ladamic's blog research on information networks and non-researchy random musings


Death beneath the surface

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 20:49

“For our mother Flora Park in loving memory.” So read, approximately, a small plaque on the backrest of a bench in the SF arboretum. crosses superimposed on garden benches

“Aaw,” I thought, “How nice that she was loved.” And then, “How sad that they lost her.”  For as far as the eye could see, and beyond, there were more benches. Every bench told of death and loss. At the very exit, the system was explained: 
SF arboretum bench tributes

But that afternoon I did not want to think about death, I wanted to think about trees and to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I had to admit, however, that if death does have a place, gardens are it: a place for quiet contemplation. There’s the cycle of life, the changing of the seasons, and depending on your skill as a gardener, just a lot of plant death, period. Our two family cats were laid to rest in gardens. When my father died, my mother and I got a flowering plant and planted it in the back yard where they used to garden together. I’m not sure how that made sense, but it did. I’m drawn to cemeteries on hills with trees. And yet, it seems that in order to carry on with life, we need to be in a bit of denial about death. Bench reminders do not help with that.

Some years ago, when my parents’ mortality was for the first time plainly apparent, I had to marvel at how everyone gets up in the morning, and worries about mundane daily things, or even medium-term life things, when WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. But I carried on worrying about short-to-medium-term things. One of the best places to do that is work, which tends to be all absorbing, until, I was confronted with these, posted on office walls:

This was a reference to Sheryl Sandberg’s learning on resilience after loss, and maybe sometimes when I looked at those posters, I thought about resilience, but I always thought “Sheryl’s husband died,” with the associated pang of sadness. I had a reservoir of feeling about death, my father having died two days prior to Sheryl’s husband.  I might read “Option B” someday, but I’d have to get over the irony of using “option” in the context of death. Because death is not optional. We have to live with it, and without the people we lost. 

More recently I was in the Stanford arboretum on a guided tree walk, when the next tree of interest was right by the mausoleum.  I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the mausoleum intentionally, but I’ve stumbled upon it a number of times while appreciating the arboretum and the cactus garden within. It’s a monument to what I can only imagine was unbearable loss. The whole university is officially named “Leland Stanford Junior University” after, and established because of the death of, the only son of wealthy businessman/governor of California/senator Leland Stanford. The boy’s death mask is on display at the on-campus Cantor Arts museum, another earlier startling discovery. His body (along with that of his parents) is interred at the mausoleum.

Leland Stanford Junior death mask
More and more people might stumble upon the mausoleum now, with new construction encroaching on the arboretum (Jane Stanford had decreed that no buildings would be built within the borders of the arboretum but neglected to specify its borders). 

I have benefitted from others’ loss, their desire to turn that loss into something meaningful that will commemorate their loved one, whether it is benches to sit on in a beautiful garden, a book on how to build resilience (if I ever read it), or a university that has educated and advanced humankind. The price I pay is knowing of that loss, of having death surfaced to me, uninvited. 

There is no meaning in a particular death except the one we choose to give it. 



Life as the meaning of life?

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 14:59

It took a couple of years, but I think I figured out a meaning of life, sufficient for my own. It is: live life and then make way for other life. I only started wondering about life’s meaning in earnest a few years ago, and this was how I arrived at what might seem like a tautology, but I think is sufficient to fuel me for the rest of the journey.

Youth was, as Stefan Zweig might have put it, a period of expectation. I wasn’t searching for meaning, because I was learning. And as I learned, I expected to experience, accomplish and learn more. As I got older, expectations narrowed and loss or the fear of further loss, of vitality, of life, arrived. And the “how” started to turn to a “why”.

At first I intensified my search for knowledge, reading about the frontiers of physics, the formation and history of our planet, the evolution of life, etc. “The Vital Question” helped (Nick Lane had been my favorite origin-of-life author for many years) by showing how it could be that complex life is so rare in our corner of the universe. But it was no longer enough. If anything it made it seem weird that I as a sentient being was here to observe the universe.

It takes me back to the question of the Zoom of Life (a blog post from 4 years ago that may very well have kicked off this search), the scale at which one is supposed to think of one’s own life. Since then I had become unanchored at several zoom levels, or at least, many of the anchors were slipping: I had lost a parent, it wasn’t as clear what humanity had left to achieve, at least on its own, AI-unaided (or maybe that was just my “back in my day” reaction to this day).

I figured a lot of people have given this some thought for at least a couple of millenia, and so I might just rip off whatever they figured out about the meaning of it all. I first turned to the thoughts of other doubters, and though their attitudes were heartening, they didn’t seem to have quite the answer I was looking for. Over the period of two years, I listened to the audiobook version of the History of Western Philosophy. It for the most part went in one ear and immediately out the same one.

I experimented with producing something, perhaps life was about what you could make. A couple of self-published children’s books later, the futility of everything seemed only stronger. And then in the middle of listening to the book “Scale,” in the chapter arguing about the futility of life extension, there it was. I heard it as the purpose of life is to be and then make way for other life. That’s not quite what was written, and the quote was by Steve Jobs, but I had missed this (else I may have received it more skeptically). But right then, the miscomprehended version made so much sense. My life is part of a thing much bigger than me, LIFE. Individual life is short by design. I get to experience it, and the marvels of the universe and nature and being human and some of the wonderful things humans have produced like science, and art and music and food; and interact with others and learn a lot. And then I won’t be around to do so any more, but other life will.

A few books later, I read in both “Lost Connections” and “Natural Causes” how people with depression or facing terminal illness, after taking LSD, felt more at peace because they saw themselves as part of the great stream of life. I haven’t tried the stuff myself, but I do think happiness depends on finding the right zoom setting.


Missed connections (thinking about my dad)

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 14:08

My dad and I sit in the same spot, on a terrace in front of a tiny cottage he and my mom built in Croatia, looking out at sunset after sunset. Only I sit here after his death, and he, of course, sat there before it. I have the many photographs of sunsets (and sunrises) he took in the ten years between when the cottage was built and when he could no longer return to it. There were a number of times we looked at the sunset together, sometimes I think there was even a herd of sheep bleating in the spot where now a mini excavator is parked.

My photo in 2017 on the left, my dad’s in 2013 on the right.

But mostly we watched sunsets separately. Inside, there is the remainder of his vast library, all that could really fit. I recognize several titles I had read recently. In some books I find little scraps of paper. On them, in tidy handwriting, he listed page numbers and a few notes to himself. He treated books with care and hence did not mark them up directly. It’s difficult to decipher from his notes what he thought of the books. Many books don’t have such notes. Had he read them?

Most people must have regrets about things they didn’t do with their dad. One of mine is not having discussed enough books. As with shared sunsets, we did read some of the same books, mostly popular science. But somehow at the time we only discussed them casually, not with the intense interest I have now in asking him about them. I wasn’t the person I am now. Partly it’s that I’ve gotten a few years older. Partly I am a different person because of his death. I’ve lost some interest in TV and written fiction, and have turned to nonfiction books, the stuff of my dad’s shelves. His side tables used to have tall stacks of books he’d be reading simultaneously while following some thread of thought or logic. Because of the non-linear way he approached books, I’m not even sure we could connect over a book’s central theme, but I’d be just as happy to discuss whatever ideas had lead him to pick up the book in the first place.

Speaking of mis-connection, it may be that sunsets were not his favorite time of day, but sunrises (what if the “sunset” above was actually a sunrise??), or perhaps the many shades of blue and gray he photographed even before the sun had risen. This too would have been a nice topic to talk about, but I didn’t spend much time here. The mile one needs to walk out of town to reach the cottage has grown shorter the more I’ve walked it, but at the time it seemed a trek. The various bugs (wasps, mosquitoes, flies) that kept me away, I’ve learned to get along with (the ones I don’t manage to eliminate, that is). As the sheep and mules and horses have moved out and the properties around us are cultivated, the wilderness has retreated a bit as well. I used to not understand why my dad didn’t want to hang out in town and beelined for the cottage as soon as he could, but now I feel much the same way. And again, his death changed things. It is a tiny cottage, and his absence has allowed me to move in in a way I could not have while he occupied it.

I might bemoan the missed connections, but we connected on other interests over the many years we had together: hiking and camping, woodworking, physics, gardening. These days, fortuitously, I enjoy glimpses of my mom and dad’s garden, through his eyes. I had added my dad’s photo album of his and my mom’s garden from the spring of 2003 to my Amazon Photos. That year he was not yet retired, and the cottage was just about completed. Some days I get an “on this day” notification, and it shows me irises and columbines he photographed in Boulder, Colorado in 2003. It’s a nice connection through time. 


Old Wrinkly and the Internet

Filed under: random musings,Uncategorized — ladamic @ 04:09

In the “How to Train Your Dragon” children’s book series, the hero, Hiccup, consults his grandfather, “Old Wrinkly,” when he encounters a problem, such as his friend getting sick with a mysterious illness, or not knowing the function of the “ticking thing.” Old Wrinkly, being an elder of the Hairy Hooligan viking tribe, knows things, both past and future, and his infusions of wisdom nudge Hiccup’s adventures in good directions.

Lately, I’ve started to worry that being Wrinkly ain’t what it used to be. I blame the internet. It fetches a lot of the knowledge that would otherwise have been most easily accessed by asking an advanced grown up.

Take learning to cook. It used to be something passed down from generation to generation. If you somehow did not know grandmother’s secret recipe, your cooking may have been set back. These days online recipe sites contain dozens of versions of each recipe, including “Grandma’s secret [..] recipe”s (traitors!). If you can’t quite recall how it’s done, there’s typically a YouTube video showing you how, perhaps even more patiently and instructively than grandma would. And before, or rather, right after I accuse others of betrayal, I must admit that I helped edit a cold smoking recipe my dad was putting online (which he learned from his uncle).

What about the family-tie strengthening activity of information exchange? If we are not calling our parents to ask them how to get out a particular stain out of a shirt, or fix a leaky faucet, we’re not calling them as often. My dad had lived through a lot, and read a whole lot, and my asking for advice was one of the ways we connected. He would often send sketches with ideas and solutions. Now, though I miss my dad dearly, I manage to do the simpler things like unclog a garbage disposal or change the fan speed for the HVAC system, with the help of YouTube. My mom is an interesting hybrid. She not only has a ton of stored knowledge on hand, but is unbeatable in retrieving info from the internet with her mad search skills. But not every advanced grown up can achieve this.

As a parent I feel my wise status is fast expiring. My son doesn’t quite have free reign of the internet… for now. At the same time I cannot, for example, say that I don’t know something, because he’ll instruct me to look it up. Still, as an intermediary I am keeping some importance. For example, even though I think inglish speling shud bi fonetik, I am kind of happy that my son often asks me how to spell things. A work friend once praised Alexa as being so useful because his kid could ask it how to spell words. We had an Amazon Echo at the time, but I swiftly kicked it to the curb. Old Wrinkly is the source of (mostly) correct spelling around here!


Other people’s gardens

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 15:42

San Marino was my first serious relationship with a neighborhood of gardens. I fell in love just as soon as I stumbled upon it, soon after I started college. Across California Blvd. from my Caltech undergrad dorm the flat street grids of Pasadena (already a very nice city) quickly give way to curving, hilly, quiet, tree-shaded streets bordered by large lots and beautiful gardens. I walked these streets sometimes during the day, but sometimes also biked them at night, enjoying the intoxicating fragrance of evening blooms.

It may have been the sleep deprivation associated with doing math and physics problem sets late into the night, or maybe the fog/smog that frequently enveloped the gardens, but being there felt like a dream. One huge old oak tree, whose gnarled branches were illuminated by ground lights in the fog, looked equally unreal in reality and in my dreams.

People must have lived on those streets. But either they were not there, or I did not perceive them. I could contemplate the(ir) gardens at my leisure. Just once, I spoke to one of the residents. My friend and I had been biking around, and encountered a small black kitten for the second consecutive night. She had a rubber band around her neck. Concerned, I went up a sloped driveway and rang the doorbell. A woman opened the door and explained that some kids had been playing with a stray kitten. We thanked her, and bagged the kitten, whom I named Nikita, to the protest of my Russian-born friend, who thought it was not an appropriate name for a lady cat. I was afraid that Nikita would try to escape back to San Marino, to return to the beautiful gardens, but she stayed.

After concluding our studies at Caltech, Nikita and I had moved to Stanford just at the height of the dot-com boom. Stanford didn’t allow cats on campus. Unable to find a place to live, we ended up initially living in unincorporated Menlo Park, in a warehouse. Atherton, a city exceeding even the affluence of San Marino, was just blocks away. But at its boundary the gardens were hidden behind towering walls and hedges, and the sidewalks were non-existent. Once I thought I glimpsed a tennis court behind one of the fences. I just now tried to figure out which garden that might have been by looking at satellite images on Google Maps. However, having a tennis court hardly narrowed down the candidate gardens. Every second property seemed to have one! If you zoom into San Marino, you can find a similar density of tennis courts. Who knew? I hope someone sometime writes some image recognition software to count up all the tennis courts in the world.

Atherton tennis courts.

Satellite image showing tennis courts in San Marino, CA

San Marino tennis courts.

A year into gradschool Nikita moved to Colorado to live with my parents, allowing me to move to Stanford campus, where I promptly lost the housing lottery and ended up in a shared rental in Los Altos. Los Altos had no sidewalks, which curtailed my explorations then, but I’ve been back since to make up on the gardens I was missing. In 2001 my husband and I moved into a cottage in Old Palo Alto together. The Eichler-style linoleum-lined 1 bedroom cottage was behind a modest 1920s house. But the neighborhood! It had miles of sidewalks and beautiful gardens. Steve Jobs lived a few blocks over, though I never quite figured out or cared which house it was. After we moved to Michigan, whenever I was back in the area, I’d walk around the (O)ld Palo Alto neighborhood. The cottage is no longer there. It and the front house were promptly replaced by a new mansion. But the gardens are still fantastic. And now that I’m back in the area, I visit there just to walk around.

A white wisteria in Palo Alto

There are other neighborhoods I’ve enjoyed. In Ann Arbor, a neighborhood of winding streets by the Huron river was irresistible when the dogwood or cherry trees were in bloom. When (thanks to Hotwire’s hotel roulette) I stayed in Hotel Angellino during a conference, I walked the streets of Bel Air and Westwood to reach the UCLA campus. I wandered around Piedmont after spotting it from a conference at the Claremont Hotel. Last Christmas, I was in Los Altos Hills picking up a last-minute order of wine bottles intended as Christmas presents. Finding myself on unfamiliar winding streets with intriguing gardens, I resolved to return. It was so worth it. You know how sometimes there will be a vista point along a winding route? Every garden there had a view of the bay. After seeing many “neighborhood watch” signs with threats of any suspicious activity being reported, I wondered how suspicious-looking our garden-gazing activity was. But I forgot about that when a man walking a horse came up behind us. We crossed the road to make way, and the man said “Don’t worry, he has already eaten.”

In light of the fine gardens that are open to the public, ogling people’s private gardens may seem strange. In fact, some of the nicest public gardens are nestled right smack in the middle of the the most beautiful neighborhoods; Gamble Garden in Old Palo Alto, for example. And it is hard not to mention the 120 acre Huntington Gardens in San Marino, my favorite botanical garden. I used to wander in there regularly, down a long, winding driveway. Since I assume no one expected a pedestrian, you could just stroll in. Shortly after I left Caltech, they’d installed a little booth in the driveway. When I tried walking past, a uniformed guard got all huffy, demanding that I make a “donation” to the foundation. These days, a weekend visit will set you back $29. I gladly pay it. There is hardly a botanical garden within range that I won’t visit given a chance. Once, having an unplanned 5-hour layover in Paris, I beelined for the Jardin des Plantes.

But botanical gardens suffer from a certain problem. If I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say “collections.” Huntington Gardens boast 1,400 different rose cultivars, and 1,200 different camellias. And if there is one thing to take away from The Little Prince, it is that the worst thing you can do to a rose is to put it next to 1,399 other roses. It is impossible to appreciate the individual beauty of a rose bush when it is placed in tidy, boring, rectangular rows next to roses that may be bigger, curlier, a slightly more exotic shade, whatever. The perfectly rectangular grid of 516 peony cultivars in Ann Arbor’s Nichols’ arboretum looks like nothing for most of the year, and then like a bunch of people snapping selfies for the few weeks that the peonies are in bloom. Same with the 140 dahlia cultivars in Mendocino’s botanical gardens.

I had felt guilty for not (yet) having taken my mom to San Jose’s municipal rose garden (only 159 varieties?). But when I finally did, we admired its tidy rows and pergolas, and other people taking selfies, but I found myself wanting to wander a few of the nearby streets which seemed to have nice gardens.

Each private garden is a whole. Composing each one is an art. The plants need to complement each other, and sustain year-round interest. California’s climate allows for a wide-range of garden styles, from succulent & cactus gardens reminiscent of the arid southwest, to english cottage, to Japanese gardens, or OK, fine, native California gardens. You never know what you’ll encounter next on your walk.

Atherton’s boundaries are the boundaries between green and gray in this satellite image.

While small gardens are lovely, some garden artistry requires… a larger canvas. But how to reconcile large gardens with the need to build more and denser housing?  San Marino’s wikipedia page points to rather strict regulations intended to maintain lot sizes and property values (see footnote for examples of things bolstering the appearance of gardens). In the same article there is also a reference to Forbes’ and Bloomberg’s lists of most affluent cities. San Marino was #48/#78 (depending on whether you look by zip code or city), but there was also Palo Alto (#97), Los Altos (#37), Los Altos Hills (#7), and a few other neighborhoods I’ve walked just to explore. At #1 was Atherton which had successfully rebuffed me with its walls and hedges.

Coincidentally, a few weeks back my friends and I drove down Atherton Avenue, dodging rush hour traffic by cruising down the heart of Atherton. There were no tall fences or hedges in sight! The gardens stood naked, exposed. Atherton, I’m checking out your gardens next.


Some regulations from the San Marino city ordinances:
“Ever since 1913, the year this city was founded, the City has built a reputation for well kept properties and strict enforcement of zoning restrictions and building regulations. The values and general welfare of this community are founded upon the appearance and maintenance of properties and property values.”
[In addition to not being able to park your car in your own driveway (cars must be in garages!), let alone on the street, there were several other prohibited behaviors relevant to garden aesthetics:]
7. Allow overgrown vegetation – likely to harbor rats, vermin and other nuisances; causing a detriment to neighboring properties and property values.
8. Allow dead, decayed, diseased or hazardous trees, weeds and other vegetation constituting unsightly appearance, or a detriment to nearby property.
14. To neglect premises to spite neighbors, or to influence zone changes, or to cause detrimental effect upon nearby property values.

[Also, interestingly, if this was in effect at the time, I did not have a license to “operate” my bike on San Marino city streets.:]
BICYCLE LICENSES Bicycle licenses are obtained at City Hall for a nominal fee and must be procured before a bicycle can be operated on City streets. []


Recharge: a month of doing little

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 02:46

After working at Facebook for 5 years, I was eligible for a month’s “recharge” leave (thanks Facebook!). I opted to spend it in Croatia, with my mom.

Spending September in Croatia has eluded me for a long time. And when I did manage to fit in a couple of summer weeks in Croatia in the past, too often I’d spend them cramming  (while in school), or preparing courses I’d teach, or writing papers or grant applications, or cutting things short to travel to conferences. This gift of a recharge was the gift of doing nothing. At all. Even husbands and sons will want to do something fun and adventurous. They stayed behind.

My recharge looked approximately like this:

You may notice from the photos that I stayed in the same spot. Whomever I’ve told this to responded with, “I took a 2 week vacation between jobs once, any longer and I would have been bored to death,” or “We were stuck in Dubrovnik for 2 weeks once, we almost went crazy.” Not me, no need to budge. I may appreciate famous tourist attractions as millions of others do, but I never loved any other spot as much as I love this one spot.

Here I am for example in Venice:

And showing the same level of enthusiasm at some English castle:

[Not pictured: Roughly the same expression at Niagara Falls and number of other landmarks.]
Here, on the other hand, I am in Bol, Croatia.
I think that travel can lead to growth, and even superficial travel can be eye opening in youth when you first start exploring the world. But I think growth potential is limited if one does not pause and live somewhere a while.

Besides watching sunsets, I swam. A few storms and cooler weather chilled the sea (see goosebumps below from an October swim).

I had lots of time to contemplate what it means to be an insignificant little human on this planet (see also the Zoom of Life.)

My mom and I unpacked an old record player and listened to LPs while looking out at the sea and eating figs.

I drew. After practicing a bit I illustrated with doodles a short children’s book I’d written earlier, Poofthorn.

And then after practicing some more, I drew a short and silly comic, The Explorers Who Toot (Underwater).

That was it. That was recharge. Upon returning I felt mildly disoriented both at home and at work. And right before I returned I felt an acute finiteness, of life, of summer, of figs.


The tyranny of resale value

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 02:23

Last weekend I repainted some flowers on my ’91 Honda Civic, Miss Daisy. I’d done this first about 15 years ago, when the car was worth almost nothing, and now again when she is still worth nothing. But she’s worth a lot to me, and maybe even more so because she is not worth much to anyone else, and so I can modify her appearance without regret.

There are over a billion cars in the world. The vast majority look identical to thousands of others of the same make, model and year. Most people probably don’t want to modify their cars, even those who lovingly wash and wax them on weekends. But there must be many who would, if that wouldn’t instantly drop the resale value of their cars.

We spend a not-insignificant fraction of our lives in these metal containers on wheels, and the car is how many people, especially strangers, “see” us. The most we do is hang a little trinket from the rear view mirror. In a year or five, the car should look as close as possible to how it looked when it left the factory. Any modification should strictly increase its value for resale, even if we never recover the expense of the work. But when can one ever justify actually ruining resale value?

Same with houses we own. We not only have to consider our current needs, but the needs of the median buyer who may want to purchase the home years hence. This is not an empty fear. Real estate agents I’ve toured houses with rolled their eyes or chuckled at non-standard modifications, whether it was a converted garage or adventurously placed staircase or extra bathroom. And they would sigh sadly when a house had only 2 bedrooms, or did not meet some other standard requirement. I remember during the dot-com boom someone built a house in Mountain View that had purple turrets and such. Apparently the owner needed to sell it just a short while later, and someone remarked that they expected the owner had a lot of regret about the house.

At least most home-building animals, like rats, can make their home to their satisfaction without worrying about whether the rats to move in next will like it. Maybe birds who build for potential partners have it worse, that must be stressful. But for humans, I think it makes us behave like we are just temporarily utilizing the house we own. I once visited a friend who had bought a house in a new development. She explained that she and her husband had bought the big 5 bedroom house 3 years prior and remarked that they had not put up a single painting. Due to her husband’s job they expected to move in another 3 years (which they did), and they wanted their house at that future point to be the most pristine of any house on offer in the same development. She and others have bought big houses, not because they needed the space, but because such houses tend to keep a higher resale value.

If we ever remodel, I’d like to have backsplash tiles in the kitchen featuring cows being abducted by aliens, something I saw and bought at a street art fair (but now can’t figure out who the artist was). However, I might chicken out. If for some reason we need to sell the house, whether that is the following year or 30 years down the road, will it sell for less because a buyer might not want a kitchen embellished by cows being abducted by aliens? Probably. And this makes me sad. That we are living in tasteful, generic houses, driving generic cars, all striving for the same future salability.


Why I left my academic job

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 18:47

[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.

[expand title=”First, let me tell you how I got to academia and back (click to expand)” startwrap=”” endwrap=”” ]
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.[/expand]

Here’s what I think about academia:
[expand title=”You will have great colleagues but you will have to work hard to talk to them or work with them.” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
(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.[/expand]

[expand title=”Teaching is the most rewarding thing, if you can control yourself, and even if you can’t” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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.[/expand]

[expand title=”You get to do whatever work you want, on evenings and weekends” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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.[/expand]

[expand title=”You are your own agent” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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).[/expand]

[expand title=” 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” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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.[/expand]

[expand title=”Travel is fun until it’s not” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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. [/expand]

[expand title=”Technology is not (yet) your friend” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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.[/expand]

[expand title=”Balancing work and life is difficult, unless work is life” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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.[/expand]

[expand title=”Being an academic with kids offers flexibility, but the time constraints do not go away” startwrap=”” endwrap=”“]
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… ))[/expand]

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 :).


The Zoom of Life

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 06:57

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.



Remain seated, with your seatbelts fastened and … watch ads

Filed under: random musings — ladamic @ 18:20

As the indignities of air travel pile on, I had come to view the little ‘personal entertainment device’ embedded in the seat in front of me as a welcome, optional, escape. But on a recent Delta SFO->JFK trip and back, that friendly device had been turned on me. As we were strapped in and the plane was gaining altitude, the little screen turned on by itself and started playing ads while the messages blared over the loudspeakers: ‘Buy a car. Choose a luxury hotel…’. In vain I tried to turn the screen off by pushing the nominal power button. The function had been disabled.  My headphones were not isolating enough to block out the sound of the speakers. It felt vaguely like::


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