Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cool graph

Check it out:

That there is science Theo-style.

10 Points if you can tell me what this is a graph of. Hint: it's not archaeological... (leave a comment)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Self-cooking Turkeys and the perils of extrapolation

In a jovial mood over Thanksgiving, as my mother attempted to figure out how long to cook our 18 lb bird, I came up with the following graph:

Basically, Joy of Cooking recommends different lengths of cooking time per pound your turkey weighs. They give three increments based on a range of total bird weight, as as the bird gets larger, the length of time per pound decreases. Amused at the thought of this, I did a little extrapolation, and determined that if we get a ~32 pound turkey next year, according to the Joy of Cooking, it should cook itself!!! (if we can ever get it to defrost)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What dreams do come.

I had a dream last night, the first one that I've remembered clearly on waking in a very long time. I was in a house, with quite a few members of my extended family. I had the feeling that it was my parents' house, but it wasn't one that they've ever owned while I was alive. There was a fire place, with a fire burning in it - one of those that has glass on two sides so you can see through into a different room. Everyone was sort of dressed in dark clothes and it was rather dark in the house, but for the fire place. They were all getting ready to leave the house, to go to a funeral, my grandmother's funeral. Except my grandmother and my grandfather were both there, getting ready to go with everyone else. I was walking up the stairs into the main part of the house, getting ready to go along with everyone else, but then I was told that someone had to stay behind and watch the fire in the fireplace, because it was important that it stay lit. And it fell to me, since apparently "I wasn't all that involved in keeping up with the family anyways". So I stayed there and watched the fire burn and everyone else left.
So that was the dream. I'm generally not much into dream analysis or anything, but damn, there's a lot in that one that hits kind of close to home in some discomforting ways.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grad school update

After that last rather introspective post, here are some more up-beat particulars on life :-)

Made it through my first sets of classes. I think I'm going to like the graduate school deal - classes are more predominantly based on a "learn it yourself based on your own interests" with "teachers as facilitators" philosophies, which I really like/prefer. And, 9 credits is hardly a killer load.

I still haven't been able to settle into a regular schedule yet, due to a partial week last week, a long weekend, fighting with a sinus infection (boo), and now, prepping to leave for a small, several day conference, starting mid-day tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it quite a bit, although I wish I wasn't sick, and that I'd been able to prepare better for it before hand.

Still only slowly getting to know other students and people in the area; there are some good people around. Probably I should be patient.

Annnnd, I made an awesome pizza for dinner! almost close enough to my fav. italian pizza to ring familiar taste buds.

Theo out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Meaningless words

I think this is the second time in my life this has happened to me, and I don't really understand how it happens, or if there is (or should be), any cure. About all I can do is document the phenomenon itself.

One of the fundamental gifts of our species is language, allowing us to communicate ideas and most importantly aspects of ourselves, our identities to each other. Language relies heavily on symbolism - a word, an image, a sound or a gesture is given meaning when two or more people recognize it as a true symbol of some action, thing, or relationship. For language to be a successful means of communication, it is essential for both parties to believe that a certain symbol truly stands for this one other thing. In other words, to communicate, at a certain level we have to trust that what someone is saying to us really means what we think it means.

If this linguistic code of honor is broken by lies, and by the twisting of words and phrases to mean something other than they were originally intended to mean, the ability to communicate through language begins to decay. The words themselves are still there, but their meaning(s) are lost, either because we no longer believe in their meaning, or we stop listening to their message. (Humanities flash-back: An old Greek Dude named Thucydides documents this phenomenon, and attributes the rapid collapse of an entire society to its effects).

What can happen to ancient Greek societies can also happen at smaller scales to friendships. It happened to me first several years ago, when in a bewildering couple of days I went from having what I thought was a really good friendship with someone, to the point where this person barely, and begrudgingly will even recognize my existence. I still don't understand how things went the way that they did, but somehow, my friend decided that I saw all human relationships as a game and friendships as an intellectual, but not emotional, connection. (not at all how I see myself). Somehow that also got entwined with a deep mistrust in anything I said. After that, I could see a good friendship going down the tubes, and I had no way of even trying to save it, because anything I said was mistrusted; my words were rendered meaningless. Pushed over the cliff, and no way back up.

I haven't really thought about this in quite some time; I couldn't explain it, I couldn't understand it, and it hurt, so I put it away.

But I'm slowly realizing that a similar thing is developing in another of my friendships, where our interactions have grown almost formulaic. Pretty much any response on either side is predictable. Conversations inevitably feature the same topics. Each person shares the same frustrations and challenges, and gets the same, expected, customary responses. It's not that the words are being deemed as lies (so far as I know), but if you know what will be said to something before you even ask it, then it's really easy to stop listening to the words, and to let the meaning behind the words leech away, until only brittle skeletons of meaning remain. If communication, and hence language, is the glue that binds people together in friendships, and this language gets a severe case of osteoporosis, what's left of the friendship?

I don't know what to think here. This is certainly not the case with even a large majority of my friendships, but I think it is very real, and occurs most commonly with very close friends, the ones I communicate with practically daily. Is it just the result of too much communication cheapening the value of words? Wear and tear due to over use? Is there any panacea for this weakness, or is it the case that the only solution to an unavoidable conclusion is to let the dissolution occur?

Right now I'm frustrated and tempted to think that I should make my excuses, shove off, and be content in later times with good memories from earlier days.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tired of nagging.

I've only been living with my cousin for about 2.5 weeks now, and I'm starting to get rather frustrated; hopefully not unreasonably so. Sorry for blurting this into cyberspace, but I need to get it off my chest.

Rent for September was due, well, Today. Prior to this, I personally have paid for both the deposit on the house (sometime back in, oh, April?), and rent for the portion of August that we've lived here for. It made sense, it was easier at the time, and I figured it would be no problem, I'd get paid back his half relatively expediently. But somehow it's still in the works. Ok, whatever, I'm laid back and I've got some cushion, we'll work this out. Now September has arrived, and as per my conversation with him, I've only paid for half of the rent as he wished to pay the other half independently instead of going through me. I took care of my end yesterday. You probably see where this is going... I reminded him at least twice yesterday to do something about it, and again this morning, and in an email from during the day while I was on campus.

I get home at 8 pm, and he hasn't checked his email, and he hasn't taken care of the rent payment. GRRRRR. He doesn't even have the right password for his account, etc, can't do anything about it tonight. So now, half of our rent is going to be late. I can handle tardiness between my cousin and I, but I feel terrible that now it's affecting our landlords, who I really like and have had a good relationship with. And, I feel like a nag because I've been bugging him for several days and nothing has happened. I'm glad that almost all of the utility bills are in my name if he's this bad about taking care of things on time. I'm not paying for late fees if he screws up. I hate nagging, and I don't want to feel like his parent. I know he has the money, that's not the issue. He just needs to open his eyes and realize that his parents aren't taking care of everything for him anymore, and I'm not going to step in and fill up that role.

And it just all makes me really frustrated. I hate money, and I hate making a deal about it, but this isn't right and I don't want to be taken advantage of unreasonably.

His gf has been visiting for almost the last week, and all they do is sleep in late, make messes, put recyclables in the garbage so I have to fish them out, eat my food, and go out for dinner and drinks. I, of all people, certainly appreciate the desire to spend a lot of quality time when a long distance girlfriend comes to visit, and so I've been trying to cut him a little slack, but I've about had it.

I'm dying for classes to start so that I can finally meet and regularly interact with other people, 'cause I'm going a little crazy right now after feeling like a cross between a third wheel and a parent in my own home for almost a week now.

Grumpy Theo signing off.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Can't go back?

I like talking on the phone with my mom, it makes me happy. All the trappings of home, even from a distance - stories of a weekend spent moving wood and making doors, tomato sauce cooking on the stove from garden tomatoes, the "darn" dog underfoot again (like they'd want it any other way) and so on. Brings back good memories.

Also makes me feel a little bitter sweet - Seems like no matter how hard I try, setting up in new apartments and organizing new homes for myself, there's something that I can't even close to duplicate. And I really wish I could, 'cause I feel like until I get that right, every place I live seems temporary, and a bit of a disappointing shade of brown contentment. It's like playing house, or tea party as a kid - mimicking adult things. Each time maybe it gets closer to reality, but it still feels a long ways off from a home.

Lettuce Grow!

I just planted a bunch of baby lettuces and spinach. I'm very excited. According to the seed packets, in 7-10 days I will start to see little plantlets! Hopefully before it frosts I'll be eating leafy greens grown in my very own backyard. This should help to disguise the fact that I'm living in a city.

In other good-food news, I found a farmers market in walking distance that takes place once a week. I'm going to try to do all of my vegetable shopping there from now on - at least until winter hits!

Lots of stuff has been happening on the grad school orientation new life end of things, but I haven't much felt like writing about it. So there.

Maybe you should go plant some lettuces too! I got my seed packs for ~3 dollars, and spent maybe an hour or so digging and planting. And I should get many many lettuce plants out of the deal - much more than I could buy for $3... I wish it were earlier in the season so I could plant other tasty things too, but the sun is deceptive and I saw an orange leave the other day - fall is just around the corner.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The still of the night

I'm 95% settled in my new home for the next year or so. Furniture is assembled and fixed up, my boxes are unpacked and organized, my clothes are in a dresser for the first time in more than a year. All my potted plants are cluttering up the window sills, and hanging in corners of rooms. Pictures of family and friends are unpacked and distributed around my room. I have a bed that requires no inflation, and is more than 6 inches off the ground. My fridge is full of groceries, and fresh office supplies are stocked in my desk.

Tomorrow I begin orientation for graduate school, for my department and for TA training. Tomorrow I'll locate my desk, and get my student ID. Tomorrow I'll start learning my way around campus. Tomorrow, in many ways, is a tangible beginning of graduate school for me. In a little more than a week I'll step into a classroom again as a student, for the first time in over a year. "Transient Theorist" isn't going to be quite so transient anymore.

Probably I should have lots of insights from the last year's worth of experiences, and I should be writing something insightful... But tonight it's just me. All the memories from this last year, and the friendships and the places, are things that won't go away. Right now they're just a part of life, part of the tapestry, even if I haven't interpreted them and catalogued them away in neat boxes. I kept thinking it would be a restful year, a time to take stock of life and it's direction, to pause and sort out future trajectories. But I'm not sure it's possible to catch up on life - it happens so fast, and speeds up like a glorious kaleidoscopic whirling dervish. Maybe I've learned a little better to accept this, to enjoy the journey even without knowing it's meaning or destination, although it's still very unsettling.

Tomorrow comes, and it's just another now, no longer a beginning, just another day joining the rest. It's sure to bring new challenges, and new excitements, and even big changes. Transient Theorist here plans to ride the swells, to give it his best shot, and to enjoy the journey.

I want to sign out and leave you with my song of the evening:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Quick update. Back from ESA and family visits. Had a great time. Did too much, slept too little, ended up with a cold. Flew home on Monday without the ability to equalize pressure in my ears... very painful. More than a day later and I still can't hear clearly.

Trying to catch up on paperwork, emails, and a hundred detaily things in preparation for moving into my house in graduate-school-state on Saturday. Being sick sucks. Spending time with mom/dad/sister is great though. We watched "Blade Runner" tonight and ate homemade ice cream :-)

I have soooo much from this summer yet to digest, consider, and write about, but that back log is going to have to wait a few weeks more, until I'm settled in my new house and life slows down enough. And when I get internet hooked up at said house. So stay tuned for further thoughts on traveling, family, life, graduate school, workshops and conferences, networking, relationships, books and more.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Camping adventures

Camping and good sleep don't always go together, usually resulting in some pretty funny stories well after the fact.

Thursday night I spent in a leaky tent, while torrential thunderstorms rolled through. A round of tent line adjustments made by flashlight while in my skivvies and hiking boots ensued. That helped a little. Even a leaky tent is drier than no tent at all, so I was trying to think positively. Unfortunately for me, a small rodent (think enormous field mouse) had already had the same thought, and had built a nest and delivered 3 baby rodents underneath my tent and mattress pad... at first I contented myself to poking the tent floor with a water bottle and making noise. As the night went on, I started getting less friendly. At about 4 am I gave up on the whole endeavor and made a mad dash during a brief respite in the rain, crammed into my car with my sleeping bag and pillow, and reclined the drivers seat. Ahhhh - dry and rodent free at last!

24 hours later I was up wicked early again, hitting the foggy roads on my way to the airport. ESA here I come!!!!!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


The ashes of a person take up a surprisingly small amount of space, but the space that person leaves behind is enormous, and the difference made by that life is unmeasurable.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flavors of information criterion...

it's all shades of grey people, mwahahahaha.  Good old Akaike.  

I'm TAing a one week math/stats class I took two years ago.  Juggling ~13 students coding in R and Mathematica, with abilities ranging from biologists with limited calculus to mathematicians and physicists, and second year undergraduates through grad students with more years under their belts than myself.  Good times.

Theo out.

Monday, June 15, 2009

From the land of Eire...

A few photos from Ireland...  First time I've been on a computer in a week, yay!  Not even going to try to catch up on the stories now though - back to the states on Friday, and then I'll tell more.  I want to fill up these last few days of adventure as much as possible!  I'll be happy to head home though...

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Duuuuuuude.  Weather in Ireland is an abrupt change from Italy!!!!!  I went from sunny and 70+ degrees to today in Dublin, with wind chills of less than 40 degrees, and cold cold rain.  Brrrr.

I dunno if I brought enough clothes for this, especially if I keep getting wet every day!  My rain shell is pretty good, but after a couple of hours walking around in the rain, things were getting damp, and I don't have rain pants...  Oh well, with luck I won't melt.

So far we're still in Dublin.  Explored a bit during the day, ate food and spent a long while drinking tea trying to warm up after a visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral.  Not sure yet what we'll do tomorrow; depends on the weather a bit.  We'd planned on doing some camping, but consistent rain makes that a less attractive possibility.  By Tuesday we're heading to a farm in the SW part of Ireland to spend ~4 days wwoofing, which will be nice.

Might head back into the center of the city tonight for dinner and a drink or two; I'd be delighted to find a nice warm fire in a fireplace somewhere...  Brrrr.

Nothing particularly photo worthy yet; that'll come when i get out of the city probably.  It's nice to be with friends again (even if they're jet lagged and I'm adapted - they're snoozing right now).  And in a place where I (mostly) understand the language again!  Makes things much much simpler.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Last night in Italy...  Haven't been keeping this here blog up to date, no apologies.  This is my last night in Italy, and my first hostel with wifi, so I figured I'd let y'all know that I'm still alive, and rather well.  Got myself a bit of a tan after a few days down on the mediterranean.  So many stories and sights.  I've been keeping pretty good notes for myself, so I'll tell stories when I get back and share some more pictures.  Tomorrow, I fly to Dublin, where I will meet up with my old friend, and a new one I haven't met yet!  I'm looking forward to having some company on my travels, I've gotten to the point where I occasionally find myself having conversations with myself, including hand gestures, while walking down the street...  oops!

Friday, May 22, 2009


Lonely abroad, pushing on.

I'm in Italy.  Enough has happened in the last ~3 days or so to write pages about, but I'm lacking the energy/motivation, so we're gonna go summary style here.  Someday I'll post pictures and better stories.

Spending 24+ hours traveling by plane, train, subway and foot - exhausting.  Knowing how to ask for directions - useful.  Not knowing how to understanding the instructions you're subsequently given - problematic.  Hostel - has a bed, enough to make it amazing!  Also a sketchy shower.  Food - haven't had anything yet that wasn't quite tasty.  Esspresso - life saving means of dealing with jet lag.  Jet lag - something I've heard a lot about but never fully appreciated... suckiness.  Math course - excellent; not very hard so far (mostly stuff I have already taught myself), but spending 6+ hours a day listening to lectures on mathematics in english has been helping me maintain the ol' sanity levels at an acceptable point.  One thing that falls inside the comfort zone at least.  Language - I'm learning bits and pieces, and gaining a lot of sympathy for young children whose parents use big words and sentences to communicate over their heads so they don't understand.  So far everyone has been really friendly though, so that's nice.  I've gotten a heck of a lot farther with a little language guidebook than I would have imagined possible, quite easily.  People quickly know that I'm not from Italy, but so far don't immediately know I'm from the US - I'm taking this as a positive sign.  So far Theo has been a Russian and a Brazilian.  

Overall feeling about international traveling (based on my now vast experience) - it's not as difficult as I had expected, and I feel like I can manage quite well and rise to the challenges with patience and energy.  Fun to see new places and experience new things + good food.  But, I'm lonely.  All the time, it's just me that I have to depend on, and only my own thoughts to hear.  All the new-ness of things generates a lot of thoughts and new ideas, but between not knowing the language and not having a travel buddy, there isn't much outlet for it all.  As much as everyone back at the bio station thinks that I am a solitary hermit by tendency and nature, I really very much value personal interactions.  We'll see how things go in the following weeks - I'm  hoping that my stays on organic farms will be more personal than this city business.

On top of it all, I've found out in the last two days that my grandfather has passed away, after breaking his hip last week.  Still spinning in circles in my head.  It was what he wanted, and he was surrounded by family and peace.  But I am so far away from it all, and even more helpless than ever.  I don't know how to describe it.  Of all of my grandparents, I was probably closest to him.  His approval meant so much to me, and I know he was very proud of me, but I can't help but feel that I wasn't good enough, and didn't do as much as I should have.  Ugh.  Try explaining that to someone in Italian.  My little survival Italian guidebook doesn't come close to having the right words if I can't even find them in English.

Can't deal with this more now, class is starting soon and I've got to get my act together again. 

Theo out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On my way...

One flight down.  3 more hours in this airport, another flight, waiting for an hour, then an 8 hour flight across the Atlantic, and I'm in Italy!!!  Yeeeehaw

In the last two days I managed to pack up everything in the house I was living in and store it away in the basement; I won't be moving back into that house again when I return.  It was a lovely place.  I tried hard to pack light, but I'm sure I have too much stuff even so.  Sigh.  ~28 lbs in an external frame pack, including clothes, tent, sleeping bag, toiletries, sunscreen, hat, sandals, pocket knife, cord, clothespins, pack towel, first aid kit, and a water bottle.  All in plastic trash bags to protect against rain.  Then I've got a small day pack, with paperwork for the trip, a notebook for the workshop, camera, pens/colored pencils, travel guide to ireland, italian language guide, one pleasure reading book, and a laptop.  Wooo.

I don't like good-byes.  Eugenie is in the Galapagos by now; spoke to her several times on the phone yesterday while she was traveling, but now that she's in Ecuador, we're out of reach, probably until she returns in about two weeks.  Even then though, it'll be occasional internet access if anything.  You'd think that with as well as we've managed over the last year (!) spending most of our time in different places, 2 weeks to a month wouldn't be so hard.  But I'm really going to miss hearing her voice on the phone, and sharing each other's days through instant messaging.  Guess I'll just have to keep myself distracted.

Got my NSF rating sheets today, go figure.  Must have finally finished their decisions.  Looks like I scraped into the fellowship with two very goods and four excellents.  Sort of strange to read other peoples' comments about yourself.  Pretty good by and large, although there were some (rather justified) mentions of parts of my application that were vague...  That's what comes from applying without knowing what school or department or advisor you're going to have the next year!  Now I just have to do my best to live up to everything that I talked about.

Interesting happenings so far on the trip:

On my first flight I ended up talking with the person sitting next to me.  She's a local elementary school teacher/librarian and knows the bio station I work at.  She asked me if I knew anything about the guy she sees outside behind a house at all hours of the day digging massive holes in the ground.  But of course, I replied.  That's Terry.  He's nuts.  (He's building waist-deep trenches in the dirt around plots that he's setting up where he hopes to manipulate water levels and study drought effects.  Every year he also builds rain-out shelters that traditionally get trashed by summer thunderstorms).   So that was fun.  We also discussed principles of epidemiology (vaccination, social network models, mathematics, Jared Diamond), ecology, math in biology, traveling in Italy and china, and water issues in the south west.  Not bad for pre-8 am conversation!

Currently I'm looking at my juice bottle, which carries the phrase "When it comes to juice, we understand your need to get Naked".  Hmmm.  Probably I'll pass on that right now - might not be the best idea in an airport!

Ok, time to get some stuff done quickly on my remaining 30 min of internet time...


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Loss of man points...

Loss of man points:

Your housemate returns home from a night on the town, and finds you sitting on the couch in the darkened living room, watching a chick-flick starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Gain of unabashedly-being-yourself points:

Not caring enough to flip to channel 43 and pretend to have been watching Terminator 3 instead.

That's just the way I am.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

All the news that's fit to ... blog?

Yeah, yeah, I know, it's been a long time...

But spring is here, and I've been out living my life and spending a lot less time writing about it.  Winter breeds introspection.  Spring, heralding summer, not so much.  Or at least what I've been introspective about I can't write down here.  But, I'm having a lethargic afternoon and the grey matter isn't firing real well, so I figured it's as good a time as any to provide assurances that I'm still alive.

Since I wrote last, stuff has happened.  Major items to follow:

1)  I've located a cute little house that I will be renting and sharing with my cousin this next academic year, as we both start graduate school.  It's a cheerful yellow outside, with a big porch, new carpet and flooring, front-loading washer/drier, good insulation, and a very clean interior.  Out back, there's some lawn space, parking, annnnnd - a vegetable garden!  I'm pretty delighted.  Soooo many orders of magnitude better than the (dump) I lived in last year of my undergrad, not that there aren't good memories from that place.  "Growing up" - ie, renting, going to grad school, managing your own insurance and vehicle, etc, has to have some perks... and I think living here will be one of them.  It's a reasonable distance from the campus, but in a neighborhood not dominated by undergraduates or apartment complexes.  Perfect.

2)  Looked like my grandparents might be able to make it back to the skilled nursing facility closer to my extended and immediate family after all.  But I just heard last night that my grandfather fell and broke his good hip, so that plan may be shot to hell.  I still don't know how to deal with all of that, heck.




Transient Theorist isn't just thinking about a theoretical trip, he's packing up for some extended, real-life transience.  

For anyone previously following my life, I've been wanting to get out of the US and travel for a long time.  Casting about for travel buddies I've been largely unsuccessful, and hence procrastinated about going anywhere.

But in a bold move the other week, I threw caution to the wind (dogs?), found a plane ticket, and hit "Confirm".  Since then I've been planning how I'll attend a 4 day math/ecology workshop in Italy, then spend the rest of almost a month's time splitting vacation and travel time between Italy and Ireland.  I'm going to see some sites, learn some Italian, eat good food, WWOOF and get my hands dirty, and hopeful do a lot of hiking, wandering and riding on trains.  With a little more luck I won't get mugged/lost/imprisoned/etc.  I'm clueless and I know it, but I can be a quick learner...  

I feel bad-ass about the whole trip.  Flying solo.  I'm actually doing it.  It's not just something other people do and come back and tell stories about, I'm going to do it to.  No more listening to other peoples' stories and doubting that I have the guts to do what they've done.  I'm going to see a different place and a different life and be a stranger to it all, even the language.  And maybe come back a little less scared of the world, less sure of what is impossible, and more at ease with wherever I find myself.  Time to smash a few walls and break out.

It's heady stuff, this reminding yourself that the tallest walls are the ones that you build around yourself, and that as solid as they seem, a little bump and you can knock them all down.  So far the excitedness is out-weighing the panic..... wooo.  Although it makes it hard to focus on anything work related.  

I'm trying to pack light - I want everything to fit into my external frame pack.  Planning on taking a tent, my sleeping bag, a few changes of sturdy clothes, guidebooks, printouts and maps, a camera, and not much else.  I'll probably even leave my lap-top behind(!).  Just to prove it doesn't run my life.  So probably there won't be many updates here until after I return towards the end of June.  Don't miss me too much - I'll be out becoming a more interesting, regret-free person.  I promise I'll bring back some stories and pictures for y'all.

- Theo

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fading memory

I haven't seen my grandparents on my dad's side in more than a year and a half now, since they left their retirement house and moved to an assisted living community in cold midwestern city, near one of my aunts/uncles.  Growing up, this was the pair of grandparents that I was closest to, because it was only a couple of hours to their house in the country, rather than the plane flight it took to see my maternal grandparents.  From my grandfather, I developed a love of Scrabble - we'd play at least once every day we were together, gardening, stacking wood, and valuing doing good work with my hands...  My grandmother's hobby was quilting/sewing; every grandchild and all the parents have home-made, unique quilts that she made.  From her I learned a fair bit of needlework, piecing/blocking, and some knitting, a healthy dose of Irish blarney, as well as how to win at Canasta by making up your own rules...  From both I have received a great deal of love, wonderful memories and family pride.

As I got older, I got busier, spending summers at science/environmental camps, traveling, and exploring the world.  I moved away from home to start college.  My opportunities to see my grandparents were shorter, and farther between.  They started spending their winters away from their rural country home, and only coming back with help from aunts and uncles during the summer.

Now my grandmother is in her late eighties, and my grandfather his late nineties.  Their health is deteriorating quickly, and over the last few months I've been learning that probably they won't ever make it back to their home.  More upsetting though than physical health, is that their memories are fading.  The last game of Scrabble I played with my grandfather, even a year and a half ago, I could tell how much harder it was for him to play; he used to be a tremendous player.  I hear now that my grandmother now can't even remember the names of her children.  

I've been dealing with this like a well practiced coward by trying to pretend it's not happening, and remembering things as they were in past years, walling off the updates and changes and information I hear via email as intellectual facts and not letting them sink in.  I've hardly called or written, I haven't talked with them in months.  Instead of doing what might be good for them, if they even remember me, I've been protecting myself.  I couldn't even make myself call them to let them know about the good news of the NSF fellowship the other week.  I can't even imagine what this is like for my aunt and uncle in cold midwestern city.  

Right now I'm feeling pretty solidly like a selfish, helpless, cowardly, guilty grandson, and I'm not sure how much longer I can keep running away and hiding from this.  Time marches on.

And I just killed the last of a box of tissues sitting here at work in the middle of the day.  Fruitcake.  I'm going for a walk.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Up-and-coming third wheel, looking for upgrades, opportunities for advancement

My best friend, Ariel, here at the station also happens to be sort-of kind-of dating my housemate, James. But this is a recent thing. And Ariel more than once has talked to me about it rather emotionally. I've never seen them commit any PDA's around the labs, or in the company of any other graduate students. They act like they only partially know each other at best. Ick. But Ariel stays over a couple of nights a week now most often.


I don't know how to act around them - pretend like I don't know anything even though I do, or pretend like it's normal when it happens here at the house and like it doesn't exist elsewhere. Ugh.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Walk beside me

A quote for today, capturing a part of my mind:

"Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. "
 - Albert Camus 

And also a song that I'm hooked on right now (thanks to sarcozona)

Back to doing mathematics and being pensive...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

This alwayyyys happens

I love hard problems and things that are intricately complex to the point that they make my brain whig out.  I just do.  Sometimes it's nice to have a really good excuse for wandering away from my desk to a comfy chair in a different, hidden room, and sort of curling up, closing my eyes and shoving my hands over my ears... To think, *naturally*.  I even have a pandora station that serves as my source for "disturbed genius" music, when things aren't complex enough to justify leaving my desk.

Trouble is, almost every time I tackle a problem like this, my first solution is dreadfully complex, if correct in theory.  Usually a thing of great elegance and beauty for those who appreciate the truly convoluted and arcane.  Then, after hacking away coding out my solutions and trying to make what works conceptually work out in-silico, I gradually realize that parts of my colossus of a solution aren't necessary.  The hubris falls away, bit by bit, and in the end I'm left with something that is a lot more functional.  A part of me though grieves for all the subtle complexity that bore such mundane functionality - all those little pieces of brilliance that no one will ever see or appreciate.  Sigh.

Back to work Theo.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Doing my share

... to boost the economy.

Today I bought new socks. And underwear. This is kind of a big deal. I hate shopping, never think to do it, avoid it whenever possible. Laurie and Fiona (grad students) teased me that getting socks and underwear doesn't count as "going shopping", but I beg to differ. See, when I started off college, I owned enough clothing to go about 2 weeks without doing laundry. I'm down to about a week now before I start running out of important stuff. I think this is mostly because my clothing has been decaying over time, but, not living at home any longer, my mother hasn't been enforcing the entry of new items to my wardrobe. If I weren't so lazy, I'd make a graph of this, and we could extrapolate the point in time where I'd be walking around essentially naked.

Except, I went shopping today. *victory dance* I have 6 new pairs of socks, so I can get rid of some holey ones... now I'll have rags for when I do projects!

I also picked up a bicycle helmet so I can ride safely, zip ties so I can fix up the net on the soccer goals we've been using (I feel bad damaging goals that "little" kids play on too), and dessert for tomorrow's Easter party.

After all of that stressful business, I treated myself by checking out a used bookstore in nearby-city. Of course, this always ends in purchasing new books:

Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes (author of Under the Tuscan Sun) - travel.
Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon - travel book, sort of. Recommended to me.
Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan - solid fantasy, nice long read.
Off the Map, Hib and Kika - seems like a quirky, different read. I'm excited about it.
The Man Who Saw Through Time - Loren Eisley's take on Francis Bacon and science.

Gotta love it when the guy checking out your books at the bookstore comments on how ecclectic your selections are!

Ok, now I'm going to go hunt for spring wildflowers, and maybe read outside, and maybe go to Easter vigil mass.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good news

So, I got some good news today. :-)

I'm still pretty darn excited about this, although if I had had time to write this morning it might have come across more intensely (today was filled with seminars, lab meeting, and other meetings).

Due to some good fortune, and thanks to the NSF, it looks like I'm set for graduate school. I won't have to worry about TAing except for to the extent I want to do it, and I don't have to work on anyone else's research for grant funding... I'll have my own funding, and can direct my own research interests. I hate thinking about money, and so this will be a huge relief, to not have to worry, so I can just do the work that I love. I'm excited about the science that I hope to do, and wicked energized by this. I can feel some of the old creative energy starting to bubble.

A number of my good friends ended up similarly lucky, which is great. Others weren't as fortunate this year. I'm very happy for the lucky, and feel a little guilty that some will be reapplying next year, but maybe I can help them edit and focus their ideas for the next time around, if I know anything.

Part of me is a little sad this evening that I haven't really done much special to celebrate this good news (other friends in other places are out celebrating with lab groups and such) - just heated up some leftovers, lounged, watched a little TV (ok, so that's kinda decadent). I did call and talk to a number of my best ecology buddies, and that's always really fun. I also talked with my parents this evening and earlier in the day - apparently they went out to dinner to celebrate even if I didn't. I'm kind of a private guy though, so maybe this is a better way anyways.

I want to end this post a little differently...

If it weren't for someone who became a very good friend of mine in the South during my adventure there this fall, I would never have put together an application this year. No way. Without her energy and motivation, I just wouldn't have gotten myself to do it (for those that weren't reading back then, we worked on applications together, a sort of mutual support group of two). She didn't get an NSF this year, so I just wanted to recognize how influential she has been... sort of dedicating this post to her, if that's not too strange (she's not a reader). And, people, it really is amazing how little things can change your life. If I hadn't been here at the bio station last summer and made a different friend, I wouldn't have had a job in the South to go to, and I might never have met this awesome person, who has now in a very very real way changed my life (not that friendship in and of itself isn't just as powerful).

So, this is for my friend.

And for the rest of you, remember that life is an amazing, unpredictable, and wonderful thing. You never can tell the implications of the path you walk, but the directions you take, and the friendships you forge, they matter. So stay optimistic, stay awed, stay joyous in the unpredictablity of life.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Funnies for the graphically inclined

A science friend passed along this website...  Some good humor to be found there, although with a few pretty poorly constructed graphs.  But maybe that's half the fun...

I liked this one:

song chart memes
see more Funny Graphs

What do you think? (Summer plans)

Now that I've decided about graduate school (!), I realllly need to start figuring out what I'm doing with my summer.


- Graduate school begins the end of August.
- The first week of August I will be at ESA.
- I can only work at my current job until May 19th.


- If I spend a minimum of 6 weeks this summer doing graduate school type stuff (could include ESA and trips to workshops), I can accept a 6K fellowship.
- I've been offered a one-week position in late June to help out with a summer class here at the bio station on math/ecology, which could be a lot of fun.  It's being taught by my all-time favorite post-doc.


- visiting family and friends in the SW before or after ESA
- getting the heck out of the USA, seeing some place new and different and memorable, and having an adventure
- spending time with Eugenie
- spending time with my family, maybe helping mom and dad build a cabin
- visiting friends
- doing stuff not related to ecology or mathematics
- doing something to help other people

Any suggestions people?

I'm trying to decide about accepting a summer fellowship (6K, fun place, but it would eat up 6 weeks of my 'last' summer).  On one hand, listing fellowships on a CV is good, and it's hard to argue with 6K.  On the other, I really do want to do things that aren't ecology and that help other people out this summer.  I'm in the fortunate position of not needing that money to last the summer, although it could help pay for other adventures/travels.  

I also wonder about the merits of spending six weeks volunteering/some sort of community service, versus me working six weeks at a job that I am skilled at, and just donating my earnings.  The first would probably have a bigger impact on my life, while the second might have a larger overall benefit.  I dunno.

If I take the fellowship, probably any big trips would need to happen between May and June, which is really soon, and I still don't know where I'd want to go (excited about lots of places).


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A lot has happened

A lot of stuff has gone down in the last week and a half, and for whatever reason I didn't feel like blogging.  Time to catch up now... Lots of news to share.  I could write entire posts on most of these, but in the name of catching up, I'll try to keep them short:

1)  I committed to attending School 1.  It's done.  Permanent.  Set in stone.  No looking back.  The saga is over.  Contacted all of the other potential advisors (in the end, by email, despite my dad's recommendations of making phone calls - yick).  Responses were quite nice, including two "let me know when you need a post-doc" comments, so that's good.  Nice to have those messages over with.

2)  Excited - Very relieved to have the decision over with.  In retrospect, amused by how much the psychological build-up to telling my advisor was reminiscent of asking someone to date, shudder.  Excited to start making  what was an amorphous vision of a new future into something with concrete, fun realities.  I can let myself get excited now, it's safe.  

3)  Housing - Trying really hard to believe in the bold new me.  Currently pretty intimidated by my preliminary attempts to locate housing... I will be spending my first 1-2 years living in Big Midwestern City, before getting to move back here to the bio station.  I'm overwhelmed by the number of housing options, roommates, sublets, leases, locations, bus routes, neighborhoods, parking, etc, etc, etc.  Back at my undergrad, you pretty much knew where everything was, what the houses looked like, and could walk everywhere.  I've been looking at craigslist, and will start asking around.  So far every place I've lived, someone else found/arranged, so this is a new experience for me.

4)  Labmate - I will have a lab mate!!!!!!!!  I'm really happy about this.  My new advisor had another prospective student accept, so there will be two of us in the same year/program, with propensities for math and ecology.  One of my concerns about this program was that this lab group is small, but maybe that's changing!  Haven't interacted with her yet, but she sounds pretty cool.  And, being kinda nervous about this whole new endeavor, the prospect of having a good friend, compatriot, fellow clueless soul, etc, is really quite wonderful.

5)  Coincidence - I discovered that one of my cousins will be attending graduate school at School 1 too, in a very similar program.  I had no idea he was even applying here; I haven't seen him in years.  This is pretty nifty too!  Maybe we could live together, i dunno....  I kind of wonder what he's like anymore, although I guess he's probably thinking the same thing!

6) Travel - All of last week (plus a few days) I spent visiting Eugenie back at SLAC.  Almost a thousand miles round-trip (yeeeehawww).  It was a nice visit, although I spent several days of it being quite sick, thanks to my younger sister.  Good food, old friends, the works.  Re-engineered parts of her chinchilla's cage.  Cooked food.  Watched movies.  Hung out.  I'm glad I went - it had been a long time since I saw her last!  It's really different though to go back and visit a place where you used to live.  Strange disconnects between what hasn't changed, and the fact that you don't live there anymore, or have a life there with things to do.  Probably a week was about the longest healthy visit length.  It was also a little frustrating to visit while Eugenie had a busy class/homework/research schedule.

7) Paper - I took advantage of my return to SLAC last week to bug my undergrad advisor, who was sitting on a final draft of my undergraduate research manuscript.  Having extracted that from him, and being laid up in bed with a cold, I redid all of my figures, updated the citations, finished off the last edits, and, as of Monday night, I submitted my paper to a journal!!!!!!!

This is huge, huge news, as this paper has been delayed literally for years.  So nice to finally get it out.  I soooo hope that it is accepted, 'cause having to redo it my reduce me to quivering gelatin. 

M'kay, that covers most of the bases for those that are curious.  More to follow later - I should get back to work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I was sooooo close to telling advisor at School1 today that I have decided to work with him, ending this frickin saga. 

Buuuuutttt I stood there in the door with the words in my mouth and didn't let go of them.  He's gone for the rest of the day.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In other news

My goal was to finally make my decision by the end of this past weekend.  As you might probably guess, that didn't quite happen.  I was really close, and then I decided that there was one more piece of information I wanted to wait for.  And then I started thinking about just how much it's going to suck to call and let people know that I have declined their offers.   As previously established, I am terrrrible at talking on the phone.  This is going to be acutely awkward, painful and sad. UGH.  So I've been procrastinating more.  And feeling pretty guilty, because I know if I really have decided that it is courteous to share the information as soon as possible.  I figure when I decide I pretty much have to say yes somewhere before I inform anyone else, so no one can try to change my mind.

Then there's the second guessing; it seems like if I'd made a solid decision, maybe I shouldn't be feeling like this about it, and procrastinating, and feeling guilty.

On a more positive note, I made a huge leap forward in research this week.  I'm hot on the trail of what is promising to be an exciting new graphical approach for visualizing and understanding the complex system we're juggling.  My advisor got really excited about it, and mentioned even that this stuff might make it in a journal like "Evolution", which would be a big deal.  For me maybe even a Big Deal.  We're beyond the realm of the kind of things he's done before, and maybe that anyone's done before (whereas the earlier part of this project involved applying established techniques to a new system).  A rather heady mix of dynamical systems, rapid evolution, ecology, numerical techniques, etc.   Another comment I got was that after we polish this piece up, we definitely need to stop and write one or two (!) papers.  

I should be pretty darn thrilled by all of this, but right now that reaction is being muted by external inputs, my indecision, and a perhaps misguided feeling that no one else knows enough about it to be excited with me, other than my advisor.  Wheeeeee!  Sometimes being a mathematical ecologist (scientist) is lonely.  Really takes a lot of self-motivational energy, b/c you can't rely on siphoning off the energy other ecologists (nonscientists) get when you share what you're doing.  I know it's tempting to keep cultivating feelings of being a "misunderstood genius", but probably what it really means is that I'm not doing enough to make myself understood.

Ironically, I'm feeling isolated, but yet I just wriggled my way out of heading out this evening to socialize with some of the graduate students, despite agreeing to it earlier in the day.  Why am I like this?  Hypocrite.

So I could definitely launch into a grad career here with wind in my sails.  One or two papers before starting grad school would be sol-id.  And that's in addition to my archaic undergrad paper-in-waiting, and a recent collaboration I've been drawn into as a statistics "consultant".

Why am I not happy right now, durnit?!?!?!?  

Maybe dinner will help.

Not knowing, not curing, not healing.

*warning - philosophical/introspective post follows below*

I think about the following quote a lot:

"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares."
Henri NouwenOut of Solitude
I don't think that this sentiment is always true, but increasingly I think that there are situations where it really does hold.  Sometimes friends really do want advice, comfort, and healing.  Other times, there's nothing I can do, and pretending or acting otherwise makes light of their predicaments and makes things worse than they would be if I had simply acknowledged what they are going through, and made my presence known but simply abided with them.

By and large, I feel much more competent at providing advice than at abiding in silence.  Feeling powerless sucks, let's face it.  My default response, as a scientist, and mathematician, and person, is to try to fix/solve any and every problem that comes my way.  This makes me pretty terrible I think at "not knowing, not curing, not healing", a lesson I never seem to be able to learn.  I don't know how to tell with approach would be best in many cases, so I switch into default "solve the math problem" mode.

The other, more selfish, aspect of all of this is how someone else's challenges affect you.  The way I work through stress/sadness/bad times is usually, well, by working - moving forward, pushing on, getting the hell out of dodge, etc.  I'm not good at living with such challenges for any length of time without doing anything.  Sometimes I wonder if this too makes it more difficult for me to simply abide with someone else in their troubles; out of empathy I at least partially experience what they feel, but because such feelings are second hand, there's no way for me to work through them.  Makes me feel stuck, and useless, and sad.  How do you deal with such things, without being able to do anything, and without running away from your friend and their challenges?

Monday, March 23, 2009

This vacuum sucks...

But not really, which is part of the problem when you're trying to clean carpets.  An 40 year emphasemic chain-smoker could probably generate larger pressure differentials.  And the resulting dusty odor would probably be about the same.

Also, it took me > 10 minutes just to figure out how to turn the archaic piece of junk on.  I literally felt the thing up all over hunting for a switch, was about to give up, and/or kick the thing, when I noticed a very large, concealed gray button hiding in plain sight about where I was going to kick.  

Final thought - for the record, this may make me sound like a domestic incompetant, but I'm really quite good at the whole cooking and cleaning deal, and take pride in my abilities.  As with anything though, doing a good job depends on having the appropriate equipment...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

When fine dining and drain cleaners converge...

... Theo gets scared.

Having just returned from the grocery store, I am savoring a fresh loaf of crusty Portuguese bread, dipped in olive oil, balsamic vinegar and crumbled feta cheese, in addition to sliced pears. This makes me think happily of Eugenie.

Soon, I will be tackling a set of two plugged shower drains with a draino knock-off and a pair of gloves. (Note that this does not make me think of Eugenie, although if I succeed it will make me happy). This is the continuation of this past weekend's adventures in plumbing.

On a related note, wtf is Ammonium chloride doing in bagels????? I am a big fan of the bagel - I think it's one of life's perfect foods. Tasty, hearty, a multitude of flavors and toppings, portable, just about the best thing around. I saw a new brand at the store today, and glancing through the list of ingredients, ammonium chloride showed up at the end. Not comforting. I think I'll stick with the usual brand, which is clever enough to disguise what are probably equally unpleasant ingredients with complicated chemical names that surpass my ability to understand them, despite two paltry semesters of organic chemistry.

Time to go eat more, and get to work...

Thinking makes it so.

I've been thinking about this passage recently; it's a classic, but I'll share it anyways...

Hamlet: What have you, my good friends, deserv'd at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guildenstern: Prison, my lord?

Hamlet: Denmark's a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Recent life events have only deepened my belief in this last principle. The entirety of mathematics rests on defining a few basic axioms or truths, and seeing what useful things follow as consequences of these definitions, noticing patterns and arriving at theorems. In less deterministic realms, such as experiments, or social/economic/competitive games we think of the probability or likelihood of a particular result occurring, relative to a set of potential outcomes. We recognize that these outcomes are driven both by the mechanisms of the process being tested by the experiment, or the rules of the game being played, and the variation of experimental units or the actions of individuals playing the game.

There is a lot of power in this paradigm. If we can understand the patterns that arise, and predict events or truths, we can work backwards to uncover the nature of the underlying axioms, rules, and mechanisms. The converse is true as well; propose a mechanism, and design experiments to see if the results match patterns predicted by your hypothesized mechanism. This is the heart of science, and also, I would argue, the essence of the deductive/inductive approach we take (whether consciously or unconsciously) towards understanding all of our world as individuals.

I think there is a second aspect to this paradigm that is just as powerful, but less commonly taken advantage of. Basically, recognizing that the definition of a system determines the behaviors it can and cannot exhibit, the power lies in changing the definitions to achieve a desired end. In other words, if we recognize that thinking a certain way makes a specific perspective or belief true, and we have a desire to change this perspective or belief, we need merely change the way that we think. Change the rules of the game, and you can make the impossible possible.

The lesson? Chose your definitions carefully, and intentionally, for the sake of making your desired outcome convenient or more probable (Note: not necessarily a good practice in the world of objective science, but often perfectly acceptable in social and personal interaction). By changing the way you see the world, or yourself, or a situation, you change what is possible in a situation, or for yourself, or for your world. Change the rules and you change the game. Don't be surprised if you formulate a set of rules and see the game play out exactly as predicted.

Philosophical Theo is signing off for now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Crash and burn

11:58 AM - I'm hot on the trail of a new graph that I'm really excited about.  The parade of students/post-docs/faculty heading to share lunch at the dining hall usually starts a little after 12, so I'm in a rush to try to finish converting my ideas into code.  The function I'm working on is a intricate little thing, involving some subtle manipulations of numerical routines for differential equation solving, and I'm on top of my game enough that I remembered a particular case I needed to take into consideration in the code.  It's the kind of thing that if you don't think of it when you write the function, you'll end up spending hours of debugging time trying to catch it later.

*Buzz Buzz Buzz*

That's my phone ringing.  Still thinking/trying to finish off this idea before I lose it, I slide my phone out of my pocket, don't recognize the number, but answer it anyways.  *duh-oh*

It's potential advisor from School3, checking in to see how I'm doing, and if there's anything else I need to make my decision that he can help me with.  Gulp.

I am not skilled at communicating by phone, even under the best of circumstances.  Such as when I know several days in advance that a phone call will be happening, and I exhaustively plan out my conversation ahead of time, including making notes to have in front of me.  I prepared in a similar way for interviews.

In this case, I had no idea the call was coming (it took me close to a minute to figure out who i was talking to), I was lost in thinking about something else entirely, and became very flustered.  I'm pretty sure I sounded like a bumbling fool, and had no real response for this guy, beyond I think mumbling a few things that I liked about a different place I had visited (School2), but how I'd rather live at School3.  No questions or anything when he asked if there was any other info I needed.  About the only good response I gave was when he said to let him know if monetary issues were playing into the decision, and I told him that I rarely let such matters govern my decisions, which is true.


I feel awful, and worry that I might have made "potential advisor" feel bad, especially when, returning from lunch, I got an email from him apologizing for ambushing me, providing more info on what I think/hope was the only concern I expressed about School3 while mumbling, and worrying that he didn't do a good enough job of showing me around.  And now I'm worrying that I may not be giving School3 fair enough consideration.

How am I evvvver going to make a decision if I feel this bad after a simple conversation with a potential advisor, when to make a decision I will have to say no to 3 people that I really like?  My general approach to life is to help everyone I come across, and do my best to support them and make others happy.  Which presents me with a rather impossible situation here.

I sort of thought that my oscillating opinions were converging on a solution, but what does it say about the stability of such a solution if a simple phone call is enough to throw things wildly out of orbit again?

Double UGH.

*Phone just rang again and made my stomach flip, but it was Eugenie*

I need to decide soooooon so I can get all of this unpleasantness behind me, and maybe avoid similar phone calls from the other 2.  I wish also that I was invisible, because I spend all day walking around and working here at the station feeling like everyone is looking at me and wondering, often asking, what I'm thinking today.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Calendar confusion and Commando plumbing

Today was a good day, despite lots of rather humorous occurrences, which I offer up to you in case anyone needs a laugh.

To start off with, I woke up a bit on the late side, having watched a sci-fi movie (Minority Report) until very late at night. Logging on to my computer, I got wind of the fact that St. Patrick's day parades were happening today. Being who I am, my immediate thought was - 'Whoa, how cool is that! St. Patrick's day happening on the same day as Pi day, go figure. Why have I never noticed this before?' Knowing full well that I am really bad at remembering the dates of holidays, with the exception of Christmas (a two-fer, whew), New Years, my day of birth and any time 15 rolls around, I was perfectly willing to believe that this year some unusual calendar quirk had caused the coincidence of these holidays. I thus preceded to wish quite a few of my friends a very merry St. Patty's day.

Only to discover much later, first from Eugenie, and then from lots of other people, that the day itself doesn't happen until the 18th. Sigh. Go me!!! Stupid parades.

Other activities of the day featured Commando Plumbing, and Laundry. I'll let you decide for yourselves if the two events were related. The first of the two was partially successful (shower drain is still sorta clogged), but resulted in my discovering how to rig up some wires such that I now get more than just wi-fi internet access. This is very exciting since the wifi only works right up against the wall on one side of the house, and even then is shakey. Now I can crack into this new fantasy series I stumbled upon (the books were ok), without sitting in the lab!

I've consequently been rediscovering that I really am inescapably a sci-fi/fantasty geek. Good stuff, even with the occasional hokey moments/dialogue. Better than thinking in circles about the real world and a determined future....

Bed time now.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Theo gets Quantitative about grad school

As the result of multiple requests, I've been attempting to list and rank the graduate school options that I have, as I near the point of having to make up my mind. Being who I am, I think probably I've gone wayyy overboard (that's what you get for asking), but the results are provided below if you're interested/have enough stamina. I wrote it up as a mock lab report/paper, mainly to amuse myself.

- Theo

Quantitative grad school selecion: Or, mathematical objectivity abused


Selecting the right grad school is important if you want a PhD and a career as an academic. I want a PhD, and hope to have a career as an academic. Therefore, it would be good to make the best possible choice of graduate schools, from the available options, based somewhat objectively on a set of criteria.


I brainstormed a list of a bunch of separate features of a graduate school that I think are important. I grouped them into hierarchical groups, and assigned them weights within groups and levels, based on their comparative importance to me. These numerical weights, with higher values corresponding to increased importance, were converted to proportion weights, multiplied down the hierarchical trees. These trees and integer weights (for readability) are reproduced below:

Generally, these features were grouped based on whether they were academic, non-academic, or "discretionary" - ie, my chance to subjectively incorporate my gut feelings, without assigning a particular descriptor to them. (This included such things as the presence of a vet school Eugenie might want to go to - Shhhhh; she doesn't like it when I think that way).

Having previously eliminated 2 of 5 schools (one for general uptightness and location, the other for location and insecurity of funding), I had 3 remaining schools to choose between. For each school and each important feature, I subjectively assigned a score between 0 and 4. Results were determined by taking the product of the weight and the score for each category and school.


It is with some chagrin that I report the results by way of excel figures, but I'm too tired/busy to do any differently, and it's better this way than showing the numbers.

By sub-category then:
Major take-homes here - School2 gets the highest ranking for the academic category, followed by School1. In the non-academic category, things get shuffled around; School1 takes the lead by a good bit over School2

And now the overall results:

For the quantitative folks out there, this corresponds to:

To help this make sense, a perfect school would score a 4 in every category, and have a raw score of 4, or "percentage" of 1.0. (Yes of course these calculations require ~6 sig figs!!! Naturally.)

This, based on this, I should go to School1 (followed by School2 and School3. It's coincidence (?) that I numbered them in that order, actually).


I tried as much as possible to be very objective about this ranking, and to trick myself. That's why I tried to add so many categories, and make the weighting system rather complex, so that I couldn't predict ahead of time what the result would be. I also made the categories and weights first, and then later rated the schools all at once, before doing any calculations. That being said, the points assigned to each school in each category are necessarily subjective. For example, I much prefer rural to urban areas, so in the "Urban/Suburban/Rural" category, rural corresponds to 4, and, for example, Los Angeles would be a 0, or 1. Not all of the categories are independent of each other; I'm not sure how big of a problem this causes, but whatever (ie, rural, a good thing, corresponds by necessity to less public transportation, a bad thing).

All that being said, these results do a fairly good job of reflecting the more intuitive response/ranking I've been accumulating over the last week or so of trying not to think about it all.

School2 would be a new place for me, I got along fantastically with the advisor, and enjoyed meeting and talking with the various members of the lab group. The lab does a solid mixture of theoretical and mathematical work. It's part of a big department, at a university where collaboration between faculty of different departments is very common and encouraged. I'd be free to do pretty much anything I wanted to, including seeking out collaborations with other students and faculty. And, rather excitingly, there are some students doing theoretical work. I'm not used to being able to discuss what I do with fellow students with a similar level of understanding (usually I have to talk to prof's or post-docs, and there aren't that many of them either). It was really nice to talk theory with people who were roughly my peers. Could be a lot of fun to be around more theory people. While I'm sure the funding situation is easily sufficient for me to live on happily, it's not as solid as the offer I have from School1 (more on this later), and probably would require more teaching. My advisor there regularly obtains grants, but if the work I was doing wasn't related to those grants, I'd have to secure my own funding, or TA. [Another intangible, that bothered me a bit, but doesn't make sense to the logical part of my head... every one of this advisor's grad students is either married (with kids), or in a serious long-term relationship, and several years older than me... makes me a little worried that no one would want to hang out with a "single" youngster; "single" because at least for the first year of graduate school, Eugenie will still be at SLAC and I'll be bach'ing it.]

School1 is the school/biological station where I currently work. So I'm very familiar with it: I know the graduate students, several of the faculty, and the area quite well. It's a rural location, which I like. I've been offered a set of 3 fellowships, and I'd be certain of solid funding during my PhD here, including two years guaranteed to be free of teaching or research duties. The cost of living here is also significantly less than at School2 (check out this fascinating website for COL comparisons: link). I'd work with the same advisor that I have right now. I get along with him well; he's very very sharp and I learn a lot. He does almost exclusively theoretical work, and thinks in terms of a system that I'm not terribly enthusiastic about. However, he's said before that he'd be supportive of a co-advising situation, where I'd pick out a second faculty member (such as the one next door) that does empirical plant ecology, something that I want to do more of. His lab group is small, but because of the small size of the station and associated student community, the graduate students behave like an extended lab group and there's quite a lot of interaction. And people reallly want me to come/stay here. After my first two years, I'd relocate to the bio station, so auditing math courses would be more difficult, as the main campus is over an hour's drive away.

School2 would be meeting new people and making new connections; I've already spent 2 summers plus the last 3 months at School1's bio station. Both universities have vet programs, unlike school3, although Eugenie will be glad to know that even when I removed that from the calculations, the rankings of schools stayed qualitatively the same. So there.

School3 is the closest to home, and reminded me a lot of places that are very dear to me. I have a good friend there, and it's a smaller city than School2. The academic fit isn't as good, although realistically, I could probably do what I wanted to there as well. The advisor is a partial member of the stats department, and quite mathy, so I could get my math fix. Funding is intermediate between the other schools. Lab group is pretty focused on a particular topic. I only met 2 of 3 grad students, and none of the post-docs, whereas at School 2 I met pretty much everyone (3 grad students, 2 postdocs). No vet program. Pretty campus. I'm actually surprised it didn't rank higher, but maybe it's paying the price for not being the most recently visited school (School2), or the place where I live (School3). People sounded quite excited to have me there, which was awesome. I dunno.


What do you all think? How important are academic vs. non-academic concerns in making a decision? If I weighted academic concerns even more heavily, School2 would win; currently it's the "best" academic fit, and the "worst" non-academic fit. As it is, giving non-academic concerns 35% and academic 55%, School1 "wins".

I'm not certain that any of the numerical differences in rankings is sufficiently large enough to reach a solid conclusion, I don't know. I know I could make any of these places work happily.

Feed back would be most welcome....

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Holding pattern continues to, well, hold.

Everyone asks. Still no decision.

With the level of inquiry I've been getting about my grad school decision, I feel like I should be taking it even more seriously, and spending all of my waking moments giving it intense concentration and examination. Instead, I've been walking in the rain, reading science fiction, making food, doing mathematics, watching movies, and in general acting as if I have not a care in the world. Today I found blooming forsythia and snow drops, and saw my first robin of the spring (here at least). Nice signs that whatever my subconscious is in knots about, the larger world is still cycling along.

Meanwhile, decisions continue to loom in the background. I need to decide soon, out of courtesy to everyone involved. I more or less have all of the information that I need; what's missing I can pretty much gather from the internet with a bit of work, and a conversation or two.

I keep telling myself that what I'm trying to do is sort of mentally cross my eyes up, and distance myself just enough from the decision (you know how it is when you've been working all day on a math problem, and you can't see it for the life of you, and you finally give up and head to bed... only to having something hit you in that in-between time half sleeping and half waking, when everything is looser?). Maybe that's what I'm aiming for. It surprises me though, because I had predicted that my response would be much more along the lines of agonizing panic instead of calm pseudo-apathy; maybe I just haven't hit that stage yet.

Everyone wants to know, because they care and they're awesome. I want to know too. So I'm looking at plane tickets to Paris, Costa Rica, Dublin, Italy and New Zealand...... *head scratch*

Monday, March 9, 2009

Security question for a Nerd

Security question (in case I forget my password to a certain website):

Who was your childhood hero?

My (truthful) answer:

Jonas Salk

Friday, March 6, 2009


I feel very ALIVE right now, look out!!!

I'm recently returned from playing soccer (our team played awesome - some truly beautiful work). I'm scraped, bruised, and totally pumped. On the way home I was a total "bad-ass", driving with my windows down (yup, it's that warm right now! crazy huh?), and rocking out to a mixed CD of music from Eugenie (ranging from some rockin' guitar/vocal type stuff, all the way up through "Beyond the Sea", a big band favorite), my now quite unruly hair sticking out in all directions in the breeze.

Now I'm showered, patched up, munching on Triscuits and dried apricots, and engaging in some shirtless blogging (Hey, I warned you - I'm in "bad-ass" mode).

A lot has been going on. I'm done with all of my graduate school visits; that part of life is behind me. I have a lot of information, have met and talked with a lot of people, and seen a lot of new places. There's some awesome science going on out there people.

I still haven't made up my mind about where I want to go (wrestling with a 3-way tie for first place). Earlier in the week, when I had just returned from my last visit, this was a significant source of stress and, according to my friends, melancholy, for me. Right now though, maybe because I'm feeling so damn alive, I'm not so worried. Driving home tonight, I realized that I've got a lot to be proud of. I've been rocking my interviews, picking up admissions offers from 4/5 of the schools I applied to, and in many cases competitive fellowships as well. (And that 5th school is blind; I'm well contented not to go there). At all of my interviews, I successfully made myself interact with lots of people, being cheerful and sociable, focused and generally on my game (even though my general preference is to stand in corners and watch). I avoided getting sick until my very last interview, and even that was a minor cold that I beat down in about 3 days.

I don't know where I'm going. But tonight, more than many nights in a good long while, I feel like wherever it is, it will be great. And the possibilities are determined; there's a path out there waiting for me, and I think I'm gonna have funnnn walking it. I can kick butt at science. I can make my life what I want it to be. It's mine to take. I can learn, and think, and discuss, critique and reason and intuit and keep up with the best of them. I am going to stop worrying so much, and start living more. Some things you just can't predict. Living in fear, cautious of doing something wrong, makes for a less tangible existence. So then it's time to jump, to try my best, and start flying. And if something falls and hits the ground, well, I'll pick it up, dust it off, and keep rocking along through life. The most valuable thing about something that is good now is that it is GOOD NOW; I want to revel it in, and extract every bit of enjoyment from it, hoping that it will persist, but beleiving too that life holds in store many other lovely and unforseen moments to come. And, at least for tonight, I am feeling that the NOW is GOOD.

I don't know where I'll be in a few weeks even; maybe my project/job will be done, and I'll hit the road, or embark on an adventure. I don't know even where I'll be spending the summer. But it'll be good. I'll find myself a place. Come the end of the summer, I'll be somewhere good starting a big adventure indeed.

And knowing all of that is enough for me to smile and laugh right now.

*cranking the Paul Simon and kickin' back after kickin' butt*





Saturday, February 28, 2009

Updates - fun + graduate school

It's been a while. Two main goals for this post: 1) fun things that have been happening. 2) the obligatory update on the grad school process.

Fun things first:

Earlier today I made a special watering can for my lovely baby bonsai tree. It needs quite frequent watering because the pot is pretty small, I keep it in a fairly sunny window, and the air in our house is dry. It doesn't deal well with pouring water on it - the H2O either runs right off, or causes a lot of erosion. I've been sprinkling with my fingers, but today I decided to make a special watering can for it. Requisite materials: 1 minute-maid orange juice bottle (plastic), a sturdy push pin, and a pair of hands. basically I push the push pin through the top cap of the OJ bottle a bunch of times in a whorl pattern, making little tiny holes. Now I can fill the bottle, and gently apply water to my tree without disturbing it! The wholes are just the right size too - small enough that barely any water comes out simply by turning the bottle upside down, due to adhesion/cohesion. But with a gentle squeeze, you can control how fast the water comes out, in a beautiful little shower.

My apologies if you're not into trees/plants, I'll move on now... ;-) Today was the first day in almost a month that I haven't be away at grad school interviews. I took full advantage of this fact (maybe even too much so) - I slept in, lounged in bed reading in the morning, talked with Eugenie on the phone for a good long while, made a delectable breakfast (herbed egg toast, with tomato and Canadian bacon), and then proceeded to spend pretty much the entire rest of the day reading. The sun was out, a not too frequent occurrence this time of year here, so all day long I switched around between chairs, following patches of sunlight around the house. It was lovvvely. Also, my housemate has been gone all day, so other than Eugenie, and a brief chat with my sister, I didn't have to see or talk to anyone all day. Sweat pants and my favorite old T-shirt allll the way. It was the perfect medicine for recovering from interview trips, which are very social, anti-sweat pants, and draining.

Other highlights of the preceding week - got to play soccer again (because of interviews I've missed games the last two weeks), crepes at a small Mardi Gras party, seminar Friday, submitting my abstract for ESA (and being told I might actually get funding for attending, something I hadn't planned on), and day-dreaming about a cross-country national park visiting bicycle trip (wistful sigh).

Grad school update:

I'm going to keep this brief; after I get back from my last interview (taking place over the next 3 days), I intend to sit down and lay all this out in detail to organize my thoughts.

Last weekend's visit was quite lovely. The school I interviewed at is the closest to home, Eugenie, and my old stomping grounds, of all the places I've applied to. And I could feel it - the terrain, the people, the countryside, even the grocery stores, were similar. This is very appealing to me, as I am really quite a bit of a home-body. I liked it much better than the private school in big city, for any number of reasons. Pretty campus. Friendly people. Close to farms with cows (not that I'm planning to interact with cows... that's Eugenie's department). The school/program is much bigger that private U, and all of the people I talked to were very excited about their science, and fun to converse with. Funding isn't as good. Advisor is much more laid back, has an established lab/tenure, and was interesting to talk with. The overall research focus of the lab is not what I'm interested in, but there are strong overlaps between the theory behind the work they do, and the technical skills, and the kinds of questions I want to study in Ecology, so it could probably work quite smoothly. Also, one of my potential labmates also enjoys swing dancing, and took me one of the nights I was there... fun! We'll see.

In brief, right now I have two explicit offers (detailing funding, etc) from schools, and a third in the mail apparently from the place I visited last weekend. Nothing from private U (i won't be surprised if I don't get an offer from them though - I think I'm not rabid enough for their program). That leaves only the school I'm visiting between tomorrow and Wednesday. Which by all accounts, and my background research, should be quite a lot of fun, and probably a good fit for me (similar in a lot of ways to where I was last weekend).

I'm sort of anticipating ending up with a 3-way tie for my preferred place to go, which is frightening. Private U is pretty much out. Southern state school could be cool, but their funding sounds pretty shakey compared to my other offers, and it'd be more of a gamble. That leaves 3 big state schools, one of which I work at now and like, one of which reminds me a lot of home, and one of which I'm anticipating will be the best academic/research fit for me. Gulp

More to come when I'm back from my last trip!