Month: November 2014

Do Not Send

Recently, I did something I had never done before: I asked a program manager at a funding agency to not send a proposal to a certain individual.

To be honest, I had always thought that excluding people from lists of potential reviewers for papers or proposals reveals a lack of conviction in the merit of the document or a lack of belief in the review process — surely, all scientists are objective! But I finally got over my naivete and did what I probably should have started doing a long time ago, because a couple of proposals and probably more than a couple of papers were likely mishandled by this individual in the past.

When you do work in computer simulation, the system does not exist until you code it up. Your understanding of the physical reality affects what your computer simulation will look like. It can look and act very much like the real system, in many aspects or in a few. It may behave entirely unlike the real system, which means that either you don’t understand the physics well enough, you are having issues coding up the physics, or possibly both. But at no point does it stop being important whether or not you understand the system; at no point does it become solely about having more computational resources. You cannot cure faulty physical assumptions by throwing CPU cycles at the problem.

I don’t think I am being a revolutionary when I say that all numerical techniques are approximate. They all have limits of applicability and accuracy; some of the limits are fundamental, some are computational. We as scientists have to understand the limits and work within the constraints. Throwing enormous resources at a problem is sometimes necessary, but often it is not — the question is what you are after, what question you want to ask of your simulated system. Sometimes, a slingshot is just enough to kill the sparrow. Other times, you do need a cannon, for the problem is a pirate ship… Or a whale.

The individual is a subscriber to the One True Technical Path for all problems in my area. That’s silly, there is no such thing as the one true technique, in principle or practice. Unfortunately, this individual has single-handedly managed to damage the prospects of a number of people who do not subscribe to The Path and is hurting the community because of his strong connections to the funding agencies. I actually feel bad on some level, because I don’t think he’s aware how many people he has managed to piss off and alienate; there are stories circulating about his abuse of the peer review process; I am not the only one who has him listed as someone not to send proposals to; many very smart people don’t want to discuss science with him because they don’t want the hassle.

I am probably crazy to even feel bad for him, because I know he feels underappreciated. But being an a$$hole to everyone around you is not going to win you friends or recognition. Only the unusually creative and original are allowed some eccentricity; mere mortals need to rely on working hard, doing a good and rigorous job, and not becoming someone everyone loves to hate.

Do you have someone on your “Do Not Send To” list?

The CHE: Retire Already!

By way of Undine, who blogs at”Not of General Interest,” I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article addresses academics retiring,  or, more precisely, not retiring early enough to make room for deserving up-and-comers. The whole piece is fairly obnoxious (“The Forever Professors: Academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish, and bad for students”), but it brings up a couple of discussion-worthy points about teaching amidst the steady “kill the elderly” drumbeat.

The main premise of the article, which the author — herself a newly minted emerita — seems to espouse with suspiciously high enthusiasm, is that older academics owe it to others to retire: to the younglings waiting for tenure-track positions; to the poor departments whose budgets are drained by the high salaries of the oldies; to the apparently zombie-like students who crave exposure to the brains of young, fresh, energetic faculty.

No. No, older faculty do not owe their retirement to anyone. Why? First of all, if there’s one thing I learned in the US, it is that everyone looks out for themselves, and those who are concerned with societal benefits get called the s-word; older faculty should make their professional plans however it suits them, within the law. Secondly, for the most part those faculty who don’t want to retire are really energetic, sharp, and well-funded. I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80’s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output. I know a professor in his early 70’s whose recent graduate said that the professor was not just a very active septuagenarian, he was in fact the most active and energetic person of any age that the student had ever met. My PhD advisor is in his mid-70’s; he teaches, advises, travels, and publishes with enviable zeal, which I can only hope to have at his age.

Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone.” I don’t think this is true at all — the blindness — for anyone who has ever paid attention to what happens after people retire. Indeed, the second you are gone, nobody cares any more. Which is perhaps as it should be, and all to more reason not to choose to retire out of the goodness of your heart. Because no one will pat you on the back after you are gone.

“But ‘commitment to higher education’ covers some selfish pleasures. First, teaching is fun. It offers a sanctioned ‘low-level narcissism,’ as one friend put it, that’s hard to find anywhere else in life other than in show business.”

True, teaching is improv. Why exactly is it bad to find teaching, or improv, personally rewarding? There are plenty of narcissistic big mouths who enjoy the sound of their voice in corporate America and nobody begrudges them for bloviating. Why are academics supposed to teach for 100% altruistic reasons? Why would it be wrong to enjoy putting on a show? It sounds like great fun for everyone involved.

“Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

This is stupid and plainly incorrect. The fact that the kids in our classes are really young actually puts it clearly into perspective how old we are becoming. Parents of young kids everywhere will tell you the same thing. If anyone can delude themselves into thinking they’re beyond aging, it’s NOT the people constantly exposed to young humans. Or at least those among us with access to a mirror or the tiniest bit of self-awareness.

“Third, because teaching is part of a life of the mind, by teaching to 70 and beyond, professors feel they provide living proof, to anyone who might question them, that their minds remain sharp as tacks.”

And this is somehow supposed to be a reason to prevent them from teaching? It’s bad that they are not getting dementia, because we just can’t have sharp old people? For goodness sake.

“Finally, remaining within the confines of academe past 70 not only protects professors from the economic and professional uncertainties of life, but also substantially pumps up their wealth at the end of their careers.”

Seriously, the wealth of professors is the problem? Anyone in my field in industry will out-earn me within a couple of years of getting a PhD. Academics are middle class, and usually comfortably so, but it’s complete bull$hit to say that they are wealthy. And why is it that no one begrudges the wealth of dentists or physicians or lawyers, who all have graduate degrees and are all better paid than academics? Oh, yes, it’s the academics not doing anything useful again and, of course, tenure: nobody should be sheltered from the economic and professional uncertainties of life!!! How hypocritical that all this was written by a newly retired and presumably previously long-tenured professor .

The problem with teaching is that it offers an ongoing sense of redemption. In the real world, which you have now re-entered, if you muck up, there are consequences. In the university, you get a new semester to pretend nothing bad ever happened.”

Whoever wrote this appears to be staggeringly naive about university politics. Maybe you get a fresh crop of students to profess to each semester, but all your colleagues remain alongside you for several decades. If you think elephants have great memories, try tenured academics — they forget nothing. In these multidecade-long  professional relationships, the consequences of screwing up are real and serious. Sure, you may not get fired because of tenure, but you can get squeezed out of lab space, passed up for raises, ignored and disrespected in group meetings, so you will elect to leave or be miserable.

In my place of employment, plenty of people retire as soon as they can, move away from the cold, just go do something else. Those who don’t are generally very active in research, teaching, and service. We should leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

This Post Is Lame

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

On the upside, I have several cool ideas for posts. On the downside, I have no time to write them up, definitely not tonight. Tomorrow I have to get up at 5:15 to help get Eldest, who these days swims 4 hrs/day (!), out the door for the morning practice. So the awesome posts will have to wait. Potentially till the end of boys’ swim season.

I kid, I kid.

Today I employed an excellent way to make myself complete the review of 3 journal papers (two were revisions, one first submission) . I gave myself an ultimatum: it’s either that or writing up homework solutions for my undergrad class. I hate writing solutions so much, probably as much as grading, that doing these reviews seemed like child’s play, and I cheerfully and efficiently completed them. Then I went on to the journal where I am associate editor, and promptly handled the two pending manuscripts: made three referrals on one and a desk rejection on another. Nothing induces productivity like the prospect of having to do something you hate instead.

I leave you with some yummy. Below is the fabled beef-butternut squash-red peppers stir-fry that I was shopping for the ingredients to make when the scam of overpriced organic peppers was revealed. The peppers used in this stir-fry cost a sensible $2.99/lb. With some sticky rice, the dinner was delicious, and the leftovers will be enjoyed by the cook for lunch tomorrow.



Geometry, Shirts, and Forrester

— Eldest is taking geometry honors. This is a problem from his textbook.


— I have been (sort of, but not really) following “the shirt” developments. I must be jaded beyond belief that the shirt did’t even register. I couldn’t muster even a little bit of shock or disdain. Perhaps all the male colleagues in socks and sandals have forever desensitized me to any potential fashion faux pas  committed by a geeky man. I am not sure why I don’t care about the women on the shirt; I know I should, but I don’t.

Systemic misogyny is a societal feature, no doubt about that. But there is only so much energy I can devote to swimming in the bottomless cesspool of hatred. Instead, I am perhaps more hopeful than I should be about the women in STEM fields. When I teach a class, like I did today, to a bunch of 18-to-21-year-old boys, I show them that women kick butt in their chosen field. They are nice boys and they will become nice men, and perhaps they will treat their fellow female coworkers just a little bit better because they had me and other women professors around. Who knows?

To my Eldest, I am the go-to person for math homework. My DH is, of course, every bit as capable of helping as I am, but Eldest seems to prefer asking me for homework help. When I mentioned to him a while ago that there are people who feel women are not supposed to be doing work in certain fields, that women are considered a priori inferior just because they are women, he looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. He could not fathom why anyone would think anything so stupid. I know the kid will turn out alright.

A graduate student joined my group a couple of years ago, after having spent several years doing very different type of work in another lab. While he was in that other lab, he took a couple of courses with me. One time, in class, I came into the classroom and the desks and chairs had been rearranged. In order to be able to access the board, I had to move several desks. I started moving them around, and commenting how it would be nice if I had some help. That student remarked along the lines of “Well, you want to be equal.” (I don’t remember how he phrased it, but it was a definite reference to us women wanting to be equal, so as a result we should move heavy desks by ourselves.) Anyway, a couple of years later he’s in my group, and after a bit of initial friction we have been working well together. He would not be the first one to find out that behind the smiling woman who cracks really stupid jokes in class is someone who knows her science, is not all that warm and fuzzy, and is actually effective as an advisor.

So, one person (dude or dudette) at a time.

— Lastly, this post is a testament to how you can start a post while having absolutely no idea whatsoever what to write, but you just do it, you start typing, and — voila! — here’s a post. And a near-cohenent one at that.

I saw this concept for the first time many years ago in the movie Finding Forrester. Sean Connery’s Forrester mentors a young wannabe writer Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown). He basically says to just take a piece of old writing, and just start typing in the middle of it (there were typewriters involved!), no matter what comes out, and sooner or later you will find yourself actually writing what you are supposed to. This idea blew me away at the time. And it is so very true and apparently one among the well-recognized tips for writing.

— In other news, Mondays are tough. Mostly because I have to recuperate from a differently tough weekend.

Peppers and Links

We all know organic food is expensive, but I am often unprepared for just how expensive it is in certain stores. I stopped by a very pricey neighborhood supermarket, which I don’t do often, to get some red bell peppers for a stir-fry DH likes (beef or chicken, butternut squash, and red peppers). What I witnessed made me whip out my phone and photograph produce, which is perhaps kind of nuts:


Notice that the organic prices are EACH, which means per pepper. The regular prices are per pound, which is roughly 3 peppers and yields an approximate price of $1 each. Unless these organic peppers come with gold specks or something, WTF?

Nicoleandmaggie have a very cool list of links this weekend. Go check it out.

If you are not reading dr24hours at Scientopia, I recommend it; the latest post (linked to) tells how to sell your academic papers in a nonacademic interview. His personal blog, Infactorium, is even better — introspective, honest, and well written.

This post on domestic violence blew my mind.  (It may be hard to digest for some.)

Temporary Work-Life Imbalance

I could not wait for Friday night this week. I am very tired.

I don’ think I have yet managed to get a hold of my schedule or my workload this semester at all. Pushing things to the sidelines because of the proposals just made everything worse, because the work never goes away. It just piles on, sitting there, waiting. And it didn’t help that I didn’t catch a break before the semester started. Now I need to find a way to recuperate and re-energize, the sooner the better, without any serious time off.

I know us folks with kids complain all the time how it’s hard, and we are busy with the kids, etc. It’s times like these, when I really need a breather, that make parenting tough. I wish I could say that I would just stay at home in my pajamas, watching TV all weekend. But weekends are kids’ time, and the kids have their own ideas on how all of us should be spending it. Plus there’s housework and just keeping it together so next week can go smoothly. If I need a day off, I have to take off work, which is really a terrible idea, not because I will get in trouble with my boss, but because I am the boss and the work never stops or lets up.

I am still digging myself out from underneath a mountain of service work. As evidenced by yesterday’s post, I have been writing letters of nomination and recommendation and reference and evaluation left, right, and center. Some of it is for the people I know well (e.g. my undergrad researcher applying to grad school), some is department service on behalf of worthy colleagues, but each new letter is a fair bit of work.  Also, I have something like 5 papers to review.  Why do I do that? Why do I accept all those referrals? You’d really think I would learn by now. But I get a referral, and the paper looks cool and is in my area, and I think in two weeks I will have the time (as if) and before you know it I have a freakin’ pile and it really looks like it’s going to eat up my whole weekend. Yet I can’t have it eat my weekend, because I really need the weekend…

There are four manuscripts in the pipeline, in first draft form. I wish we could submit them all before New Year, but I don’t know how I will manage to do that, considering that each needs considerable work.

I really hate over-scheduling and over-structuring my days, but perhaps that’s what I need, at least temporarily, in order to get back on a productive track.

But for now, I will start by getting some sleep.


Notes from an Outreach Event

Gas is under $3/gallon! My heart sings.


Recently I went to an event aimed at very young female undergrads who planned to major in sciences or engineering. The girls were great, fun, and smart. The overwhelming majority of them had plans to go into biomedical fields.

There were several female professors there and each of us shared what we did for research; I was the only one whose work did not involve working with biological systems.

If the student cohort is interested in biomedical fields, it makes sense to bring faculty from those fields. But a few young women approached me afterwards and I learned they had interest in fields with a heavy emphasis on math, physics, or computing; they shared that they were starved for meeting people in their fields of interest.

I am in a field where it is quite common for me to teach to a classroom with no women. Zero. Not all fields are like that. And the few girls who do venture into those physical science fields apparently feel somewhat alienated from other young women with an interest in science, if this event is any indication, because their interests are not mainstream even among STEM-focused female students.

I don’t want to make a separation between fields, we are all scientists. But, I would say there is a pretty significant difference in the types of interests between the people who enjoy hands-on work in a lab or field and the people who enjoy largely mathematical and computational work. For example, I never had much interest in biology; while I had interest in chemistry, it was nowhere near as strong as my interest in math and physics, especially building mathematical models and later implementing physical reality on a computer. I see websites of people doing field work or  bench work and  I understand intellectually that there are many great problems to explore there, they just don’t rock my boat. I don’t get awfully excited about experimental physical sciences labs, either.

I wish we could do a better job of reaching out to young women who are interested in the math-heavy or computing-heavy portions of the physical sciences. It feels like they really are the outliers all around, among both the men in their classes and among other women in science. I know there are online resources, but it feels they don’t really reach the young college women demographics. Perhaps the best thing to do is exactly this, getting out there to meet them and trying to help them one at a time; ironically, this may work precisely because they are so few and far between.

Whose Traits Are Your Traits?

You have your dad’s nose, or your mom’s eyes, or your uncle’s chin. You have your grandmother’s stubbornness or your grandfather’s love for the outdoors.

As you grow up, it seems paramount to the adults around you to pinpoint who exactly gave you which trait. I am not so sure that’s a very good idea.

For instance, my Eldest looks very much like my DH and has DH’s mild temperament and kind nature (or maybe it’s my dad’s laid-back attitude? ), but has the same sense of humor and affinity for idiotic puns as me.

My middle son is the spitting image of my sister and mother (who look very much like each other); he looks more like my sister than he does like me. He also has a lot of my sister’s personality traits. Or maybe they are my brother-in-law’s (DH’s brother’s) traits?

While I am OK with saying who got whose nose, because you have very little control over the shape of your nose (barring injury or surgery, of course), I am not so sure about any personality traits. Because let’s face it, that’s bullshit. It’s harmful and it pigeonholes the kids.

I have been thinking recently about all the information I received growing up. I am considered a daddy’s girl: I have a lot of my father’s characteristics, which really did not help my relationship with my mother because she spent a lot of time not liking him very much, and “You’re just like your father” was often used as an insult from mother to me.  My dad remains one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. I got my dad’s brains, sort of, his ability to do advanced math and physics, but also I got his skills for drawing and a much milder version of his ability to write. I also got his inability to sing and got his mother’s looks, which are much inferior to my mother’s family’s looks (that was communicated loudly and clearly). My father, however, was never particularly ambitious. So I must have gotten my ambition from my mother, who, granted, is a giant pain in the butt. You think I am intense? My mother is a freakin’ typhoon.

Anyway, at some point I realized that what this insistence has left me with is feeling that I have no good traits that are mine, just largely faint copies of my father’s; he, of course, was the original.  I know I am smart, but not as smart as dad (he was one of the early programmers in COBOL in the 70’s); I can sort of write, but not as well as dad, who is a published  writer in our native language; I can sort of draw, but not as well as dad, who I think had some cartoons published at some point in some satirical magazine. I think the only trait that I believe is mine is courage in the face of new experiences, because  neither my mother nor my father ever had the guts to emigrate when they could, as neither was able to cut the cord with extended family.

Nearly every other trait my father had first, and had it better.

Of course, this is all crap. I am objectively more successful than him in every way, professionally, personally, financially. But it is very hard to internalize that my personality traits are my own, not just some genetic hand-me-downs, in bulk, from their one true owner.

Maybe my middle boy has my sister’s nose, but he does NOT have her personality. His personality is his own.