Monday, May 27, 2013

Outbound Again

It feels like a much shorter time than the two and a half weeks since my last professional travel---though perhaps that's because the time since has still had several talks, a significant paper submission, and a major project deadline.  Tonight, I head out again, this time for an experience that is all new to me as a variety of professional service.

Despite the fact that I'm at a company rather than a university, I still have a number of opportunities for academic advising, and it is rather encouraged by BBN as well. I've advised students at both the Masters and Ph.D. level before, but never before has helping with a student involved an international journey.  Some months ago, one of my close colleagues asked me to serve on the thesis committee of his Ph.D. student, whose work I respect and have been following closely for some time.  Since they're over in Europe, I assumed my participation in the defense would be via some sort of remote dial-in (see previous discussion of my fondness for the magic of modern telepresence).  In fact, however, they'd like to have me there in person, so I'm getting on a plane this evening, and will spend about 48 hours on the ground over there, attending the defense and connected celebrations, as well as getting some good time to catch up with my colleague and hear all about his latest ventures.

Alas, I do not get to wear my doctoral hood, which will continue to remain undisturbed in its quiet corner at the back of my closet.  Apparently, there is a special and different form of garb that the university traditionally prescribes for committee members employed by industry (remember: academia is one of the only still-extant reservoirs of medieval guild traditions in the modern world). So one of the first things I'll be doing upon arrival is getting fit for the archaic scholastic version of a rented tuxedo.  I'm unsure just what it is that I will be wearing, and I fear that it won't live up to the gaudy inventions of my imagination.

Another lovely side benefit of this trip comes from the fact that its financing means I wasn't restricted to a US-flag airline---one of the typical requirements of traveling with any aid from a US grant.  As it happened, the cheapest fares (by far) when I was booking my tickets went through Iceland, so it became not only possible but the Official Best Travel Option for me to stop off and see my dear friends in Reykjavik on the way back---I'm taking a day of vacation, and quite looking forward to meeting their new baby in person, who I've previously met only over Skype.

This trip is another piece of time away from our own increasingly intriguing and interactive baby, but at least I've had a long and quiet time together with her this weekend.  We were all going to a wedding down in Maryland, of one of my wife's oldest and dearest friends, but Harriet went down with various standard unpleasant baby ailments that I shan't embarrass future-her by describing to the Internet.  In any case, it became clear that subjecting Harriet to 16 hours of driving would be a bad idea, but with no actual danger in the offing I encouraged Ananya to go without us.  So while Ananya went by Amtrak, Harriet & I rolled around on the kitchen floor, playing with pots and pans, discovering how magnets go back on the refrigerator, and listening (me at least), to my newest audiobook to keep the non-baby half of my mind happy too.

And since I can't fend her off from this keyboard much longer, it's time to post and see if I can answer a few of those long-neglected emails from friends before I vanish again for the airport...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Know Your Time-Zones

In this business, sometimes you've really gotta know your time zones.  When you come down to the wire on a paper, sometimes it really matters whether it's East Coast, West Coast, or (as in my unfortunate case this evening), Central Europe.  At some point, the deadline has really, truly passed, and the submission site shuts down, and the computer won't take your paper any more.

It's important to know exactly when that is, which is why computer science conferences generally choose 11:59pm or 12:01am, avoiding the date ambiguity of midnight, and always specify the time zone---usually somewhere in the US or Europe, but occasionally as far West as American Samoa (because computer people love to find extreme edge cases).  A later deadline doesn't necessarily help, of course, because it's just encouraging you to stay up later at night if you aren't yet done.

Properly, this shouldn't matter.  We should all be good little boys and girls and get things in before the last minute.  Nobody should ever have to wonder which midnight it is, but we do have to sometimes: maybe there's another deadline first, or maybe you figure out something new as you're editing a paper and you have to make lots of extra changes to fix it, or maybe it's ongoing work and you're still adding new material, or maybe you're just crap at deadlines.  I honestly don't think the last actually pertains very often to last-minute submissions: I think more often it's just the combination of perfectionism, triage, and shrinking margins of error.

When I was an undergraduate, I had a theory about deadlines that worked pretty well for me.  I held that taking a semester of classes was like surfing on a wave: you start out up at the front on top, and every time you let anything slip, you slide a little bit further back on the wave.  If you slide far enough back, you're in danger of falling off (missing assignment deadlines), and you get really stressed and can't do anything that you want to because if you miss one step, you fall off the wave.  But you're always doing the same amount of work: it's just that when you're farther from the deadline you've got more options for moving it around and doing the stuff that fits better with your mood/desires/headspace at the moment.  Oh, and having less stress.  So every semester I'd start off doing my assignments the moment that I got them, and slowly slip back towards the deadlines as the work piled up.  Then the semester would end, there would be no homework assignments over break, and I'd be reset up on the top of the wave again at the beginning of the next semester.  Only now, as a working professional, there are no semester ends for me any more.

Technically, I'm already 10 days past the deadline on this submission, but first the conference extended the deadline by seven days (which is not unusual), and then a note went around that the submission site would actually continue staying open for three days beyond.  And so I embraced work-life balance for the weekend: played with my daughter while my wife dealt with her own last-minute paper crisis, went up to Maine to visit my parents, got a couple good nights' sleep.  Today I spent most of the day on an ongoing project that's actually billable, as opposed to this paper which is more directed at future work and foundational principles.  No problem: I knew I had only about three hours of work to go to finish up the paper, and I came in right on time, even a little bit early (though not as early as my ambition, of course).

And the site was closed.

You see, I'd read "CET" and thought "CST".  CET is Central European Time, where Italy and Hungary and Germany are.  CST is Central Standard Time, and has Iowa and Texas, and Chicago.  Seven hours difference this time of year, most times of year in fact, except for a brief transient when Daylight Savings is different in Europe and the US (God only knows why).  And so that's why my paper is still listed as "abstract only" at this moment.

I'm not sorry, because it's ended up as a damned good paper, full of pretty pictures too, so if it doesn't go here, it will find another good venue.  And hopefully the program chairs will have mercy on me and allow my paper to proceed into review in any case, because I'd really prefer it to have a chance to go where I intended---that's an audience that I like a lot and think will really appreciate the ideas.  But for now, I'm tumbled off my wave and hoping to avoid the same mistake on the next one.

Monday, May 13, 2013


One of wife's colleagues, who is also a parent, had this to say about the challenge of being both a scientist and a parent: it's not about whether you will drop balls, but about choosing which balls to drop at which times, and making sure that you don't keep dropping the same ball.

I just spent the last hour in a steam-filled bathroom, singing a terribly unhappy, snuffling and coughing baby back to sleep, steaming the congestion from her sinuses and rocking her in her chair.  "Swing Low, Sweet Harriet" was about the right speed, with lots of low, resonant, sleep-inducing notes; "Harriet the Eukaryote" is a bit too upbeat.  It's hard to watch a baby who really, really just wants to be asleep and cannot get there, but with warmth and song and rocking, she finally at least has made it.  Tonight, I have to get a full night's sleep, because of a critical presentation I'm going to be giving tomorrow, and I'm singing to my baby and writing to you, dear readers.

Career and life inevitably come into conflict for a scientist.  I didn't have a weekend this past weekend, because there was a major workshop on Mammalian Synthetic Biology (fortunately right here in Cambridge), and I needed to be there to present my work, talk and make plans with my colleagues, and also to run a workshop of our own on metrology (more on that one later).  But I didn't get to see Harriet much, and so I've been snatching every bit of time I can at the moment.  Tonight, I met Harriet and Ananya in the library, and we played together there for a little bit before I had to go off to my photo critique group.  Why didn't I skip photo group?  Because it will be the last one that I can attend before we move to Iowa, and it's been my one really consistently peaceable and pleasurable hobby for the last few years.

And so my life grinds finely, sometimes.  I pick which balls to drop, and which to catch, and try to remember that one of those balls is my own ability to find time to rest and recover.  I plan to take a day off later this week, to catch up on weekend.  I'll probably be able to write back to the friends whose letters I'm neglecting now as well, and deal with the pile of mail sitting on the kitchen counter.

But also, unstructured time is precious.  I have a form of meditation that I do for myself at times, where I simply get moving---on foot, on bike, in a car, or even the Paris Metro---and simply see which way I turn as I move forward.  It's an exercise in letting go of planning, just getting in touch with my basic preferences and impulses.  It's not even so much about understanding them as simply giving them a free rein to move me and help to separate out "should" and "need" from "want" and "like."  There are times when I go in circles, and times when I go in straight lines, go out on familiar streets or proceed down random side-roads where I've never set foot before.  I haven't done that for a little while, maybe not even since Newcastle, when I had a day two weeks ago to wander the afternoon around the edge of the North Sea.  I promise myself these times every so often, and have to preserve them even in the face of possible guilt that I could be spending the time on a paper or with my daughter or wife.

This blog too is a promise to myself, which is why I'm making sure that I don't drop it.  It's not a duty, exactly, but a promise to remember to step back and stop doing and just think about the things I'm doing every once in a while.  But that promise now is done, and the promise of sleep is beckoning.

Monday, May 06, 2013

A building tension of words...

I'm experiencing a synchronization event right now, currently sitting in scientific meeting three of four in a three week period.  With only a couple of days at home between each of these events, I'm afraid that you, dear reader, have been falling below my wife and daughter in my priorities.  But the tension of unwritten words is building, and soon they will emerge, to tell of Newcastle and Atlanta, Minneapolis and Boston, workshop and journal, synthetic biology and spatial computing, morphogenesis and metrology...