Saturday, November 29, 2008

That green monster

I am completely jealous of one of my middle cousins who is 10 years younger. He went to the state school, on his way to med school, is buff and athletic and socially-skilled, beats me at most skill board games, has the surgeon personality which though obnoxious is effective, and has a beautiful, smart, pleasantly confident, put-together girlfriend applying to medical school as well and is way too nice to dislike, though I think she doesn't care too much for me.

On the other hand, I think he is jealous of me as well, which is kind-of silly. I went to an elite college, and I take for granted that I could go from there to any top school in the country in any subject that I'm good at and that I know people in influential positions in a variety of areas. I could have even gotten into med school, though I didn't think so at the time, so didn't even bother taking the rest of the classes and looking into applying.

He started ramping up in math classes at the end of college and as a post-bac applying to med school; while discussing the class he's taking, I let it slip that I took the class my freshman year of college (truly accidental! I didn't realize how competitive it sounded to say casually in the middle of my questions of which text they're using and which part of the course they're in right now that I took it freshman year). Though we actually went through it faster.

I know two and a half more languages than he does, though feel too shy ever to practice any of them, so he is more fluent in the languages that he knows. And I'm more ethnically literate, though that's mostly because school was kicking my ass and I needed another dimension to my life.

And I have crucial qualities that he might not even know to be jealous of. I am a good writer. Though I have no clinical training, I have been told many times that I have a good bedside manner and that I'm good at helping people with their problems. I am an effective teacher, not just for being articulate which he is also, but because I understand a range of students (as a friend says about himself, my transcript is distinguished as much for the diversity of grades as for the quality of them.)

But it is nonetheless frustrating for my cousin to be a foil for my own regrets, especially now that he has a girlfriend to be a female foil. They are 10 years younger and already more put together than I am: a committed relationship, more earning and employment potential, thinner, more confident and socially-skilled, and harder-working with an incentive to continue to be.

The only leg up I have on them is having experienced more challenges, both external and internal, making me more compassionate. But challenges don't necessarily equate to greater resilience; in many cases, it's better not to have had them at all. (E.g., at the extreme, someone with PTSD has had life experience, but they would be better off without it.)

Thinking of all of this, I appreciate Alan even more. He's had challenges, and as a result seems effortlessly compassionate and patient.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bingeing, or why Boice is right

Boice emphasizes the importance of timely starting and stopping, and I am starting to understand the latter better.

Yesterday I was sitting in the departmental seminar, and it was one of those "where things are going" broad lectures, so I started thinking about my own work and sketched out a paper based on some work that had been excised from a journal article I wrote. The material is substantial enough that I could turn it into its own paper, and possibly more than one, so I sketched out what I could do.

I stayed late, and actually worked. When I left the office at 8, I was convinced that I could produce a rough draft of a paper by Thanksgiving, if not sooner. On my way to the train I realized I had forgotten a small adjustment, but usually it doesn't matter. As soon as I got home, I tried it out and once I made it, everything I had seen disappeared. Nothing, apparently. I continued working until 11.

First thing in the morning, I sketched out a logical approach that would figure out whether the previous night's failure was indeed a failure. It was.

I flailed for the rest of the day, making tentative stabs, doing mindless things which might be either productive or totally useless while watching internet TV. I should have just gone to a bookstore or for a walk to clear my head.

If I had been more moderate and stopped early yesterday, I could have avoided the delusion and thus the later disappointment, which is what made me unproductive. Better just to be open and have good will and optimism that eventually something will work.

New projects

I am almost at the point of submitting my last paper from my dissertation to a journal, so I am able to start new projects, but it's really hard to get started.

1. Making connections is not easy. My advisor is wonderful, but does little research himself, so I have a vague list of people to meet with. A senior faculty member closely associated with my advisor (i.e., it seems almost mandatory to work with her, and I like her a lot, so want to) said I could join a project that a junior member was working on, but the junior faculty hasn't answered any emails yet. I sent one in September and one in early November, and then wrote the senior to ask her whether the project still needs help.

Another senior member gave me some material, but they have already published on the area, and it's not clear that I have anything left to do with it. I can learn some new techniques and see whether they yield anything, or I could just move on until I find a better project to work on. But that requires sending more endless streams of emails to make appointments to meet more people, and also explain why I am writing so late. But I think that's what I have to do. I have a whole list of such people.

2. I am not used to not making clear progress. Of course part of academia is dead ends, but I haven't had any dead ends since beginning the last of my dissertation research about 3 years ago. All of my dissertation papers began as class projects with deadlines, so I while there was lots of work to do and small failures in the past 3 years, I had already done enough work that I knew the basic ideas were all sound.

The progress of writing is slow, but at least you know it is progress. Rarely does anyone make prose worse by editing, and writing longer just provides more material that can be distilled into a final version. I am starting to idealize the old days of struggling to sit down to write.

3. I met with the department chair first thing yesterday morning. He seems like a laid-back guy, but I sat in his class on the first day of school to see what it was like and heard him say that there are no extensions on papers because "Every minute of every day is scheduled, and when I grade papers, I block out a period of time for that and do them then. If I do not have your paper then, there is literally not a minute in my day that can accommodate more grading."

Indeed, this appointment was made a month in advance. The train has been quick and on time for the three months that I have lived here, and for the first time ever it got stopped on the tracks for 15 minutes, making me 10 minutes late for the 30 minute appointment.

It got worse once I was actually there. I told him that I had many choices to make, and wanted to ask his opinion what were the most fundable areas. He seemed to think that I was saying that I didn't fit into either the department or with my advisor. I emphasized the great number of choices that I had and wanted to ask advice from as many people as possible. And then he proceeded to tell me some specific research areas that he personally finds interesting. He didn't say anything about funding, though perhaps if he is interested in them, they are fundable.

The combination of not having clear people to work with or a project with clear potential makes me feel unbalanced.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My life as sitcom

Last night, my neighbor introduced me to the sitcom the Big Bang Theory. For those like me who haven't watched television consistently since Murphy Brown, TBBT is about 4 male Caltech professors, two of whom live across the hall from a cute blonde aspiring actress. Many canonical nerd types are represented: high-strung asexual mathematician/theorist, neurotic oversexed Jews, quiet undersexed South Asians, borderline cool but still socially awkward types, and bitchy cold emasculating women (a side character). Leaving aside the last, which is offensive but makes me reflect whether I am anything like her, it's extremely entertaining to see academia in sitcom format.

Of course having watched the first episode with my neighbor, I went home and immediately watched another 9 episodes online through Chinese and Spanish pirate websites, sating my curiosity. Having seen so many in such a short time, the format is stuck in my head, in much the same way that I found myself thinking in Onegin stanzas after reading most of Eugene Onegin in one sitting.

So I have started thinking that my life fits well into sitcom format.

1. My neighbors introduce potentially interesting plot elements.
- The girl across the street is a cute lesbian friend-of-a-friend taking a break from a long-standing relationship.
- The neighbor who introduced me to TV lives just 50 feet away and I am constantly passing his door: he's 6 years younger, politically Conservative bordering on offensive, and seems to have a crush on me (he's very cute, and you can't beat the convenience; alas not marriageable).
- Two girls live down the block, and sometimes spending time with them feels like Good Cop, Bad Cop. The Good Cop is so fun, and some part of me really likes the Bad Cop (the other part wonders if she hates me). Minor characters.
- Newly irreligious 6 years younger cute aspiring writer of distinguished lineage whose parents still don't know, who sees me either as a potential friend or as potential sexual practice.
- A good-looking older guy across the neighborhood I know from grad school has photogenic weirdness such as speaking earnestly and openly about spirituality and illness. Regrettably I feel discomfort and have a constant urge to flee him. He's the one who made me take the morning off to drive him to get his wisdom teeth out, and then left email and voice messages for the next few days about dry socket.

2. My work includes both popular appeal and irony, and my advisor is good-humored and avuncular.

3. My personal life is a humorous mess:
- Hermit ex-boyfriend who (inexplicably and probably regrettably) I love, but it cannot be because he is so dedicated to his hermetic existence he is not sure he can share an apartment with a spouse, much less have kids. If he finds a spouse, she can live across the hall, but he also likes to joke about dying alone. I'm his major point of contact with the world, and advise him on his work. Which is also full of popular appeal and irony.
- Aforementioned 7 year guy and Alan are good foils: very smart and socially awkward elite PhD WASP who runs marathons vs. not so smart but emotionally attuned ethnic guy who was the only one to fall in the mud when we went hiking.

4. My past and elsewhere includes colorful characters:
- Relatives who had a sudden conversion to either fundamentalist Protestantism or did the Hansen's law ethnic thing.
- One ex was a cool hippie who spoke earnestly about which legumes are easiest for him to digest and how he could find out a lot about himself by putting sesame oil in his first urine of the morning and observing how it disperses. (We actually did this, and found it just stayed in a blob, which is not mentioned as a possible outcome.)
- A friend who has never dated anyone ever for no apparent reason, although now her perpetual singleness has just become self-perpetuating, but she has humorous self-deprecation to an art.

And so on.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The disadvantage of rarely having appointments

After a week of working at home somewhat sporadically and inefficiently, so not going in, and definitely not looking at my calendar, I missed an appointment with my advisor in a downtown coffeeshop. At least I was actually doing work at the moments I should have been on the train to meet him: preparing for journal club and emailing with the grad student organizer, so I have an alibi.

Fortunately he was running late, and his assistant emailed me to tell me he was going to be late, so I remembered the appointment at all. I dressed quickly cursing myself and wondering if I would show up at the meeting with tears streaming down my face, but grateful that I showed no inclination of crying. But realized with a sinking heart that I also had to call. Even driving I couldn't make it there in a reasonable time.

I dialed the 9 digits, and held my finger over the 10th. I thought about hanging up, but I knew that I had to make this phone call and if I wasn't going to dial the last digit now I was going to have to dial it in a minute. So I pressed the last digit.

I told him, and he said in a somewhat joking manner "You're standing me up!" I said I felt really stupid about it. He said that he could make me feel really stupid, but really it was better just to reschedule, and he was running late too and was meeting someone else there in a little while.

Oh my gosh, I love him. And if I were a different person I would vow always to look at my calendar first thing in the morning, and actually do it. But I don't have that much faith in myself that I won't forget a meeting again. Particularly not in the beginning of a winter post-time-change not-going-to-the-gym not-wanting-to-be-in-my-windowless-and-phoneless-office funk.

Tomorrow I have to take a friend to get his wisdom teeth out early in the morning, and it occurred to me with a start that I might not remember that either.

At least now I am dressed and wearing my coat. And I would like to make my weekly tally of office visits be at least two: today, in addition to Monday.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Poster rules

Edward Tufte has books and there are entire webpages about him, but this is how I would summarize rules of good posters since now I am apparently an expert. I'm sure there are different ways to think about it, though.

- Nothing irrelevant to the research, especially no clip art or background pictures or stock photos. At gigantic conferences, I saw the following examples: E.g., medical-related poster with a gigantic picture of a generic member of the patient population, such as a random baby or old person. Worse, but fortunately rarer: that picture in the background with the poster text on top of it. Still worse: a rainbow background behind the text for no apparent reason. Not fatal, but unnecessary: decorations along the corners for no reason, such as an ivy frame or a few different colors. Related Powerpoint phenomenon that I've seen even faculty do: clip art animations that are either irrelevant or tangential to the text. Once I saw a fire engine rushing across the top of the slide to douse a fire. Over and over again. And the presentation had nothing to do with fire or fire engines or emergencies.

- Tables are easier for the writer, but difficult to understand in the brief time a reader is willing to look at your poster, so use plots whenever a table would take a lot of time to understand.

- Very concise text. Strunk and White and then cut it down further. Just the text of an abstract explained can be an entire poster.

- Follow rules for good data display: e.g., no pie charts, no chart junk, no 3d bar graphs, avoid other bad data display issues.

- Organize the data for the reader: put it in an order that allows the reader to see patterns.

- Omit every mark that is not strictly necessary, e.g., most tick marks in enumerated lists.

- Use color to illustrate or organize your data and text, but not otherwise.

Even with Murphy's Law

I went to a conference recently where everything went wrong. This is a conference that practically everyone in my PhD program goes to, primarily for job interviews, but I skipped that year for whatever reason. When I submitted last spring, I figured I would be on the job market. After deciding not to do much job applications, I decided to go anyway because it fit in conveniently, and I thought I had a decent chance of winning the poster award. Partly because my research I submitted is solid and of interest, but mostly because most people don't know the rules of graphic design. I am not very good at it and don't have an artistic eye, but I do know the rules a la Edward Tufte and >90% of posters violate them.

1. I ordered my poster from the internet with very little time to spare. I missed the first day of the conference waiting for UPS because my friend said they came early, and only got to go to the evening social event.

2. The poster company left off part of the address and I forgot to add part of the address, so UPS wasn't able to deliver.

3. I was staying with a close friend who got irritated with me and I didn't realize this until he was already irritated, but after all this I had to ask for a ride to the UPS depot.

4. I ordered the wrong size: they had foam board of a certain size, and I ordered 6-8" too big in each dimension, so had to cut up a second foam board and attach it to the first to make it bigger, and then come up with a way of getting the whole thing to stand up, and there were raggedy edges on the side and top, and mine was clearly a different size than others'.

And my irritated friend was no consolation for any of this. "Most of the problems are all you. Sure, it's an honest mistake to misremember the size, but did you see anyone else who had the same problem?"

5. While waiting for my poster, I put up an 8x11 version on a piece of foam board and while I was gone it got splashed with coffee since it was right across from the coffee urn. Fortunately the same thing didn't happen with the real poster.

6. I didn't know anyone at all. Well, to modify that: I didn't know anyone at all, except the incoming president of the professional organization who was faculty in my program whom I got along quite well with. Which is like being at a wedding where you only know the bride or groom.

Usually I find people at conferences are happy to talk with strangers, but met lots at this one who weren't.

Typical interaction: I took the bus to go the < 1 mile from the conference to the social event in an attempt to be social. Three chattering girls sit down next to me and keep talking for 10 minutes about one of their job market travails without acknowledging me. I get tired of pretending to read the program and introduced myself, not intending to stop their conversation, but making me no longer invisible. They stop their conversation and look kind-of upset about it.

Another interaction: on the way back, we were in a crowded elevator and there was a guy 6" from me talking about public transportation with someone, so I asked him about it. After we get off the bus, he practically runs to the train station, and then as we are standing next to each other at the computer ticket-buying machines completely ignores me, and rushes away and to the other side of the platform. I didn't want to be his best friend. Sheesh.

I did sit down with random people at a table and talk with most of the people there, but came away with nothing professionally relevant. One woman was an assistant dean at a local university and mentioned her past job involved a lot of travel, so I asked what her husband did that he could relocate so easily. She said he was a "well-known successful journalist". Oh.

But I was going to this conference because I thought that I had a good chance at the poster award, and. . . . nonetheless I won one of the awards for the poster session, given to 6% of the poster presenters! It's the first award that I've ever won for my work since freshman year of college. (My CV has about 15 lines under the honors section, but it's mostly travel grants and grad school funding.) So I'm thrilled.

At the poster-related social event, after all my experiences I didn't bother trying to socialize. Most of the "congratulations" that I got seemed like the double-edged jealous type where they might be looking for all the non-merit-based reasons I got the award (e.g., hot topic) or reasons they think I shouldn't have gotten it (e.g., lots of white space), rather than genuine. I didn't want to hear any more of them than I had to.