Sunday, May 17, 2009

A favorite science fiction novel

Leslie and I had a wonderful time at the Gilberts on Saturday, helping Sally celebrate her birthday. When she was telling us about the time she and Steve had just spent in Stockholm, and cautioning against visiting during the winter when it's so cold and dark, I thought one of my favorite science fiction novels, about a planet where the winters are so frozen and so long that all living things go into hibernation for years:

Vernor Vinge wrote A Deepness in the Sky. I've read it 2-3 times. It's a gripping story and some of the most human characters look like spiders on the outside: members of the intelligent race hibernating on the frozen planet as two competing human expeditions race to be the first to contact them. Everytime I think about really frozen winters, and how life can slow and change then, I think of this wonderful story.

President's Address at Notre Dame

If you have 40 minutes or so at some point (muted laughter), here’s the URL for the President’s commencement address at Notre Dame this afternoon:

Soundbites on TV can't capture the grace, intelligence and feeling of this amazing commencement address. His words are good humored, thoughtful, and utterly determined. One of his final sentences ("Remember that, in the end, we are all …") sent chills up my spine, a climax that I think many of these Notre Dame students will remember for a long time. The whole speech has subtly built to a point where that line, with its Biblical reference, packs an amazing punch, especially for these graduating students. It's a wonderful example of a powerful, resonant speech.

Friday, May 08, 2009

How to write a good survey

People frequently send me draft surveys for feedback, needs assessment, evaluation, etc. and ask for help in improving them. I'm happy to help. But I almost always need to ask them this:

"Before I can do anything, I need to know what choices you hope to illuminate with people's responses to your form. Such a choice might be 'what, if anything, should we do about X?' or 'should we do A or should we do B?'

If the form is well-constructed, once the answers are in, authors should be able to explain to respondents how their answers to EVERY question helped crystallize some action. Ideally, an author should never need to confess, 'We only asked question 7 because we were curious; we had no plans to actually use your answers.'

Without a picture of the survey's purpose, it's impossible to see what's missing, or to assess whether the draft questions are an efficient way to help make those choices.