Sunday, July 30, 2006

Blue Man Group

A cheerful post to push the last one down the page a bit. Yesterday as an anniversary present, Ken took me to see the Blue Man Group.

I don't want to describe it in too much detail. Part of the fun was realizing how closely "confusion" and "delight" are related. Part of the fun is being constantly surprised.

But before I went I was really curious to know what I was going to see. They were expensive tickets. How could I be sure this was really up my alley?

So the whole time I was there I was trying to think of how to describe it, what I would tell people so that they would know what alley it was up.

When you first enter the lobby (of the Briar St. Theater in Chicago which has hosted the Blue Men every night of the week since 1997) the network of pipes and tubes above your head -- like the intestines of some plastic-and-metal animal -- and the weird lighting, and the wire sculptures, and the surrealist paintings made even more surreal by the insertion of blue men into them, give you the sense of being in line for a theme park ride. It reminded me a bit of the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, not that I expect that will help anyone else. That was billed as "multimedia experience," which I suppose is what the Blue Man lobby also is. Look out for tubes that seem to be breathing. Or those labelled "chat tubes." Use the bathroom before taking your seat and enjoy the "Blue Man Lobby Bathroom" song. Damn catchy.

When the show started, it was hard to be sure whether it had started at all. I felt like a subject in a psychology experiment. Something about group dynamics and susceptibility to suggestion. The whole crowd was reacting... Started to feel like the call and response parts of church, or when the whole congregation welcomes new parishoners. And yet we were all still waiting for the lights to go down and the curtains to open, at that point.

But when it did really begin, it was with a bang. Literally. The Blue Men are all drummers. That is probably the simplest true description you could give. They don't talk except through the drums (although that doesn't mean there are no words in the show. Just that they don't say them) so they might be called the loudest mimes you've ever seen. But the percussion is not the only thing going on, although it is amazing, and they do have an album. The drumming parts of the performance are also a light show of sorts. The parts in between the drum performances are not without music -- there is another live, three piece band above the stage. They play while the Blue Men do prop comedy or magic or puppet theater or concept art or hilariously surreal improv with victims from the audience. The prop comedy is also surreal. You keep thinking, "where did that come from?" Like Wyle E. Coyote pulling signs from behind his back. Where did he get them?

They keep straight faces, always. Can't crack that blue paint. It makes them seem even more otherworldly. It's like being entertained by aliens -- aliens from the future.

When we first arrived, what I was expecting was something maybe a little like the luau show we went to in Hawaii, which did have lots of drums and dancing and light... And it was like that. If the luau were hosted by aliens. Ken said it reminded him a little of the people who filled the time at his high school variety show between acts, interacting with the audience. If those people were aliens.

When we were actually seated and confused about whether the show had begun or not and I asked him for the last time what to expect, he told me to expect "a party." And that was maybe the best description. Except it was a party without anyone standing apart and feeling awkward. At no time was the audience not involved. Everybody there was having a good time. This is an experience that I wouldn't hestitate to recommend to anyone, of any age, no matter what your tastes -- unless you're an alien from the future, this isn't like anything you've ever seen anyway.

So just to recap, here are the things the Blue Man Group is "just like":

A theme park ride
The Heineken Experience
A rock concert
A mime show
A magic show
A light show
A puppet show
Stand up comedy
Concept art
Wyle E. Coyote cartoons
Aliens from the future
A luau
A variety show continuity act
A party

If any of that sounds like something you would like, you should go see them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Career Paths

I don't want to say anything here that I will regret. I don't want to stand up and declare "I am done with academia! No more!" and then be embarrassed by that someday, when I'm feeling less disillusioned and less scared, and am after all applying for professorial jobs. And, of course, I don't want any potential employer to find out I've written anything like that.

But I don't think professorial jobs are the ones I will be applying for when I finish grad school. I'll try to summarize the reasons why not. What's a blog for if not working through your angst? And maybe there are some insights to be had from my experience, who knows?

I didn't start my college career dreaming of being a professor. That was an ambition I picked up as an undergraduate, which is probably when most people who become professors decide that's what they want to be... As an undergrad, you're being exposed to all of these new ideas. It's a thrill. If you're lucky enough to go to a small teaching institution like I did (The University of Puget Sound), you're talking about all of these ideas with your professors. You want to keep talking about exciting, important ideas, to keep making discoveries, to contribute something to humanity. And the way to do that seems to be, become a professor. Because they're right there with you, having these conversations, only getting paid for it. Only it's even better for them, because they're experts, with the respect and attention of everyone else in the conversation...

And then, if you're lucky enough to go to a small teaching school, you sometimes get invited over to their houses (beautiful! Hardwood floors, views of the Sound and the mountains, basement workshops, cute families) and even out on their boat (thanks, Professor Thorndike!). And they travel. Take sabbaticals! Who wouldn't want that? It looks like a dream job. And to get it, you think, all you have to do is stay in school. Undergraduate you doesn't mind that idea at all. You're good at school. And it's a lot less scary than the idea of getting a "real job". You wouldn't even know where to begin to find one of those. And besides, you now realize college hasn't really trained you for a real job (unless you majored in business). Maybe you thought vaguely that you would be a "scholar" or a "philosopher" or a "scientist," but now it starts to sink in that all of those words are just synonyms for "professor." The idea of wasting all that education on an office job, coming home every night to your own empty apartment (assuming you're not married or engaged by the end of college) and no guarentee that there will ever be more... Well, it's depressing. And besides all of that, if you're a scientist, they offer to pay you to go to school! Not a lot by your parents' standards, but more money than you've ever made, more than you've had to live on for the last four years. So you start applying for grad school, and on all your grad school application essays, you say that you want to be a professor, and have a view of the mountains, and make important, meaningful discoveries and contribute to humanity. And you do want that.

So what could possibly have changed in three years that this no longer sounds like a dream come true?

Well, I guess it does still sound like a dream come true, in the same way that winning the lottery does. But I have come to realize that saying "I want to be a professor like the ones I had at Puget Sound" is only a little more realistic than saying "I want to win the lottery when I grow up." As an undergraduate at a place like that, you have a skewed sample set. Every person you meet who went to grad school, also has a faculty position. But as a graduate student, you meet all of the people who didn't get that golden ticket. You meet some people pushing forty who are still grad students (and some who have dropped out after spending ten years of their life in grad school, with nothing to show for it.) You meet post docs, who have earned their PhDs and make a little more money than you do, but who are basically still doing what grad students do: low status lab work, taking orders and sometimes abuse from their faculty advisors, often living in dorms. They are on temporary five or three or one year contracts. After that they are on their own again. You eventually find that you know some unemployed post docs. You meet "adjunct professors," "visiting professors," and "research faculty." These people are older than the post docs, in their forties and fifties and even sixties, but they too are on temporary contracts, which you think must make it hard to have kids or buy a house or even a car. How can they know what they'll be able to afford in five years, after their current employment has ended? You realize that many of them don't have those things, houses or cars or families. You meet tenure track professors who are then denied tenure, which is to say, fired, and the houses and cars and families in which they recklessly invested are now in jeopardy. You come to realize that even the professors who get tenure still have little real job security. Part of their salary comes from research grants which they are expected to get (mostly from the government.) These grants are highly competitive, and are awarded for one or three or five years...

You realize that in all this cut-throat competition for jobs and grants, the ones who succeed aren't necessarily the ones who deserve to succeed. The people who make the hiring decisions and give the grants aren't usually experts in the fields the research is in. So they have two things to rely on, when making these decisions: the applicants' own claims about themselves and their research, and the applicants' record of publications in various journals. So the people who are the most arrogant, the most self-promoting, the most prone to exaggeration and incomprehensible jargon... They win. Assuming they have also published a lot of papers, at least. Hence the phrase "publish or perish". So it's the stressed out, frantic, intensely career oriented, arrogant self-promoters who actually win. Do you really want to be like them?

Worse, you see the incentives to exaggerate the importance of one's research, to make bigger claims for its potential applications than it really warrents. To make it sound more impressive and more successful than it is. And you begin working on research of your own, which you realize cannot possibly live up to the claims made for it in the funding applications. If you are a scientist, you learn that science is hard. That most ambitious projects aren't going to succeed, at least in the short term, because that's what "hard" means. The better you understand your field, and other people's research in it, the more skeptical you get. You don't feel like you are contributing anything signficant to humanity after all. You feel like a fraud. And you suspect that some of the other people in your field, making even bigger claims, are frauds too.

The transition from coddled undergraduate at a teaching institution (a paying customer) to cheap labor at a research institution is a rude awakening generally, for ambitious and academically talented students. Your education is no longer about taking classes, certainly not after the first year. It is more like an apprenticeship. But there are few protections in place for you. If your advisor wants you to work nights and weekends, and you really think they might punish you for refusal in any of the hundreds of ways available to them -- assigning you to meaningless and tedious tasks, grading you harshly in their classes, declining to put your name on papers summarizing your groups' research, even failing you on your qualifying exams or thesis proposal (or simply failing to schedule them), or refusing to graduate you, or refusing to give references and recommendations if you do graduate -- then you'd better work nights and weekends. No overtime pay. (Not that my advisor has punished anyone in any of these ways. But the fact that the potential exists is oppressive enough to make it hard to object to anything he asks us to do.) In grad school, you are not made to feel special. You are not made to feel like a smart person with a lot of potential. You are now (especially when you first start your research) the stupidest person in the room, the lowest person on the totem poll. The things you are asked to do seem impossible. You get used to failure. The ambitions that motivated you as an undergraduate now seem unachievable.

Finally, if you have met someone, if you are no longer facing the prospect of a lonely studio apartment after graduation, you start to wonder how you're going to make it work. You are twenty-five or twenty-eight or thirty years old. Your parents had a kid or three by this age. If your significant other is also in academia (and if you met them in grad school, the odds are good that they are) then you faced the two body problem. Getting any kind of permanent position seems impossible, but getting two in the same state, much less the same city? If you take temporary positions, what are you going to do when one of them ends and the other does not? It seems you will have prioritize. How important is this academic career to you after all, after everything you've seen? Now that you've lost your illusions?

Paints a pretty depressing picture, doesn't it?

Well, that picture is an illusion too, to some extent. Things have been getting better, this past year or so. I am not so new, anymore, and I no longer feel like stupidest person in the room, for starters. I feel more confident about the work that I'm doing, confident of my own abilities. I have gotten over some of my disappointment with the gap between the claims people make and what research can actually achieve. Anyway, not everything fails. some useful stuff does come out of this kind of research. A lot of people do find ways to make families work. The job market is tough, but not necessarily any tougher than the one my mom faced with her law degree, for instance. Making two careers and a family work is difficult for anyone, in any job, and you do have to make sacrifices, but you don't have to sacrifice either one completely.

Finally, and this is an important one for me to remember, because I often lose sight of it in my worry about the future... My life right now does not suck. I have a great apartment near the lake in one of the best cities in the world. My job, while stressful and hard on the ego and low paying and distressingly temporary, is also mentally challenging, with flexible hours, and not what you would call a dead end. I expect to make quite a bit more, not too far in the future, regardless of whether I stay in academia or not. Even post docs make twice what we're paid now, and more than the national average wage. And, of course, I'm married to an amazing guy. I already have a family. Just because we'd like to make it bigger some day doesn't mean it's not happy now. And furthermore, I have wonderful parents and siblings. And great in-laws. And I've been to Hawaii and Europe in the past two years. So really, I need to quit whining and start enjoying it, right?

But taking all of that into account, trying to keep everything in perspective... I think I'd rather go into industry than academia after this. The prospects for job security are better. There is (I hope!) less direct competition with your colleagues, less "publish or perish" pressure, less risk of perishing, in general. And I have been humbled by this experience so that I no longer look at abstract "contributions to mankind" as the only worthwhile thing to do with one's life. I think I would now like to do something a little less grandiose and a little more useful. Like designing products that people actually want. If the justification for doing science is that its discoveries allows us to develop new technologies which then make people's lives better... Well, I wouldn't mind being involved in the developing new technologies part, instead of the discoveries part. There just aren't enough significant "discoveries" out there to really support all of the people who want to make them, anyway.

Of course, that's only part of the justification for doing science. The other part has to do with the value of understanding for its own sake. But I feel like, in a weird way, I now know enough about the universe. I know calculus and quantum mechanics and a bit of particle physics (quantum field theory) and once I've learned a bit more relativity (this winter, hopefully) I will have satisfied the curiosity that led me to major in physics in the first place. As much as I'm likely to really satisfy it, anyway. Unless significant new insights, on par with relativity or quantum mechanics, are found in my lifetime. Odds are they won't be. They're pretty rare, in human history. Odds are I wouldn't be the one of the find them, if they were found. And even if I were likely to find such insights, other people would be equally capable. Things like this are usually discovered independently a couple of times. I'll let them have the fun... Generous, of me, right? If such a revolution happens, there will be nothing to stop me from reading a few papers on it even if I'm not in academia at the time. And nothing to guarentee I'd understand them, even if I were.

And who knows, maybe one day when I'm sitting at the computer designing lenses or lasers or whatever, inspiration will strike. Einstein was a patent clerk, wasn't he?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Chicago: City of the Future

In "I, Robot" they had a great computer generated future skyline for Chicago, but this guy has them beat: his computer models show buildings which are actually under construction, or whose construction has been approved. Particularly stunning:

The skyline at sunset, from the lake

That central peak is the still hypothetical Fordham Spire, which appears in close up here.

Here's a daytime view of the skyline.

And another, with stronger shadows.

The view from an expensive condo building.

The view of an expensive condo building, specifically, Trump Tower, which is about eight floors high right now.

There's a lot of new construction going on in Chicago right now, much of it shown in those skylines, which I haven't identified. The city is in a sort of renassaince. Cranes everywhere. The Fordham Spire is certainly the most inspired, though. Check out these artists' impressions from the Sun Times. Breathtaking.

Close runner up is the much smaller Aqua. That's a brochure to day dream over...

Some of the new construction is sponsored by the city itself. For instance, the peerless Millennium Park. And Daley famously bulldozed an airport in the middle of the night to put another park in its place. He's been planting gardens on public land and encouraging green roofs.

And by the way, he wants to bring the Olympics to Chicago, building a temporary stadium and revitalizing the south lakefront in the process.

I believe Daley is the definition of "benevolent dictator." What can you do?

Chicago is my favorite big city, and I've been to quite a few. It's so much fun to see it grow, right before my eyes... And still retain its unique character, become even more itself. Daley is like a symbol of that. Chicagoans love him, because they love Chicago.

Monday, July 10, 2006

July Poem


I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God's round table sit,
and all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son's bread.

Dame Mary Gilmore

Because I'm not quite done thinking about patriotism, even though the holiday is over.

She's Australian. I thought I ought to find some poets who weren't American or British. She was a socialist who tried to help found an ideal communist community in Paraguay. Now she appears on the Australian $10 bill. That would not happen here.

Here's a little bio.

I also wanted to link to a post of Jaquandor's that I thought made some very good points, about how being disappointed in a person, or a nation, doesn't mean you don't love them; you can only be truly disappointed in those you do love.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


So much celebrating!

We had a four day weekend -- now I'm looking forward to the coming weekend to recover from it.

Sunday, we gave Simon a tour of Chicago. You know Simon; he comments here sometimes. He'd been for a river tour that morning, and then came up on the El to meet us for Giordano's. You could see from his expression that he'd never had a Chicago style pizza before.

We showed him around the lab, and hiked over to the Metra for a super-swift (compared to the El) ride downtown. Then we all walked down Madison St. to Millenium Park. He seemed as fascinated by the bean and the band shell as everyone else, and we didn't warn him about the faces on the Crown fountain's impolite habit of spitting at people, so the spray took him by surprise. Then we wandered into Taste of Chicago, stayed just long enough to buy drinks and pick our way through the crowd for some country-music star, with a peak at Buckingham fountain and the lake, and made our way back up Michigan Ave. along the Magnificent Mile to the Hancock building, which is much better for going up than the Sears Tower.

Sunday was July 3rd, the day of our local community festival and fireworks. We saw jugglers, stilt walkers, magicians, and tumblers (the Jesse White Tumblers, to be precise, named after their sponsor, the Illinois secretary of state. Their tricks and flips and trampoline launches took them so high into the air that just watching gave us vertigo.) Ken got dogs from a hot dog stand, and I bought a toy that lights up and spins -- which I'm still playing with three days later, and everyone at the lab loved it too. Then the fireworks. What can you say about fireworks, besides "Ooh... Ahh!" They had some kinds we'd never seen before.

July 4th, we went to our neighboring community's parade. Everybody marched in this parade. Here's a sample from the program. (Yes, this parade had a program.)

58 North Suburban Peace Initiative (they were probably one of the chanting groups with "Down with Bush" signs.)

58a Warriors Drum and Bugle Corps

59 FAAM Youth Basketball Program

60 Amnesty International

61 St. Mark's Episcopal Church

62 Illinois Council Against Handguns and Brady Campaign / Million Mom March

63 Circ Estem and the Chicago Youth Circus (they rolled in on giant hamster wheel things, one person on the top, one person in the bottom)

64 Maxwell St. Klezmer band (tied for best music with the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, number 119.)

65 Women's Club of Evanston

66 Copia Records, Inc (apparently a hip hop label, featuring live rap and some awesome dancers.)

All in all, there were a hundred and twenty-something groups, including late entries like Senator Dick Durbin. Local business, political candidates and parties -- yes, both parties, but the Democrats got a lot more cheers. Also some military groups (U.S. Army recruiter, American Legion, and Bernard H. Baum, Brigadier Gen. (Ret.) marching all by himself), football teams, a drag racing club, a penny-farthing bicycle club, the Windy City Miata club, antique fire engines, a clown, a calliope, two bagpipe bands, Indonesian Performing Arts of Chicago (they were good!), and the Lawndale Lawnmowers Precision Drill and Marching Brigade. Yes, with lawnmowers. And a lot more that I can't really describe, but they were fantastic.

What flag waving Republicans need to realize is that the flag stands for all of that. The hip hop label, the peace protestors, the drag racers, and the gay and lesbian group that was sitting in front of us, with both American flags and rainbow flags on their lawnchairs. And this is the way to respect and celebrate it -- with a gigantic party!

They can't claim the flag for themselves. They can't tame the flag. They shouldn't try.

After the parade all that remained was more fireworks. We got the best spot in the house, closer than I've ever been before. Had to look straight up to see them, filling the whole sky. And while they didn't have as many crazy varieties as the ones the night before, they did have quantity!

What else can you say about fireworks? Here's the best description I can give you:

Happy 4th of July!

Don't forget to watch Master of Champions tonight!