aikido in Sydney

I edge my way around the dojo, looking for a door I can go in.  I know I’ll have to bow to the shomen as soon as I enter, but I can’t see where they’ve put it from my vantage point in the street.  When I open the front door, a cord snaps tight to bar my entry.  I stare for a moment, shrug, and then go around the side door.

The instructor comes to meet me.  Is it all right if I sit in on the class?  Um, no I don’t have an appointment, should I make one?  I can come back some other time if it’s a bother?  Yeah, sure no worries, I can hold my questions till end of class.  Thanks for taking me!

The instructor leads me around to the front, where I leave my shoes at the door and bow in to the shomen from a seated position on the mat.  I then retire to the side bench while class commences.  The mechanics are slightly different, and I know if I come back here it’ll be a bit of getting used to the new rhythms of a slightly different space.

But it isn’t all that different, really.

The assembled practitioners make room for silence at the beginning of class; then, following three gong tones one of them strikes with a small baton on a metal bowl, they bow in, warm up, and begin training.  At once I recognize, not only the components of movements, the sweeping and turning and slicing of arms and legs, the divine symmetries transforming a sphere into itself, but the space the aikidokai make for each other, into which they invite each other as they train.  I see the adjustments they make, the accommodations, the intensity of concentration, the nods or pauses as they search for the shift of balance or axis that will put them into harmony with the universe, ai-ki-do‘s namesake.

Most encouragingly, I see that the instructor’s manner is specific and and on point, but also gracious, joyful, and at times humorous.  This is important partly because there is a large age range in the class — the youngest student is a boy who looks about ten — but honestly, it’s the attitude I would want the instructor to show me as well.  It’s the attitude that drew me into this discipline, a martial art that emphasizes internal victory and mind-body integration over competition or aggression.  It’s what attracted me to the community of my old dojo in Oakland, where I got my start ten years ago.  I haven’t trained more than a couple of times since I moved away from there, in part because this kind of energy is not available even at every aikido dojo.  But what I’m seeing in front of me brings my favorite parts flooding back to me.

I stay for the full hour and a quarter, but I’ve seen everything I really need to see in the first five minutes of class.  I occasionally pass time consulting books and promotional materials, and trying to remember what form of throw I’m looking at.  In this case it turns out to be shomenuchi kotegaeshi, shown neatly here:

I quiz myself, trying to remember my Japanese for all the variants of a technique.  Katate dori (same hand hold) vs. gyakute dori (opposite hand).  Ki hon (static) vs. ki no nagare (in motion).  Omote (direct entering, in front) vs. ura (redirected, swept around).  Left-handed and right-handed versions.  Throws:  shihonage, kokyunage, iriminage.  Pins and control of the arm and wrist:  ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi.  The words are coming back, but my body has probably forgotten the movements.  It’s back to a white belt for me.

Mostly, though, I’m savoring those aha! moments when the instructor gently points out how a student has left themself exposed or is putting more muscle than ki into a movement, shows them how to optimize their stance or extension, and then flops over with a dramatic mat-SLAPPP once the ki goes in the right place.  It’s really fun to watch.  It’s almost exactly like I remember.  I don’t bother suppressing a smile.

Afterwards, the students come over and introduce themselves, and ask if I have any questions about the art or their community.  They’ve already confirmed for me by their actions on the mat that they look out for each other, that they take aikido seriously as a mind-body practice and not just another martial art or sport.  They happily confirm this verbally as well.  While my old dojo had “basics” and “all-levels” class where they threw the beginners in with the more advanced students, apparently here you need to have attained a certain rank equivalent to attend the “intermediate” classes.  But I’ll worry about that when I’m ready for it again.

I walk home in two minutes with a spring in my step, and make a mental note to send a postcard to Gambell-sensei in California thanking him for changing my life in such a lasting way.  I could leave it as a comment on his blog, or give him a shout-out on Twitter, but the sentiment is worthy of incarnation.

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adventure vignette grab bag

 Clocking Out

Things I learned during my first week of work:

  • Tank treads (i.e. no movable axle steering) put a lot of mechanical strain on the body of a robot or vehicle
  • Bayesian networks have a pleasant and elegant formulation
  • When I drew a graph to represent the model I built in this paper, that did not make the model a Bayesian network
  • Dirichlet processes are similar to Gaussian processes, in that they’re a non-parametric Bayesian way of getting at what your data are telling you
  • Dirichlet processes are different from Gaussian processes in that I don’t know how the hell they work
  • …although Gaussian processes used to be similar to Dirichlet processes in at least that one respect
  • I really prefer learning math with pictures and examples to learning math via abstract symbol manipulation
  • You can’t get a email address if you are not a person
  • You are not really a person until you have an employee ID number
  • You will not get HR’s emails telling you your employee ID number until you have a email address
  • When faced with this kind of thing, your best hope is to find the one real person who takes responsibility for things nobody else has a clue about, then thank that person over and over until you turn blue and/or your problem is solved
  • Sydneysiders never seem to bring their lunch; they always go out

2nd day on the job and I already have so much flipping homework.

Time to get out of here and do something else. In my last job I was utterly crap at looking after myself, and I’m not going to make the same mistake this time around. I’ve already hit the point of diminishing returns.

Besides, I finally have my ID card. So if I really want to, I guess I can come back to the office. Haha, not this time.


Apparently, AirBnB double-booked my hosts’ apartment for the weekend. We worked out an arrangement where I’d go somewhere else for Friday and Saturday nights, and they’d refund me the money. Turns out my weekend budget hotel lodgings cost almost exactly the amount refunded. So, mild inconvenience but no huge deal.

My new lodgings are on the upper level of an old Victorian home a few blocks away, old and worn but clean, spacious. Crucially, they are about a two-minute stagger from the site of tonight’s Swing Pit, which I am most definitely attending.

I didn’t write about it at the time, but this venue was the first place I ever went Lindy Hopping in Australia, the very first weekend after I got off the plane. The space is a parish house next to a church, a large, well-ventilated room with a clean, well-maintained floor. The social part of the dance lasts two hours, instead of the hour-and-a-quarter dances I’m used to from Canberra. Every time I’ve come back here, people have been welcoming without pretense: asking me to dance, asking me to dance in the middle of the jam circle they sometimes hold for out-of-towners and birthday people, and taking me out for ice cream after hours.

Tonight is no exception. I dance maybe three out of four dances for the first hour and a half, after which I start to get tired and slow down a bit. In addition to new lovely people, I recognize a few other Sydneysiders I usually only see at interstate weekends; they’re my new crew now. In fact, there are now two competing groups for afters: those going for ice cream, and those going for (alcoholic) drinks. I opt to go with the ice cream crowd this time, but maybe I’ll go with the pub-crawlers next time.

The best part is that it just so happens there’s a workshop weekend on this weekend, the “Little Big Weekend”. For some reason Lennart Westerlund, one of the main organizers of the world-famous Herräng Dance Camp, is in town from Sweden and giving workshops Saturday only. This also means there is dancing Saturday and Sunday as well. If I need anything to keep me occupied pretty much the whole weekend, I have it now.

I decide not to go to the workshops, nor (after the strain put on my bad ankle) to the Sunday evening dance. But I do attend the Saturday evening dance, where I am greeted with Kermit flails and squeals of OMG YAY!!! by friends both old and new.


I always claim the mission workers came out too early to catch any sinners on this part of Broadway. At such an hour the sinners are still in bed resting up from their sinning of the night before, so they will be in good shape for more sinning a little later on.

— Damon Runyon, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” from Guys and Dolls

On Saturday morning I wake up at a more civilized hour than I have all week: about 7:30 am. Largely from the screams of small children in the apartment next door. No sense holding it against them; screaming is basically in small children’s job description.

Can’t wait too late though. I’m a boy on a mission.

Before the sun gets too high in the sky, I set off at a brisk pace northwards from Newtown Station, along Australia Street. The streets are still sleepy; at such an hour the sinners are still in bed resting up from their sinning of the night before.

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I turn west onto Parramatta Street, an American-wide street lined with tire shops and fast food places, a far cry from Newtown’s hipster chic. Already the direct sun, movement, and humidity are making me sweat; I’ll need to pick up sunscreen later. I hug the shopfronts to stay under the awnings, checking my phone’s Map function a bit compulsively to make sure I remain on track.

As I approach my turn-off north onto Norton Street, the fast food places start to give way to Italian restaurants, at first pizza places and then places that claim to be “trattorias”, so I know something has shifted. It’s not long before I see on my right a broad archway with flags reading Italian Forum, opening into a long arcade with shops and cafes on both sides that cater obviously to that cultural background. Okay! Right! On the far end, the arcade opens up into a wide two-level area with a portico labeled ITALIAN FORUM CULTURAL CENTRE. Well then! I have apparently hit the local epicenter of Italian-Australian cultural consciousness. Right! Huh! Right!

I investigate a shop that claims to sell Italian confectionery, but they’ve shut and are only selling wholesale now. Well. Poop.

I press on towards my destination, which turns out to be two destinations. Both are called Mezzapica. One is a café. The other is a patisserie which supplies that café. The two are next door to each other but have slightly different hours. They both seem to supply what I’m after. I’m in the market for a new local place for my Saturday morning tea that can stand in for Sfoglia, and unfortunately I’ve become so addicted to sfogliatelle that I’m willing to walk almost an hour to check out an establishment that might have good ones.

I walk in and order “the usual”. It’s sweeter than I’m used to, and the pastry is more chewy than flaky. Not unpleasant, but after an hour’s walk I had hoped it would be better. I may have to go even farther afield now, or (horrors!) defect to a pastry shop serving an ancestry other than my own. Sfoglia still comes out on top, as I’m sure Michael will be pleased to hear.

Food of the gods

After about half an hour of digesting, I realize this is not going to carry me through the day. I order the breakfast special: scrambled eggs on toast with pessto, avocado, and crumbled feta. Okay, that’s more like it.


< Messages Emily        Contact

Saturday 11:32 Wow, you were right — even $530 apt is a dump. 2BR w/park, but still. Going to 1BR $500 which I expecct to be little better, and then calling it quits for today — SB

Saturday 11:38 Actually the 1BR was *much* nicer. Real wood floor (not veneer), interesting plasterwork, cozy. Small though. Would trade nicer place for office, or for a bit of location, but want to keep commute *time* short I think. xo Snugs-a-Boy

Saturday 11:39 ps sorry I mean nice place is preferable to shitty place w/office

Saturday 11:41 haha the cross street is Crystal St. I wonder how Ms Crystal is doing

Saturday 11:55 ppps oh! Redfern Station is closer than I realized to my office specifically, AND ALL the lines stop there. More willing to live a bit farther out if near train line. Off to Art Gallery of NSW for more adventures xo SB


I emerge from St. James’ Station, and head east past St. Mary’s Cathedral. The steps are familiar, though last time I was here with Emily. I head under the welcome shade of the trees towards the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I haven’t been here for a while, but I recognize the broad columns, the bas-relief carvings with classical themes along the top. On the first floor are sculptures and large-ish paintings, many of them by European Impressionists. Heading down the escalator, we have more varied and, at least for me, familiar themes: a permanent Asian collection, and numerous galleries with temporary exhibitions.

I spend a good half-hour staring uninterruptedly at some delicate classical Chinese landscape paintings from the last four centuries. The best of these exhibit the same spontaneity and solitude I’ve always prized for myself in my moments away from the relentless crush of twenty-first-century doing. Just a few brush strokes are enough to suggest cliffs, mountains, trees craggling up out of the rocks, a far-off pavilion housing a scholar lost in thought. Negative spaces economically suggest water or mist. I take no photos, but I transcribe a few of the poetic inscriptions on the paintings. These two strike me especially:

The boat goes out daily casting the nets
Floating on top of water are countless layers of peach petals
If anyone inquires as to the whereabouts of the immortal paradise
(it is right here), the river and sky shrouded in the mist of sunset rain.

— Wu Li (1632-1718)

Strolling along the western banks of the stream,
With the autumnal clouds filling the gully,
While hearing the sounds of bells fading into the clouds,
One suddenly realizes the truth of Ch’an [Zen] Buddhism.

— Wang Zhen (1867-1938)

In the same gallery is a looping video piece, “Infinite Landscape”, which makes a mockery of the classic paintings: in a bleak noir palette, huge monoliths of concrete and steel replace the serene mountains of the ancient scholars, while cheap housing developments collect like mushrooms where there should be shrubs growing on the slopes of the hills. The soundtrack has no birds or running water, but features the constant white noise of traffic familiar in any big city. A zeppelin passes and its propeller figures in the soundscape. At intervals an explosion roars from one of the background mountains, but it doesn’t clear any ground: everything is as congested and unlivable as before. There is no negative space here, no breathing room; everything is predetermined and plods dully towards its final resting place.

There’s a long line of cars and they’re trying to get through
There’s no single explanation, there’s no central destination
But this long line of cars is trying to get through
And this long line of cars is all because of you

— Cake, “Long Line of Cars”

I pass through the other galleries a bit less deliberately, seeing what they have to offer: A gelatin print of a reclining nude woman, her hips and legs outlined and accented by the vascular, grasping structures of winter tree branches. A series of ten familiar constellations, each one colored and accented to somehow represent one of the ten amendments of America’s Bill of Rights. A table piled high with famous works of leftist philosophy, their covers defaced in pencil by phrases like ART IS BULLSHIT — is this supposed to be a participatory artwork?

I head upstairs to grab a coffee, and over the next hour I work the Saturday Paper‘s cryptic crossword with Emily and her family via text message. It takes a while but I manage to get TAKE A POWDER, the last clue which had tripped everybody else up.

As I walk out of the door through the Botanic Gardens, the day has cooled off substantially. I am impressed with how large these trees are: they dominate my field of view, and keep the steadily sinking sun out of my eyes.

Hug a tree today, while you’re at it. While you still can.

Trees start out small and sometimes they get really big! Hug a tree today.

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stop sexually harassing my colleagues

Here I shall say nothing that has not been said before,
And in the art of prosody I have no skill.
I therefore have no thought that this might be of benefit to others:
I wrote it only to habituate my mind.

Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

It’s easy to feel anesthetized by news of awful things happening all the time, particularly widespread, systemic things one feels powerless to address as an individual. We might call it “rage fatigue”. It’s a failure of empathy, a failure of ethical imagination. But some things hit close enough to home that they slice through the fog. Despite being unable to solve the problem unilaterally and completely, to let them slide by without comment feels more like collusion than picking battles.

And so, while I would love to continue writing about my adventures in Sydney, or in other places in the months leading up to my working in Sydney, I instead bring much sadder news:

Famous Berkeley Astronomer Violated Sexual Harassment Policies Over Many Years

It’s hard for me to overstate how horrific this situation is. The astronomer in question, UC Berkeley Professor Geoff Marcy, is a giant of the field and a highly visible figure — both as a mentor for junior scientists (some of which he used his power and seniority to prey upon) and as an example for his colleagues and contemporaries (who, along with the victims, could see he wasn’t suffering any consequences worth mentioning for his actions, which were widely known within his specialty). He’s apparently only one of an unspecified large number of serial harassers among senior astronomy faculty, about whom warnings are spread by word of mouth to potential victims, but against whom no formal action has been taken.

Formal action is often not taken for many reasons, which Prof. Janet Stemwedel’s recent piece in Forbes helpfully breaks down; they include information asymmetries, victim blaming and reprisals, and the ways in which institutions protect their own perceived interests at the expense of victims. But in this case, a formal investigation conducted by UC Berkeley found Marcy guilty, which underscores how little doubt there is that he actually did what he’s accused of. And while the word “harassment” is being used here, Marcy’s actions often involved physically touching victims (“unwanted massages, kisses, and groping”), which is actually sexual assault. This is violence, folks, the abuse of power to harm another; it doesn’t have to leave a mark on someone’s body. He’s been doing it for years.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t heard anything about Marcy that would lead me to suspect it. Though I’ve done very little work on exoplanets, I actually remember him from the very first meeting of the American Astronomical Society I ever attended, as an undergraduate. I had a poster on the detection of planets by gravitational microlensing, work I did with my Harvard mentor Rosanne Di Stefano, detailed in these papers. Marcy had just begun his rise to stardom by discovering 51 Peg b using precision radial velocity measurement techniques that he and his collaborator Paul Butler developed. Marcy came by my poster; he asked about our results; I explained them; he asked some questions; I answered them. I don’t remember that much about the interaction years later, except that it was hugely validating for me to have intelligent discussion about my science with a leading figure in the field, and left a positive mark which encouraged me to keep contributing to astronomy in later years.

This is how professional interactions are supposed to work. And for junior women who want to talk about science with senior colleagues and end up talking about sex, this is the opposite of how they actually work. The positive becomes negative; the message becomes that they are not, in fact, valued for their contributions to science. The professional environment becomes unsafe. And so the careers of many promising young scientists end before they ever really begin. It’s not unlike the situation with Bill Cosby: I want to like Marcy and not have my pleasant memories tainted by the knowledge that this was the same guy who had been hurting people, possibly even as far back as my interaction with him. But this kind of behavior is beyond gross. And although I don’t pay my rent by working in this field anymore, astronomers are still my people, with whom I’ve spent half my life working. When harassment comes to my community, and affects people I know and admire, then it becomes personal on a whole new level. It’s just got to stop.

And yet, if serial harassers are widespread in astronomy, they are very likely to be a problem in my new field as well. Engineering suffers from all the same kinds of gender imbalance problems as astronomy. Who are the predators? Will I find out about them in the news? Or when I hear about, or even witness, their actions myself? What will I do then?

We’ve seen high-profile cases of sexism in the media multiple times over just the last year, along with social media groundswells in response. Matt Taylor’s pinup T-shirt as seen on TV (see #ShirtGate). Shri Kulkarni’s “boys with toys” (see #GirlsWithToys). Tim Hunt’s “trouble with girls” (see #DistractinglySexy). A few of my colleagues are at the front, leading the charge for a more inclusive environment. I follow more on Twitter as I become aware of them.

These are really just the tip of the iceberg; sexist views don’t need to be openly held to damage the aspirations of individuals. And they also damage scientific knowledge when those individuals’ contributions are lost as they leave the field (as they did on account of Marcy). And if the causes are ignored, the damage will continue to accumulate and compound.

One suggestion for minimal response I’ve heard in cases like these are that someone who has professed openly sexist views should lose their influence over other people’s careers. For example, don’t ask these people to serve on your hiring or promotion committees, or on selection committees for your professional society’s prizes. In the case of people like Tim Hunt, you can call for their resignation (from honorary appointments, anyway). These are straightforward actions those in charge can take that at least limit the direct harm these people can cause, and enables the contributions of junior scientists to be (more) fairly evaluated.

But sometimes the harm to others can’t be contained in this way, because a person has repeatedly flouted institutional policies without any apparent remorse or willingness to stop. Every interaction between that person and someone under their care presents an unacceptably high likelihood that more harm will be done. The fact that nothing is being done signals others that nothing will be done in the future either. Probably the only way an institution can support the interests of their students and staff in cases like these is to fire such a person. And indeed, while expressions of outrage pervade astronomy, at least a few are calling for their colleagues to #SanctionBerkeley until they #FireMarcy. Thus far, UC Berkeley has disciplined Marcy by asking him to please not do it again, or else they may take some unspecified “future action”, such as becoming Really Quite Cross.

Failing that, senior colleagues can isolate Marcy almost completely by breaking off collaborations, calling for his resignation from organizing committees, and telling their students not to go to UC Berkeley for grad school. It’s already happening now. Because speaking out as a junior scientist invites retaliation from senior colleagues who have power over hiring and funding decisions, this kind of change isn’t going to happen readily without buy-in from senior leadership.

I don’t have the power to fire Marcy, or anyone. But I can call on UC Berkeley to do so; it would be unprecedented, but would certainly send a clear message about that institution’s priorities. I can voice my solidarity with his victims. I can let my colleagues of any gender identity know that if I see abuse like this happening, I’ll do everything I can to shut it down. Finally, activities like these are enabled by a culture of broad gender discrimination, including unconscious bias. So I can continually build self-awareness, reading and listening to others, and recognizing ways in which I contribute to such an atmosphere, however inadvertently.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s piece and Prof. John Johnson’s piece responding to the news about Marcy call anyone with privilege (which I have, along every relevant axis except perhaps career seniority) to use it to the advantage of others. To not do so is to habituate oneself to doing nothing; as I learn about more of this stuff, I feel less worried about what might happen to me if I speak up or take action, and more worried about what will happen to me if I don’t.  

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first day


I wake up with the sun today, before my alarm, after a restless night spent tossing and turning in the sticky humidity of early summer. The first thing I do, ironically, is check Facebook. The second thing I do is wonder about my priorities.

I pull on my freshly ironed shirt and khakis and head to my AirBnB host’s kitchen, eerily quiet and empty. Breakfast is a Granny Smith apple and some cottage cheese picked up last night from the IGA down the street. It doesn’t have the same salty tang I’m used to. In fact it doesn’t even have curds, like it’s been whipped into submission. It’s kind of bitter. Who invented this stuff? I need to talk to their product development team.

Where’s my key? I hope I haven’t lost my key on the first day. Is it in the back pocket of the jeans I wore yesterday? Whew. Good.

With that, I head out the door onto the morning-washed streets of Sydney. Within five seconds I realize I have forgotten my wallet. I’ll need my passport and my driver’s license to make the required 100 points of ID. Good thing I thought of it just now. Open, grab, closed, okay back to walking.

I breeze down Enmore Street to King Street, past Nine Thai, past the Turkish ice cream place (how is Turkish ice cream distinctive? what flavors?), past “Café C” (best milkshakes, or “thick shakes” as they call them here). The sun’s getting in my eyes; I need sunglasses, but at this rate I’d probably just lose them. I draw to my left to make way for a jogger huffing past me. Canberra smells mostly like jasmine and tree pollen right now; Sydney, this part anyway, smells like car exhaust and cigarette smoke. Traffic hums on my right, while a train rattles along its tracks on my left. The city’s gearing up for a day of what I imagine will be the frenetic pace of a place where four million people live.

Shenkin Espresso Bar (apparently not Japanese for “coffee”). Cloud 9 (most expensive ice cream sandwiches, but worth every cent). Blossoming Lotus Vegetarian Thai (mostly vegan, in fact). Other Thai restaurants by the dozen. Bookstores, fashion boutiques, shops with newspaper in the windows obscuring a space where once something was sold.

My phone tells me I’ve arrived. This intersection looks like a university, and sure enough, after I cross the street and turn left out of Butlin Avenue, I see the familiar oval of grass, the lounge chairs. No students lounge there; they’re all on their way to their eight-o’clock classes. Somehow I managed to avoid that all through my undergrad years; I don’t know how. Some poor kid stops me to ask about how to operate the parking meter; I might have been able to help him, but I’m on a mission and a tight schedule, so I protest that it’s my first day and I don’t know anything, before zooming onwards.

Fortunately the building I’m looking for is right where the map said it would be. It’s time for my own eight-o’clock class. I’ve visited the University of Sydney for various astronomy-related activities before, but this is different. This town is where I live now. It’s my first day of work as an engineer.


A quick email summons my new boss, Hugh Durrant-Whyte, to rescue me from my perch on the steps outside the barred, shuttered reception of the School of Information Technology. While I fumble with my messenger bag, he explains with a grin that the Translational Data Science group I have just joined is not technically part of the School, although it’s in the same building. The advantage is that we can naturally incorporate people from a variety of disciplines within the same space. The disadvantage is that we have no reception, or admin staff, not really. Not yet, anyway.

The open-plan offices are bare. I will have a closed-off office which, for the first few months anyway, I’ll have to share with someone else — a machine-learning expert, apparently. Could be fun, and profitable. On the far side of the clusters of empty desks is a shelf of books. Hugh selects a couple and hands them to me; I’ve got homework. There are also stacks of empty cardboard boxes along the near wall. It’s early days yet; the few people who are here have started only recently.

We sit in his office and he hands me a steno pad — first piece of equipment, he quips. Today will be mostly about signing forms, but I’ll also get to meet with some of my new colleagues. Sally, the statistics expert from the School of Business, will show me around and talk math with me. Jane, the Dean’s assistant, will help me corral all these forms. Aldo, one of my colleagues with a CV not unlike mine (a recent transfer from experimental particle physics), will help me get my computer set up and take me out for coffee in a bit.

Hugh describes the challenges ahead. The problem he’d really like me to work on first is a predictive model of human metabolism. There is a substantial locus of expertise on this from the biology side just a few blocks away. Previous thinking on the subject tends to be fractured, focusing on one or more single variables or sites rather than entire pathways, which is where model-builders can really drive progress. Understanding co-morbidities of diseases in which metabolic pathways are implicated is just one of many potential payoffs from the project. The scope is huge, a grand challenge problem that may take quite a while to solve. The approach will be Bayesian, and will likely involve Monte Carlo Markov chains (my favorite) sampling many variables linked in a directed graph. I smile quietly to myself: this sort of thinking is just how I approached modeling supernova light curves.

(I still remember him spending at least half my interview excitedly describing this project, though not in this much detail. Wow, I honestly have no idea how to begin to solve that problem, I said.  Neither do I, he said, but we’re gonna find out!  He asks me not to have any meetings with the biologists while he’s gone, because he doesn’t want to miss a thing.)

There are other shovel-ready projects as well, with more data than we know what to do with: infectious disease (Aldo is working on this), mental health (they’re still defining the specific problems to be addressed), cancer. The organizational structure of the research enterprises involved in these biomedical problems could charitably be called Byzantine; getting them to share data with each other is nigh impossible with current structures in place. Maybe the future will help us bring them together. Mineral discovery in geology is another grand challenge problem that’s easy to sell to the funding agencies. There are even chances to work on problems in astronomy (surveys for radio transients) and physics (LHC data). Hugh and his colleagues have put in a proposal for a Centre of Excellence — about 30 million dollars over the next seven years — to address these and many similar problems.

This is translational data science — meaning that the goal is not only to drive discovery in all of these different domain areas, but to build sophisticated models that push the boundaries of machine learning and statistical inference. So while I haven’t gotten under the hood of the toolkits I’ve been using to apply techniques like random forest and Gaussian process regression, I’ll be expected to do so here. This actually suits me fine — it’s part of the charm. What used to be “practice” in astronomy is “theory” here.

Eventually Hugh hands me off to Aldo and zips out the door. Aldo helps me attend to my computer first, but it looks like I’ve still got eduroam access via my ANU ID, for the time being. Nobody else will be available until 10:00 at the earliest. So it appears to be coffee time.


As Aldo introduces me around, I’m asked what my role in the new group is — student? postdoc? I bristle at the term “postdoc” a bit, partly because of the history that led me here. I’m not thinking of my current position as a postdoc because I’m no longer insisting, or even expecting, that it lead to a professorship.

I try not to think about it too much because that shift of focus is fairly recent, and I still get depressed if I brood too long on it.  Or try to write about it, as many others already have (I’m hoping to be a “Destigmatizer” for myself and others).  The reality is that in the last round, despite my best efforts, I got neither a job offer for a continuing position doing astronomy full-time, nor even for a fellowship which would’ve allowed me to continue my independent research program. I hadn’t let myself fully face this possibility because I felt that if I did, the prophecy would fulfill itself. Up against the prospect of yet more temporary contracts with less responsibility and autonomy than I had working for Brian, I got the sickening feeling that my astronomy career had likely hit a dead end, as though it might be time to do something different.

It’s very hard for me not to think of my situation in terms of value judgments. Was I just not good enough? Hard to say; I didn’t write the most papers and I definitely wasn’t always the last to leave the office, but I did enjoy some measurable success.  Am I a quitter, writing self-indulgent “quit lit”? Maybe a bit; but we all struggle to find meaning in the narratives of our lives, to carve out a niche and an identity that hangs together.  Was I the victim of an unjust system? In a sense: the economics of academic research drive the job market towards more short, casual appointments, and towards more conservative funding decisions, both of which make it difficult to establish a track record. This is terrible and carries a substantial human cost, but it’s widely known now (by those on the inside, and I feel it should be more widely advertised to those entering the system) and applies across academia, not just within a particular field or even science. I knew it myself when I came to Australia. Blaming the system for being unfair also seems to imply that the people (many of them my friends) who came out on top somehow don’t deserve it, which I simply reject as untrue; there are many more deserving people than there are jobs. More lauded prize fellows than jobs, now.

Unpacking the roots of these problems and how to address them in policy terms could fill another whole blog. But that doesn’t help me make much sense of my own story as an individual; it’s like trying to blame anthropogenic climate change for Hurricane Katrina.  Both my own actions and the structure of the system contributed, and on average the way the system currently works hurts lots of people.  But except in really egregious cases,* it’s hard to blame the system for the specific outcomes of individuals, especially since we kids are all supposed to be above average.  In any case, the victim/self-blame duality keeps me tied to that past failure and doesn’t help me move forward either way. Indeed, I hope to go back and give talks to astronomy Ph.D. students precisely to head them off at the pass from thinking in these terms.

I’m looking for door number three: the one where we acknowledge that life is nonlinear and has no user’s manual, that good judgment comes from experience which comes from bad judgment, that we often have to rewrite our own scripts at great expense and at the last minute. In fact I’ve already done this myself, moving from theory to experiment, from high-energy astrophysics to optical astronomy, and from “particle physics with telescopes” to “astronomy”. It was tough each time, but interestingly, my interests in Bayesian inference carried me across all three transitions. In my last position, I can at least say that Brian gave me what I felt was a fair go: five years to work on the most important problems I could solve. I accomplished some things I can be proud of when I look back on them in ten, fifteen, twenty years. In fact, that’s become my new criterion for working on a problem.

So after digging around in my troubled little soul for a few months, I decided that it was important to take a new tack that would enable clear progress towards greater leadership, autonomy, and impact along paths other than the traditional tenure track. I decided that data science, broadly construed, and software engineering made the most of my existing skills and talents. I looked for jobs which would teach me absolutely everything I could learn about these new disciplines while giving me the most interesting possible work along the way.

From this standpoint, I hit the jackpot in landing my new job with Hugh. Technically it’s still a postdoc, in an interdisciplinary area that is growing explosively. But connections to what I used to derisively call the “real world” are made manifest, rather than remaining implicit (“you’ll have no trouble finding a job with a physics degree”). I’ll have the chance to work with people in academia, but also industry and government, on high-impact problems that will help make people’s lives longer, healthier, and (one might hope) happier. I’ll learn a lot about new techniques and technologies, and about working with other people with backgrounds different from my own. And sure, I can look for faculty positions in engineering, which may be less bitterly contested than in astronomy; but if, after trying this out, I decide I want a job in industry, I can in all honesty claim to already be a data scientist. And I won’t have to feel guilty or bitter about it.

Since Aldo has a very similar story, I don’t really need to go into any of this with him, or with the others. As we head off to acquire coffee, they ask me where I’m from, what my background is. Bayesian inference? Yeah, I’ve heard of that. Tell me more.

* Here I’m talking about the oversupply of junior academics which makes life miserable for everybody. But I also have to acknowledge that as a middle-class able-bodied white cis het male, I have basically won privilege bingo and have no a priori reason to think the system might be out to make life miserable for me personally. Other junior scientists in marginalized groups, though — who are deluged constantly with reminders that they’re not wanted and/or not seen as professionally capable — have a lot more reason and motivation to be angry; not only is the playing field sunk into the ground, but it isn’t level either. I would count those among the “egregious” cases, and there are a lot more of them than anybody wants to admit.

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social media 3: antisocial?

Since my last couple posts about social media, I have acquired a Twitter presence:  here.  I was encouraged by my lovely colleague Katie Mack, a theoretical cosmologist and science communicator who has been doing amazing things with the medium, and also by what I thought was a pretty successful run with the CAASTRO@Uluru account during my Residency at Ayers Rock Resort last year.  My experience with my own account has been substantially more frustrating, so I’m allowing myself plenty of slack to fail away while I get the hang of things.


As it turns out, Emily received some formal social media training at her place of employment, and tonight she shared some of her wisdom and expertise with me.  It turns out that some of my intuitions about what to do aren’t all that bad:  include photos, ‘@’ handles, and hashtags wherever possible; keep tweets to ~100-120 characters to facilitate retweets; be pithy and funny and authentic.

But in other respects I was woefully underprepared.  I was unable to easily answer Emily’s first question:  “What do you want to use it for?”

Not that I had no idea.  But I’d asked myself before and didn’t have a satisfactory answer on my tongue.  And I was unprepared for the level of rich detail with which that question could potentially be answered:  from the general (“have fun and talk to people”) to the very specific (“connect with particular potential future work colleagues or employers within my field or fields I’m considering jumping to”).  It never occurred to me to use Twitter with that level of focus, especially because I wasn’t aware of tools (like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite) that let you zero in on particular search terms or define groups of people to follow with particular things in mind.

Knowing those things exist solves the problem of being swamped after following only 35 people.  The flip side of that is that even with these tools, I’m still not supposed to read everything — which is tough for me.   Bottomless feeds tap into some kind of compulsive scrolling behavior for me, where I’m just rolling down the feed long after I’ve extracted any kind of real value from it.


So, apparently I know as much about the mechanics of Twitter as I need to know, and possibly as much as I’m ever going to know.  Now I get to the more fundamental problem:  that social media are still social, and hence come packaged with all the things I think are hard about being social.  Especially in a professional setting, which is the main reason I’m engaging with Twitter specifically.

If I say something dumb to someone at a one-off party or professional networking situation, I feel pretty awkward about it.  But I may never see them again, and if it felt merely awkward and not obviously offensive, on balance I will let it slide and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me.  On the Internet, it is very easy to say dumb things that stick around for everyone and others to read forever, indexed and searchable.  That puts my anxiety about saying something wrong through the roof, with the general result that I don’t say anything 99 times out of 100 — especially on emotionally charged issues, such as political discussions on Facebook.  Almost invariably, what I think is a pointed but polite comment produces a defensive reaction.  Having just perused one such very public discussion, I was astounded at the degree to which one user bent over backwards to be polite but firm in the face of what seemed to me to be a pretty aggressive interrogation.  I don’t even know whether that approach “worked” or what it accomplished, only that I probably wouldn’t have the stomach for it.

This is why I filter my audience for a lot of what I post on Facebook to a very small number of people I’d feel good saying pretty much anything around.  Clearly that kind of compulsive filtering is not going to work with Twitter, where you can only filter input and not output.  Indeed, the advice my impromptu trainer gave me was not to tweet too much, since I tend to spend way too much time worrying about getting the wording just right, and to stick to tweeting really high-value things.  (No additional pressure!)

Still, probably the only way to get over online performance fright is to just do it.  Much like giving talks, or professional networking at conferences, or writing anything anyone else ever reads.*

* It also occurs to me that I need to figure out what this blog is for.  I’ve been posting quite a range of stuff over the years, but not with any particular audience in mind.  I find myself drawn to write specific kinds of stuff which might go well in a more themed setting, though; I guess you could call the process “finding a voice”.  Not yet sure if I’ll start something new (and retire this venue) or keep posting here instead.

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who’s got your back?

Emily has been sticking with me throughout my job search.  It’s kind of hard for her not to, since we share an address, but she’s been an especially good sport about it.  This evening, while the waning heat of the Australian summer leaked out of the pavement and up into the wideness of the sky, we went out for noodles along the lakeside and admired the colors the clouds were turning.

After a while, as often happens, I tried to talk through what I’ve been experiencing lately while she listened and provided feedback.  Most of the time she’s playing devil’s advocate.  She had many good questions, and plenty of gentle and not-so-gentle mockery, for me relating to various irrational feelings I have about my career so far and how well I feel I’ve done.

One exchange in particular stands out for its simplicity:  she was wondering why I appear to be so obsessed with productivity.  As its own thing.  I don’t write a productivity blog, and I don’t even see myself as being particularly good at implementing productivity tricks — I attribute everything I’ve accomplished thus far to having a clear vision of what the hell I’m supposed to be doing at the time (almost never what my employers expected me to be doing when I was hired) and pursuing that vision doggedly with all available resources, and my productivity suffers when that vision is not razor-sharp.  Most other effects are second-order at most.  But I still spend a lot of time and energy worrying about it.  Why is that?

“Okay, so,” I said as we got inside from our bike ride through the deep blue evening and poured ourselves some tea.  I sat for a bit and collected myself.  “The narrative I’ve got inside my head…  that I’m acting on…  goes something like this:  The world is basically a cruel and indifferent place which is trying to extract as much value from us as possible, and only the strongest survive.

“And also fair,” she said, “so that the amount of value you get out is proportional to what you put in?”  We had had some discussions earlier during which we both agreed that the world worked in deeply unfair ways, and also never according to plan.  This would be true even if it weren’t riddled with all kinds of institutionalized privilege, and even if humans didn’t come in tribes; she had recommended me one of Malcolm Gladwell’s essays from which she took the main point that it was practically impossible to be both fair and efficient, or sometimes even to be either.

“Oh no,” I replied, “I have  no assumption that the world is fair either.  Working as hard as you can is necessary, but not sufficient.  You need to work as hard as you can to have even a chance at being successful.  Whatever ‘success’ means.”

(I’m thinking about rising inequality, about how technology is inherently a destabilizing force with the function of erasing jobs which once were well-paid.  A highly nonlinear force.  Something I’ve been reading about a lot lately, and have written about before as well.)

She digested those words for a few seconds.  “So, fear then,” she said.

“Yeah.  I guess.  Yeah.”

She paused again.  “Well, I’m sad to hear that.”


“I’m sad to hear that you’re basically afraid all the time.”

“Well,” I asked, “why aren’t you afraid all the time? — That’s an honest question, I mean you must have some reason, do you just not think about this all that much or …?”

“Because I have a huge network of people whom I can trust to catch me if I fall.”

“Like — uh — ”

“You’ve got stacks of people,” she reminded me, “everyone loves you!  Just think about everyone you go couchsurfing with in other countries.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I guess I just hate asking favors.”

“You’re not asking favors, are you?  You’re asking them to be there for you, and if you were really down and out who among those people would push you away?”

I wasn’t so sure at the time.  But as I type this after the fact, perhaps due to the lateness of the hour (or my unwillingness to talk about my friends as “human capital”) I don’t really have much to come back at this argument with.  Thanks, everyone.

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the twilight hours of 2014

Some time has passed once again, in which a great deal has happened but I’ve left myself very little time or energy to talk about it. A lot is stuff I don’t necessarily want to post about anyway. But in the spirit of wanting to write more, and having a natural platform from which to write about things, I might as well briefly review what is new.

Within two weeks of returning from Uluru, I promptly left on a tour of the United States talking about my recent scientific results at conferences, in a series of colloquium talks, and similar. This was a whirlwind tour, which had its moments that I may describe later but which on the whole left me exhausted from caffeine surfeit and performance anxiety. I ended that tour with a week spent in San Diego, laid out on the couch of my brother’s house reading science fiction. Asimov, mostly. Not as good as I remember from when I was twelve — his plots have ambitious scope but there’s something cheap about his character interactions which bug me. More on that later perhaps.

My return to Australia in mid-October marked the start of job application season. This consumed more or less my entire field of attention until mid-December, when I hit a wall that could be circumvented only by dropping everything I was quietly refusing to do and going on holiday instead. I’ve applied to fourteen positions and have two applications left to turn in. Perhaps not in vain — so far I have, at least, had one interview. Perhaps I will have more.

All in all it’s been a productive year — three papers published, three more sketched out, new collaborations forged, my profile raised, my work in the news. My most successful year in the broader arc of my career, though exhausting. I have my ideas about how I need to deal with this, most of which have to do with the way I structure my time and (importantly) my attention. Too much precious energy goes boiling off into space, even now. Too much time spent worrying about this specific leverage point in my career, and not enough about what I want my life to be like or how I can protect my chosen life against the depredations of postmodernity.

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