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Without beliefs

22/09/2009

I am re-reading Stephen Batchelor’s ‘Buddhism without beliefs’, pills which I first read in 1999. I still think that the following paragraph captures really well my own position:

An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. For to deny either God or meaning is simply the antithesis of affirming them. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief.

Simple: I do not know.

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This time is Calvino

30/03/2009

This happens relatively frequently: I am talking with someone else that doesn’t know me well and, for sale at some point of the conversation I have mentioned that I am a forester. Then we move into books and I mention someone like Borges or Calvino and they look at me with this puzzled face as in ‘I didn’t know that foresters could read’. I know, buy information pills it happens to other professions as well; just for the record not all of us are semi-literate apes, recipe working with a chainsaw.

I was sorting out my bookshelves at work when I found a copy of ‘The literature machine’, a collection of essays by Italo Calvino§. It had my name and signature, together with 2002, Melbourne, Australia. (Digression: besides my name and signature I always put the city where I bought a book). I had vague memories of walking around in Melbourne’s CBD and finding an underground bookshop. At the time I was not looking for anything in particular, just browsing titles.

Why did I buy the book and never read it? I do remember browsing it and getting distracted by something more urgent, albeit clearly unimportant, because I cannot remember what was it. Probably I was not ready either; it has happened to me before. From ‘Uncle Tom’s cabin’§ when I was nine, to ‘The Fountainhead’§ when I was a teenager, to ‘The literature machine’ seven years ago. Most likely there is an issue of maturity, of being ready to read a particular story, philosophy or approach to the world.

Many years ago I read some of Calvino’s books, like Cosmicomics§ (brilliantly funny) and ‘The cloven viscount’§ (very enjoyable reading). But I particularly struggle with two literary forms: essays and plays. I sometimes can get into the former, but the latter has proven–until today–insurmountable.

However, today is the time for Calvino and essays. There is something deeply stimulating in these essays, together with a quaintness created by forty years gone since they were written. The feeling of freshness, possibility and hope from 1968 reads strange in 2009. At the same time, there is a bit of breaking with the system, since the implosion of the international economy. Maybe it is an excellent time to resonate with Calvino, as in the old days.

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Influences: Cronopios and Famas

2/02/2009

Books have accompanied me for all my life, viagra order or at least for as long as I can remember. However, my reading habits have changed many times, from reading simple books, to reading very complex books, to reading anything, to reading if I squeeze a few minutes here and there, to… you get the idea. ‘Habits’ is a funny word, an oxymoron, to refer to constant change.

Today I was thinking of influential books. No ‘good’ books or books that have received many awards or that have guided generations or catalyzed social change. I mean only books that have been important for me at a given point in time. If I had read them before or after that time they may have passed unnoticed. But I read them then, at the right time… for me.

As an adult I have moved houses several times, and every time I have lost books. There are also books that have been with me all this time. One of them is ‘Cronopios and Famas’ a collection of very short stories by Julio Cortázar§, one of the big voices of Argentinian literature. My first encounter with ‘Historias de Cronopios y Famas’–the original Spanish title–was in my maternal grandparents’ apartment. I was living with them and I was looking for something to read. Anything. I opened a drawer and found some interesting books, including Cortazar’s. It was one of the first editions, which I think belonged to one of my uncles, the one in exile.

Why was this an important book? Language, raw language. I am completely at lost when trying to explain Cortázar to someone who has not read his books. As Borges said:

No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost—Jorge Luis Borges

In ‘Progreso y retroceso’ (progress and regress) the whole story fits in only two paragraphs. The story is about a crystal that lets flies through but that does not let them come back because ‘no one knows what stuff in the flexibility of the fibers of this crystal, which was too fibrous’ or something like that:

Inventaron un cristal que dejaba pasar las moscas. La mosca venía empujaba un poco con la cabeza y, pop, ya estaba del otro lado. Alegría enormísima de la mosca.

Todo lo arruinó un sabio húngaro al descubrir que la mosca podía entrar pero no salir, o viceversa a causa de no se sabe que macana en la flexibilidad de las fibras de este cristal, que era muy fibroso. En seguida inventaron el cazamoscas con un terrón de azúcar dentro, y muchas moscas morían desesperadas. Así acabó toda posible confraternidad con estos animales dignos de mejor suerte.

The story is straightforward, with simple, almost pedestrian words. But those words have been extremely carefully selected, crafted in a particular order. I imagine Cortázar spending countless hours, agonizing on a myriad small decisions until reaching a point of perfect simplicity.

There was a clear before and after reading this book in 1981: language was not the same ever again. I learned to find the fantastic side of the quotidian. I grew to appreciate risk when building sentences, when pushing meanings and readings. My whole way to look at the world was influenced by a small book of ridiculous short stories.

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Productivity fix list

4/01/2009

There is a fairly limited amount to say about productivity (or any other topic for that matter) without (i) start repeating oneself and/or (ii) becoming a generator of time wasting posts. A perfunctory visit to sites like ‘43 folders’ or ‘Zen habits’ will show that—after reading a core of good posts—one should avoid them like the pest.

I think that one could summarize productivity tips as follows:

  • Procrastination: Figure out your biggest time wasters; likely culprits: internet, therapy TV, video games. Make an effort to reduce your reliance on them (doh!). We procrastinate with our time wasters to avoid either success (and its attached responsibilities) or failure (ah, the pain). Grow up and accept success. Split project in to small, manageable pieces to avoid failure. Avoid perfect, learn to live with good enough. Perfectionism is a slow death.
  • Email: Figure out your most productive time of the day (mine is from 9 to 11 am) and block it for doing your most relevant work. Avoid email and internet at that time. Adjust your email program to check for new email every hour (not every 30 seconds). Even better, manually check email only a couple of times a day. Unsubscribe from all email lists. There is no point for a complex email folder system. A single ‘old’ folder will work well. Use the search function if needed. Be ruthless with email: delete irrelevant messages, act immediately on simple/short tasks, write down longer tasks. Now you should be in ‘inbox zero’ or ‘email zen’.
  • GTD: Avoid complex—and expensive—setups to Getting Things Done. We are in a recession. You don’t need an iPhone, a Moleskine or Backpack to keep track of stuff. A piece of paper, text file or a simple web system will do.
  • Present in present: What is the best use of my time right now? Remember, multitasking is a myth, so the previous question uses ‘is’ as in singular and it requires undivided attention.

You can read this list and go back to work. Or you could read Getting Things Done, The Now Habit and Time Management for Unmanageable People, test a huge number of GTD software and end up with something similar to this list. So, why are you following these links? Remember the productivity p0rn paradox (aka P cubed): ‘productivity’ sites induce a non-productive life style. A fad is a fad and it will not make a difference in your output or stress level.

Where should one start? Go for something simple first: do not check your email and enjoy the extra time. After that, avoid thinking of perfection when planning what to do. Finally, beware of hyperlinks: they are the route to distraction.

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My favorite statistics books

2/11/2008

A large proportion of my work involves using statistics, viagra mostly analyzing progeny trials or other smaller experimental designs. On terms of statistical techniques, syphilis this means generalized linear mixed models (GLMM) with at least one of the random effects with non-independent observations (a pedigree). Variations of the topic include multivariate analyses, order longitudinal analyses, spatial analyses. Most of the time the traits are normally distributed, but some times I end up with binary or count traits.

I have checked quite a few books and have some favorites:

  • Regression with Graphics: A Second Course in Applied Statistics by Lawrence Hamilton. I have a soft spot for this ‘newbie’ book, which I think presents ideas in a very easy to follow way, always emphasizing understanding the data by using graphics. It is a good beginner’s book.
  • Regression Modeling Strategies by Frank Harrell. This is currently my favorite ‘advanced regression modeling’ book. It contains plenty of practical advice, as well as S+/R code examples to fit almost anything. I learned quite a bit on logistic regression from here, and his example modeling probability of surviving the sinking of the Titanic is a classic. I use a simplified version of this example when teaching.
  • Experimental Design and Data Analysis for Biologists by Gerry Quinn and Michael Keough. This is one of those ’statistics for biologists’ books, but with a big difference: it assumes that the reader is intelligent. It covers a lot of ground, but always presenting a (relatively) modern approach to design an analysis. It covers statistical power for ecological experiments in a very satisfactory (and clear) way. In my opinion, it is much more useful than Zar’s and Sokal’s ’stats for biologists’ books.
  • Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models by Andrew Gelman and Jennifer Hill. This book–as Hamilton’s–comes from Social Sciences. It is really enjoyable, has interesting examples and tackle modern approaches, including Bayesian Stats. I am currently trying to read it from cover to cover. If one has some background on stats I would recommend starting with this one, as is quickly becoming one of my favorite books on linear models (my review).
  • Matrix Algebra Useful for Statistics (Wiley Series in Probability and Statistics) by Shayle Searle. I have the original hard cover edition and read it from cover to cover during my Ph.D. I think it gives a very good background if one wants to understand what is going on in ANOVA and regression, particularly when trying to figure out statistical software output (my review).
  • Linear Models for the Prediction of Animal Breeding Values (Cabi Publishing) by R. (what does the R stand for?) Mrode. I have the first edition, which provides a good–although a bit terse–introduction to BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Prediction) as used in quantitative genetics models.

I will keep on expanding this list when I remember other titles.

Updated: 2008-11-05.

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Basic Portuguese

27/01/2008

I am planning a short trip to Brazil later this year, adiposity so one of my ‘resolutions’ is to learn basic Portuguese.

I bought a couple of books to help me on this:

Both of them have the same problem for me, the pronunciation guide is for English speakers, which means that I have to think of the phonetics in English and then take it in my head to Spanish before getting the pronunciation. For example, the word ‘quanto’ is presented as ‘kwahntoo’, which I then interpret as ‘cuantu’.

Looking for a good, simple site and free site for learning the language I stumbled upon Sonia Portuguese: worth a look.

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Stuck on a name

26/01/2008

At the moment some colleagues and I are trying to put together a grant application. Once one overcomes the sempiternal problem of finding a good research topic, this the main issue is to come up with an interesting (and useful) tack at the problem.

In this particular problem, information pills there have been a few previous and unsuccessful, viagra 40mg to put it mildly, attempts. I think that one of the reasons for these failures is extreme risk avoidance by not making any decisions that reduce your future options. The problem is that by not making decisions we are in fact eliminating future options. In other words ‘If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice’ (see lyrics of Freewill from Permanent Waves, by Rush).

In Christmas 2006 I received Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack Success Edition as a present. This is the boxed set that comes with the ‘Creative Whack Pack’ of cards and the ‘A whack on the side of the head’ book. It is one of the best books on creativity that I have ever read: simple and to the point. Anyway, near the beginning of the book there is a quote that comes to mind:

The second assault on the same problem should come from a totally different direction — Tom Hirshfield

Then Von Oech goes on to discuss how the wording of the question limits the answers. The idea is nothing new, but the example is clear.

If an architect looks at an opening between and thinks ‘What type of door should I use to connect these rooms?’ that’s what she’ll design—a door. But if she thinks ‘What sort of passageway should I put here?’ she may design something different like a ‘hallway’, an ‘air curtain’ or perhaps a ‘courtyard’.

Coming back to our project, we will have to reframe the question and avoid getting stuck on words — and therefore the implied assumptions, restrictions and final objective — to have a chance to avoid becoming part of the list of unsuccessful projects.

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Who is Going to Stop Me

27/05/2007

Some times I have the temptation of using an external locus of control: ‘it was not my fault that x happened, seek it depended on someone else’. Ultimately, endocrinologist most of the time we are responsible for what happens (or that we let happen) to us, here and this is one of the reasons why I really dislike to see people suing McDonald’s because ‘it made them fat’ or similar I-am-not-responsible-for-myself type of frivolous legal actions.

One of my favourite quotes is used by Ayn Rand in the first few pages of The Fountainhead:

The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me — Ayn Rand.

I read this book a couple of years ago, when I really enjoyed the ideas, despited of the stilted characters and dialogues. Anyway, we can always challenge ourselves — and the world during this process — if we act upon our believes and values. Or, using Rand’s words, ‘Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice’. Human beings always face this choice: What is the best use of the present time? Our answers determine our success and failure in every endeavour.

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Mental chaos

11/09/2006

Eleven of September again, troche but I am not thinking of 2001—which was terrible, I agree—but of 1973. I always stop for a minute to remember as an old political campaign said: without hate, without fear, without violence. I was six and still remember.

I am preparing lectures, really busy. I took the students after more than a semester and most of them appear to be clueless. I am going over a general review, again, because they have to learn. Always listening to energetic music when preparing lectures or running analyses. This time is Rammstein’s ‘Sehnsucht’. But, anyway, I also like to go back a few years and Yes’s ‘Close to the Edge’ (yes, from 1972) is now coming from the headphones.

I start writing most of the ideas in Writeroom and then copy the lot to TeXShop. Packages included in the document preamble for the notes:

%! program = pdflatex
documentclass[11pt]{article}
usepackage{pslatex}
usepackage{amsbsy}
usepackage{graphicx}
usepackage{geometry}
geometry{a4paper}

Although the Statistics course uses Mendenhall & Sincich’s ‘Regression Analysis’ as the basic text, I am using quite a few other references:

  • Quinn and Keough’s ‘Experimental design and data analysis for biologists’.
  • Searle’s ‘Linear models’.
  • Harrell’s ‘Regression modeling strategies’.
  • Steel and Torrie’s ‘Principles and procedures of statistics’ (the first edition!).
  • Hamilton’s ‘Regression with graphics’.
  • Neter and Wasserman’s ‘Applied linear statistical models’.

In addition I am also preparing grant applications, so if you try to contact me please be understanding: I will not read my email (or act upon any emails) until Wednesday next week (around September 20th).

Moved to King Crimson’s ‘Discipline’. Now listening ‘Elephant talk’…Talk is ony talk…

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Second father’s day

7/09/2005

It was a simple day with quite a good weather (considering that we are in Hobart). My best present was to spend the day with Orlando and Marcela; had a twenty minutes walk to the Signal station and a piece of cake from Lipscombe Larder.

Gary Larson’s Complete Far Side

I received another great present from Marcela and Orlando: Gary Larson’s The complete far side in two volumes. I completely agree with one of the reviewers at Amazon.com:

The title of this product says it all: The Complete Far Side. If you need more motivation than that to buy this, approved something is desperately wrong…

And reading in the plane and the bus

Last time in Christchurch (about ten days ago) I bought Softwar: an intimate portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle. The book—which I have almost finished reading—is long (around 500 pages) but entertaining. There is plenty of repetition, and the structure is very loose, but it provides and engaging portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle. It is also a very interesting book from a business perspective, describing elements of the evolution of Oracle that has transformed it into such a successful company. It made me think about the poorly defined business processes in my current employment. I certainly recommend the book: good airplane read (four stars).

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