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If it works, don’t fix it

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (Trans. Howard Goldblatt)

a book review by Dana (the photo is of coyotes, not wolves)

A beautiful, fascinating, exhilarating, tragic story of the way the Olonbulag grasslands of inner Mongolia were quickly ruined by the short-sighted and hubristic agents of “progress.” As one official says impatiently, we don’t need wolves to control gazelles and marmots and mice when humans have guns and trucks to eradicate all of them.

During the 1960s Cultural Revolution, “Old Man Bilgee” teaches the visiting Han Chinese student Chen that “wolves are the divine protectors of the grassland” (20, 123). The real source of wealth, what’s at the bottom of everyone’s livelihood, is the grass, which is put at risk from rabbits and marmots and also (especially) gazelle and horses and the fact that Han (outsider) farmers are quickly replacing Mongolian (native) herders.  The grass is “the big life” and all the others lives, including wolves and humans, are “little lives,” dependent on that big life. The grass is “fragile,” “miserable,” has “shallow” roots in “thin” soil, and “cannot run away” (45). And “when you kill of the big life of the grassland,” says the wise Bilgee, who the visiting students call “Papa,” “all the little lives are doomed.”

But the inexorable pride, ambition, and blindness of people working in a punishing bureaucracy mean that the expected tragedy unfolds. This “semi-autobiographical novel” is a detailed, almost anthropological study of the problem with messing with balanced ecosystems. It’s a warning tale about thinking humans can easily re-engineer nature, changing the rules so we get all the advantages with no downsides and as little effort as possible. I think it’s a tale of optimization using models that fail to take everything into account. It’s also a tale of what happens to people in this situation: they don’t need dogs anymore so they no longer have big, enthusiastic families of dogs around them; they get satellite dishes; they have less community and less purpose. As Rong writes, “After the disappearance of the wolves, the sale of liquor on Olonbulag nearly doubled” (494).

It turns out, of course, and again, that nature has already solved complex problems, and that human short cuts to prosperity (because we don’t want to put up with the trade-offs nature demands) fail because we barge into new situations, ignore the wisdom of the knowledgeable people who already live there, and ignore most of the variables in our eager, optimistic simulative imaginings. One resource that helps engineers become more aware of the variety of ways nature might have already solved a problem that they are contending with is AskNature.com (https://asknature.org/), which describes “biological strategies” for problem-solving that are already in action.

For one, then, this book is about geo-engineering, a kind of terraforming that has happened all over our earth, a simplication that seems nice and straightforward until we see all the value we’ve lost. That’s a warning.

On the other hand, this is a story about grass. One might hear similar, more local, estimations about the value of grass from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (who figures prominently in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They both make me want to change my “Food not lawns” bumper sticker to another that says “grasslands not gardens” (and I love nothing more than a garden!).

I will add that this is a beautiful book and that it let me spend days on the grasslands with the wolves and swans, with thoughtful, morally conflicted people, and with their exciting adventures in that stunning landscape. The book has some strong views on ethnic character, which I translated into ideas about the way landscape fashions cultures and people. It shares a deep respect for the wolf totem and for Tengger, the sustaining sky that gives them all things and to which they hope to return at death. And finally, it let me spend some time not just in China and Mongolia, but in the minds and hearts of people there.

Keeping us Human: An Empathy Experiment Through Zoom

Jonathan Bunton

May 14, 2020

Abstract

Empathy is a core character trait that is often forgotten in the realm of STEM students. It is a deeply humanizing characteristic that allows us to understand and connect to other people, like an emotional ethernet cable. In this work, I discuss some figurative “empathy bicep curls” that I used to develop empathetic habits. In particular, I explored connecting to fellow lab-mates in a strictly non-lab setting, through casual check-ins and weekly video calls. During these weekly calls, I tried to read people’s moods, like a mystic crystal ball reading of green-boxed video streams. I used this mood-reading to engage everyone, sowing the seeds of a deep support system in both my lab group and my larger network of friends.

Introduction

Graduate school in STEM is excellent at producing two types of people: excellent scientists, and social zombies. Moreover, if we were to draw a Venn diagram of social zombies and excellent scientists in a STEM graduate program, we might guess the result would look like nearly a solid circle (see Fig. 1).

This result is of little real blame on anyone involved–graduate school inherently requires an immense amount of research and work, which quickly eats away time. And graduate students are generally happy to do this work, with little regard for their mental health. If this statement seems doubtful, a quick cursory glance through some of the top posts on various forums reassures that working until burnout is a common feeling.

A major part of this problem arises because graduate students stop treating themselves and their lab mates as real people. This isn’t to say that lab meetings suddenly become awkward menageries of mythical creatures, but more that students forget how to interact with each other on a simpler, person-to-person level.

The goal of this experiment was to remind myself and my lab of the importance of these sorts of interactions. I often use this “Everyone Poops!” style of reminder to keep myself humble, and also to muster the courage to talk to people. It’s the same method I used when I asked my girlfriend to date me while standing in a unitard at the National Mall. (The deeper reasoning for this picture is an excellent story that I’d be happy to explain another time.)

The “empathy workout” that I felt aligned with the importance of humanizing people, and in particular graduate students, was item 12 on the assignment list for the empaty experiment:

Make at least one personal contact with one of your fellow students (or lab-mates or coworkers) each week. It can just be “hi, how are you doing?” or you can share a personal story, one that you think the other person can relate to and that may then help them connect to you better afterward (Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face?, 146-7).

Using this suggestion as a guideline, I doubled down on these efforts: I organized a weekly lab video call that did not include our professor, and I reached out weekly to a student in my lab who is quarantining alone.

My lab is fairly social, especially when compared to others in our area. Before the quarantine came into effect, we often had small social gatherings that were unrelated to the lab itself. We played games, went for drinks, even played instruments together.

During our time apart, however, I felt we needed something to remind us that we are more than just “work associates,” we’re friends. And moreover, that we are all here to lean on in these odd times. More than anything, I argued to myself, this process would humanize us, and remind us that we are all just people coping as best we can. This “humanization” of myself and my lab mates is arguably the ultimate goal of empathy: to understand and relate to each other, despite cultural, social, and computer screen divides.

Methods

In the current state of quarantine, video calls are the new norm. They pranced into everyone’s homes as though they had been there all along, silently creeping into our offices, our kitchen tables, and even our closets. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it is the world we live in. It is about as close as we can get these days without breaking Center for Disease Control guidelines.

Knowing this situation, I organized a two-pronged approach to this empathy exercise:

1. Reach out to one lab member a week who I know is quarantining alone.

2. Organize a group video call, outside of normal lab meetings, to keep everyone connected.

There are several international students in my lab, which means there are several friends of mine who are stuck alone in studio apartments, away from their families, during the quarantine. I sent them messages weekly–some were more conversational than others–and tried to gauge how comfortable they felt talking to me. The goal with this experiment was to not only provide a support system for these students (and myself), but to try and understand the immense difference in quarantine scenarios between us.

With video calls, I sought to keep our lab community close through quarantine. We needed a space where we were allowed to be just people, not research machines. To further this goal, I included several members of our extended friend group, to keep the call from feeling too much like a repeat of each week’s multi-hour lab progress report. I tried hard to note how everyone felt and seemed to be handling things both when talking, but also when just sitting on camera. Did they seem distracted, nervous, bored? Aside from the goals of better camaraderie, I wanted to learn to read audiences in video calls, because this skill seems to be invaluable these days.

Results and Discussion

I followed this exercise for approximately four weeks. This meant four weeks of reaching out to a person alone, and organizing a non-work video call.

Over the course of just sending messages, I learned more about my lab-mates who were living in isolation. Not just what they were working on, but what they did in their free time, and what they thought about while relaxing at home. This slightly deeper connection helped me understand them, and I’d argue to be a better friend.

I learned that one of my lab mates has become a plant parent several times over, by snagging and re-planting pieces of several neglected plants around his apartment complex. In an entirely opposite direction, he had become immensely invested in a series of war documentaries. By proxy, I learned a lot about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War from an Argentinian engineering graduate student.

I also learned all flights to Argentina were cancelled, and he had nowhere else to go. He said his plants helped keep him sane, and he had a strict regimen of “class times” to divide his workday. His admission of this was sobering, coming from a person who is typically the happy-go-lucky type.

Meanwhile, I learned that another lab mate was extremely okay with being alone, because he was a less social person to begin with. I learned he had dug up some archaic and unused programming languages and trying to re-learn them. Some people are born masochists, I suppose.

Though not necessarily massive leaps, these conversations were enlightening. I spend so much time connected to these people, since my lab is basically a second home. But small conversations like this–especially during such uncertain times–help build us together into a support system.

The video calls, by contrast, started slow. Nearly everyone in my lab had used Zoom for our cross-campus research meetings in the past, so we all felt some odd pressure to stay professional. This pressure manifested itself with awkward fits of “So how is research going?” and “What’ve you been working on?” when conversation lulled.

I did my best to break these habits by instating a no “shop talk” rule during these calls. These calls were meant to be our lab utopia–a free space for us to be normal people, not just runners on the graduate research hamster wheel. To further limit “shop talk,” I invited some friends from outside the lab to join. These people helped set a distinctly different tone than in our typical weekly lab meetings.

The calls eventually became something expected—friends would text to remind me to send out invites to the week’s call. If anyone missed, they would later check in with me to see if everyone was okay, and also how the call went. It became a weekly pulse check on everyone in the lab: are they here? If not, has anyone heard from them? Especially in this time of quarantine, these weekly calls seemed to be a moment for us to take stock of the lab as people, building a tighter network of people to depend on.

I also tried to identify the mood and level of engagement of different people in the calls, especially when not talking. This meant learning a whole new set of social cues, watching people in a small green box as they scroll through their phone, or nod absentmindedly against a shimmering and pixellated “The Office” backdrop. The audience-centered empathy skills for in-person speaking are familiar and easy to read after much practice, but translating them to Zoom calls feels like trying to infer typical lion behavior from my dad’s house cat “Simba.”

I used these mood gauges to try and engage everyone as best I could, teasing people into un-muting microphones and turning on video streams. “We’re good enough friends to hear each other’s static,” I reassured everyone.

As the weeks went on, I found it easier to identify people who needed to be involved. This process felt like re-learning elementary lunchroom etiquette, remembering to invite the sad-looking boy sitting alone to come eat with everyone else. However, unlike the sad-looking boy in elementary school, people in Zoom calls are usually quite content to sit looking at their cell phone instead of talking to a computer screen of ten floating heads.

Learning these mood cues through video call reminded me a lot of the initial test we took, reading emotions through just eye expressions. I think in future weeks, I could further my video calling exercise by trying to assign these sorts of emotion labels on my lab mates while in the call. Ultimately, I may continue this experiment with several small variations, with my friends as the unknowing test mice in my empathy laboratory.

Conclusion

Empathy is an immensely useful characteristic of effective communicators, researchers, and friends. It is an incredible humanizing tool that allows us to connect with an audience, a reader, or a group of friends. I took this experiment as an opportunity to humanize my lab environment, by initializing weekly video calls to keep touch during the quarantine.

Though video calls are common these days, my lab only ever participated in one all together on a regular basis: research meetings. While important, these meetings are a rapid- fire pop-quiz on the science we worked on the past week, with few pauses to connect as people. I felt my lab could retain and strengthen its own empathy support system by having a special time set aside where we were allowed to be people, and talk to each other as people.

These weekly calls started as awkward chats, but eventually became an anticipated occurrence. It’s easy to forget through all of the research meetings and classes that under it all, our lab is also a group of good friends. I hoped and felt that these calls reminded us of that fact, while strengthening our empathy networks.

My own empathy skills could use continued work, and I plan on using these weekly calls as a training ground for reading audiences over video call. As we brace ourselves for an online fall quarter like the Starks preparing for winter, these sorts of skills seem more invaluable than ever.

Even more so, I need to retain the ability to connect to other people, lest I emerge from quarantine a full Neanderthal, unsure of how to appease the lab group tribe.

Watching Video Clips Can Improve Emotion Recognition

By Trina Nguyen

Abstract:

Humans are naturally social beings, often basing our interactions around the emotions of others. Proper emotion identification can strengthen interpersonal relationships as well as enhance daily social interactions. Thus, it would be beneficial if there were methods to improve our emotion recognition. Although we take into account many signs such as body language and tone of voice, we heavily rely on facial expressions to identify emotion. Yet, in recent literature there has been a lack of emotion recognition training regarding a large forefront of the face – the eyes. I examined whether humans could train to enhance their emotion recognition ability based solely on the eye region of the face. Participants were either instructed to watch short video clips depicting distinct facial expressions for a week or were not asked to complete any activities. All participant emotion recognition abilities were measured before and after the weeklong period. Improvement in the experimental group scores suggests that eye-to-eye emotion identification can in fact be improved with training. Additionally, making a conscientious effort to watch and notate emotion from video clips can be an easy and effective method to improve emotion recognition.

            Keywords: emotion recognition, empathy, eye-to-eye emotion recognition, emotion training, emotion recognition ability, empathy experiment

Emotion recognition is an integral part of human social interaction. The skill of accurate emotion identification has a plethora of applications, from strengthening relationships to negotiating business deals. Therefore, training to improve our emotional recognition can in turn improve our everyday lives. Past studies regarding emotion recognition training have had positive outcomes, encouraging further exploration regarding new effective methods of training. Recently, researchers Matsumoto and Hwang (2011) have shown that the ability to perceive emotional microexpressions, facial expressions that last for less than a second, can be trained and retained, leading to improved social and communicative skills.

While Matsumoto and Hwang conducted successful training to improve recognition of microexpressions, there is significantly less data regarding emotional recognition training focused on human eyes. Researchers Wegryzn et. al (2017) pinpointed how observers rely heavily on the eye and mouth regions of the human face in order to successfully recognize emotions. Humans particularly rely on the eyes to determine basic emotions such as anger, sadness, surprise, and fear (Calvo et. al., 2018). This suggests that additional emphasis should be placed on the eyes when training to decipher emotions.

In this study, I explore whether identifying emotions based on the eyes of another person can be improved with training. Specifically, I explore whether training by watching short video clips with clear visibility of peoples’ faces and note-taking about the video clips can improve eye-to-eye emotion recognition. I hypothesize that this observing and note taking practice will be effective, leading to increased emotion recognition ability.

To quantify emotion recognition and improvement, I requested participants complete an online exam titled “Reading the Mind in the Eyes.” One group finished a week-long period of training by watching short video clips, while the other group did not do so. Score improvement in the experimental group suggests not only that emotion recognition can be improved with training, but also that observing and taking notes on video clips can be an effective training method. Hence, emotion recognition is a basic skill that can be improved upon with a simple activity that many can conduct in their own homes.

Methods:

There were eleven total participants in this study who were recruited via text message. During recruitment, I explained the steps of the experiment, but did not disclose the question of interest or my hypothesis to the potential participants so as to not introduce future biases while participants were completing activities. After an explanation of the steps and a guarantee of anonymity, the individuals replied with voluntary agreement to participate. All participants were young adults aged 20-21 attending various American universities. The participants were then separated into a control group in which no training was completed and an experimental group in which training was required. I used an online generator in order to randomly allocate the individuals to either the experimental or control group. The control group consisted of six individuals, two males and four females. The experimental group consisted of five individuals, one male and four females.

To begin, I asked all participants to complete an online social intelligence test titled “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” that contained thirty-six images of strangers’ eyes. Participants selected one emotion out of four options that best described the image seen. After each question, they were not told whether their selection was correct or incorrect as to not bias further selections. However, upon finishing, the test did allow participants to view their total scores. Following the completion of the test, I recorded the total of correctly selected emotion-image pairs out of 36 for each participant. This formed the base scores.

The control group was issued no further instructions after the initial exam to serve as a baseline of comparison for the experimental group. The experimental group underwent training by watching a short video clip without sound or subtitles from popular movies or television shows daily for a week. The video clips were administered each day via text message. The video clips I selected were all found on “YouTube”. Each video clip had obvious emotions of focus, such as sadness, anger, or happiness as well as clear visibility of the actors’ faces. A detailed list of which video clip played per day can be found in the appendix section.

I asked the participants to view the clips without sound in order to encourage emotional recognition based on the character’s eyes and not due to audio stimulation. In addition, I requested subtitles to be turned off so as to not distract the participants from focusing on the facial expressions of the characters. Participants were also required to make daily journal entries cataloging the characters and the emotions the characters expressed to verify that the activity was completed thoughtfully and to encourage more attention to the exercise. (Journal entries included in Appendix.)

A week after the completion of the initial “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, I had both the control and the experimental group retake the same original exam. Then, I recorded the new scores and calculated the difference between the second score and the base score for each participant. I averaged the difference in scores for the control group and the experimental group. The average differences were then compared.

Results:

When no training is completed, eye-to-eye emotion recognition ability does not improve. A compilation of the quiz scores of the control group can be found in Table One. Little score difference was observed between the first and second exam for the control group, suggesting that the participants’ emotion recognition ability had no change. The average base test score for the control group was 28.83/36 while the average score for the control group the following week was 28.5/36, a .33-point decrease (Table One). Only one participant (5A) in the group increased in score. However, the remainder of the participant scores in the control group either remained stagnant or decreased. This demonstrates that the eye-to-eye emotion recognition ability of the participants was not altered.

However, training to read emotions by watching short video clips does appear to increase eye-to-eye emotion recognition. The experimental group scores increased by an average of two points, suggesting that training does improve emotion recognition ability. The average base score for the experimental group was 27.6/36. After a week of observing and journaling about video clips with emotion present, the new average score was 29.6/36 (Figure Two). Interestingly, no participants in the experimental group decreased in score. All participants had increased scores except for one participant (3B) whose score remained the same. Because there was a marked difference in the average score changes between the control and experimental (-.33 vs. +2), there is evidence to show that eye-to-eye emotion recognition can indeed be improved with training, and that watching video clips and journaling is a valid method to do so.

Although the increase in the scores of the experimental group may be due to prior exposure/familiarity with the exam, this is unlikely because of the significant contrast between the control and experimental group results. All participants were required to take the exact same exam a total of two times. The control group, even with prior exposure, had a decrease in average score. Yet, the experimental group had a large gain in average score. However, participant 5A did increase in score despite being a part of the control group. Although familiarity may have played a role, there were many other factors such as testing environment, noise level, light level, etc. that may have affected the participant’s results. Because there are many varying factors, it is difficult to attribute the score increase to one or several specific factors. However, the control group’s overall average was lower, still supporting that training played a key role in score increase. Overall, this suggests that the increase in scores is attributed to the experimental group’s training and not simply familiarity with the test. Thus, training by watching short video clips can be an effective method to improve eye-to-eye emotion recognition.

Table One

Control Group Scores

Group One – Control    
ParticipantGenderFirst ScoreFinal ScoreDifference
1AM2523-2
2AF27270
3AM2827-1
4AF29290
5AF30333
6AF3432-2
Average 28.8333333328.5-0.333333333

Table Two

Experimental Group Scores

Group Two – Experimental    
NameGenderFirst ScoreFinal ScoreDifference
1BM22231
2BF24273
3BF32320
4BF33363
5BF27303
Average 27.629.62

Discussion and Conclusion:

Eye-to-eye emotion recognition ability can be improved with training. When the participants observed daily videos for a week while carefully noting the emotions they viewed on the actors’ faces, their scores improved by an average of +2. This improvement was much higher than that of the participants who did not watch any videos. The participants in the control group’s scores actually decreased by an average of .33. Thus, watching and journaling videos can serve as a simple method to improve emotion recognition ability. However, there were many factors such as the level of light, noise intensity, diet, variation in the time of day the exam was taken, etc. that may have interfered with participants’ performance on the quizzes. The participants took the quizzes in their own homes, so there was no method to control surrounding stimuli. There was also no method to verify whether or not the participant “cheated” by searching up images of emotions while taking the exam. In future experiments, it would be beneficial to have a set location for all the participants to take the exam at the same time with the same surroundings to ensure a similar test-taking environment for all and to deter possible cheating.

There were also many uncontrollable factors in regard to the training itself. Within the training group, it is likely that the videos were not watched at the same time every day because the participants were allowed to do the activity on their own time in their own homes. In future experiments, it would be beneficial to have participants maintain constancy when watching the videos and see if that further enhances emotion recognition. Additionally, as mentioned previously, light levels, noise intensity, and presence of others during training may have affected the training. There was no concrete method of determining whether the surrounding environment detracted or enhanced the training. Therefore, in future experiments, a set location can be determined to administer the training for the experimental group. Not to mention, the mental concentration of the participants during training likely varied. Although the journals were implemented to encourage thoughtful activity, there is no method of knowing how carefully each participant watched the video. Varying levels of effort can yield varying results. Thus, it may be interesting in future experiments to ask one group to take cursory notes, while requesting another group to write a detailed paragraph about the emotions they see in the video clips.

Notably, all participants were young college aged students, which is representative of a very small population. It is likely that training has different effects on different age groups. In addition, the sample size was quite small. It would be beneficial to have a larger sample size, so the results can be more indicative of a larger population.

Additionally, it would be remiss to not address that the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” exam and the video clips were in English and examined by English speakers. Language likely influences expression and determination of emotions, thus the results may not be applicable to non-American cultures or non-English speakers. Future work could explore the differences of various languages on emotion recognition ability and the differences of various cultures on emotion recognition ability. Future work could also observe if different cultures have different ‘typical’ facial expressions for common emotions such as sadness, anger, or happiness.

Although not emphasized or analyzed, as present in the data, men typically scored lower than the women when taking the exam. It would be interesting in future experiments to see if there is a difference between the sexes for eye-to-eye emotion recognition and if training affects the ability of the sexes differently.

Nonetheless, eye-to-eye emotion recognition is a beneficial skill that can likely be enhanced if desired. Improved emotion-recognition ability can strengthen interpersonal relationships by forming stronger bonds with others as well as increased empathy with others. We interact with others quite frequently, in many cases, daily, therefore it would be beneficial if we could understand and empathize with each other to a greater extent. Increased levels of empathy can in turn lead to greater communication, less problematic interactions, and perhaps a happier lifestyle.

References

Calvo, M.G., Fernández-Martín, A., Gutiérrez-García, A. et al. (2018). Selective eye fixations on diagnostic face regions of dynamic emotional expressions: KDEF-dyn database. Sci Rep 8, 17039. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-35259-w

Matsumoto, D., Hwang, H.S. (2011). Evidence for training the ability to read microexpressions of emotion. Motiv Emot 35, 181–191. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-011-9212-2

Wegrzyn M., Vogt M., Kireclioglu B., Schneider J., Kissler J. (2017). Mapping the emotional face. How individual face parts contribute to successful emotion recognition. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177239. https://doi.org/10.1371/ journal.pone.0177239

Appendix

Video clips:

Day One: The Bachelor – Hannah Ann Breaks up with Peter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOW6sFi1PAc

Day Two: The Notebook – Bird Scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7_F5P5PygM

Day Three: Mean Girls – Meeting the Plastics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=re5veV2F7eY

Day Four:Anger Management – Rage on a Plane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzUc3Eqzzos

Day Five: Friends – Seven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NLVior-nLs

Day Six: Avengers Age of Ultron – Black Widow Flirting in a Bar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycNVhd1IOzA

Day Seven: Hunger Games – Saying Goodbye: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAal6-tvckw

Journal Entries

Participant 1B:

4/2/20:

4/3/20:

The Notebook (1/6) Movie CLIP – If You’re a Bird, I’m a Bird (2004) HD

  • Man
    • Attracted and Cocky
    • Trying to act slick and cool
    • Fake hesitancy
  • Woman
    • Playful and excited
    • Trying to be persuasive
    • They are kissing

4/4/20:

Mean Girls (1/10) Movie CLIP – Meeting the Plastics (2004) HD

  • Blond Woman Middle
    • She seems a bit surprised
    • Seems like she is questioning the news questioning
  • Blond Woman Left
    • Seems like she is questioning the news questioning
    • Seems like they are convincing her to do something that is not right
  • Brunette Woman Right
    • Seems surprised
    • Seems like they are convincing her to do something that is not right
  • Brunette Woman Alone
    • She is telling her something new
    • She seems excited
    • She seems nervous

4/5/20:

Anger Management (1/8) Movie CLIP – Rage on a Plane (2003) HD

  • Adam Sandler
    • He is asking for something from the flight attendant, he looks like he wants it
    • He is put off and upset
    • He seems defensive after being accused of touching the lady
    • Nervous in court
  • Flight Attendant Lady
    • She seemed nice and enthusiastic about fulfilling the request
    • She is having fun with her co-worker
    • She is upset and in accusational
  • Air Marshal
    • In disbelief of the story he is telling
    • Doubting
    • Threatening towards adam

4/6/20:

Friends: Seven, Seven, Seven! (Clip) | TBS

  • Man
    • Seems angry as he tries to explain stuff
    • Very intense in the way he tries to explain things to them
    • Maybe upset about something
    • Acting smarty with the blonde
    • Is intent on listening and curious
  • Black Hair Woman
    • Teaching and Receptive
    • Explanatory
  • Blonde Hair Woman
    • Chill and happy
    • Awkward reaction
    • Not buying into the advice

4/7/20:

Scarlett Johanson (Black Widow) Flirting with Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk)

  • Black Widow
    • She seems like she is into him
    • She is talking in a flirty way and then dips
  • Hulk
    • Seductive
    • Nervous
    • Uneasy
  • Captain America
    • He is is kinda trying to be convincing

4/8/29

The Hunger Games (2/12) Movie CLIP – Saying Goodbye (2012) HD

  • Prim
    • She devastated and sad
    • In distress and won’t let her go
  • Mother
    • Serious and worried about Katniss
  • Gayle
    • Giving advice and is trying to explain what to do
  • Katniss
    • Sad but brave and reassuring

Participant 2B:

Video #1:

The girl looks distraught and upset and then her emotions turn to anger and frustration. At one point she looks irritated and confused. The man looks upset and guilty about something. The girl keeps looking up and licking her lips, while the guy won’t make eye contact with her. They both cry a lot.

Video#2-

The girl looks happy to be in the ocean and is trying to convince the guy to get in with her. He mouths the word no, but seems pleased with her. They are passionate and show affection. She seems turned on and he seems to be looking at her very lovingly.

Video #3

Lindsey Lohan’s character looks genuinely happy and shows some confusion. Regina George seems as if she’s sarcastically saying everything and is irritated and not genuinely happy. Gretchen wieners seems smiley and as if she’s trying to please Regina. The blonde one just looked confused and lost the whole time. Lindsey Lohan’s character also seems naive and innocent. Her smile is very pure and emits true happiness.

Video #4-

Adam Sandler looks content but grows more and more irritated with the flight attendant. The man next to him on the plane is a little suspicious and nervous he keeps looking back and forth between Adam Sandler and the flight attendant. After Adam Sandler touches the flight attendant she looks deeply disturbed and upset. The cop looks very intimidating and Adam Sandler looks scared. Everyone in the plane is curious as to what’s going on. Everyone else on the plane is terrified when the taser comes out.

Video #5-

The people alternate between looks of joy, happiness, suspicion, and confusion. The mans expression turns from distrust to surprise. It seems as if one of them is performing a magic trick.

Video #6-

Scarlet Johanson is obviously the one in charge and has the power in the scene. She keeps looking down as she speaks and won’t make eye contact with the man at first. Then she makes eye contact and he averts her gaze. He looks confused and in disbelief or denial about something. He looks as if he’s made a mistake but doesn’t know what his mistake is.

Video #7-

Prim looks sad and frightened and cry’s but Katniss tries to comfort her. She also seems scared but tries to be brave. Her and the boy exchange loving looks but both try to restrain themselves from showing their emotions. There is a somber tone.

Participant 3B:

Day 1: The Bachelor:

Peter: He looks really sad, regretful, and apologetic throughout the video. He seems anxious anticipating the girl’s reaction and worried that she might take it badly (?) and is trying hard to express himself

Hannah Ann: At first she seems like she’s smiling, like she doesn’t believe what the boy is saying but as time goes on it seems to set in more and she appears to be sad but disbelieving while also perhaps confused. At the end of the video she seems to accept what has happened and looks like she is trying to move on but is very sad.

Day 2: The notebook

Boy: looks at the girl admiringly and lovingly. He looks very happy and caring at her

Girl: looks flirtatiously at boy and seems carefree and blissful. Also very lovingly looks at boy but has a hint of mischief/joking manner in her expression

Observed emotions through facial expressions, noticing especially the eyes and mouths.

Day 3: Mean Girls

Regina: looks like she is superficially smiling and fake the whole time. Acts interested and friendly but has a disdainful expression at time. This is due to her lack of eye creasing when she smiles

The girls next to Regina look very attentive and eager to please, paying close attention and mirroring her expression

Cady: looks confused, cautious, and nervous. Seems afraid to say the wrong thing but eager to please. Looks sincere

Day 4:

Man: seems anxious as he tries to get the flight attendant’s attention, and perplexed/taken aback when she closes the curtain on him. He also seems slightly offended. When the people get mad at him he looks embarrassed and shocked, and then defensive, confused, and slightly intimidated

Flight attendant: looks annoyed and haughty. When her arm is grabbed she is angry and indignant

Police man (?): looks very angry

Judge and lawyer: look proud and resentful towards the man, like they think they are superior

Day 5: Friends

Man: looks upset and anxious about something. As woman 1 starts to talk, he seems perplexed and confused

Woman 1( black haired): looks assured and confident. Seems excited and emotional about what she is writing/chanting

Woman 2: looks skeptical and a little annoyed or over it after awhile. Also seems tired of it

Day 6:

Black widow: mysterious, appears disinterested but amused. Acts coy

Hulk: seems cautiously interested and vaguely intrigued. Also looks perplexed after captain America talks to him

Captain America: looks confident, friendly/pleasant, and knowing

Day 7: Hunger Games

Katniss: looks scared, anxious, and sad as well as stubborn/defiant

Girl: looks panicked and very sad

Boy: looks sad but accepting

Participant 4B:

I personally look at eyebrows, mouth, and body language for emotion. I think eyebrows become very expressive when angry or sad. The mouth is able to convey emotion through smiles or frowns. Closed body language such as crossed arms shows anger or anxiety, whereas more open stances seem relaxed.

Thursday, April 2

There is some unavoidable bias due to the title. Before watching the video, there is an expectation to see angry and sad emotions.

Girl looks disbelieving/skeptical at first

Boy is apologetic or upset

Girl is smug, but upset

Woman watching from small screen is disappointed

Main girl looks panicked/distraught

The characters watching themselves from the small screen look uninterested

Main girl is sad, but unsurprised

The boy came across as determined until the girl began crying, where he became ashamed

The girl then became accepting of the situation, whereas the boy seems sad

The girl is kind of mocking/taunting him, as if she is still sad but wants him to hurt instead

This worked, but now she can no longer hide from her face that she is still very upset

Girl watching herself from small screen finally shows emotion, looking sad/regretful

Friday, April 3

I’ve never seen The Notebook.

Girl is happy/excited

Boy is happy in a more subtle way, kind of nostalgic

Girl is flirtatious

The girl’s emotions are very open and exaggerated, whereas the boy is more subtle or guarded

Saturday, April 4

I have seen Mean Girls but will try to analyze emotions without bias. I can’t help but watch the video and hear the dialogue in my head though.

Regina looks determined and concerned

Cady looks happy, but confused

Regina is smug

Gretchen looks excited, but is then shot down by Regina

Karen looks confused the entire time, maybe concerned

Although Regina appears happy, it has underlying aggressive or accusatory tones due to the intensity of her stare (maybe biased by knowledge of movie dialogue)

Sunday, April 5

I have seen Anger Management before.

The old man (Buddy) and Dave (Adam Sandler) start out relaxed

The flight attendants seem carefree and happy

Dave starts to look uncomfortable or impatient

The main flight attendant seems condescending

The flight attendant is aghast/disgusted that Dave tapped her arm

The attendant becomes stern or angry

Dave seems apologetic

The man with the badge is very serious

Other passengers are shocked or concerned

Dave is becoming more frantic, where before he was calm

The man with the badge is becoming more aggressive in his anger, confrontational

Dave becomes very frustrated to a point of anger

Monday, April 6

I have never seen Friends.

The two girls are happy and interested/curious

The man seems angry, but not at the girls

The girls are sympathetic

The man seems doubtful

The girl with dark hair is acting earnestly and sincerely, whereas the blonde is teasing

The man seems confused or worried

Tuesday, April 7

I haven’t seen this movie, but the title of the video adds a bias towards flirty emotions.

The woman is uninterested by or wary of the man

The man is amused by whatever the woman is saying

The man is getting nervous as the woman speaks bluntly

The woman is now outright teasing (mocking) the man

The man is disappointed

The new man (Chris Evans) is smug

The original man (Mark Ruffalo) is either confused or intrigued by the other man’s statement

Wednesday, April 8

Wow, I watched The Hunger Games earlier today.

Prim is incredibly sad/distraught

Katniss wants to be strong, but both her and her mother are in shock

Katniss becomes very serious and stern

Prim is extremely panicked

Gale is being supportive, whereas Katniss starts to show fear for the first time

Participant 5B:

Day 2: Bachelor Video

  • The bachelor appears to be sorry for something because he is crying
  • Hannah Ann hands an engagement ring over and seems to be both upset and sad at the same time — they were engaged but are no longer
  • Both are crying hysterically
  • Hannah Ann has a look of disapproval and nods many times
  • Peter closes his eyes and licks his lips, almost in disbelief and unable to do anything — he knows he has messed up
  • After Hannah Ann walks away and Peter tries to talk to her again with sad eyes, you can tell she is done with him because she continually nods in anger and disapproval

Day 3: The Notebook

  • Girl runs into the waves and throws hands up into the air (she appears really happy)
  • The guy watches her in the water and nods, but this time he nods and smiles
  • The girl runs out of the water and jumps up and down, trying to get some sort of approval from the guy
  • The guy nods and she jumps into his arms after she gets the approval
  • They talk to each other and appear to be in love

Day 4: Mean Girls

  • The blonde girl in the center appears to be trying to prove herself to the girl sitting across from her
  • Blonde girl raises her eyebrows multiple times, trying to question the new girl
  • The brunette girl smiles and seems excited about something she is talking about, but then becomes sad and quiet after the blonde girl shuts her down
  • The blonde girl sits back in her chair and keeps talking, belittling the other girl
  • You can tell the blonde girl is the ring leader because all of the other girls look at her when she speaks

Day 5: Anger Management

  • Flight attendants are laughing and talking to each other, ignoring the man on the plane trying to get their attention
  • The man next to him is listening to a movie and is being obnoxious
  • The guest is obviously very frustrated, but he gets the attention of a flight attendant
  • The flight attendant takes this as anger and the man shakes his head that he wasn’t trying to be violent, but the flight attendant escalates the situation
  • More people see the interaction and start ganging up on the passenger
  • He ends up going to court against the flight attendants and it appears he loses; the attendants seem happy to get revenge

Day 6: Seven

  • Guy looks like he messed up somehow and the two girls look like they feel bad for him
  • He walks over to the couch and it seems like the girls are giving him advice
  • I think this episode is about dating?
  • The guy seems confused by what the girls are saying at times

Day 7: Black Widow

  • The guy walks up to the bar and seems to be talking to the girl first
  • But the bartender then seems interested in the guy because of her eye movement
  • They both take a sip of a drink and maintain eye contact, so I think they are interested in each other
  • Another man comes into the scene and he talks to the first guy
  • He appears to be commenting on the guy’s interaction with the bartender and how well it went

Day 8: Hunger Games

  • Katnis is leaving and says goodbye to her sister; it’s obvious that the sister is heartbroken
  • She tries to tell her younger sister to be strong and that everything will be ok
  • She then goes over to an older woman and tries to reassure her; they are both very upset and sad
  • When the guy comes in he hugs her and they have some sort of relationship
  • It ends with her leaving urgently

Chemical signals

Scientists have as much right to poetry as everyone else! I think that, and my students have said as much. The amazing stuff that scientists figure out about the natural world is thought-provoking and sometimes leads to a poem. Here’s one of mine. If you write one, maybe share it with me?

An ant colony as a body–

one rock, aphanite, united.

One ant goes missing, no big deal, but

one missing hydrocarbon in a set of three

changes everything.

The dead, then, are not dead;

enemy, friend, parasite, slave maker, family member, burglars

are not just nemy riend arasite lave aker amily ember and urglars

they are unnoticed, welcomed.

Aphaeresis matters

nd no error detection codes lead to baneful miscues.

But Wilson says, “One ant alone is a disappointment.”

Think of the superorganism, and then see multitudinous redundancy,

the success of the species.

But don’t look too long, or you’ll see yourself, expendable,

an useless ember, a guttering urglar, nemy riend.

—Dana Cairns Watson

Novices get a say at sea level

This is a revision of “Speak up and write,” which I published here yesterday. I did not replace that essay with this one, because I wanted to show what a revision might look like. If writing is thinking, then revision is thinking even more deeply. The words on the page give you a moment, overnight in this case, to evaluate what you said yesterday. This morning I woke up aware of what I meant to say yesterday –even though I did not quite know it yesterday!.  I had become conscious of the connection between the three ideas of yesterday’s essay: Mount Everest, NASA, and of amateurs weighing in (speaking, writing, and acting) on topics of public importance. I took out my introduction (just a bridge, a comment, and not especially on point), I got rid of the tangential and probably distracting commentary on capitalism, I saw the obvious contradiction between my thoughts on the first two topics and my thoughts on the third, and I tried to figure out why it’s not a contradiction. My new draft is based on those realizations.

Writing is a form of thinking, and today I want to think about the pros and cons of expertise.

Expertise is an obvious necessity in many tasks, ancient and modern, artisanal and technical. It’s one reason that a college education, even in the United States, has become so focused and even vocationally oriented–and thus less exploratory, less experimental, less humanities-focused, and less “able to help students figure out their place in the universe and their moral obligations to fellow humans” (see Molly Worthen’s “The Anti-College is on the Rise” in today’s New York Times, 9 June 2019, for more on that). But our valuation of expertise sometimes lets us compartmentalize our participation in life too much.

First, the need for expertise. Many people were horrified recently to discover that there were crowded lines on the safety ropes to summit Mount Everest. In The Guardian’s “In Focus” podcast, “Death, carnage and chaos: a climber on his recent ascent of Everest,” (3 Jun 2019), a climber describes how people at that altitude can’t think straight, how they are each barely able to survive on the oxygen they carry, and how sick and injured climbers cannot expect to be saved by the others. They are all stuck on the same safety line, but everyone is at the end of his rope. This has always been true on Everest, of course, but now inexperienced climbers expect that their money can get them to the top. The others, in this life-or-death situation, do not always help them. Yes, there’s co-dependencies even in the best troupe of climbers, but every person must be an expert on key issues relevant to climbing mountains at high altitudes.

Now (well, as early as just next year, 2020) NASA is thinking of charging 58 million dollars (plus $35,000/day) for a trip to the International Space Station (Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2019). But I can’t help thinking of Everest. If something goes wrong–if people have to survive by their wits and what they know of space, science, and technology (think The Martian), or if there’s just a simple shortage of oxygen (think Everest 2019)–then will the “guest” astronauts survive? Even the experts with the greatest human gift of compassion will have to calculate that the survivors need to be able to, well, survive. Keeping the guests alive for another day will not solve the longer-term problem of getting the oxygen production back working, getting the ship’s communications up, getting the ship home to earth, or whatever else needs to get done. In short, sending amateurs to space is a lousy idea. Space survival requires expertise.

But life at sea level is possible for amateurs, and amateurs need to weigh in on the public debates we’re having on big issues such as economic inequality, the power of algorithms, and the climate crisis. Engineering and scientists are sometimes reticent to speak up, however, when the topic is not their area of expertise. I’ve asked ECE graduate students to read about the climate crisis, for example, and then I’ve asked them to opine. They generally won’t. They think it’s out of their area. They say they can’t evaluate all the evidence because they haven’t read it all. They say it’s a different methodology than they are familiar with. And yet, if anyone outside an Earth and Space Science Department can understand, evaluate, and appreciate the data, it’s another scientist or engineer. Also, recognizing what “scientific consensus” means might help, and there are many political, economic, and policy issues that must be discussed and then advocated for or against.

Becoming a specialist does not mean that you must voice no opinions on other topics. You are a citizen, a brainy one who asks important questions and knows how to go about answering many of them. Please, then, share your thoughts with the rest of us. Climbing Mount Everest and going to space may be the dreams of your childhood, but if you don’t have the expertise, then skip them. On the other hand, whether you understand the details or not, you can still use your voice and actions to advocate for the type of society in which you’d like to live.

Speak up and write

Writing is a form of thinking, and today I want to think about Mount Everest and NASA. Many people were horrified recently to discover that there were crowded lines on the safety ropes to summit Mount Everest. (And we readers at home, looking at the photos and hearing the stories, were probably much less horrified even than the people on the mountain, people who’d worked hard to get there, who had paid a whole lot, and whose lives were at risk because of those lines.).

We should really spend only a small proportion of our time on the consumption of media, or at least we should devote a significant amount of our attention to production. So argues Clay A. Johnson’s The Information Diet.  I completely agree, and yet I haven’t usually kept the habit. Last summer, I even gave myself I pass. I said, “I’m not going to write anything.” And I didn’t. I still gardened, cooked, came up with a new syllabus for an old class. I probably wrote a poem or two, some journal entries, some letters. There was some production, yes. But why not, this summer, try to avoid snacking on inputs so I have time for the main course, my own writing? And some of that writing will be short, snack-like, while I decide what I should really be working on!

In The Guardian’s “In Focus” podcast, “Death, carnage and chaos: a climber on his recent ascent of Everest,” (3 Jun 2019), a climber describes how people at that altitude can’t think straight, how they are each barely able to survive on the oxygen they carry, and how vulnerable and injured climbers cannot expect to be cared for by the others. They are all stuck on the same safety line, but everyone is at the end of his rope. This has always been true on Everest, of course, but now inexperienced climbers, unfit climbers, plain old (or young) rich climbers, expect that their money can get them to the top. And the others cannot always help them. Money doesn’t matter there. Everest is still free of the unctuous servility that can be bought by the winners of the capitalist game. Put another way, to support our own civility and humanity, we have to remain at the altitudes that can support life.

Now (well, as early as just next year, 2020) NASA is thinking of charging 58 million dollars (plus $35,000/day) for a trip to the International Space Station (Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2019). But I can’t help thinking of Everest. If something goes wrong–if people have to survive by their wits and what they know of space, science, and technology (think The Martian), or if there’s just a simple shortage of oxygen (think Everest 2019)–then will the “guest” astronauts survive? Even people with the greatest human gift of compassion, free of the psychology of capitalism, will have to calculate that the survivors need to be able to, well, survive. Keeping the guests alive for another day will not solve the longer-term problem of getting the oxygen production back working, getting the ship’s communications up, getting the ship home to earth, or whatever else needs to get done. In short, sending amateurs to space is a lousy idea.

That’s my big idea for the day. I wrote it down. And here’s what I think it has to do with my new and broader conception of Writineering:

Engineering and scientists are sometimes reticent to speak up when the topic is not their area of expertise. I’ve asked ECE graduate students to read a bit on the climate crisis, for example, and then I’ve asked them to opine. They generally won’t. They think it’s out of their area. And yet, if anyone outside an Earth and Space Science Department can understand, evaluate, and appreciate the data, it’s another scientist or engineer. Becoming a specialist does not mean that you must voice no opinions on other topics. You are a citizen, a brainy one who asks important questions and knows how to go about answering many of them. Please, then, share your thoughts with the rest of us. We need you to weigh in!

Humans write for humans

Here’s a new version of Writineering, now helpfully supported by UCLA and intended not just for graduate students in engineering but for writers at all levels who are eager to explore science, engineering, or technology. Academic writing is at its best when it borrows from public science writing, and writing for the public achieves more and better ends when it borrows careful, ethical data collection, analysis, and referencing from academic writing. We have many shared roots; good writing identifies its sources; and the best writing has an author’s thumbprint visible (see photo). As Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, “there is no evidence that quantity becomes quality in matters of human expression or achievement. What matters instead, I believe, is a sense of focus, a mind in effective concentration, and an adventurous individual imagination that is distinct from the crowd” (50). And so while this is a software-dependent website, please remember that it’s for people, by a person. “Keep that in mind when writing anything” is recommendation #1.

Three Years Out: A Talk with S

S and I talked via Google Hangouts at lunchtime on a Sunday. While my camera was poorly positioned, showing the bed (made; phew!), the mess on the dresser, a mirror weirdly reflecting the window behind the laptop, and me with my wet hair (how did I forget this was a video call?), hers only showed her face and the upper corner of a white room. She clearly does this more than I do, already revealing her professionalism. This state of affairs in itself highlights one reason that I wanted to have this conversation: what do professional engineers really need from academics like me?

S got her PhD a few years ago, and we know each other because she took EE 295 and participated in a short-lived EE Book Group. (We met for four or five quarters, and then people graduated before we’d repopulated the group.) She sees herself more as a mathematician than an engineer, and after two years in industry, she’s now in the first year of a two-year post-doc. She’ll soon begin applying for faculty positions.

As part of the run-up to the application process, S says she is trying to get invited to give talks at many universities, even if they are not hiring. She reminds me that “these talks have to be understandable to everyone in the audience, which can be tricky since most people aren’t working on remotely the same thing as you are, yet still need to feel included in the talk.” And this statement reminds me of what my neighbor, a UCLA physiology professor said later on that same Sunday when she was discussing a job candidate: “he didn’t connect the dots between his work and why I should care.”

But S sympathizes with the student experience, and the difficulty of moving from details to generalities. “School’s set up to put you in that tunnel vision,” she says. And she means this in more than one sense: school makes us focus on our area of expertise, “but it can also make us feel incompetent, since our ‘product’ isn’t directly benefiting anyone (yet).” When we enter the “real world,” it’s refreshing to see how competent we really are, if we’ve retained the skills we need for that broader world of work.

S benefited from going to an undergraduate engineering school that assigned many open-ended projects; she feels that she “would have been more cautious” if she’d gone through a more traditional program. She says that the projects “brought me out of my shell” and gave students more power of “self-determination.” Because it was a small school, she got “a lot of personal responsibility.” And because of an extracurricular role as a yearbook photographer—what sounds like the yearbook photographer–she says that she

had to go to all these events that I never otherwise would have gone to, just to take photographs of people. It really got me out of my shell; at first, I was afraid even to make phone calls to order pizza, but by the end we were all way more confident approaching strangers to get interviews for random projects.

In all these ways, S’s experience highlights the value of broadening one’s horizons, participating in many activities, meeting and talking to new people, and trying to communicate across disciplinary borders and other (often self-imposed) boundaries.

Another way to do both these things—explore beyond boundaries and communicate across them—is to review papers: “Be a reviewer for conferences, even the ones you don’t submit to,” S recommends. It’s valuable experience. During her time in industry, she did a lot of this, and she also had to give many “’broad picture” and “state-of-the-art” presentations for CEOs at the company. In one email, she writes:

Giving survey presentations was really great practice for me, because (1) it forced me to read a lot of papers on subjects I didn’t really understand and pull out the few things I thought would interest a general audience, and (2) it forced me to communicate to as broad an audience as possible. When I went back to academia, I realized this was a key skill that you don’t really learn in school—not that they don’t know how to prioritize their audience, but they’re not really under a huge amount of immediate pressure to do so.

One thing that surprised me about S’s industry job is that “they tried to figure out what [she] wanted to do and let [her] do it.” Not all industry jobs would be like this, but having your PhD probably puts you in a great position to be an explorer and motivator rather than a drudge at work. “Drudge” is probably the wrong word, since it means the person who does the “tedious and menial” work. But sometimes graduate students get in the habit of working alone in their cubicles. That alone-time can produce great work, but it’s under-appreciated if done in silence. It might not even be as useful as it could be if it were done in tandem with other people’s knowledge and goals.

S was surprised to discover that people interrupt talks in industry, and she’s productively imported this to her new academic position. She says, “at a company, people are really obnoxious and stop you every five seconds (because they’re your boss).” She adds, “if people don’t interrupt you, then you know you’ve had a bad meeting.” The advantage of being interrupted with questions is that you “get a better sense of your audience”—both what they know and what they care about. So instead of trying to overlook, ignore, or fill in the blanks herself as she listens to talks in her current university position, she’s become “the obnoxious audience person who keeps making the presenter stop and clarify things” and says that “actually, a lot of people told me this as a compliment!” I remember S’s digging down into some of our responses in the book group, so I can easily imagine the tone of her questions: not at all obnoxious, but not soft. Often, her questions and comments made the rest of us rethink or at least more carefully state our ideas.

I wanted to know what these jobs are like. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a post-doc (or at least this post-doc) spends her time “reading papers and writing ideas.” She adds, “One thing that post-doc freedom allows you to do is to have three-hour meetings with other colleagues to discuss random ideas, which I do with another postdoc every week.” There’s also some teaching (this year, S gave two lectures; next year, she’ll teach a whole course) and “a fair amount of mentoring.” So far, she’s not had to do much grant writing or traveling.

About the mentoring, S says,

I don’t really mind mentoring because . . . working one-on-one . . ., I find it easier to engage with the student and make sure we really exploit his or her talents and ambitions. Actually, we have one student here who is really kick-ass. He’s only a first-year master’s student, but he decided he wanted to learn really hard subjects by running reading groups and teaching us. So whenever I have a hard problem that I don’t really have time to look at, I just give it to him over Slack, and he answers it for me later that week. (Does that make me abusive?)

I’d say no, and here’s why. S’s attention to the specific “talents and ambitions” of each student suggests that her need for information and this student’s goals are fully aligned. She’s giving him exactly what he needs to develop in the ways he wants. And she’s giving him what she has already said is valuable: the chance to read many hard papers, practice pulling out the ideas that are useful for a certain problem or audience, and practice explaining them to others.

Because S is successful and spirited, I wanted to pass on some sense of her “philosophy of life.” While resisting offering one, S emphasizes flexibility and gratitude. Because “the whole process” of the job search is “unpredictable” and moves at erratically slow speeds and big leaps, “there really is an element of faith” and “you just have to try your best and try not to read tea leaves.” In her case, she spent six months working diligently to get a postdoc position, “negotiating with various professors” and “testing various sources of funding, etc.” and then, “out of the blue, a prof contacted me and almost immediately the offer went through.” S summed up her philosophy this way:

Maybe just try not to take anything too seriously, and try not to be hurt when things don’t go your way? It’s easy for people who have very high aspirations to be very upset when they see people achieve dreams in ways that seem like pure luck, but the fact of the matter is we are all really lucky to be alive, well-fed, and generally safe from war and famine. Actually, there was a podcast about this, which said it really well: we always feel the headwinds, but we never appreciate the tailwinds (a biking analogy!). So maybe my life philosophy is “don’t forget the tailwinds!” Or, less pessimistically, there’s way more in life to enjoy than can be found at the end of a career path!

Once again, her message is to take the bigger picture into account!