Month: November 2016

Comedy Central

Another busy day. I gotz nothing for ya.

Here is one of my favorite comedies of all times, “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” which is incidentally also the only movie with Mike Myers that I don’t hate (Shrek doesn’t count).

Also a big fan of “Space Balls”


“Galaxy Quest”

“Hot Fuzz”

“Shaun of the Dead”

Some of these have stood the test of time better than others, but I love them all.


Your Niche after Tenure

Dafs asked:

“…I read “tenure hacks” that you reviewed awhile ago and I am wondering what you think about staying in a niche area — after you have tenure.”

This is a great question! It really depends on the person. That first sabbatical leave after receiving tenure is sometimes (often?) used for reflection on the long-term career trajectory.

There are people who never really veer far from their original niche. The upside is that they might become the unparalleled and thus the go-to expert for certain problems. The common downside is that people stop caring and the funding for the niche runs dry, and they end up not being able to support students or postdocs; this is a common mechanism for “research deadwoodification.”

One of my colleagues, going into their first sabbatical, said they were getting bored with the topics and that it was time for a change. Yet, as they emerged from the sabbatical, they kept doing the same thing. The second sabbatical came and went, and they still work on more or less the same topics, but have since taken on significant college-level administrative duties. I wonder if this boredom with  the research topic had anything to do with administrative ambition; perhaps the administrative ambition was always there. Or maybe the colleague decided they didn’t have very much scientifically to give in the broadest sense and decided on a different career track.

I suppose it somewhat depends on how narrow your niche really is and how insular the corresponding communities are. There are relatively broad subareas within which people move freely, without scientific penalty. Certain subdisciplines of applied math, statistics, computer science, and theoretical physics seem to fit this description, as people successfully tackle a variety of problems and are praised for intellectual vigor and versatility, rather than looked at with suspicion for overstepping the boundaries of their expertise. It appears to me that changing a niche objectively becomes harder when you do experimental work, because the cost of equipment, materials, and supplies is a deterrent, and it is unclear how one pays for a drastic shift in focus (and the associated drastic costs). Having a gigantic operation and abundant funding likely help and enable great breadth (you simply hire postdocs who already know how to do what you want to do). In general, being a superstar in one field helps, both financially and during peer review, when trying to shift gears.

I personally like variety. I probably spread myself a bit too thin early on, which in hindsight could have been a disaster at tenure time. It worked out, as I now have years of experience and publications in several fairly different subareas, so I am in a good position to seek funds for cross-cutting topics; still, I do occasionally get annoying comments in reviews that I don’t have expertise in this or that even though I have published on those topics. I still always look to broaden because I get bored. I enter a new field, there is the scary but invigorating learning curve, eventually we say what we have to say, and a few years later I think it’s time to move on. Perhaps that makes me a shallow scientist — a jack of all trades, a master of none — but I do know a little or not so little about a lot of things, and from such a vantage points you sometimes see connections that are harder to grasp when you dig deep in one place.

There is one topic on which I have worked on and off for years, usually with fringe money (e.g., an internal year of fellowship for a student here, a TA-ship there, a few months of freed-up money after another person graduated early). But now I see that I have years of experience and a number of papers that people cite, so maybe I finally feel like maybe I can say that I actually work in that field. In contrast, there are people in the same field who have been working on nothing else for decades.

So what’s the moral of the story? There is definitely such a thing as too small a niche, where both the ideas and money run dry on timescales much shorter than one’s career. But if you have a topic you enjoy, where you keep mining and getting ever larger and more exciting gold nuggets, and you keep getting funding for the work, by all means keep at it. You don’t absolutely have to change topics. For many people, the change is gradual and organic, as they follow the questions that arise in research.

There is no catch-all answer, other than that it depends on your personal work style (are you more of a scanner or a deep diver?), funding climate and institutional support, the vitality of the field you are in (running dry or sprouting new research directions), and how insular the communities in the broader field are. In my opinion, there are far too many boring (committees) and depressing (funding rejections) parts of this job, that it is critical to follow your bliss and where the curiosity leads you, otherwise what’s the point?


Writing scientific software

RFOn asked:
“I’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes good scientific software. I strive to write correct software that’s intuitive to use, but would love examples of useful tools you’ve come across.”

RFon, I must admit I was not entirely sure what type of scientific software you had in mind  — the code that a student/postdoc would write, or community-supported and maintained open-source codes, or commercial codes? So I will give a general answer based on my experiences, and hopefully not be too vague.

I am a theorist/computational scientist and my work falls under applied physics; the problems I look at lie at the interface of physics, chemistry, and several branches of engineering. In the context of code development, my work falls under”scientific computing,” but our style is such that the emphasis is much more on “scientific” than on “computing.” In short, pure CS folks would probably scoff at much of our work as not pretty or clean enough (that is a common issue; academic science codes are often not pretty by CS standards). However, the main goal of our work is describing properly relevant physical phenomena, so physics is first, and numerics is a means to that end. Our work involves steps like: develop theory (write complicated partial differential or integro-differential equations or coupled systems thereof) that relate to interesting properties of a class of systems –> develop and/or implement algorithms to solve these systems of equations –> have a code that captures the underlying physics well enough that we can perform numerical experiments and understand quite well a class of systems.

In my group, we write our own code — FORTRAN FTW! We also use interpreters like Python and Matlab for some smaller-scale calculations, but FORTRAN is extremely fast for the type of work we do (lots of matrix/array manipulation), we have a lot of legacy code, and modern compilers (such as the free gfortran) are great. [Please, no proselytizing here how everything should be written in C++ or whatever, I have no patience with the “one true programming language” silliness, especially because much of scientific computing admits the procedural (rather than object-oriented) programming paradigm]. However, I will say that sending students to take certain undergrad computer science courses (e.g., data structures) really helps with adopting good programming habits and staying organized.

In the work we do, I cannot say we really pay much attention to a potential user experience (beyond commenting and documenting code), because we assume people will work with the source code. The way science in my field is funded is that there is really no money for developing a user interface (unless you are part of these big centers with permanent staff), let alone for providing user support. Again, our focus is on solving certain physics problems.

There is some commercial software that experimentalists in my field use (I can’t really go into detail without revealing what I do) and those are well done and fairly intuitive, but the operating word is “commercial.” I would not say that someone who uses commercial code does theoretical/computational work; it’s fine to use it if you want to test something or are an experimentalist comparing with a measurement, but this “computational” work by itself is not publication worthy. If it seems like I am bitter, that’s because I am — I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered someone who thinks that modeling and simulation are trivial because they equate modeling and simulation with using “canned” software and have no idea what it actually take to simulate a complex physical system on the computer with enough detail that you can perform numerical experiments on it.

In my field, there are several teams who have tried packaging and selling their code and they are generally puzzled that other computational people don’t want to buy it. Why would I buy it? I can write the same thing based on publications and have my own source code. If that sounds like needless duplication of work, that’s because it is. But most computational scientists have no use for a fancy GUI; give me the source code and some documentation, that will be useful, and we’ll probably still rewrite most of it. We are working on cleaning up some of our larger code and then putting it on GitHub.

I have some experimental colleagues for whom we have written small amounts of specialized code, and really all you need is to work with some representative users closely for a little while, because often what they want or need is really not what you’d think.

RFon, does this somewhat address your question? Readers, what say you?

Coming Up for Air

It seems everyone is still busy going down the rabbit hole of what happens after the Dawn of the Red.

I don’t really like to write about politics here, mostly because I don’t follow politics as closely as many and don’t think that my understanding of the events is either complete or sophisticated enough to be worth inflicting upon my readership. But I did get ticked off last week and broke my no-politics rule (well, it’s more of a general guideline).

For the record, I am still very angry, and I plan to remain angry. As John Oliver says, this in NOT normal, and we should not forget it for a second.  And we need to stay very, very angry.

But there is also the rest of life, and I have no intention of not living it.

DH and his brother, my brother-in-law (BIL), Skyped the other day, and the BIL sagely said, “Why are you guys upset? You’ve seen and lived through worse.” And he’s totally right. I have been in the US for 17+ years and have become soft. The fact is, I do come from a country that has faced its fair share of shitty politics and economic turmoil. Based on experience, I assure you that — absent wars or other mass mayhem — people do find ways to live their lives and be happy and take care of their families and friends even in societies that are far more dysfunctional than  the US will be after 4-8 years of Trump/Pence/Ryan (oh, how I hate that guy and his evil, evil ratlike mug). This is not normal for the US, no; but political turmoil is far from uncommon, it appears to be a rule rather than an exception in today’s world, and most places have it far worse.

I don’t want to sound like I am normalizing this stuff, as it is not normal — for the US. But, to me, remembering that, yeah, not only can things be much worse and people deal and adapt in an abstract and amorphous sense, but that I have in fact grown up through worse, that it’s not really abstract or amorphous for me, and that I was fine, am fine in the now and the here.  Speaking of here, I think I want my money back. This country is not like what the brochure promised. 😉

Anyway, we can and should be pissed. I certainly repurposed some money towards charitable liberal causes (20,000 donations were made to Planned Parenthood in Pence’s name — tee-hee), and if you are so inclined, the lists that John Oliver and nicoleandmaggie offer are certainly full of worthy recipients.


But now I want to talk about something else. Blogosphere, what do you want me to write about that is not politics-related and that would entice you to read and comment, perhaps even passionately? Please suggest topics that fall loosely within the blog’s repertoire and I will do my best to address as many of them as I can because I want us to not go collectively nuts reading about Trump, and the only way I can do that is to provide content that is not Trump-related. We have all wasted enough mental CPU cycles on this crap, and it won’t do us much good unless we somehow figure out to connect into a hive mind and telepathically fry the noggin of our PEOTUS.

So, suggestions! What do you want to read about that would divert you for a little bit? Heck, I will even draw what you suggest, within my abilities!

A Tiny Rant

Are there people whose writing you just hate? Not the topic of the writing, but the style. The writing can be technical or not.

Do you ever just want to gouge out your eyeballs while reading? But not until after you have redlined the whole damn thing?


DH recently got a new phone; the camera didn’t work as intended and the bug was quite idiotic. DH posed the question: did anybody actually test the goddamn camera on the goddamn phone before mass-producing it?

For some of the people who make me want to kill myself while reading their stuffy and impenetrable prose, I wonder, do they ever go back to read what they wrote? Because I cannot imagine that they would miss how horrible the text was if they actually read through it.

Or maybe they did read it, and they thought it was great, which would make it all even more depressing.


I don’t expect people to win the Pulitzer prize. But I expect those whose work requires written communication to not treat it like a nuisance, to reflect on the quality of their writing, to seek feedback, and to want to improve. I hate people who suck at something important and don’t care that they suck at it — in fact, they probably think they are doing great and thus don’t need to improve.

Fuckin’ Dunning-Kruger has apparently become airborne.

Reader Question: The Care and Feeding of Your NSF Grant

Reader J asked  (In July! J, I am sorry for being so late with this response!):

If you wouldn’t mind a blog request:  now that I have survived the postdoc phase, got a job, have survived some teaching, written the boatload of grants … I got an NSF grant this winter (I’m still shocked, actually!) and although I know the basic idea is:  “do the work”, I could use some mentoring / blog posts on: the care and feeding of your grant.  How often do you contact your PO, and what do you discuss? Up until now, I’ve only discussed prospective Aims, and study section comments. What do you aim for for progress reports?

In my specific case, my institution’s grad program isn’t that great, and my grad student just dropped out to take a more lucrative job.  I’ve put out an ad for another postdoc immediately, since grad recruiting takes so long, but I feel like with NSF money I should be seeking to train grad students, and undergrads (have them) – is this a big problem, or should I be looking to be productive first and mission-oriented second?

First, congratulations on receiving an NSF grant!

I will answer based on my experiences, which are likely sort-of universal, but I assume there are some differences among directorates/divisions/programs.

First, hiring a postdoc when your budget specified students only: this should definitely be cleared with your program officer (PO), because, as of a few years ago, if you want a postdoc, you have to submit a postdoc mentoring plan, and it gets evaluated during peer review (you never did, because you originally didn’t plan for a postdoc). So it’s not just a simple matter of rebudgeting. Best-case (and likely) scenario, you contact your PO, they say no problem, just submit a postdoc mentoring plan, and that’s it. I have done the converse (budgeted for a postdoc, hired grad students when no good postdoc found) a couple of times with a couple of different agencies and it was never an issue. Indeed, the most important thing is to get research done, and if you have issues recruiting good students and can find a good postdoc, that’s a strong incentive for staffing change.

In general, NSF cares that you do good science with their funds and publish in good venues. They do not micromanage, so you don’t actually have to contact your program officer ever again in your life if you don’t want to, as long as you submit your annual reports on time. However, I recommend touching base with your program officer especially if you have some exciting data or a new high-profile paper, as that helps them look good internally, and also helps the agency make a case for their own budget in front of the congress. Some of the POs are rotators, so by the time your grant expires they will be gone; you can decide how that affects your attitude towards regular contact. But with permanent POs for sure, and I recommend not treating rotators any differently, touch base on occasion and simply ask — do they want to see your papers, how often? Basically, what can you do to make them and their program look good with their bosses? While with the NSF the panels are key, the PO is who picks the panel composition, who chooses who reviews your proposal, and who can pick you up from the pile of Recommended (but not Highly Recommended) and get you funded anyway. And it is possible (though rare) to get NSF proposals continuously renewed if you have been very productive based on this productivity alone; I have never had this happen, but I know some Greybeards who’ve had a continuous NSF grant for decades.

I have had a grant with another agency for years now (competitively renewed) and I always send my new papers to the PO, largely because I know he’s a huge science geek, really curious and passionate about the field and with a strong technical track record before becoming a PO, so I think he actually enjoys reading these. Whenever there is an editorial highlight, or a cover article, or anything notable with the work they funded, I most definitely let them know, because it is important and they use these highlights to lobby for more money and to keep getting funded.

What goes into an annual report? Well, those will be submitted through and I recommend going through the PI demo site.  I have had different POs request different level of detail for accomplishments, so I always prepare Major Activities and Accomplishments as separate files (with figures) and upload. There is a lot of information that gets entered in text boxes, most of it mundane. In principle, you can submit perfectly passable reports with minimum bling just by filling out the text boxes. I recommend asking the PO if they have use for a more detailed technical narrative of Major Activities or Accomplishments, or any other thoughts on the annual reports.

With the NSF, some POs are responsive and enthusiastic and welcome interaction with their PIs; others are hard to get a hold of, grumpy, and unresponsive. I have a suspicion that the first kind may slowly transform into the second kind as the stress and drudgery take their toll. But doesn’t it happen to the best of us? If you have a pleasant and responsive PO, enjoy interacting with them! But ask first what they need and expect — no harm in being explicit. They will likely appreciate it.

What say you, blogosphere?