Repost: F*cktober


Alas, I speak not of the fun kind, the province of randy college youth

Nay… My tale goes far back, all the way to the last millenium… And it is a dark one.

Every year, come October, the pearly gates windows for NSF unsolicited proposals swing open. As if in a trance, thousands of pilgrim scientists gather to worship at the feet of the unfeeling behemoth. In a month of pure agony, their bodies and souls are possessed by the tyrant, yet they remember little. Their consciousness barely punctuates the thick caffeine haze, wherein hearts race and thoughts scatter… Come November, the pilgrims wake up with a vague feeling of shame and regret, chafed, hopelessly trying to remember what it was that left that foul taste in their mouths.

In the spring, some of them bear the fruit of the unholy alliance. They care for it lovingly during its three-year-long life… And what a precious gift it is. So small, so feeble, so rare… But what an honor to be bestowed such a gift, and to be free, if but for a little while, of the unquenchable thirst that overtakes every fall…

For when you see a disheveled scientist carrying a cup of coffee, know that F*cktober is upon us. No one is safe. Best to procure some lubricant.

Originally appeared here

Typo-Induced Fury

I was this close (imagine me holding thumb and forefinger at 1 mm distance from each other) to yelling at my graduate student. What he gave me with the words, “I am really proud of this manuscript,” was a completely unedited pile of $hit. He’s a fourth-year student, not a newbie. There were so, sooooo many typos (and an astonishing number of different misspellings of a crucial term), so many instances of subject-verb disagreement, so many missing commas… (I already complained about the nonexisting definite articles.)

His explanation? It’s the software’s fault. He was using some software (?!) that supposedly tracked and corrected all typos, and now it’s the software’s fault.

Bull$hit. It’s YOUR fault.

Public service announcement:

There is no substitute for printing out your manuscript in a single-column, double-space format, sitting down without distractions, and carefully proofreading it, line by line — like I do ad nauseam, even though it shortens my lifespan (silver lining: it produces blog fodder). Then enter the corrections, print the corrected manuscript out, and f*ckin’ do it again. Repeat until you cannot find any more typos yourself. Only then should you consider wasting your advisor’s time with it.

(We have a deadline, which is why I have to finish this and can’t do additional back-and-forths with the student. But I am furious.)

“The” Shaker

It’s Friday evening and it’s raining. I’m sitting in my car, waiting for my middle son to finish his outdoor flag-football practice. My phone is low on battery, so useless for killing time. I have with me a student’s manuscript draft, which I have been carrying around for a couple of weeks; I have done some work on it, picked it up and dropped it many times, and now seems like as good a time as any (save for having a three-hour flight with no WiFi) to devote myself to it. The near-captivity of limited duration somehow makes reading the manuscript almost bearable. Almost.

As a non-native speaker of English, I know it makes me a total douche to begrudge the student’s writing (this is a 4th-year student, whose spoken English is quite good). Yet, I wish I had a “the” shaker, so I could liberally sprinkle the definite article on the manuscript, because right now it looks as if the student were allergic to it.  If the paper were a frozen tundra and your life depended on finding a “the” to ingest, you’d be dead by page two.

People say that we should focus on the structure of the paper and not worry about the language. But I can’t; to me, if the language is really bad, it’s as if someone were poking me in the eye with every word. I have to clean up the language to the point of reasonable readability and grammar at the local level (sentence, paragraph), then read without constant irritation to see if the paper as a whole makes sense scientifically… Then rewrite again.

I don’t know why this issue annoys me so; again, I should be understanding of the struggle of foreign-born students with the English language. I do send them to ESL courses, recommend watching sitcoms, reading anything they can get their hands on (including trashy magazines), writing a blog, arguing on the web in written form, hanging out with native speakers… I try to help as much as I can, but it’s usually not enough.

I wonder how native English speakers who advise foreign students and postdocs view this task. What say you, dear native-speaking readers? Are you perpetually livid that your students butcher your language? Are you completely unfazed? Or, likely, something in between?

This and That

♦ Obvious, yet somehow always surprising: Grading a midterm for a class of twenty leaves one with significantly more will to live than grading a midterm for a class of a hundred.

It’s not that your story isn’t good, it’s that others are better. – A posh literary journal I can’t locate right now.

Also, in not so many words, Science/Nature/every prestigious (or wannabe prestigious) scholarly journal ever.

♦ Just because you can’t/won’t do something, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The other day, a colleague was wondering how I find the time for one of my daily extracurricular activities. Well, I just do. I hate that type of comment because, more often than not, it is a thinly veiled way of saying, “You don’t work enough.” I have heard it more than once, and it’s always from young men on the tenure track, who either have no family or have a wife holding the fort at home. (Senior male colleagues generally say I ought to travel more.)

My daily kickboxing makes it possible for me to kick people who make stupid remarks in the head, should I want to; in particular, comments about not working like a man with no fuckin’  obligations fall under stupid comments; thus, I find the time, and will continue to find the time for kickboxing.

♦ It’s no secret that middle age is the age when, among other things, one makes peace with oneself. I spent all of my youth wishing I were different in many ways; this makes me far from unique. These days, I find I am okay — or at least approaching okay — with many of my flaws.

For instance, I am extremely impatient; yet, everyone will tell you that patience is a virtue. These days, I say, “Whatever.” I am very efficient (freakishly efficient, so I’m told) at doing things I care about; when I care, I want things done ASAP, and do my best to make it so. And you know what? I am correct in that I am not going to live a million years, so there is such a thing as things moving too slowly. I will wait, a little. But not too long, and certainly not forever. Waiting makes me stop caring, and when I stop caring, there’s no going back. (Regarding the stoppage of caring: I am a notorious abandoner of boring books and TV shows.)

♦ As part of the whole “know yourself and love yourself just as you are” midlife mantra, I have realized/made peace with the fact that I crave (need!) constant intellectual stimulation, otherwise I am a pain in the butt. Why is this news? If you are female, there is the unspoken requirement that you get to do what you need or want to do only after you have fulfilled the needs, wants, and whims of those you care for. The two pulls are in opposition, as little children require so much time and energy but domestic life is, let’s be honest, often mundane. I think I am okay with the fact that I find boring things boring, that caregiving is often boring, and that sometimes being bored and wishing I were doing something else instead doesn’t necessarily make me a monster — just human.

♦ I can be quite obsessive about papers, proposals, projects. The only cure is to have so much going on that I cannot afford to obsess. When you have a number of research papers, proposals, and now stories, all being in review at the same time, along with a full pipeline of projects, it’s hard to obsess about any one of them (although not for lack of trying).

♦ Parenting breakthrough:  The best vacations with our kids have to be scheduled to the brim. The kids actually don’t need to chill (even though Mom and Dad might), as they do it plenty at home. DH joked that we’d get to chill when the kids are out of the house or never, whichever comes first.

♦ I am feeling so much better this semester than the last (knock on wood). The soul-crushing service workload of the last academic year is gone, and things feel manageable again (knock on wood, again). I feel like I will jinx it all simply by admitting that things feel manageable.

How’s everyone’s semester going? 

Bookish Saturday

I hate it that Saturday is such a slow day on the web, so here’s my contribution to the fight against the contentless slump:

I read Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter a few months ago, but never posted about it. It’s a sci-fi thriller and it’s really good. The title is stupid, has nothing to do with the book, and reeks of editorial overreach (I bet they thought “dark matter” would always be cool; well, it’s not), but the book itself is an excellent example of its genre. The writing is fluid and disciplined, the plot is superb, and the main character (along with a few secondary ones) has a depth that you don’t necessarily expect from the genre. Highly recommended.

Then there’s an all-time fave, Stephen King’s On Writing. The first time I read it, it was a borrowed copy. I recently bought my own, and have been thumbing through it. As I said before, it’s part memoir, part writing manual, yet it reads like a thriller. I could not put it down — again!

The one I look forward to reading is Ann Leckie’s Provenance. I have no idea what it’s about, but I loved her Ancillary Justice, which received just about every sci-fi award there is. Ann Leckie, along with Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet) and Catherine Webb (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August), embodies the style of writing I really enjoy: clear, uncluttered, with a gentle touch — good plot, plenty of depth and emotion in characters, while avoiding the following two issues that often bother me. 1) These authors can convey emotion without getting all sentimental (blech sentimentality; here’s a flash that presents emotion without the sappy gooeyness). 2) They can tell a story without imposing themselves personally on us; they resist the temptation to constantly remind us how clever and/or erudite they are, which I feel so many others fail at because they take themselves far too seriously (I remember a particularly obnoxious description of the main character’s perm in The Interestings as her “poodly, dandeliony” head).

I read The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway in my native tongue in my youth, but I figured I should read Hemingway in English, as an example of acclaimed sparse prose, so I bought The Old Man along with The Sun Also Rises. On the other hand, I’d never read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and I figured I should do it as a matter of self-education in English. [N.B. I will say this explicitly, just in case it’s not self-evident: many of the famous American novels are not equally famous outside of the US. This is particularly true when it comes to the classics that are on the high-school reading lists in the US, such as To Kill the Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye, both of which I did read in English in adulthood, or The Great Gatsby. In my experience, the US high-school reading lists are heavy on domestic fare and light on international authors, which is not the standard elsewhere. I grew up in a small country and we read broadly; neither domestic nor American authors featured prominently in the curriculum.]

A book that I ordered but that didn’t make it in time to be photographed is The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (he just received the Nobel). I’d never read anything by him, but Clarissa says this is the best novel by him, and I trust her completely when it comes to literature.

Finally, I received a sample copy of Fantasy & Science Fiction, one of the oldest and most reputable sci-fi magazines, which still exists only in print. I actually paid for one sample copy but received two, in separate shipments and presumably by mistake, so now I have one that I might give out as a reward for some future sci-fi-based short-story contest or something similar.

What are you guys reading these days?

And the Winner Is…


1st place ($10 Amazon gift card): BREW YOU by Ballpoint

2nd place, shared ($7.50 Amazon gift card each): RESILIENCE by Roseicapilla & ALMOST COST ME MY ACADEMIC LIFE by Distinguished Professor

3rd place ($5 gift card): … AND THE SILVER SPOON by Big boy blue

Thanks everyone for playing!

Distinguished Prof, if you want to claim your prize, send me a valid email (xykademiqz at gmail). Others, if you don’t want an Amazon gift card or cannot claim it, please let me know ASAP via email (xykademiqz at gmail). I will send out the gift cards tomorrow.

Everyone else, thanks for reading and think about partaking if we do this next time!

Short Stories by Readers!


Here are the stories that were submitted to the Xykademiqz Short-Fiction Contest! They are listed in the order in which I received them. Please read them all and vote for your favorite in the poll below. I said there would be three; the fourth was belated, but I’m including it anyway.

To the author who didn’t leave a functioning email address: I don’t need your real-life email, but I need a functioning email address that you can check (such as xykademiqz at gmail; I probably have half a dozen addresses like that); otherwise, I cannot send you a confirmation email or any rewards you potentially get.

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado — THE STORIES!

by Roseicapilla

I sat on a stage looking at teenagers. Girls mostly, articulate high achievers, eager to please, wanting to be poised and desired.

The keynote speaker had told them how to succeed. She had shared her insights gleaned from a long career in business. A living, breathing role-model, she showed them that a successful businesswoman can be a mother of three, a wife with a lifelong marriage and more.

Now we sat on a stage for questions and discussion. One question came like a hurricane: how do you respond to discriminatory behavior in the workplace? The keynote speaker suggested taking the emotional sting out of the discussion by relying on data, and pointing out the logical arguments for diversity. I have said this too at many other similar events.

But when my turn came to take the microphone, facing all those young faces, I said something that welled up within me: the data is inside you.

As a teenager, I was taught to be pretty, polite, and pliable. As an adult, I thought I needed to be strong, tough and indestructible. But, pliability is not resilience. And, more than one of my friends have shattered from too much toughness.

Looking out at those unformed faces, I said whether you have brown eyes or blue eyes, you know what you are capable of, and you know where you want to start. Look inside and accept who you are. Resilience and courage are needed before you engage. I turned to hand the microphone to the next person on stage, and found a pair of eyes swimming with tears.

Has no-one yet taught you resilience?


Author bio: Roseicapilla is a mathematician, female and a professor to boot.

by Big boy blue

“But how is that useful?”. My mum is a mental health counselor and I sometimes wonder if she worries about mine. I accidently yawned as we discussed dads new garden project; she fussed about my sleep schedule; I explained about my proposal deadline; and she asked out of politeness or concern. I love my research, so glossed over the finer technical points to relay the core of the idea, the potential intellectual impacts, and the importance of this to my career.

“But how is that useful?”. The class is medium sized and as such an improvement from last year. This particular student is definitely focused on life and career after college, but he is brighter than most to ask even this question. The challenge, of course, is that the curriculum is theoretically heavy and central to admission in our upper level program. None of these reasons are inherently motivational so I proceed to the, at this point, rehearsed, tirade about industrial applications, examples where the field had an impact, and even try to sneak in a little passion for mastering the theory just for the love of it. Secretly, I look forward to the inevitable transformation that always happen when one or two of them will TA this material next year.

“But how is that useful?”. As a kid, academia was this fairy tale life where you got to be the smartest person on a subject, make great discoveries and win a Nobel prize. As undergrads we solved toy-problems in teams, with hard deadlines and shared excitement when finished. If my proposal is funded I’ll be hiring grad students and postdocs to work on their own sub-projects and I’ll be given an office in which to apply for more funding.


Author bio: Big boy blue is a STEM postdoc in an existential crisis.

by Ballpoint

I asked the “barista”, “Why does the small iced coffee cost more than the regular coffee for the same amount”.
“Well it’s brewed separately.”
“We brew them at separate times.”
“Yes but then the regular coffee is also brewed separately.”
“Um, well it’s also the cost of refrigeration.”
“Which I presume costs more than keeping the hot coffee hot?”
“Well we both have to heat it first and then cool it down.”
“I see, then by that logic, your ‘cold-brewed’ coffee should be even cheaper, since it is never heated up, yet that costs even more.”
“Well that one is brewed separately, too.”
“Separately from the hot coffee and the iced coffee?”
“And that’s why it costs more.”
“Yes, they are all brewed separately”.
“I’ll have an espresso.”


Author bio: Ballpoint is an occasional writer and full time coffee drinker. She hails from a small city near you.

by Distinguished Professor

I had and still have the terrible habit of chewing on papers and napkins. They just taste really good to me and sometimes I cannot resist. More than 20 years ago, I was admitted to a graduate program in the United States from a distant country. I arrived in the JFK airport at 10 pm. An immigration officer checked all my paperwork and cleared me to enter the country. He also gave me a bunch of paperwork including a small piece of cardstock that looked more like a cheap amusement park ticket than anything else. As I was all nervous getting through the next checkpoints, I vaguely remembered chewing on the cheap small ticket and throwing it in the trash when it was all mushy and wet. In the last exit point from the airport, another officer asked me to show her my I-94 document, which she could not find in my documents. She showed me a sample and I did not have the guts to tell her that I chewed on it. I was interrogated for an hour before being issued another I-94 and being allowed in the United States. Here I am many years later an American citizen and a distinguished academic and you are the first people to whom I am sharing this story. I am a lot more careful now and double check the papers!


Author bio: Distinguished Professor is an academic at an R1 with a large research group.

Ready to vote? Please cast a vote for your favorite story among the four!