Month: August 2014

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.


Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.


In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.


If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*


You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.


Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

Xykademiqz Attempts to Socialize

Disclaimer: This post was not meant to be obnoxious, but might have ended up being so anyway. It illustrates the experiences my husband and I have had with the arguably very limited number of Americans who happen to be our friends or acquaintances, so for us they do represents Americans. Why we have had such experiences is probably a complex interplay of the fact that we are immigrants, how we are generally as a family (we might be very crappy people indeed and oblivious to it), the part of the country we live in, the fact that we are middle-aged and married with kids (as opposed to young and/or single and/or kidless etc.), and the fact that we hang out with people whom we mostly meet through work at a university or through our kids, i.e. with generally middle-class parents like us who live in this particular area of the country. I understand the US is big and there are many different kinds of people here. But these are our experiences, and being a scientist I have tried to distill the general patterns based on experiential evidence. If you feel something I wrote is too harsh or not representative at all of anything that you have ever experienced, then I say good for you! You are very fortunate and enjoy your awesome social life! 

I have been in the US for 15 years, of which 10 where I am now. I believe I am well assimilated. Socialization with the local Americans still feels quite unnatural to me, as there are a lot of aspects of it that are very different from where I grew up.

1) All build-up, no main event

This is a phenomenon I have now come to expect of nearly every event for which one doesn’t have to pay through the nose. Whatever is free or cheap — a 4th-of-July parade, a concert in the park, Halloween trick-or-treating — starts with many weeks of relentless propaganda, be it on the radio or via emails from the neighborhood list, followed by the main event that would generously be characterized as ‘meh.’

I remember a few years ago a colleague made a really big deal out many of us professorial moms making it to her neighborhood for the 4th of July parade. There were many emails, texts, a whole lot of activity to schedule us meeting and decorations. In reality, it was a 10-min walk, followed by a fun-and-games carnival consisting of literally two lawn games and a beer stand. The colleague who was the organizer left after 45 min.

Anything that the schools organize are weeks and weeks of relentless emails and colorful flyers, followed by the event that is very brief, very cheaply organized, crowded, and generally having a very poor fun-to-hassle ratio. So I no longer go. My husband doesn’t mind as much, so he occasionally takes the kids.

The same holds for individual events. I have been at a number of parties where the person spends a lot of time on colorful invitations, sends numerous emails infused with the list of all the fun things that will be happening, and then the main event is 2 hours long, there is nowhere near enough food or drinks, the party activities are very brief and very lame, and the whole thing is… underwhelming.

I understand the underlying reasons — everything is expensive, and nobody wants to spend money on anything.  But what’s all the pre-event hullabaloo then? It just raises everyone’s expectations (or perhaps just my expectations, cause I am naive), and then the poor execution is a real let-down.

2) Dinner parties

When you have dinner guests over in my home country, there is a great emphasis on food as food=caring, so it’s assumed that you will put in the time to prepare some of the most delicious things you can make. When we have people over, I spend a lot of time cooking and usually make the food that takes longer to make than my usual repertoire, something people don’t have a chance to eat every day. Also, in my culture guests are king, and having people over generally means you spend a lot of hours eating and talking and having fun.

This has not been my experience here. Again, I apologize in advance if this feels like I am offending anyone, but this has been occurring very regularly.

Here goes…

2a) Food

Outside of Thanksgiving, I have never been to anyone’s house where I felt they went out of their way to prepare dinner for the guests. It’s usually something very quick, like what I would make on Tuesday night after work. The portions are limited and it is not expected that anyone would want seconds; only the amount expected to be eaten is prepared.

This is something really unheard of in my culture, where it is imperative to make sure your guests have had enough (or more than enough) to eat. If there are no leftovers that means I have failed as a hostess and didn’t make enough. In contrast, when visiting my American friends, the hosts routinely decide how much everyone eats and that is exactly what gets made , and no more (e.g. 2 hotdogs per kid, without a chance that an adult maybe wants one or a kid would want three). For instance, at some point we had one of my Eldest’s friends over with his dad and brother. The friend was quite astounded at the food that was left over and made a snide remark about us not being able to count. The dad tried to save it by stating that people often made enough for leftovers, but it did make me feel very uncomfortable. What is considered being a good host where I come from appears to make me a dumb waster of time and money here. It is also interesting that some  friends who are careful about having no leftovers and restricting portions at their place are happy to go for seconds and thirds at our place.

(This has not been the case when I visit my Chinese friends, where there is generally plenty and a variety of food, and the attitude towards hosting is similar to my own native culture.)

2b) Overstaying One’s Welcome

Another aspect of entertaining over dinner is how long these events are supposed to last.  In my home country, having guests over is an entire-evening ordeal, with hours of talking and fun. Alas, not here. It took a while to get used to, but now I  consider it a rule: assume that Americans want you out of their house in no more than 2 hours, no matter how fabulous of a time you feel you are having; after 1.5-2 hours the hosts start cleaning up, which I consider a cue that we should really get going. (The same people might stay at our place considerably longer.)

I was really disappointed a few months ago, as we traveled as a family. In the city where we went on vacation lives a very good friend of mine from graduate school, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years. He’s married with no kids. We went there with drinks and ice-cream (which is what they told us to bring), they ordered takeout, and still after about 2 hours they started to clean up, so we helped and then left. I was really disappointed, because I hadn’t seen him and his wife in a very long time, and god knows when we will meet next, and the most important thing was apparently to not have us over for too long or to not have their routine disturbed or what have you (in case you are wondering, the kids were angels, watched a movie the whole time).

Conclusion: Basically, my impression is that Americans with whom I have had a chance to socialize are happy to entertain (in general, or possibly just me and my family) as long as they don’t have to spend much time or money on it, or perturb their routine. But they really like to decorate flyers and Evites. And they don’t seem to mind us spending both time and money on entertaining them; they might think we are really stupid and wasteful for doing it, though.

What say you, blogosphere? Are these common features across the US? Do they vary with age group/part of country/when you met your friends (young and single vs old or partnered)? Any other immigrant experiences regarding mingling with  the natives? 

“The Oatmeal” on Having Kids

Why haven't you had kids yet?

“The Oatmeal” on having kids

I love  The Oatmeal comics, I think he’s really funny and insightful. But this one pissed me off, enough to write a post when I really should be doing work and have adequately pre-caffeinated for it.

Kidless people, it’s cool, really. No judgement regarding the kidlessness, I promise. Don’t want kids, don’t have kids, end of story.

But I actually hate you a little bit, in a very transient way, when you utter (or put up a web comic with) bullshit like “Forget about traveling the world, or pursuing your dreams,” as we all know that one cannot procreate and chew gum at the same time, let alone procreate and either travel or have dreams. (Also, I think travel as a means of self-actualization is…. curious. )

And the thing with pooping and vomiting. I see these “Eww, diapers!” brought up all the time as the worst part of parenting.

I can tell you, changing diapers, cleaning vomit or poop — they do not phase faze me at all. Maybe I am just not easily disgusted (my husband is much more squeamish).
When I think about what is hard about parenting, poop and vomit do not come to mind, ever; they do not register as difficult or in any way remarkable parts of parenting. I am considerably more pissed when the kids spill a glass of juice so I have to clean it up; I am exponentially more pissed when a grownup spills a glass of juice and I have to clean it up.

Poop and vomit are, to me, completely unimportant. While nothing grosses me out regarding my own kids, I don’t care for the bodily excretions of other people’s kids, so I think all daycare and preschool teachers are saints and should be constantly showered with money and gifts and all forms of gratitude one can think of.

The hardest parts of parenting, for me, are the constraints on my time (because occasionally I want or need to work non-stop) and, when the kids were very little, recurrent ear infections. These days, I don’t care for playing with plastic toys or watching certain cartoons, because many things that were magical with kid No 1 are not so much any more by kid No 3.

Hugs and kisses, however, never get old. And neither does the general awesomeness of watching someone grow up.

Notes from the Road

* Travel sucks. Sucks balls, sucks a$$. Sometimes it also sucks scabs, nose hair, warts, and bunions. I got a grand total of 3.25 hrs of sleep last night, got up early to catch a flight; I would not be this comatose even after jet-lag, and I am still in the US.

* Being at conferences is always an exercise in perpetual physical discomfort for me. Often there is not enough leg room; luckily that’s not an issue this time. I am always freezing in conference rooms, and today was worse than I’ve felt in a long time. It’s really hot outside and unbelievably cold inside. Why do they have to blast the A/C down to 60 degrees? I had long sleeves and a light sweater and was still thinking of going back to the room for a serious sweatshirt. Some people should be stripped of their thermostat-fiddling privileges.

* I heard three plenary talks today. Two were of the historical-perspective kind and one of the looking-into-the-future kind. All were nice.  They also featured, in a completely unexpected turn of events (not),  reasonably famous old white dudes, some of whom reminisced of their life and times  next door to even more famous and perhaps even older (and whiter?) and possibly deceased dudes, to whom they referred as “Bill” or “Tom” to emphasize familiarity and thus self-aggrandize by proxy. I used to be intimidated by such schenanigans, by how I would never find myself in the thick of things like these people had done, stirring the direction of a whole field; now I am just lightly miffed. One of the big revelations that came to me in recent years, and it didn’t take me even a decade of professordom to grasp it (maybe I am really not that smart), is that the vast majority of  scientists — no matter how accomplished and how well recognized — are painfully insecure; some readily show it, some mask it by extreme aggression. This also means that some people on whose support you count will not support because they are too busy feeling unrecognized and ignored themselves, which makes them self-absorbed.

* A luminary of the field died last month, I’d just heard. He did so much for the field and was so important and so well recognized. And now he’s dead, just as dead as any Joe Schmoe the bacon-burger enthusiast. Sometimes I think I should spend all of my days devouring bacon burgers. With beer.

* A question for the blogosphere: How much time should one (the  professor/group leader/PI) spend with own group members when at conferences? When I was a grad student, there were usually several grad students from the group at every conference, and we hung out together. I would see my advisor occasionally. My advisor was a big important dude, and would sometimes introduce us to some of his buddies (not sure that it helped, but he did do it). When we went to dinner together, he’d always be the life of the party and we his captive audience. I always thought he was fascinating but at some point, after I’d grown up, I just saw him as tiring and not all that interesting.

I am at a conference with several of my students. It’s a big conference and not one we usually go to, so there aren’t many of my friends around to whom I could introduce the younglings. There are enough of my students for them to happily hang out together (I see they met other students already) and I don’t want to cramp their style, but I don’t think I should avoid them altogether (and I don’t). Recently, when two students and I were at another conference, we did go to dinner once with several other folks (profs and students), that was nice and not too taxing on anyone; we did catch up with each other briefly at coffee breaks, but I left them to do their thing for the most part.  But I do wonder what the right amount of socializing or interacting in general is common. Because of the power differential there is always a danger that I’ll just start monologuing and nobody will stop me, as happened with my advisor, even if I am boring the hell out of them. Also, socializing is socializing, and my students are young guys while I am a middle-aged woman, so we don’t have natural conversational topics outside of work; also, I like the professional relationship and don’t want to get into any personal topics that could make either party uncomfortable. I might be curious to know more about my students as people, I don’t want to be intrusive; again, the power differential.

So what say you, blogosphere PIs, how much do you hang out with your students at conferences? Students and postdocs, do you want to spend any time with the prof?