Red Flags in Activism

Grass-roots activism has been a powerful force in American-history. However, there are certain common problems with activists’ arguments, which, if not obliterating that cause’s chance of being taken seriously, prevent *me* from taking them seriously.  Every organization that exhibits one of these warning signs is not necessarily foaming at the mouth, but has blind spots and should be approached with caution.

Darn Commies! (C) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm

Darn Commies! (c) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm

Persecution Doctrine is the belief that people/the establishment are actively persecuting a cause. But exactly what is persecution? Merriam-Webster defines “persecute” as

1: to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs

2: to constantly annoy or bother (someone)

Often, however, no evidence of constant harassment or unfair treatment is presented. Nor does such evidence prove that either viewpoint is in the right. It only suggests that one side finds debate threatening. However, if said cause wishes to proceed in this vein anyway, I find their arguments more convincing if they document a substantial number of concrete examples of how the organization/specific people have been harassed or focus their argument on things the organization has done, rather than ways it has been disenfranchised.

Squelching Debate. Ironically, the people who complain that their viewpoint has not been given a fair hearing often deny the opposition the same thing. This may take the form of deleting criticizing comments or banning commentators from web-page. Debate suppression may take the form of ad hominem attack, building straw-men, or bulverism. Indeed, if these organizations actually believe that their opponents are “haters” whose viewpoints are dictated by the “establishment” one begins to understand their persecution doctrine. However, the correct viewpoint will not be injured by answering the opposing arguments, and will be more respected for it.

Excessive Adherence to/Refusal to Acknowledge Authorities is another warning sign. One may disagree with the authorities, but to do so, one must present reasons, and one’s own authoritative voices. Or activists may attempt to cover their back by only citing particular authorities without addressing personal experience or opposing arguments (See Squelching Debate). The potential activist should realize who their authorities are, determine whether that authority applies, and present challenges to and alternative viewpoints to their own.

Excessive Attention to Marketing need not signal duplicity, but it has been used to “crowd-out” bad stories. To establish credibility, one might address these bad stories openly, and without generalization. They won’t be as apt to pop up later.

Fear-Mongering is used as a recruiting technique. Unfortunately, these fears often rely on unproven assumptions or there are alternate means of preventing the feared outcome. To make these strategies more effective, one should ensure the feared outcomes are direct consequences of your cause’s failure, rather than one-thing-leads-to-another scenarios.

Refusal to Compromise or Leave Opponents an Honorable Out commonly prevents amicable agreements. For example, after WWI, the French insisted that the Germans shoulder the bulk of the war debt and accept responsibility for the war. Regardless on your opinion of whether the French were justified, the Germans never would have taken such an agreement had they any choice, and Hitler’s rhetoric at the beginning of WWII highlighted showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race. Policy change is essentially a treaty, so I believe in giving your opponent a way to come out of a skirmish with dignity intact. For example, Germany could have given up Alsace-Lorraine in exchange for debt forgiveness or trade agreements or something else, which might have allowed the new German administration (over which France had just become dominant) to remain in office where France could exert its sway.

Partial Falsehoods fall under the umbrella of intellectual dishonesty (unless, of course, there’s no way one could have known the truth). Activism is all about morals. What are yours?

Poor Spelling and Grammar does not imply poor reasoning skill, but look at it this way. If you can’t be bothered to proof-read or hire an editor, than why should I give you money? Quite probably, you don’t have an accountant either. If you don’t care about your cause enough to discuss it in an educated way, than why should I care?

Excessive Anger is both one of the most detrimental and most difficult problems to cope with. If you didn’t believe in this cause, then you wouldn’t be an activist. Yet anger clouds thinking and allows the opposition (if it exists) to write-off your supports as a bunch of frothing at the mouth idiots. Rather one might formulate with possible retorts and ways to address them in a professional manner.

While these warning signs are present in a number of popular activist causes, I believe that they are the reason a lot of causes haven’t gone further: the organizers refuse to address people who value complete logical arguments or the organizers have not thought about why the opposition might oppose the movement or whether the movement’s goals are even viable.

While I find these characteristics troubling, they do not imply that an activist cause is necessarily wrong. There are some causes I support which display some of these red flags. In addition, there are many opposing outlooks on this issue. In researching some of the rhetoric out there, I stumbled across a post opining that youth activism is actually too “safe”, politically correct, cool-headed, and dependent on authority. While I agree that government-funded activism isn’t a good idea, my gripe with activism is that it is too emotionally driven, and the public makes decisions based on fear, rather than reason, while the activists place the appearance of righteousness over reason.

Grad School Decision

In my last semester at college, blogging has not come easily. Last semester, my library class enforced a (sort of)  blogging regimen, but for the last month I have been visiting and researching graduate schools in addition to my courseload. Even with so many new experiences, I still don’t feel like blogging. I feel worn out. Unmotivated. And, oddly enough, peaceful.

I finally made my graduate school decision. I spent a lot of time arguing with myself about rankings and locations. But in reality, I was splitting hairs to mask my fear of the location and the future and my slight discomfort with the fact I “felt at home in” a place I don’t really “feel at home in”. This despite the fact that I feel at peace with my decision. I’m going to Yale! The future awaits! Why am I still so tired? But I’m better with poetry right now.

Grace Enough Yale Stonework

At the end of each day
May I find grace to say
It is over, through, done
By God’s grace we have won

Perhaps we failed to find
An ending silver-lined
Perhaps we failed to do
Things we know we ought to

Yet in the end each day
I know a better way
No complaints or regrets
Peace though I don’t forget

Tomorrow comes apace
A dogged slavish race
Though the labor is tough
He has given grace enough

Why You Haven’t Seen Me in Three Months

There are three stages to graduate application.

1. Anticipation: Around October, I began thinking seriously about preparing my applications. I was in the process of writing fellowship applications to fund graduate school so I already had a lot of the material ready.

The primary barrier to application lay in the personal statement. The personal statement is an important part of the admissions process and commonly contains academic interests, future goals, reasons for pursuing graduate study, a summary of past research, reasons for applying to a particular university, and professors of interest all within 1-2 pages. That would seem straightforward enough. However there isn’t really a graceful way to say “I want to go to grad school so I can learn enough to complete the goals I’ve just mentioned.” (I didn’t say that.) Nor is it very easy to write a gripping narrative when the application instructions ask for details about research dates, results, and impacts: it’s not untoward to ask for such things, but the story turns into a laundry list.

Another complication was the GREs. Due to spending my summer at an REU, I hadn’t had a decent time to study. Then, due to difficulties deciding where I wanted to send my scores, I missed the deadline to sign up for the September 28th Chemistry GRE. That meant I got to take the normal GRE twenty-four hours before the chemistry GRE. What fun!

About the time I had a basic statement ready, I realized that I’d told professors who agreed to write recommendations for me that I’d sent them the request links as soon as possible. But it was also necessary that I tell them *when* the letters were due. Guess what? A lot of applications either don’t have a firm deadline or maybe sorta imply that it’s at the same time as the rest of the application. Unfortunately, some applications won’t send out requests until the application is actually submitted and others won’t let you input recommender names until you’ve submitted some kind of essay.

2. DesperationAbout three weeks out from my deadlines, I realized that most school deadlines fell two days after the end of finals week. To complicate things, the Hertz fellowship folks scheduled an interview in Chicago the week before finals week. So NOTHING was going to get done finals week or the weekend before. That was ok. I’d get everything in on the weekend after my interview. He he. I got stuff in before school offices opened on Monday.

Tweaking the personal statement for each school was also something of an adventure. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of schools in the first place. You see, I hadn’t heard yet of the Directory of Graduate Research through which students can find professors in their area. Instead, I identified the top twenty to forty schools in my area and was painstakingly reading through all the professor bios to find people I wanted to work with. (I also tried searching people who wrote really interesting papers in my area, but a lot of them either lived in China or no longer worked in academia.) Once I had identified target schools, I had forgotten what research went with what name and had to re-read professors’ bios so I could write about where I fit into their research, in addition to tweaking my essay to better fit general application requirements.

Of course, then, each college had these unnerving questions

  • Where else are you applying? To quote Frozone’s wife (the Incredibles) “Why…do you need to know?”
  • Have you contacted any professors at this school? Will I be penalized if I haven’t?
  • What are your potential sources of funding? Why is this an issue? I’m a college student. Of course I don’t have any money. BTW, most fellowships have no firm decision dates.

3. Insanity: I am technically done with all my applications, my recommenders having been very good sports about the entire process. Unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of loose ends.

One interesting facet of the application process was the ubiquitous ApplyTexas application. It’s supposed to eliminate the hassle of filling out a lot of different forms for Texas public colleges. Of course, each of these colleges has supplementary requirements, to satisfy which, one must log on to that college’s website. Last week I received an email from an administrator asking me to submit such supplemental documents and inviting questions. I replied with a minor question about transcripts…and got an automated reply.

I began checking my email every ten minutes.

Hoping to stave off some of the minor panic which comes with waiting one to four months for a reply, I logged on to a popular graduate student forum…and regretted it. What with my good GRE scores, GPA, and research record, I thought I had a great chance of getting in at the schools where I applied. There were people online with nearly perfect GRE scores, publications in recognized journals, and steller GPAs from name-brand institutions. What’s more, almost every school I had applied to had already started admitting some of these bright folks, leaving me to wonder whether I had a chance.

On the other hand, academics are competitive by nature. However, what’s really important is doing good science, which isn’t necessarily the same as sounding good on paper. It also helps to realize that most students, even those competing to get into the same program at a university do not want to work with the same professors or do the same research. While I won’t go so far as to say that everyone’s research is equally valuable, researching at a slightly less prestigious university does not mean that research is any less valid or that the person researching is any less of a scientist. At least you made it through the application process. That takes guts.

Wisdom and Joy

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug comes out in December. Although this movie will (hopefully) not feature Elrond, I found myself recently thinking about different perspectives on Elrond. In The Hobbit novel, Elrond was portrayed quite differently than he is in the movies. In the book he was…happy. The general character of the elves underwent a similar transformation in the movie. In  novel, they climb trees, sing silly songs, and mock the dwarves for having beards and acting old though most elves are at least twice as old as any of the dwarves. In recent film adaptations of LOTR and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the elves have as much levity as funeral home directors.

I think this discrepancy springs from cultural ideas about wisdom. elrondWe have difficulty picturing anyone who is wise having a good time. The idea behind the old solemn sage is that anyone who gains much wisdom (often by years of experience) will be depressed by humanity’s prospects. Perhaps solemnity does impart the proper perspective on serious questions. Yet in joy, we find hope’s perspective, which is a greater wisdom still because it sees what might change with one person’s efforts, rather than what will be if that person does nothing. Moreover, that joy may be the effort which brings about the change. Gandalf provides a good illustration.

Though the movies depressed Elrond and the elves, did away with Tom Bombadil, and omitted Aragorn’s sense of humor, the movies did not entirely do away with Gandalf, who embodies the idea of hope-filled wisdom. Sure, Gandalf does silly things like making fireworks and harassing Bilbo about the phrase “Good morning”, but sometimes good things come of his silliness. Gandalf founds the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that enables Bilbo to find the Ring, which Sauron would have otherwise eventually taken from Gollum. The Lonely Mountain expedition also turns Bilbo into an adventurer, which in turn lets Bilbo raise Frodo to be adventurous enough to destroy the Ring. Frodo might have been unable to undertake such an expedition had not Gandalf been with him to give him encouragement like

“Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. in which case you were also meant to have it.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

If the Elrond of the movie had his way, the Ring might have been hidden away while Middle Earth made one last all or nothing assault on Mordor, where everyone died–or the ring might have found by Sauron rather than Bilbo if the dwarves’ expedition had not continued. Fortunately, the Elrond of the book was nothing like this but helped both the thirteen dwarves and the Fellowship of the Ring and named his foster son (the future king of Gondor) Estel, Elvish for “hope”.

Image from from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)


I’ve been working with a NMR a lot lately. It generates a reality all its own. Working with it during the past couple of days has taught me a few lessons:

  • You left something down a flight of stairs in the other lab. Figure out what it is.
  • Murphy’s law says as soon as a professor says this needs to be done today, another student will show up with the same urgency, whose sample should take much less time than yours. In theory. His sample is bigger on the inside.
  • After you insert a sample, you will realize that you forgot to remove your metal watch,  which might have messed up the magnetism of the NMR or your watch. No joke, my watch is losing time, though that might be the battery.

    Poor Watch

  • If you’re counting on getting “done” within a set amount of time, you won’t, because…
  • Shimming a sample never works the same way twice!
  • It may be necessary to pray for the equipment to get it to shim properly.
  • If labels can fall off, they will. Color code the caps of NMR tubes in sequences to make things simpler. (I use green-white-blue for incrementally more concentrated solutions.)
  • Make too much solution. Even if you use a volumetric flask, the elves will steal a few tenths of a milliliter.
  • There isn’t enough time to do homework between samples. Well, maybe like one question.
  • Do the dishes. The dish tray is a queue, not a dishwasher.
  • Things often don’t work out as planned. Keep going. :)

Tales of This Summer

Room with a View

I’m at MIT this summer! It’s awesome. I can see the Charles River out  my bedroom window. That’s awesome. I’m taking sailing lessons (triply awesome). But I have not written of my adventures yet!

I have a new phobia of pop-top cans. (not awesome.) It was Friday morning and we had just finished a grueling 20-hour journey from Georgia to Massachusetts. Although I only drove a couple of those hours, I was totally worn out. I grabbed a can of Campbell’s soup, pulled the tab…there was blood everywhere. I lost gallons of blood, but knowing I only had mere moments before I lost consciousness to blood-loss, I acted calmly. “Get me a paper towel” I told my younger sister as I washed my wound. “And get Mom, I’m about to faint.” “Joanna, just get a band-aide…” “Shut up! I’m going to faint!” Anywho, I spent the next three weeks feeling faint whenever I changed the band-aid…and the past couple of weeks showing it to anyone who will look. Look at this scar! I can regenerate! It’s awesome!”

I rode public transportation solo for the first time a week ago. I planned to attend a party thrown  by a friend who lives on the other side of Boston. It was out of biking range but I could take the bus and the subway. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Charlie card, and while I could buy them at Star market, the website claimed the stores closed after 7. (Lies!) “No problem, I’ll just bike over to the subway station to buy a card” I looked for it for a while. After finding the station, I considered giving up the project, but I’d come so far! No, I was going to do this. Getting off the train, I noted that this wasn’t a very nice neighborhood, and I quickly set off in what I thought was the correct direction. “Hey, look! The street just changed names, and I haven’t found the cross-street.” I walked in the other direction. “Heh, heh, heh, now isn’t that funny, the street changed names again!” I then called my friend, who instructed me to walk to the *other* end of the street. After some maneuvering, I eventually found the house. By this time, the party was long since over. But I got ice-cream, and soothing photographs of water, and a summary of the pantheon of Middle-earth gods and genealogy. I also got a bed for the night. But I think I speak reasonably when I say that I am NEVER doing that again.

4th July in Boston

Living in Boston has been an experience. I have heard that Bostonians are rude. I’ll have none of that! Bostonians are kind and considerate…they’re just aggressive. (They invented America! Yah hear?!!) The people at MIT have been very kind and very good at explaining things from first principles. But the nice isn’t exclusive to MIT. The second time I rode the train solo, there were all sorts of tough-looking people on the train. One such person, who was sitting with his own group called over at me. “Hey! I like your shirt!” (Said shirt has “study” written across the chest and has earned me both positive and annoyed comments) “Uh, thanks?” “Yeah!” he said, “I think everyone should find something and just study it.” Yup. Just don’t talk trash about the Red Sox. Don’t do it. (Wearing Yankee’s apparel counts as talking trash.)

As for life in the lab, things have been fairly quiet. Professor Ross’s group, in which I am working, researches how to customize magnetic nano structures. Our research will eventually help to make really tiny memory and logic devices. This is important, because as computers continue to shrink, their components will soon be on the molecular-size level. A very simple example of a memory device in a computer is the electronic flip-flop which is used for counting. You know that computers operate in 0’s and 1’s (or on and off states). If we have a line of magnetic pillars and we turn the magnetic direction of one of the pillars from the “off” to the “on” direction, maybe we can make the next pillar to turn from off to on when the first pillar turns off again. Maybe we can make a third pillar turn from off to on when the second pillar turns off again, which would allow us to count in binary. (001 is 1, 010 is 2, 011 is 3, 100 is four, 101 is five, etc.)

MIT building 10

My project is to figure out how reclined octahedrons’ (diamond-shapes that are lying down so all you see is a triangular face) magnetic dipoles (Magnetic dipoles are like a tiny chunk of magnetism.) behave differently than the magnetic dipoles of standing octahedrons, and how the properties of different materials change the behavior of the magnetic dipoles. In particular, we have been studying what happens to the magnetism when the pillars get squeezed. To do this, we grow the crystals surrounded by a piezoelectric (which expands when current is run through it, and squeezes the pillars) Another thing I, personally, hope to discover is why the octahedrons sometimes lie down and sometimes stand up.

First, I have been modelling these things, I am writing input for an object-oriented micromagnetic framework software and it models the magnetic dipoles. (Translation: I write something that looks like code, and the computer draws me a picture of which way the north and south poles of a magnet are pointing.) So far, I have only drawn a single octahedron. There has been lots of geometry involved. Who knew you could mess up basic geometry so many times? Secondly, I’ve been testing samples of standing octahedrons because the reclined ones do not seem to be growing under the conditions the group thought would work. (For the curious, we have been using a silicon substrate covered with a layer of yttrium doped zirconia, which is covered with a layer of CeO2 which is finally topped with BiFeO3 which acts as piezoelectric and surrounds the pillars which are made of either CoFe2O4, Fe3O4, MgFe2O4, or NiFe2O4.) I’ve been using a vibrating sample magnetometer and a Hi-Res X-Ray Diffractometer.

Currently, I am looking for literature values of saturation magnetization, anisotropy, and exchange energy which I need for computer models. I am also scheming on how to best make an array of these things. (As I use it, an array is a group of objects arranged in rows and columns). I also need to learn how to properly translate the data from the VSM and HRXRD. Yay.

After all that lab work, I visited the Hyannis beach this Saturday. The sea is really salty. I though that perhaps it was a pleasantly salty, but it’s rather disgusting. It really burns when it gets into the eyes. Despite all this, waves are crazy awesome. I love waves. Waves are like wind, only waves can actually bodily move me. I’d take a day at the sea over SixFlags any day. However, I should probably mention that I have not swam at the beach for about fifteen years. I should also mention that I when I went to SixFlags a couple of years ago, I discovered that I don’t like most rollercoasters. The beach is still really awesome.  Kalmus BeachShell Art

Spring Semester Summary ’13

I have been told many times in many ways that sleep is one of the most important tasks. I’ve written about how important it is many times. This past semester I neglected it and became a zombie. That wasn’t good. Beyond that fundamental lesson, I also re-learned some other things in the past few months.

  • Scientific papers are really interesting. But only if you have already read about three on the same subject and just need to skim the introduction. By that point, you know the jargon and can actually focus on the cool discovery. Before that point…it’s a nightmare.
  • Because it is a nightmare to read scientific papers, you should not procrastinate. Indeed, simply skimming the paper is better than doing it “right”, because that way you might pick up some of the jargon. Obviously, however, procrastinators do not learn from nagging (or teacher’s warnings would yield results) nor do they learn by example (or procrastinators would not remain procrastinators), but maybe they learn from other people’s examples. Allow me to mention the twelve-hour take-home test and the night-before presentation of this past semester and the five-hour ODE homework and the two-day massive essay of the semester before as well as the people who waited until the end of the last semester of senior year to write their thesis.
  • Most importantly, try to have fun with it. Because if someone is just in a career for the money/prestige, it won’t pay nearly enough for the headache. And if being in school isn’t somehow a means to an end, where that end is either a dream job (which you will enjoy, and which will use the things you are learning now, no?) or enjoyment of the new found knowledge, then why are you even in school?
  • No matter how many times I learn these things, I always ignore them and end up a frustrated sleep-deprived mess. My professors do their utmost to reassure me that it’s never as bad as you think it is. Or perhaps it is, but freaking out never helped anyone.

I’ll admit that wasn’t a summary so much as a list of un-learned lessons, but I’m sort of trying to learn them. This past semester I took Physical Biochemistry, Instrumental Analysis, Chemical Thermodynamics and World History I. The semester before was actually a bit harder and involved Advanced Organic Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Quantum Mechanics, and Ordinary Differential Equations. I will now compare my classes in the fall and spring semesters in excruciating detail.

  1. Advanced Organic Chemistry was meant to be a laid-back sort of class. We could have notes in the tests, but there was a great deal we had to figure out on our own using “chemical logic”. I don’t feel that I was very good at it. Physical Biochemistry was similar, although there were a lot of papers out there we could look up to figure out why proteins fold the way they do. Both also introduced a lot of biology which I had been avoiding since high school. Surprisingly, however, that was really helpful, making both classes really interesting. And from the sound of my Physical Biochemistry teacher’s dark murmurings, I’m going to need to know biology as well as math, physics, and chemistry to do drug delivery research. Maybe I’ll actually be a halfway decent researcher.
  2. Analytical Chemistry was actually taught by one of the most laid-back teachers I have ever met. He flew through the material, and always seemed to assume that we were a great deal smarter than we actually were, so I was exposed to a great many things, but without the depth I would have liked. Instrumental Analysis was like a second semester of analytical chemistry, only it was taught by one of the more detail-oriented professors in the department (who is also the Physical Biochemistry instructor) so we got a focused description of certain aspects of electronics and lasers and spectrometry, it was rather an interesting contrast, especially as the laid-back analytical professor taught the lab in a sort of Socratic-independent-experimental manner. I discovered that I really am rather interested in electron transitions, but I almost felt it should have been much harder. Perhaps that is where independent study comes in. (My Structure and Bonding professor for Fall ’13/ new research PI heard me say this, cackled with delight and gave me the textbook he will be using so I can study over the summer.)
  3. Quantum Mechanics and Chemical Thermodynamics were both taught by my original PI, but they were very different. Quantum exposed me to the math of electron transitions before I actually knew what it was for (but was rather cool in a confusing sort of way). Thermodynamics was very specific about what the math was used for, but it also became evident to me that we were looking at very simplified systems. Quantum was also simplified. The mind boggles.
  4. ODE and History present an interesting contrast. ODE was a pain in the neck. I am positive that it was simplified to fit into one semester, but it was also amazingly awesome and interesting. The professor, who was a good lecturer, made the homework a pain in the neck by using Web-assign, which gives no partial credit whatsoever. And he gave homework for which we were not allowed to use mathematica or maple. For example, we had undetermined coefficients problems involving the third derivative of two or three sets of the cosine and sine of expressions of things like (2x +4)3x. Each time you take the derivative of a term like that, you get an additional term [For cos(2x^2+12x), you get -(4x+12){sin(2x^2+12x)}.] so if you had five terms originally, and derive three times, you get 5*2^3=40 terms if you have not messed up somewhere. Anyway, it was a pain. History, on the other hand was taught by a sweet lady who told stories, always let us out fifteen minutes early, and gave multiple-choice tests. I wish I could have heard more of her stories.

So that was not only my spring semester but my fall semester as well. It’s been fun, if a bit dramatic on my part. And if you made it through that long description of my year without feeling an urge to kill me, then you might be a chemistry major. Come join me!