Archive for April, 2013

A scientist and a story teller

April 28, 2013

Appreciating Oliver Sacks.

Some communication tips

April 28, 2013

There are two interesting posts from Kerin at Savage Minds. One is about signposting (for and against). The other is about becoming an expert in an area in a short time. Kerim has several interesting tips and pointers. There is one that I usually give my seminar students which is missing in Kerim’s list — I am not even sure that it is relevant for what he is talking about. In any case, for what it is worth, here it is. Find a paper  — any paper, in the topic in which you are interested in. Backtrack and front-track references: that is go through all the references in the paper as well as go through all references in the papers that refer to this paper. And keep back and front-tracking from those papers. Within three steps or so, one finds that there are a few papers that everybody refers to in the field. Those are the classics in the field which the seminar student should read first. And then, there are some which are widely referred to. Those are the ones which the student should read next and so on. This method is the easiest one to identify important papers in any area.

Police and politics

April 27, 2013

‘Police business,’ he said almost gently, ‘is a hell of  a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men. So we have to work with what we get …

That is from Raymond Chandler’s The lady in the lake. An enjoyable read if you are into mysteries.

Curious pursuits of Margaret Atwood

April 27, 2013

I am a fan of Margaret Atwood. Her Blind Assassin is the book that I first read and especially enjoyed the lyrical prose. The next book that I enjoyed is her Negotiating with the dead which talks about the writing process. I just finished reading her Curious pursuits: Occasional writing. As with Negotiating with the dead, many pieces in the book are about writing. There are also a few obituaries, several autobiographical essays, and even one or two movie reviews.

One measure of success of such books about books, for me at least, is the number of books that I go looking for after the reading. In this case, here is a partial list of books and authors that I now want to read thanks to Atwood’s recommendations: Anne Sexton: a self-portrait in letters, Northrop Fyre, Jonh Updike’s The witches of Eastwick, Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the bush, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ernest Buckler, Antonia Fraser’s The Warrior queens, Thomas King (One good story, That one), Marquez (The general in his labyrinth), Anne of Green Gables, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Grimm (unpurged), Hillary Mantel (An experiment in love), She (Haggard), Doctor Glas, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard (Tishomingo Blues), Ursula Le Guin, Tuds Terkel (Hope dies last), Robert Bringhurst (The classical Haida mythtellers), Orhan Pamuk (Snow), The island of Doctor Moreau, and George Orwell. Thus, the book is quite a hit for me.

Atwood has thought deeply about certain things: writing process, science fiction, Canadian literature. The writing conveys these thoughts; and, conveys them in style. Atwood’s writing style is something that I enjoy (and would love to emulate). There are also  a few laugh-out-loud funny passages and several humorous pieces. In addition, there are a few personal pieces which I liked a lot: for example, her difficulties in reading Virginia Woolf when she first encountered Woolf is something that I have also experienced.

Needless to say, strongly recommended!

Approaches: to equations and doing science

April 22, 2013

Here is a post (via John Baez’s Google+ share) that describes the three approaches to equations: what the post calls theoretical and formula based can also be called as  analysis and seeking analytical solution respectively. There are, in a similar manner, three approaches to doing science itself: theoretical, experimental and computational. The best approach, be it equations or science, is, of course, to combine all the three (in proportions according to taste).


A computational person’s nightmare

April 21, 2013

Anybody who writes code for her research knows about the scary feeling of a bug being there in the code; may be the exciting new results are all but an artifact of the code; and, what is worse, may be the bug in the code is a silly, elementary mistake.

Of course, I have had my share of such nightmares too — not just the feeling, but at least twice, did notice mistakes themselves. But, fortunately for me, (a) I noticed them myself; and, (b) the mistakes were minor.

All this has taught me that while it is almost impossible to avoid bugs in codes, there are several ways in which one can pick them up: (i) Have some sharp eyed colleagues go over your results (and, if you are as lucky as me, they might even be willing to go over your code) and spot any unphysical results; (ii) Explain you code to a human; this is almost a fail-safe way of spotting mistakes; I think in the coding community this is closer to the pair-programming concept; (iii) Keep benchmarking your code and keep coming up with newer and newer tests; while bechmarking, I have also found that it is important that you match numbers within the accuracy of your calculations; numbers not matching at the fourth or fifth decimal place, sometimes have led me to identify the bugs in the code. (iv) Make your code open source and share with as many users as possible. Even if a few of those users turn out to be developers, they will notice errors, if any. (v) If possible, find another colleague who will implement the same code, and results matching from two people increases the confidence in the code enormously; as my advisor used to say the probability of two people making the same error goes down multiplicatively.

All the above thoughts are triggered by this link list from Abi, and especially this report.

Of course, if you are any lucky, you will also get to experience, once in a while, the following feeling during your research career:

“I almost didn’t believe my eyes when I saw just the basic spreadsheet error,” said Herndon, 28. “I was like, am I just looking at this wrong? There has to be some other explanation. So I asked my girlfriend, ‘Am I seeing this wrong?'”

I will save my thoughts on this for another post (and also my thoughts on the ease with which you can mess up things while using excel: I remember the terrible mess I made while grading for the first time for a large class using excel spreadsheet). In the meanwhile, I recommend that you follow all the links in Abi’s post.


Jonathan Coe’s What a carve up!

April 14, 2013

A very satisfying read; strongly recommended.  Here is the complete review page for the novel.