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*