Archives : August 1999

1999 August 3

Two mini-epiphanies and a step towards decision

I get the feeling this has been an important week for me.

Last weekend I went to two parties on consecutive nights: one with Molly's net-head downstairs neighbours, and one with a bunch of postdocs mostly from the Stanford medical school. Molly's neighbours were fascinating, lively, and funny; the postdocs were bland and discontented. It's probably not a fair comparison; the net-heads were having a gathering of friends while the postdoc event was an occasion for people to get out of their labs and meet each other. But hey, it says something that you need an event for that, and I can be unfair if I want to. (The net-heads also had fresh-baked cheesecake, which is as good a motivation for unfairness as any, right?) I looked around the postdoc crowd, saw only two or three people who seemed half as interesting as the ones I met the night before, and had mini-epiphany #1.

It occurs to me that I made my choice of grad schools on similar grounds: the students at Rochester looked like they were having fun, and the ones at Toronto didn't. I never regretted that decision (well, except maybe in failing to have considered the third option, of doing something non-academic for a year or two).

I suppose reflection on that finally gave me the boot to the butt needed to get me to talk to Peter (my boss) about my motivational difficulties. I didn't announce any decisions -- which I haven't officially made yet in any case -- just explained that I didn't feel happy with the work I'd been managing to produce and was wrestling with whether astronomy was the career I should be in. He was sympathetic -- these are not rare problems for young academics these days -- and had half a dozen suggestions. Most notably, that he will try to talk stuff over with me more often, and make sure I have more frequent and specific targets to work towards. This is a good thing for keeping me from drifting along at work, at any rate, which is definitely one of my problems.

So there is prospect of improvement at my current job -- and I am quite aware of how many neat opportunities it gives me. And yet this brings me to my second mini-epiphany.

Last night Molly invited me over again, and I got to trying to explain my work malaise while she was basting the chicken (stuffed with lemons and limes, mmm). I think I've lost count of just how many times I've tried to do that with with how many people in the past six months, but this time, finally, I hit upon a formula that seems to clarify my decision instead of making it more difficult.

I don't feel I have anything important left to prove to myself in academia.

Finishing my bachelor's degree (nearly combined honours in physics and math) proved to me that I could learn the gnarliest stuff anyone wanted to throw at me. Finishing my thesis proved I could take a big ugly project and finish it by my own discipline and on time.

So, if I can figure out what I need to prove to myself now, I will know what I need to do next. Which brings me to another observation that has been nagging me for quite a while: I have only ever held one non-academic job, and I do not think three months at Swensen's should really even count. Since high school I have been following a very safe, well-worn track straight into the ivory tower. At minimum, I need to widen my path a bit, or get off these rails entirely.

1999 August 4


It occurs to me that there are certainly no shortage of meaningful challenges I could take up within academia. There is, for example, the challenge of proving that I could do research that other people will actually get excited about. (This, regrettably, has not been true of my thesis to date, and I don't see much reason to expect that that will change in the future.)

So the question to ponder, then, is why doesn't this challenge inspire me?

The easy answer is that I don't seem to have any ideas bubbling within me needing to get out, but I think I have watched enough good science being done to know that it's not always (or maybe even usually) like that -- and in any case Peter has enough good ideas to keep any three of me occupied. Is it simply true that my interests have moved on? Hm.

1999 August 11

The last one to go

Things like this are why it's hard to give up science.

I found this today in the Stanford Report, in an article on Hopkins Marine Station.

        WRITTEN by a Japanese civilian hangs on the wall of
        the Agassiz building at Hopkins in Pacific Grove. On
        Sept. 2, 1945, a U.S military unit found the message
        posted on the door of the University of Tokyo Marine
        Biological Station located at a midget submarine base
        in Moroisi Ko, Japan:
        "This is a marine biological station with her history of
        over sixty years. If you are from the Eastern Coast,
        some of you might know Woods Hole or Mt Desert or
        Tortugas. If you are from the West Coast you may
        know Pacific Grove or Puget Sound Biological Station.
        This place is a place like one of these. Take care of this
        place and protect the possibility for the continuation of
        our peaceful research. You can destroy weapons and
        war instruments but save the civil equipments for
        Japanese students. When you are through with your job
        here notify to the university and let us come back to our
        scientific home. The last one to go, KATSUMA DAN."

        U.S. troops left the station intact.

(Retroactively posted 99/08/18)

1999 August 13

Twain, maps, role models

I've been reading Mark Twain's Following the Equator, a
travelogue written just over a century ago. I'd never heard of it before, but damn, it's entertaining. This is the funny Twain I've always known from legend but never really met in his books; but underneath the tall tales is a man with a very modern social conscience living in a world where unreconstructed European imperialism still staggers on, dying but not yet gone.

``And in memory of the greatest man Australasia ever developed or ever will develop, there is a stately monument to George Augustus Robinson, the Conciliator in -- no, it is to another man, I forget his name.''

I found myself in the Stanford Bookstore on Tuesday, desperately trying to distract myself (from what, I think I will not mention here), looking at maps. I had been looking for a decent world map on Sunday, and so it was on my mind that I didn't have an atlas. I spent probably half an hour sitting on the floor flipping through alternatives, comparing renditions of obscure parts of Africa. There was a hardcover New Millenium atlas with pages and pages of utterly gorgeous satellite photography, but it was way out of my price range; I finally settled on Hammond's softcover Atlas of the World: Concise Edition.

I've been flipping through it, following Twain along. The more I look through it, the more I like it. Subtle colours, elegant design, wonderful detail. There's something magical about maps. I love 'em.

. . .

I went to a seminar at Lockheed yesterday morning -- Derek Buzasi was talking about his WIRE salvage experiments. WIRE, the Wide-field InfraRed Explorer is a satellite that malfunctioned on launch back in March -- all the coolant leaked out, so the nominal science package was useless. NASA was going to write it off, until Buzasi jumped in and convinced them that the star tracker (a tiny telescope smaller than some amateurs have in their back yards) could be used to do asteroseismology (ie, helioseismology applied to other stars). So this guy has salvaged a failed mission to do nifty observations that really couldn't be done any other way -- it's better than Star Trek. If I was serious about becoming a scientist, Buzasi should be my hero. Instead, I think the work is brilliant, but feel no particular drive to try to top it. Call this another sign.

1999 August 14

Less and less dull all the time

Mark Twain wrote the following in Following the Equator, published 102 years ago. A century is not such a long time; I find it interesting what has and hasn't changed.

In New Zealand women have the right to vote for members of the legislature, but they cannot be members themselves. The law extending the suffrage to them went into effect in 1893. The population of Christchurch (census of 1891) was 31,454. The first election under the law was held in November of that year. Number of men who voted, 6,313; number of women, 5,989. These figures ought to convince us that women are not as indifferent about politics as some people would have us believe. In New Zealand as a whole, the estimated adult female population was 139,915; of these, 109,461 qualified and registered their names on the rolls -- 78.23 per cent. of the whole. Of these, 90,290 went to the polls and voted -- 85.18 per cent. Do men ever turn out better than that -- in America or elsewhere? Here is a remark to the other sex's credit, too -- I take it from the official report:

`A feature of the election was the orderliness and sobriety of the people. Women were in no way molested.'

At home, a standing argument against woman suffrage has always been that women could not go to the polls without being insulted. The arguments against woman suffrage have always take the easy form of prophecy. The prophets have been prophesying ever since the women's rights movement began in 1848 -- and in forty-seven years they have never scored a hit.

Men ought to begin to feel a sort of respect for their mothers and wives and sisters by this time. The women deserve a change of attitude like that, for they have wrought well. In forty-seven years they have swept an imposingly large number of unfair laws from the statute books of America. In that brief time these serfs have set themselves free -- essentially. Men could not have done so much for themselves in that time without bloodshed -- at least they never have; and that is argument that they didn't know how. The women have accomplished a peaceful revolution, and a very beneficent one; and yet that has not convinced the average man that they are intelligent, and have courage and energy and perseverance and fortitude. It takes much to convince the average man of anything; and perhaps nothing can ever make him realize that he is the average woman's inferior -- yet in several important details the evidences seems to show that that is what he is. Man has ruled the human race from the beginning -- but he should remember that up to the middle of the present century it was a dull world, and ignorant and stupid; but it is not such a dull world now, and is growing less and less dull all the time. This is woman's opportunity -- she has had none before. I wonder where man will be in another forty-seven years?

In the New Zealand law occurs this: `The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman.'

That is promotion, you see. By that enlargement of the word, the matron with the garnered wisdom and experience of fifty years becomes at one jump the political equal of her callow kid of twenty-one. The white population of the colony is 626,000, the Maori population is 42,000. The whites elect seventy members of the House of Representatives, the Maoris four. The Maori women vote for their four members.

-- Mark Twain, Following the Equator,

1897, Chapter XXXII

And that's all he has to say on the matter.

The ``average man'' has perhaps not quite caught up to Mr. Clemens.

Note added 99/08/17: I checked some dates. New Zealand was actually the first country in the world to give women's suffrage a real shot, so the above should be read in way of a response to an unprecedented experiment. (Canada didn't follow until 1918, and the US in 1920.)

1999 August 17

My first quake

The Bay was shaken gently by a 5.0 earthquake today, round about 5:30 or 6 pm, apparently centred somewhere up in Marin. According to the radios, no damage reported except for one listener had a figurine fall off her shelf.

What it felt like at Stanford was sort of like being beside a railway track when a lone locomotive goes by, except not so loud. There was faint rumble and things swayed back and forth once, and that was about it. They had been doing work on the roof right above my office earlier in the day (washing gutters and such), and at first I thought they'd come back and were dragging something heavy around up there -- but then I heard people down the hall calling ``earthquake!''

Was cool, in a sort of perverse way I guess.

. . .

Sunday I spent the afternoon volunteering at Plugged In, a community ``technology access center'' for East Palo Alto -- it's only five blocks from my apt, so it was pretty easy to go over. I made a couple signs and spent a while doing some miscellaneous cleaning up, and then a guy brought in a few old computers for donation. I got involved in tearing them down and checking them over, and spent a couple hours talking old hardware with another volunteer there and a few kids who were hanging around. Fun afternoon -- I'm going to have to do that more often.

Probably I should take my old IIsi over there, too. It's older than any of the machines they took in as donations while I was there (though, I suspect, more functional). I can't really see anyone giving me money for anything but the monitor these days, but still, it's hard to part with.

. . .

Saw the most extraordinary woman this morning. She was wearing purple, collar to toe. Purple dress, purple stockings, purple shoes, all solid colours, no patterns, all the same shade of Crayola purple. I have no idea how she managed it.

I didn't see her fingernails, but if they weren't purple too I'll be quite disappointed.

1999 August 24

The avalanche has started

I sent in my application to Ars Digita's web programming boot camp yesterday afternoon. They got back to me a whole hour and a half later, saying I'm accepted.

I get the feeling I've just taken a step onto a steep loose slope that has just shifted beneath me, and the only way out is to keep myself on top until I get to the bottom.

Forward momentum! I'm psyched.

. . .

whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.

boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

--johann von goethe