Saturday, March 28, 2009

what is your favourite volcano?

A non-geologist friend of mine over at LiveJournal has put up a poll asking people to name their favourite volcanoes. I think she was thinking, at least in part, in terms of the sound of the name of the mountain. However, I thought it might be fun to send over a bunch of geologists to vote and suggest good volcanoes to add to her list.

Am I a pushy broad?

When I was a child my mother's best friend called her a "pushy broad". The nick-name was affectionate, yet, it was clear that she also meant it. Since moving to Australia I have been told many times that Americans are seen to be “pushy”, and, a few times, I’ve encountered problems with social interactions with people here because I come across as too “pushy”.

I understand where it comes from—both at home and at school we were actively taught to do "persuasive" speaking—to select a point and defend it with logical, coherent arguments. And not just at one school—remember that I moved often growing up, and attended a variety of schools in more than one state. I can remember lessons on this subject not only in different schools, but in a variety of classes—in writing classes, science classes, psychology classes, history classes, speech, etc. Being persuasive with words and logic is deeply ingrained into me, to the point where I, often, won't even notice that I am doing it. In a recent conversation with my partner (an Australian) he pointed out that he hates it when I try to talk him into doing things he doesn’t want to do, because I offer so very many reasons that he feels obliged to say “yes” and he fears that I will be annoyed with him if he says “no”. I countered that I’ve never tried to talk him into doing something that he has said he doesn’t want to do, that only if he seems undecided do I offer *all* of the ideas I can come up with in support of the answer which seems most logical to me. He then said something with truly floored me—he said that it is ingrained into him that it is bad to say “no” to things, so he tries to avoid ever saying it. In absence of his “no”’s I have been offering what feels to me like enthusiasm and positive suggestions, but feel to him like I’m being pushy and that he’s got no choice but to say “yes” or risk my ire.

Oddly enough, I don’t actually want him to feel like I’m “pushing”, sure, I’ve seen this list of reasons that I think Plan A is a good one, but I know that I’m not infallible, and, from my perspective he has always been free to either agree with me that it is a good plan, or offer counter-reasons as to things I’ve failed to consider that make it a not-so-good, or to support Plan B instead. In addition to having been taught how to support our arguments with facts, I was also taught that new facts mean it is time to reassess things, and I am very, very quick to change my mind and agree that the new information invalidates the first set of reasons (if it does) or supports Plan B as a better option (if it does). To me, an important part of “persuasive argument” is a willingness to be persuaded myself if the other party comes up with good ideas I’d not yet considered, and I don’t feel that it would be appropriate to be annoyed at another person for being successful in convincing me of their argument.

This applies to science as much as it does interpersonal relationships. You can see it in operation in an introduction to geology class:

“what type of rock is this”

“well, it is fine-grained, and black. Perhaps it is a shale?”

“yes, it is, but it comes in very thin pieces, and goes “tink-tink” when you tap two pieces of it together, not “thunk-thunk”

“Oh, then it must be a slate!”

Or in social interactions:

“I think tonight would a good night to go to the movies”

“However, there is a dance on tonight with a band visiting from Europe”

“The movie can wait, let’s go dancing!”

Although the cultural difference had been mentioned to be before this, it hadn’t really “clicked” for me until the recent conversation—I know finally understand why I (and Americans in general) are seen to be “pushy”, even though we don’t feel that we are. However, understanding the cultural differences isn’t enough to guarantee peaceful interactions and be certain that those of us who have been taught to offer all possible reasons in support of an idea don’t overwhelm those who have been taught that it is rude to ever be seen to disagree. Therefore I have a cunning plan which I will attempt to set into motion. I shall try to add a ritual phrase to my vocabulary. Something along the lines of “I like Plan A, may I share with you many of the reasons it appeals to me at this point, and you may tell me if I’ve failed to consider something which might make it less appealing, or, perhaps, lead me to prefer another plan altogether?” Hopefully, this will help “soften” my pushiness, give me the opportunity to actually share all of the wonderful arguments I’ve thought of, *and* encourage the other person to actually share their thoughts too, even if they support a totally different conclusion.

Friday, March 27, 2009

chasing mirages

My life lately has been alternating between making progress on my thesis, or and enjoying a more active social life than had been normal just a few months ago. I have a partner who recently completed his degree and, as a result, has come out of his self-imposed near-exile state that he maintained while he was still studying. From a life which involved uni work, computer games, and a reflexive “no” to any suggestions of social outings he is now suggesting social outings on a regular basis, and playing far, far fewer computer games than had been his norm. Now I’m the one who winds up staying home to work on my thesis while he goes out and spends time with our friends. Some days this is very effective and I accomplish enough to be happy I did. Other days I wish I had gone, and don’t manage to accomplish as much as I would have liked, and still other days I go along, enjoy myself, and accept that I’ve just added that much more time to the target completion date.
Ah, the target completion-date. Pretty much everyone I know asks me “when will you be finished?” How I wish I knew! Some days it feels like I’m chasing a mirage—I think about what has to be done to complete a chapter or a section; list them out A, B, and C tasks yet to be done and I can move on to the next part. But then, once I’ve done task A I discover that I also need to do D before that section will be complete, and once I’ve done B I find that E and F need to be added to the list. It is only when I stop and look at what has been done I feel like I’ve made any progress—the pile behind me is growing, but so is the pile yet to be done.
In some ways I’m not concerned and feel like I’ve plenty of time available. I’ve received a sufficient number of “sorry, we aren’t hiring after all due to budget cuts” and “sorry, we had so many truly qualified applicants that it was difficult to make a decision, but we’ve hired someone else” letters that I am pretty certain that I don’t need to stress about finishing on time to have the degree complete so that I can start a job in a teaching position in the northern hemisphere fall semester this year—sure there are a few universities which haven’t yet gotten back to me, but since they haven’t asked for a phone interview yet, I’m not holding my breath on them. This gives me extra time to complete my degree and get papers written for publication before next year’s round of academic hiring, with no stress about being “on time” and that is a good thing.
However, there are still post-doc positions, which seem to be advertised at random intervals. I just saw one today for a position in Europe which sounds like it could be fun. Alas, they want someone by 1 June—if I apply for this one, it would be back to the “hurry up—how fast can you finish?” approach. Ah the joys of a scholar’s life—shall I take my time and work in a low-stress environment and miss out on potential opportunities in the short term, or hurry up so that I can chase every interesting opportunity which comes along and hope that the haste doesn’t cause me to do a poor job?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gluten-free Almond & Coconut Cookies

I've seen at least one other geoblogger sharing recipes she's created, so I thought I'd share one of mine. I developed this one in part because I love almonds, and don't have much of a sweet tooth--I love snacks which are rich with a hint of sweetness, rather than the sugar levels which are prevalent in store-bought junk foods. It is also something I can feed a dear friend, who is unable to eat foods containing gluten or wheat.

Gluten-free Almond & Coconut Cookies

50 grams* butter
¼ cup caster* sugar
pinch salt
1 egg*
1 ¼ cups almond meal
¼ cup rice flour
½ cup fine shredded coconut


Cream the butter and sugar together, add the egg and salt and beat well, beat in half of the almond meal, then beat in the rice flour, and add remaining almond meal a bit at a time alternating with the coconut, stopping at a very soft dough. Roll into balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheet at 150 C for 7 to 10 minutes.


Don't let them get too brown--to my mind cookies only want to achieve a low-grade digenesis, not full metamorphism!

*(50 grams of butter is a bit less than half a cup, a bit more than 1/3 of a cup)
*caster sugar is a fine grained, yet still crystalline, sugar available in Australia. If you can't find it in your country, substitute plain white sugar, but it won't be quite as smooth in texture. Powdered sugar is not a good substitute.
*the hens at our house lay eggs which are smaller than the standard "extra large" that is common in US stores--if that is all you've got on hand, you might need to increase the other ingredients slightly--experiment!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Setting goals can make a huge difference.

The setting of goals can be a terribly important step in any project. Unfortunately, it is one which is often forgotten. Yesterday was one of those days wherein I encountered a minor problem in my thesis—a place where the calculations were predicting temperatures which simply aren’t a reasonable answer, which, of course, leads to the question “why”. After checking to be certain there wasn’t a problem with the data entry step of the calculations I discussed the issue with my advisor, who had some guesses as to what factors might cause such an unreasonable answer and sent me off with a couple of things to try—if they turned out they way he suggested they might, we’d have our answer as to what the problem was. Alas, those things didn’t give the expected result, leaving me with the question “now what” just as it was time for the departmental seminar to start.

So I shut down the computer, went to seminar, and went from there to an evening dance class. I went to bed secure in the knowledge that when I got up in the morning I had no place I had to be, and nothing I needed to do to prevent me from putting in many hours of uni work. However, I failed to name for myself a goal for the day—I didn’t select a specific task to be the first thing upon which I would work in the morning.

In the absence of such a goal my day when pretty much as they do when one fails to decide to do some specific task—that is to say I managed to accomplish quite a few useful housekeeping tasks and replied to a few e-mails; the usual sorts of “work avoidance” things that permit us to feel good about doing *something*, even if it isn’t the something we know that we *should* be doing. It wasn’t until after sunset, when my partner commented that he’d accomplished all of his goals for the day that I realized just *why* I’d kept thinking “I should be doing uni work” and kept picking up some other useful task instead. This epiphany having registered, I thought about what still needs to happen before I will be done with the project, and selected a simple, but necessary task, and went to it. A couple of hours later I looked up from said task, surprised to see that time had elapsed, and pleased to have reached a breaking point. Such beautiful results, from such a simple “trick” to get oneself to work!

Needless to say, my list of things I am meant to do on a daily basis (remember to eat, get some exercise, read 1000 words of geologic literature) has just been expanded by one: Decide upon goal(s) for tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pictures may be worth 1000 words, but, sometimes, they can get in the way

A strange contradiction just occurred to me. When doing my own research/uni work, I, by far, prefer to spend my time making the graphs and figures, looking at the pretty pictures representing my data graphically and trying to understand what it all means than I do writing it all down in words to share with other people. In marked contrast to this is my approach to reading a paper, where I am happiest letting my eyes flow over the text absorbing the words, and am slightly disgruntled when I have to interrupt my reading to go look at a figure to understand what the text is saying. The further away in the text the figure is, the more I feel the disruption to my reading. Only the best, newest versions of pdf papers, where the figure number is a link that takes one straight to the figure, and then the back arrow takes one back to the exact place in the text are welcome interruptions to the reading, because there is no pause between switching from words to the figure and back to the words again. And I find myself wondering why this is so. Probably because of many, many years of being an avid reading of science fiction and fantasy novels—I am more accustomed, still, to reading *stories* than to reading science. A good story is one wherein the reader forgets that they are reading, but becomes part of the story, and a return to the real world is jarring. Oddly enough, it is rare that a bit of scientific literature is that absorbing for me, but I do still get enough into the flow of the text that leaving it to look at the figures does come across as a distraction. To combat this phenomenon, there are times when I have first looked at the figures, and then read the captions carefully; worked out for myself what is being shown, and tried to draw my own conclusions before I read the text. That way, when the text says “blah, blah, blah as shown in figure 6” I can take half a glance, see which of the figures 6 is, and return to the text without losing track of what the sentence had been discussing. I suspect that this approach, used regularly, would be a good way to avoid ever feeling that “disrupted” feeling.

I also remember being a small child, new to reading, who loved looking at the pictures in my books, and being rather disappointed in the fact that as the books got bigger and started containing more interesting stories they contained fewer and fewer illustrations. I wonder if someone could go back and tell that child that someday she would grow up to show preference to the text, if she would believe them?