The Fundamental Theorem of Gift Wrapping

There's a fundamental theorem of algebra, calculus, linear algebra, and (my personal favorite) Galois theory. I've even written my own fundamental theorem--the fundamental theorem of graphics. (That one was tongue-in-cheek, but today's is serious.)

Today, on the eve of Christmas, I write to tell you of my newest derivation--the fundamental theorem of gift wrapping. I am not well versed in the abstract ideas of gift wrapping and I don't have much experience in wrapping gifts. I do, however, have experience in opening gifts. The theorem is stated without proof (okay, I guess it's only a conjecture), but comes primarily from my experience as a gift opener.

First, a definition:

The elements of each present can be divided into two sets: the gift and the wrapping paper. Define the two elements as separable if and only if the wrapping paper is not taped directly to the gift.

Now the theorem:

The measure of utility derived from a separable present is strictly greater than the measure of utility derived from a present that is not separable, ceteris paribus.

For the lay reader who has (like me) not finished their Christmas wrapping, an application:

If you want people to like their presents even more, don't tape the wrapping paper directly to the object given.

Do you have other wrapping tips? Does anyone have a more fundamental theorem of gift wrapping?

Merry Christmas! :)


Precision in Writing

I've been reviewing a lot of papers in the top political science journals as part of a project I am working on. All I need to do is go through each paper and note how the author expects explanatory variables to influence the outcome. In theory, if papers present blocked hypotheses, this should be really easy. It is not. This exercise makes me want to review my own work and make sure that my own hypotheses are stated precisely and clearly.

I once favored a more nuanced style in which the writer presents their expectations in a nuanced way and discusses the empirical analysis in light of the theory. I've changed my views on this. I now strongly prefer a style that puts forward a theory, writes out a highly visible (i.e. blocked) hypothesis that clearly states the observable implication of the theory, and structures the discussion of the empirical analysis around each hypothesis.

I often provide comments on my colleagues papers, and I am sometimes really picky about language, particularly hypotheses. I've sometimes thought that I'm unnecessarily picky. I'll give one example. Sometimes researchers write a hypothesis as follows: "When Z is high, an increase in X leads to an increase in Y." This always leads me to ask what is expected when Z is low. Is the effect of X on Y bigger? Smaller? Negative? Positive? Zero? Does the theory even offer an expectation? Hypotheses connect the theoretical discussion to the empirical analysis. Nothing about the them can be left uncertain.

Confusious supposedly once said:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.


Howard Becker on "Classy" Writing

Howard Becker has an excellent book on writing with lots of good advice.  In that book, he tells the story of a student who didn't want to make her text plainer and easier to understand, even though she lost none of the meaning. Instead, she preferred a "classy" writing style. She explains:

When I read something and I don't know immediately what it means, I always give the author the benefit of the doubt. I assume this is a smart person and the problem with my not understanding the ideas is that I'm not as smart. I don't assume either that the emperor has no clothes or that the author is not clear because of their own confusion about what they have to say. I always assume that it is my inability to understand or that there is something more going on that I'm capable of understanding... I assume if it got into the AJS, for example, changes are it's good and its important and if I don't understand it that's my problem since the journal has already legitimated it.

She further notes that

ideas are supposed to be written in such a fashion that they are difficult for untrained people to understand. This is scholarly writing. And if you want to be scholar you need to learn to reproduce this way of writing.

I know I have felt this way before. I remember writing my first college papers. I worked really hard to use words like "ambiguous" instead of "not clear" and "fecund" instead of "productive." I used these words, not to express my ideas more clearly, but because political scientists used these words in books and articles.

I have moved beyond these feelings now. I try to write as simply as possible and explain my ideas as clearly as possible to the broadest possible audience. This seems especially important for methodologists, whether they are working on substantive or methodological problems. Political methodologists have a tendency to write to other methodologists. As I discussed before, other methodologists should at least sometimes writes to substantive researchers.


Two Chrome Plug-ins I Love

I do a lot of reading on the internet. I read a lot of blogs, news articles, and journal articles. I follow a bunch of people on Twitter who are interested in the same things I am: elections, social science, graphs, and statistics. Just like me, they tweet a lot of links. That means I have a ton of content to deal with every day and it is hard to keep up. The challenge is to sort through it all, find the good stuff, and read it. I've recently stumbled across two Chrome plug-ins that make this much easier. (Click here to continue reading.)


I Wonder Where I Fall?

I found this nice visual this morning on I Love Charts. I wonder where I fall? I suppose I fall in the "We're buddies" region until after the first exam, after which I move to the "I'm afraid of you" region. I'm not sure what the middle region is called but I'm going to definitely be there my next class.


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