unquantified

It was a sunny Saturday morning in Phoenix, AZ, when I found my friend sitting in a lounge chair outside, working with a spreadsheet, while his daughters played nearby. “Sorry you have to work on a Saturday,” I said, mildly concerned that my host was not attending to me. He looked up, and explained that this was not work, but rather all his stats: exercise, calorie intake, heart rate, sleep. I may have muttered something like “Oh, interesting,” and backed away slowly.

That was about five years ago, and since then my friends have embraced quantifying themselves in increasing and alarming numbers. The other night a friend offered to walk with us to our house after dinner while his wife drove their car. He enjoys our company, I thought. “I try to keep moving since my watch counts my steps.” Ah. And the weekend before, when we had organized a group camping trip in the redwoods, on day two a dear friend exclaimed “I met my steps goal yesterday, and I wasn’t even trying!” I thought back to the previous day, sitting by the campfire with friends, kids playing among the trees, seeing flowers I’d never noticed before, grilling up a feast, and the rain, the fog, then the sun and stars. Knowing that this = 13,387 steps (or whatever) should not matter, or at least it shouldn’t make it less. But to me it does make it less.

To care about our bodies and bodily function is human, to respond to little rewards and encouragements is human too. I don’t contest that a whole lot of people are fitter, skinnier, healthier because they’ve self-quantified. I’m even glad that my friends feel good in their goal setting and self-surveillance. But we are only alive for a short while, the world is vast and mysterious, and full of interesting people to boot. Is self-quantification not narcissistic introspection that holds us back from experiencing that which is greater than we are? At least this is the excuse I have for myself for not obsessively tracking myself, for being self-oblivious if you will.

You can imagine my horror, then, when upon turning on my brand new smartwatch a few months back, I found it cheerfully counting my steps. The first day it excitedly informed me that I had met my goal. How dare it set a goal and then claim it was mine? In frantically trying to disable it, I instead managed to set it to vibrate and light up with a message “you have been inactive for 2 hours, get moving!”, every 2 hours… while I was sleeping. Enraged I gave it a 1 star Amazon review. Then someone commented on my review and explained how you can hide the steps feature. As far as I know it’s still counting, but at least I don’t have to know.

Despite my staunch resistance to self-quantification, I have succumbed in some regards.
After decades of not owning a scale, I own a scale, I weigh myself. Life was better before.

In January, the Good Reads app prompted me over and over again to set a goal for the number of books I wanted to read in 2016. I ignored it. I did not set a goal, and yet the mere act of recording the books I read is influencing my behavior. I finish books I would rather set aside, just to add them to my tally. This despite knowing that there are many, many more excellent books out there than I could ever hope to read in my lifetime. But… but… if I don’t count them, does reading them count?

One way I am upping my stats on Good Reads is by consuming books with the Audible app. The first time the app buzzed with a notification that I had earned a “badge” I pointedly ignored it. Three days ago, when I was driving back from LA it gave me a ‘night owl’ badge for having listened for more than 8 hours in a day. I decided to finally track down these stupid badge things and see if I could kill them, though I didn’t hold much hope. I found them, along with the horrifying statistic that I had spent 10 days 14 hours and 20 minutes of my life listening to audio books. As for the badges I of course noticed that some I had earned and others I had not. I tapped on just one unearned one, the watchtower. It informed me that the way to earn it is to keep checking your stats. Hah! That is one badge I will NOT be earning.

Mar 282016
 
mytroublewp


[The following are my embellished recollections of things that happened about 20 years ago, and as such may not resemble reality... much.]

“The trouble with physics”, a book about the questionable validity of and investment in string theory, did not trouble me enough. The book’s troubling claim? That the top minds in theoretical physics have been spending their time on theories that not only may never be validated, but might not have made any concrete and useful predictions. Why didn’t I care? Because I had aborted my physics education and training before reaching string theory (or general relativity, for that matter), and so it was really not my problem. But I thought the book might provide a means to catch up with all that I had missed, in a form digestible by a general audience, hence requiring none of the physics knowledge that had long since left me due to disuse.

Despite the book’s engaging narration, the suspense and drama, I was not drawn in by the question of how many dimensions were required and whether they were balled up or not, whether theories were ‘finite’ and the meaning of time. Had I ever been a proper physicists in the first place?

My “trouble” with physics had its roots before I was born. My dad initially enrolled as a political science and philosophy major at the University of Zagreb. But already during his first summer internship he was turned off by the cronyism in government and decided to pursue physics instead. Being born to a physicist does not by any means condemn one to be one. But let’s face it, physicist parents can’t help but give good answers to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions a child might have about the natural world around them. My dad encouraged my interest in science. We worked on a couple of experiments, generated Mandelbrot sets, and practiced back-of-the-envelope calculations. Between the head start of physics exposure at home, and general lack of social life, i.e. ample time to devote to studying, I even received a “best physics student” award in high school.

However, when I was about to set off for Caltech in 1993, my dad cautioned me against becoming a physicist. He mentioned that the world will always need mechanical engineers, with the implication being, I suppose, that the world may not need more physicists.

But if you’re going to fall in love with physics anywhere in the world, it’s got to be Caltech. I had fully intended to not be a physics major. But I took a little quiz-by-mail before going there that placed me in an advanced section of Phys 1, which meant that I spent an extra hour/week contemplating even more physics with other freshmen who were geeking out on physics. My undergrad dorm (Blacker Hovse), was full of physics majors like me. How did I end up in such a physicist-infested house? At the beginning of each year, the Caltech freshmen are sorted into houses. The process is just like the Hogwarts sorting hat, only more accurate.

I had still gone in ambivalent about my chosen major. For a while, following my dad’s advice, I would say I was thinking about being a mechanical engineer. I also thought I might want to do “math”, based on cruising through high school calculus. Unaware of the difference between high school math and well, math, I took the sophomore level abstract algebra class my freshman year, and my first quarter progress report (at the time Caltech did not give freshmen letter grades) said only ‘Lada is getting used to the level of abstraction’. Truth be told, I wasn’t getting used to the abstraction. Writing math proofs was a maddening exercise. To my linear thinking (you start with some assumptions, e.g. spherical cows, and work from there), it was frustrating to have to fit the pieces of the puzzle (different lemmas, theorems, whatever) together in unexpected ways to arrive at a result. When I next encountered group theory, in physics, a couple of years later, I was maybe a bit better prepared, but not that delighted.

As the leaves dropped that fall (oh, wait, it was LA, so maybe as the smog lifted a little), I fell into the cult of physics. I befriended Real Genius (a made-up name to scantily cloak his identity), a particularly intense, geeky senior physics major who took me under his wing. He told me about Caltech legends, faculty past and present: students such as Real Real Genius (RRG) whose physics genius may have driven them to madness, though RG was quite the mad-scientist character himself.

One morning, Kip Thorne (science advisor to the movie Interstellar), gave a guest lecture in Phys 1, and being a Caltech alum himself, and a generally cool guy, he had a huge fan base, and many upperclassmen showed up to this freshman lecture. The lecture did not disappoint. He jumped onto and from the desk at the front of the class, bouncing around a medicine ball which he wanted us to imagine was a wormhole. I understood little but the experience was memorable because the moment that Kip Thorne opened his can of Dr. Pepper, 100 cans of Dr. Pepper fizzed (we had each covertly brought our own).

If I understood RG correctly, the goal of a Caltech physics education appeared to be to take general relativity with Kip Thorne. RG drafted a course plan (which I briefly found among the piles of papers from Caltech which I can’t bring myself to throw away, only to lose track of it again). In tiny handwriting he had listed all the courses, and brief comments about the professors. Over the top of it, I had written in red ink ‘Lada’s dreams ruined by Aschbacher’. Aschbacher was the Math 1 instructor, and whatever he did, he did not ruin my dreams, for in the first 3 years I did follow RG’s plan. I doubled up 1c/2a, and spent a summer solving endless problems for Math 2b, to be able to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year. This would enable me to take mathematical methods for physics junior year, which would be helpful in general relativity. For the first three years I took every possible physics class: optics, thermodynamics, 6 classes (usually 5 of them physics) a quarter, without exception. I delayed taking the required chemistry lab, I selected the easiest of the mandatory humanities and social science classes to not be distracted from taking more physics classes. As a result I missed the economics classes taught by some of the best experimental economists in the country.
I was too busy overdosing on physics and math to notice.

At some point the Caltech administration decided to cut back on the full 2 years of physics required for all undergrads in order to add a single quarter of freshman biology. Though this change would not affect me, my indignation was immediate. I sent the administration email arguing that physics is the more fundamental science, and that therefore one should not waste freshmen’s time with biology. Mercifully, no one in the Caltech administration replied to my idiotic opinions.

In my junior year I did not realize (even though we sat together with graduate students…), that I was taking 3 or 4 graduate level courses concurrently. It was intense.
I started frequenting Millikan library and its physics stacks even more than before. Millikan library is an architectural atrocity in the middle of the Caltech campus, where I hoped to find among the dark stacks of physics books some hint to the start of a solution to the horrendous problem sets. One of the main challenges was dodging “Millikan man”, a tutu-wearing Edward E. Simmons who had been cheated out of his share for a strain gauge patent by Caltech, and decided to haunt its library. Here is a picture of him (though he was more in a pink phase back in the days we both hung out at Millikan).
Dr Edward E Simmons

After all this coursework, when I finally had the opportunity to take general relativity from Kip Thorne, I didn’t. My friends (let’s call one of them I’m-loving-it, IMLI) were claiming that they really enjoyed staying up all night trying to solve problems they were told had no known solutions only after submitting their attempts. Senior year, while IMLI was taking the notoriously difficult solid state physics class, I realized that, having taken a max courseload of physics for 3 years, I already had enough for the degree. So I started to branch out. I took the physics class on electrical circuits, I took the digital electronics weed-out class with the EE majors, I took a class on physical oceanography because I wanted to understand the physics of waves. I had fun with courses on neural nets and machine learning, artificial life, CAD, 3D photography, etc. I got a second major in E&AS (Engineering and Applied Science, a convenient catch-all).

At the same time as my interest in physics was waning, I also had to apply for grad programs. I thought of applying to both computer science and physics programs, hoping that I would get the chance to switch to computer science. However, my dad said that I shouldn’t delay a decision, that I should decide before applying. I listened to him, and chose the more familiar, safer bet: physics. I applied to a lot of different programs. I didn’t think I had much of a chance. My GPA wasn’t stellar: 3.5 or 3.6 or something like that. My undergrad research didn’t shine: the first two summers I spent developing Runge-Kutta simulations to design a parabolic mirror that would focus solar wind onto a collection substrate. A decade later, this project (Genesis), together with its precious solar wind cargo crashed into the Utah desert, having failed to deploy a parachute. Another summer I tried (and mostly failed) to use pulsed laser ablation to deposit germanium on silicon wafers.

Only Berkeley had the sense to reject me (or rather failed to send any sort of response), while MIT, Stanford, Cornell, etc. were willing to take me in. Unlike visits at other schools, which involved dark offices and even darker labs with shiny metal vacuum chambers, my meeting with my future advisor, Bernardo Huberman, was on a sunny balcony on Stanford campus. He gave me copies of several of his papers, including a Scientific American article featuring an agent based model of social dilemmas. I still remember the cover photo of one person eating a lobster while the others were looking sadly at the hotdogs they had ordered. My thought was ‘This is fascinating. But it’s not physics…’.

I picked Stanford, maybe with Bernardo in the back of my mind, but that summer I headed to a condensed-matter physics lab to get started at Stanford early. My task was to babysit a scanning tunneling microscope, in the basement of Ginzton Lab (since justifiably demolished). There was nothing else in the basement of this building, just the one room that had been dug out seemingly just for this microscope. The microscope and I did not get along. Highlights included the 8+-year PhD student who had previously worked with it showing up and rolling liquid nitrogen on his tongue. However, beyond that he seemed to be on only marginally better terms with the microscope than I was. Near the end of the summer he told me that the instrument was a prototype, with no documentation, and had been temperamental from the start. At that point I called Bernardo and asked if I could join his research group at Xerox PARC (he had a consulting appointment at Stanford).

The 4 years of my PhD at Stanford were great. I worked in Bernardo’s small group at Xerox PARC and biked to nearby Stanford campus to take classes and attend seminars. I was excused from most graduate physics courses (having already taken them at Caltech), but did take statistical mechanics, which was enjoyable, and quantum field theory, which was intimidating. It was taught by an ex-boyfriend’s mother (who was also briefly RRGs PhD advisor) who may or may not have recognized me hiding in the back of class. The class involved lengthy calculations with what seemed like hundreds of terms (and that was just electron-electron scattering). At some point I found (or was given) a Mathematica library that actually did all of this for you. Somehow my enjoyment of any particular physics problem had a lot to do with whether Mathematica could help. I loved Mathematica. In the end I looked at the A- with great (undeserved) relief and kissed theoretical physics goodbye.

I also took a required astronomy lab, which meant going many summer nights to the telescope in the Stanford hills, hoping against hope that the summer fog would not roll in before you took your photo of some very distant object. I felt largely indifferent toward Jupiter, nearby stars, and faraway galaxies. I think I had always felt this way. I must have been the only physics major to not take an astronomy class at Caltech. I can’t explain it. I was just much more interested in explaining easily observable things, things closer down to earth. But I think it does bring into question how genuine my love of physics was. The rest of my Stanford coursework was filled with stats, computer science, operations research, photography, sailing, and tennis. There was so much more to learn outside of physics.

My research career blossomed. Thanks to Bernardo’s good sense of things that were about to become big, I was working on complex networks right before a lot of other people were. I wrote a couple of papers just at the right time, only occasionally worrying how this work was going to become an applied physics thesis. I can’t tell whether anyone on my committee read my thesis (and discovered that it was in fact not physics) before signing. My outside chair, a computer scientist, said that mine was the first thesis defense he understood entirely.

As I drifted farther and farther away from physics, I kept telling myself that I was going to keep it fresh. I’d re-read Feynman’s lectures, bound volumes which I had shelled out my pocket money for while attending Caltech. Maybe I would re-read Cohen-Tannoudji, quantum mechanics was one of my favorite subjects. But this never happened, and my physics knowledge atrophied, in favor of new ground in statistics and sociology (though I’m not the most diligent in reading up on these either). At some point I stopped mentioning having been a physicist, and when explicitly asked, I would fess up to having been a very, very applied physicist (my PhD was in Applied Physics). ‘The Trouble with Physics’ was pretty much the first “physics” book I had picked up in well over a decade.

A couple of years back I got into audio books, and driving down to LA to give a talk, decided to listen to Feynman’s ‘Surely you’re joking…’. I got a very eerie sense of déjà vu, or rather déjà entendu. The way that Feynman wrote: how he had been stumped by a problem, or curious about some aspect of culture, and how he decided to see whether he could figure out how to do something, and kept practicing until he was decent at it, it was exactly the manner in which some of my physicist friends had spoken. There were two possible explanations: a) they had read Feynman back then, probably in high school, and had been emulating him or b) they were true physicists like Feynman was, and I was not. Either way, what kind of a young physicist doesn’t read Feynman?

Though I’m not sure I ever really loved physics, I loved physicists. I was so consistent in this that when I stepped out with a computer scientist at a party my junior year, a tipsy housemate asked him: ‘You’re a physicist, right? No? But you must secretly be a physicist!’ What was it about physicists? There is something romantic about hurtling into the unknown, seeking truth… Dating physicists also made for good stories: upon first encountering the upper parts of my female anatomy, one physicist did what any physicist would do – he checked out their vibrational modes! No doubt part of dating physicists was liking the guys I wanted to be like. Probably mostly it was that these were just the guys I was already hanging out with.

Except… the one time I fell for someone I had just met (a Calvin Klein model-type hanging around on the same beach), he also turned out to be a physicist. We happily chatted about our favorite journals and preference for LaTeX for writing papers, but my heart beat fastest when he brought up a physics problem from a class he had taken and I desperately tried to remember how to solve it.

In the end I married a computer scientist, which I highly recommend, especially if they work in systems or networking. Physicists may like solving difficult problems, but they prefer finding simple, elegant solutions. A systems person puts in the time to build something and debugs it until it works. Marriage, I think, is more amenable to the latter approach.

My departure from physics may not seem that surprising, especially now that I’ve told you the full story, but if I had formulated any expectations back then about others’ career paths, what happened next would have been the opposite of such expectations. The very people who flaunted their physics prowess or were just so genius that others noted it for them — they most quickly turned to other disciplines. The quieter, more modest physicists are the ones who stuck with it longer — through their PhDs, and on to faculty or industry positions. My quiet Ph77 lab partner? He’s a tenured professor at MIT with a dazzling list of publications. My grad school friend whose lab-mates plastered her nitrogen tank and vacuum chamber with smiley stickers? She’s a physics professor with papers in Science and Nature Physics. A friend who sometimes asked me for help on problem sets? She’s a rocket scientist. Two other women from my dorm are astronomers.

IMLI landed a super-selective quant job after getting a Physics PhD. I saw him a year or two after he had started on Wall Street and he talked about accounting for something like phases of the moon (just kidding) in black box algorithms. He seemed happy. In fact, I think IMLI’s happiness was always somewhat proportional to the difficulty of the challenge.

An ex who had published physics papers even before enrolling at Caltech also went the quant route, right after college. He also talked about enjoying the challenges of problems such as predicting whiskey prices using weather data or guiding x-rays to zap tumors. He turned in his birkenstocks for dancing shoes and to my bemusement (OK, astonishment) started dating gorgeous women on the ballroom dance circuit.
Among my physicist exes (I had to have a few for sampling purposes, OK?), just one, a quiet, modest one, became a professor of physics.

Google absorbed several other physicists I knew. GG (Geekiest Geek, a new character in this story) was one of those nerds in high school who delighted in anything math and physics. I ran into GG again at Stanford where he was getting a PhD working on string theory and playing Magic. Next I saw him at Google architecting some systems. Another Caltech physicist from my year stayed in academia for 15 years, working on quantum computing, before also becoming a Googler. Another, a modest-physicist friend of IMLI’s, is also there, leading an engineering team to beam internet from the sky.

RG, being 3 years ahead of me, graduated my freshman year and continued studying theory in grad school, but the problems given to him by his advisor to try to solve were leading nowhere (perhaps this was just a symptom of the entire field going nowhere, ala The Trouble with Physics?). He finished his PhD in (somewhat) more applied physics, and works as a physicist/engineer in industry.

For years I would occasionally google RRG to see whether his real, real genius theories had finally been recognized and published. I still have a binder with a grainy printout of his picture on the spine (this has more to do with my inability to throw away my physics notes and problem sets than any sort of continued reverence for RRG). LinkedIn has a couple of people who shared RRG’s name, all employed as non-physicists. In the right-hand column, LinkedIn helpfully informed me that people who searched for RRG had also searched for another person from Blacker Hovse. Who else was looking for RRG? In any case, the trail had gone cold.

Speaking of googling, ironically (in the Alanis Morissette way, not a truly ironic way), the Calvin Klein Physicist went on to model. He became a physical oceanographer, not just of the deep-ocean waves that I had to be content with in my undergrad course, but modeling surface waves and wind, just the stuff I had dreamed of learning about before meeting him. In his spare time he translated Einstein’s Relativity. No, he couldn’t just have taken a course on the subject that I shied away from, he had to write a book. And then among the book-related interviews I found while doing “research” for this post, was his interview in a women’s magazine on “the beauty of physics”. A few brooding portraits of him graced the article, and in it he explained applications of special and general relativity, how advances in physics are made, and what makes a theory beautiful. The sidebar advertised articles on the secrets of youthful looks and how challenges can make a relationship stronger. CKP was modeling… physics.

So that’s where we all are now. As we work at our quant jobs, or software jobs, or OK, actual physics jobs, I don’t know how many of us think back to those heady times, when we were intoxicated with our own bravado and the beauty of physics. Several of my current colleagues at Facebook are former physicists like me, something we sheepishly admit on occasion. I’m sort of glad to have their company, but sort of nervous too that they might mention some actual physics.

 

I come from a not-very-reproductive family: no siblings, no cousins. As a kid, to hang out with kids, I had to try, and I didn’t try too hard.

As a teenager, I babysat twice. The first time didn’t really count, as my charge slept the entire time. The second time, two toddlers alternated getting exactly what they wanted with screaming exactly what they wanted. I turned to dog-sitting and avoided any child-supervision tasks for the next 20 years.

In those 20 years I don’t think any kids missed out. My interactions with them consisted mostly of eyeing them nervously whilst trying to back away. In contrast, my husband can have a kid in stitches (the good kind) in a blink. We had a kid because of his parenting potential — not mine.

The helpful messaging I received about having a kid was (1) it’s different when they’re yours (+1 for having kids), (2) childless people have time and resources to do nice things like travel (-1 for having kids). Eventually I was getting less excited about (2), so I figured I’d test (1). There was a bit more thought to it than that, mostly revolving around overpopulation, the singularity, global warming, nuclear war, pandemics and in general how many happy years a child born now could have before humanity collapsed.

Being pregnant was not that exciting. When the oppressive malaise of the first trimester finally passed, I could have forgotten about the pregnancy except for having to stay away from things known to the state of California to cause birth defects (i.e. any paints or other toys I liked to play with), having to submit to check-ups, and finding that turning sideways did not help in squeezing through tight spaces.

The quirks passed me by. I did not have any interesting food cravings. I mistook the first N weeks of kicks for intestinal activity. Once I did finally recognize the kicks, I identified this more with “Total Recall” than some miraculous process of creating new life. I thought I’d never experience the things you are supposed to experience, when finally in the last night of pregnancy I got the nesting instinct: after constructing an outdoor storage rack for firewood (no paint applied!) and in the middle of scrubbing the shower at 10pm, I went into labor.

The next day was not the most joyful day of my life. It was highly unpleasant. After, I was holding my son, trying to get the breastfeeding thing figured out, and for lack of a clue was patting my son on the head, because that’s what you’d do if you had, say, a dog or a cat in your lap. The lactation nurse said ‘Stop doing that! You are distracting him.’ It took a few days for my son and me to figure out breastfeeding, but we did. The best thing about breastfeeding is that it wasn’t pumping, though of course you are pumping because you are breastfeeding. In any case, I found myself eagerly awaiting the 6 month mark, only to find out that the probably-pulled-out-of-thin-air guidelines were to breastfeed for a full year. We made it through to 9 months, and when we stopped, neither my son nor I really looked back.

The tabloids are filled with celebs-turned-first-time-parents gushing how being with their baby is the most amazing thing. Yes, the first smiles and other milestones were cute. But having failed to contain our son in a playpen, we were left holding/watching him nonstop instead. It was exhausting, and though at times interesting, most of the time it was not that interesting. Once, when my son was still a wee baby and I had surrendered him to full-time daycare, a colleague at work asked if I thought about my child all the time, and I admitted that no, in fact, I pretty much didn’t think about him while at work. The colleague said I was lucky, because he was never able to put his children out of his mind. I wondered if I was somehow heartless. Trying to get at the extent of my heartlessness, I would ask myself how distraught I would be if something happened to my son. Lest you think that this was some especially macabre train of thought, I have to say that my child’s carseat alone had 5 different tags in yellow and white warning about death or serious injury, followed by his highchair, his stroller, multiple toys, not to mention that things like blankets and plastic bags and blinds and outlets have posed a serious threat to his life throughout. Though I convinced myself I would experience unbearable pain should such a thing occur, my guilty thought was that it would be a waste of insane amounts of effort.

At my son’s 2-year-old doctor’s visit, the doctor cautioned: ‘Never be in a different room than your son. They can easily get hurt at this age. Even just taking a big step, they could break their leg’. I’m still not sure how exactly a kid is supposed to break their leg thus, but we obediently stood watch continuously, just in case. While not witnessing any leg breakage, we did witness ear-busting tantrums. Age 2 is not a time of harmonious joy with one’s child. There is a lot of frustration on the part of the young one who can’t express or understand many things. I tried desperately to occupy the time. We went to all the local zoos, museums, and construction sites many times over. Despite my efforts, my son much preferred his dad who could make any situation fun and silly. My slow progress made me wonder how I was expected to become this very significant person, a “mother”, to my son.

At the ’3 year’ annual visit, the doctor stayed mum about our having to keep watch on our son all the time. Wisely, we did not specifically ask either. Upon returning home, my son did not all of sudden self-entertain in the other room, but I could attempt to do so. Somewhere between age 3 and 4, things got very interesting. We loved making up stories together, exploring, playing, laughing and laughing and laughing. We are friends. It is good. He’s 5 now. He is a delight. If I ever stay late at work or travel, I miss him, genuinely miss him with a physical ache. I finally know what all the hoopla is about with having kids (though I’ve been warned that this phase ends all too soon and then you have a stinky, complicated teenager on your hands).

This does not translate into wanting another. A while ago a friend asked me to hold her baby while she looked for something in her bag. Awkwardly I held the baby in my lap as if I had never held one before.

 

The little prince and the magic naptime book

There once was a little prince who went to royal preschool. After every royal lunch at royal preschool, all the princes and princesses were supposed to take a royal nap. However, the little prince had not been able to nap a wink since he had turned 2, and now he was already 4. Seeing the poor little prince lay awake naptime after naptime, the teachers allowed him to bring a book to read while the other princes and princesses were napping. The prince would place the book in his cubby and retrieve it right at naptime. But sometimes the sneaky princess Camilla would snatch his naptime book and read it herself, making the little prince very sad. One day, the little prince brought a new book, with a shiny gold cover, one he had found hidden away in the back of his parents’ bookshelf. Sure enough, at naptime Camilla snatched the book and took it to her bed to read under the sheets. When the little prince got the book back, he thought he could feel its pages ruffle. The little prince joked:

‘You seem to be as upset that Princess Camilla snatched you as I am.’

To his surprise, the book seemed to tilt back and forth in agreement. The next day the prince brought the same book to preschool, and again princess Camilla took the book. She opened it under her sheets, but immediately started shrieking.

‘There are snakes and dragons in that book, and they are moving! Get it away from me!’.

The prince took the book and opened it to see what princess Camilla was talking about. There he saw a smiling dragon wink at him. From that day on, the prince brought the same book every day, but every time he opened the magical book, a different and wonderful story would unfold. And princess Camilla never tried to take his naptime book ever again.


 

The wizard who hated light

There once was a dark wizard who liked only the dark. He despised the light. He spent his whole life plotting how to get rid of the sun. One day, he used a powerful spell to summon the biggest, darkest clouds to cover his castle and the entire village below. The whole village grew very dark. However, the children of the village knew of a counter-spell. The counter-spell was a simple joyful song and dance, and as the children of the village raised their voices and danced, the clouds dispersed, and the sun shone once again.

Many happy, sunny days ensued, but the wizard was not idle in his dark castle. He was busy thinking up a plan that could not fail. He cast a spell on the earth to slow it down, to slow it down so much that the village and castle would always be on the opposite end of the earth from the sun, and it would be eternal night. The children came together and tried their song and dance, but it was no use. They dispelled the clouds, but beyond lay only the stars and the moon, no sun. They would have to make the earth spin faster again, but how?

Then a little boy had an idea. He called Santa Claus on the North Pole:
‘Santa?’.
‘Yes?’.
‘Santa, I need to ask you for something’.
‘Have you been good, my boy?’
‘Well… No, not exactly.’
‘Hmmm?’
‘But I’m not asking for me. I’m asking for all the kids living on my side of the planet’.
‘OK, go ahead then, what would you like?’
‘Santa, your reindeer fly at night, right?’
‘Yes, Rudolf leads the way’
‘Could I.. borrow them?’
Then the boy told Santa his plan. Santa and his reindeer flew straight down to the village. The boy tied Santa’s sled to a big tree, and told the reindeer ‘Giddyap’. As the reindeer pulled, the earth started spinning again. Slowly at first, but then faster and faster, until it was spinning just as it had before. As the earth spun back into sunrise, the wizard was caught in its rays, and crouched in pain:
‘No! No!’ he shouted, ‘The light, I can’t stand it’.
The children of the village saw their chance, they seized the wizard and threw him in the deepest and darkest dungeon. He never saw the light of day again — and actually, this suited him just fine.


Superhero preschool: Triangle Boy and Impervious Man
In the city of Zappow, where a lot of superheroes liked to live, there was a preschool for their superhero kids. In this special preschool, they could hone their skills in a safe and nurturing environment. Ice Girl had ice powers, just like Elsa in ‘Frozen’. Storm Boy could whip up a tornado. Lightning Girl could zap just about anything. And then there was Triangle Boy. He could… make things into triangles. Nobody was impressed by his powers, especially not the other kids at preschool. Then one day a a new villain, Impervious Man, arrived in town. The grown-up superheroes tried to stop him, but failed. Now Impervious Man was at the preschool gates. The kids knew they had to stop him themselves. Storm Boy summoned a tornado. It swirled around Impervious Man but did not sway him one bit. Ice Girl shot ice at Impervious Man. Impervious Man had skin so slick, the ice simply slid off of him. Finally, Lightning Girl zapped bolts of lightning at Impervious Man, but he merely laughed, as if they had tickled him. After his friends had run away, Triangle Boy faced Impervious Man alone. He didn’t quite know where to look, so he stared at Impervious’ shoes… and, being very anxious, accidentally turned them into triangles.

‘Ow! Ow! Ow! My Toes!’, Impervious Man cried and fell over.

Triangle Boy quickly summoned all his power and turned Impervious Man into a triangle. The police truck came and hauled Impervious Man to a high security villain holding cell. Back at preschool, all the other kids crowded around Triangle Boy:

‘How did you turn his shoes into triangles?’
‘Did you have to practice a lot? ‘
‘What else can you do?’
‘Can you show us?’

No one ever thought his powers were lame again.


The little boy and the boing-boing bike
There once was a little boy who loved to skip and hop. He would not walk, he would leap and bound, so high, that the top of his head would nearly touch the tree branches above the sidewalk. This came in handy when, for example, there was a kitten who got stuck in a tree. Its owners could call the fire department, OR, they could call the boy, who with one big jump, would snatch the kitten from the branch and deliver it safely into the thankful owners’ hands. However, as skilled as the boy was in jumping, he was terrible at biking. He couldn’t help wanting to skip and hop, often launching himself off of his bike, and SPLAT, face-first onto the pavement. After a few such mishaps, his parents permitted him to ride only a lowly tricycle. All his friends had long given up their training wheels on their big-boy- and big-girl bikes. They couldn’t help but tease the little boy on his tricycle and this made him sad. So one day, he decided to make a bike that he could pedal AND bounce around with. Instead of regular bicycle wheels, he installed the springiest, bounciest exercise balls on his bike. He took the bike for a spin. When he pedaled, the bike wasn’t the speediest, but when he added a bounce, SPROINK, BOINK, BOING, his bike made great big leaps, bouncing over other kids on their bikes. Whaaa? – the other kids exclaimed. Pretty soon everyone wanted a boing-boing bike. The little boy forgave his friends for teasing him, and made boing-boing bikes for all of them — for a fee :) .


The runaway shorts
There once was a little boy who had a pair of shorts. Or rather, he had this pair of shorts most of the time. The shorts, they liked to sneak off whenever they got a chance, for example, when the little boy took them off to go splash in the sprinklers at a friend’s house. Unhappy about having to go home in just his underwear, the little boy came up with a solution. When the shorts sneaked back into his room in the middle of the night, he quickly put a collar (belt) on them, attached a leash, and held on tightly to the leash. Now, whenever he went to school, he’d loop the leash around his wrist. At home, he would tie the leash to his dresser.
No longer having to worry about losing his shorts, the little boy was happy. But the shorts grew droopier and droopier with sadness, until one day, the boy could not even walk any more, the shorts had sagged all the way to the ground. The boy decided it was time to have a serious conversation with his shorts. He said:

‘Shorts, I can see you are sad, but I cannot let you off the leash, because it is quite embarrassing to have to walk around in public in my underwear.’

The shorts thought for a moment and then replied:

‘I know my disappearances had caused you grief. But I cannot change my nature, I feel that I will die in captivity.’

Suddenly, the boy had an idea. He proposed:

‘Let’s make a deal. Every night you are free to go wherever you like, but you have to be back in the dresser every morning and you can’t leave me in the middle of the day when I need you.’

The shorts replied:
‘Throw in some Ocean Breeze detergent into my regular wash, and you’ve got yourself a deal. I hear the lady shorts are crazy about that scent.’

‘I’ll talk to my parents and see if that can be arranged.’

And the boy and the shorts lived happily, smelling of ocean breezes, until the boy outgrew them. Before putting the shorts in the giveaway bag the now not-so-little-boy sewed in a special tag: Let run free at night. Prefers Ocean Breeze detergent.


The explorers who go toot
There once were two young explorers who had not a lot of money but really liked adventure. Because they spent the little money they had paying their way around the world, they could afford to buy nothing but canned beans to eat. Which meant that they went toot. A LOT.

On one of their adventures they stumbled upon a pyramid in the middle of the desert. They stepped inside and as their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they noticed a sphinx guarding a passageway. They were sure that great treasure lay beyond, but as they eyed the passageway, the sphinx spoke in a deep, ancient voice:

‘No one can pass who does not know the secret password’.

The explorers looked at one another. They consulted their notebooks. They tried all the secret passwords they had written down:

‘Gimmeyogold?’ stuttered the first explorer.

‘NO’ said the sphinx.

‘Steppasayd?’, tried the other.

‘NO’.

‘Entramos nos’?

‘NO’.

As time went on, and password after password failed to satisfy the sphinx, the two explorers found they could hardly contain their toots any more. TOOT went the first explorer. TOOT-TOOT, went the second. Suddenly, the sphinx rose on its front paws and said:

‘You are correct. King Toot’s secret password was toot-toot-toot! You may now enter his secret treasure chambers.’

Loaded with treasure beyond their wildest dreams, the two explorers resolved to never give up what had gotten them rich in the first place: eating beans. Hence they always remained the explorers who went toot, only going on much better funded expeditions.


Extra: Superhero preschool: Vivian
A few months after Triangle Boy defeated Impervious Man, a new girl started attending superhero preschool in the town of Zappow. Her name was Vivian.
‘Vivian? What kind of an ordinary name is that?’, asked Ice Girl.
‘What powers do you have?’ questioned Storm Boy.
But Vivian would not say. Sometimes Vivian would try to join the games the other kids played – like hide-and-seek. However, she was too good at finding where others were hiding.
‘Do you have x-ray vision?’ Lighting Girl asked. ‘Kids with x-ray vision are not allowed to play hide-and-seek!’
But Vivian was also really good at beating everyone at checkers and chess. It did not help her popularity. So she played on her own for the most part.

One day, a new threat came to Zappow. It was a giant octopus. With its huge tentacles it grabbed hold of skyscraper after skyscraper, lifting them up and slamming them back to the ground. The grown-up superheroes could do nothing to stop the giant octopus. The preschool kids tried their best too, but the octopus was so huge, that it only slightly recoiled at the ice/lightning and other powers the kids threw at it. Triangle boy tried his best, summoned all his power, and turned the octopus into a triangle. But the octopus’ body was so pliable, that it just squished back into its normal shape.

Everyone decided to run, except Vivian, who hid behind a wall, as if she was listening to something. She called after the other preschool kids:
‘Wait! I think I know why the octopus is destroying everything!’
‘Do you remember the new and unusual octopus we saw during our field trip to the aquarium yesterday?’
‘Yes? Why are you talking about field trips now?!’
‘I think it’s this monster’s baby. She’s looking for it and smashing everything in her way! Let’s bring the baby octopus back to her’.

So Storm Boy whipped up a fierce wind to bring them all to the aquarium in a jiffy. Ice Girl broke open the tank the baby octopus was in, while Vivian took the octopus into a bucket. Storm Boy took them back to where the monster octopus was turning over building and uprooting trees. Lightning girl threw a bolt nearby to get the monster’s attention. As the octopus turned to face the kids, Vivian held up the bucket with the baby octopus. The monster immediately grabbed the bucket, cradling its baby and disappeared as quickly as it had come.
‘How did you know what the monster wanted?’ Ice Girl turned to Vivian.
‘She’s a mind-reader, of course!’ Triangle Boy exclaimed, finally realizing Vivian’s secret.
And so, the preschool kids now understood why Vivian had not wanted to reveal her power. And they started to accept her more, gradually.
‘Well, that’s a cool power’, admitted Storm Boy, ‘But I’m still not playing chess with her’, he concluded.


Extra: The little boy and the boing-boing bike and the explorers who go toot on a cruise ship
There once was a cruise ship. It was the BIGGEST, HUGEST, most ENORMOUS cruise ship, at least the captain claimed so. On its maiden voyage, it was to set out to the arctic, for a tour of icy wonders. As the passengers were boarding, a little boy came pushing along a strange bike — instead of regular wheels, it had exercise balls. The captain said:
‘Halt! No vehicles allowed aboard the cruise ship.’
‘But is this not the biggest, most vast cruise ship ever built?’ – asked the boy.
‘Yes, so what of it?’ – replied the captain.
‘Well, how could the most awesome cruise ship ever not accommodate a little boy’s bike?’
‘Oh, all right, bring it aboard’ – the captain gave in.

It was already on the first day at sea that the little boy took out his boing-boing bike for a spin on the ship’s vast decks. Sproiiiing-boing-boing-wheeee….. SPLOOOSH. The ship’s rails, which were perfectly adequate for keeping passengers and strollers in, were easily hopped over by the boing-boing bike. The alarm horn sounded, and life rings were thrown from the deck down into the ocean. In the meantime, the little boy had discovered that his boing-boing bike… floated! Its big exercise ball wheels gave it enough buoyancy, and by pedaling, the little boy was able to cruise along the water’s surface. In his excitement, the little boy started shouting:
‘Hey, look what my bike can…’.
But the angry captain cast a net over the little boy and his bike and unceremoniously reeled them in. He sent the dripping boy back to his cabin and confiscated the boing-boing bike.
A few nights later, off the coast of Newfoundland, when no one expected it (least of all the captain who had fallen asleep at the helm), the cruise ship struck an iceberg. It started to slowly sink. Everyone piled into the life rafts, it seemed that everyone was safe, except… for one little girl who had somehow fallen into the ocean and was quite a distance away from the life rafts. The little boy saw his confiscated boing-boing bike floating nearby. He jumped on it with one of his big leaps and quickly pedaled over to the girl, pulled her onto his boing-boing bike, and brought her back to safety.

Just as the captain was commending the little boy on his bravery, a crewman exclaimed:
‘Captain, sir, there are still 2 passengers missing!’.
The cruise ship was now almost completely under water, and the brave captain donned his scuba diving gear to search for the missing passengers. But how could he find them? The ship *was* vast, after all. The two missing passengers, we know them well, were the explorers who go toot, on a mission to find the legendary diamond-haired polar bear. They had eaten too many canned beans for dinner and were fast asleep when the ship started to sink. Now they found themselves under water and in big trouble. They nodded to each other, and with their last strength, let out two giant toots. The toot bubbles rose faithfully exactly above their location. The captain noticed the bubbles immediately, and dove down, rescuing the two explorers. He was wearing his scuba gear and so did not smell or suspect anything (fortunately).
‘How smart of you to save your breath and signal to me with air bubbles!’ he told the 2 rescued explorers.
‘Eeerrrm, yes.’ stuttered the explorers who go toot, happy that they were alive to continue their adventures… on another trip.

Sep 202014
 

Week 1: [Still in an excited state, best for adventure/exploration travel] Where shall we go today? Bike tour? Explore the old ruins? What if I just go to the beach? Look at me I’m on the beach. I’m relaxing. I’m reading a book. Should I post about reading a book on the beach? If I go online, will I need to deal with work? Maybe I’ll do just a bit of work? Or maybe I’ll distract myself with some fun activity [repeat].

Week 2: [Work worries have receded, with secondary worries flooding in] What have I done with my life? Am I the person I want to be? What is that spot on my shoulder. Should I have it checked out? I resolve to be better. Resolve to do X,Y,Z when I get back, have had years to do X,Y,Z.

Week 3: [Secondary worries have receded, complete relaxation has set in] What should I have for breakfast? Which beach do I go to? Which book do I read? If I go kayaking will I still have time to finish reading my book? I’ll just bring it in the kayak. Yeah.

Last week: [Desperate attempt to really enjoy the remaining days] Today is the nth day until the vacation is over, gotta enjoy it. But it will be over soon. But I gotta enjoy it. Remember this. It will be over soon.

Sadly, any vacation < 4 weeks does not contain a proper week 3.

 

Despite a cursory understanding of bluescreen technology, I still worry…

Jun 012014
 

[spoiler alert:] It was a two-body problem/opportunity. But many people have asked me about it and so I thought I’d pitch in my 2 cents about academia vs. industry (which will hopefully not be too biased since really I like both and the decision is mostly independent of their merits). Of course, opinions are strictly my own.

TL;DR
First, let me tell you how I got to academia and back (click to expand)


I worked on my PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford from 1997 to 2001. I was only on campus for classes, however, as I was an advisee of Bernardo Huberman at Xerox PARC (Bernardo is a consulting professor for Stanford). As I was about to graduate, Bernardo offered me a job at HP Labs, where he was moving to, and I stayed working in this group until 2005, when Mark Newman forwarded me a job posting from the University of Michigan. I wrote back ‘There is no way I could be a professor’. He wrote back that he thought I’d be good at it. At the time I only knew of Mark (or rather ‘Newman’ as I called him then) through his work, which I thought was brilliant, and so I believed what he said (since getting to know him better, I know his work is impeccable but that he can be wrong about other matters). Regardless, I applied, I got the job offer, but then spoke to my husband TJ and said ‘But there is no way we could move to Michigan’. Being the great guy that he is, he said, we’ll work it out. We did. TJ took a research job at Ford and I started my tenure track job at Michigan (School of Information/Center for the Study of Complex Systems/and eventually EECS). 6 years later we were back in California for my sabbatical (I was splitting my time between Berkeley and Facebook). When my sabbatical was over, UofM permitted me to extend my leave and I stayed on at Facebook while TJ first led Ford’s Silicon Valley Research Lab and then switched to a startup. This month my leave expires and I will transition to being an Adjunct, which will permit me to keep teaching for UofM via Coursera, and will continue my full-time job at Facebook. And that is the story of how I became a post-tenure drop-out.

Here’s what I think about academia:
You will have great colleagues but you will have to work hard to talk to them or work with them.


(Update: After seeing this post, many of my SI colleagues chimed in to correct that the social environment at SI is thriving, and I believe them (and also already mentioned that the new digs do a lot to help this). So I stand corrected — if you are at SI you’ll have lots of opportunities to talk and work with your colleagues!).
At PARC, HP Labs, and now Facebook, if you need(ed) to talk to someone you worked with regularly, you walk(ed) over to their office/cubicle/desk. Most days you can even gather up a small group to go to lunch together. In my naïveté I expected something similar at UofM, especially after having such nice long chats with everyone when I first interviewed and then on my return visit. However, with some exceptions, most faculty were in hiding, either trying to get work done at home or in their “other” office, or working behind firmly closed doors. A few weeks in I finally spotted the nice colleague across the hall in his office. I rushed over to say hello. He blocked the doorway, hurriedly said his welcome and then explained that he had to do some work. Around the same time I got feedback via email from the chair of the curriculum committee on a new course I had proposed. Since I had never taught (not even been a TA) I asked to meet in person to understand the feedback better. He said he would have time in 3 weeks. Once I started teaching the following semester, I behaved exactly as they had, keeping my office door firmly shut. Puzzlingly, some of the most prolific faculty, e.g. the aforementioned Mark Newman, leave their door regularly ajar and if you knock will ask you to come in and chat. How they accomplish that, I do not know.

Over time I gained some regular collaborators, and enjoyed working with them immensely. But others I would only chat with e.g. when we were on the same thesis committee. At some point I realized that I most cherished the 10 minutes when the student has defended and is asked the leave the room. Then the committee discusses what the student could have done (but didn’t) and these great ideas start flying around. But then the student is called back in before they freak out, and you realize that the next time you’ll be in a room with these people having such a great time discussing research will be the next thesis defense. I should say that especially the School of Information (SI) @ UofM was very cognizant of these issues, and the offices + cubicles in the new building were designed to facilitate collaboration and interaction. But I visited many other universities when giving guest lectures and for the most part saw closed faculty doors, or was regularly told by the people I was visiting that they came to campus just to hear my talk or meet with me. Actually, outside visitors (guest speakers or job candidates) ironically (if i’m using the term correctly) present a great opportunity to talk to people in your *own* school/dept.



Teaching is the most rewarding thing, if you can control yourself, and even if you can't

Near the end of my stay at HP Labs I was getting a bit depressed. Even though I was writing the papers that would eventually be my most cited, the days seemed to drag on. I wasn’t sure about the worth of my work, what exactly had I accomplished? Once I started teaching, all of that was dispelled. During every lecture/lab, I knew from the feedback that I was imparting some knowledge on others, knowledge that I was excited about and felt was important. It also doesn’t hurt that students are often eager to tell you when they go on to use those skills elsewhere. It just feels good, very good, both in the short and long run.
But it can also consume all of your time, and not everyone will be grateful (understatement). I knew that the most beloved courses were often ones where the instructor puts up some slides, discusses some concepts excitedly with the class, and then grades easily. But this wasn’t how I learned. In my undergrad days I learned very little in lecture. I learned by solving problem sets. So for my classes I would spend hours and hours cleaning data sets or setting up agent based models or writing data-fetching scripts the students could modify. As a result, in my stats class they could figure out the relationship between braces/math team/cheerleading and having a boyfriend, the relationships between age and happiness/sleep, etc. etc. In my social network analysis class they could simulate many of the processes at the slide of a slider and the click of a button. In the agent based modeling class, I wrote shells for the students’ agents to compete either with random payoff matrices or in a simulated stock trading market. It was really fun (especially for me), but it was also a lot of work for me, and for the students, which of course wasn’t always appreciated. And I had very little self control. Even though I taught stats several years in a row, when a new data set came out, e.g. a Pew survey on attitudes toward internet privacy, I couldn’t help but make a new assignment. Or I’d ask colleagues to give me data from their studies to make the course content more relevant. What was worse, because I was most motivated to do all of this the night before, the material was less organized than it ideally should have been..
In any case, I’m grateful that UofM will let me continue to teach for them through Coursera, because I do miss teaching.

There is a different kind of teaching, namely mentoring graduate students. This can be rewarding (as you see the student mature and find their own footing in the research world and also many of them are also just so damn bright and a joy to work with) and frustrating as well (as you find yourself taking the role of copy editor rather than getting to do the fun parts of the research yourself). The responsibility of it can be frightening. Here is a person whose future career trajectory depends on you: not just whether they will finish their PhD, but whether you will help them write the kinds of papers and will write the kinds of letters for them that will get them an academic job.



You get to do whatever work you want, on evenings and weekends

It’s unsurprising that you can fill all your time with teaching. But that is only part of it. There are a myriad tasks that will happily fill your academic day, very few of them having to do with actual research. There is the committee work, but it is bounded. However, once your work is out there enough, you will get constant requests to review both papers and proposals. The one year I counted, I figured out that I had reviewed 80 papers + proposals. 80!! Even turning down that volume of requests is a chore. Whenever you think you finally have an hour or two to do some work you’d like to do, more than likely something like an overdue review or recommendation letter will stand in your way. Funny story: a colleague at Facebook had asked a well-established academic to collaborate. Reportedly, the academic laughed and said: ‘Do you know how long I’ve been in this business? All I do all day is write recommendation letters’.

Now, probably for most people, recommendation letters are no big deal. I don’t know if you’ve ever read a recommendation letter by Jon Kleinberg. Jon, as you probably know, is a recognized genius, beloved teacher, and (as I now know) a generous collaborator. You might think that next to all these achievements, he would have little time to write eloquent, 3-4 page letters, that not only describe all the best qualities of the students and their papers, but even give better summaries of the students’ independent work than the student gave. But no, he does write those letters. I, on the other hand, tend to sweat over these. I procrastinate as long as possible, then spend an entire evening on one, only to have to increase the font size so that it spills over to page 2. Don’t even ask about tenure letters, those take considerably longer. Almost-funny story: at some point UofM changed their student travel grant form to an online format. Whereas before, there were two lines on the paper where you needed to scribble why the student should get to travel to the conference, e.g. “has paper, needs to present”, now you were asked to attach a PDF of the recommendation letter. I spent some quality time writing these letters, until I finally checked that it’s ok to attach a PDF saying “has paper, needs to present”. The time I really realized how time consuming letter writing is was shortly after my son’s birth one October. In November and December the requests flooded in, and the only work I managed to get done was writing the letters.



You are your own agent

As a professor, sure, you have a boss. They might ask you to do things, such as teach particular courses, get more funding, join committees. But once you do those things, you pretty much rule your own world. You get teaching ratings, and your course proposals are reviewed by a committee, but once you’re in the classroom, you run the show. You pick the research you work on, and the recognition you seek is primarily external, since this is the thing that ultimately counts. You publish what you like. You spend your grant money as you please. In contrast, in industry, you have a boss. You check in regularly with your boss. Your boss might be very cool and very supportive (as has been the case with all of mine), but you are always thinking what they’ll think of your work and whether they’ll approve. You also have to get your publications approved (Facebook is particularly cool about this, but it is not necessarily the case everywhere in industry and at all times). Though in research labs, no one is checking your hours and you can work from home, in academia you can disappear for days, and as long as you’ve clued in your students and other people who depend on you, people will think it perfectly normal.

It’s all about you and your work
Whatever you do in academia, it’s about you and your work. You travel around, you talk about it. You write about it. Even grant writing I think is wonderfully straightforward: you apply to do some work you want to do, (eventually) you get the money, you do it. Yes, you are part of a this larger thing, your university, and you represent them when you go around, but the affiliation is secondary. You’d still be doing the same work if you were elsewhere. In contrast, when you are part of a company, you are a part of it. You represent it at conferences and you represent it to friends and to strangers. When I worked at HP Labs I would invariably get the same question after every talk: “Why does HP care about social networks?” (this was back in ~2003, of course everyone these days cares about social networks, right?). In academia the external recognition is also mostly a direct consequence of your efforts: if you write a good paper you will get cited, or you might receive awards or more offers of invited lectures. If other researchers at your university do something really cool, you might feel some pride, but ultimately it has not that much to do with you. In industry, the internal recognition mechanisms are typically very good and rather rewarding. But externally, you are somehow responsible not just for your own work, but for whatever experiences other people have with aspects of the product(s) you have never worked on. It’s a bit confusing.

On the plus side for industry, you are party of a big, mostly-efficient machine. There is a chance that your efforts will be for naught, but also there’s a chance that because of the existing machinery and good will of your coworkers, your efforts will multiply and have considerable impact that will be experienced by many people. That is, getting something “out there” for real is easier (though of course in academia many people license their technology or spin out startups and make the world a better place in these and other ways, e.g. my friend Amy Herr).



It's not just the things you don't want to do that are the problem, it's the overabundance of things you do want to do

Seminars: Back in my days at Xerox PARC and HP Labs (and now at Facebook), I’d go to 1-2 seminars a week. On special occasions (e.g. Stephen Hawking or Persi Diaconis giving a talk), you go over to Stanford and make an event of it. The rest of the time you go about your work. At UofM, there are not only departmental seminars in a great many top-tier departments, but also many relevant interdisciplinary seminars, all somewhat relevant to your area of research. If you are unlucky enough to work in something like “Network Science”, there’s a good chance there are relevant talks during the same week in the CS, complex systems, econ, sociology, political science, public health and some interdisciplinary seminars, including the one you were encouraged to run in your first year as faculty (which is a major time sink, and if you, like me, are awful at recruiting student and staff resources to manage these for you and also forgot to ask for teaching credit for it). This doesn’t even get into the hiring season, when even more speakers come and you are asked (or ask) to meet with them.

Multi-university collaborations: There are some findings correlating authors being from multiple universities and the impact of the work. I’m still not convinced that it is actually the multi-university aspect that matters. I think it’s more that if you have exceptional scientists (who are more likely to be in a high energy state) and who have good ideas (which are more likely to be appealing outside of their university), you naturally end up with high impact work bridging universities. However, many of the funding agencies took this to mean that it’s very important to bring 5 universities together at once all working on the same thing. Although I like my colleagues at other universities very much, in practice this generated more in-person-travel-requiring meetings, and weekly or bi-weekly conference calls, and still mostly single-university output. At times fun, but I’m not sure the extra coordination expense is worth it.

During my time at SI, a lot of exciting developments were going on. First there were specialization “clusters”, then specializations, then different specializations, then a joint undergrad minor/specialization, then an undergrad major, then a joint program with public health, then lots of new courses (because as you can imagine the field is very rapidly evolving). Not to mention hiring to keep up with all these developments. Going back to teaching, this also meant that most courses did not yet have text books and that the material was continuously evolving (a social media course is certainly outdated just a year later). This isn’t the situation where you prepare some lecture notes from a textbook, assign problems from the textbook (adding a few of your own) and then teach the same thing for many years (which is what I imagine my undergrad physics professors did for the most part).

Academic output is out of control. I think Higgs was quoted as saying that he would never have gotten tenure by today’s standards because he didn’t publish enough papers. I think I wouldn’t have gotten a PhD by today’s standards either, or maybe even gotten into grad school. I did some research as an undergrad, but none that resulted in publications (or maybe just one). I published ~4 papers during my 4-year PhD (and these weren’t slave-away-in-a-lab-for-2-years-to-report-some-new-experimental-results kinds of papers, either). These days I’m not sure how a student would fare with such a poor publication record! We are writing more and more, which of course then produces more content to review as well.



Travel is fun until it's not

I have the good fortune of working in a blossoming field(s). As a result there are many, many meetings to go to. First, the conferences: WWW, Collective Intelligence, ICWSM, NetSci, WebSci, CSCW, several workshops on complex networks, “schools”, workshops on social media, crowdsourcing, economics and networks, computational social science, social computing, etc., etc. Then there are invited talks at universities, which are appealing because of the aforementioned opportunity to get some 1:1 time with interesting people. Then there are the NSF panels, at least 1-2 year because it would seem unwise to say no to people who hold the purse strings, and besides, there is just now a new interdisciplinary funding area where you should definitely have a say. Then the in-person meetings for the multi-university funded projects. All of this can easily add up to 1-2 trips/month, and some faculty I know actually do more. At first this was all very exciting, exploring new places, meeting new people. But then I stopped sleeping so well. It wasn’t just jet lag. No matter where I traveled, I’d wake up at 4 in the morning and go through meetings half-asleep. I’ve always been horrible about both booking travel and getting receipts reimbursed. I imagine that in some non-existent prior times one would have staff to help out with this, but since it’s all now online, we all do it ourselves, more or less (my case) competently.

I’ve been told about the virtues of saying “no”. You don’t have to do all this travel. However, as I mentioned, I was organizing a seminar and also invited people to do all sorts of things, e.g. join a program committee, keynote at conferences, etc. And you know what? Almost none of them say “no”. So this “no” thing might be a myth we like to believe and aspire to. However, in industry, it’s relatively easier to say no, you have other things to do.

Then there is the question of whether any of the travel is necessary. Someone told me about 10 years ago that Steven Strogatz doesn’t travel. Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever run into him at a meeting. However, now looking at his webpage, I see a calendar of upcoming speaking engagements and contact info if one would like to book him for one. Hmmm. Regardless, up to about 5 minutes ago, I thought that he had it figured out. He stayed home, wrote influential papers and books, and got at least some of the recognition that was due. At the same time, I spent about a year going around different places trying to shop a couple of papers I was very into to (one on trust, the other on focus and productivity). People clapped and said ‘interesting talk’, but the work didn’t get cited. Perhaps like Strogatz I should have stayed home. Perhaps then I’d be contributing to a New York Times column and making guest appearances on 99% Invisible, and making millions of people care more about math than they had before. Just kidding.



Technology is not (yet) your friend

Email is an enemy in so many ways: students emailing for help, random people emailing for help or with their papers, foreign funding agencies asking you to evaluate proposals for them, Israeli faculty asking for another committee member for their students, freelance journalists asking you to write articles for them that they may or may not get published, startups asking for advice etc. etc. At the same time office hours are fairly sparsely populated. I’d poll students to find the best time to have office hours and still many office hours went by with hardly anyone coming by. But I got lots of email. I tried to deflect most of it toward Google Groups where students could resolve most things on their own, but it only helped so much. Email is just too easy to send. If people had to write, call, or visit in person, the requests would go down to a small trickle.

I tried to use new teaching technology as much as possible: online forums, LectureTools (featuring such awesome features as saving each of your slides as an image, then manually shuffling them on the site, then inserting a quiz, which was supposed to be engaging for students, all in under 1000 mouse clicks or less),etc. But each of these was more work, not less. Just once I prepared a lecture by writing out notes by hand and then writing things out on the blackboard. It was a bit nerve-wracking to be so exposed and not hide behind polished slides, but it took a fraction of the time it normally took when I had to prepare slides, print them (though the printing was just a temporary phase, now I think no one wants paper any more), link them on the syllabus, upload them to their corresponding online folder, after also generating a pdf version, etc.



Balancing work and life is difficult, unless work is life

You may have noticed from the above rants that life in academia is a lot of work, nay, that it is work. I’ve also contemplated the required hours and the superhumans who do them. There were so many weekends where I had made plans and had to sheepishly renege once I realized how much grading I had to do, or that there was a paper deadline, or that I hadn’t prepped any of the coursework for the following week ahead of a trip out of town. Eventually I just didn’t make any weekend getaway plans during the school year. And I’m certain it wasn’t just me. A few of us female faculty would every once in a while try to coordinate a super-efficient shopping trip: we’d all pile into one car and go shopping for cheap veggies and cheap clothes and be back in a couple of hours. But we’d have to plan weeks and weeks out — once some of the teaching, grant proposal deadlines, and out-of-town travel were out of the way. And then still new things would crop up and only some of us could make it.

When I worked at HP Labs I had hobbies. I picked up welding and machining at nearby community colleges. I went sailing, kayaking, and wind surfing. Many weekends I’d go on hikes. I gardened. Now at Facebook I’ve gotten into woodworking, and many weekends I go camping with family. When I started my faculty job, I did nothing but work (except for some gardening in the summer). Speaking of summers, I imagined that I’d be able to go for months to Croatia. Go to the beach in the mornings, work in the afternoons and evenings. I was going to get away with something that most Americans do not — summers on the beach just as I had experienced them in my childhood. The reality was rather different. There were many conferences/meetings in the summer, and I tried to squeeze in the “vacation” between different trips. It had to be around the 4th of July because of Ford’s mandatory week off then. I had maybe 3 weeks I could spend in Croatia, so I then resolved to actually fully take vacation then. Unfortunately, this always coincided with some NSF deadline (e.g. the CAREER or CISE application), and of course every graduating student just had to defend right then, despite the fact that they really can do that any other time of year too. Sure, I’d go to the beach, but I knew I had hundreds of pages to review, or some paper to revise, or something else hanging over my head. It wasn’t restful, it was stressful.

And speaking of stress, I’m not a very fun person when stressed. You know how there are happy drunks and mean drunks? And there are some people who are really good with stress. Take Michael Bernstein for example. You might meet him after he has had 3 hours of sleep in the past 3 days because of multiple deadlines, and he’ll still talk to you excitedly about more research to do. But I’m a grumpy stressed-out person. I’m impatient, morose, and running to the bathroom often. On the plus side, I found myself not having too many existential crises, there were always more proximate crises/deadlines to worry about. And so the years passed, arguably some of my prime years, and they held a sense of excitement: publishing papers, interacting with the top people in my field both at UofM and at conferences, teaching hundreds of students. But when I look back my fondest memories aren’t really of those academic accomplishments, they are of spending a couple of lazy days with friends on a lake or river. The same is true of my years at Caltech. I am glad I kept up a crazy schedule of a max course-load and two majors, and I feel quite proud of having survived that and will point it out to anyone who will listen (wait, am I bragging again about Caltech? Oops). But the fondest memories I have of that period are of the pre-academic year backpacking trips, sitting around in the lounge, participating in some of the pranks and traditions, and roads trips across California, Arizona and Utah.



Being an academic with kids offers flexibility, but the time constraints do not go away

I heard from multiple faculty that having kids is easier in some ways if you’re an academic. Because you don’t have to clock in, you can participate in your child’s activities. One professor regularly coached his kids’ after-school sports games, another said she had been able to attend most of her son’s basketball games. At the same time, you can bet that those same individuals would either wake up early to get work done before their kids awoke, or worked late into the night after their kids went to sleep. Just try and set up a conference call with someone with kids about a paper you are writing together. I bet it will be 9 or 10 pm their time, which they will find to be very convenient because their kids will have gone to bed.

There is also just the sheer exhaustion of a demanding job and childcare. Many faculty hire help to alleviate some of these demands, but aside form full-time daycare, we didn’t quite figure out how to take advantage of these. Many hours at work were followed by many hours of complete attention to child. In addition, because I was released from teaching for one semester (my maternity leave), I lost two of the courses I had designed from scratch, and had to prep two new courses when my kid was less than 1 year old, while dealing with both his and my colds/sniffles which we were getting thanks to his exposure at daycare. I of course ended up overdoing it as far as prep was concerned (see here), and even though I enjoyed the new courses, let’s just say that the sabbatical came not a month too soon. Someone mentioned to me once that he prefers a department to hire women who already have kids, because then you know that they can handle it. I’m sure it was meant in a very positive way, i.e. women who have kids and are applying for tenure-track jobs have already demonstrated great skill in balancing work and childcare. But to me this suggested something else entirely: perhaps many women actually can’t handle both kids and a tenure-track job, and maybe I was one of them? (Edit: I think we can do whatever we want to do, and I never had too many doubts… ))


In industry there is certainly both the opportunity and the incentive to work hard. I’ve seen many parents’ and non-parents’ careers thrive in both environments. I think in both academia and industry much of the work and over-work is self-inflicted. We are just those kinds of people. We love to work, we are passionate about the questions we pursue and we always want to do better.
So how does one decide between the two career tracks? The choices are rather different. And it is possible, but not easy, to switch between the two. So if you are still trying to decide, good luck. If you have already decided, then carry on :) .

 

Disclaimer: I don’t know yet how my kid will eventually turn out (this has worked up through age 4). Follow tips at your own risk. Results may vary.

1. Forget button-down shirts and corduroy pants. Your (male) kid needs nothing more than sweatpants and T-shirts. Chances are they are not fashion-conscious, and the main thing is that they are comfortable while doing their main thing, which is running around. Without zippers and buttons in the way, they can dress themselves earlier (it will still take unfathomable amounts of time though). The other great thing about sweats and t-shirts is that they are comfortable enough to sleep in, which brings us to:

2. You don’t need to change your kid into pajamas. If you do change your kid into pajamas, they’ll just get yogurt or jam or whatever on them the following morning, at which point you’ll need to throw both the pajamas and whatever clothes they were wearing the day before into the wash. Instead, have them sleep in their sweats/shorts and t-shirt. This also expedites the getting-ready-for-bed process. “But my kid takes a bath every night! So we put on pajamas anyway” you say. Indeed, that brings us to:

3. Your kid does not need to bathe every day. You might take a shower every day, and no doubt people close to you appreciate that. But grown ups are stinky. We are. Young kids are not. There are really just the input/output areas to take care of. Wet wipes are a wonderful invention; keep a box by the potty. Also, when your child has ear-to-ear peanut butter because of their creative way of eating toast, a wet wipe is a good solution.

4. You can cut your kid’s hair yourself. Some parents enjoy herding their kid into the car to run little errands. If that’s not you, there is one thing you can do right at home. No matter how bad your hair-cutting skills, chances are your kid will still look better than other kids with months’-worth of grown out hair. Order a hair clipper. It might come with a DVD. This DVD will have the following instructions. Step 1: seat child in front of laptop playing a movie Step 2: cut child’s hair because child will be very still.  ”Really?” you ask. Yes, and the reason is that you can:

5. Have super-simple screen-time rules. Do you look forward to arguing with your kid about whether they can watch a movie or play with their tablet? No? Simply implement (very, very early on) a strict rule: they can watch a movie, but after dinner. Make a few, consistent exceptions in order to achieve other goals. If any desired behavior (sitting for a haircut, potty training) permits screen time, this behavior will be more readily adopted.

6. You can avoid watching kid cartoons– even avoid watching the same things over and over again. Admit it: Thomas the Train has some deep psychological issues, and Curious George needs constant adult supervision. If you emphasize watching things together, but then steer toward things you can tolerate, chances are you’ll end up having  a good time. ‘How It’s Made’ is pretty much perfect — interesting for kids and adults alike, but only ~20 minutes long. One family has even made it to Season 15.

7. Listen to Pandora exclusively. Why Pandora? You can’t pick what song is going to be played next! You can easily explain this to the kid. This takes some commitment (i.e. no playing your own playlists in the house). The ‘children’s folk music’ station is fun (once you customize it), but you’re likely to find that your child enjoys classical, classic rock, heavy metal, blues, etc. And voilà, you are not having to listen to the same kids song over and over again.

8. Tell Stories. You can tell stories in the car (in case you forgot to bring a book or a toy, which in the case of the lazy parent is likely), when your child is not cooperating (“Did I tell you story about the little boy who wanted to keep drawing and didn’t come to dinner? No? Well [abridged version] he got so hungry that without even realizing it he ate crayon after crayon until he had none left!”), or when they are really upset (your child will stop their protest because curiosity will overtake them). For lazy-parent extra bonus points, take turns with your kid telling the story, why should you do all the work?

9. Give up on trying to get your kid to eat what they don’t want to eat. Books/pediatricians’ leaflets will tell you that it can take 14-17 times for a food to be served to a child before the child starts to eat it. That statistic is probably made up and is repeated because it sounds good.  More realistically, your child might be a teenager before they eat new foods. In the meantime, do something for your sanity. Look up the nutritional info on things your child *does* eat. Did you know that chocolate is a good source of iron? Tofu alone takes care of all the amino acids and many  minerals. Marinara sauce (hello pizza and pasta!)  and miso have Vitamin K (take that green veggies!).

11. Institute chocolate time, separate from meal time. Dinner should be something your kid contemplates on its own merits, not as an obstacle to getting dessert. At chocolate time, they can pick among whatever kinds of desserts are in the house (usually chocolate).

12. Your kid isn’t behind; other kids’ parents are too forward. Do your friends’ 3 year olds count to 1000, speak 3 languages, and read Shakespeare? If your friends are too in your face about this, you could stress yourself and your kid out by working toward the same level of achievement. Instead, spend less time with these friends and more time lazing around and doing fun things with your kid.

Good luck!

 

You know when you’re looking up a place on Google Maps?

And you accidentally swipe the trackpad or the mouse slips or something, and then #@&*, you’re suddenly looking at a whole continent? And whereas the zoomed-in map showed clear next steps, the bigger picture makes those 2 blocks seem rather insignificant. And then you start to wonder why you’ve never been to Mississippi or Cuba or Baja California?

Sometimes I feel that my life zoomTM is similarly on the fritz.

All of a sudden I’m part of a an intricate system, interconnected flows, production, disposal, communication.

I never quite get to zoom out as far as Google Maps, but even looking at the most uninhabited areas of the American west out of an airplane window I notice thin lines, systems of dirt roads, or little shaved patches on the snowy mountains (which seem somehow a bit laughable or indecent in contrast to the mountains’ natural majesty).

No matter how small or insignificant one is in the entire system, one can anchor oneself with one’s loved ones, right?

And yet, here the zoom wheel can slip as well. Rolling forward it’s the little person with his life ahead of him. Rolling back it’s the unusual and distinguished lives my grandparents lived, the achievements of my parents. My father lived his earliest years in the forest with the Yugoslav partisans after his village was burned down in WWII. Which again zooms me out to “human history”, which I perceive to be strung together from different wars except for the unusually good behavior we seem to be exhibiting currently (and the odd article here or there which mentions that not all humans fought all the time in all places and the evidence of some stone-age people being sensitive souls).

And then I wonder why I’m living now and not then, and realize that it’s mundane to be living now, because you’re more likely to be living during the time when more people are living.

But the problem of population, if it is a problem (besides the aesthetic problems of criss-crossed countrysides or shaved mountains, or, OK, fresh water crises, global warming, species extinction, etc.), may again be dwarfed by the approaching singularity, which might render the number of human beings irrelevant.

Though no matter our eventual fate, it seems odd that we seem to be alone in this neighborhood of our universe,

which, if we zoom out further in some weird way, may only be one of many universes…

Fortunately I find the *&#@* life zoomTM reset button just in time.

 

The mattress

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Dec 102013
 

Parenting is fraught with uncertainty about the goodness of one’s choices, but this one so far has panned out:

It’s a mattress, a full-sized one. I first spotted one of these in a toddler bedroom of a friend. When we left all our stuff behind to rent a furnished house, we didn’t bring our son’s crib (that converted to a toddler bed, etc.) Instead, we went to IKEA and got a mattress and put it directly on the floor. We were a bit concerned about our 22-month old sleeping on a big bed, but although it was big, it wasn’t very high. So at worst, this could happen:

And if it ever did, our toddler never said. 2+ years later, bedtime stories are still comfy for all involved:

And not a play date goes by without some jumping on the bed:

The only one out of a spot is the monster under the bed:

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