An open letter to Gov. Scott Walker: stop perpetuating the myth of the lazy professor

The Contemplative Mammoth

Dear Gov. Walker,

Last week, you told professors at the University of Wisconsin that they needed to “work harder.” You were making a case that the Wisconsin state budget crisis could be ameliorated by increasing employee efficiency, and you suggested having faculty teach at least one more class. I’m not going to talk about whether or not the budget crisis is manufactured (some have argued it could be solved by accepting federal funds for the state’s Badger Care health program), or whether your real goal is really partisan politics, and not fiscal responsibility.

Ouch. Ouch. Photo by fellow UW Madison geographer Sigrid Peterson.

Instead, I want to talk about the myth of the lazy professor, a stereotype that you’ve reinforced with your comment. I spent 2005 to 2012 at the University of Wisconsin, where I obtained a PhD in the Department of Geography; I am now an assistant professor at the University of Maine.

When you…

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For the love of all things good, get vaccinated

Read any news outlet–measles, a disease declared in 2000 to have been eradicated in the United States, has now infected nearly 100 people across at least a dozen states with no sign of slowing down just yet.

The single glimmer of hope in this utterly preventable outbreak is the fact that it’s forced our collective hand: we are now having a vigorous discussion about the merits of vaccinating ourselves and our children. And it would seem, the antivax community is on its heels.

But my worry isn’t the strict anti-vaxxers. My chief worry are the folks who espouse the reasonable-sounding rhetorical device of “I’m not anti-vaccine, I just think parents should have a choice.”

I’ve been accused before of not being warm and cuddly enough with people whose beliefs differ from mine. For instance, I posted this video on Facebook, and among other things it sparked some disapproval from folks who felt put out by the directness of its message:


Yes, I was effectively tone-policed. But in the spirit of informing people, I’m going to stick to the facts in the remainder of this post. I’m also not going to pull any punches. No rhetorical devices, no heavy-handed hyperbole, just facts.

So let me direct your attention to this Blaze article by Matt Walsh, a self-proclaimed “professional truth sayer,” titled: “So Should We Just Round Up the Anti-Vaccine Parents And Ship Them to Guantanamo?

The title sets the stage adequately for what follows.

Evidently, Statist zealotry has gone mainstream. This post, tragically, isn’t as irrelevant as I’d hoped.

Already the “tone” has reached rhetorically objectionable levels. If I was on the fence about my own position, I’ve already firmly made my decision (either way) and I’m literally 4 paragraphs in.

What I’m talking about here are our rights and our liberties, both as individuals and as parents. So go ahead, as many people have in the last day, and call me “anti-vaccine” or a “vaccine truther,” but then realize that you’re murdering the potential for a substantive discussion by, rather than engaging a point, simply categorizing it. And, in this case, categorizing it dishonestly. If I have to be “anti” or “pro” vaccines, I’m in the latter camp, seeing as how I chose to have my kids vaccinated. But I’m also pro-freedom, which makes me, perhaps, a man without a country in this particular argument.

[emphasis mine, and throughout the rest of this post]

I’ll briefly mention the first bolded section as a blatant contradiction to the fact that he already “murdered” the potential for a substantive discussion by the very title of his article. Unless anyone here seriously thinks shipping people to Guantanamo is going to be effective? This guy is too smart to believe that, which leaves only rhetoric, thereby torpedoing his otherwise-wanted “substantive discussion.”

I also don’t think you’ll find anyone who isn’t “pro-freedom.” It’s a meaningless platitude meant to divide people into groups that don’t exist. To accuse anyone, especially US citizens, of being “anti-freedom” is an absurd dichotomy that reveals only an ulterior agenda on the part of the person making the distinction.

In short: it’s an immediate flag that tells anyone listening that this person’s motives are questionable at best.

In short, as we have seen time and time again, despite Ben Franklin’s urges to the contrary, many people will choose safety over liberty, no matter how slight the risk and how serious the infringement. But while they worry about a potential public health emergency, I worry that the Salem witch trial mentality has created a constitutional emergency.

Aside from the ridiculous rhetoric (which I’m not even going to address anymore, even though it pervades the rest of his article, piling even more fuel on the hypocritical flame of “if only the pro-vaccine crowd would say something substantive”), applying Ben Franklin’s quip about trading freedom for safety to vaccinations is absurd. What liberty are parents abdicating? The liberty to say “no” to vaccines? Is that all?

You’re willing to put countless lives at risk–lives you’ll never have any clue you’ve risked–just for the right to say no?

Do you see how the two scenarios aren’t even close to similar? They’re not just dissimilar in probability, but in substance. When you get behind the wheel after downing a pint of vodka, you are immediately and directly endangering everyone around you. But an unvaccinated child isn’t a danger unless he’s sick, and even then it depends on what he’s sick with, and even then he isn’t the same degree of dangerous to everyone, considering that many of the people around him are fully vaccinated. So driving drunk is more equatable to declining vaccines so that your child will purposefully get sick so that you can intentionally release him into a public space where other unvaccinateds hang out so that you can willfully get them sick. This choice I would disagree with. In fact, it should be illegal. It probably already is. But if you can’t see how that bizarre scenario isn’t quite the same as the scenario of simply opting out of the vaccine to begin with, then there’s probably little hope of a reasonable discussion here.

The problem with analogies is that they’re usually wrong. Nevertheless, the author hits on the main point: “considering that many of the people around him are fully vaccinated.” That only happens when many of the people around him get their vaccines on schedule.

This also completely ignores the very real phenomenon of the incubation period–that variable time frame between when one is infected, and when one begins to show symptoms. Sometimes the person isn’t contagious (ebola), but sometimes they are; they’re actively spreading a disease they don’t even know they have.

Even pro-vaccine-compulsion people (as opposed to just pro-vaccine people, like myself) admit that there are at least some circumstances where not getting vaccinated would be the right course of action. Specifically, for a child who has cancer or is immunodeficient. This further separates non-vaccination from other “risky” behaviors, in that those other behaviors are intrinsically wrong and never OK, whereas even the most ardent folks in the pro-vaccine-compulsion camp (PVC) allow for exceptions. Quite magnanimous of them, isn’t it?

If you’re asking “is it possible to hold a nuanced view on a tricky topic with a blurry line that is complicated,” then the answer is “yes.”

But in the case of vaccines, it’s not tricky. It’s not blurry. It’s actually quite straightforward: if your immune system is healthy, you get vaccinated. If not, you can’t get vaccinated. There is no allowance for won’t. Simple.

First of all: if vaccines are forced or unvaccinated kids are treated like lepers, segregated in colonies and prohibited from schools and public facilities, would that apply to a child who has leukemia or who’s in some other vaccine-disqualifying situation? Taking vaccines out of it, children with compromised immune systems get sick more frequently, and because they get sick more frequently, they are a “risk” to those around them. What should the government do about them?

He completely misses the point here. The point is that people who can’t get vaccinated rely on everyone else to get vaccinated. The proportion of immuno-compromised individuals is small enough that, if everyone else who could receive their vaccinations did, there’d be more than enough for herd immunity to take effect, allowing the unvaccinated to live safely among the vaccinated.

Allowing for people to opt out for reasons that seem to consist exclusively of “because I can” completely obliterates this precious balance, putting those who have no choice in the matter in danger.

The flu kills far more people than the measles, and it’s very contagious. Should it be required? Should the Non-Flu-Shot Kids be kicked out of class until they get that stuff injected into their bodies? Even if it’s ineffective? Should we all be required? I’ve never had a flu shot, should I be convicted of some kind of crime? As I said, my son got the shot recently. On Wednesday he was back at the doctor with a fever and respiratory problems. We were told that these were entirely unrelated, but I think next year we will be declining the procedure. I know it doesn’t protect against every strand of the flu, but this is a medical decision and a personal judgment call, and I am repulsed at the notion that I shouldn’t have the right to make it.

Yes, even if it’s ineffective. Flu vaccines aren’t binary; they provide degrees of protection. Some years are better than others for sure, but if you can add an extra layer of protection, however small, why wouldn’t you?

His second bolded statement is infuriating. We humans are excellent at recognizing patterns, even when they don’t even exist. This is the entire basis for the anti-vaccine movement. If every spurious correlation was immediately assumed to be causative, we would have dumped funding in science, space, and technology long ago in a bid to lower the suicide rate.

These “pro-choice” and “pro-freedom” individuals make a rhetorical argument that certainly sounds nice–“I want the freedom to choose”; doesn’t that sound like something we all want?–but what does it even mean? Why would one choose not to be vaccinated? Of course, if one is immuno-compromised or otherwise sick, there’s certainly an elevated risk for adversely reacting to a vaccine. But if all indicators are ok, what other reason is there to say no? Just because there’s still a non-zero chance of an adverse reaction? There’s a non-zero chance of being hit by a bus tomorrow; I suspect you’ll still go to work at some point, and you probably won’t even consider that risk.

Perhaps it’s because the risk of being hit by a bus is vanishingly small, as opposed to the risk of adverse reactions to vaccines, which is “merely” minuscule by comparison. As Dr. Laura McLay says in the linked article:

People are really bad at assessing risk. There is a huge risk analysis literature on how we tend to overestimate rare events, and this overestimation drives policy decisions.

If your next argument is “ok so we require vaccines, but what next? require x? require y?” That would be the slippery-slope fallacy, and a total deviation from the topic at hand. I’m talking about vaccines. Beyond one’s immediate health–which you should indeed discuss with your doctor!–there’s no reason to say no, and every reason to be vaccinated.

When you make the “choice” to abstain from vaccinations, you are also making a choice on behalf of the small but significant group of individuals who have no choice in the matter. Science doesn’t care about your choice; whether or not you think your risk is small enough to be ignored, you are at the same level of risk as everyone else (assuming you’re healthy). Influenza, measles, and whooping cough aren’t going to steer clear just because you’ve decided they don’t pose much of a threat.

By participating in this society of ours, you have certain obligations to help maintain the general order–things like paying taxes, obeying traffic laws, and generally trying to be a decent human being–and getting your vaccinations should be no different. We’re all in this thing together, and as I profoundly respect everyone’s right to live their lives however they see fit, getting your vaccinations on time will help everyone to do exactly that: it is of minimal risk to you, and to those for whom getting vaccinated isn’t an option, they can go about their lives confidently, because you made the responsible choice.

So for the love of all things good, get vaccinated. It’s not about diminishing freedoms, it’s not about taking away choice, it’s solely about everyone’s well-being. That’s it.

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Cutting distractions loose

I recently made an unpleasant decision after a very unpleasant confrontation, and though I do regret the immediate impetus for my decision, I also recognize that this decision probably should have been made long before reaching this point.

Allow me to explain.

I’ve been on a Google Groups mailing list ever since starting the CPCB Ph.D. program. It was started as a way for us students to keep in touch, ask for help regarding coursework, and to plan social events easily. For the first few years, it served its purpose well.

Once our research started taking priority and we saw less of each other, the social planning aspect of it was still relevant but the academic aspects waned. Consequently there was less structure, allowing the idiosyncrasies of the constituent members of the list to come to the forefront.

Group dynamics, while an intrinsically important aspect of both personal and professional development–No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.'”–have their own challenges to work through. When the dynamics are in your favor, a group outperforms individuals every time, period. But when the dynamics turn sour, a group can easily perform even worse than an individual.

Even in the early days of this mailing list, it quickly became apparent that there were personality conflicts. My single biggest pet peeve is when disagreements [INEVITABLY] surface and tensions peak, nobody takes responsibility. In this case, while the immediate crisis may be resolved in some sense, the underlying dynamics are not addressed, virtually guaranteeing future conflict.

Coding Horror points out the obvious solution:

Still, the obvious solution is to address the problem at its source: get rid of the bad apple.

Even if it’s you.

I can recognize that, several years ago, I was the bad apple in my group at an internship. Maybe not the only one, but I did not display the requisite leadership qualities or wield a sufficient level of maturity and self-awareness to absorb and understand the dynamics of the group. My approach was closer to that of a bulldozer.

In this case, I’m again more than willing to accept my share of blame. I lost my temper in a recent email thread and said some things I should not have. While not juvenile, they were unprofessional and uncalled for. Furthermore, I violated my own rule of not getting pulled into arguments on the internet; they’re [almost] utterly pointless. And calling out an individual over a group email thread is just plain bad form.

So I sent a private email to the individual, apologizing for my outburst. Then I promptly unsubscribed from the group email list.

That was something I should have done long ago. If our email threads were of a scientific nature, this individual would often express interest and then very quickly condescend our inputs on it. If our threads were of a meme or gaming or past-time nature, this individual would berate us for spending too much time on “trite” things unrelated to research. Posting to the list became a lose-lose situation; while this individual was not the most active user on the list, they would go through bursts of activity. We all started dreading the next time this user would show up, and sighed with relief whenever they disappeared again.

That’s not a healthy dynamic. And with my new kickass job and new surroundings, it was proving more of a distraction and a hindrance to settling in here.

The key to these sorts of situations is self-awareness. We need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses, of where we can help drive the group forward, and when we may very well be the ones holding the group back. I pride myself in being very easygoing, able to work with just about anyone and lead either from the front or the back (wherever I’m most needed); however, I also recognize that I do not [yet] handle statements judging aspects of my personal life in a professional setting very well. While I very strongly believe that one’s personal life should be off-limits in professional settings, I do understand that we do not live in an ideal world, and so this is a pressure point I need to work on.

I do know this: ever since unsubscribing from the list, I have been noticeably more relaxed in my work. Definitely the right decision.

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2014: One for the books


As the sun sets on 2014, it takes with it easily the most action-packed year of my short life. I’ll spare you the gory details of in-depth retrospectives that I’m probably still too close to objectively give, and instead just provide a few targeted, enlightening points I picked up along the way.

Interviewed on both coasts and accepted a tenure-track faculty position.

Note to others embarking on the academic job hunt: if at all possible, spend more than 24 hours in the place you’re visiting, especially when it’s a 5-hour flight with a 3-hour time difference.

Had a first-author paper accepted to Science Translational Medicine for publication; have another under review with Scientific Reports.

The former represents a two-year effort that finally came to fruition this year. It’s tough to argue that the struggle wasn’t worth it when it’s being published in a Science journal.

Successfully defended my dissertation (PDF version submitted to the Pitt archives was 181 pages).

The writing of the dissertation was probably one of the easiest parts of the whole process. That isn’t to say writing it was easy, just the easiest part. Thanks to a multitude of talented editors–including my wife–as well as fully-written papers encompassing 2/3 of my thesis aims, a simple cut-and-paste operation alone gave me half the final page count. Horrifyingly large quantities of stress, anxiety, and caffeine yielded the remainder.

Ran 1,605.32 miles, burning 273,427 calories and shattering every mileage record–weekly (55.4), monthly (201.61), and yearly.

2014 wasn’t my fastest year on record. But it was easily my most active, which is a particular point of pride given how busy the year was. I dropped to under 210lbs, a weight I haven’t seen since high school, and even managed to return my bench press to 245lbs for a few weeks, a milestone not seen since college.

Set a PR in the half marathon twice (from 1:43:51 to 1:41:38, and two months later to 1:41:07).

My 1:43:51 PR from March of 2012 stood for a long time. I was on pace in that year’s Air Force half to break it barely 6 months later, but the half was accidentally diverted at mile 4 onto the full marathon course for nearly a mile. The 2013 doldrums then set in as stress levels skyrocketed and my redline-running performance suffered. Then came the 2014 Just A Short Run, and I broke my two-year old PR at the same event by over 2 minutes. Barely 2 months later, I shaved off another 30 seconds at Pittsburgh, notching yet another PR to my favorite distance and also redeeming a 2-year old breakdown in my last appearance at Pittsburgh.

Left my 6-year home in Pittsburgh, PA and moved into a beautiful house in Athens, GA.

Coinciding with the very first point, I was offered and accepted a position as a tenure-track faculty at the University of Georgia, effective 2015. Thus, time in Pittsburgh was given a concrete expiration date. The Lady beautifully organized the logistics behind the move, and in the middle of December we executed, saying goodbye to the city we came to love.

We purchased our first car.

Practically our first order of business upon our arrival in Athens was the purchase of a new car, the very first we truly owned: a 2015 Honda Accord Hybrid. We named her Sam, and it stuck.

Driving Sam for the first time!

Driving Sam for the first time!

Married my best friend and life partner.

Easily the biggest and greatest event of 2014, and most likely the rest of my life. The Lady and I dated nearly 6 years before becoming engaged, and married exactly 7.5 years to the day after we started dating. She is my anchor, my inner peace, and my better half. I never imagined we’d end up in Athens for the foreseeable future, but there’s no one else I’d rather be with on this journey. Here’s to many more adventures together!

And that was all in 12 short months. What might the next 12 hold? I suppose we’ll just have to find out 🙂

Happy 2015, everyone!


Christmas morning run from the new house!

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To Pittsburgh

For those not in the know–The Lady and I just completed our 12-hour journey (yes I know GMaps says 9.5, but GMaps doesn’t have checkboxes for “traveling with cat” and “include pileup on a bridge in Virginia”) from our 4.5-year home (6 years for me) in Pittsburgh to our currently-empty house in Athens, GA for the foreseeable future.

The sun always rises in Pittsburgh.

The sun always rises in Pittsburgh.

It is impossible to put into words what Pittsburgh has meant to me over the last six years–all the ways in which it has changed me, and how different a person I am now than I was back in 2008 when I first took up residence on the quiet Shadyside street of Elwood.

But, like I wasn’t ready for the graduate studies that awaited me, I’m going to give this otherwise-impossible task a ready-go and see what happens. Because it’s worthwhile.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh to start in Carnegie Mellon’s M.S. in Computational Biology program, I was…different. “Immature” would be kind. Of course, this isn’t to say I’ve since arrived–far from it–but rather to emphasize just how young I was at the time. I had surprisingly little concept of my limits, my interests, my passions, and what exactly my purpose here was.

Those first two years were difficult. The Lady was still finishing up her undergraduate studies at NYU, and I really did not feel like I belonged. I did enjoy the experience of an actual winter–Georgia is not exactly what comes to mind when one considers White Christmases.

Though by that first April, I was ready to see the sun again. From then on I can’t really say I was excited for the subsequent winters, but it did give me a taste of what to expect and how to adapt. But I digress.

Ultimately, I felt rudderless. Various pursuits were interesting but never stuck. I was adequate-at-best in my summer internship, and never established a workout routine…or really any routine, as exemplified by a Christmas 2009 weight of 245lbs (though you’d never have noticed; I have a nice big frame to hide it). I wasn’t unhappy per se, but I really had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do, in both a personal and professional sense.

Hence, rudderless. But, as is often the case, something changed.

I took Bob Murphy’s introductory computational biology course, and Larry Wasserman’s introductory statistics course, and Roni Rosenfeld’s introductory machine learning course. I was terrible at statistics–and, by extension, machine learning–but I was hooked. The things I could do wielding these tools reignited the flame of professional passion, and I wanted to see if I could improve my skills.

I applied to, and was accepted in, the joint CMU-Pitt PhD program in computational biology, starting fall 2010 and guaranteeing myself another four years in a city I’d only just barely begun to know.

To be fair, it wasn’t like a switch had suddenly been thrown. I still wasn’t sure about where this would lead. The cynical could argue this was merely a holding pattern–putting off actually figuring out what I wanted to do and be for another four years. But there is one crucial detail that would change: The Lady had also finished her undergraduate studies and had found a job in Pittsburgh. For the first time in our now-four-year relationship, we’d be in the same city. Change was afoot.

The summer before I started the Ph.D. program, I worked on an open source project closely related to machine learning as part of Google’s now-annual Summer of Code. It was this project that introduced me to the individual who would become my thesis advisor, Chakra.

Let me stop for just a minute and try to paint this picture. Chakra is a man whose passion is science, who gets excited over new technologies, new discoveries, and new collaborations, and is human to the core. He’s an academic in the purest sense, and not the least bit in the pejorative sense. He revels in his students’ successes–reserving none of the spotlight for himself–and is second to no one in motivating his students to succeed. He provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm and excitement, even when we were preparing to resubmit a paper after the 38945th rejection. He wholeheartedly encouraged his students to pursue research topics outside his immediate areas of expertise, which led to an incredible collaboration of peers: colleagues whose skills overlapped, but whose respective topics of mastery were complementary.

The PhD program, like anything else in this world, was not without its faults. Course registration proved particularly tricky to coordinate between two universities, and administrative hiccups materialized aplenty. But difficulties aside, I still retained full access to all the resources at two top-notch research institutions, attending seminars and lectures, haunting the workout facilities, and participating in student government social events.

While conducting my studies, The Lady and I were quickly discovering a new passion together: running. Neither of us were strangers to running, but neither of us had undertaken regular training regimens or participated in races longer than 10k. In the fall of 2010, we ran our very first half marathon together: the Atlanta half, on Thanksgiving weekend.


Many, many more races (and miles!) would follow. We were hooked. Perhaps streamlining this addiction was the fact that Pittsburgh is an extremely runner-friendly city. Specialty running shops have been popping up everywhere, and groups of runners–either organized by a running store, or even just an informal group of friends–are a common sighting. We certainly took advantage of the miles of trails: not only was running an excellent way to see the city, but it was a great way to make and spend time with friends while also preparing for that next fully-loaded Chipotle burrito.

Did I mention that, as of spring 2014, I hit 210lbs, a weight I hadn’t been since high school? Oh yeah. Machine.

I’m still too close to understand what happened. My best guess right now is it was a perfect storm of everything: The Lady being local, a thesis advisor who wanted me to learn whatever I wanted to learn, a regular and disciplined training regimen, a growing social circle of incredibly kind and personable people whose interests and anxieties overlapped with our own, exploring a city with so much personality…

Something changed. My confidence grew. The year leading up to my dissertation defense, while undeniably the most stressful, was also the most fun. I knew exactly what I was doing, and what I needed to do. I was the local expert on the subject; my thesis committee was there as much to point me in the right direction as to learn something new from my work. I once asked one of my favorite mentors, Dr. Merrick Furst, what he wanted to do when he grew up (jokingly); he responded “I still don’t know.” I’ve since realized the wisdom behind that admission, and the difference between myself then and now: while I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, I do know what I’m good at, and what I want to work on right now.

The Lady posted the following on Facebook:

I don’t think you understand what it is to have this city get under your skin. To have its three rivers filter straight to your heart – the fog rising across the water and the near silent crew teams slicing through.

I don’t think you understand what it is to get to know these people. The natives and the transplants. The yinzers and the roaming students – here for a few years or for a lifetime.

Do you know what it’s like to watch the molten dawn gazing at its own reflection in the Monongahela, in the company of friends, running and breathing and laughing and talking side by side, step for step? Do you know the feeling of crawling out of your warm bed in negative wind chill and fresh snow because they’re waiting for you? Because no Negley or Shady or Forbes hills, or wind, or snow drifts, or dark miles will keep them away, because you’re waiting for them, too.

Do you know what it is to climb Boulevard of the Allies with the sun beating on your shoulders, wanting to quit running but knowing this view – this moment – is fleeting?

I don’t think you understand the beauty. To enter Pittsburgh across any of her bridges, via any of her highways, and watch her appear out of the hills in her shimmering glory. To catch the breadth of Point State from the sweep of the West End Bridge. To watch the fireworks from Mt. Washington – and see the splashes of color from the Fourth of July displays of all of her suburbs.

I don’t think you understand the grueling rapture of hiking North Park, of running her trails and venturing on the Rachel Carson with friends in the deep exhale of a sultry summer, or the deep chill and ice of winter. Do you know what it is for your trail shoes to make the first tracks after a snowfall? To startle a cluster of deer, leaping off into the woods, tails flicking. To warm up after with talk and hot cocoa and plans for a future excursion, moments after cursing the brutal elements.

Do you know what it is to love Pittsburgh? To feel so unfinished – to know it will never really be finished. Not with so much beauty. Not with so many adventures.

Not with so much love.

I lived in Pittsburgh for six years, four of those with The Lady. Of course we’re going to put down roots during that time, but it’s more than that. We fell in love with the city and all its foibles and personality quirks and lovely, wonderful people.

When well-meaning friends and family tell us “you’ll make friends in Athens,” “you’ll find a new hippie donut shop in Athens,” “you’ll find a running group in Athens,” I appreciate the sentiment but it somewhat misses the point. I have no doubt that we’ll make wonderful lives for ourselves here surrounded by wonderful people and figure out our favorite haunts. The point isn’t that we can’t do all the things in Athens that we did in Pittsburgh; the point is, those places and people aren’t here, and we’re going to miss them terribly.

I know we’ll love our time in Athens. We’ll find our favorite places, establish a new routine, explore the surrounding area and find new running routes, and meet lots of wonderful people. None of this will replace anyone or anything in Pittsburgh, which is why it’s a mourning process. Pittsburgh was truly our home for those years.

To Pittsburgh: thank you for everything. We’ll miss you.

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STIR Grant Competition: Public Crowdfunding Campaign

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Hashtag please stop

“So this SEO copywriter walks into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish bar, bartender, drinks, beer, wine, liquor”

This is supposed to be a joke. But sometimes I wonder.

WARNING: This post is going to feature my pragmatism in full force. Stop reading if you have a deep love of hashtags.

Hashtags were supposed to serve, effectively, as inline versions of the tags that started showing up on all the major blogging platforms: a way of categorizing content to make searching for related content easier and more intuitive. For lengthy blog posts that touched upon a wide breadth of topics, tags were an ingenious method of ensuring that you could always find what you were looking for later.

This, of course, saw a natural extension into the phenomenon of social networking with the advent of hashtags. Now you could inline those very same annotations, bringing the content more front-and-center while simultaneously retaining the ability to filter content on demand.

The use of hashtags came particularly in handy recently, as The Lady and I celebrated our wedding and photos started popping up all over Instagram. The associated hashtag, #quinnwitz, gave us an instant filter for all the pictures of our wedding being taken by our awesome friends.

That’s an example of, in my humble opinion, how hashtags should be used. But I suppose, in retrospect, I should have seen this coming.


#hashtag ##meta

For a service like Twitter that mandates a maximum of 140 characters, I am particularly loathe to follow anyone whose posts consist of more hashtag content than actual content. Seriously: if it requires more metadata to explain your data than you have actual data, you’re essentially saying that your abstract is longer than your main paper.

In this case, either this person really, really loves hashtags, or they’re just trying to turn their post into clickbait, SEO-style; see my opening “joke.”

The latter case, to me, comes across as Exhibit A of this Oatmeal comic (though replace “Facebook Likes” with “Hashtags”): the authors choosing to annotate their content in such a way that it will be picked up by as many automated web crawlers and indexers as possible, rather than, oh I don’t know, posting awesome stuff. It reaches a point of saturation where literally any arbitrary search term will result in a hit.

Seriously. Your tweet / instagram / facebook post is not 53-hashtags cool. It’s 3-5 hashtags cool, period.


Simple rule of thumb: if your hashtags have a bigger character count than your content, re-evaluate your strategy. Or don’t! It’s really up to you, I suppose. Just don’t be upset if I scroll past your posts.


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Necks are absolutely essential

Because without them, I would’ve forgotten my head somewhere by now. But probably wouldn’t have even realized it yet.

This week has been a whirlwind. My collaborators and I are trying to get a research paper out (or, at least, in a form that doesn’t require my input for a couple of weeks) that will give my thesis progress a huge boost. I’ve also had to attend to lots of errands after, and sometimes during, normal business hours.

Why am I so busy? Aside from usual tendencies of graduate students, I am marrying my best friend in three days.


Not pictured: the person I am marrying.

Said best friend has been working remotely from her hometown all week, attending to various wedding-related final tasks in the evenings in concert with her Mom (and, as of yesterday, my youngest sister). Consequently, I’ve been holding down the Pittsburgh fort and absolutely failing miserably at keeping various commitments. To wit, last week:

1. Forgot about a meeting Monday afternoon.

This meeting had been scheduled for over a month. Blew right through it without realizing, until I received an email from the coordinator 30 minutes into the 1-hour event. Would’ve taken me 10 minutes just to get there on foot. Rescheduled on the spot.

2. Forgot about a meeting Tuesday evening.

This had been scheduled for about a week. Blasted through it and didn’t realize until the next morning. Rescheduled for later in the week.

3. Forgot a meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

This had been scheduled earlier the same day. In a stroke of luck, it was over Skype, so I jumped in 30 minutes late and caught up. No need to reschedule.

4. Forgot my laptop for a student government meeting Wednesday evening in which I was recording minutes.

Got halfway to the location for our monthly student government meeting when I realized I’d left my laptop at work. Being as how we try to keep meetings prompt and timely, taking handwritten minutes wasn’t going to cut it. I mustered as much grace as I could and informed the rest of the government that we’d need a stand-in minute-taker for the meeting.

5. Wrote a program Thursday morning that attempted to allocate as much memory as exists on the planet.

This was possibly my most embarrassing mistake.

Part of the publication my collaborators and I are working on involves a feature space of 72 dimensions. However, the space is highly non-linear, making it extremely difficult to determine which features (or combinations of features) result in the most accurate classification. So, I decided in my highly scatterbrained state, I would write a program that generated a powerset of these 72 features–all possible subsets–and attempt classification using each subset of features, then see which was the most accurate.

This is known as the “brute force approach” (yes, that’s the technical term). Sounds simple, right? Conceptually and programmatically, it’s extremely simple. In fact, here’s the Python code that does it:

return [item for item in itertools.chain.from_iterable(itertools.combinations(s, r) for r in np.arange(list(X.shape[1]))]

That’s it. One line of Python gives you all possible subsets of 72 features.

The problem is, this is not at all practically feasible. Those who are combinatorially inclined may be raising your eyebrows at this point. If you’re curious how many subsets this creates, the following expression tells you:


Where n = 72.

For those who see a bunch of Greek symbols, what this equates to is 272 subsets, which would require no less than 4.2 zettabytes of memory. How much is a zettabyte? 1 billion terabytes, to be exact. Think about tying together 1 billion consumer terabyte hard drives; that’s what I would have needed for this code to actually function.

Unsurprisingly, here’s what my strugglebug computer did:

Using 99% of CPU and 59% of available memory. When it last had any memory available to update this counter.

Using 99% of CPU and 59% of available memory. When it last had any memory available to update this counter.

This was taken several seconds after it had stopped responding to any kind of input. I had to perform a hard reboot. Had I taken all of 5 seconds to do the math, I would have realized I needed a better heuristic than a brute-force feature search.

So yes. This past week hasn’t been my greatest from a perspective of focus. But I suppose, given the circumstances, it’s warranted; even expected. I’m nervous, I’m excited, I’m scared, and I’m thrilled, all at once.

This will be my last post for a little while: wedding + honeymoon and all (you know how it is). Have a great (and memory-filled) few weeks, everyone!

Actually using multiple cores AND NOT trying to use the world's supply of memory. Much better.

Actually using multiple cores AND NOT trying to use the world’s supply of memory. Much better.

Posted in Academics, Graduate School, Mathematics, Programming, Real Life, The Lady | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Weddings: the best and worst

Everything you hear about wedding planning really is true; obviously there’s a continuum and everyone’s mileage will inevitably vary, but you’ll more than likely run into some person or another airing their dirty laundry.

Courtesy of Keeley.

It sucks. It sucks that the wedding can’t stay focused on its reason for being: the celebration of two individuals publicly declaring and celebrating their love for each other with the people they love most. It sucks that other people see this as an opportunity to settle scores, satisfy personal vendettas, or otherwise siphon attention away from the happy couple. It sucks, but it’s also reality. Likely most, if not all, of us have family members that cause us to inwardly brace ourselves when considering putting them in marital circumstances.

Exhibit A: I received an email yesterday that I’d been expecting for some time. The only edits I made below are in brackets and were to remove names.

Dear Shannon,

We received your wedding invitation the other day. Thanks for including us on your big day.

We’ve been thinking and wrestling with what to do regarding your wedding for months now.
Let us put our thoughts for you in proper context so there won’t be any misunderstanding.
Our thoughts and concerns are in the category of a Christian marrying a non-Christian.

Let us start by saying we have nothing against [The Lady]. This is not about her personally or individually at all. We know that you believe differently than we do regarding things from a Christian doctrine standpoint, but it’s very clear from what God says in the Bible that a Christian should not marry a non-Christian.

We’re certainly not trying to tell you what to do, and don’t want to offend you or start any debates, but feel we would be sidelining our true beliefs if we were to attend your wedding.

When someone calls themself a Christian, they are to believe the claims of Jesus. We want this for you. We also want this for [The Lady].

Not only does God tell Christians to not marry non-Christians, (2 Corinthians 6:14), but He says why….it’s because marriage is suppose to be a convenant that represents Christ’s love for His bride, the church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

We hope this doesn’t hurt you and hope you can find a way to understand.
We do appreciate you inviting us, but wanted to let you know we won’t be coming, and why.

Thank you for reading. If you have any questions, please ask.
We’re completely open to discuss this further if you desire to, but just wanted to explain our decision.
Thank you Shannon!


As you might expect, I have a couple comments on this. But they might not be exactly what you’re expecting.

1: This was completely and fully expected.

My immediate reaction upon receiving this email was “That sounds about right.” An hour later, my delayed reaction was “Yep, that sounds about right.” And it has continued to be such ever since.

I’ve known for awhile that there are elements of my extended family who have very different perspectives on life–religion and politics in particular. I’ve engaged some of them in debate, to no effect. It’s become the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge anymore, because we all know what happens when someone does.

Of course, avoiding talking about our beliefs is one thing. They have no problem acting on those beliefs when the time comes, and this was one such time. I was fully expecting someone to bow out.

In retrospect, I probably could’ve made some money on that. Blast.

2: This was the best possible outcome.

In keeping with item #1, I’m actually glad this happened. The alternative would be relatives bringing their antagonistic beliefs to an event of celebration, inclusion, and love. Those ingredients don’t exactly mix. They had the foresight to contact me ahead of time, explain their reasoning–however much I may disagree with it–and remove themselves voluntarily.

It sucks when your entire family can’t be present for reasons you personally find less than lucid. But I would rather be surrounded by a handful of people who really want to celebrate with us than hundreds who are just going to hang out in their respective corners and murmur to each other.

Although, the best possible outcome, as The Lady pointed out last night, would’ve been to simply send the RSVP back with a “no” and no reasoning attached to it. It’s very, very difficult not to take something like faith personally–it is, by its very definition, deeply personal–and while I understand wanting to explain one’s reasoning, there is also absolutely zero obligation to do so in almost any case (seriously: you don’t have to explain to your boss why you’re taking PTO or taking a sick day). Which leads us to my third and final point…

3: I don’t understand the reasoning.

This goes beyond simply having a different perspective on faith. This delves into the specific evidence cited for God disallowing marriage between Christians and non-Christians.

First, they cited 2 Corinthians 6:14, which states

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

In and around this verse, there is exactly zero mention of marriage. There is, however, a glaring implication that “unbeliever” is used to mean “non-Christian,” which I not only vehemently disagree with in principle, but which I’ll also contradict later at face value. Remember this one.

Second, they mentioned Ephesians 5:22-33, which says

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church–for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

So I feel I should mention: I really, really despise this bit, in particular the difference in marital duties between husband and wife. But that aside, there is no mention whatsoever of faith. An analogy is drawn that a couple should love each other as Christ loves the Church, but no mention is made of what faith both partners should be.

Third, I found this gem in my own research in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14, stating

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but does this not directly contradict–and in no uncertain terms this time, no need to infer certain relationships–the earlier 2 Corinthians passage?

This is not to say I agree with everything the Bible has to say to the literal word. After all, I would think God’s chosen people are believers by default; I’m pretty sure belief in God makes one a believer by definition. This is “merely” to point out that not only does the Bible contradict itself and by interpreting it literally you are in actuality cherry-picking what to obey and what to ignore, but that this argument doesn’t even interpret the Bible literally. Assumptions were made to justify a preconceived notion.


The third section was mainly my inner scientist, logician, and Catholic scholar run amok. If someone on our invite list doesn’t want to attend our wedding, for whatever reason, they are more than within their rights not to attend. I have no intention of dragging people to the event against their will. Of course I’d prefer people be happy for us and show their support, but I will take an abstention over willful drama any day.

Plus, that’s fewer mouths to feed at the reception. MORE FOR ME.

I suppose the moral of the story is this: weddings really do bring out the best and worst in people. But by focusing on the best, you minimize and potentially drown out the worst. We’re going to have some pretty spectacular folks at the event, and that’s going to eclipse everything else. A good philosophy for almost any part of life, I suppose.

Speaking of which, I hope you like the tuxedos I picked out for my groomsmen and me:


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