Awkard Silences and Being Like Jesus

I moved to a new place recently. There is a large amount of economic disparity here, especially along racial lines. There is also widespread atheism. Putting aside all policy arguments, I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do about the problems this city has using a Godly yet uncondemning approach. Jesus is the best example of how to deal with these problems. He hung around with poor and marginalized people, and although he alienated the upper crust of society, most people loved him. My question is…how?

CityI mean, Jesus was perfect. But does that imply sinlessness or complete perfection in all areas? He seems to have known exactly what to say to make people feel loved, even when he didn’t agree with them. Does perfection also mean he never had awkward moments where he didn’t know what to say to homeless people, how to talk to his teachers, or how to solve a math problem? Did he ever not know how or even whether it would be wise to talk to people about God?

On one hand, Jesus was fully human, so he had moments of extreme mental distress, exhaustion, and he had to keep in contact with God by prayer. On the other hand, God seems to have come through an *awful lot* and told him what to say when. Unfortunately, my words never seem to come out right. Perhaps this imperfection itself is not a sin, but a symptom of not spending enough time with God.

On the bright side, whatever it is, it seems to have afflicted a lot of people in the Bible. Elijah hid in a cave because he didn’t want to face Jezebel right after God had sent down fire from heaven to burn up Elijah’s sacrifice. You’d think that would have given him some nerve. Nope. He ran away and hid in a cave even after God sent an angel to feed him en route. It took God passing by the mouth of the cave and talking to Elijah in person to give him his nerve back. Even then, God didn’t yell at him: he sent him reinforcements in the form of Elisha, and allowed him to continue calling down fire from heaven.

God seems to do that a whole lot. The Bible says fear is the opposite of love, and God is love, but most of the important people in the Bible are really fearful. Peter failed walking on water and denied Jesus because he was afraid. God had Aaron speak for Moses because Moses was too scared. After John the Baptist was thrown in prison, he sent people to verify Jesus’ identity even though he had already heard God identify him. Abraham lied about his wife because he was afraid the Pharaoh would kill him. Paul doesn’t seem to have been too fearful as a Christian, but prior to that, he was a legalist, which in my experience is an expression of fear of the consequences of personal insufficiency.

The good news is that this discussion of perfection is arbitrary. Perfection is not gained via legalism by wanting to be perfect. If Elijah’s experience is relevant, the proper approach is to talk to God (sans hiding in caves), find reinforcements, and keep on trying to love people. As Paul said of legalism, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Even if the silences are *really* awkward.

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.

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

An Epic Quest

I got my brother a brown driver’s cap for Christmas, like the Ralph Lauren version pictured, only a third the price, from Target. It was perfect. On Christmas morning, we discovered that it was several sizes too small. Big heads run in the family. I checked the Target website, but the only size listed was M/L. But the cap was just too perfect. We had to find a replacement. My brother braved five Wal-Mart and one Kohl’s with us, and my brother is no hipster. We found nothing. We persevered to the mall. After tearing my mother away from the shinies in the JC Penney housewares section, we toured Aeropostale, Gap, and several other places of the like before the fellowship met its greatest trial yet.

I believe my brother fully realized the peril he risked when we entered the Abercrombie and Fitch store. It was shrouded by very professional looking black shades, but I choked upon entering. Someone had axe bombed the place, and nobody had bothered to clear it up. The dim interior was painted black, partitions had been erected, reminiscent of the maze of the minotaur, and large pictures of bare masculine chests covered the wall. Worse, preppy, rhythmic music was blasting from some unseen source. I wasn’t sure I could find my way out before I was smothered in the scent. I was reminded of the Mines of Moria. “We cannot get out. The end comes, and then, drums, drums in the deep.”

By the time we stumbled into the open, we had decided that a specialty hat shop might be more in our line. We discovered one, Hat Shack, and entered. The shelves were lined with baseball hats, but they had driver’s caps. Black driver’s caps. Failure. We limped home, and I consulted the Target website a second time. The hat was gone. The page was  purged. We decided to try the store one last time, if only to return the ill-fated hat. There, in the darkest corner of the hat shelf in the back of the store, we found it. One hat to rule them all. L/XL. We were victorious. I began to wonder why I hadn’t checked there first to begin with. I realize that probably had something to do with the one size listed on the website, and only three similar hats on the shelves.

The quest is completed, but some nights I lie awake wondering what could have been. Could I have found my own hat had I looked? And then I remember the darkened corridors of Abercrombie and Fitch, turn over with a shudder, and find sleep at last.

Encouragement from a Humble Mushroom

I like mushrooms. Mushrooms live in a dead and decaying world, yet they thrive. Mushrooms not only survive the decay, they survive because of it. They have discovered how to take the grossness around them and channel it into growth and new life. And so, if a mushroom finds itself on a dung heap, rather than becoming disgusting itself, it uses the dung to become a better, stronger, wiser, and more delicious mushroom than it could otherwise be.

I want to be like a mushroom.

That is all.


Thanks to Tony Cyphert for the use of his image.

Some Thoughts

  1. You cannot write great things by trying to write great things. The only thing to do is bite your tongue, have fun, and get ‘er done.
  2. You will never feel ready for work that you dread. You will never do it correctly except in retrospect. The only thing to do is try your hardest. Life is like that Remember: the only way to get into a math mood is to do math.
  3. Time management is the ability to painfully pull yourself away from something, and focus on something else. The warm productivity fuzzies might make up for the pain.

This weekend I might write something terribly insightful like, “How I Survived a Week with Just Three Pairs of Clean Socks.” For now, I face this week with increased determination. Fare ye well–Joanna

Notes on Journaling

Journaling is one of those things at which I am really bad. This past week, however, I brought a notebook on our last biennial family reunion, because if there is one thing I am worse at than journaling, it is remembering specific events and ideas. I did not want to forget a thing. During the course of recording things in my notebook, I had some thoughts on writing about life in general. The words “journal” and “diary” signify very different things, at least in the sense that I use them.

A diary is a log of the most significant events of the day, and, perhaps, one’s feelings about them. I have never understood why some boys want to steal their sister’s diary besides the obvious purpose of tormenting her. Apart from that this theft is an over-popularized stereotype, the diary is actually very dangerous to one who reads it, because one might begin to agree with the writer once one has seen their point of view. (Experience prevented me from reading someone elses’ a diary more than once.) The diary, then, sometimes works like the point of view gun, which, incidentally, prevented the earth’s destruction. Diaries are dangerous. I do not diary since I tend to ramble, and also because my entries make me depressed when I read them later. I do, however, journal.

I see a journal as a scrapbook of newspaper-style columns, quotes, notes, addresses, and sketches. (Think Amelia’s Notebook.) It is a book of thoughts I

I did say "scrapbooking"

Pictures get journaled too.

would like to save. This blog is something of a public journal for me, although I generally do not research enough for my posts to qualify as “newspaper-style.” In my “formal” journal, I log a little; but when I do so, I am verbose, so I do not do log often. One of the most freeing things about journaling is that one can skip days. Granted, diaries allow skipping days in too, but since journals are oriented toward saving important thoughts not recording important days, it doesn’t matter how many important days one skips in a journal as long as there are no important thoughts happening. Anyway, one or two words can record important ideas, while details of important events need a few more. (Journals don’t tend to have as many embarrassing details in them, either.) Journaling eliminates the trying to-catch-up-and-failing syndrome. However, unlike a diary, one must have a journal on hand at all times, or else a good head for remembering things. If I was good at remembering things quickly, I wouldn’t be writing them down.

Finally, I like writing both journals and diaries for the same reason my sister cited some years ago: I can write what I feel and no one can read it or make me be quiet, but I have another detail to add: when I write, I can create a new world that I can understand and maneuver in the midst of one I cannot and, eventually, use that world to understand my own.

Update: This post by the Anchoress inspired my return to journaling last year and summarizes my definition of journaling.