Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I have been reading a couple of academic type of blogs lately. One of the blogs is written by a pretty bitter Post Doc, who seems to hate every aspect of life. A comment that she made caught my attention, though - that Post Docs do all of the work and the person in charge takes all of the credit. I wrote a comment on this and she deleted it. Nice. Oh, well. So, I thought I would write some words about it here....

First of all, some people call the boss person the "PI". This means Principal Investigator, which implies that the person has won a grant from someplace and is in charge of that grant. They hire students and Post Docs and research scientists to "do the work", while they sit around and do nothing. Or, I should say, this may be a commonly held belief by the people who are slaving away.

About 10 years ago, when I was a fresh person out of my Ph.D., I felt pretty much the same way. The guy that I worked for was never at work and I had to do everything. He then read over everything that I did and had me do little changes here and there. He didn't care whether those changes were actually simple or whether they made it so I had to redo everything. I didn't ever notice him actually doing anything, so I was pretty bitter about the whole thing.

Interestingly, when I got to my current job, the PI was even more distant than the other guy - in that he didn't order me around very much at all, but, at the same time, he didn't even pretend to do any of the "real work". I didn't seem to mind this at all, since he trusted me to do good work and left me to it. We actually had a few people who were "advisers" on the grants, which seemed to me, meant that they got a month worth of salary and didn't do anything.

So, with these notions in mind, let's talk about credit - when work is done, who should get the credit for this work?

There are a few answers to this:

1. The person who does the actual work. This is most likely the post doc or the graduate student who is in charge of running the model, crunching through data, doing lab experiments, and/or making plots to show the scientific result. Why should they get the credit? Well, they did the work.

2. The person who wrote the proposal to get money to hire the person who does the work. This person is often the person that comes up with the idea for the experiment or simulation or data analysis that is done. Why should this person get the credit? Well, if that person didn't write the proposal or come up with the idea, it would never have been done. In some ways, you can think of this person as being the the main company, while the person who does the work is the "same" as a line worker or a bank teller or ... (I don't actually agree with this analogy, but I can image that people would make it.)

3. Both. The both contribute to the effort. Is it equal? I am not sure. It probably depends on the situation.

One thing that should be kept in mind also, is that the graduate student or post doc is actually in a learning role, while the PI is in an instructional role. Part of their JOB is to guide the person to the next level of development, which includes things like carrying out experiments (though, numerical, laboratory, etc), writing papers, critical thinking, understanding of the level of importance of results, problem solving, etc, for graduate students. For post docs, there is a hope that many of these things are at a pretty advanced stage, but they most likely have never written a proposal before, and may need help thinking of research plans from a beginning stage to a conclusion stage (instead of having someone lay it out for them).

Here is how thing work in my group: I try to allow my students to take responsibility for as much of the science as possible (as much as I feel like they can handle). At first, I give them pretty menial tasks to do, since they don't know how to run the codes that we use or visualize things. I need to get to know what they are capable of doing, so this is a way to accomplish this goal. At the next stage, we talk about the science that they want to do. I suggest things areas and see if they are interested. If they are, then we talk about more specific broader projects for them to work on. If we settle on one of these, I let them "play" with the problem, and help them whenever they need assistance (in interpretation, coding, etc). If they hate the project or we are going towards a dead end, I suggest different things to do. We work back and forth until they have something that is scientifically viable. They then write that up. I edit the crap out of it (literally), then they rewrite. I edit, they rewrite. I edit, the rewrite. Repeat until happy. They are then the first author on the paper, and I am the second author. I also encourage them to present as many talks as possible at meetings. I would rather have them show their face with the research than me show my face.

I feel that this is an extremely fair method of mentoring for students. They gain experience in (a) doing science, (b) writing papers, (c) presenting talks, and (d) figuring out where to go on a project.

I am quite lucky that the university counts student first author papers and PI second author papers as a paper for me. This means that I can spend time helping students with papers and give them authorship, while I also get some credit at the university. In the field, you could argue that it looks like I don't write any papers, but that really isn't true either. People in the field know that you helped to guide the science, and what you really want to convey to the community is that you know how to pick good science topics, and you have a team that is quite capable of producing good results.

Now, what this can appear to look like from both inside and the outside of your research group is that you are not pulling your weight. You don't write very many papers, you don't do much work on the modeling and research, and you end up asking students and post docs for their results, so you can present at meetings (to me, this feels like "stealing" results).

I think that what the people in the group have to know is that you do pull your weight by (a) selling the research - i.e., getting grants to continue the research; (b) selling the group - i.e., presenting at meetings to show that the group is doing really good stuff; and (c) teaching them to do science. I personally feel like, if you are not doing those jobs, then you are not pulling your weight. But, if you are, then you are really doing your job.

So, to graduate students and post docs out there who are amazingly bitter towards their "boss", I would have to say that you should look at all of the things that they are doing and ask yourselves, what would happen to me if they were to disappear. If the answer is nothing, then you may be right to complain. If very bad things would happen, then they are probably doing (at least) some part of their job correctly.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Last Chance Balloon

I am going to tell you some stories. The stories of four balloons (well, five balloons, as you will find out). I will start with the last and end with the first, since I am in a good mood.

I was in a pretty bad mood for this balloon launch, since we had just had basically three pretty unsuccessful balloon launches. I had a meeting for the undergraduate education committee first thing in the morning (and had to proctor an exam to a student who missed the "make-up" final, but couldn't come to the actual exam...) that went until 10:30. I had sent the team a pretty nasty-gram the night before saying that they better be absolutely ready to go by the time I got there. And they were ready! Well, almost ready. We had to stand around for 25 minutes talking about how ready we were and lots of other crap, until I said "Are you ready?" and everyone went "oh! yeah!" and we jumped into the cars and went.

We drove to Coldwater, MI, where we stopped for gas and food (although no one wanted to go to a restaurant - we just bought crap at the gas station - sort of crazy...) I got some Combos and a Mt. Dew (hey - they now have Mt. Dew "Throwback", which is Mt. Dew with sugar instead of Corn Syrup! Now Crab-Mama can't complain at all about my little habit (well, except for the ring around the belly.)) Then we were off to launch the balloon.

We exited on 69 South at exit 3, which is literally in the middle of Nowhere, MI. Well, not literately. As we were driving, I recognized that we were in Amish Country, since there was horse poo lining the road, and none of the houses had electricity or phone or cable or satellite dishes or cars on blocks. We found a nice little section of field, and I stopped at one of the houses to ask if we could use their field to launch our weather balloon. As soon as I got out of the car, there were about eight people standing on the porch staring at me. Since it takes nine Amish people to intimidate me, and not eight (six of which were kids!), I proceeded to explain about the project and ask if we could use their field. They agreed, so we started setting up.

The day was a very nice day for following a balloon, but it was a crappy day for filling a balloon, since the surface gusts were around 20 MPH. We set up close to some trees, which is strange, but with high winds, you want the wind to shelter you a little. Also, you launch with the trees to your back (pretend they aren't there, and they won't pop you balloon). So, we waited until the "last second" to start filling up the balloon. The wait was caused by them basically having to turn everything on inside their package, then sealing everything up properly. They had to make sure that everything was working properly, etc. Once that happened (about 30 minutes), we started filling.

Filling the balloon is adventurous, since it ends up being about 10 feet in diameter, which, in a 20 MPH wind, causes a drag force of about 100 lbs. That is a fair bit. So, you cover it with a big sheet and have four people holding it down. Once it is filled, you want to launch ASAP. Well, we filled it, and the other team members were playing around with the lines that attach the balloon to the payload. For about 20 minutes. Grrrr..... Finally, everything was ready, and we actually launched.

I should mention that during this time, we had an audience watching us the entire time.

We actually had good communication with the balloon for a while. The team had two radios, two GPS receivers, and two ground stations. Redundancy is good! Their two independent communication systems were on different power systems also. One of the ground-stations basically cut out after a little while, and they weren't really sure what was wrong. BUT, they were transmitting on this thing called the APRS network, which means that if any station in southern Michigan was listening to them, their location would go on to the internet! So, when one of their team lost communication, I fired up the laptop and blackberry and logged into the APRS website, where they were being tracked!

Here is the ground-track of the balloon off of the APRS website:

The balloon package had two cameras on it, one looking sideways and one looking downwards. If you want to see all of the pictures that they got during the whole flight, there are really, really cool. You can see them here.

Here are a couple images to tantalize your buds.

This is one of the first pictures from the downward facing camera. You can see the shadow of the balloon on the ground, which is sort of cool.

These next two are images from the balloon right around the time that it burst, which means it was about 95,000 feet in the air.

The final image is the last image that was taken by the downward camera before it crashed into someone's backyard.

For the last few balloons, people in the chase cars actually saw them burst. This is pretty extraordinary, since the balloon is almost 20 miles above the ground. It expands to about 30-35 feet across, and looks like a star in the sky. We try to keep almost directly under it the whole chase, since you basically know where it is if you can stay under it. When it bursts, though, you can no longer see it. Some people can catch sight of the radar reflector when it gets to be a few miles off the ground, but you have to great eyesight to do this. This comes in handy when you don't have communication with the balloon (as you will find out in story number 3!)

Anyways, we watched the balloon all the way up, saw it burst, tracked it on the APRS web site to almost the ground, then the lead car got communication back with the balloon. I lost the APRS web site for a while due to no cell phone coverage in the area. When I got it back, we tracked the balloon down to about 2,000 feet altitude. The other car got comms down to 760 feet, at which point they stated that "the balloon has really slowed down a lot". Meaning that it had hit the ground. I informed them of this. They were very excited. So, we got the exact location of the balloon and drove straight there. It was too bad that we didn't actually see it land - we were only about a mile away when it did.

We pulled up in a driveway of a house that looked abandoned, but had lots of "No Trespassing" signage. It was the last house next to some open fields. There were also open fields behind the houses. The students knew that it was somewhere behind the houses, so they just ran back there. There it was just sitting behind the third house in. The people who lived in the house right in front of the field came out and talked to us about things, so we got their address and promised to send pictures. The students gathered up the balloon and ran back to the car. They opened it up and discovered that they hadn't taped down the batteries, and so thought that maybe they wouldn't have any pictures at all. The cameras came out and the SD cards were put into a computer, so they could see the pictures, which everyone loved. After this, we all piled into the cars and drove back.

The end!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Work-Life Issues

The wife is out of town.

I am responsible for Crab Kids for two whole days. There is an interesting dynamic when I am at home alone with the kids. The main driver is my inability to let go of work and just be happy to be at home with the kids. This issue arises during the day, when I am ~sort of~ supposed to be at work. By ~sort of~ I mean that I have an ill defined work schedule and, by self-imposed feelings of guilt (MOTHER!), feel like I should be present at work all of the time. So, instead of taking the day off and saying f*ck-it, let's go to the movies, I try to entertain the kids and check my e-mail and do some simulations and ... Which ends up being a total cluster-f*ck. I feel pretty bad about this.

So, one of my April 22nd resolutions (of which, I have one), is to let work go a little bit more when I am at home with the kids. Set aside the computer and enjoy being with them.

I have often thought about what will ultimately make the kids happy adults, and I am sure that my work schedule (coupled with the wife's work schedule), will actually make them into neurotic workaholics, like their parents. Hmmm... Is that healthy? I think not. So, how do you balance the work-life issue in a way that allows the kids to see that you should work hard at work, but yet, take a little time to enjoy your life?

(ok Mom, stop listening here....)

I am not sure that we got such a great work-life lesson growing up. With two working parents who were gone from 7AM - 5:XX PM everyday, I think that I learned that this is what life is about - work. You put in a hard days work (and it was hard for my Mom). This is what you do. There is no screwing around or playing. Vacations are rare and involve driving to waterfalls somewhere in the East, while cramped in a car with your siblings. (Ahhh, the memories - did I ever tell you the story about how my step-dad threw one of my shoes in the river upstream of Niagara Falls??) The Crab Kids have not experience too much of this bliss - what with Mini Vans, separate seats for each of the kids, iPods, laptops, etc - but they have experienced some vacations of this sort.

So, what am I concerned about? I just think that they see me worrying about the job all of the freaking time, and will do the same thing. Is that how I got my 'work-ethic'? By watching my Mom worry all of the time about her job? Or is it an innate thing inside of us that drives us to kill ourselves for other people - sacrifice ourselves for the 'greater good'? I don't know. But, I can tell you this - sometime soon, when there are no more classes or finals or balloon launches or proposals dues or ... I will just take a day off and take the kids to the zoo. Or, maybe it should be sooner than that.

Anyone want to come?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I'm Alive

But just barely.... Last week was just nuts. NSF on Monday, Class and such on Tuesday. launches on Wednesday and Thursday. Meetings and more meetings on Friday. Got home after 8 O'clock three times last week.

Today is the last day of class! I am giving the "make-up" file exam today, so the majority of the class is taking the exam.

We have launched only 2 balloons, with 2 more to go. Looks like things are going to be busy tomorrow or Thursday.

Gotta go and mix up exams, so people next to each other don't get the same exam....

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dog Blog

Lilly, our wonderful K9, had a hard time getting to the bedroom last night. You see, the vacuum was in the hall earlier that day. She is not typically afraid of the vacuum cleaner. But maybe she is afraid of where the vacuum cleaner used to be. Since Crab Mama moved the vacuum cleaner, Lilly won't walk past that spot unless I am with her. She just sits in the middle of the hall and whines.

What a good, smart dog you are. Yes you are. Brains! That's what you have. Yes you do!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Balloons and Rockets

First balloons:

For the last few years, I have been teaching a class on "system integration", which is basically a way to say, "put all of the these parts together and see if they work". As I have stated many times on this blog, I feel like students should have some hands-on practical experience. So, in my grad-level class, I don't teach them anything, I make them do something. And that something is launching a balloon up to 100,000 feet. But, they have to recover the payload and follow FAA regulations. The first part is relatively easy, but the second part makes things a bit more complicated. This is because, to track the balloon, all you need is a GPS and a radio. Stick that on the balloon and you are basically done. BUT, FAA regulations say that you have to be able to kill your balloon at a moments notice. Which means that you have to communicate WITH your balloon. Hence, you have to have a little computer on-board and enable a cut-down switch and all sorts of other crap, which is quite complicated. It is basically like launching a little satellite.

It is that time of year when the students are just about done with their balloon builds and are getting ready to launch. I have some great stories about balloon launches, which I will leave to another time, but I will include a picture from one of the balloons (from last year), and a story of tether testing...

This is a picture from pretty close to 100,000 feet. The balloon that took this picture landed in Lake Erie, which is was not supposed to do. Obviously. It was a pretty screwed up day. But, that is a story for another day. Let up proceed with yesterday's cluster f*ck.

First thing that you have to realize is that a weather balloon is BIG. Here is a picture of yours truly holding a balloon on a very, very calm day.

They are about 8 feet in diameter. On a calm day, this is no big deal to handle, but on a windy day, the horizontal drag force on the balloon is enormous. This means that it wants to go with the wind. Not stay in your hand. Go. Sideways.

The general idea of a tether test is to raise the balloon up a few hundred feet, and then verify that the communication system is working perfectly. You also test your balloon filling procedures and stuff like that. The big problem with tether tests is that they NEVER WORK! The wind ALWAYS causes a problem. The issue is that the balloon is lifting the payload in the air (but just barely, since the payload is heavy), but the wind (even a light wind), exerts enough force to blow the balloon back to the ground (picture an upside down pendulum).

Well, I had experienced this effect two times in the past, with disastrous consequences both times, so I was not feeling too positive about the tether test that the students wanted to perform yesterday. But, being adventurous, I agreed.

So, we get out on the field, and the wind is blowing at something like 10+ MPH constantly. It is quite difficult to actually control the balloon while filling it if the wind is blowing, so typically, you use a sheet over the balloon. The sheet has to be quite large, since the balloon is quite large. Like, really large. Typically, I encourage a big sheet with rope tied on to each corner. Well, they didn't have anything like that. So, we dealt with it. Then other things went wrong. And more things.

The predictable thing happened - the balloon didn't rise off the ground because the package was too heavy and the wind was blowing too strong. So, we packed it in and called it a night. Then, as we were reeling the balloon in (package in hand!) the cords snapped and the balloon took off. The perfect ending.

Or, a great start to balloon season!

Ok, now rockets.

For two semesters now, I have taught a rocket science class, in which we take a class period and actually launch rockets. In order to up the ante a little bit, I give extra credit to students who bring a rocket. Last semester, I got about 20 or so students. This semester over a hundred students brought rockets. It was absolutely insane. We set up three launchers, with Crab Girl helping out the students to launch their rockets.

We had many rockets in which the parachutes did not open, so they drilled into the ground. It was quite humorous. A really funny part was when one of the students did a very loud count down, and then nothing happened. Typical NASA.... Then another student, who had obviously built the rocket himself, launched it up in the air about 30 feet, where it jogged a bit to the left, circled around for about 5 seconds, then exploded. Very exciting stuff!

My Dad came to the launch. The kids, the neighbor and the kids and a co-worker and his son. As I was doing this, I thought, "Wow, I get paid to do this!"

In one of my last posts I said that I hate every aspect of my job. I don't. I hate all aspects, but these. I love these aspects. On days like Thursday and Friday, I am very happy to actually work where I work, doing what I do.

Monday, April 6, 2009

LA Bitch

Our new dog Lilly is from LA. I am not sure if she had ever seen snow before coming to Michigan. When she first came, the snow was pretty thin and icy. There was basically nothing there except frozen ground.

Well, last night it snowed about 6 inches. When I took Lilly out for a pee last night (while it was snowing), she freaked out and didn't want to go outside. When I "encouraged" her, she tried to dodge the snowflakes. It was quite amusing.

This morning, on her walk, she was completely freaked out by it. She would walk for a little while, like normal, and then just start running in a random direction. She does this typically when she is afraid of an animal or something. So, was she afraid of the snow covered ground? I don't know. Then, for a while, she would run with her tongue out, licking the snow the whole time. She was like Crab Boy, just wanting to eat as much snow as possible. Also quite funny.

I wonder, if you took people from LA and dumped 6 inches of snow on them, would they freak out also?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Yet another summary blog

I am drunk on a Friday night. I almost never get drunk, but after the last couple of days...

First the good:

1. I rode my bike yesterday. 28 miles (14 to work, 14 home). I felt like a real man. I didn't eat dinner yesterday or lunch today. I think I have lost a little weight. Which is a good start. I still need to lose about 15 pounds, but, for the beginning of spring, I have a relatively good start on things.

2. Uh... The dog hasn't taken a crap in the house in like 2 weeks. And she hasn't peed in the house in a week. Good times!

3. Hmmm... more good things.... Did I mention that I am drunk?

Now the bad:

1. Work. Pretty much every f*cking aspect of it. We have given our codes to this place that makes runs available to the general community. They run and run and run and let people request runs and do all sorts of stuff for people. They are having problems with our code. Months ago, they were having issues because they were getting a result that they liked (a non physical current at the boundary). I explained why this occurred, but they wanted me to fix it. Well, it turns out that they were using nonphysical conditions to begin with - they want to run with these nonphysical conditions and get physically meaningful results. I tried to explain to them how this wasn't really the way the code worked. They basically threatened to use someone else's code. Ok. I explained that I wasn't really making up the laws of nature here. If you runs this other guy's code with nonphysical conditions, then you are going to get the same nonphysical type of answers - unless he cheats. Well, they didn't use the other guy's code and the issue was basically dropped. Now, it has surfaced again. They are running the code in a completely different regime and they are still using the nonphysical condition. They didn't tell me this, though. They just told me that they were having problems, and another person in my group pointed at my code, and said, it's probably this code's fault. So, I spent all day yesterday and today working on this problem, only to find out tonight that it was most likely all due to them using nonphysical conditions. And, when I said, don't use those conditions, they came back with "well, what SHOULD we use..." Uh, physical conditions. Like other runs that you do. You know. When the code works (like 95+%) of their simulations). Do those types of runs. It just pisses me off that I have to spend my time on this crap when I could be doing real work.

2. I haven't cooked a real meal in ages. Our kitchen is a complete disaster. We have to do our taxes. I have to do my brother's taxes. I have to do laundry again, and last week's laundry hasn't even been put away yet. The toilet bowl cleaning consists of me wiping it with some toilet paper and calling it good. I didn't get home until 8:30 last night. There are shredded toilet paper roles all over the basement and first floor, because we don't have enough energy to sweep them up. And the dog will just produce more, so, what's the point? We have had pizza boxes in our recycle bin every week for the last month (not a good sign). You get the point.

3. My Post Doc sucks. It's only been two weeks. I have to give him a break. I am trying to. I am trying to be extremely patient. I am trying to not be myself. Except, that by not being myself, I am actually being myself. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt for long periods of time, and then get so incredibly frustrated with them, that I explode all over everything. Which is basically what I am doing, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I need to have more open communication. That is the real issue. When someone starts disappointing me, I start avoiding them, since I am pissed off. What I really need to do is talk to them (only, where do you find the time??? It is so much easier just to avoid the issue all together!) As an example, I gave him an extremely concrete thing to do - figure out this model output from this web site. If you can't figure it out, e-mail the author and ask her an extremely simple question. Then we can implement the model in our code and see what it does. We discussed this a week ago, and he has not done it. I completely understand that he is adjusting to living here and has not had a desktop computer (but has a laptop) to do work on, but this is a very, very easy task. Now what???

Ok, I am going to give up on life and try to flush myself down the toilet. Wish me luck!