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Obesogenic posts

For the life of me, I can't come to terms with the comment section of "obesity"-related posts on social media. What I see is a defeatist attitude that makes me unreasonably annoyed, especially since people in need seem to be listening to the nonsense of those who want to pass as compassionate, but are actually lying for their own benefit, sometimes in the form of likes, sometimes in the form of being on the correct side of the political correctness space.

At the individual level (i.e., if we take an individual and ignore the socio-economic landscape in which the individual lives, as at the population level things change), getting fit for 90% of individuals (I take away a charitable 10% consisting of those with diseases or ailments that require separate considerations) is easy and simple. It's not "simple, but not easy," or vice versa, since the definition of easy and simple changes every time for whatever reason.

Eat less, move more. Better—and we also intuitively know what better means—and fewer calories, more exercise, particularly endurance exercise. It's a no-brainer to get into decent shape: sure, going the extra mile, i.e. having an admirable body, requires more precise actions, but for the average Joe or Jane who wants to get decently fit, what's the big deal?

I think the main crutch of support for people with obesity issues has been the insidious acceptance movement that wants to make you feel good when you're clearly not, that wants to make you feel good when you could be enormously better, that wants you to live an unnoticeable life when you could be a—relatively speaking—protagonist.

I go to Starbucks and drink coffee with occasionally a splash of almond milk, and I turn to the right and see tremendously overweight people ordering calorie bombs that would feed a battalion of soldiers. I turn to the left and see people cheerfully guzzling calories that would cover their weekly energy needs. And I'm aware of all the usual rationalizations, "sugar is addictive," "it's an obesogenic environment," etc. Unnecessary justifications of actions, gestures, and thoughts that mortify the body and the spirit, in my opinion.

I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago and was blown away by the amount of obese, ill-dressed people wandering the gaming halls, boardwalks, and restaurants. It was hard to believe. I'm not a particularly judgmental person—we all have our challenges to overcome, both physical and psychological, and life often takes no prisoners—but I don't think one of those challenges should be ordering a coffee instead of a triple latte with five pumps of the most sugary caramel on the planet, for a whopping 1000 calories that make you feel like being in a coma is being hyper-vigilant.

I'm fit and my life is so much better than it would be if I weren't; I see that I'm treated better than other people who aren't fit; I see the looks I get from people of my own and the opposite sex. And I thank my parents and luck for giving me reasonably good genes. But if I didn't think about what I want out of life, which is mostly to have fun—and yes, I am very vain— I'd eat a cow by myself; I'd eat a pound of pasta for lunch and dinner; I'd eat half a cake every time I sat down. I have more appetite than Hercules. But I say no. And some might say, "You have been blessed with an especially strong will." But when and where does this "blessed game" end? Is it all just fate and nothing else?

When I mentor people in science, technology, and sports, my main goal is to make them realize that they can be much, much better than their "friends," family, and society want them to be. If they don't want to be the best they can be, that's fine, but let's not make the mistake of considering that getting into decent shape (not amazing, not extraordinary, not Olympic-level) is more challenging than analytically solving partial differential equations.

Let's strive to never accept mediocrity, let's maintain in our minds a vision of ourselves— both intellectually and physically—that is better than what society wants us to have.

Who's thriving after catastrophes, and I am talking about species

When I was in academia—before I moved into technology and began applying statistical modeling and machine learning to a variety of tech problems—my research in mathematical biology was primarily on understanding what happens to populations and life histories of individuals (i.e., the timing of key events in an organism's life and the trade-offs between life-history traits, e.g., growth, survival, movement, fecundity) that are affected by catastrophic events, such as floods, storms, and fires that cause mass mortality.

I summarized and then tested using freshwater fish populations as model systems some hypotheses about what happens to populations and individuals after catastrophic events in the paper "Genetic and life-history consequences of extreme climate events" published a few years ago in Proceedings of the Royal Society B ( and in some subsequent work that can be found at I combined genetics, life-history theory, field studies, and simulations, and had a lot of fun doing it. Later, I applied many of the tools, models, and ideas I developed and learned when studying extreme events to problems I faced when working in technology (

A major difficulty in generalizing the consequences of disasters is that the effects of extreme events are largely context-specific. For example, the emergence of adaptations may depend on both the life histories of species and the recurrence, intensity, and nature of extreme events. Next, the demographic and genetic effects of extremes are often the result of chance and thus are not easily predicted or generalized across species or habitats.

Luck also plays a role in determining whether a population will recover after a population crash. For example, I found (combining field studies and novel genetics tools and findings, such as how to assign sex to salmonids and how to infer trios mother-father-offspring in highly inbred populations) that the nearly complete recovery of a fish population that had been reduced to a handful of individuals after a flash flood was due to the large production of offspring from a single pair. Given the high variance in adult reproductive success in most animal species (including humans)—which is at least in part due to differences in individual "quality" (a tremendously important, but I believe understudied, trait)—if the vigorous mating pair had been killed or moved during the flood, population recovery would have become much less likely.

As Napoleon famously said: "I'd rather have a lucky general than a good one."

Black Belt


It was great to receive my black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu from Coach Garth Taylor.

I began my adventure in combat sports with judo at the gym of Judo Parma. The tatami was in the basement of the Palazzetto (a sports arena in Parma) and the program was run by Luciano Verzelloni: in his fifties, tough and with hands and feet that looked like shovels.
I remember that one day, displaying an unforgettable mix of oriental self-assurance and western showmanship, he left his young students and their parents open-mouthed with a flying somersault over a line of at least 10 crouching children, who were certainly frightened, but out of necessity forced to trust in the legs of the coach and good fortune. Seeing how things work nowadays, I imagine the same leap today with millions of views on Instagram, comments from anxious dads and moms about the danger of the jump, direct messages of admiration from men and women for the virility of the gesture and his love of danger, and maybe a reference to the leobufalo, the mythological animal half lion and half buffalo that Gianni Brera invented to refer to Ben Johnson. Different times.

I stopped training in judo after a few years, but the passion for grappling sports remained. I remember suplexes in the Adriatic with a camping friend (he had only one arm, or am I dreaming?) imitating Maenza, who had won the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling a few years earlier at the Seoul Olympics. And I also remember some small prints next to my study desk of Greco-Roman champion Karelin and two Turkish wrestlers of Yağlı güreş (and, for reasons I've forgotten, since I never played baseball, also of Cuban third baseman Omar Linares).

I continued a few years later with Greco-Roman wrestling at club Inzani—the wrestling gym always in the basement of the Palazzetto, next to the judo gym—under the guidance of the legendary Lino Alfieri. Greco-Roman wrestling had been quite popular in Parma in the sixties and seventies, and many guys of my generation had a father, uncle, or second cousin who, between fact, historical fiction, and unrealized youthful dreams, claimed to have trained in Greco-Roman wrestling in their youth. Lino was in his forties at the time, strong as a bull, with a pass-behind that I still remember and jokes that years later are still funny. I was very happy to find him years later on other mats, this time training in jiu-jitsu.
The Greco-Roman training sessions were very hard: I remember that one day, while after training I was trying to park along the road leading to a summer (semi-political) party, I could barely turn the steering wheel of my old Golf—which did not have power steering of course—because of the pain in my forearms and biceps. Those parties and those cars without power steering no longer exist, but we can still train hard.

Ten years ago, right after I moved from Parma to Santa Cruz, I showed up at a jiu-jitsu gym on Delaware Avenue. I had read online that they trained in jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and kickboxing, and I was interested in training in grappling again. On the first day, I tried jiu-jitsu, which I had known by name but not by practice since the 1990s, when a girlfriend and I had watched imported VHS with early mixed martial arts fights.
Since that first day, although at various times I also trained in judo and kickboxing, I never stopped being a student of jiu-jitsu. For ten years I was a student of Garth's, who not only shared with me and hundreds of other students the exceptional technical repertoire he built up over thirty plus years of studying, teaching, and competing in jiu-jitsu and wrestling, but also created an admired and welcoming martial arts club with many tough and competitive students of jiu-jitsu, but not a single impolite one.
In my ten years in Santa Cruz, I changed homes, jobs, and interests, but I never left Garth’s jiu-jitsu gym: when I thought about leaving Santa Cruz to try my luck elsewhere, leaving the gym and the many friends I found there was always one of my main concerns.

The black belt means a lot and little at the same time. A lot, because it is a rewarding recognition of skill, dedication, and perseverance from a very admired coach—eight years passed from the beginning of my undergraduate studies to the completion of my Ph.D., ten from white belt to black belt. Little, because there is always so much to learn and there will always be blue belts, if not white belts, that will make you look as bad as Asterix made the black belt Cilindric the German look in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, first beaten like a carpet and then put out of service with arms and legs knotted.

When one writes about some goal achieved, some positive result, it's tempting to talk about sacrifice or the dark moments survived through willpower and hard-earned confidence. One starts to train hesitantly, then falls in love with the art, then the inevitable obstacles—maybe an injury or disappointing performances—are barely overcome, and finally comes the recognition and with that the desire to give some advice to old and new adventure buddies. We have read about these pilgrimages many times, and I prefer not to give advice. I remember that once I said to a training partner who told me that he was hesitant whether to continue with jiu-jitsu: “The time we spend improving ourselves is not time wasted". I never saw him on the mat again.
Instead, I am reminded of a phrase by a great Italian movie director Michelangelo Antonioni, who did not like easy stories, dramatic challenges, or transcendent events. He said in an interview: "What people ordinarily call the "dramatic line" doesn't interest me [...] Today stories are what they are, with neither a beginning nor an end necessarily, without key scenes, without a dramatic arc, without catharsis. They can be made up of tatters, of fragments, as unbalanced as the lives we lead."
I hope to continue to have as much fun in jiu-jitsu and other arts as I've had on the mats all these years.




È stato piacevolissimo ricevere la cintura nera di jiu-jitsu brasiliano da coach Garth Taylor.

Ho iniziato la mia avventura negli sport di lotta con il judo alla palestra Judo Parma (si chiamava così? O si diceva solo: andiamo a fare judo?). Il tatami era nel seminterrato del Palazzetto di Parma e il programma era diretto da Luciano Verzelloni: sulla cinquantina, ben piazzato e con mani e piedi che sembravano dei badili.
Ricordo che un giorno, sfoggiando un indimenticabile mix di disinvoltura orientale e teatralità occidentale, lasciò a bocca aperta giovani allievi e genitori con un salto mortale volante su una fila di almeno 10 ragazzini, di certo impauriti, ma costretti per forza di cose a confidare nelle gambe del maestro e nella dea bendata. Vedendo come vanno le cose ai giorni nostri, mi immagino lo stesso balzo oggi con milioni di visualizzazioni su Instagram, qualche commento sulla pericolosità della capriola da papà e mamme ansiosi, messaggi privati di ammirazione da uomini e donne per la virilità del gesto e lo sprezzo del pericolo, e magari un riferimento da qualcuno con la memoria buona al leobufalo, l’animale mitologico metà leone e metà bufalo che Gianni Brera si inventò scrivendo di Ben Johnson. Tempi differenti.

Smisi di allenarmi nel judo dopo qualche anno, ma la passione per gli sport di lotta rimase. Ricordo i suplex (anche dette rovesciate) nell'Adriatico con un amico di campeggio (era senza un braccio, o sto sognando?) imitando Maenza, che qualche anno prima aveva vinto la medaglia d'oro nella lotta greco-romana (che non ha origini né greche né romane, fu creata in Italia nel diciannovesimo secolo) alle Olimpiadi di Seul. E ricordo anche alcune piccole stampe accanto al mio tavolo da studio del campione di greco-romana Karelin e di due lottatori turchi di Yağlı güreş (e, per qualche motivo che ho dimenticato, visto che non ho mai giocato a baseball, anche una foto del terza base cubano di Pinar del Rio Omar Linares).

Ho continuato qualche anno dopo con la lotta greco-romana all'Inzani—la palestra di lotta sempre nei sotterranei del Palazzetto, a fianco di quella del judo—sotto la guida del mitico Lino Alfieri. La lotta greco-romana era stata abbastanza popolare a Parma negli anni sessanta e settanta, e molti ragazzi della mia generazione avevano un padre, uno zio o un cugino di secondo grado che, tra fatti, realtà romanzata e sogni giovanili irrealizzati, sosteneva di essersi allenato nella greco-romana da ragazzo.
Lino ai tempi era sui quarant’anni, forte come un toro, con un passaggio dietro e delle battute che a distanza di anni mi fanno ancora sudar freddo l’uno e sorridere le altre. Sono stato molto felice di ritrovarlo anni dopo su altre materassine, questa volta ad allenarsi nel jiu-jitsu.
Gli allenamenti di greco-romana erano di quelli duri: ricordo che un giorno, mentre dopo l’allenamento cercavo di parcheggiare lungo la strada che porta alla Fattoria di Vigheffio, appena fuori Parma, in un notte di Festa de l’Unità, riuscii a malapena a girare il volante della mia vecchia Golf, ovviamente sprovvista di servosterzo, dal dolore agli avambracci e ai bicipiti. Le Feste de l’Unità e le auto senza servosterzo non ci sono più, ma gli allenamenti duri ancora si fanno.

Dieci anni fa, subito dopo essermi trasferito da Parma a Santa Cruz, mi presentai in una palestra di jiu-jitsu in Delaware Avenue. Avevo letto da qualche parte online che insegnavano jiu-jitsu, wrestling e kickboxing, ed ero interessato ad allenarmi di nuovo negli sport di lotta. Il primo giorno provai il jiu-jitsu, che conoscevo di nome ma non di pratica già dagli anni novanta, quando con una fidanzata mi ero messo a guardare VHS d’importazione con i primi combattimenti di arti marziali miste.
Da quel primo giorno, anche se in vari periodi mi sono allenato anche nel judo e nel kickboxing, non ho mai smesso di essere uno studente di jiu-jitsu, un’arte marziale stimolante per il grande volume e varietà di tecniche da conoscere e tremendamente efficace in quanto empirica: se una tecnica non funziona, non si usa. Un metodo di scelta che dovremmo usare più spesso e non solo negli sport.
Per dieci anni sono stato allievo di Garth, che non solo ha condiviso con me e centinaia di altri studenti l'eccezionale repertorio tecnico che ha costruito in trenta anni e più di studio, insegnamento e competizione nel jiu-jitsu e nella lotta, ma ha anche creato un club di arti marziali ammirato, ospitale e accogliente, con molti studenti tosti e competitivi nella lotta, ma nemmeno uno mala compagnia.
Nei miei dieci anni a Santa Cruz, ho cambiato casa, lavoro e interessi, ma non la palestra di jiu-jitsu: quando ho pensato di lasciare Santa Cruz per tentare la fortuna altrove, lasciare la palestra e i molti amici che lì ho trovato è sempre stata una delle mie principali preoccupazioni.

La cintura nera vuol dire tanto e poco. Tanto, perché è un gratificante riconoscimento di abilità, dedizione e costanza—dall’inizio dei miei studi universitari al dottorato passarono otto anni, dieci dalla cintura bianca alla cintura nera. Poco, perché c’è sempre tanto da imparare e sempre ci saranno cinture blu, se non bianche, che ti faranno fare la stessa magra figura che Asterix fece fare alla cintura nera Cilindric il Germano nelle Dodici Fatiche, prima sbattuto avanti e indietro come un tappeto impolverato e poi messo fuori servizio con braccia e gambe annodate. Aveva ragione Obelix, che qualche attimo prima aveva dichiarato: “L’abito non fa il druido”.

Quando si scrive di qualche obiettivo raggiunto, di qualche risultato positivo, si ha la tentazione di parlare di sacrificio o di forza di volontà che sorregge nei momenti bui. Ci si inizia ad allenare titubanti, poi ci si innamora dell’arte, poi gli inevitabili ostacoli—magari un infortunio o miglioramenti che non si vedono—superati a fatica e alla fine arriva il riconoscimento e con quello la voglia di dare qualche consiglio a vecchi e nuovi compagni d’avventura. Lo stesso pellegrinaggio l’abbiamo letto tante volte e i consigli preferisco evitarli. Mi ricordo che una volta dissi a un compagno di allenamento che mi confidava di essere incerto se continuare o meno con il jiu-jitsu: “il tempo che passiamo a migliorarci non è tempo buttato via”. Non l’ho più visto in materassina.
A me viene invece in mente una frase del grande regista Michelangelo Antonioni, al quale non piacevano le storie di maniera, le sfide da superare o gli eventi trascendenti. Disse in un’intervista: “Quello che la gente normalmente chiama "linea drammatica" non mi interessa [...] Oggi le storie sono quello che sono, senza necessariamente un inizio né una fine, senza scene chiave, senza un arco drammatico, senza catarsi. Possono essere fatte di brandelli, di frammenti, instabili come le vite che conduciamo.”
Spero di continuare a divertirmi con il jiu-jitsu e con altre arti come mi sono divertito sulla materassina in tutti questi anni.

Mood - Umore


The ability to put oneself in the right mood for the occasion is among the best superpowers one may aspire to get in life. It’s a game-changer. I am not talking about mindset, which is long-term thinking and vision, or responses to real tragedies that unfortunately happen, but about the more fleeting states of mind that may offer an easy way out or in of exercising or washing dishes, or saying encouraging words instead of the more convenient and satisfying moral slap in the face that we might be tempted to deliver.

Years ago, I was in Australia working for a couple of months at the University of Queensland in Brisbane as a Ph.D. student. I had a great time there and still have fond memories of taking the ferry to the University along the Brisbane River and wild nights in the West End. It seems like a century ago, but some memories are still vivid in my mind.
I was staying at a hostel, sharing a room with a few other guys, after a botched attempt at securing a place for myself in a bungalow some miles away from the University. One weekend afternoon I was watching TV with a Japanese roommate—two chairs side by side and a small 15 inches on the wall—and we ended up on an interview with a rugby league player. Rugby league is the less popular and crazier version of Rugby that is played by 13 people who entertain the audience for 80 minutes by crashing into each other like high-speed bumper cars. A bit like American Football, but with no protections, less strategy, and more hard-nosedness.
The rugby player interviewed was a Pacific Islander, built like the proverbial brick house and with long curly hair. In an attempt to show that rugby athletes are not the brutes that their on-field shenanigans might suggest, they played a video of him skillfully playing the guitar and singing along in a high-pitched voice in his living room. But his emotional singing didn't match either his physical appearance or the video they showed soon after.
With the notes of the guitar still in my ears, they showed him hitting the chest of one of his opponents with his shoulder during a rugby game. The low-angle shot made it look like a child crashing at high speed into a brick wall with long hair. Not only did the poor guy receive the devastating blow, but he also had to listen to the looming, massive Pacific Islander yell at him as he tried to get back on his feet. What a bad time it must have been for him.
Intrigued by the singer/player, I thought about what I've seen quite a few times over the years. It was the change in mood that fascinated me. He was able to be a gentle, emotional singer in his living room and a Panzer on the field.

A few years later, I was having dinner with my postdoc advisor and some colleagues in Santa Cruz. When asked what was the most crucial piece of advice he would give to a new assistant professor, my advisor told a story about fighter planes to offer an observation about the importance of a stable mood and state of mind. He said that Soviet-made MiG-15 aircraft, despite their superior capabilities in turning, climbing, and accelerating, were no match for American F-86 Sabre jets during the Korean War.
As John Boyd—an interesting character who has made well-known contributions to air combat theory and military strategy—explained, the F-86s were more responsive than the MiGs, which allowed F-86 pilots to move effortlessly between maneuvers and have the upper hand in air combat. According to my advisor, new professors are likely to be overwhelmed by commitments in the first few years of their tenure-track position. They must learn to move quickly from teaching to preparing for tests and lectures, serving on committees, mentoring students, and evaluating candidates for research positions—all without bringing past moods and events into the job at hand.

History offers countless examples of the crucial role of mood in achieving goals, even in the middle of the storm. Before becoming the President of Yugoslavia in the 1950s, Marshal Tito was a Partisan leader in the Balkans during WWII. While reading “The Heretic”, Tito’s biography written by his English sympathizer Fitzroy Maclean, I was struck by the following passage: “He had the gift, when he chose, of putting his cares aside and relaxing completely. Then he would laugh and joke as if he had not a worry in the world. But at all times of the day and night [...] he would be ready, on the receipt of an urgent signal, at the sound of near-by fighting or at the warning cry of a sentry, to spring into immediate and effective action. Alertness and quick reactions had long been part of his stock-in-trade.”
A man in complete control of his state of mind, which is even more admirable when considering that he was wanted by the likes of Skorzeny and his gang, all murderers and torturers you certainly would not invite home for a digestif and a game of cards.

The importance of putting ourselves in the right state of mind for the occasion is obvious. And it is also obvious that it takes little effort to be stuck in a permanently bad mood. On the other hand, recognizing our moods and changing them may require effort, focus, and training. As with any behavioral changes, which are often not a one-shot deal, the first step is to convince ourselves that it's possible, the second is to create the change, and the third is to make the change easy to obtain and maintain.
Our moods and actions are often misaligned. We may be irritated when talking business instead of being focused and relaxed, or meek when threatened by some good-for-nothing instead of being firm and alert. We may get in a bad mood after reading a social media post from someone we don't know about an issue we have no influence over. Or, and this is what I've experienced hundreds of times in my life, we can wake up annoyed, angry, combative for any reason or, often, for no apparent reason at all, and carry on the bad mood throughout the day or week.

We can accept the bad mood as inevitable, part of our personality, or a healthy reaction to an unfair world. As I used to tell my girlfriend years ago when she complained about some of my behaviors (unfairly, of course), one wakes up annoyed because of hormones that do what they want and not what should do, or a bedroom that’s either too hot or too cold, and then finds the culprit and causes that are more convenient to explain the bad mood. That is equivalent to having a slap ready and looking for the right cheek, instead of responding with the right aim and force to a threat.
Maybe she would say, "You're asking me why I'm in a bad mood, remember what you told me two months ago? In these cases, you should use the same words that Lolita, in Kubrick's 1962 film, said to her devious ex-boyfriend when he insisted on an explanation of what had happened a few years earlier. She replied, "You have no right to say that. After all, the past is the past." Wise words despite her young age. She was not in a mood to engage.

I don’t believe in forcing ourselves, I believe more in persuading ourselves. Force gets a push back; persuasion is more likely to result in acceptance and change. Telling ourselves “you look terrible” is less likely to lead to change than a more forward-looking “you could do much better”. The first step in aligning mood and occasion is recognizing the mood; the second is changing it if the current one is not right. I suspect that the attachment we feel for our moods is because we see them as a real, deep, permanent part of us. But is the mood that goes away after a nap or melts away like ice in the summer sun when someone, after so much intolerable waiting, recognizes how beautiful we are, really a permanent part of us?
My personality, which comes (and not just for me!) from a mix of genes, experiences, chemical and hormonal reactions to food, humidity, and words, does not lean in the direction of tremendous joviality. But some time ago, I started thinking I could do and be better, and I started persuading myself.
Some examples can make what I'm talking about more tangible. It happens that I wake up in the morning annoyed or conflictual. I used to accept those moods, sometimes basking in my tormented thoughts. But now I recognize the pull toward irritation and distraction, and instead of accepting it, I like to say to myself: have you lost your mind? Don’t you see the new opportunities, the new day? And most of the time this is enough to get me into a more positive mood for the day ahead, whatever challenge or situation it presents.
It's not that being irritated or in an aggressive mood should always be avoided. Nor is it the sadness that follows a tragic event: but we all know that. It is just that irritation and aggression should be used sparingly: it has to be the right mood for the occasion. The rugby player I was talking about wasn't just Maria Callas in the living room, he was also Genghis Khan on the field.

Another example. After 10 years of practicing jiu-jitsu 3 or 4 times a week, sometimes the mood before going to the gym isn't right. I may feel tired, think about work 10 minutes before I leave while I haven't thought about it for the previous 3 hours, focus on aches and pains that have been there for months and weren't bothering me until half an hour before it is time to go to the gym, or I get the urge to write like I'm doing now. But, as any gym-goer has experienced plenty of times, getting to the gym is sometimes difficult, but then we're glad we went to work out instead of spending the evening on the couch with a bag of chips and the usual cop movie on television.
Today, I recognize that my mood is pushing back and then try—more often than not successfully—to grab some thoughts, some feelings that can change my mood in the direction I want. In the case of jiu-jitsu, I like to think about how cool it is that I have the opportunity to become proficient in a combat sport. And that thought, the image that comes to mind, is enough to make me go to the gym at a quick pace.

I have a hot/cold relationship with running: I could do without it, but I think being decent at running is important for an athlete, and running along the ocean, watching the birds and the waves is something I'm very grateful for. I'm often not in the right mood before a run: my calves are tight, my Achilles is suddenly bothering me, and my mind is stuck on work despite the excitement about the run I felt before falling asleep the night before. But recently I have been thinking of a guy, younger than me, who I saw a few times while running. He was in a wheelchair looking out the window of his house overlooking the ocean. He did not look sad, and I don’t want to appear paternalistic. But I'm sure he would have made a pact with the devil, eternal damnation included, to be able to run for even 10 minutes. And more often than not, that thought is enough to make me lace up my running shoes and go for the run.

Most importantly, what helped me change my ways was perspective. You might think that a better mood comes from a better life; that is, you find your place in life, your hormones aren't as wild as they were when you were younger, and your questions about the meaning of life are less edgy and more balanced.
But then I think of a picture of my grandfather ready to play a football game with his teammates: it's been 2 or 3 years since the end of World War II, they're all skinny as rails, about eighteen years old, there is a ball of leather with visible seams, which seems to weigh 2 kilos. They didn’t have showers to wash off the sweat after the game, but a dip in a nearby ditch.
And they must also have had the problems we all have at some point in life: maybe a parent in poor health, a girlfriend we'd do anything for, but she likes someone else, the desire to buy a new bicycle, but we have just enough money for a half-broken one. But they are all smiling. They all have the genuine smile of someone who is having a grand time. And it makes me think that, at the end of the day, being in the right mood is mostly a choice.




La capacità di mettersi nell'umore giusto per l'occasione è tra le migliori qualità che si possano aspirare ad avere nella vita. Non sto parlando della mentalità, che più si riferisce a una visione di lungo periodo, o delle risposte a drammi veri che hanno la brutta idea di accadere, ma degli stati d'animo più fugaci che ci fanno venire voglia di fare esercizio oggi o di rimandare al giorno venturo, lavare i piatti adesso o pensarci domattina, o dire parole incoraggianti al nostro prossimo invece di assestargli un più comodo e soddisfacente schiaffo morale.

Qualche anno fa passai un paio di mesi com studente di dottorato in Australia, all'Università del Queensland a Brisbane. Fu un'estate alla quale penso ancora con piacere e ho bei ricordi di quando prendevo il traghetto per l'università lungo il fiume che scorre per Brisbane e delle notti movimentate nel West End. Mi sembra sia passato un secolo, ma alcuni episodi li ricordo ancora bene.
Alloggiavo in un ostello—condividevo la stanza con altri ragazzi—dopo un tentativo mal riuscito di assicurarmi un posto in un bungalow a qualche chilometro dall'università. Un pomeriggio di un fine settimana stavo guardando la televisione con un compagno di stanza giapponese—due sedie una fianco all’altra e un piccolo 15 pollici sul muro—quando finimmo su un'intervista a un giocatore di rugby league.
La rugby league è la versione meno popolare e più pazza del rugby, con 13 giocatori che intrattengono il pubblico schiantandosi uno contro l’altro ad alta velocità per 80 minuti—le partite mi ricordano gli autoscontri che venivano con le giostre in primavera. Un po' come il football americano, ma senza protezioni, con meno strategia e scontri ancora più esplosivi.
Il giocatore di rugby intervistato era un isolano del Pacifico dai lunghi capelli ricci e neri, costruito come la proverbiale casa di mattoni. Per far vedere che gli atleti di rugby non sono i bruti che le loro bravate sul campo potrebbero suggerire, mostrarono un filmato dell’isolano che cantava in falsetto sul divano, accompagnando il canto con le note di una chitarra, suonata devo dire con una certa abilità. Ma era difficile immaginare come il canto a cuore in mano potesse venire da quel metro e novanta di muscoli—ancora meno quando lo mostrarono in azione sul campo da rugby nel filmato successivo.
Con le note della chitarra ancora nelle orecchie, lo vidi nel nuovo filmato colpire a piena spalla uno dei suoi avversari durante una partita di rugby. Non solo lo sventurato incassò il colpo spaccaossa, ma mentre cercava di rimettersi in piedi alla bell’e meglio dovette anche sentire l’urlo di battaglia dell’altro che lo guardava dall’alto in basso con gli occhi di chi non vede l’ora di rifilarne un’altra di spallate, nel caso il primo messaggio non fosse arrivato. Un episodio che immagino a distanza di anni gli faccia ancora tremare i polsi. Il cantante-giocatore mi incuriosì e ripensai a lui diverse volte negli anni. Mi avevano colpito i suoi stati d’animo così diversi: un cantante emotivo dalla voce sottile sul divano e un carro armato che fa piazza pulita in campo.

Qualche anno dopo, a una a cena a Santa Cruz con il mio postdoc advisor e alcuni colleghi di laboratorio, chiesero al mio advisor quale sarebbe stato il primo consiglio che avrebbe dato a un nuovo assistant professor per un buon inizio di carriera. Lui rispose con un breve racconto sulle battaglie nei cieli della Corea, durante la guerra del 1950-53, che poi interpretai come un'osservazione sull'importanza di uno stabile stato d'animo per chi inizia la carriera accademica. Raccontò che nella guerra in Corea gli aerei di fabbricazione sovietica MiG-15, nonostante le loro capacità superiori in virata, salita in quota e accelerazione, non furono all'altezza dei jet americani F-86 Sabre.
Come poi spiegò John Boyd, un militare sui generis che ha dato contributi notevoli alla teoria del combattimento aereo e alla strategia militare, gli F-86 erano più reattivi dei MiG, il che permetteva ai piloti degli F-86 di essere più fluidi nelle manovre e avere il sopravvento nei combattimenti aerei.
Secondo il mio advisor, i nuovi accademici rischiano di essere sopraffatti dai tanti impegni e dalle nuove responsabilità che si presentano nei primi anni di carriera. Per evitarlo, devono imparare a passare senza indugi dall'insegnamento alla preparazione di esami e seminari, al lavoro di commissione, a seguire gli studenti e a valutare i candidati per le posizioni di ricerca. Devono cioè muoversi da un impegno all’altro senza portare stati d'animo ed eventi del passato nel lavoro in corso.

Anche la storia ci propone numerosi esempi del ruolo cruciale dello stato d’animo nel raggiungimento degli obiettivi, anche nel mezzo di una tempesta storica come la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Prima di diventare il presidente della Jugoslavia negli anni '50, il maresciallo Tito di distinse come capo partigiano nei Balcani. Leggendo "L’Eretico", la biografia di Tito scritta da—questo è facile notarlo dai tratti agiografici del libro, quindi prendiamo comunque con le pinze quanto scritto—il suo simpatizzante inglese Fitzroy Maclean, mi colpì questo passaggio: "Aveva il dono, quando voleva, di mettere da parte le sue preoccupazioni e rilassarsi completamente. Allora rideva e scherzava come se non avesse una preoccupazione al mondo. Ma a tutte le ore del giorno e della notte [...] era pronto, al ricevimento di un segnale urgente, al suono di un combattimento vicino o al grido di avvertimento di una sentinella, a scattare in un'azione immediata ed efficace. La prontezza di riflessi e la rapidità di reazione erano da tempo parte del suo repertorio".
Da questa descrizione, certo un po’ parziale, Tito appare un uomo in pieno controllo del suo stato d'animo, il che è ancora più ammirevole se si considera che nel 1944 furono sulle sue tracce addirittura Skorzeny e i suoi sgherri, tutti assassini e torturatori che certamente non inviteresti a casa per un digestivo e una partita a carte.

È evidente a tutti l'importanza di mettersi nello stato d'animo giusto per l'occasione. Ed è chiaro che per tanti di noi sia particolarmente difficile metterci di cattivo umore, che ci siano o no dei motivi. Purtroppo però, riconoscere i nostri stati d'animo e poi cambiarli spesso richiede sforzo e sempre richiede pratica. Quando cerchiamo di cambiare un nostro comportamento, un’abitudine che non ci piace, il primo passo è convincerci che sia possibile, il secondo è creare il cambiamento, e il terzo è rendere il cambiamento facile sia da ottenere che da mantenere.
Spesso, si diceva, accade che i nostri stati d'animo e le nostre azioni non siano allineati, non vadano nella stessa direzione: possiamo essere irritati quando parliamo di affari invece di essere in controllo o sul pezzo, o mansueti quando siamo minacciati da qualche buono a nulla invece di essere sul chivalà e, nel caso ci fosse bisogno, pronti alle maniere forti o alla fuga rapida.
Come è capitato a tutti quelli con un collegamento a Internet, possiamo essere di cattivo umore dopo aver letto un post online scritto da qualcuno che non conosciamo su una questione che non ci riguarda. Ancora, e questo è quello che ho sperimentato tante volte nella mia vita, possiamo svegliarci infastiditi, arrabbiati, combattivi per qualsiasi motivo o, spesso, per nessun motivo particolare, e portare avanti il tempo nuvolo dell’anima per giorni o settimane.

Possiamo accettare il cattivo umore, l’irritazione, la conflittualità come inevitabili, parte della nostra personalità, o una reazione sana a un mondo ingiusto. Come dicevo anni fa a una mia fidanzata quando si lamentava di alcuni miei comportamenti a suo dire sbagliati—quasi sempre ingenerosamente, mi viene da dire—ci si sveglia alla mattina con la luna storta per gli ormoni che fanno un po’ come gli pare, la camera da letto troppo calda o troppo fredda, gli zuccheri nel sangue che vanno su e giù come se fossero sulle montagne russe, e invece di accettare il risveglio amaro come frutto del caso o di una frittata mal digerita, spesso ci si mette a cercare come un cane da tartufo il colpevole e le cause che potrebbero spiegare la luna storta.
Mi viene da paragonare la situazione che ho descritto ad avere prima lo schiaffo pronto e poi mettersi a cercare la guancia giusta, invece di più logicamente assestare un colpo mirato a chi si presenta come una minaccia o lasciar perder nel caso la minaccia non ci sia più. Magari diceva: "Hai un bel coraggio a chiedermi perché sia di cattivo umore, non ti ricordi cosa mi hai detto due mesi fa?
In questi casi, vi suggerisco di usare le stesse parole che Lolita, nel film di Kubrick del 1962 e forse anche nel romanzo, disse per fermare il suo corteggiatore un po’ in là con le primavere, quando lui chiedeva spiegazioni su quanto successo qualche anno prima. Lolita disse: "Questo non hai il diritto di dirlo. Dopo tutto, il passato è passato". Parole sagge, nonostante la giovane età: Dolores, ormai donna, non era in vena di discutere del tempo che fu.

Non credo nell’uso della forza con noi stessi, credo più nella persuasione. La forza ottiene spesso una reazione di verso opposto; con la persuasione è più probabile prima accettare la condizione, e poi cambiarla. Dire a noi stessi: "hai un aspetto terribile", è meno probabile che porti al cambiamento rispetto a un più persuasivo: "potresti fare molto meglio". Il primo passo per allineare stato d'animo e occasione, cioè quello che si sta facendo o pensando in quel momento, è riconoscere lo stato d’animo; il secondo è cambiarlo, se lo stato d’animo non è quello giusto per l’occasione.
Ho il sospetto che fatichiamo a cambiare i nostri stati d'animo perché li vediamo o come parte di noi o che ci fanno quello che siamo. Ma è davvero parte di noi il cattivo umore che va via dopo una mezz’ora passata a dormire nel pomeriggio o che si scioglie come neve al sole quando qualcuno, dopo tanta intollerabile ingiusta attesa, con un complimento finalmente ci riconosce quanto siamo belli?
La mia personalità, che come per ognuno di noi deriva da un misto di geni, esperienze, reazioni chimiche e ormonali al cibo, alle parole e, nel mio caso in particolare, all'umidità, non la definirei come tremendamente gioviale. Personalità più sul tormentato (si può trovare tra quelli che per loro sfortuna non hanno capito che di vita ce n’è una sola) che vicina all’amore cosmico— più facile da trovare tra chi ha magari passato la propria vita tra le mura di un monastero.
Ma qualche tempo fa cominciai a pensare che avrei potuto fare di meglio, e iniziai l’opera di auto-persuasione. Dopo tutto, pensai, non mi pare vengano appuntate medaglie sul petto di quelli che hanno la luna storta un giorno sì e uno no solo per il fatto di averla.

Gli esempi personali che ora presenterò dovrebbero chiarire il mio pensiero, dato che di teoria si può discutere all’infinito tra sì, ma e però. Mi succede a volte di svegliarmi alla mattina infastidito, con voglia di litigare con qualcuno o un po’ con tutti. Accettavo questi stati d'animo, a volte crogiolandomi nei miei pensieri tormentati. Ma ho pensato di non accettarli più.
Riconosco ora il movimento del mio stato d’animo verso l'irritazione e la distrazione, e invece di lasciarlo proseguire indisturbato, mi dico: ma tu, perché ritorni a tanta noia. No, quello lo diceva Virgilio a Dante. Riprendo. Ora quello che mi dico è: sei fuori di senno? Non vedi le opportunità, la vita davanti, il giorno nuovo?
E spesso questa breve opera di persuasione basta per cambiare il mio umore, per mettermi in uno stato d'animo più positivo per la giornata che mi aspetta, qualsiasi difficoltà o piacere essa possa presentare.
Voglio essere chiaro: non è che l'essere irritato o in uno stato d'animo aggressivo si debba sempre evitare. Men che meno la tristezza che segue l’evento nefasto: ma quello lo sappiamo tutti. Solo, irritazione e aggressività si devono usare con parsimonia: deve essere lo stato d'animo giusto per l'occasione. Il rugbista di cui parlavo non era solo Maria Callas in salotto, era anche Genghis Khan in campo.

Un altro esempio. Dopo dieci anni di tre o quattro allenamenti di jiu-jitsu a settimana, a volte l'umore prima di andare in palestra non è quello giusto. Magari mi sento molle, inizio a pensare al lavoro 10 minuti prima di uscire quando non ci ho pensato per un attimo nelle tre ore precedenti, si ripresentano dolori e fastidi che non sentivo fino a mezz'ora prima di andare in palestra, o mi viene voglia di scrivere, come sto facendo adesso.
Ma come ogni frequentatore di palestra ha sperimentato diverse volte, mettersi in pista per andare in palestra a volte è faticoso, ma poi siamo contenti di esserci allenati invece di aver passato la serata sul divano con un sacchetto di patatine e il solito poliziesco in televisione.
Oggi riconosco le acque limacciose che il mio stato d’animo mette tra me e la palestra, e cerco di afferrare alcuni pensieri, alcune sensazioni che possono cambiare il mio stato d’animo nella direzione che desidero. Nel caso del jiu-jitsu, mi piace pensare a quanto sia bello diventare competente in uno sport da combattimento. E mi piacerebbe dire che mi sovvien l’eterno e le morte stagioni, ma quello lo diceva Leopardi. Più prosaicamente, l'immagine che mi viene in mente spesso basta per farmi andare in palestra a passo svelto.

Più che d’amore e odio, ho un rapporto con la corsa di moderato piacere e tiepida insofferenza: potrei farne a meno, ma penso che essere abili nella corsa sia importante per un atleta, e sono molto grato di avere la possibilità di poter correre lungo l'oceano, buttando l’occhio agli uccelli di mare e alle onde tra una salita in apnea e l’altra.
Spesso però non sono dell'umore giusto prima di una delle due o tre corse che mi faccio a settimana: sento i polpacci duri, il mio tendine d’Achille torna a darmi fastidio come se lo stregone che sono sicuro mi punzecchia le caviglia della bambolina avesse l’orologio, e nonostante l'eccitazione per la corsa provata il giorno prima nei minuti prima del sonno, la mia mente è distratta dai soliti problemi da niente di lavoro.
Ma da qualche tempo mi viene da pensare a un ragazzo, più giovane di me, che ho visto mentre correvo. Se l’avessi visto una volta sola avrei potuto pensare a un’allucinazione da fatica, ma l’ho visto più volte. Era su una sedia a rotelle e guardava dalla sua casa fuori da una grande finestra che dà sull’oceano. Non sembrava triste, e non voglio sembrare paternalista. Ma sono sicuro che avrebbe fatto un patto con il diavolo, dannazione eterna inclusa, per poter correre ancora, o per la prima volta, anche solo per 10 minuti. E più spesso che no, pensare a quel ragazzo e al patto col diavolo è sufficiente per farmi allacciare le scarpe da corsa e partire a buon passo.

Ma ciò che più mi ha aiutato a cambiare è stato pensare alla vita con una diversa prospettiva di tempo e spazio, con più distanza. Si potrebbe pensare che un umore migliore venga da una vita migliore. Trovi il tuo posto nella vita, magari una buona carriera, relazioni sentimentali stabili, una famiglia. Gli ormoni non sono così selvaggi come qualche anno prima, e le domande sul senso della vita sono meno adolescenziali, più mature. Le turbolenze si acquietano, l’umore è più stabile.
Ma poi penso a una foto di mio nonno con i suoi compagni di squadra, tutti sui diciott’anni, pronti a giocare una partita di calcio: saranno passati 2 o 3 anni dalla fine della Seconda Guerra Mondiale, la foto è in bianco e nero, sono magri come dei chiodi, il pallone di cuoio con le cuciture in bella vista sembra pesare due chili. Per lavare il sudore dopo la partita non c’erano docce, ma un tuffo in un fosso vicino.
E avranno anche avuto i problemi che da che mondo e mondo tutti abbiamo a un certo punto nella vita: magari un genitore in cattiva salute, una ragazza per la quale faremmo carte false, ma a lei piace un altro, la voglia di comprarsi una bicicletta nuova, ma i soldi ci sono solo per una mezza scassata. Ma sono tutti sorridenti. Hanno tutti il sorriso di chi si sta non vede l’ora d'iniziare a giocare. E mi viene da pensare che, alla fine dei conti, essere dell’umore giusto sia perlopiù una scelta.

Medio Oriente - Middle East


I visited Tel Aviv and Jerusalem four years ago. I had wanted to go to Israel for a long time, partly because I was fascinated by Israel as a country in the group of lesser and non-aligned countries—i.e., those who, at the end of the day, do as they please—and partly because I saw the trip as similar to the one Muslims are supposed to make, according to their religion, at least once in their lives to Mecca: a spiritual necessity in the case of Allah's followers, a cultural one in mine.
I have never felt Catholic, despite baptisms, confirmations, catechisms, and long afternoons spent at the parish, but like many of my fellow countrymen, I have distinctly perceived the Church's presence in Italian culture and life. Since I was a kid, I heard at school, in the parish, and sometimes—admittedly, rarely—in the family, of the Crusades, Nazareth, Jesus, the Temple, the sins that mark and the confessions that make one pure again. A call, that of the Holy Land for some and the Promised Land for others, that made itself felt.

I remember the arrival—and even more so the departure: I thought I was going to miss the plane because of the two hours I spent with an open backpack with the customs officers—in an airport that seemed like a prison because of the thorough checks on suitcases, clothes, and bodies, the lights going on and off for who knows what reason, and everywhere police and soldiers with rifles in their hands.
I was staying in a small apartment in Tel Aviv in Bograshov, on a street leading to the beach of the same name. A lively neighborhood, classically Middle Eastern because of the diverse and dark people, the heat, and the many small bars and restaurants in which tourists called their orders half in English and half using hand signs.
If it weren't for the different ethnicities and dishes, the curly hair and hummus, I would have mistaken it for a neighborhood near the historic center of the city where I was born. For some reason, I slept in every day until two in the afternoon. I never knew if I was exhausted from the flight and the turbulent life I was living or if I had been seized by a mystical rapture like those that people purer in spirit than me had experienced when they got close, geographically and spiritually, to the divine.

To me, Tel Aviv seemed a fascinating city, modern and ancient at the same time: on one side, technological and research centers among the most lively and prestigious in the world; on the other, synagogues, mosques, and the chants of the muezzin.
It was September, at the end of summer. The warm temperatures still invited people to go to the beach. I had never visited a place with people as attractive as I saw in Tel Aviv. So many young people enjoying the life of a Mediterranean seaside town, spending their free time on the beach tanning or exercising in the many fitness stations on the waterfront. I also saw young women in bathing suits and machine guns—soldiers always have to carry their guns during the military service—a scene I had already seen many times in photos and films. Men and women fully modern: fit, tanned, awake, beautiful.
A city where I could see myself living and not just being a tourist. Open, dynamic, energetic, rarely sleeping because busy with parties, music, and bars. I tried some of its parties and bars and I recommend them. Like I experienced going back to my room at nine in the morning after a sleepless night. The sleepy morning walk came after a chat at dawn with a barman in his twenties. Between serving me a coffee, a croissant, and a local spirit, he told me that he was training for the Sayeret Matkal, the best known of the special forces of the Israeli army. He told me that the young guys don't want to put their lives on hold for the long compulsory military service anymore. They are looking left and right for loopholes to skip it, those wimps: they are all liberals nowadays, they don't want to defend Israel.

I visited Jerusalem: I walked around the city, surprised by the many Orthodox Jews with long beards, kippahs, and the black clothes that reminded me of the—unofficial, but customary—uniform of the lonely men who helped out in the parish and of those who had not been able to overcome the loss of a dear one. Jews and Arabs in the streets, although sometimes it was hard to tell who was one and who was the other. I spent a day in the Old City: I remember the blistering heat, the suffocating smell of leather sold by the many Arab merchants in the covered market, the voices booming in the narrow streets. I had to take an hour-long break in the shade of a gallery to catch my breath. It ended with the second purchase, 25 years after the first one—and I'll explain when it was the first—of a keffiyeh, from an old peddler who had kept me company with the conversation you'd expect from someone who sees a thousand pilgrims a day.

I remember my Way of the Cross in the Old City, which accompanied by the heat, dehydration, and the smells of the market had made me feel, as I had never experienced before, close to the suffering of Jesus. Finally, a visit of a couple of hours to the Western Wall: my eye enraptured by the Orthodox Jews who, between devotion and madness, moved rhythmically back and forth, back and forth, their bodies and heads a few inches from the Wall like stuck robots, the little pieces of paper left—one also by me, but I don't remember what I wrote on it—in the spaces between the stones, and finally some refreshment found in the gallery at the side of the Wall, with the Orthodox Jews still praying, and praying. My visit to the Old City had been one of pagan suffering. But we have all been taught that pain is an indispensable ingredient of sublimation and catharsis. We arrive at Christ with broken bones.

I got to know the Israelis—or the Jewish people, since at the time the difference between Israelis and Jews was unclear—as a kid, when the First Intifada broke out in the late 1980s. Especially before the Gulf War, the television news showed the face-to-face clashes between Palestinians and Israelis every day, putting them among the most important news of the day for at least a couple of years. Jerusalem, the West Bank, the settlers, the Orthodox, the Esplanade of Mosques, the Gaza Strip. Places, groups, and characters were always the same. Arafat, the PLO, Fatah, Shamir, Rabin. We all saw the stones thrown by Palestinians at police and soldiers, and we all saw the answers coming in the shape of a few beatings when it was going well for the Palestinian boys and a few bullets when things got more heated.
One video I still remember. I looked for it several times over the years, but I never found it. Lunchtime news: two Israeli soldiers dressed in green had recently captured one or two Palestinians on a little grass hill. The soldier used a large rock to break the arm of one of the two Palestinians. One pulled his right arm, the other struck on the elbow. In my memories, the stone severs his arm. Did I make it up? Did I take a dislocation for mutilation? In any case, and quite predictably, I had taken a liking to the Palestinian cause. How could you side with the Israelis when in your young eyes the world is good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, rocks this side of the fence and bullets on the other side, colonized here and colonizers there? It was a closeness of spirit that led me to buy my first keffiyeh in my teenage years, in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. It also protected me from the cold when riding my scooter: from an object of political and civil testimony to a scarf that protected me from the weather. The journey of man starts idealistic and ends up guarded.

I also have to say I don't remember ever meeting a Jew in person before I moved to the United States. Perhaps some classmate may have had a Jewish grandfather or great grandmother, some friend of a friend may have organized a Bar Mitzvah for a boy who was ready to become an adult, but I never knew: to me, Jews were a people for history books, for literature and theater, for Nobel prizes or for the news at the time of the Palestinian uprisings. Much testimony, little flesh and bone. And then, did only Jews live in Israel? At the time, when the international pages of local newspapers had articles as long as the solution to a rebus, only a few would have guessed the ethnic composition of Israel.
Later, thanks to life in the United States—a nation in which Jews are very visible both culturally and politically, stereotyped a bit by themselves for self-defense and a bit by others as a psycho-neurotic element of urban life—I became interested in the Israel question again. I don't want to delve into the chronology of events or venture into superficial considerations about Middle Eastern wars, given that between the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the First, Second, Third Intifada, I forget which is which every ten days.

I want to talk about what I've experienced visiting Israel, talking to American Jewish friends, reading books and articles, and watching a few documentaries about Israel's political and military history from 1948—the year in which Ben-Gurion declared the birth of the State of Israel—onward, and Palestine before 1948.
The feeling I had is that of a people who have no intention of putting their destiny in the hands of other nations and other ethnic groups, of a people who said to themselves in 1948 and continue to say today that we will take care of us, not you. With all the necessary means and whatever the costs: and if someone has something against it, for us it is the same. Some Israeli Jews feel genetically and culturally superior to the Arabs and other peoples, others do not; there are liberals open to the idea of an independent Palestinian state and more conservative types who would not waste any time with the Arabs, but no one wants to risk being caught the middle of history once again. And the Israelis are smart, rich, and determined.

And I think that all of Israel's wars, from the declaration of the State onwards, have had, more than racist or imperialist traits, traits of, I would say, insecurity—an understandable feeling, from their point of view. Of course, for me, an Italian who lives in the United States in a small seaside town that is certainly not a crossroads of events, it is difficult to think in 2021 as something real of civil wars or wars between neighbors, of a plane whose sound you hear and then buildings collapse as if made of cardboard, of people dying in Gaza and Tel Aviv when they have nothing to do with war and politics, and of the many Palestinians buried alive in tunnels that collapsed under the bombings. The Israelis are wary and say better to others than to us. And if there are some innocent victims—who, in their opinion, maybe were not white doves anyways—didn't we have six million innocent victims while you all were watching?

The fact is that people all over the world have talked about the conflict for a few days, but their attention has then shifted elsewhere. Some political leaders are proposing a truce because too many deaths do not help any of the parties; then, maybe some other bombings will kill a few more dozens of poor souls, Iran will threaten again what they call the Zionist dogs, and the usual ridiculous dictators with one hundred badges and medals they themselves pinned on their chests will declare what's most convenient for them. And we will see how it will end: now, the solution to the Israel question seems far away, but the history books are full of surprises.




Ho visitato Tel Aviv e Gerusalemme quattro anni fa. Un viaggio, quello in Israele, che volevo fare da tempo, un po’ perché affascinato da Israele come paese nel gruppo di quelli meno e non-allineati, cioè di quelli che alla fine dei conti fanno come gli pare, e un po’ perché lo vedevo come un viaggio simile a quello che i musulmani dovrebbero fare, secondo dottrina, almeno una volta nella vita alla Mecca: una necessità spirituale nel caso dei fedeli di Allah, culturale nel mio. 
Cattolico non mi sono mai sentito, nonostante i battesimi, le cresime, i catechismi e le giornate all’oratorio, ma ho come tanti miei connazionali percepito distintamente e fortemente la presenza della Chiesa nella cultura e nella vita italiana. Da quando ero bambino, sentivo parlare a scuola, in parrocchia e qualche volta—raramente—in famiglia, di Crociate, di Nazareth, di Gesù, del Tempio, dei peccati che segnano e delle confessioni che purificano. Un richiamo, quella della Terra Santa per alcuni e Promessa per altri, che si faceva sentire.

Mi ricordo l’arrivo—e ancora di più la partenza: pensavo di perdere l’aereo per le due ore passate a zaino aperto con i doganieri—in un aeroporto che sembrava una prigione per i controlli capillari a valigie, vestiti e corpi, le luci che si accendevano e spegnevano per chissà quale ragione, i poliziotti e i militari coi fucili in mano dappertutto. Un arrivo da terra di guerra più che di pace. 
Alloggiavo in un piccolo appartamento a Tel Aviv in Bograshov, in una via che portava all’omonima spiaggia. Un quartiere vivace che mi era sembrato classicamente mediorientale per le genti diverse e scure, il caldo e i tanti piccoli bar e ristoranti in cui i turisti parlavano con i locali mezzo in inglese e mezzo a gesti. 
Non fosse stato per le etnie e i piatti diversi, per i capelli riccioli e l’hummus, l’avrei scambiato per un quartiere vicino al centro storico della città in cui sono nato. Per qualche ragione, dormivo ogni giorno fino alle due del pomeriggio. Non ho mai capito se fossi esausto dal viaggio e la vita turbolenta o se fossi stato colto da un rapimento mistico come quello che aveva provato gente più pura di spirito di me quando si era avvicinata, geograficamente e spiritualmente, al divino. 

Tel Aviv mi sembrò una città affascinantissima, moderna e antica al tempo stesso: da una parte, centri tecnologici e di ricerca tra i più vivaci al mondo; dall’altra, le sinagoghe, le moschee e i canti del muezzin. 
Era settembre, sul finire dell'estate e con temperature ancora da spiaggia. Non avevo mai visitato un posto con gente così attraente come Tel Aviv: tanti giovani che sembrano godersi la vita da città di mare mediterranea, passando il tempo libero sulla spiaggia ad abbronzarsi o a fare esercizio fisico nelle tante stazione da ginnastica sul lungomare. Vidi anche le tante ragazze in costume e mitra— devono sempre tenerlo con loro durante il servizio di leva—una scena che tante volte avevo visto in fotografie e filmati. Uomini e donne pienamente moderni, anche nel senso di migliori, perlomeno ai miei occhi: in forma, abbronzati, svegli, belli.
Una città in cui mi sarei visto vivere e non solo fare il turista. Aperta, dinamica, energica, che raramente dorme perché impegnata con le feste, la vita leggera, la musica e i bar. Alcune feste e bar li ho provati e li raccomando. Come ho provato il rientro sul lungomare alle nove di mattina dopo una notte insonne e una chiacchierata all’alba in un hotel della città vecchia con un barista sui vent’anni che tra servirmi un caffè, un croissant e un distillato locale mi diceva che si stava preparando alla selezione per il Sayeret Matkal, il più noto tra i corpi speciali dell’esercito israeliano. Mi diceva anche che i ragazzi non hanno più voglia di fare in lungo servizio militare obbligatorio e cercano ogni sotterfugio per saltarlo, quei rammolliti: sono tutti progressisti, non hanno voglia di difendere Israele.

Sono stato a Gerusalemme: ho girato un po’ per la città, sorpreso dai tanti ebrei ortodossi con le barbe lunghe, le kippah e i vestiti neri che mi ricordavano la divisa—non ufficiale, ma di consuetudine—dei laici che davano una mano in oratorio e di chi non era riuscito a superare un lutto. Ebrei e arabi per le strade, anche se a volte era difficile capire chi fosse l’uno che chi l’altro. Ho passato una giornata nella città vecchia: un caldo bestiale, l’odore soffocante della pelle venduta dai tanti mercanti arabi nel mercato coperto, le voci che rimbombavano nelle vie strette. Fui costretto a prendere una pausa di un’ora all’ombra di una galleria per tirare il fiato. Il ristoro era finito con il secondo acquisto, dopo 25 anni e poi spiegherò quando fu il primo, di una kefiah, da un ambulante in là con gli anni che mi aveva tenuto compagnia con le chiacchiere che ci si aspettano da venditore che di forestieri come me ne vede passare mille al giorno.

Mi ricordo le fatiche della Via Crucis, che accompagnata dal caldo, dalla disidratazione e dagli odori del mercato mi aveva fatto sentire come mai prima d’allora vicino alla sofferenza di Gesù. Per finire, una visita di un paio d’ore al Muro del Pianto: il mio occhio rapito dagli ebrei ortodossi che, tra la devozione e la follia, muovevano ritmicamente avanti e indietro, avanti e indietro, corpo e testa come robot incantati a qualche centimetro dal muro, i biglietti lasciati—uno anche da me, ma vatti a ricordare cosa ci scrissi sopra—negli spazi tra la pietra, per finire un po’ di refrigerio trovato nella galleria a lato del muro, con gli ortodossi che ancora pregavano e pregavano. Una visita alla città vecchia, la mia, di pagana sofferenza. Ma si sa che la crisi è ingrediente imprescindibile della sublimazione e della catarsi. A Cristo ci si arriva con le ossa rotte.

Ho conosciuto gli israeliani—o il popolo ebreo, dato che al tempo non si facevano tante differenze—da bambino, quando alla fine degli anni ottanta era scoppiata la prima Intifada. Soprattutto prima della Guerra del Golfo, i telegiornali mostravano tutti i giorni  gli scontri a viso aperto tra palestinesi e israeliani, mettendoli per un paio d’anni tra le notizie più importanti della giornata. Gerusalemme, la Cisgiordania, i coloni, gli ortodossi, la spianata delle moschee, la striscia di Gaza. Luoghi, gruppi e personaggi che si sentivano pronunciati erano sempre gli stessi. Arafat, l’OLP, Fatah, Shamir, Rabin. I sassi lanciati dai palestinesi contro polizia e militari, e di ritorno qualche bastonata quando girava bene per i ragazzi palestinesi e qualche pallottola quando gli animi si scaldavano troppo. 

Un filmato ho ancora impresso nella mente. L’ho cercato più volte negli anni, ma non l’ho mai trovato. Era il telegiornale dell’ora di pranzo: due militari israeliani vestiti di verde hanno da poco catturato un paio di palestinesi su una collinetta. I militari usano un grosso sasso per spezzare un braccio a uno dei due palestinesi. Uno gli tira il braccio destro e l’altro colpisce all’altezza del gomito. Nei miei ricordi, i colpi di pietra gli mozzano addirittura un braccio. Che me lo fossi immaginato? Che avessi preso una dislocazione per una mutilazione? In ogni caso, come prevedibile, avevo preso in simpatia la causa palestinese. Come si potrebbe stare dalla parte degli israeliani quando ai tuoi occhi di bambino il mondo è buoni da una parte e cattivi dall’altra, sassi da un lato e pallottole dall’altro, sfruttati di qua e sfruttatori di là? Una vicinanza di spirito prima che simpatia politica, che mi aveva anche portato qualche anno dopo a comprare la mia prima kefiah, in solidarietà con la causa palestinese. Alla fine proteggeva anche bene dal freddo quando giravo in motorino: dalla testimonianza politica e civile alla protezione dalle intemperie. Ma si sa che si inizia idealisti e si finisce guardinghi.

Devo anche dire che, prima di trasferirmi negli Stati Uniti, io un ebreo non mi ricordo di averlo mai conosciuto di persona. Magari qualche compagno di classe avrà avuto un nonno o una bisnonna ebrea, qualche amico di amici avrà organizzato un bar mitzvah per un ragazzo che era pronto per diventare adulto, ma non l’ho mai saputo: per me, gli ebrei erano un popolo da libro di storia, da letteratura e da teatro, da premio Nobel o da telegiornale al tempo delle rivolte palestinesi. Molta testimonianza, poca carne e poche ossa. E poi in Israele vivevano solo gli ebrei o anche qualcun altro? All’epoca, quando le pagine internazionali dei quotidiani locali avevano articoli lunghi come la soluzione di un rebus, chi lo sapeva. 
In seguito, complice la vita negli Stati Uniti—una nazione nella quale gli ebrei sono molto visibili sia culturalmente che politicamente, stereotipati un po’ da loro stessi per assimilarsi usando la vecchia arma dell’autoironia  e un po’ da altri come elemento psico-nevrotico della vita urbana—ho ripreso a interessarmi alla questione israeliana. Non voglio addentrarmi nella cronologia degli eventi o avventurarmi in facilonerie da celebrità sulle guerre mediorientali, dato che tra guerra di Suez, dei Sei Giorni, dello Yom Kippur, prima, seconda, terza Intifada, quella che sia una o l’altra ogni dieci giorni me lo dimentico. 

Voglio parlare di quello che ho provato visitando Israele, parlando con gli amici ebrei americani, leggendo libri e articoli e guardando qualche documentario sulla storia politica e militare d'Israele dal 1948—anno della creazione dello Stato d’Israele—in poi e della Palestina prima del 1948. 
La sensazione che ho avuto e quella di un popolo che non ha intenzione di mettere il proprio destino nelle mani di altre nazioni e di altre etnie, di un popolo che si è detto nel 1948 e si continua a dire che adesso ci pensiamo noi, a noi. Con tutti i mezzi necessari e costi quel che costi: e se qualcuno ha qualcosa in contrario, per noi è lo stesso. Alcuni tra gli ebrei israeliani si sentono geneticamente e culturalmente superiori agli arabi e altri popoli, altri no; ci sono progressisti aperti all’idea di uno stato palestinese indipendente e tipi più conservatori che con gli arabi andrebbero per le spicce, ma nessuno vuole rischiare di essere preso ancora una volta in mezzo dalla storia. E gli israeliani sono abili, ricchi e determinati.

E penso che tutte le guerre d'Israele, dalla dichiarazione dello Stato in poi, abbiano avuto, più che tratti razzisti o imperialisti, tratti d'insicurezza—condivisibile, mi verrebbe da dire. Certo, per me, italiano che vive negli Stati Uniti in un piccola città di mare di certo non crocevia di eventi, è difficile pensare nel 2021 come a realtà alle guerre civili o tra confinanti, a un aereo di cui senti solo il rumore e poi vedi i palazzi crollare come fossero di cartone, gente morire a Gaza e a Tel Aviv anche se non c’entra niente, e tanti soffocare in un tunnel. Gli israeliani non si fidano e dicono meglio agli altri che a noi. E se ci scappa qualche vittima innocente—che poi a parer loro magari del tutto innocente non era—non ne abbiamo noi avuti sei milioni di vittime innocenti quando voi stavate a guardare?  

Fatto sta che si è parlato del conflitto per qualche giorno, poi l’interesse si è spostato altrove, qualche proposta di tregua some sempre accade perché troppi morti non aiutano nessuna delle parti, poi magari qualche altra bombardata farà morire qualche altra decina di poveri cristi, l’Iran minaccerà ancora quelli che loro chiamano i cani sionisti, i soliti dittatori da strapazzo vedranno cosa gli farà comodo dichiarare. E poi vedremo come andrà a finire, che adesso la soluzione sembra lontana, ma i libri di storia sono pieni di sorprese.

My favorite books on performance

The topic of resources on top performance in sports and other professions came up in a recent conversation I had at lunch. I thought it was a good idea to share here some my favorite books on performance psychology and top performance.

The Pressure Principle. Dave Alred was the personal kicking and performance coach of Jonny Wilkinson, the English rugby player who helped the English team won the 2003 World Cup, and is the current performance coach of Molinari, the Italian golfer who won the British Open and some other big tournaments recently. I tremendously liked the part about moving from an expectation of fear to an expectation of achievement.

Winners. Alastair Campbell writes engagingly, has experience on winning at the highest political level with Tony Blair, and wrote a great collection of biographies of winners discussing how to win.

The Mental Game of Baseball. All books by Dorfman are brilliantly written, sprinkled with anecdotes and a tough-love approach to solving problems, and are generally applicable (I never played baseball myself). He was the first performance psychologist in baseball.

Finding your Zone. I re-read religiously the chapter on Eric Heiden every year, it changed my perspective on how to face challenges.

With Winning in Mind. Lanny Bassham was an Olympic winner in rifle shooting. Very interesting his idea of self-image growing not in sync with abilities eventually limiting performance.

Zen in the Martial Arts. Hyams was a journalist and a Bruce Lee’s student when he was teaching privates in LA in the 70s. A terrific short read which is broadly applicable.

Speed Trap. It is sold as a book about the famous 1988 Seoul scandal of Ben Johnson’s doping, but it is much more about the development of top performers by Charlie Francis, a great mind and a great coach. 

Finally, an article that every once in a while makes the rounds of the internet: The Mundanity of Excellence. Brilliant read, but it underestimates the genetic components of performance and success.

One hundred years

It's been one hundred years since the end of World War I. Many times I visited the memorial of Redipuglia – an Italian town close to the Slovenian border – dedicated to the soldiers who fell in the Great War. My last visit to Redipuglia was with my grandfather, who many times when I was younger had told me: before I die, I want to visit Redipuglia. He is still alive and healthy, by the way.

When I visit the cemetery of my hometown, my eye often falls on the many tombstones with the epitaph "Cavaliere di Vittorio Veneto" (Knight of Vittorio Veneto), a military Order that was awarded in the late 1960s to any Italian who had fought for at least six months in the First World War. For many, including my great-grandfather, the Order was a prized treasure. They were proud to have fought, but I don't believe their pride came from having fought against someone. I think they were proud to have done their job for the country and their countrymen, and to have survived. Even as an anti-war advocate, I get their feelings. (One of my former secret goals was to write an essay on the Cavalieri di Vittorio Veneto and what the Order meant for them).

To celebrate the anniversary, on one of my latest flights I started re-reading the book "Un Anno sull'Altipiano" by Emilio Lussu, one of my favorite Italian books of the 20th century. Lussu fought in what was called at the time "The Great War", and some fifteen years later wrote about his experience of war on the altipiano (plateau) of Asiago (a town in Veneto, Northeastern Italy) with the Brigata Sassari. Lussu then became a member of the Italian Resistance during the Second World War. In the book, which is semi-autobiographical, he writes about the irrationality of war, the sense of impending doom felt by soldiers, the camaraderie among them, and the foolishness of the military brass. The book was later adapted for the big screen ("Uomini Contro", with Gian Maria Volonté in the role of Lussu).

I read many novels, biographies, and non-fiction books related to WWI, both in English and Italian. I started in my teens and never stopped; I was interested in different perspectives. I read soldiers' diaries to feel their desperation, heroism, and resignation; the memoirs of Ludendorff for the megalomania; the tragic books of Robert Graves for their gloom; Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" for the denunciation of nationalism and war. And all the movies and all the poems.

I guess I have always been fascinated by the foolishness of WWI, by people who believed in something even if their beliefs sound delirious and barbaric to the modern ear, by the tension between heroism, camaraderie, and shelling other soldiers and civilians for weeks. For what, nobody knows, and most likely, nobody even knew at the time.

I remember I was in a hotel in Saint-Vincent years ago while attending a conference (and later visiting the local, famous casino – I wish I had the money and desire to lose it to play Baccarat). It was November 4th (the day on which General Diaz told the Italian people over the radio that the war was over) and, as usual, there were some remembrances of WWI on Italian television. That day, they showed an old interview with one of the last WWI veterans, who had died a few years before. He was a member of the Italian assault troops, soldiers who crossed the space between trenches with the knife in their teeth, literally. (He said, with trembling voice, due to both old age and excitement: "We were going to the assault with the knife in our teeth, throwing shock bombs into the other trench. We had courage, much courage!"). The host asked him: "Were you scared?". He answered: "Not at all – they had been teaching us to love our country since we were little. Then, our commanders had all those medals on their chests!". 

It is quite strange that listening to those stories we all agree should have never happened can nevertheless make you push your chest a bit higher.



When to give up work that is past the expiration date anyway

Today I shipped the final revision of a manuscript I started thinking about in 2013 (the first conversation about the idea I had for this work was at dinner with Ryan Chisholm while at the 2013 SIAM meeting in San Diego – he does not remember, we were at a Mexican restaurant sipping Margaritas, maybe that's why), doing the analyses for at the end of 2016 (I believe I was in Santiago de Chile visiting the Universidad Católica when I started with coding), began writing in early 2017, and submitted to journals for publication in late spring 2017. 

The title, more descriptive than prescriptive, is: Estimates of vital rates and predictions of population dynamics change along a long-term monitoring program. In the paper, I try to figure out, using one of my model systems, how many years of monitoring we need to make reasonably accurate predictions on the future number of organisms in natural populations. Briefly, models of population dynamics use estimates of life-history and demographic processes and traits to make predictions on the future state of natural populations. Data coming from monitoring (for example, organisms can be tagged and followed through their lifetime to see how their size, weight, shape, and position change over time, along with when they die) are fed to statistical models, which give back estimates of those processes and traits; if the estimates used in the model change, the predictions are also expected to change, and more accurate estimates are expected to lead to more accurate predictions. More data should increase the accuracy of the estimates of processes and traits, but time, money, the importance of the research question, and the accuracy needed for taking decisions when the scope is applied and not theoretical are also in play when defining optimal stopping rules for monitoring programs.

In theory, and maybe in a better world, it could be a helpful paper; most field activities in biology start when researchers can get some money from funding agencies and end when there is no more money coming in. Not much time is spent beforehand on estimating for how many years the monitoring program should go on to get the information, estimates, or knowledge the researchers are looking for. Two years? Five years? The usual answers are "something like that" or "it depends". Ten, maybe. And why not twenty? A partial explanation for the dearth of analyses on the minimum or optimal duration of monitoring programs is that the scientific goals are only one of the goals of these projects, the others being funding the lab and attracting Master's and Ph.D. students and post-docs, along with the requests for collaboration and prestige coming from running long-term monitoring programs.

I am also confident that the paper that took me so long to write and revise will be read by a maximum of twenty people all over the world, and maybe five of them will put some serious thought into it. It is not a matter of being jaded, cynical, or nihilist; I have seen how many people have downloaded some of my previous papers. Quite disappointingly, not enough to warrant a celebratory cocktail despite my well-known passion for Negroni.

Academic writing (I am referring to publications in peer-reviewed journals and not to "academic" in the sense of "pedantic", although the two categories largely overlap) is valuable in the context of an academic career, where publications are the currency for positions, grants, and reputation. You send the paper to a "journal", whose prestigiousness typically depends on some measures of popularity of the papers it publishes, editorial board, and history. The article, when not "desk-rejected" by one of the associate editors, is reviewed by other academics who are working on the same topics, and after 2 to 12 months you receive an e-mail from the handling editor saying that the paper has been rejected, accepted, or most likely when not rejected, that you need to revise it before it is suitable for publication.

Outside of the ivory tower, academic writing is not read, considered, or relevant for anything of professional and personal value I can think of. Academic papers are boring to write, difficult to find, and hard to read. And yet, it's hard to let the unfinished ones go, even after leaving the academic world. More or less one year and a half after leaving academic research for better money in the tech world, I still have the following half-baked manuscripts in my soon-to-be-shut-down pipeline:

  • A paper on morphological differences in fish (that is, differences in shape) in populations of the species I worked on for 13 years and changes. Differences in shape, really? It should not be difficult to let it go. Well, unfortunately, it's not so easy. I took approximately 3000 pictures of fish in September 2012, which I then selected, digitized, and analyzed with the help of a student (heroic effort!). I was being helped by my girlfriend at the time (feelings!). It is good fun to see that you can actually tell the populations apart by looking at fish shape (meaning!). The analyses are mostly done, I am so close! (regret!). An emotional tour de force. Why should not I finish writing it then? Well, and it is enough of a reason, you can bet that almost nobody will read it and it won't advance any career I can think of. Time is a finite resource for all of us. There are other feelings, meanings, and, surely, other regrets.
  • A manuscript on the effects of extreme events on natural populations. The simulations took a few weeks to run on a cluster – that I remember. I opened years ago a fruitful research line on the effects of extreme events on population dynamics, risk of extinction, and natural selection, but it has been a few years since I started thinking about the problem and I barely remember what I was looking for at the time. I already wrote half of the manuscript anyway. It'd still require way too much effort to complete it. No way I am going to do it.
  • A blog post that could be turned into an academic paper on the usefulness of models of mathematical biology for modeling marketing, competition, and viewership predictions problems in entertainment. This paper would be a good read for a broad audience; the main problem here is that I was using Netflix examples, I am not working at Netflix anymore, and without those examples, the paper would be much more theoretical than I would like it to be. I have tried to get box office data for theater releases of movies, but I should pay more than $1000 for the data, and it is not going to happen. Next!
  • A paper on the spatial correlation among extreme rainfall events recorded in Slovenia. I paid $600 to some freelancers on Upwork in 2014 for scraping the data from the website of the Slovenian Meteorological Service. The negotiation was quite fun, she told me she had a team and the money was enough, then she asked for more money because she had medical problems – who knows whether it was true or not –, I gave her the money, and she told me I was a most excellent man. A mutually enjoyable collaboration – compliments are always well received and sometimes we have to pay for them. I have a valuable dataset for a critical research question; extreme rainfall can cause landslides and flash floods that can, in turn, wipe out populations of fish living in streams (if this were an academic paper, I would write "stream-dwelling fish populations"...). By estimating the spatial correlation of extreme rainfall events, we can make assumptions on the risk of multiple populations going extinct at the same time, and then set up conservation strategies that reduce the probability of extinction of the whole species. Of course, conservation strategies that will never be applied. It is too bad that I have neither the time nor the strength of character to resurrect data, code, and words. And it is too bad that I worked so hard for getting the data and the compliments. Oh, well.
  • A few others. A paper on the genetic structure of fish populations living in adjacent, but isolated, river basins defined by using Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms data. Another on the spatial genetic structure emerging over time within a single population due to habitat fragmentation (I presented some preliminary results at the above-cited 2013 SIAM meeting). A paper on the effects of fish movement on body growth and viceversa. All with half-written manuscripts sitting somewhere in my Dropbox folder.

I have decided that I will let those unfinished papers go, peacefully. Like a boat, leaving the shore to get lost in the foggy waters. On the one hand, I love writing, and I believe there will be quite a bit of writing in my future. I enjoy communicating my thoughts, and I have always loved the written word, both in Italian, my mother tongue, and in English. On the other hand, seriously, no more academic writing. Regret can motivate for a brief period, but long, exciting work requires aspirations for something, not flights from bad feelings and looming regrets for unfinished business. In any case, it is comforting to think that nobody on their death ever said: you know what, I regret not having written that paper on the fast estimation of hierarchical growth models using the Empirical Bayes method and parallel computation (another half-written paper, by the way). Five people would have skimmed it!

Teaching the hobbyist

My mom – 100% Italian, like me – has been studying English for a few years. She has followed the usual routine: group classes, grammar and pronunciation exercises, writing down new words and trying to remember them by sheer force of will – the vast majority of the time unsuccessfully. Despite focus, effort, and discipline, she was not improving much. This does not come as a surprise; we can look back at our high school years and guess how many of our classmates have learned a new language to reasonable proficiency – say, being able to hold a non-technical conversation that goes beyond explaining how to go from here to there with fewer than two turns – by following the learning diet described above: between almost nobody and nobody.

Since I have been spending quite some time in Italy and I have been hearing her cries for help a few too many times, I decided to take matters into my own hands and teach my mother some English. If you are wondering why my help came so late, it's because experience has taught me that teaching is much more effective when there is a certain distance between teacher and student. Parent and progeny are far from being distant enough; in the eyes of your parents, you will always be one-foot tall.

Nevertheless, I have some decent credentials. First, I have teaching experience across several fields: I taught graduate courses in ecology and statistical modeling in my Ph.D. and post-doc years, I’ve done some personal training, I currently teach a weekly Brazilian jiu-jitsu class, and I mentored a few junior colleagues when I was doing academic research. I also quite enjoy teaching, and I am not naïve anymore; I have learned the hard way that teaching beginners is hard. We tend to forget how little we knew when we started learning, and we need to change our perspective from knowing a lot to only a little or nothing. And it can be quite frustrating – do I really have to repeat the same thing for the fiftieth time?

Second, I have also remained a student myself, learning quite a few things to reasonable proficiency, and picking up a fair number of lessons along the way. I have acquired both English and Spanish, mostly on my own; I have gotten closer and closer to what I consider the measure of reasonable proficiency in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu – a black belt keeping the gi closed; I can code using a few different programming languages; when I was younger I picked up guitar (poorly, but that is another lesson in itself), and I see myself spending a few frustrating years later on in life trying to draw houses that don't look like shoeboxes with in front something rectangular resembling a window.

After four weeks of the new teaching approach, my mom's English improved quite a bit. I applied some of the lessons I learned, and I got some new perspective on teaching the hobbyist, who is someone who is learning mostly for the sake of it, not a professional student or an intellectual worker, who is frequently asking whether it would be better just to give up, forget about it, and watch some cooking shows instead – that's what I do sometimes too.

My experience and study of literature on teaching and learning told me that – hobbyist or professional – to learn something as challenging as a foreign language we need to: (1) spend a lot of time (2) doing activities that are effective for reaching our goal. It is also rare that actions that are effective for learning are not efficient (they consume less time and fewer resources for a unit of improvement) at the same time.

I will explain what I did to facilitate my mom's learning of the English language. There will be quite a bit of overlap between (1) and (2) in my description, but let's start with point (1), that is "spending a lot of time".

It takes time to learn a foreign language. If we look at the approximate learning expectations compiled by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, it takes on average 23-24 weeks (575-600 class hours) to achieve Speaking level 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3), in languages that are the most cognate with English, for example Dutch, Afrikaans, Spanish, and Italian. We can assume that the expectation for the reverse (Italian to English) is the same. There are also further bad news:

Students at the Foreign Service Institute are typically 30-40 years old, are native speakers of English with a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of one or more other foreign languages. They study in small classes of usually no more than 6. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of self-study.

So, if it takes people who are trained by professionals in professional settings, have strong motivation, are cognitively in good shape, and already know other foreign languages that much time to learn a foreign language, imagine how long it will take a hobbyist who is out of shape learning-wise and has little talent for foreign languages. After you have guessed the time, add one year.

It follows that first one needs to keep up the motivation – that is, the desire or willingness to study and practice – amid setbacks, sadness, gloomy feelings of improvements being too slow, too sporadic, too few. And to make it even more challenging, those feelings often go hand-in-hand with a plethora of self-defeating thoughts, such as: I am not smart enough, I do not deserve to see my efforts wasted, I will never be able to ask for directions to the nearest pub in London even if my life depended on it.

As Dave Adler writes in "The Pressure Principle" (a great book I plan to review), you can always get better at the margins of your performance/skills, that is at the very limit of what you can do. But you should keep in mind that working at the margins inevitably causes angst and frustration – we struggle, we often fail and only occasionally succeed –, and improvements are mostly non-linear. For quite a long time – days or even weeks – the performance, say, asking questions in the past tense in English, is clumsy, leaving the hobbyist full of doubts (should I use did or should? What about the third person singular? Is there an equivalent of does for the past tense? Why not?). Then, almost magically, the student gets it and internalizes the structure of the question! And then they get a bit worse, then a bit better, and so on.

In practice, when I teach, I strive to recognize that working at the margins is emotionally tough and I do my best to commend the consistent effort instead of the less predictable – in timing and magnitude – results. They will come. I make the student work at the margins frequently (every day if possible), but briefly (15-20 minutes tops) and I finish the teaching session on a positive note, scaling back to something less challenging if needed. If you think about your vacations, the last day disproportionately colors the whole ten days away. Always strive to finish on a high note and cheat (scale back) if needed.

Let's have a look at what the hobbyist should spend a lot of time on. There is abundant literature on what works for learning, though it would seem many teachers never take the time to look at it:

  • spaced repetition;
  • an appropriate level of difficulty (working at the margins and within the margins, not beyond the margins – do not work on Rachmaninoff if you can barely play Beethoven);
  • testing (gives you immediate feedback) instead of re-studying (beware of the illusion of fluency);
  • interleaving different types of material;
  • that we learn more when learning appears to be difficult and slow (because working at the margins causes angst, frustration, and improvements are non-linear).

I bet you were rarely, if ever, doing any of the above activities in high school. And I bet you barely remember anything you were supposed to learn at the time and keep with you forever. "How We Learn" and "Made To Stick" summarize most of our understanding of the learning process and the most effective learning and teaching tools and strategies. "The Pressure Principle" also has useful insights into the illusion of fluency, accountability, and other more practical tactics, such as the maximum number of repetitions one should perform consecutively before shaking things up. Too many repetitions in a row lead to mindlessness and a less-than-exceptional commitment to the task. Keep in mind that most of the above activities, along with spending a lot of time studying and practicing for some thousands of hours, can also be found in the "deliberate practice" proposed by Anders Ericsson. Individual tutoring and mastery training (students must master a topic before moving on to another one) also appear to almost miraculously speed learning up (see Bloom's 2 sigma problem). However, while mastery training can be very valuable for the school student, I believe it can make the hobbyist give up on learning because they can barely see what's at the end of the journey for far too long.

In practice, that's how I have been teaching:

  • Anki for spaced repetition. Look at this gem of an article if you want to learn more about it. It can be boring at times, but spaced repetition works. I use it too. 15-20 minutes a day, not more than that. Do too much and the risk of burning out is too high.
  • Focus on delivering information first, skip elegance and depth. Not "I feel like I would like to eat something", but "I am hungry". 
  • Make it work first, then be precise – let them feel that they can somewhat express themselves, it is a game of confidence and of keeping up the motivation. As an example, "must", "have to", "ought to" have slightly different meanings, but to keep things simple, just use "have to" for now. Action first, precise action later.
  • Let the student frequently come up with their own questions and examples and doubts. They already speak a language, they "just" need to express similar thoughts in another language.  
  • Interleave and frequently test, with the purpose of making the student internalize the structure while avoiding the dreaded "paralysis by analysis".
  • Read, listen, write, speak, do everything at the same time and with constant feedback, but only after the student has struggled on their own. It has been shown that struggling greatly increases the rate of learning.

Let me finish with an example and with the most important piece of information I think one should get from this post.

My mom had problems with the use of "went", the past tense of the verb "to go". Mostly due to the phonetic similarity of "went" and "were" and "when", which typically go at the beginning at the question, she was using strange structures such as "Went you go to the gym?". It could have been "Did you go to the gym" or "When are you going to the gym?" or "Were you going to the gym?". How to make her understand the correct structure first and then internalize the structure and make it stable, which means be confident that she will consistently use the proper structure? First, I make sure she understands, at least in theory, the structure of the question she wants to ask. Then, I test and retest (how would you ask me whether I washed the dishes yesterday night?), interleaving the tests with other question that are unrelated to the structure we are mainly focusing on (please describe what you are going to do tonight). She then has to struggle to go back to the structure we are working on when I test it again. Then I wait for the inevitable follow-up questions from her (how should I ask you how you went to the gym?), and we start again from there.

And finally, this is what I believe is the most crucial piece of information one should get from this post, in part inspired by the "The Pressure Principle" and my own experience. Frequently communicating – to ourselves and others – that working at the margins causes angst and frustration and that improvements are often non-linear, makes a tremendous difference in the motivation of the student. A positive (it's hard but worthwhile and satisfying), realistic (it will take a long time to become proficient) mindset that is moving with enthusiasm and energy toward achievement instead of away from fear makes all the difference between giving up and going on. The achievement mindset changes the struggle from a place of fear and disappointment to a place of pride and willingness to put oneself out there. Try it next time.

How I write academic papers

If there is one thing I have done plenty during my years of academic research in mathematical biology, ecology, genetics, and environmental sciences, it has been writing academic papers. As of September 2018, one year after having switched career from academia to industry, I have first-authored more than 30 papers in peer-reviewed journals. Three a year, give or take, and many others as a co-author. Some of them have been published in quite popular journals. Others, I could have spent my time enjoying the great outdoors instead of writing. 

For the vast majority of those papers, I got the idea behind the work, did the analyses, wrote the article, and dealt with revisions – all challenging tasks, especially the last one. We submit the paper along with our dreams of appreciation and the answer is: meh. Not novel; too long; who cares. Maybe I took too many papers and responsibilities on my shoulders, but it was aligned with my personality. And along the way, I learned a thing or two about writing papers. There are many useful resources out there on how to write an academic article, so I will focus on some points that have not been discussed as much as how to properly format citations. 

  1. Fewer goals are better than more goals, and concise is better than verbose. Many times I made the mistake of wasting the reader's attention by writing details that were interesting for just one person: myself – which is the same person who had spent weeks getting into rabbit holes that nobody had dared to explore before. Ask yourself: what is the most relevant result you want the reader to be aware of, among the many meandering analyses that mostly led nowhere? Skip the sensitivity analysis that took ten days to code, five days to run, and ten minutes to see that there was nothing there. Focus on the most relevant result. There is always another day for the less useful and that day is not today. I had to re-learn this lesson quite a few times.
  2. Use as little jargon as possible, and use simple words. Aside from the very little impact of much of the work we do in academia, often motivated by our research obsessions, fights over minuscule turfs, writing one more paper to beef up our CV or getting one more grant to keep the lab running, using jargon very much limits the use of our findings and insights outside of our tiny academic circle.
  3. Re-use, in spirit, paragraphs that have been already used in other papers or that were cut before publication. This point might be controversial, but a paper is not a novel, as its primary goal is to describe and teach, not entertain, and a solid paragraph that has already been used is better than a weaker one that has never been used. Don't copy, but look close. Then, being efficient is a virtue, being clear is a worthwhile aspiration, and complicating our life is a vice.
  4. Write, edit, write again, let it simmer, re-organize, be brave and cut that sentence that never seems to sound right. Writing is messy; at least, it's always been messy for me. You write a paragraph you think is brilliant and when you re-read it after a week, you ask yourself whether it is possible to write that unintelligible paragraph while sober. Like Michelangelo apocryphally said, perhaps the final draft is hidden within the gory mess of the first draft. Dig hard, let it sit, look at the creation, get some distance, dig again. The paper is never ready, but it comes the time when you should abandon it and move on. It's going to come back anyway.
  5. Introduction: 6-800 words – big picture, specific problem, how you solved it, big picture again. Cliché, but it works. Materials and Methods: no more than 1000 words – detailed where it matters and concise elsewhere. Results: maximum of 4 sub-sections, 200 words at most. Discussion: 800 to 1500 words – punch-section of 300 words, 300 words for each of the Results sub-section. These have been useful guidelines. The rest goes to Supplementary Material, but only if we strongly believe it helps us get the paper accepted. At first approximation, nobody ever downloaded any of my 20-page long Supplementary Materials.  
  6. Don't be afraid of being frustrated or disappointed or of wasting time writing, then deleting, then re-organizing. My theory of periods says that sometimes things work flawlessly and sometimes they don't work at all. The reason is often unknown and sometimes unknowable. Embrace the frustration, push through the disappointment, believe it will work out at the end. If it is not your first paper, you have already done it. If it is your first paper, many other people thought they couldn't, and then they did it.
  7. Writing a paper is a process within the process of writing many papers. Some reviews are less intelligible than abstract art; some are downright mean; some help us improve our work. And it is very human to think we have never been appreciated enough. As individuals, we can do very little to make the peer-review system fairer, but we can always focus on the process of writing that paper within the more extensive, writing-many-papers career-wide process.
  8. Read brilliant articles, save the sections you like the most, ask yourself why you like them, use the structure, words, flow in your papers. 

900 words, a bit more than needed for a concise Introduction.