Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Want advice? Take stats.

That’s right. There are relatively few life-courses I can imagine that wouldn’t be made easier by a decent understanding of at least introductory statistics. A frankly, there are a lot of lives that would be improved greatly by an excellent understanding of more advanced methods. I would include mine in the latter category, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective.

If this summer has taught me nothing else, it’s that there are not enough hours in a lifetime to take all of the statistics and methods courses that one should. (I use one here rather generally, knowing that many people are uninterested in research. Still, I think it’s good for everyone to know, at the very least, what it means when the New York Times reports that something is “associated” with something else, rather than something “causes” something else.) That said, I’ve also discovered that even the most lucid and clearly written stats books lose something without a lecturer or a discussion with someone who already understands the stuff.

Additionally, if you can learn about 5 different stats packages, this is helpful. Everyone seems to use a different one, and I haven’t met anyone who could, with a straight face, say “No, I don’t mind at all if you work with my data using a statistical program I do not like.” So this summer, in addition to pioneering my way through large data sets of categorical data, I’m learning Stata, one of the friendlier stats programs I’ve encountered in my brief tenure as a stats program victim user.

Bottom line: take stats. Secondary take-home message: send me happy thoughts of correct Stata syntax and successful analysis.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Books of Summer

In what is becoming a trend, I feel the need to post what I’ve been reading this summer.

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

I enjoyed starting this book. Alicia had recommended it to me, and had read little snippets as she read it, entertaining me with the hilarious anecdotes of office life that Joshua Ferris writes with the insight of one who has been there. As I started it, it struck me that it was a bit like a novel version of “The Office.” Like a sitcom, however, the book didn’t have much direction to the plot. It was an entertaining series of stories following the lives of familiar characters, but I kept reading to be entertained, not to find out what happened at the end.

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

This book was amazing, and I can’t recommend it enough. Junot Díaz describes in amazingly nerdy Spanglish sci-fi references, the life of Oscar, a Dominican teenager living in New York. Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican JRR Tolkien, and rivals all others in his longing to fall in love, and be loved in return. Laced with acerbic but disturbingly funny footnotes describing many of the more brutal segments of Dominican history, the book is some of the darkest humor I’ve ever enjoyed. Perhaps because of this, I think I cried a little when I finished the book, only then realizing how dark it was.

Stephanie Pearl McPhee Casts Off by Stephanie Pearl McPhee

I found this at the library, and needed something a little lighter to read. I have to say though, that I didn’t care for this one as much as some of the Yarn Harlot’s earlier work. This book was written as a travel guide to the land of knitting (with embassies = yarn stores, etc) and seemed to be an almost anthropological collection of stories about knitters and knitting. Although I enjoyed it, I recognized many of the stories as ones I had heard either in other books or at her talks, and that was a little disappointing. It wasn’t quite to the level of trite, but I didn’t find it as insightful as some of her other writing. I can’t complain too much though, as it as a relaxing read.

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

This was another dive into diaspora, with Gautam Malkani describing a group of young men in London defining themselves by “rudeboy” culture - a mix of hiphop, Indian, and teenage sensibilities. It was really well written, though it took a few chapters for me to understand the slang (thank you to the glossary in the back). The combination of Hindi and British English was a bit of a challenge, but one I liked. The book also had a surprising ending that made me reconsider the entire novel, which is a feature I appreciate in a book. It takes the sting out of finishing a good book you wish would keep going, and makes you rethink what you’ve already read.

Potential by Ariel Schrag

This is the second book (technically the third, but the first two were published together and bound as one) in a series of comics that Ariel Schrag writes about her experiences at Berkley High in the late nineties. Awkward and Definition, the first two, were well drawn, ranging from cartoon-like depictions of being drunk to lifelike renditions of Ariel’s dreams, and Potential was the same. I never fail to be impressed at how well some people are really able to draw their emotions. Alicia found both of these in the free book room at work, so I don’t know where they are available.

The Yarn Harlot by Stephanie Pearl McPhee

This is an older book (that I bought for my mom a few years back but never borrowed to read), and I throughly enjoyed it. It is a collection of essays about knitting and knitterly life, and is truly a beautiful set of stories. This is the kind of depth I like from the Yarn Harlot, and I’m excited that it looks like her new book will be more along this vein. While she talks about knitting, she also shares stories of being a doula, being a mom, and teaching others to knit. This richness of experience is what makes her stories about knitting so interesting, as although knitting itself is fascinating, it loses its soul without the people who do it.

Right now, I’m reading I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. So far, it’s fascinating, and disturbing in the same way I remember She’s Come Undone, which I read quite a few years ago now. I’ll probably post in a few months with the rest of the books of summer, and I’ll report back on how this one finishes up.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


“Heliosphere” performed by The Dream Engine

I’ve always liked balloons. In particular, I like the giant balloons that grace the streets of Detroit every Thanksgiving Day for the parade. I appreciate the translations of two-dimensional illustrations to three dimensional balloons. I also enjoy the artistry inherent in flying a giant balloon on a particularly windy day.

For all of these reasons, I was quite excited to see that The Dream Engine would be performing “Heliosphere” at Top of the Park, a free summer festival near campus in Ann Arbor. I dragged Alicia to campus with me, and watched what I would say was a somewhat mediocre blues/folk performance, but nonetheless enjoyable. The highlight of the evening, as I’d anticipated, was the balloon and the associated handlers and acrobat. It struck me that although I tend to find that interpretive and lyrical dance can be a little dull on the ground, they are in fact fascinating when lifted 25-30 feet into the air... Alicia and I both enjoyed the constant vertical motion of the dancer, which resulted in little crowds of kids scurrying around below the balloon to touch her hands when she dropped toward the grown. They were so excited, and clearly believed her to be of another world.

My conclusions from the event, balloons are magical. While a dancer hoisted on a pulley system in a theater can be impressive, and the upper body strength needed to control that kind of apparatus is equally mind-boggling, there is something extra special about using a helium balloon to carry the weight, and challenge the wind to interrupt the performance.