Tag Archives: review

Men, Goats, Good and Evil

I just saw the Men who Stare at Goats. I was actually impressed. Here is a part of the opening monologue:

Life is just too short to waste any chance of true happiness… [My life] seemed like such a tragedy the time. We couldn’t see past our little lives to the greater events of history unfolding our there in the world. I was like a child or a hobbit safe in the shire or a blond farm boy on a distant desert planet, unaware that he was taking the first steps on a path that would lead him relentlessly towards the heart of a conflict between the forces of good and evil. I did what so many men have done throughout history when a woman has broken their heart: I went to war.

I suspect that it sums up most people living in terrible circumstances. They want their life to be a part of a greater struggle between good and evil. And if, when their hearts are broken, they can not find a war to which they can go, then they create an imaginary one.


Review of Steve Pavlina’s “Personal Development for Smart People”

S. Pavlina wrote this book, “Personal Development for Smart People,” in the same field as 7 Habits, which I reviewed earlier. The 7 Habits has a somewhat paternal tone, which I think puts off some readers. I like Steve Pavlina’s “Personal Development for Smart People” because it is written much more from the perspective of a young professional in the Internet age. It is not filled with managerial and parental anecdotes, though it does more than flirt with mysticism. I imagine that will put off a different set of readers.

Like Covey, Pavlina tries to capture some of the essential principles that produce a well lived life. The three he settles on are Love, Truth and Power. He explains each, and explains how they relate and combine to produce other important virtues.

His conception of Truth is a little strange – it borders on truthiness at times. Essentially, truth is the alignment of statements and actions with Reality (!?) and the methods of probing reality are vaguely scientific. But for things that can not be probed through empirical means, then Pavlina is perfectly happy to just be pragmatic about which ideas are “true” and which are not. “You shall know them by their fruits,” I take it. True ideas produce good results. For some more metaphysical propositions, that leads to a pretty relativistic conception of Truth. I suppose that doesn’t bother me much, but it might bother some people.

Pavlina takes Love as very broadly defined, and I’m fine with that. He relates love and connectedness in an interesting way.

Power is closely related to responsibility. I think that’s right on the money. Taking responsibility is not the same as being at fault. I think that there is a funny trick of language going on. We say “I am responsible for this situation,” and that means “I am at fault for this situation.”

I wish that there were a better way to say “I am responsible to this situation.” What I mean by that phrase is not that I am at fault, but that my responses to the situation are entirely my choice. I am not at fault for the earthquake (though if I am unprepared, I am at fault for that). I am responsible for all my actions in response to the earthquake. Only when a person is responsible to every aspect of their life (a proactive response-ability) can they hope to have any power in their own life.

My favorite part so far is his perspective on goals. This gave me a minor paradigm shift that was worth ten bucks. Covey and Pavlina both talk about the importance of goal setting. Pavlina makes an excellent point that I had never considered: the metric by which a goal is evaluated is not just whether achieving it would be good. There are lots of things that would be nice to do or have some day, but that are not necessarily good goals. For instance, I would not mind being a millionaire someday, but it is not a good goal for me because it does not excite a deep passion for me.

The litmus test for a good goal is: how does having that goal make you feel and behave right now? Goals are really most important in the immediate present. Being a millionaire would be nice, but I have no hunger for it. The possibility does not excite or motivate me. I am not pumped about it. I just don’t care that much. So it’s not an effective goal.

Finding a good goal that does excite a upwelling of passion is actually harder than it sounds.


MATLab and Biology

I made a bold prediction today. I predicted that Biology, as a discipline, would adopt MATLab as its computing environment. That may have been overstating things, but still, here’s why I think so:


1. Marketing: There are plenty of development environments out there. I’m looking at this from the perspective of a non-programmer. And non-programmers think in terms of “what program do I have to buy to do this?”

Anybody can code in a text editor in C and compile with a free compiler. But it’s not a complete development environment with a box, a price tag, and a user-friendly GUI. Biologists won’t use it. In terms of a packaged development environment, there’s MS Visual Studio, Mathematica, MATLab, Maple, Mathcad and some Open Source projects like SAGE.

2. Function Library. I’ve played with all of those but Maple. In terms of large, pre-made scientific funciton libraries, Mathematica and MATLab come out ahead. And they have a similar learning curve.

3. Math. Mathematica definitely has its advantages. But I don’t think that biologists think in terms of solving boundary value problems symbolically. They think more in terms of Finite Element simulations. Discrete math. That leans toward MATLab.

4. Social network. I suspect that the biologists will turn to their biochemist, chemist and engineer friends for adivce on computing, and they will hear MATLab overwhelmingly. I doubt they will go to
the physicists and mathematicians, where they might hear more about Mathematica.

OK, so MATLab’s the way of the future… what can you do with MATLab?

You can do everything that Excel does (including much nicer graphing options). Plus you can analyze images, spectra, or any other data. Most importantly, when you’ve gone to all that trouble, you can apply it as a loop to other inputs.

Take this for instance. Say you have a fluorescence image of cells. You go to all the trouble of figuring out three data values from that image. Maybe you measure cell count, average cell area, average cell fluorescence brightness. The trouble is that you probably have 100 images. Or you would like to in order to have a publishable result. That will take forever. If you “train” your PC to do that with MATLab, you can just run the program on a whole directory of images and have it spit the results out as an Excel file (if you insist on using Excel). Or a nice graph (it will look better if MATLab makes it).Or you can make a little GUI for your friends. I worked out how to do that in about 3 hours. Next time, 15 minutes.

Quantification is the future, and it is now.


Brief Kindle Review and Q&A

I love the kindle… Here’s the Q and A I would have liked before I bought it.

Q: Can I get G-mail on the kindle?

A: Yes. The web browser is “experimental” but it works with gmail. Conceivably, Amazon could remove this feature at any time.

Q: Does web access cost anything?

A: No. It’s free.

Q: How long does it take the screen to refresh?

A: About 0.5 seconds. It’s fine for reading at my reading pace (about average). It would be great if you could set it to turn the the top of the page only then the bottom only. That way as you got close to the bottom of the page you could page forward and only the top would change, getting ready for you. Then when you hit the page-forward again as you start the top of that page, the bottom would flip over. Alas, this is not a feature.

Q: Is Harry Potter available on the Kindle?

A: No. It seems that J. K. Rowling doesn’t allow it. You can’t legally download Harry Potter.

Change your paradigm, change your habits: review of The Now Habit

The big impediment to getting things done is procrastination. Procrastination is a habit. The most effective way to break habits is to change the mental stimulus that causes the habitual action. The easiest way to change the stimulus is not to change the environment (though that can help) but rather to change the interpretation of the environment; that is to say that the best way to change a habit is to change the underlying paradigm. The word “paradigm” is often overused and even misused. It doesn’t just mean “point of view.” It goes deeper than that. It’s not a thing you can change over the course of a conversation, and it is a concept that deserves more respect that boar-room buzz words. In general, people are not aware of their paradigm. It is the subconscious value system that filters what we see. Today I’ll discuss that in general terms.

A person’s paradigm is sometimes compared to eyeglasses, but a paradigm is not something you can just take off. I would compare it to a person’s eyes rather than their glasses. Lots of people have bad vision without realizing it. They assume everyone sees the world the way they do – blurred. They don’t know it’s blurred. That’s how the world has has always been. There are mental tricks that are like “corrective lenses,” in that they slowly affect your “eyes” until you don’t need to wear them any more. When a person truly has adopted a new paradigm, they have “new eyes.” It takes a while. What’s more, it’s hard to even remember how the world looked before it changed.

Habitual actions stem from paradigms. It’s easy to see in that analogy: someone with blurred vision might habitually feel and smell objects to identify them. That’s a habit. And it would be foolish to tell someone with bad eyesight “you don’t need to smell that – it says ‘milk’ right on the bottle.” That fact is not accessible from their reality. But then, once their eyesight has improved, the smelling/feeling habit disappears naturally. That’s the power of paradigm. New paradigm yields new stimulus which produces new action, even in the same physical environment.

How does that relate to procrastination? I’m reading The Now Habit by Niel Fiore, which does a great job of explaining the procrastinator’s paradigm. Procrastinators have a paradigm of risk and coercion (I’m generalizing and paraphrasing, so forgive my imprecision). Procrastination is a habit that is a resultof the following stimulus: “I have to do X, and I must do it perfectly, or it will be terrible”

Saying “I have to…” implies a lack of freedom; it implies coercion. Whether it’s self-imposed or externally imposed coercion is irrelevant; the easiest way to rebel against coercion is to do nothing.

Saying “… and I must do it perfectly, or it will be terrible” is the perception of risk. The easiest way to avoid risk is to do nothing.

Hence, procrastination.

If I change the paradigm of coercion and risk, then the perception of how hard it is to do something will change. With that change of perception, Getting things Done will happen far more naturally.

More on The Now Habit next week.


P.S. I continue this article further in next week’s post.