sci fi

Don’t Confuse Style with Intent

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Quote from “Peak Performance,” a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

[Kolrami has criticized Riker’s inappropriate joviality and lack of seriousness for a commanding officer.]

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Don’t confuse style with intent. Only a fool would question Commander Riker’s dedication to Starfleet and the men and women under his command. He is simply the finest officer with whom I have ever served.

Sirna Kolrami: We shall see if your faith is well founded.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The test is whether the crew will follow where Commander Riker leads. His… his “joviality” is the means by which he creates that loyalty. And I will match his command style with your statistics anytime.


A few years ago, a senior female colleague, whom I consider a friend, told me that I did not have the right personality to go into administration. I don’t think she wanted to be mean and I believe she told me her honest opinion. I also have no intention whatsoever of ever going into administration. But her remark did sting, as they always do when a person whose opinion you value confirms some of the worst fears or most negative opinions you have of yourself. What I heard was a confirmation that how I am, my entire personality, is simply wrong for being a senior member of academia.

I am much more serious in my blog writing than I am in real life. I think my family and my students would roll their eyes at how stuffy I sometimes sound on the blog, especially when I am in advice-giving mode.  I am really not serious in real life, at all. (You should hear our family’s dinner conversations.) However, it’s a real challenge in faculty meetings to not blurt out the jokes that pop into my mind while the colleagues drone on. If you ever felt the urge to laugh at a funeral, that’s  how I feel in just about every meeting ever. With age, I have gotten better at keeping my mouth shut and distracting myself so as not to disrupt the super-serious and often time-wasting proceedings.

But my personality seems to be perfect for teaching undergrads. Peppering my lectures with “good bad jokes” (this is verbatim from a student comment) works well to keep the students engaged and generally everyone in a good mood. The courses I teach are very “mathy” (again, an expression a student used) and challenging on their own; for many undergrads, every avenue that can be used to relate such material to something practical or enjoyable is not only welcome but, in fact, necessary for the students to feel a real connection with what they are learning. Goofing around with them fits the bill.

I am also myself with my graduate students and my collaborators, as I let my pun-happy freak flag fly. I hope most of them don’t mind. At least they are all used to me.

But I never forget that my personality is wrong, that being a goofball is out of the norm, yet another item in the long list of ways in which I am not how I should be for where I want to be professionally.

This year, I am chairing an important university-level committee. It was a surprise that I was chosen to chair it, considering I had been myself the whole time leading to the election. But now that I was supposed to take up my chairing duties, I had every intention of being dead serious, like my predecessor, because it’s a very important committee.

We had the first meeting the other day and I had the floor to myself for quite a while, because there was a lot of material to present to the new members. I was very nervous and I felt at times that I couldn’t find appropriately weighty words, becoming of a serious academic. But I could always find a metaphor, a light self-deprecating joke, or a slightly sarcastic remark. And within minutes, I was relaxed, and so was everyone else on the committee. To my complete surprise, I was able to run a very efficient meeting. Here are some unexpected aspects that I noticed.

  • I covered all the material that I was supposed to cover, and I believe I did it clearly, and in considerably less time than my predecessor. An incisive remark or an appropriate metaphor is often more efficient at conveying meaning than three paragraphs worth of admin-speak. I will hypothesize that actual living academics in meetings with other academics might, in fact, like to have their information conveyed clearly and succinctly, just like all other humans do in every aspect of their life. Who knew?
  • I was nervous, but I guess so was everyone else, especially the new members. I think I (inadvertently) set a lighthearted tone that helped everyone relax quickly.
  • When I compare this meeting to the ones over the past years (different chair every year), I believe I spent overall less time talking myself while other senior members of the committee chimed in more. I am not sure what the reason is; maybe I am a blithering fool who’s not worth listening to? Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing overall — everyone sharing their impressions with the new members is vastly superior to just me dispensing wisdom for an extended period of time.
  • What is interesting is that some people who were very quiet last year spoke quite freely and cheerfully this year. It might be that they are simply more relaxed as they are no longer new. Whatever the reason, it’s good to finally hear from them!

Overall, I was surprised at how well everything went, how efficient the meeting was, and how cheerful everyone seemed as they were leaving. I did not suck at chairing this meeting, despite acting like myself.

You may call me Commander Riker.

Indie Movies and SF Books for a Grumpy Traveler

I am on my way back from a conference. Yet again I wonder why we spend so much time and money on this stupid conference travel.

I got up at 3:40 and I am quite grumpy, so be forewarned.

I had an invited talk at this meeting that’s very large and fairly prestigious to be invited to speak at; that’s a shiny bullet on the CV. However, since they are large and prestigious, they cover very little  for invited speakers, so this endeavor was at nearly full conference cost, which approaches stratospheric. Also, it’s the middle of the semester, so I left on Sunday and am coming back today (Tue), in order to teach my Wed class (my graduate student taught my Monday class). The outgoing and return trips lasted nearly a day each; each direction included two long flights and a couple of hours of driving to/fro the airport so I could get the best-priced ticket. So that’s 3 days of my life, 2 on the plane, 1 at a conference where I worked on my talk in the morning and in the afternoon gave a talk and attended the rest of my session, then chaired another session, and that was basically it. My invited talk was well attended, as was my whole session; however, in the session I chaired thereafter, by the end there were about 5 people in the audience. Tell me how is it worth to any funding body to spend over $2k in order for that speaker to deliver a talk to such a tiny audience? Sure, the speaker gets to hear others, but I fail to grasp how this mode of transmission, which works so well for small meetings (you talk! others talk! you hear cool things! you meet other people and talk with them!) can be justified for gigantic meetings with many parallel sessions and a high sticker price, other than as a way for the organizer to raise money.  Indeed, conferences have become ridiculously expensive,  and you see the effect in many cancelled talks — people decide it’s simply not worth it to travel.

On one leg of the outbound flight I swear the air smelled like farts. You would think my nose would adjust over the 4 hours on the plane, but no such luck. Prior to the return trip, circa 5:30 am and before the caffeine kicked in, an old dude sitting next to me at the airport farted, loudly. What the… fart?

I was supposed to meet a bloggy friend for dinner, but she’s ill (get well soon, L!) so I planned on writing up the homework solutions for my class after the talk and maybe reviewing some proposals, or at the very least working on the award nominations for two my colleagues. Every fuckin’ thing is due this Friday. Oh yes, I also have to create the midterm, also due on Friday. In the light of the mountain of impending work, I decided to watch movies on Amazon prime instead. It was an excellent idea and an apparently much-needed break.

A Big Love Story (also here) is a very sweet movie. It makes you smile and feel very warm and fuzzy, as a good rom-com should, but unlike most of the genre, it has an appealing story, it’s not formulaic, it’s well acted, the leads have great chemistry, and you end up caring for all the characters (leads and support actors alike) as they all feel real.

A Big Love Story (2012) Poster

Falling… (also here)  A beautiful medley of a number of short stories, with unusual story telling, and each cast member in two different roles; the movie has a very indie feel, with very understated acting. I enjoyed it.

Falling... (2012) Poster

On my way to the conference I finished “Ancillary Sword,” the sequel to Anne Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice“. I greatly enjoyed it, even though the writing was somewhat redundant at times (e.g. Kalr Five’s affinity for ancient china was truly beaten to death; everyone has a bit too much tea). However, I love the character development, the details that go into the narrative. Breq remains a compelling protagonist for whom you can truly root,  and there are several new characters that you get to know and care for (the new Ship, Mercy of Kalr; Liutenant Tisarwat; Translator Dlique; Medic; Kalr Five).

Ancillary Sword Orbit cover.jpg

On the way back I read “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress. It was interesting, the plot is pretty cool, but considering that many seem to think she’s among today’s best SF writers, I was definitely not blown away. Honestly, it feels like she banged the book out in a week; that’s fine, people have to eat/pay mortgage/whatever, but the book turned out meh. The plot is compelling, granted, and it’s an easy read, but there is minimal, seemingly pro-forma character development and it feels very shallow. I can assure you I did not grow to give a rat’s a$$ about any of the characters in the book. However, it reads as something that is Hollywood-ready, easy to mold into a screenplay for a summer blockbuster with scientists, aliens, and a potential end of the world.


Bits of academia, winter, and sci-fi

I recently spent some time with a very junior faculty member at my institution. Young, from a prestigious institution, male. Thinks he has everything figured out. When I tell him what some very explicit requirements for tenure at the university are, he pouts and objects that they are unreasonable (they are not) and that if he feels that doing things the opposite way is the way to go, he will do that instead. I have to bite my tongue and muster quite a bit of patience. Even if we forget that I have been been doing the job for a decade, so I might know a thing or two just from being a non-ancient and fairly successful faculty member, I am at this very moment on the effing university-level committee that reviews tenure cases; trust me when I tell you what is important. We may discuss why it is important if you don’t understand, but rest assured that the requirement is not stupid, and it is not going anywhere, whether you like it or not.

To get tenure in most STEM fields at major research universities, you need to show that you are capable of working independently at the level of leading and supporting a vibrant research group. That means you need to:

  • Sever ties with former advisors (or let their involvement taper to nothingness over no more than a year or two), no matter how much you like working with them, or whatever the expertise/tool you could easily get from them; if you need it, find it locally, find it elsewhere, or develop it yourself; you need to show independence; we gave you the startup, the startup is not funding for a super-postdoc-you to continue working for your advisor;
  • You need to apply for funding early and often and show that you are capable of coming up with fundable ideas, the sooner the better; yes, you will get kicked out if you haven’t landed a grant  by the second half of your tenure track. It may be unfair, but it is the rule in my college, and we’re hardly alone in this attitude. There are a ton of resources to help with grantsmanship. Seek them, use them. If you aren’t getting funded, that means something is wrong with your grant proposals, even if the system as a whole isn’t perfect; work on your skills and work within the system.
  • You need to train students and postdocs, and train them well, so you can publish quality work with them, and often;
  • You need to establish collaborations on your own, all the better if they are local, and we will love you if they result in large center grants for the university;
  • You need to do a good job teaching, it can be great if you wish, but not at the expense of your research;
  • You need to publish well and often, in prominent venues; you also need to travel and be seen, so the community knows and respects you, and your colleagues say as much when we ask them for letters;

We are looking to tenure the people who can do this job at high productivity and without burning out for several decades; people who will clear the tenure bar without difficulty, not just barely squeak over it; an ideal tenured faculty member has an internal engine and will keep pretty much at the same or similar pace on his or her own past tenure.

Young faculty, especially male, who trained in prestigious groups tend to think they are destined for greatness. Perhaps they are; thinking they are is probably better than being crippled by the impostor syndrome, as the likes of me are. But there is a bit of a rude awakening that comes when your start realizing that papers without your famous advisor can’t easily get into Nature Progeny, or that you can’t get money from the program managers whom you know through your advisor and who you think love you, because trust me when I say that they love your old, established, National-Academies-member advisor much better and he’s doing pretty much the same stuff you propose; all the more reason to distance yourself from advisor, don’t you think?

I know confidence it the way of the American male academic, but I sometimes wish people would turn down the volume when they toot their horn. I was a complete ball of nerves when I started on the tenure track; I quickly realized I knew very little and I soaked all the information that anyone cared to share. I don’t know what it is with young men, especially pedigreed ones. Doesn’t it cross their minds that they might not actually know everything already, that they don’t in fact have everything figured out before they ever started, and that now might be a good time to shut up and listen? DH tells me that’s just the way of all men, always having to appear to know everything especially when talking with a woman, and that the young’un will go home and think about what I said. Well, if DH is right and it’s the way of all men, then all men are fuckin’ exhausting. The whole meeting was like talking to a petulant teenager. I already have a teenager to whom I gave birth and one is plenty, thankyouverymuch. I’d rather not have to deal with another one as part of my service duties.


I may or may not be en route to true Midwesternship:

  • Anything above 15 degrees Fahrenheit is very pleasant,  nice enough to take a walk. Anything above 30 means a winter jacket is unnecessary; a sweatshirt will suffice.
  • I drive through blizzards like a champ.
  • The fact that there’s a blizzard outside does not faze me at all when I am determined to get to Costco.
  • I am watching the Superbowl.


I just finished “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. It’s excellent! Highly recommended for lovers of space-opera sci-fi. I just ordered the sequel, “Ancillary Sword,” and can’t wait for it to arrive. I am not going to spoil the book for you, but I will say this much:

  • The book will have you question your understanding of gender, I can promise you that.
  • As much as many sci-fi writers love apostrophes in the names of aliens, people, or places, Leckie loves double vowels, especially aa (Anaander Mianaai; Seivarden Vendaai; Amaat; Aatr; Lieutenant Skaaiat) and, to a lesser degree, double consonants (Garseddai; Liutenant Issaaia; Jen Shinnan). I am sure it’s all meaningful within the context of the Radchaai language, but it was a bit much and honestly made me itch for some apostrophes.
  • Best alien species name ever: Rrrrrr (that’s exactly 6 r’s).
  • New favorite curse: “Aatr’s tits!” Commonly used in the contexts where “Holy $hit!” would fit. Aatr is a minor deity. With tits, obviously.

Why ‘xykademiqz’?

The brief answer is: I am an academic who happens to like science fiction.

Spouse and I have been watching Battlestar Galactica, which starts with the demise of the 12 colonies settled by the tribes from the ancient planet of Kobol. Note how it’s Kobol, with a “K”, and not Cobol (as in one of the oldest programming languages). Which got me thinking that certain letters — namely X, Y, Z, W, Q, and K (poor K  is horribly underutilized in the English language) — have a higher-than-average sci-fi appeal. For instance, the enemies of the human race are Cylons, a name that looks considerably more ominous than Cilons. 

So I played with a couple of made-up words that would include as many of these letters as possible. Some contenders that didn’t make it are xyloqwikz (contains all the letters,  but just didn’t grow on me) and xyqwarz (no k!)

Finally, ‘xykademiqz’  stuck. I am an academic, after all.