31 October 2006

Learning to deal with failure

Of all the challenges I've face, I find it most difficult to deal with catastrophic failure. I'm not talking about having just one bad day, but when they stretch out so far, that you can no longer see the horizon of when things used to be great.

I've alluded to my own personal turmoil in this blog, but I'm writing about it directly for the first time. I don't want to get into details but a couple years of extreme pressure and stress got to me. Shortly thereafter, I had to deal with a family crisis. I couldn't work or sleep for a very long time.

My self-respect and confidence sunk to an all-time low. I'm at a new place now and people don't know the formerly exuberant, confident, academic superstar me. What am I supposed to say to them? Yeah, I think I'm a good person who fell on some hard times and you just have to believe me? I get sick of making excuses anyhow. I know some of my colleagues are losing their patience.

I count all the times I missed a class or seminar I should have been at, when I let my advisor down, when I stayed away from my friends, when I missed someone's retirement party, etc. The memory of failure itself becomes a burden. Sometimes I just feel helpless and want to stay in bed.

Life has improved dramatically, but it's a continual struggle to get back to where I used to be. I seem to improve and then I hit a plateau and have to fight to get up the next hill. This is the part that is draining and perhaps surprising for me -- thinking that it's finally over, but realizing I still have more work to do.

I'm finally at the point where I'm feel well enough that I can chip away at both the things I should have done and what I should be doing. However, it's daunting to look at the pile of things I hoped to accomplish and remain undone. This burden makes it difficult to focus on what I should be doing now. I know I should burn some bridges and forge on, but I'm reluctant to do so. And there is the question of pace. Should I take a break and relax now and then? Should I go all out and power through my troubles? I don't know what I'm capable of anymore.

It's difficult when I have a bad day or when I can't sleep because I begin to fear that the nightmare will begin again and I start to give up again. I have to tell myself, "No, that's over. It's just a bad day and only that."

I think about the future me five years from now. I don't think I will regret helping my family. I do worry that I'm not keeping a positive attitude, that I'm not trying hard enough or that I'm dwelling too much on failure (I never know which to think) -- and that is going to cost me five years from now.

I make it sound like I'm depressed, but really the dominant feeling is frustration. I'm writing this entry in the hope that it will help me soldier on to the better days that await me. I want to get up every day and do my best. I think that's the most anyone can hope for -- not to be bitter, not to expect happiness or success -- but to do my best and earn my own respect and in doing so be content with that.

30 October 2006

Link of the day: How to ruin your academic career

Do not bash famous people in your field in public places (like your personal blog). Or you will rue the day, as poor David G learned.

On this blog, I'm trying to stick to the convention of only criticizing myself and the vague selection of mankind whom I don't agree with.

29 October 2006

Staying connected?

When you are deeply involved in your work (artist, musician, scientist, entrepreneur, etc), it can be a challenge to stay connected to the rest of the world. The question I have been pondering is can reading the news be an acceptable substitute for meaningful human contact? How does it compare to cultural appreciation (watching high-quality film/tv, reading books, etc.)? It just seems very difficult to maintain your existing close relationships with friends and family and yet grow as a person by meeting new people.

Link of the day: Four reasons why parents don't support their children's dreams

An ongoing issue in my life (and I suspect in the lives of many other twenty-somethings) is reconciling how much I appreciate my parents's support and trying to follow my own desires. It doesn't help when your parents continually criticize your career choices. Today I found a very nice discussion at Ian Ybarra's blog about how to address parental criticism.

26 October 2006

Link of the day: File naming conventions

I'm still mulling out the best way to name my electronic files. I wish there were a tagging system built into Windows/Linux, but there isn't, so the most robust way to organize files is to name folders and files consistently.

Recently, there has been some discussion on 43Folders and Lifehacker about file naming practices.

17 October 2006

Link of the day: Scrapbook and cosmology calculator

At some point (2008?), I'd like to organize my collection of saved webpages. The Scrapbook Firefox extension seems like a good choice.

After learning general relativity, I now have a passing interest in cosmology. Today I found out about a web-based cosmology calculator which "computes times and distances as a function of redshift for user-defined cosmological parameters."

13 October 2006

Link of the day: Explanation of condensed matter

The sad thing about being a condensed matter physicist is that I never know what really is considered "condensed matter." Even worse, non-physicists ask me "what is condensed matter?" and I just say we look for interesting patterns in materials. Finally, I believe I have found a good explanation by Professor Nayak at UCLA.

12 October 2006

Link of the day: High dynamic range photography

Cameras have a very limited dynamic range compared to the real world. This means that even though an object illuminated in sunlight might have a wide range of brightness, the camera has much rougher palette of brightness. This makes it hard to see details especially when two objects are illuminated with different intensities (a person standing next to a bright LED sign). The technique of maximizing the dynamic range in photos is called HDR (high dynamic range). With the advent of digital cameras, people have developed new ways to achieve HDR photos. I found a really informative introduction to digital HDR here. Wikipedia also has some information on the subject. Here is a tutorial on HDR which I found via Lifehacker.

Productivity: what's been working

I thought I would summarize a few productivity strategies that have been working for me so far.

Getting up and going to sleep at the same time every day. This principle is the bedrock of my schedule. I like to get up at 5:30 am, go to the gym at 6 am, and be at work by 9 am. But if I get up at 5:30 am, I have to be in bed by 9:30 pm. I've been much less consistent in going to bed on time than waking up on time. I really like the fact that from 5:30 am - 10 am, the world is quiet. No emails or problems to deal with until the rest of the world wakes up. However, one problem with this strategy is that sometimes I don't get enough sleep during the week. I may experiment with a sleep-in holiday on Saturday mornings.

Going to the gym at least four times a week. Going to the gym just helps me feel relaxed and energized so I can begin my work day fresh. Also, I feel like it's a good way to set the tone for the day. If I can get up early and go to the gym in the morning, I can do anything. A workout done is an accomplishment I can be proud of.

Recording timecards. This procedure keeps me honest. I look at the timecard and see "wow, I did really well today" or "gee, today was not good." As I fill out the timecard during the day, I'm aware of when I'm working and goofing off. I use timecards with the following format. Take a 3" x 5" index card and write the date at the top. With the card oriented vertically, I write down times in half hour blocks ("5:30", "6:00", "6:30,"..."12:00", "12:30",..."9:00"). Then periodically during the day (especially when I have interstitial time), I fill out the card.

Keeping a blog. It's useful for both work and personal reasons. Writing things up helps me reflect on my progress in work. I also like writing up trip reports (like hockey camp) so that I have a diary-like report of important events in my life. Some of my friends have become regular readers of my blog, so it's a good way to keep in touch (but unfortunately, a one-way method unless the other person has a blog, too.)

Applying GTD principles in my email account and online calendar. I've written about these ideas before in my blog, so I won't go over it again.

Minimizing transition time

The last two weeks I've been focusing on creating an efficient work schedule (GTD style).

Today, I noticed that I waste a lot of time transitioning between tasks. So I want to make a few additions to my strategy. First, I want to pack my backpack right before I go to sleep. Today, I forgot a book that I needed and had to go back home to pick it up. Second, I want to implement a GTD text file for my various projects. Each project (research, class 1, finding cheap tickets for the opera, etc) will have a bunch of tasks. I want to order them by priority and perhaps note the length of time it will take. Tasks should be done depending on the chunk of time available and priority. Some good resources for a todo.txt file are todotxt.com and Gina Trapani's Lifehacker article "List your life in .txt. If I have a list of tasks, then I don't have to waste time figuring out what to do next. Also, if I have a master list, I can keep an eye on my global progress, rather than just thinking about each project separately all the time.

Sony Reader

I learned via the Wall Street Journal that Sony is releasing a new electronic book reader called Sony Reader. It uses a special E-ink technology that creates high-contrast text with very low power. The device looks really nice. What I'm hoping is that one day they will put technical books into e-book form. It would be nice to travel and have access to my library of physics books in a handheld device.

11 October 2006

David Mermin on talks

Here's a quote for today:
The most important question to ask yourself in preparing your talk is why on earth any physicist might be interested. This is dangerous: There is always the risk you will find no answer. But that is not necessarily a cause for alarm. Often when working on a problem for a long time, one does indeed forget what first led one into that line of endeavor, so if at first you can find no answer, think some more. What is there in the subject to capture the imagination of one lacking your highly specialized skills? Give yourself a week. If you still can find no reason why anyone not directly involved in the work should find it anything but tediously obscure, then you should find something else to talk about. Indeed you might then seriously consider finding another area of research.

It's taken from a Physics Today article called "What's wrong with these talks?" by David Mermin.

Caffeine overdose

I went to bed early, tossed and turned and got up at 1 am, then got back into bed at 3 am. Ick, I think I had a caffeine overdose. I'll have to stop having coffee after lunchtime.

10 October 2006

One page per day

Avoiding your work is, paradoxically, a common problem in any creative career. Perhaps it has to do with perfectionism. Artists, writers, scientists, etc only go into their respective fields because they have a passion to create their own masterpiece. But the years of work involved in creating that work is terrifyingly intimidating.

Writers have come up with various ways to combat procrastination. According to a friend of mine, Ernest Hemingway wrote one page everyday even when he had a hangover. Another writer wrote four pages a day after which he could polish all the silverware he wanted.

I want to come up with a physicist version of this method and I have arrived at the following proposal: do one hour of research every morning.

09 October 2006

Where does my time go?

I feel like I don't get much done (at least not as much as I'd like), so here's a list of how I spend my non-work time during the week.

Fun: Battlestar Galactica (1 hr), Lost (1 hr)

Exercise: hockey practice (3 hrs), gym (6-8 hrs)

Class: Noise and dissipation lecture (3 hr), Theory of Solids reading group (1 hr)

Meetings: Meeting with advisor (1 hr), postdoc meeting (2 hrs), group meeting (1.5 hr), condensed matter theory seminar (1 hr), physics colloquium (1 hr)

Sleeping (56 hr)

Eating (21 hr)

News reading and email (??)

Which leaves me 67.5 hours during the week to do "real" work. My real work consists of doing reading for classes, attempting problem sets, reading the arXiv, doing research, and organizing my research/class/etc materials.

I'm going to start keeping time cards everyday to see what's going on.

08 October 2006

Limits on addictive behavior

I want to commit to some limits on addictive behavior. So far I have 1) no more than two cups of coffee and two cups of tee per day, 2) no more than 2 x 15 minute gaming breaks.

I have a sort of flow chart to fighting off sleepiness. Caffeine --> exercise/news reading --> email --> web surfing/gaming --> napping. (X --> Y means if X doesn't work, do Y)

Link of the day: Math screensavers and exercise videos

I found some cool stuff this morning. First, Chris Lomont has a bunch of math-based screensavers including Mandelbrot sets, knots, and polyhedra. Second, John Sokolowski has an excellent site called Athlete 365 which includes a library of exercises, many illustrated in video.

Handedness in hockey

Just like neutrinos, it seems like NHL players prefer to shoot left. I searched on the web and found a few fans who noticed the same thing (here and here).

I'm right handed and I shoot left. When I first started playing hockey, I shot right, but the coaches made me switch to lefty. They said I stickhandled and passed better. I'm not sure if they were right (in fact, I wasn't very happy about the switch), but now I just play lefty all the time. Unfortunately, I don't have a strong upper body so I find it difficult to shoot lefty. My shot is definitely stronger with my right hand on the bottom of the stick.

07 October 2006

Don't tell me what I can or can't do!

The title of this blog post is a reference to a quote from the TV show Lost. In the episode "Walkabout," John Locke, a former paraplegic, says variations of this phrase when people put him down.

Ever since I reached college age, I feel increasingly pressured by the ever-growing cacophony of voices telling me to do this or that. When I got into graduate school, it seemed like everyone had an opinion on where I should go. One professor wanted me to learn his specialty, so he pushed me towards the school best for that. Some people thought I should go to a "brand-name" school to maximize my marketability. A few people apparently didn't seem to think I was very bright, since they didn't really encourage me to apply to top schools. If I had to do it over again, I'm not sure I would have told anyone where I got it unless they had some useful advice. As one of my friends aptly said, "I am not a democracy. You do not have a vote on where I go to school."

Career advice, I can partially understand that. But I see so many other areas in life where people are ridiculously obtrusive. For instance, I used to have short hair up until a year and a half ago when I just stopped cutting it and let it grow. A few months ago I contemplated cutting it and I felt so much social pressure not to. My roommate said, "I know it's tempting, but don't cut your hair!" I get noticed by men much more now that I have longer hair and it makes me feel like I must have been less of a woman when I had short hair. (If you're wondering, I've decided to keep my hair long for now, so I can get more experience with the situation before making a choice.)

Something that really annoys me is when people tell me I work too much. I talked to all my friends who have gotten good jobs in physics and they all worked like crazy. No one can be successful in science without working long hours. I often feel like I have to cover up my working habits as if I were an alcoholic. It is true that there have been times when I've worked to escape from personal problems, but mostly I have had very good reasons for working. I studied very hard in college and I have no regrets. It was like intellectual first love; I didn't want to lose time when I could be learning something beautiful. Now that I look back, I was right. I can't go back to learning Nyquist's theorem or the Schrodinger equation for the first time. The question is not what do you want to do with your life, but what do you want to experience (as Steve Pavlina says).

I think about what I could be doing besides physics and I can't see that the alternatives are any better. Lawyers work really long hours and a lot of that work is apparently boring. Doctors have trouble running profitable practices due to the rising costs of malpractice insurance. Being an engineer in a high-tech company seems really boring. One of my friends ia biomedical engineer and she showed me her workplace -- a maze of cubicles. Frankly, her co-workers seemed un-interesting and lethargic. I can't imagine being a bright, creative person stifled in that type of environment, having to do what is expected. Everyone has a different focus in life. Some people want to create a wonderful family. Some people want to buy their own island and yacht. Some people want to "save" the world (charity work). I want to work in a creative, meaningful craft (at least that is what I want now). Some people want it all - a great family, great work, and money!

What really bothers me is who's telling me what I should do. One group is my peers. "Don't play video games. They're addictive." (My response: "Well, they make me happy because I feel like a kid again!") "I'm almost 30. I'm getting old." (My response: "Speak for yourself. No one's stopping me.") How can a 25 year old claim to be old?! The other group is parents and elders. I suppose that an occupational hazzard of growing older is wanting to tell younger people what to do because 1) you no longer have the opportunity to make those choices and 2) a sense of entitlement. I don't believe that older equals wiser. Many people don't get wiser; they just reinforce the same beliefs they've had since they were 20 years old. I don't see why a 60 year old person who treads a narrow path should be respected more than a 30 year old person who has tried to make the most of his/her short time on this earth. I refuse to be put down anymore. Don't tell me what I can or can't do.

06 October 2006

Worker bees

I heard about a graduate student in archaeology who finished her undergrad in three years, graduate school in four years, and was hired as an assistant professor right out of grad school. Apparently, she worked 10-12 hours per day. How does anyone do that? I feel jealous...

The only recreational activity I might be able to reduce is news reading (which probably consumes 1-1.5 hours a day). Steve Pavlina views reading the news daily as an addiction. I used to read a lot of articles in depth, but now I skim headlines and just pick about 10 articles to read. I used to spend a lot of time organizing and cleaning, but I don't have to do that anymore, just a little maintenance now and then. The other fun things I do are hockey and watching two TV shows and I don't really want to give that up.

04 October 2006

Living efficiently

My life has settled down now and there are no foreseeable deadlines in the next few months. This quiet period has been good time for me to concentrate on setting up a robust, efficient schedule.

I think I've been doing a good job during the week. There's a good balance between doing research and studying for classes ("real work"), attending classes, seminars, and meetings ("meta work"), going to the gym ("health") and watching TV shows and playing hockey ("fun").

I find that I have problems on the weekend because it is a huge chunk of unstructured time. There are no constraints on my time, no group meeting at 1 pm, no hockey practice at 9 pm, etc. Last weekend, I tried to sit in my room and work, but that just failed. I can't concentrate that long. But I really need that un-interrupted time to do work! What to do?

I'm going to try two things. First, I'm going to go to the gym on the weekends. Physical exercise gives me a mood and energy boost. Second, I'm going to plan on taking 1/2-1 day off every weekend. I'm not sure yet what I'll do with that time, but the point is to have something to look forward to at the end of the week.

After I decide on a framework for my weekly schedule, I will do some fine-tuning. In some future blog post, I'll write about logging how I use my time and making sure I work N hours per week.

02 October 2006

Link of the day: X-Gals

Today I came across an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A group of women biologists keep a support group going online through an email discussion list. They call themselves the X-Gals. I would like to do something similar with physicists, but I haven't quite found the right people yet.

Physics RSS feeds

I've recently added some physics RSS feeds to my RSS reader. Nature Physics has a feed. You can subscribe to any Nature section on this page. Physical Review Focus also has a feed. It's a wonderful collection of short articles. Each article focuses on one Physical Review paper and discusses it at a Scientific American level. But unlike Scientific American, Focus chooses little known topics and makes them interesting.

01 October 2006

Report on goals for September

So I didn't make as much progress as I hoped on the goals I stated a month ago. I'll discuss my progress or lack-there-of on each goal.
  • Replenish emergency cash fund - I am getting better at putting off unnecessary, spontaneous purchases. I get the bulk of my large bills in the fall, so I'm trying to wait until January to splurge (if I still covet those purchases then).
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables - I am making a conscious effort to eat more fruit. I think it would be a good habit to eat some kind of fresh fruit at breakfast every morning.
  • Read David Allen's book Getting Things Done - nope
  • Organize electronic files - nope (that is a gargantuan task)
  • Work out at least four days a week - I'm not quite there yet, but I've worked my way up to three days a week. I had a major deadline this past month and skipped the gym a lot the first two weeks in September.
  • Start reading Physical Review Focus consistently - yes, it's in my Bloglines news reader now.