Review: You and Your Research

You and Your Research
You and Your Research by Richard Hamming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I happened onto this by a chance link from Mr Tyler Cowen, and I have to say I’m very happy I did.

This little gem of a text is littered with worthwhile thoughts and good suggestions on how to improve on one’s research — but there is absolutely no reason why the same cannot be applied in any other fields. It’s the meaning behind Mr Hamming’s words here rather than the topical application of them which is more important. He also highlights a number of very good practices along with a lot of (fun) anecdotal history that illustrates his points so much better than a drier delivery might have.

I would absolutely recommend this to everyone.

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Of Typesetting and Writing

It will give you, my reader, an indication of my trust and faith in the WordPress engine that until a few days ago I did not believe that justifying text was possible here. That mistake has been resolved.

That is a suitable lead-in to the topic of typesetting — it is something most people spend very little time on, but after my dissertation and other university works definitely one of the more notable issues in my mind. Presentation, in the end, is everything. Especially when we talk of written pages where no conversation can add to what the reader sees. A question arises: If the written work has no form, no beauty, what value could its content have?

An example of great importance is the use of non-breaking spaces and dashes. It adds so much if one knows that the writer of the piece aimed for that superb elegance of correction in how lines start and in what pairs of words (or numbers) appear together.

Dashes are another thing — which one to use (how many people even know of the different ones and their proper application?) and how to create it. I only lately discovered a way in MS Office to create an em-dash. But these differences are the key.

Mostly because of those differences, I have had it in mind to re-process some of my university works to eradicate such errors for future purpose. It would be of very little benefit to anyone, but just maybe worth it in case someone wanted to read anything. I don’t know if they will or if they even should, but at least that would be being prepared.

In the end, what we write in this day and age is so much of a reflection of who we are that the small differences are what will matter and keep on mattering. For that reason if for nothing else (I personally find typesetting a very interesting topic in itself), it is worth knowing the correct way of doing things. And it is worth using that knowledge.

Also: How is it that ski commentators always seem slightly insane?

On the Men who Built Railroads

From ‘Blood, Iron and Gold’ by Christian Wolmar:

Pauling [George Pauling] was one of the great characters of African railway development, a fat man who professed that the only way to resist the local disease was through cast consumption of food and, especially, alcohol. Famously, on one two-day trip along the Beira Railway with its manager Alfred Lawley and chief engineer, A.M. Moore, the three consumed 300 bottles of German beer. Breakfast for three, a few days later, consisted of 1,000 oysters washed down with a modest eight bottles of champagne.

This really makes me want to find two willing friends, get 300 bottles of beer and see if we would still be alive three days later. Or, say, that breakfast.

Stars

In the end, even stars die out.

That’s the line that came to my mind now. However, it was not what prompted me to start this post: that one was instead… well, another one, but since I put a random episode of ‘Shark’ on, I’ve forgotten. So I need to find it again…

Imagine that we lived on a completely clouded planet, like Venus, and nobody had ever seen the stars or the movements of the sky… I wonder, our culture, our science, would’ve been completely different, our lives would’ve been completely different, so how lucky we are to be on this planet with a transparent atmosphere that allows us to admire the majestic display of the starry night.

Almost on the same topic, but so much more eloquent.

And indeed, I wonder: what would we think about (not that we constantly think about our stars but rather we need it, in my opinion, for those bouts of creativity) if there were no stars we could look up to in our skies.

Would we make the clouds our gods? Or would we find our gods under the ground?

Of Fate

Why do we think that everything matters?

What do I mean there? Well, inasmuch as I think of the rotation of planets and where our lives end up, I cannot help thinking that there is a predestined version of it all somewhere. That certainly sounds like a possibility. But, if there is, then nothing we do actually matters — so why bother with anything because surely that decision has been foreseen and already accounted for so nothing we can do would be able to change it.

That results from two issues:

a) if anything we did were able to change what was already set in stone, then the variables would be changing too fast due to seven billion people constantly moving them around, and the “system of fate” would collapse on its own complexity

b) if things we did were not going to change anything because they had been accounted for in the plan, then literally the shortest of thoughts in our minds would have to have been recorded *before it happened* in some database for it to not affect the course of life

Why do I say the last thing I did? My own view is that if I tried to model life without accounting for absolutely all of the variables, the things I missed would mean that my model deviated almost immediately after the beginning due to the intrinsic complexity of what is happening. If not even the shortest of thoughts of every one of us seven billion (due to be nine, I hear) is recorded then that could cause a necessary change in the plan.

But then the very amount of changes would be the undoing of the plan! Assuming that a third of us are awake we would still receive approximately two and a third billion thoughts a second (somewhat less), and of these if the plan accounted for even 75% the other 25% would eventually overwhelm the plan with the changes prescribed.

So, it would not be a plan that could be followed.

And if there is a plan created that cannot absolutely be followed, it is a waste of effort. And why indulge in a waste of effort…

 

Now, mind you… all of this is effective only if humanity is not an experiment of “free will” with some small set parameters that are supposed to be effected whenever any other target/goal takes place in which instance a partial plan would make sense. But that is far too much into guessing the fabric of universe for a late hour such as this.

K.u.k. (cont.)

As promised, I will now expand on that thoroughly unhelpful post from yesterday that more had the intention of forcing me to write more than to actually say something useful (unless someone has the ability to follow my random thought-jumps without any problems).

Now, from a historic point of view, K.u.k. is a way of addressing the political reality of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the monarchy that ruled it. This comes from the German phrase “kaiserlich und königlich” that could be just as well rendered into an English “Imperial and Royal” though for my purposes “Imperial and Regal” would be better suited. Or maybe not. In any case, I much prefer the German one just because it has more of a ring to it than “I.R”/”I.&R.” would, at least in my mind.

But what could it signify when we go past the historical meaning?

Now we will use a different tool to delve into that: a dictionary. I’ll use both the Oxford and Merriam-Webster ones to illustrate my thoughts.

Imperial:

relating to an emperor:
the imperial family
majestic or magnificent:
the bedroom is huge and very imperial

of superior or unusual size or excellence

For the sake of clarity, the first explanation there is from the Oxford, second from MW.

Royal:

of a quality or size suitable for a king or queen; splendid:
she received a royal welcome

a : suitable for royalty : magnificent
b : requiring no exertion : easy <there is no royal road to logic — Justus Buchler>
a : of superior size, magnitude, or quality —often used as an intensive

So, to explain what all those quotes might have brought to mind — in ideal conditions, these two words could be used as an adjective of the highest order to describe something. So, why not try to live so that these could be applied to a person’s life? 🙂

That indeed was my thought — that when used in a well-meaning way, these words could be representative of what an ideal person could be like. That is not to say that an ideal person would have to be a monarch, but rather to imply that regular descriptive words are weaker and less all-encompassing than the need here.

There we go.

Moons and Ships

Of all that there is out there, I guess that the sea brings to my mind the most trivial (and yet the most important) questions.

I managed to spend a good few hours on the bridge today, and most of it was spent looking out at the sea while it was getting darker. It is certainly a most impressive sight, and it was made better today by the relatively cloudless sky.

The sight itself? The moon’s rising light reflecting on the clouds above nightfall.

It was quite amazing indeed.

And the interesting thoughts? How many ships have passed by any of these places we are at in the entire history of the world? And how many places here have never been sailed upon? [Would the water feel any different…]

People Disappoint

People disappoint is the heading of this short piece of writing (and it will be short).

People do disappoint — and in so many different ways. Yet, the best way to get over it is to laugh.

What has made me embark on this specific train of thought is how (and what) people use to describe themselves… or others. And from what I see, so many fail to live up to their words with their actions. But that does not matter for now. What matters is that the self is strong, so that very little (or nothing at all) can shake it — say people disappoint you, people let you down, or something on a similar line : it matters not at all if one just says that the sun will rise tomorrow, and look forward to that with the same eagerness of the sun of yesterday.

So, people can still laugh. 🙂

Friendship

It seems that no matter what we speak of, most questions can be backtraced to trust. Trust, that is then, friendship. Or close enough to be considered the same.

What makes us think we have friends?  What makes us think we know our friends?  How to we decide who we can trust, and who we cannot?

I think that all of these are very personal questions we have great difficulties in determining in general — in other words, there is just a personal answer for everyone out there how they approach the institution of friendship. Institution, I say, just to make it sound more formal, since it is the basis of everything on this Earth. I believe it deserves the formality.

If all of this is so personal, why start speaking of it at all… and maybe, more importantly, what would I say to the very same questions I presented above.

It is easier to believe that we know our friends — I guess it creates a zone of comfort. That is how I approach it at least: assuming nothing bad until something happens. Usually, nothing does becomes most people are reasonable. When something does, it is known that one person in reality was not a friend. As simple as that.

So, the trust is out there. What goes on continuously is keeping the trust intact.

Permanence

Is it a paradox that when one thinks of oneself as permanent, it is not difficult to do things placing the same person into the greatest of dangers? And when it is clear that there is no permanence, that end will be there, then preservation of self gains importance.

What do I mean by permanence here? Certainly not the actual body of flesh, that fades quickest. Instead of that, it might be the name that one leaves behind, the ideals that were believed in…

Maybe, but how can we know without actually feeling the same? Is it possible to reproduce any feelings as they might have been in that, that instant?

“For the samurai to learn 
There’s only one thing,
One last thing –
To face death unflinchingly.”
— Tsukahara Bokuden