, as shown above.   

How would we organize that data for a presentation? We might put it either into Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint, sort the percentages from largest to smallest, and plot those results in some sort of chart. There are lots of bad choices though, like the three-dimensional “rainbow” column chart for the first question shown above. The 3d layout makes it hard to read the exact percentages (so data labels are mandatory), and the reader must lean his head 90 degrees to read the vertical axis (the Goren lean). A 2d chart is better, but the column labels still are somewhat disconnected from the data. But it is clear that a majority of PhD (64%) and MD (58%) holders felt their education was worth it, compared with a minority of MS (49%), MA (45%), MBA (42%) and JD (23%) holders.

As shown above, a horizontal bar chart does a better job of showing those poll results. For the other question, whether school prepared grads for life outside there were lower percentages – 50% for MD, 30% for PhD or MS, 24% for MA, 23% for MBA, and just 20% for JD.

The poll asked three other questions. One was about whether they had a mentor who encouraged them. As is shown above 54% of MDs, 49% of PhDs, 29% of MSs, 27% of Mas, 19% of JDs and just 14% of MBAs said they did. A second question asked whether professors cared about them. As is shown above 37% of PhDs, 35% of MDs, 34% of MAs, 32% of MSs, 24% of JDs and just 19% of MBAs said they did. A third question asked whether students had a job or internship that allowed them to apply what they’d learned. As is shown above 58% of JDs, 53% of MDs, 47% of MAs, 45% of MSs, 40% of PhDs and 36% of MBAs said they did. This last question was the ONLY ONE where the JDs came out on top.   


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Who was our first businessman President?

If you are going to complain to the Wall Street Journal that one of their articles has an incorrect statement, then you should first do some very careful research. But that didn’t stop Jane Genova from posting on March 13, 2018 at her Speechwriter-Ghostwriter blog about The Wall Street Journal – Did it get this wrong? She whined that in discussing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s departure they had referred to Donald Trump as being our first businessman President, but that instead George W. Bush (aka Bush 43) was. (He’d been in the oil business). And she pointed them to a Wikipedia page for background! The next day she crowed that The Wall Street Journal’s Rob Rossi replies to Jane Genova about Tillerson coverage.

The Wall Street Journal might be correct, if what they really meant was that Trump was the first president to go directly from businessman to running for President – without other prior experience as a politician.

If you look at that Wikipedia page for George W. Bush, you will find it almost immediately refers to his father George H. W. Bush (aka Bush 41) – who also was in Texas and in the oil business. Yup, 41 came before 43 so Jane clearly blew it. She also had a hilarious typo in another March 13 post titled “Doing a Tillerson” – many of us have been in that pickle. Jane spelled Tillerson’s former company with an extra e at the end – ExxonMobile. (I like to think of Jane as the Poster Girl for shallow research and incomplete proofreading. But no one is completely useless – they always can be a bad example.)

And if you look on Google under businessman and president, you will find a web article at Bankrate from February 10, 2016 by Paul Brandus titled 7 businessmen and their success or failure as US president. It lists seven twentieth century presidents before Trump as follows:

Warren G. Harding (1921-23) newspaper publisher

Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) savings bank vice president

Herbert Hoover  (1929-33)  mining engineer and executive

Harry S. Truman (1945-53) haberdasher (men’s clothing store)

Jimmy Carter (1977-81) peanut farmer

George H. W. Bush (1989-93)   oil company executive

George W. Bush (2001-09) oil and gas executive, and baseball team co-owner (Texas Rangers)
An older article at The Hill blog by William B. Campbell back on October 18, 2012 was titled History shows businessmen make bad presidents. He went back further to the end of the Civil War and mentioned:

“The unquestionably successful businessmen were Andrew Johnson (tailor), Harding (newspaperman), Hoover (mining), Jimmy Carter (farmer), and George H.W. Bush (oilman). Truman, who did so poorly in business he sought public sector employment to make ends meet, became a great president.”

Also on March 13, 2018 Jane had blogged about an Extreme glut of degreed talent – either go to T10 program or forget it – and incorrectly referred to a well-known University of California location as Berkley when she should have said Berkeley.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Should the Ah-Counter at a Toastmasters club meeting make a silly noise each time he hears a filler word?


I don’t think so. But on page 14 of the March 2018 issue of Toastmaster magazine there is an article by Bill Brown, DTM titled An Empty Tradition? (and subtitled Opinions differ on how an Ah-counter should operate). In a Toastmasters club meeting the Ah-Counter’s role is to count and later report on the number of filler words (ah, um, so, etc.) used by each speaker. Bill asked some Toastmasters leaders in different areas how that role was being conducted. He referred to making a silly noise as ‘immediate feedback’ and lamented that instead the ‘final report only’ method was winning.

Bill ended with the following paragraphs:

“Are we truly committed to eliminating filler words, or has our Ah-Counter report become nothing more than an empty tradition? That is a question each club needs to seriously evaluate. Listen closely for ums and ahs at your next club meeting. I mean, really listen – closely. If you don’t like what you hear, you might want to try the bell for one meeting. Painful? Perhaps.

My pain certainly got my attention. As a result, I do hereby pledge once again to eliminate the ums and ahs from my vocabulary. Will you join me in that pledge?”

My response to his question is a firm HELL NO. Eliminating filler words is a fool’s errand, since they are NOT useless. The September 2017 issue of Toastmaster magazine had a better article by Lisa B. Marshall titled Like, um, how do I stop, ya know, using um and ah? She ended with:

“Remember, hesitations in our speech are not just fillers—they have meaning and serve a purpose. In some cases they can improve attention and retention. But if used excessively, they can create negative perceptions. Your goal should be reduction, not elimination. I hope you’ll use these tips for your next speech.”

Sadly Lisa‘s article did not reference the research backing up improved retention. But I did in a February 13, 2014 blog post titled Adding a few ahs and ums improved recall of plot points in stories. I agree that typically filler words should be reduced rather than eliminated. I also think ‘immediate feedback’ is both unsupportive and rude, and thus conflicts with the club mission that:

“We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”

In the January 2009 issue of Toastmaster magazine on pages 14 and 15 there was an article by Eleanor Guderian titled A Little Creativity Goes a Long Way which discussed how:

“A visitor named Bill recently recalled his experience visiting a Toastmasters meeting on a military base 25 years ago – and the rather unique strategy employed by the club’s Ah-Counter. ‘Every ‘ah’ and ‘um’ was punctuated with a BB [a lead pellet] dropped in a Folgers coffee can,’ said Bill. ‘I never went back.’ We assured him that all of us are learning to control our ‘filler’ words by counting them, but we never subject each other to humiliation.”   

For another viewpoint, see Rich Hopkins February 10, 2012 post at his Speak & Deliver blog titled Toastmasters Friday: To click or not to click. However, using a clicker in for immediate negative feedback is BACKWARDS from the usual positive feedback (reinforcement) approach for clicker training of animals. We should not be monkeying around with noisemakers.

Images of a toy monkey with cymbals and clickers came from Wikimedia Commons.


Also see this March 20, 2018 article by Julie Sedivvy at the Nautilus blog titled Your Speech is Packed with Misunderstood, Unconscious Messages

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died at age 76. CNN wrote about him in an article titled Sense of humor ‘as vast as the universe’: Tributes flood in as world remembers Stephen Hawking. The Guardian discussed him in another article titled From The Simpsons to Pink Floyd: Stephen Hawking in popular culture - with YouTube clips from three TV shows: The Simpsons, Star Trek, and The Big Bang Theory.

Three decades ago Hawking wrote the best-selling book, A Brief History of Time. He will be remembered as one of those rare people who successfully attempted to communicate science to the general public.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Shedding some light on fear of the dark

In the blog at his No Sleepless Nights web site on February 12, 2018 Ethan Green posted about Fear of the Dark Phobia: Is it keeping you awake?

But a fear of the dark is way less severe than a phobia of the dark, which psychologists could classify as a specific phobia. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, 2013 (DSM IV) the seven diagnostic criteria for a specific phobia are:

1] Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation (e.g. flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood). Note: In children, the fear or anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or clinging.

2] The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.

3] The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.

4] The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and to the sociocultural context.

5] The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting 6 months or more.

6] The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

7] The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia): objects or situation related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder).

Ethan referred to phobia of the dark as being nyctophobia. Then he stated that:
“It’s hard to find reliable statistics about nyctophobia. In 2017, a poll of 2000 British adults by Bensons for Beds revealed that 17% regularly sleep with a light on. And 20% do some bedtime checks, like closing wardrobe doors and making sure there’s nothing lurking under the bed. According to the Statistic Brain website, 11% of the US population suffers from a fear of the dark phobia.”

Back on December 7, 2014 I blogged about how Statistic Brain is just a statistical medicine show. Their fear statistics web page once claimed that the percentages came from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). I contacted NIMH and found that was a lie. So the 11% is baseless web crap that should be ignored.

I don’t know of any recent statistics about nycyophobia. Back on August 22, 2012 I blogged about Avoiding blind alleys in research and cautioned that using a phobia name was likely to put on blinders, and send you down a blind alley. But this blog has lots of posts about national surveys on the fear of public speaking - which also include many other fears. In the past four years there have been five about fear of the dark or darkness at four levels, including Very Afraid.

In 2014 YouGov surveyed adults in both the U.S. and Britain about fear of darkness. In 2014 and 2015 the Chapman Survey of American Fears included a question on fear of the dark. In 2017 an Insights West survey of Canadians included fear of darkness. Results from all five surveys are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer view). At most 6% were very afraid.

How about gender effects on fear of the dark? Three surveys included gender (and also grouping by age and geographical region). Results for gender are shown above. For both the U.S. and Britain YouGov found 5% of females but only 2% of males were Very Afraid.

Another way of summarizing the results of a fear survey is via a Fear Score. On November 10, 2015 I blogged about how a YouGov survey done in 2014 found U.S. adults were less than A Little Afraid of public speaking. The fear score is calculated as follows:

Fear Score = [ 1x(% for Not Afraid at All) 
                      +  2x(% for Not Really Afraid)
                     + 3x(% for A Little Afraid) 

                     + 4x(% for Very Afraid)]/100

Fear Scores for all the surveys are shown above in a bar chart. In the YouGov U.S. survey results for fear of darkness were 1.63 for males, 1.97 for females, and 1.84 for adults – all of which are below the 2.0 (second lowest level) for Not Really Afraid. Fear Scores from the other four surveys were even lower.  

One section of Ethan Green’s blog post was titled Nyctophobia a major cause for adult insomnia? He referenced a Ryerson University study that was discussed at a conference in 2012 and referred to in Science Daily (and by Time and CBC News). Ethan reported:
 “In the study, 93 college students were given 2 questionnaires: the insomnia severity index and a fear of the dark questionnaire. They discovered that nearly half admitted to having a fear of the dark phobia. Furthermore, 46% of poor sleepers admitted this compared to 26% of good sleepers.”

I looked further and found the magazine article from that study by Colleen E. Carney et al titled Are poor sleepers afraid of the dark? A preliminary investigation. (Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, March 2014). The method section notes that 79% of the participants were women – not a very gender balanced sample. For this study they made up their own 10-item Dark Discomfort Questionaire, which struck me as very curious, considering there are other older, well-known tools like Geer’s 51-question 1965 Fear Survey Schedule II which include a question about Dark Places. I blogged about it on October 10, 2012 in a post titled In a 1965 study of university students, fear of public speaking ranked sixth for men and seventh for women. Fear of dark places was ranked 34th by women and 38th by men. (In this blog there are 27 posts under the fear survey schedule label.
In the discussion section the authors said they had looked at fear NOT phobia:

“It is also important to note that fear of the dark was assessed with a single question, which assessed fear in terms of levels of discomfort, and it is unknown whether this single item would reflect a clinically significant level of fear, for example characteristic of a phobia.”

It is interesting to note that the last three Chapman surveys included this question (not discussed further by them): During the past two weeks, how often have you experienced trouble sleeping? with possible answers of Nearly every day, More than half the days, Sometimes, or Not at all. Survey percentages are shown above in a bar chart.

The painting of Diogenes is from Wikimedia Commons.