Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hurting a little

Yeah, I think I pulled a muscle in my lower back during the workout yesterday. I couldn't tell for sure until I'd been on my feet for 75 min teaching my first class of the day.

(Also, my hip is acting up again. I don't know if it's the shoes I'm wearing - I kind of suspect my black dress shoes are not as supportive as they could be - or if it's just plain old overuse; I've been walking over a lot of uneven terrain lately and have dialed up the exercise a little of late)

I'm taking this afternoon off from working out, at any rate (But I do have to run and scout out the field site for Monday's lab. I kind of know the general lay of the land (Lie of the land? I don't know) but I want to see it again to be sure and to get an idea of what I need to direct the students to do.

I also noticed that even if I'm not literally wheezing from allergies, my "wind" is a lot worse when the allergies were bad - workout yesterday afternoon felt far more difficult than it should have, and I blame having been working around cedar branches (some of which had tiny pollen cones on them).

But yeah. I think a hot shower or warm bath and maybe going to bed early to read tonight are indicated.


I'm thinking about resilience again, after reading this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. One thing that struck me was the author's plaint:

"Nobody else’s job is an uninterrupted series of little failures,"

(From a friend of the scientist in question, as an explanation why people in the humanities or social sciences seemed not to understand her agony over her research not going well).

But, I don't know. Maybe I'm a pessimist by nature (or by training), but really, I DO think most people's jobs are a series of little failures. But if you're lucky, you learn to surmount those failures and move on.

(I have never coded but from reading the Tweets and blogposts of people who do - it seems that coding is mostly writing a bunch of lines and then waiting for the program to crash, and then trying to fix one part of the crash, and seeing then what crashes next.Though I suppose coding is a form of experimentation).

And I think back to my grad school days: the fieldwork was not so much failure-filled (though I remember loads of frustration over "unknowns" - species I could not identify in the field, and so, had to take an example back with me and then, usually that same day, tired and sunburnt after being out all day, trying to key them out before they wilted. And keying stuff out can, pardon my French, really suck. A lot of times I leaned hard on my mom's expertise there - she was better at it than I was and was more patient than I was). But the analysis of the data - oy.

With the Master's thesis, it was writing programs in SPSS (that was back before menu-driven stats software. You literally had to write programs from lines of canned code. And I can't remember if it was SAS or SPSS that would go on a sit-down strike if you forgot a semicolon at the end of one line or didn't say "CARDS" at the end - the "CARDS" statement being a relic of the day of punched-cards but also being sort of a "Okay, program, you can do your thing now" notification). It was on the mainframe then. (Computing power has risen dramatically since the early 1990s, I realize now). So I'd write the program on the computer in my advisor's office (An old Zenith, one of those with the green-on-black monitors, no image capability in those days). Luckily I had the data all as a separate file stored elsewhere so I didn't need to re-enter it every time.

Because there were a lot of times.

I remember I'd write the program, send it off into the ether, and then walk over to Julian Hall - where the mainframe was housed - and pick up my printouts from the office there, big stacks of 11" by 17" (IIRC) green-and-white striped paper.

And kind of like a college-admissions letter: fat was good, thin was bad. Except sometimes fat was bad, too, because if it was an error that propagated itself, you'd get pages and pages of useless stuff.

And so: I'd take my stack of paper, walk back to my office, go through it. Most of the time there was some error somewhere that shut the thing down, so I'd either curse a little or cry a little (depending on my mood that day) and then figure out where the error was, and rewrite the program. Or, one of the assumptions of the test was violated, and in those days there was no good computerized non-parametric version to use as a recourse, so I did the brute-force transformations I now caution students against doing (because they can introduce artifacts into the data, and also, I tend to feel a good honest nonparametric test is better than a handwavey version of a parametric test where you've had to massage the data).

So I'd fix the program or do the next transformation of the data, send it, walk over, get my papers. Lather, rinse, repeat. It took weeks to get a clean analysis of my data - I had stacks and stacks of those dang printouts next to my desk; at one point they threatened to collapse the shelves I was stacking them on. (If I had been less deadly-serious about it as a grad student, I might have tried to build a fort out of them. If my current mentality were transported into my body then, I probably would). Eventually I got it to work but not after lots of frustration.

Similar issues plagued my doctoral work but at least by then I had a computer of my own AND it was one powerful enough to run the analysis software I was using without resorting to the mainframe. But that had its own frustrations.

But yeah. Failure is always an option and I think in some ways I have become less tolerant of "failure" now than as a grad student. I think part of it is, as a grad student, I had my advisor. I knew somehow he wouldn't let me fail totally and wash out. And also, I think I was a little less battered by life (even despite the fact that, at least for my master's work, I was fresh off of having washed out of a grad program at a Research I school) and was better at going "Well, that didn't work, let's try THIS."

And I don't know. I wonder if part of it is I am now "the authority" instead of my advisor, and so I feel like I don't have a safety net behind me? Or that I don't have someone to confer with like I did with him (and my labmates - I have colleagues but they are all doing v. different research to what I am doing). Or it might be because I have too many balls in the air right now - I am teaching AND doing research AND doing service AND involved down at church AND stuck doing all the housework myself AND having to do things like the marketing I didn't have to do in grad school AND I am trying to have some semblance of a personal life....and so a setback in any one of those areas where I have to regroup and do more work means time gets taken away from all other areas. I don't know.

I do have several data sets or partial papers somewhere buried deep in the memory of my hard drive. Either it's a manuscript I sent off, that got rejected, and I decided wasn't worth revise-and-resubmit, or it's a data set that I collected, and then looked at it, and said, "there's no THERE there" (the pollinator data from 2013) or that I don't know a good way to analyze it, so it just sits. I assume other people who do scientific research have this issue too. I feel bad about it, but not bad enough to pull out a rejected paper from 2002 and try to rework it into something publishable.

I will say one thing, though: this is a bit of a problem about how entry-level science is taught: most of the experiments are kind of "canned" - have to be kind of "canned" and so students get the idea there's one "right" outcome. I tell my ecology students that nature is random and sometimes unpredictable, so getting "what you didn't expect" may actually lead to more interesting results or a more interesting interpretation.

But yeah. I still think the idea of life being a series of small failures, and "success" is more in how you respond and overcome those failures than in not having failures to start with. (Intellectually I believe that; emotionally I wish I were better at accepting it.)

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