Thursday, October 30, 2008

Entering the Bloggersphere

It is said that once you expand your world you cannot return to the self you were before crossing over. So it is for me with "blogging". It reminds me of my pet grandmice as they are placed carefully into their exercise ball. As they move forward, taking what must seem to them normal steps, that colorful little sphere careens forward at incredible speed. In a flash they are propelled across the room. Unless good fortune heads the projectile down the hallway (certainly the vermin have no control of it), the outcome is .....Yikes! Who put that wall in my path?
Ok. I'm in the bloggersphere. Taking the first step now.....

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Restless Tide

Through the years I’ve often read poems and sung songs about the ocean’s “restless tide,” but until we stayed overnight at Maine’s Little River Lighthouse its meaning never really connected. That reality began to soak in as our little boat ferried us to the island at high tide, our guides explaining that the dock would be high and dry during low tide. We were told that the water level here varies as much as 28 feet between the tides, and this twice a day!

From the moment we set foot in the boat until we disembarked a day later we were surrounded by the ocean’s ebb and flow, an incessant surround sound somehow both soothing and unsettling—soothing in its rhythmic regularity, unsettling in its chaotic churning.

For an Iowa farm boy like me the constant spew of foam and spray had no parallel; even the wind was more buffet than breeze. I began to think about how different must be the life outlook of an Iowa farmer and a Maine fisherman. What would it be like to cast your net upon the restless sea rather than plow straight furrows in terra firma? How would it differ to rely on a daily catch rather than a single autumn harvest? And does it take more courage to gamble daily on the vagaries of the ocean, or to risk it all on one big jackpot?

I’m thinking that for hardiness and courage the edge likely goes to the Mainian, although for sweat and grit the Iowa farmer comes right alongside. Either of them, in comparison to a city-dweller, is to be envied for a living connection with land or sea, and the courage to embrace a love that both gives and takes away.

Noah's Ark

Buzz Carver has been on the ocean since childhood, and has spent the last twenty years as a full-time lobsterman off the coast of central Maine. Last Tuesday night he took four of us Midwesterners out to sea so we could get some sense of the vocation that claims him and his father before him. He only ran a dozen or so lobster traps for our benefit, rather than the 250 he might haul in a routine work day. But it was enough to get a pretty good sense of what he does all day long, year-round.

It’s a pretty basic routine: boat out to any one of his more than 700 lobster traps, marked by a bright pink-over-yellow buoy. Snag the rope with a hooked gaff, lashing it to a hydraulic winch to bring it alongside. Haul the metal trap aboard and remove the lobsters inside (measuring each one carefully, tossing back males that are too small and females designated for breeding). Empty the mesh bag that holds the old bait and replace it with new salted herring. Then throw the trap back overboard and head for the next one.

It used to be they stopped lobstering in the winter, but now the catch goes on year-round. The difference in the colder months is that Buzz travels to more distant sites, up to thirty miles from his bayside home. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous work, but as his boat cuts through the water, throwing plumes of foam from the prow, as he pulls alongside a rocky isle to point out a family of seals, as the seagulls circle overhead and the sun begins to set in crimson colors…Well, this is obviously a man who has found an enviable merger of vocation and avocation.

Never mind that the price paid by Canadian-controlled processing plants plummeted this week from $4 a pound to $2, that acts of trap vandalism and pilfering are on the increase, that it costs $100 to purchase each trap and the accompanying gear, that state and federal fishing regulations are often inconsistent and inept.

Buzz is a Maine lobsterman, and hopes to always be. And his son, Noah? Suffice to say that when Buzz was finally able to buy his first new boat a year ago he didn’t name it for his wife Suzanne, as customary. Instead, painted on the stern is a scripture passage from Genesis, and in larger letters the name of his craft: Noah’s Ark.

A year in the life?

-ponder- I guess this "Integration Candidates" page I just made is sort of a list of possibly general use tools I've worked on over the last year... : BioCMS (RT username: guest, password: guest)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shrink, episode 1.5.1

I've come up with a new theory about the dynamics of my motivation system.

As long as I can remember I've had a bordering-on-maniacal obsession with efficiency in my work. Computer programming is a great way to try to fill this hole: everything is off or on, black or white, efficiency gains can all be measured objectively and quantitatively (this program runs 26.4% faster than this other program). My work (lines of source code) is easily presented to other people, proving that I performed difficult labor. Tangible gains can by proven on a daily basis.

I need a plan. I need a direction. I need structure. I need to attack problems. I need to see myself progressing. I need to prove to myself, and anyone else who cares, that I am succeeding. Every day.

In science most substantive things take months or years. It's hard to prove that you're making substantive progress daily, weekly, even monthly. It often (to me) feels like floundering around hopelessly, grasping with overly educated guesses at various straws while blathering incessantly1.

My new theory goes something like this: My pattern of mental self abuse2 has taught me that if I can't prove that I made tangible progress today, then I haven't, and I'm a slacker. This feedback system declares the vast majority of academia a monumental waste of time. School is massively inefficient because it attempts to broadly prepare you for future challenges, many of which may never happen.

So the feedback loop in my head, every day in chemistry, goes something like this: "Why am I attempting to memorize factoid number 700? I'm never going to use this, and I've already forgotten most of the factoids so far. Why are you sitting here? You suck at this." My mental defenses kick in, saying "but I'm good at programming. I can prove it. Look at my paychecks! Look at my source code!"

Hopefully this spring semester I can break that feedback loop and be OK with investing, in a massively inefficient manner, "in myself." By knowing and forgetting more chemistry. And math. To get the degree. Which may be good to have. Someday.

Because this week I realized some of it does stick. Listening to a JCVI genius present 4 hours of material this week, he threw out some key words I never would have loosely understood without that semester of chemistry. 5 months later I do remember the gist of a few nuggets of what I learned through that book I can't help hating. (I'll just keep telling myself that 5% sticks and that's OK. -laugh-)

So, through constant meditation and daily affirmations maybe I can survive getting this degree. In the year 2014 Zach will be out of high school and maybe I can try out a "dream job" w/ JCVI or NCBI or something...

I guess we'll find out. :)

1. Hyperbole. But you get the gist.
2. My shrink rated me a 10 on a 10 scale. That surprised me. :)