Embrace the Leapfrog

Another day, another NSF grant rejection.

Scores were E, V, V, V (E=excellent, V=very good). I haven’t seen the report yet, they probably won’t show up till next week.

The scores are only a little better than last year, although I thought the proposal itself was MUCH better than last year.

(Update: Did get the reviews, really very positive. Still no dice.)

Oh, well. Off to lick wounds and edit a student’s paper.

To that end, some levity.


(Middle Boy says he came up with these on his own, but he might be fibbing.)

Joke 1: Germanium, nickel, uranium, and sulfur worked together on a science project. It was GeNiUS!

Joke 2: I was going to work on my science homework, but then I thought, “NaH…”

(He drew a box around each symbol, like in the periodic table, with Na saying sodium and H saying hydrogen).

By the way, Middle Boy is 9. The Nerd Force is strong with the young one!


$hit my students recently wrote in drafts of technical manuscripts:

Point 1 is no secret

One of the first orders of business  was to determine…

This is surely the handiwork of [a physical phenomenon, i.e., something decidedly without hands or the ability to come up with evil plots]

It is possible to judge… using the squint test, squinting at thousands of plots is tiring on the eyes…

and my favorite

[B]y embracing the leapfrog nature [of an explicit algorithm for solving partial differential equations]…

Clearly, this (rough, pen only) drawing had to happen:


Embrace the (giant) leapfrog!



Whimsical Wonky Workaholic Whispers, Wonders, and Whines

This has been a good year in terms of scientific output. Five papers already published or accepted this year; by the end of the summer,  anticipate the submission of three more. Several in the pipeline. In the immortal words  of a colleague who’s normally a big globetrotter but who was temporarily grounded due to offspring arrival, “I am getting so much work done now that I am not traveling! Who would have thought?”


I completely, completely, forgot that I had committed to write a book chapter. It left no trace in my mind whatsoever. Am I getting absentminded or is it that I really, really don’t give 14/28 a $hit about said chapter?

In the words of a sage someone whom CathXYZ quoted once upon a time (and I am paraphrasing from memory, ’cause there is no way I am going to dig through her archives now):

“Book chapters and review papers are for people who don’t have data — never say yes!”

Words to live by!

Except when a friend asks you to contribute to their book, or to write a review paper for the special issue they are editing… Or when it’s also a good idea to get your grad student who will graduate in 2 years to take this time to write a good literature survey, which will be the chapter/review paper’s introduction and double as 21/28 of the intro to their eventual dissertation.


I pulled down the last three posts, one personal about my mom coming to visit (ugh — that’s not going badly, btw, after the initial rough start) and two about the woes with a graduate student about to defend his PhD (ugh squared — also mostly abated).

I pulled them down because I was uncomfortable putting them up in the first place, and I am not even sure why I was so uncomfortable. These are the posts I wanted to write (as in, I felt the urge to write, which really is how the best posts are written — they need to come out), but they felt wrong to write, like they aren’t mine to share, even though they are and even though no one else who’s involved has been identified.

Anyway, I have been thinking about what we can and cannot discuss on an anonymous blog. I have been called out in the past on the fact that it’s uncool to discuss the anecdotes from my professorial life, especially when they involve underlings, such as students, and that I was pretty awful for writing what I did. I don’t  think I am particularly awful (does anyone?), so when someone implies that I am, it makes me think hard about my potential awfulness.

Obviously, I should not do or say anything that would actually hurt anyone in real life. What’s the definition of hurt? Obviously, I should not say anything that would actually hurt, for instance, the employment prospects of anyone I know, which I am definitely not doing. But is it necessary or even possible to aim for not even accidentally hurting the feelings of anyone who might maybe potentially recognize themselves in the anecdotes?

For example, I sometimes read about mommy wars [stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) vs work-outside-of-home moms (WOHMs) with work-at-home moms (WAHMs) somewhere in between and siding with either, but on average more often with SAHMs]. I have very strong feeling about the issue, being that I am an ambitious WOHM  who likes to work and is not just doing it to make ends meet (which seems to be the patriarchally approved reason for a mom to work). Let me tell you, us WOHMs get a lot of crap from other moms, much more so than the other way around, as well as from many female and male non-moms. It’s crap along the lines of “I could never leave my babies with strangers, it would break my heart (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless)” or “Why even have children when you are going to have them raised by strangers” (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless, also selfish) and “Everybody knows that it’s best for the kids if one parent stays at home with them” (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless, also selfish, and just plain evil incarnate to do what everybody knows is not the best for babies). I have a strong opinion on the whole issue, but the fact that all the many SAHMs and some WAHMs write what they write, I can roll my eyes at what they write, but I can’t change what they think and I can’t affect what they write. All I can do is to not read it if I don’t like it, and then go about my business. And I can hope that anyone who has a hand in giving me a raise or an award or any accolade doesn’t have a wife who’s a SAHM and thus discriminates against me for not being a real woman or a real mom or whatever.

But, as cathartic as writing the above paragraph has been (I stumbled across a mommy-warish piece by accident the other day), to me making blanket statements about all WOHMs or all SAHMs or whatever seems actually worse than sharing one’s own anonymized anecdotes involving specific people. First of all, I participated in the events of my anecdotes, so they are actually mine to share, as long as I am not actually doing harm to anyone involved by sharing them. Is there harm in sharing an anecdote that happened between me (whom you don’t know) and an unspecified student or colleague (whom you also don’t know)? Is it invariably tacky or awful or bad along some other direction to write about being annoyed by my student simply because they are my student? We are talking about people over the age of 18 in what is a master/apprentice relationship and everyone is anonymous.

Some people say that these anecdotes should not be shared because then other students may think they are about them and feel bad. Well, I don’t think that there is any guarantee in life, and especially on the web, against ever being made to feel bad by someone random writing about someone else equally random.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the people actually involved in the anecdotes would find them, and recognize themselves, and then again be made to feel bad. I suppose that’s possible, but… I have found my own experiences from different facets of my life mirrored so often in the writings of various people on the web, that it’s safe to say that none of us are as special as we think we are and all our experiences are incredibly common or at least not unusual. I would say that the fact that someone might recognize themselves in someone’s writing is actually a reason for said piece of writing to exist. Second, I am pretty open with the members of my group. If there is a problem, something I don’t like, they know about it. The language I use in person vs here on the web is different, but if I am annoyed enough to bring up something here, I guarantee that I have brought it up with the student, too, as per my principle that I try not to let things fester when the problem is with someone I care about or care about continuing to have a professional relationship with. If I have a problem and I don’t address it, that usually means: a) it’s really minor and I can just get over it,  or b) it’s not minor but I have other things on my plate, so I don’t have the energy to deal with it now, or c) I am in the process of checking out from my relationship with that person, i.e., I have decided I no longer care to invest emotional energy in them or in our joint work; basically they are on their way to my “I don’t care” list.

And the stuff I write about is largely the stuff of annoyance, mismatched expectation, and miscommunication. I don’t think anything I write about really warrants a trigger warning.

But let me digress even further!

There is a junior colleague with whom I have been interacting a lot, and I am fascinated by how certain he is of everything he does. He’s probably no more than 30, and he’s already much more confident than I will ever be. As in, I could get 2 Nobel Prizes, and I still would probably not be as confident as this colleague is now. It must be awesome to never have doubts about anything you want to do or plan to do; you want to do something, you think it’s a good idea, you never doubt that it’s a good idea or that someone may object or that you might upset/hurt someone, you just do it. Of course, there is always the option that I am just really stupid and come up with only stupid ideas, and he is really brilliant and only comes up with brilliant ideas, so of course he never has doubts and I always do, as I should. (I can name at least five people who would say the former statement is undoubtedly correct.) Anyway, I don’t want to discuss male vs female upbringing or biology (apparently, some transmen report considerably higher decisiveness on all sorts of issues after starting testosterone).

My junior colleague, who is decidedly less experienced when it comes to advising students, has no doubt that it’s totally okay for us to bitch and moan about our students to one another, if that releases the pressure and enables us to be more patient with the students in person. By extension, I can release the tension here where it doesn’t hurt the students (such as in last weekend’s post about my PhD student acting jerky) in order to release the pressure, which enables me to produce calm and expletive-free email correspondence suitable for transmission via the university server.

But I know people who would come to tell me that the fact I get annoyed means something is wrong with me as advisor, because good advisors are all chips of the ol’ Zen Buddhism block and never get upset, or don’t get upset enough to have to bitch on the web. And there are others who would come to tell me why I care what anyone else thinks and so on… Aaaargh!

What’s the point of all this rambling?

I guess this is it: I fail to see why it is awful when I discuss my own thoughts and feelings about the interactions I have with my colleagues and collaborators, some of whom are my graduate students, and I do so without naming anyone. What exactly is bad and damaging about it?

Is it that I make it seem like professors actually are human beings and get annoyed and angry and sad and worried and anxious? I make it seem like professors don’t always know what they are doing in personnel matters and aren’t always 100% rational in the interactions? Does that hurt advisor authority in the abstract, erode student confidence in the fearless lab leaders?

Is it that I make a generic graduate student feel like their own advisor is not an infallible deity who has the student’s best interest at heart 100% of the time? Is it that I make a generic graduate student feel bad about making mistakes or just behaving in ways they never knew were objectionable?

Is it that my actual student might hypothetically come across these written accounts and recognize themselves and feel bad?

Is it that grad students are like our children and we are supposed to protect and cherish and never think a bad thought or say/write a bad thing about them? (Which is weird, because there are plenty of sites where people complain about their own flesh and blood and how annoying the kids can be.)

Grad students, do you feel scarred when I complain about the woes with my grad students or do you find it useful/helpful on some level? Other profs, do you think these posts resonate or help, or do you think “Here comes the whaaaambulance again… Why does anyone let this idiot advise grad students again?” 

The thing is I feel vaguely uncomfortable about writing online as I have, and I can’t decide why it is.

There are many things I used to write about that I feel like I should not have written about. With more blogging, I have become less bold. Maybe that’s inescapable? Maybe I am just ridiculously thin-skinned? Maybe I am just getting old?

I am a fairly conservative web presence (e.g., I am not on “chirper” or similar). Engagements with social media only ever make me want to say less about everything, rather than more. It seems like every word is too much, too revelatory, too fraught with the possibility to result in some blowup somewhere and drain the limited energy that I can afford to spend on whimsy.

Anyway, this post was apropos nothing in particular. Mostly, due to all the hullabaloo regarding Da Book, I started feeling again exceedingly “out there,” too much into people’s faces, too present online (even though I really am not). Suddenly, meaningful posts with emotion and related to stuff that actually happens and matters to me were too personal and too inappropriate and just… too everything.

Dear readers, please bear with me posting stuff and then pulling it down a couple of days later, as my sense of online propriety recalibrates itself and gets me to a place where my need to write is balanced with my level of comfort with my writing actually being out there in the world.

Beyond the Hustle

Phew! “Academaze” is out, we’ve done a giveaway raffle, and I am ready to talk about something else. But perhaps not just yet.

Those of you who have read the book — thank you and I hope you enjoyed it! Whether you liked it or not, if you feel inclined to write an honest review (Amazon, Goodreads, your personal blog, etc.) or help us spread the word on social media, it will be greatly appreciated by both me and my publisher. Thank you!

I have to say, this promoting-a-book business is not for the faint of heart. While I understand it’s necessary, it is not a comfortable mode to be in for an introverted academic, pulling people by the sleeve with “Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my boooooook!” I know how annoying it is to be on the receiving end of people’s attempts to extract money from you, yet here I am, doing just that. I am really sorry! And, yeah, buy my book.

Seriously now, I thought I would share my experiences about the process that led to the book being out in the world, in all its copyedited, cover-arted, ISBN-ed glory.

First, I have to thank Melanie of Annorlunda Books. She has been really wonderful throughout the whole process. Melanie has learned her publishing trade (she’s got several trades under her belt, such as being a PhD with considerable experience working in the biotech industry) by first self-publishing, as well as by having a couple of her own books published by others. There are many details regarding book formatting and distribution that would have required considerable time for me to learn, and I am glad I didn’t have to do it.

Overall, I am really happy I went with a small publisher and only had to ever work with Melanie, whom I trusted. I mostly knew Melanie from the blogosphere (although we met briefly in person a few years ago when I was traveling through her city), but I think that, when you interact with someone for years, even if it’s “just” online, you eventually do get a fairly good sense of who they are. I had gotten to know her as a kind and level-headed person, so I was comfortable trusting her with the book. She was great to work with; she was very accommodating of my preferences in terms of layout and put a lot of effort into making something we were both happy with.

Second, I now admire more than ever those writers who are able to churn out more than one book per year. It’s not just the writing; it’s the editing, going over the text again and again, revising, revising, revising, and then proofreading, proofreading, proofreading. Uuuuuuugh. Writers like Stephen King or Brandon Sanderson, who produce multiple books per year, are freakin’ superheroes. Somebody fetch each of them a cape! Even if their genres aren’t your cup of tea, you have to admire the work ethics, literary talent, and fecund imagination that together enable them to publish as prolifically as they do the kinds of books that many other people enjoy reading.

In my case, there was a lot of raw material to start from, and I might have underestimated just how much there was and just how raw much of it was. Paring down from about 400k to about 150k words was not too onerous; that’s the level at which whole essays were removed as too personal or too ranty. Getting down to what the book is now, about 83k (i.e., about 20% of the starting material), was considerably more laborious; it required going through the text with a fine tooth comb, along with trying to find a reasonably coherent thread. Several essays are actually amalgams of two or three blog posts. Many pieces that worked on the blog simply did not otherwise; often, a sentence or a paragraph is all that survived.

I have reread the book probably a dozen times now, and as much as I am in love with it, I am also a little (alright, a lot) sick of it. I think I need to leave it be for a little while.

But I am extremely pleased that several people said they found it easy to read. I highly value readability of anything I write; when referees say my paper is technically complicated but easy to follow and compelling to read anyway, it really warms my heart; it means I have achieved what I was supposed to — presented new science, new findings, in a way that other humans can appreciate. So when reviews speak of the book as an easy read, I think I did my job right.

There are spots in the book that I would have liked to polish some more, but between it being a sizable text, me having a demanding day job, this being my first book (i.e., me not really knowing what I was doing), and several of us involved working hard to make the deadline despite varied other obligations, I think the book turned out really, really, really well. I am very proud of it.

I thought you might like to know that, after many weeks of agonizing, I have decided to send a copy to my former postdoc, after I had sworn him to secrecy. When I offered him the book I immediately felt it was the right thing to do, as opposed to an awful mistake. He is a trustworthy guy with a great sense of humor, and he’s going through the growing pains with his own group, being midway through the tenure track, so I think he’ll enjoy the book and also keep my secret.



Raffle Winners

Here are the “Academaze” raffle winners (in alphabetical order by first name):

Ebook (8 copies):

Alienor C.
Anshul K.
Beth W.
Gautam M.
Irina D.
Lisa F.
Matthew Q.
Michelle N.

Paperback (7 copies):

Anna A.
Ivana B.
Lydia K.
Megan M.
Neil R.
Peter M.
Smita G.

Ebook winners will receive an email from me with instructions on how to claim their prize on Gumroad.

Paperback winners will receive an email soliciting a mailing address. Please send your mailing address promptly. Your books are ready to go, so if everyone sends their mailing address ASAP, the books will be shipped first thing Monday!

Thanks everyone for playing!

Academaze is Out! Enter Raffle to Get a Free Book


Academaze” is out, and it’s glorious!

Paperback: Amazon | BN.com | Createspace

Ebook: Amazon | BN.com | GumRoad | iBooks | Kobo


Thanks to all advance readers — I hope you guys are enjoying the book!

Several early and detailed reviews are already up (in chronological order by date of appearance):

Pawel Niewiadomski

Elizabeth Haswell

Alex Small (Physicist at Large)

Clarissa’s Blog

Natalienne (Fill Your Bookshelf Blog)

All Amazon Reviews


To celebrate the publication of “Academaze,” here are some exciting giveaway options!

Enter “Academaze Raffle” to win a free paperback or ebook! (Ebooks sent anywhere in the world, paperback mailed within the US only.)

There are 2 ways to enter the raffle, and you can participate in both! There are multiple prizes, which will be divided between the two groups of entries.

Option 1. Fill out a simple form. http://goo.gl/forms/b2VUUkJDznG1XQci1

I would like to help some broke grad students and postdocs, so there will be a slight preference in choosing winners among those who are grad students or postdocs. (Your entries will be seen by no one but me and Melanie of Annorlunda Books, so I promise no spam will result from entering.)

Option 2. Help us spread the word about “Academaze”!

Via Twitter: Tweet about the book and make sure you use the hashtag #Academaze or refer to @AnnorlundaInc


Via Facebook: Mention the book in a public post and make sure you tag @AnnorlundaBooks

Raffle entries close on Friday, June 24th, at noon EST! The winners will be announced shortly thereafter, and the books mailed by the end of June.

(Update June 24, 12:31 EST: Raffle entries are now closed. Thanks for playing! Winners to be announced soon!)


The book turned out great, thanks to Melanie Nelson of Annorlunda Books (publisher), as well as Susan Lavoie (cover design) and Dora Dalton (editing services).

To all my wonderful blog readers: Bear with me for another week or so, and then I promise to stop talking about the book.

In the meantime, pick up a copy and enjoy!