The Black Keys

I am a big fan of The Black Keys. Recently DH and I went to see them in concert and they were fuckin’ AMAZING. If you get a chance, do go see them live; they sound even better live then they do on the albums.
They are still on tour  (http://www.theblackkeys.com/turnblue )  — go, buy the tickets right away; I’ll wait.

Little Black Submarines has been my favorite during this NSF proposal-writing season. It sends shivers down my spine (wait till about 1:10). And it KILLS in concert!

And of course, Lonely Boy:

They also did a mean rendition of A Girl Like You in concert

Xykademiqz Drowns in Swimming

A few weeks ago I posted on my disorienting foray into the Twilight Zone world of high-school athletics at Eldest’s new school.

It’s all very macho. The swim team recently went on a dads-and-boys daylong canoeing trip; some dads went, but DH didn’t go. (By the way, it’s not even clear that the kid will make the team as they haven’t had the tryouts yet, but everyone who showed interest was supposed to partake in these bonding experiences.) There was canoeing and apparently eating tons of burgers/hot dogs, with a side of hazing of the freshmen. Nothing  too nefarious: older boys stole the freshmen’s canoes, tipped them out into the water, later filled canoes with sand or water or mud or something, but I found my gut tighten as I was listening to my kid tell me about the day. Apparently, this is all common manly bonding Scheisse, and if movies are anything like the real stuff, fraternity hazing is infinitely worse. Being the gentle, kind-hearted mom that I am, I found myself wanting to punch someone’s lights out. I think I am way too high-strung, protective, and just socially anxious to survive my kids going to high school. And I really hope none of my kids attempt to join any fraternities.

But the boys’ high school swim season doesn’t start until the winter. In the meantime, Eldest has been swimming at a local club.

Freakin’ swimming has taken over my family’s life.

During the first week of September, they still wanted to swim outside, starting at 4:15 daily. So DH or I had to leave work early, pick up Eldest after school at 3:40ish then drive him to the pool, then organize the pickup of other two and go get him again two hours later. There are older boys who drive, but for younger boys apparently there will always be a parent available to chauffeur — because we’re in the 1950’s and women don’t work.

After the first two weeks things got better. They swim in a different pool every day, but at least it’s in the evening.

Here’s the kicker: at every home meet, parent volunteering is mandatory. That’s alright, take all the time you need to let the giant italicized oxymoron sink in.

I don’t want to volunteer. I work all the time and the weekends are the only time I get to spend with my kids, my husband, my vacuum cleaner, and my washer and dryer. That’s when I do grocery shopping and cooking for much of the week. Our weekends are the time to do chores and relax a little so we’d have the energy for the week.

I know there are people (unfortunately, mostly women) who don’t work or who work part time, and who are able and willing to volunteer at these events. I am not one of them and I detest the fact that so much depends on women’s unpaid work. And I hate it even more that I am expected to put in such unpaid work myself.

I am already paying good money so my kid would swim. I am paying extra for the equipment, team apparel and each meet. I will pay more if they need me to, but I DO. NOT. WANT. TO VOLUNTEER because what I do NOT have is time.

I played a team sport in middle and high school, I don’t think my mom ever came to see me play and dad came occasionally. That suited me just fine because it was MY activity, not theirs. I don’t understand this need for incessant involvement in everything kids do. Mandating parental involvement it is just maddening. So I asked if I can buy my way out of volunteering; if not, I guess we won’t be signing the kid up for home meets, or may have to switch clubs.

Editorial and Professorial Nuggets

–  I am an associate editor of a specialized disciplinary journal. I try my best to include junior researchers (postdocs, young profs or nonacademic scientists, even some senior graduate students) as reviewers when I know they do good work based on what I have heard or seen them present at conferences. It turns out, a surprisingly high number of people cannot write a review to save their life. Some of them are junior, so they have the excuse of inexperience, but some should really know better.

I get these cryptic two-line reports with a recommendation to reject. WTF? That is not a report. I cannot send that on to authors, it gives me a basis for nothing. Especially if you are going to reject, you better give clear reasons for doing so.  Even if the paper is crap, it usually (although not always) presents a considerable amount of work by the authors. If the paper sucks, tell them precisely why it sucks and how much it sucks, so they would know whether to try and fix it or that there is no hope and they should drop it.

How does one learn to write referee reports? Well, when it comes to my students, I send them samples of my reports to look at (ranging from minor revisions to rejections). But, one first and foremost learns from the reports received of one’s own papers. Which is why I wonder, especially for senior folks, how unobservant and unable to generalize they are,  that they cannot figure out what is to be done based on their own experiences with being on the receiving end of reports.  These are all skills necessary for doing science, how is it possible not to apply them when learning how to write reports?

– There are career editors and then there are editors who are practicing scientists. Either way, the longest part of the review-and-publication process should be the actual peer review. It should not be the time taken by the editorial office staff to check the formatting; it should similarly not be the time the editor takes to make a decision and transmit the referee comments to the authors after the peer review has been completed. I have found myself dreading submission to certain journals, because I know a paper in a certain field will go to a certain editor, and the editor has a habit of just sitting on the paper for days or weeks on end, both when it comes to making referrals and when it comes to making a decision (the time they take doesn’t seem to correlate at all with how hand-wringing the decision-making process might be; hearing about “major revisions” appears to take just as much time as receiving “publish as is”.

For editors who are practicing scientists, why do people take on this role if they are not committed to doing a good job? I know, becoming an editor in a good journal is an honor, but it’s also a job, and an important one. And part of doing it well also means doing it fast. I know some great associate editors who handle dozens of new papers per week very efficiently. But then there are others. And I wish someone gave them a kick in the pants so they’d finally get going.

Yes, I am very impatient. But you can bet that I am very efficient as associate editor.

– In professorial news, once again, the biggest problem of my undergrads is that they don’t know the math that they should know. They don’t have the facility with basic calculus, let alone analytic geometry. While some fairly complicated concepts can be hand-waved down to the levels of calculus or geometry, it’s of little use because these concepts, which should have been internalized long ago, appear only vaguely familiar to students as opposed to being tools wielded with confidence. Part of it, at my university, is the ever-shrinking list of required math courses so students could all get as many free electives as possible (?!); that’s because students feeling warm and fuzzy upon having customized their studies to the point of senselessness  beats actually getting a solid education in the major. The worst thing is the students’ attitude that this insistence on calculating stuff, on — gasp! — using math, is somehow unnecessary and is in the way of actual real knowledge. They want to make it go away and get to the good stuff. They cannot. I am all for pictures and analogies and building one’s intuition. I draw in class more than I write equations. But this is fairly high-level stuff, and the intuition has to be already honed by both math and experience with other similar problems. Students cannot expect everything worth knowing as a senior in a physical science discipline to just be qualitative or requiring no more than arithmetic and high-school algebra. I am really tired of having to apologize for what is really not particularly high-level math that they should be proficient in anyway.

Professorial Bits, the Somewhat Goofy and Girly Edition

– Blogging has been slow as I am busy beyond all reason. Not that I am complaining, though. Busy is good. Not busy makes me bored and restless, and I become a giant pain in the butt. Time-consuming are professorial duties such as teaching and, this semester, being my own TA (Why? Because reasons, as my kids would say; we don’t get TAs for electives, but students want and need discussions); I have two really meaty service assignments, one of which kicked in the minute the semester started.

What’t most important is that I am working on two NSF proposals simultaneously (note how much coffee that means I drink per day; for some reason, the coffee post seems to have resonated with a number of Twitter folks); worry not, the two proposals are on very different topics and will be submitted to two different directorates, so I am perfectly NSF-compliant. However, the bifurcation is kicking my butt a little (okay, a lot).

I feel good about past summer, it was very productive as I have managed to submit all the papers I had planned to before the proposal writing crunch (I didn’t really get to rest and relax, though, but perhaps it’s for the best). Grad students have their marching orders; they know we will be meeting less frequently than usual until the proposals are done. They also know what the paper writing timeline is and we have a first-draft schedule for a number of manuscripts starting early November, as I emerge from the proposal-writing hole. I usually do the “Here are the papers I plan on us submitting in the next six months” talks in group meetings about twice a year, and then the list also goes out via email, so everyone knows where they are in terms of priority, when I would have time to look at their stuff, and how much time they have to produce the first draft. Once a student’s up, I turn the manuscript around quickly; my rule is three drafts by the student (i.e. two rounds of my detailed comments which the student incorporates)  and then I take over and edit/rewrite/finalize with the student’s input. This way the student gets feedback and can revise in response, so they get a chance to write and edit and learn, but I don’t wait forever and papers get out in a timely fashion. This practice generally means that I spend a lot of time writing and editing papers, and the final edits by me can sometimes take a while to complete if they are still extensive or if we are going for a really high-profile journal, where things have to be written ‘just so’. We sometimes end up needing to get more data to illustrate a specific point that didn’t emerge until after the student and I had both been thinking about the text for a while, which delays things a little bit, but such is life. I go on to the next student draft in the pipeline whenever I am waiting for the first one to get more data or incorporate the edits.

– For one of the proposals, I have a title that’s a rhyme. Obviously I am not going to tell you the title, but its rhythm is similar to the following:

An awesome haircutting technique to make you look so stylish and chic

I kind of really, really want to leave the rhyming title, even though people might think it frivolous, that I am not a serious scientist. I want to get funding, and having a boring title is easy enough, but I wonder… I am really compelled to leave the goofy title, against my own better judgement.

What say you, blogosphere? Should I leave a seriously technical but rhyming proposal title?

– Which brings me to why I love teaching undergrads. I am not a cool person. A lot of people think I am stern, reserved, unpleasant, scary, or simply boring, all of which are probably true if I am not relaxed around you. But when I am relaxed, I am nerdy and goofy and I looove puns. Word play makes me giddy with delight, in any language I understand; the stupider, the better. Undergrads seem to be quite responsive to my general goofiness and puns, perhaps because they are so young and also because the silliness adds some levity to all the math that I routinely shove down their throats.

The goofiness doesn’t play quite as well with grad students, partly because they are older and more serious, and partly because so few of them are Americans. They expect respectable serious instruction from the luminaries in the field, and there I am, the anti-prof. It doesn’t help that the puns and culture-specific jokes are lost on many non-native speakers of English (as I am sure they were on me when I was in grad school and new to the US) who make up most of the graduate student cohort, in contrast to the largely domestic undergrads.

I often teach undergrads because I seem to be very effective at it — students like me and they get well-prepared for the follow-on courses, the department is aware of it, and I don’t mind.

Ironically, teaching undergrads so much means that this is now really my MO, and if you think graduate students are unamused by goofiness, you should see the grown-up bespectacled dudes who are my colleagues. I feel I am considerably more goofy when giving talks than the average talk-giving scientist in my area or related ones. This worries me somewhat, because I am a non-bespectacled, non-ancient, long-haired woman (see Figure), so I am sure I am,  at baseline, not considered as competent as a similarly-experienced dude. But I can’t turn it off now! I see a crowd and I put on a show! Everyone is engaged and smiling, because I presume people love clowns, or perhaps they feel sorry for me. Nobody is asleep. But I wonder how much it’s hurting my chances of getting elected a fellow of a professional society or getting into the National Academies.

ComicSept20_2014_SeriousFemaleScientist

(The poor lady on the left of the picture is probably still too young and pretty to be taken 100% seriously, despite the impeccable appearance exuding scientific respectability. My avatar is younger and prettier than me, so to counter the hair and the shunning of blazers, I have the ever diminishing attractiveness going for me professionally.)

Sometimes, it gets to me, being among dudes all the time and being so visibly different, in appearance and demeanor, both from them and from the occasional woman scientist who looks and acts as expected. I actually totally understand this post by PhDinindustry. And this one by Alyssa.

I love doing science and teaching. But being a female scientist and a female professor can sure be exhausting.

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.

So…

Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.

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In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.

ComicAug28_2014_Derivative

If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*

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You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.

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Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=15519&select_index=7&popup=yes#0