Having a break cycling

I’ve spent the last three weeks working in a project that:

  • if successful, will provide quite a bit of interesting data and a few papers coming from it but
  • if a flop, may also end up as a huge waste of paper (at least will keep the forestry industry going for a while).

So, I was really tired and took Newton for a walk. Actually he was walking/running on the leash while I was cycling. And we have sprints on the sidewalk and hope that there are no cars leaving the driveway, because our chances of stopping on time are minimal. Avonhead cemetery is not far from home and I’m a sucker for cemeteries; they are such a great way to see history in action. We stopped when the sun was very low in the horizon and I wanted to capture the spinning movement of the two windmills. Low speed, neutral graduated filter and split tone.

Windmills in Avonhead cemetery (Photo: Luis, 21 March 2012).

There are a few areas that went white because of the slow shutter speed, but I think it represents quite well what I had in mind at the time.

Early-March flotsam

It has been a strange last ten days since we unexpectedly entered grant writing mode. I was looking forward to work on this issue near the end of the year but a likely change on funding agency priorities requires applying in a few weeks; unfortunately, it means that all this is happening at the same time I am teaching.

  • As usual I got involved in a strange, for me, project which will require semantic analysis of international treaties. I will start having a look at Latent Semantic Analysis using lsa in R and gensim in Python. I’ll have to retrieve documents from the web and process them in quite a few ways.
  • The success of some of Hadley Wickham’s packages got me thinking about underlying design issues in R that make functions so hard to master for users. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that R is great, but why are there so many problems to understand part of the core functionality? A quick web search will highlight that there is, for example, an incredible amount of confusion on how to use the apply family of functions. The management of dates and strings is also a sore point. I perfectly understand the need for, and even the desirability of, having new packages that extend the functionality of R. However, this is another kettle of fish; we are talking about making sane design choices so there is no need to repackage basic functionality to make it usable.
  • Talking about failures, Andrew Gelman mentions the sempiternal problem of designers Turn(ing) a Boring Bar Graph into a 3D Masterpiece or, as a commenter put it, “Turn(ing) a Boring Bar Graph into a 3D Pile of Steaming Crap”. While it is always easy to have a laugh on designers, we should remember that the abundance of 3D piles[…] also reflects our failure to make the point on good data presentation clear. Well, that and the spawn of evil Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint.
  • Gratuitous picture of a vegetarian friend: caterpillar of Emperor gum moth (Photo: Luis).
  • Beware if you are going out for dinner with vegetarian friends. Besides vegetarians having an inordinate influence on the choice of restaurant you may end up subsidizing their meals. HT: @EricCrampton.
  • A cool collection of movie snippets that display mathematics. HT: @Freakonometrics.
  • http://numfocus.org a foundation for supporting scientific computing in Python. HT: @teoliphant.
  • Andrew Gelman again, this time pointing out to Thaddeus Tarpey’s presentation All models are right… most are useless (PDF), focusing on the positive aspects of model approximation.

And that’s all folks.

The weirdness of ebooks

A couple of weeks ago I got a Sony Reader PRS-T1 through the use of Flybuys (a loyalty card scheme available in New Zealand). I had been thinking about buying an Amazon Kindle but then we got the Flybuys catalogue and I could not see the point of shelling out cash for something that I could get much more cheaply.

The device is quite nice and my only hardware quibble is the front frame of the screen, which is too reflective. In contrast, the Sony software to synchronize ebook reader and computer (a mac in my case) is a piece of junk. Therefore, the first thing I did was to install Calibre, which is not pretty but quite effective as a book manager.

By default Sony software pushes the reader to buy books through Whitcoulls, which manages to inspire limitless disappointment: selection is poor and prices high. Why would someone pays $27 for an ebook? The good thing is one can buy books from other sources (e.g. Book Depository or quite a few other book stores), at much lower prices, often below $10. Most books will come with a DRM (usually using Adobe Digital Editions) although there are a few bookshops (e.g. Baen) that ship them DRM-free.

Here is, perhaps, the biggest disappointment with the way many publishers/stores are dealing with their customers; they are treating us like potential criminals. We already went through this with iTunes, which eliminated DRM for music files some years ago. Why choose to unnecessarily constrain the files, particularly when DRM is annoying and can be easily broken? In a similar vein, how come that publishers manage to make pirate copies of books much more easily available than legal ones? If i- I have the money (promise, I do) and ii- I am willing to pay (promise, I do too), why can’t I get legal copies of books by Borges, Cortázar, Bolaño or whoever I want to read? Publishers should compulsorily read this comic by The Oatmeal.

On the plus side, as a quick Google search will show, it is possible to easily break either Amazon’s or Adobe’s DRM using a plugin for Calibre. I am not saying that one should do it, only that is an option. It would always be a pain to end up with unreadable books in the same way that Microsoft MSN customers ended up with unplayable music.

Tuff-luv ebook cover.

After that rant, how does it feel to read in the Sony Reader? It is quite nice and, after a little while, the hardware disappears and the story moves ahead, just like in a normal book. It won’t work for all books—e.g. if you are a fan of Edward Tufte’s books– but it is perfect for most novels or short stories. Rather than buying a typical Sony cover, I ordered this one from Tuff-Luv (a company from the UK) that arrived in less than one week: excellent service and shipped from Germany! The cover is nice looking and, more importantly, covers the shiny sides of the reader, so no more reflection.

In summary, I’m back at reading lots because it is easy to always carry many books in my backpack. This is bliss for an inveterate ‘reading many books in parallel’ aficionado.