30 April 2007

Quantum coherence in photosynthesis

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the UC Berkeley Department of Chemistry report in Nature (subscription required to access paper) that they have observed quantum coherence in a photosynthetic protein called FMO. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has a press release here.

24 April 2007

Song of the day: "Ants Marching" by Dave Matthews Band

Yeah, it's a silly song, but I like the upbeat nature of the music.
He wakes up in the morning
Does his teeth bite to eat and he's rolling
Never changes a thing
The week ends the week begins
She thinks, we look at each other
Wondering what the other is thinking
But we never say a thing
These crimes between us grow deeper

Goes to visit his mommy
She feeds him well his concerns
He forgets them
And remembers being small
Playing under the table and dreaming

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die

Driving in on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged
No time to exchange

And all the little ants are marching
Red and black antennas waving
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way

Candyman tempting the thoughts of a
Sweet tooth tortured by the weight loss
Program cutting the corners
Loose end, loose end, cut, cut
On the fence, could not to offend
Cut, cut, cut, cut

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die

23 April 2007

Dealing with difficult people

I've frequently thought over the problem of how to deal with difficult people. Steve Pavlina offers a lot of good advice. I'll try to summarize his ideas and add in a few comments.

There are some general considerations that come into play no matter the situation. You should keep your cool. Make believe that you are the Buddha or St. Francis, or [insert-name-of-famously-patient-person]. Set boundaries as Steve Pavlina explains in his post "Dealing with Difficult Relatives." If you constantly allow another person to step over your boundaries, you really shouldn't expect anything to change. This goes for all relationships whether parent-child, teacher-student, coworker-coworker, etc. If your mom calls you at all hours of the day, don't pick up the phone during your work hours. Call her back only at appropriate times of the day.

A specific topic is how to get a difficult person to change. I think Steve Pavlina's post "Dealing with Difficult People" explains the main methods very well. Point out the person's bad behavior directly. One can also try behavioral conditioning. Maybe a good analogy to use is to act like an animal trainer (ala the famous New York Times article "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage") or a kindergarten teacher.

The trickiest problem is dealing with relatives and family members (people you can't "get rid of"). As Steve explains in the post "Understanding Family Relationship Problems", people often try three approaches. Usually, you first try to get the person to change. When that doesn't work (frequently the situation when you are dealing with so-called elders), you get frustrated. Next, one usually tries the approach of accepting the person for who they are. I read Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (basically a journal of Aurelius's random thoughts) and thought I would treat difficult relatives like stabbing yourself on a prickly cactus. You don't blame the cactus, right? That doesn't seem very satisfying in the long run because while you don't blame the cactus, any sane person would avoid constantly walking into one (which is what it feels like when you constantly deal with an obnoxious relative).

In addition to accepting that the person won't change, you have to change your own attitude. An annoying relative should not be treated any differently than a difficult colleague. After all, as Steve says, would you accept that kind of behavior from a complete stranger? The problem with that perspective is what if you still want to "love" the person, what if you don't want to give up your close relationship? In my experience, you have to strike a compromise. You have to distance yourself in order to protect your self-esteem and personality, and give up the idea of a full relationship (such as you might have with your spouse). I don't know if this is a good analogy but there are parents who raise autistic children (which must be incredibly frustrating) and somehow they find a way to cope. Maybe you have to treat the relative like a person with an unfortunate physical/mental condition. A final note, don't allow the person to attack you with the guilt card. Recognize each attack and point it out to the person.

Slackers anonymous?

The only destiny I have is as a world-class frak-up.
- Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica episode Maelstorm

In the last year or so, I've been trying to get my life back together. I'm back to eating and sleeping on a regular schedule (though I still fall into bad habit of missing meals sometimes). I hope to get back on my gym schedule. I have hobbies that keep me happy and occupied (mainly hockey and reading news on the internet). Unfortunately, the hardest thing to get back is the desire to do real science (e.g. research, class, seminars, learning).

The thing that puzzles me is how does a person go from being incredibly enthusiastic, motivated, and successful (I was at the top of my undergraduate class at a prestigious technology university) to being a complete slacker, lazy and uninterested in doing work? I seem to spend my weeks doing the barest, barest minimum of work to show my advisor and slack off the rest of the time. I haven't really attended any seminars this semester.

The best analogy I can come up with is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Apparently, there are plenty of formerly wonderful people who become alcoholics. I don't know what it's like to be an alcoholic but I can take a guess. You try to avoid your problems by drinking. And of course, avoiding your problems only makes them worse. The purpose of AA is to create a support group so that you have to be accountable to other people (who are not your friends/family) on a regular basis. Some AA members even attend meetings daily (according to my cursory Wikipedia research). It makes sense. Their problems are so deep that the only way to dig themselves out is with continuous peer pressure.

How is my work problem similar? I try to avoid work by doing other things like errands, checking the news, watching hockey games, etc. When I really try to sit down and work, I often trick myself into taking just a "short nap" which turns into a four hour siesta. I also often fall into the oh, I did two hours of work… I’m done for the day!” attitude. This is not unlike alcoholics who say to themselves, "I just got through a tough day, now I'll have a drink" and then it becomes ten drinks. Why would a sane person self-destruct themselves by drinking instead of being happy and productive? Similarly, it makes no sense for a young person with tons of potential to sit around slacking their scientific career away.

The point where a person becomes really screwed is when he/she stops feeling bad/guilty about self-destructive behavior.

Well, not all hope is lost. I have some ideas on how to get back on track. Wish me luck.

20 April 2007

Even keel

"He [Goalie coach Warren Strelow] was a great guy," the goalie [Evgeni Nabokov] said with visible emotion following the Sharks' morning warm-up session. "He helped me learn not to feel too much high or too much down after one game or even one period."

Stay on even keel, Strelow would tell Nabokov. Keep a cool head through the craziness. Later in the day, no advice would come in more handy.
“Obviously you’re not happy anytime you’re not playing,” said [Mark] Bell. “I’m sure other guys are chomping at the bit to get in. You try not to be too mad and stay even keel. My chance will come again. They made the decision that will be best for the team.”

These were a few quotes from San Jose Sharks players during their current playoff series against the Nashville Predators. I've talked a bit with one of my friends about the ups and downs of research. Actually, mostly downs. The majority of the time you're stuck going nowhere and not making progress. Ironically, when you make a breakthrough, it passes very quickly. So you have to keep your emotions neutral. It seems that the hockey term for this philosophy is "even keel". As I get through my "rookie" years in science, I hope I'll learn to stay on an even keel.

Tools to rescue your PC

My laptop stopped booting up at a conference a month ago and I felt helpless. Now, I know better. I should have brought some emergency software. The Ultimate Boot CD has many diagnostic tools on it, including one which would have proved handy at the conference: MemTest86+ to check the integrity of my RAM. As a last resort, you can also boot using a Knoppix Live CD which allows you to see the files on your hard drive and retrieve them if necessary (e.g. your Powerpoint presentation).

09 April 2007

Song of the day: "Doubting Thomas" by Nickel Creek

A very thoughtful song about religious faith. The lyrics are well-written enough that you could extend the metaphor to other kinds of trust.
What will be left when I've drawn my last breath,
Besides the folks I've met and the folks who know me,
Will I discover a soul saving love,
Or just the dirt above and below me,

I'm a doubting thomas,
I took a promise,
But I do not feel safe,
Oh me of little faith,

Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face,
Then I beg to be spared 'cause I'm a coward,
If there's a master of death I'll bet he's holding his breath,
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power,
I'm a doubting thomas,
I can't keep my promises,
'Cause i don't know what's safe,
oh me of little faith

Can I be used to help others find truth,
When I'm scared I'll find proof that its a lie,
Can I be lead down a trail dropping bread crumbs,
That prove I'm not ready to die,

Please give me time to decipher the signs,
Please forgive me for time that I've wasted,

I'm a doubting thomas,
I'll take your promise,
Though I know nothin's safe,
Oh me of little faith

The DC Metro is no place for a debut

How sad is it when Joshua Bell (one of the most talented young violinists in the world) can't even earn $20 after playing an hour on his $3 million Stradivarius violin at a DC subway stop?

Apparently, this is the case as reported by the Washington Post.

I'm not sure how to interpret this "street" case study. Are we Americans so busy that we can't appreciate the world around us? Are we conditioned to distrust our own judgment and to only approve critic-approved art? Or perhaps classical music is on its last legs in the US?

One of my favorite moments in Paris was when I was walking along the river and stopped to listen to two opera singers. There was a huge crowd.

08 April 2007

Favorite notebook

I confess that I like to use high-quality notebooks and writing paper. This morning, I found out that my favorite notebook, the A9, is available online directly from the company that makes it (Rediform)! Not only that, you can get it in four different colors: black, blue, red, and green (I only have blue and black). Why do I like the A9? The paper is fairly heavy-weight and has nice margins for subject, date, and page number. The binding is high quality and the notebook is a smallish size (9 1/4" x 7 1/4"). Finally, the cover is very hard and makes a fine writing surface.

A blue A9 notebook (cover):

Inside the A9 notebook:

A spiral-bound version of the A9 (good for scratch notes):

For filler paper, I use the (expensive) Mead Five Star XL Reinforced College-Ruled, 3-hole punched, 8 1/2" x 11" paper. It is very heavy weight and the holes are reinforced, which I like since I tend to abuse my binders.

07 April 2007

Link of the day: Astro Coffee at Ohio State

Do journal clubs really work? They seem like a nice idea in principle, but it takes a lot of momentum to get it going. At Cosmic Variance, Mark Trodden reports that a group of astrophysicists at Ohio State do a daily journal club. And it works! Impressive. I wish I was dynamic enough and knowledgeable enough to run a journal club like this.