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Future pick-me-up

Just in case I need this later:
“Written with a clarity you rarely see these days”

1 down.


I would be remiss if I didn’t post soon again after that last dismal entry.

Things are looking up, or at least, aren’t looking as down as they were.   Data analysis is clipping along at the lab, and my advisor is excited about our project.  It’s been a while since we were working on my data and making any headway, so it was nice to reconvene and see our good work.  It always gets my advisor fired up, and that gets me encouraged.

I also had a semi-candid conversation with aforementioned advisor about how behind I was feeling on my work and how much there seems to be to do this upcoming year.  I’m certainly behind where I need to be, so I don’t think I’ll be quite on track, but it sounds like it’s not a disaster.  He is completely nonplussed and said that the metrics they’re giving us to follow were mostly to ‘weed out the chaff’.  So if I’m still excited about my work, and it’s going well, but late… well, I guess it’ll be okay.  The only really positive take-home message I got from the whole conversation was that my advisor made this little smirking face to himself while I was explaining why I thought I wasn’t doing a good job.  It was a face that said I’m a naive graduate student who is needlessly worried and doing a good job. Like he remembered being this pent up about deadlines and those days are far behind him (and lo, they are quite far behind him…) and some day I’ll learn that doing good work speaks for itself.  It’s not really enough to sustain me through dark days, but it’s better than nothing.  I can at least be confident that while on paper my deadlines look firm and the repercussions for dallying feel dire, my advisor could care less and thinks I’m on track.

In related good news, the project really is going well.  I’ve hired Lewis to help me build a model for data analysis, and we’re getting help from a variety of fronts.  My advisor is an excellent networker, and he has been talking up my project to a rather famous psycholinguist who has been looking into similar questions with similar methods for analysis and has just published a paper much more like mine than any other I’ve seen so far.  He was kind enough to basically loan us the postdoc who built his model, and that postdoc is willing to either mod their model for us, or give us their model to mess with as we see fit.  It effectively adds an author to the paper I should be able to publish out of this, and it’s a massive help for our burgeoning pattern classification program too.  I’ve also gotten my hands on the book that fully describes the other stats model we’re using, which means I can finally try and understand the transforms we’re doing on our data to get the groupwise stats. Even better, those alternate groupwise stats are nearly done, and in doing so we may have finally figured out how to batch script the program I have to use, which means the next few rounds of manipulations should go much more quickly. So… things grind forward.  Slowly, but with distinct momentum.

All is not lost.

floating in my tin can

Every day is a new record low.

Being depressed about your work in grad school is a different kind of depressed.  I’ve been through my share of low spells – been on prozac and the whole nine yards – but this is different, though I think in a good way.  When I was a teenager, depression could eat my whole life.  I didn’t have anything to do, no responsibilities to live up to, and depression could occupy entire days or weeks uninterrupted.  Now, my life is so busy I don’t have time to sputter that long.  I can only acknowledge it, come up with some way to cope, and move on.  I guess blogging today is one of those ways of coping.

The heart of the matter is that I’m not entirely sure I can do it – that I’ve found the place where my willingness to do something is outstripped by the demands of the task.  Lewis and I often discuss what makes grad school so damned hard, and I always come back to stamina.  The pace of life is so unnatural, so unlike any other environment I’ve been in.  There are whole months of non-communication, weeks and weeks spent working for a boss who doesn’t exist, on a project of your own invention which will either be approved or not, and which will not be acknowledged by any but a handful of professors who mostly forget that you depend on their graces and would appreciate expediency and thoroughness.  I feel like I’m traveling to the moon and NASA forgot they sent me up.  The only payout is being safely ensconced back where I started, and a souvenir rock I can feel the pride in knowing I picked up myself.  This must be enough to sustain, and it is, in the big-picture view.  It’s the thousands of minute microsteps between here and there that sap the life from you.  Every time I set another foot down, the ground is so unsteady… and I’m getting so tired.  How do you keep going on?

In some ways, I want to spit out a bunch of facts about how hard I’ve been working and why I deserve to be this exhausted.  There are no numbers, though, and an enumeration of this type always comes off as some kind of challenge.  I’m not suggesting I’m working any harder than any other graduate student – or anyone else, for that matter.  All I know is that I’m working harder than I seem to be capable of sustaining.  I’m at the point where I’m banking on the idea I’ll burst into flame and be reborn of my ashes – suddenly a competent and knowledgeable neuroscientist.   You know, with a degree and everything.

At times I find the very act of living difficult.  It’s hard to keep forward momentum going.  Particularly things that should are basic, unavoidable necessities like cleaning, buying groceries, walking the dog, showing up at work…  the very act of going outside is hard.  It puts me in range of personal interaction, which is challenging when my brain is sucked in on itself.  Having appropriate conversation seems unlikely, so I’d rather remain inside, with my own self, which I can at least depend on me not to surprise me.  I have this same problem when things are going particularly well, too – my brain gums up and the more distant you are from my work the more difficult it is to find the right mind-space to have an appropriate conversation.  Lewis – easy.  Lab mates – decent.  Colleagues, cohort – getting more difficult.  Everyone else?  Seemingly lost.  I guess that’s an unintended apology to everyone who thinks I’m turning into an ass.  My brain stopped working a couple years ago and I’ve forgotten how to be a real person.

And somehow, I’ve only begun.  I’m attempting to write the first paper — just the first paper! — in a very long-haul program.  If I can’t knock a 40-pager out over the summer, how am I ever going to tackle the thesis?  I feel compelled to add that I’m already behind schedule.  This paper was supposed to have been done before summer started.  The second paper – the one that qualifies me to write my thesis – is already coming up due this Spring.  I try as much as I can not to think about that particular problem, but it looms.

I suppose at this point I’m obliged to get myself back to work.  If I’m going to waste every weekend indoors, I might as well try and accomplish something tangible in that time.

We both saw this coming.

It’s on, tomorrow.  It’s my last scan.  My last bit of data collection.

My life is snowballing, thundering down a gully toward some unknowable future.  It’s all coming at me so fast.  My route branching in a thousand directions, each segment of which terminates in some unseeable end.   Every juncture presents me with the opportunity to alter my future, and every juncture reminds me that I’m already on the way to some result, some destination.

This week my brain caught fire again – a conflagration of ideas.  These moments are my most high-spirited, my most optimistic, my most productive, and to my own eyes, almost oppressively important.  The essence of my life shifts, albeit minutely, to putting in the work the last mental pyre set up.  There’s not much stopping my momentum when this spark takes, but it’s worrisome knowing that my intellectual life depends on these randomly distributed flames.  Though in all honesty it’s not as barren as that; the simple fact is that no fire burns without fuel, and with enough fuel and my brain as flint, something will catch sooner or later.

I’m sinking back into PDP modeling,  I find connectionism to hold great sway over me, and it captures my imagination better as a model of neural networks and cognitive processing abilities than any others I’m familiar with.  To make matters worse, I have been completely unenamored with phonological theory since my existential falling-out with Optimality Theory several years back.  It surprises me a great deal that some of the progenitors of OT also have a background in PDP, since the two are not particularly compatible.

I keep putting connectionism behind me as a child’s model – an intellectual fantasy that is too inherently appealing to be taken seriously.   I can’t tell if trying to work in a connectionist framework damns me to an outsiders future, but I can’t help but dabble.  I’m in this PhD business to indulge my intellectual fantasies, and hopefully to do some good research along the way.  I know myself too well to think I could very long justify giving up a model I like because it does not hold a prominent place in linguistics or cognitive science at the moment.

Today I made the first move in the new direction.  I solicited a professor with the architectural blue prints of my second qualifying paper, the first approximation of a connectionist model that incorporates the better part of several other theories in an interesting and potentially tenable way to model perception and sound change.   If it’s accepted as a topic – which I’ll more or less know by the end of the week – I’m afraid I have to formally hand in my structural linguistics passport and ally myself instead with that scourge of that theoretical social sciences…  I’m going to have to declare myself a card-carrying psycholinguistic sympathizer.  Even my former plans for myself can’t escape my brain fire.

Formal phonological theory, I’m breaking up with you.  You do not have the grounding in cognitive principles I need.   So long as you can’t fulfill my needs, I must look elsewhere.  And that elsewhere is neural modeling and neurolinguistics.  Places where there’s more to life than a well-warn philosophers armchair.   Where there is data – quantitative data!  Measurable outcomes!  Biological correlates!  You’ve told me the truth is not out there – but it is.  It’s inside every language user at every moment, and it’s there for the taking.  I’m sorry it didn’t work out between us, but I need more than you can give.  I’ll never forget you and all you taught me.  I’ll carry forth those lessons into these new and exiting lands.  But you’re holding me back.  And I have so much to accomplish.

Good News for People Who Love Good News

Namely, me.

It’s been a rather busy quarter so far, but we’ve just now reached the midway point.  I’ve had some kind of massively successful day.  These are my favorite sort – the kind where you wake up thinking to yourself that it’s going to be a rough day, and then you just nail everything as the day goes.  Perfect performance in all realms.  I feel like I’m being an accommodating, thorough individual and life is repaying me by letting me make a good impression on people and do a decent job at the things I care about.

I recorded stimuli for a creolization project this morning.  It was a little like an IPA pop quiz, and I was doing it as a favor for a buddy of mine and a professor whose class I’m taking next quarter.  Wanted to do a good job, and it seems as though it went just fine.  Recorded each set 10 times, and wasn’t asked to redo anything.  Only little mishap was that my head is producing some ridiculous clicking noise, which sometimes happens to me.  I think it might be when I’m getting sick or something, my nasal cavity increases in pressure when I’ve closed my velum and it makes my ears pop.  I had noticed this a while ago and thought it was just something I could only hear in my own skull, but apparently it’s loud enough to get picked up on the microphone and disturb my recording a little.  I think they can edit it out, but it’s a little embarrassing to have a head which pops and cracks of its own volition!

After that I headed to the lab to meet with my advisor for the first time in two weeks.  We had a really good meeting, very relaxed and pleasant, and on top of that, also productive.  He seemed impressed with the work I had been doing while he was out of town, and I’ve gotten the go-ahead on the design I came up with in his absence.  Furthermore, he’s been talking about me to more famous psycholinguist types, and had a discussion about phonemic adaptation with Greg Hickok!  Apparently Hickok has been working on a phonological adaptation experiment as well, but with whole phonemes instead of features.  I’m not sure what the status of his project is now since researchers are generally pretty close-lipped about work before it gets published, but it sounds like he did find some effects which is incredibly encouraging for our study!  I think it also made my advisor happy to see that famousy psycholinguist types are also doing work in our area and, to quote him, “the field is still wide open”.   Anyway, we tooled around with our experiment design and landed on a scheme we like, so I’m at the point where I’m ready to record some stimulus and start putting things together to prepare for our first pilot runs in the MRI.   Whoohoo!

In a related note, I also ran in to my advisor’s wife (who also works at the center) and she had some very nice things to say about me.  I’ve never really met her before, but she stopped in an office I was in to see who I was and tell me that she edited the letter of rec that my advisor wrote for me and was very impressed with me.  She was being a little jokey about it, but it’s nice to hear someone say, even jocularly, that I’m an impressive person and that she was hoping they’d be able to keep me around in the lab because what I do is very cool.  If that’s the content of my advisor’s letter of rec, I feel like I’m in rather good hands.   It’s the back-door equivalent of having someone stop you and tell you that your advisor has been talking about how great you are.  Many yays for that!

Speaking of people speaking well of me, I also got into a little snafu over my assignments next quarter.  Apparently I had been assigned to be a reader for the historical linguistics class that Lewis’ advisor is teaching, and that he had specifically requested me.  Unfortunately, my advisor was also hoping to give me a graduate student research position in the lab (ie, no TAing-type work, only research work you actually get paid for, as opposed to all the research I’m doing anyway but not getting paid for).  I hadn’t meant for this to be a surprise for the department, since I presumed it was being communicated to people that this spring was my ‘free’ quarter, which the fellowship I won last year allowed me to have.  Turns out, there is no ‘free’ quarter since they can’t afford my fees if I don’t work and they had given my a job without telling me.  Needless to say, my department chair wasn’t really happy to hear I thought I was going to be a researcher not a reader, and it was a bit of a debacle.  At any rate, he called my advisor while we were meeting and last I heard was he had backed down from saying I needed to do this readership and told me advisor ‘we should do whatever is best for Laurie’.  That’s a very good place to be, even if it’s causing the department some strife.  I’m not sure what the final outcome is going to be, but it sounds like one way or the other, I’ll get that research position, even if I have to do both jobs.  Which would, on the bright side, be a decent amount of money!

Last, and I suppose least, I think we also finally picked a project for our phonetics paper, and it’s something I’m actually surprisingly interested in.  It’s going to be a very short paper which is only an experimental design, and I’m coauthoring it with two of my best friends in my cohort.  Yes, that does compute to something like 1.5 pages each.  I’m really looking forward to that, especially given the frustrating next week I’m potentially having in my psychology class.  I got my presentation moved up a week by surprise, and I’ve got a rough draft of that paper due the same day.  I’ll get it done.  I’m feeling so on top of the world right now.

Uncorrected Proof

Epic meeting with my advisor today.  He set up a regular weekly meeting with all his grad students, and I’m the lucky kid with the first meeting slot.  I thought this might make him less strung out than getting him later in line, but no.  As I should have expected, he had already bumped the meeting after me, and I was bookended by non-regular meetings which appeared to be a bit intense.  I do feel bad for the guy, but I guess when you’re hard to get a hold of, or are prone to forgetting required things, angry meetings do tend to crop up when you can be found.

Anyway, I did get my full hour meeting, and we talked over my research proposal.  Last night I dreamed that he was really disappointed with it and found it unprofessional and not the quality of work one would expect from a graduate student.  Today didn’t go as poorly as all that, though he wasn’t real excited about it either.  I think that’s his professional face, and I took it pretty well.  He made some changes to it that I am thankful for, like shortening the overall length and breadth of the experiment, and we hacked off even a good portion of the critical stuff.  So it will be a small, pilot-y type study, but it will give me the opportunity to do something quickly, without staking too much of my life on it.  And in the end, he thinks that we’ll still get a paper out of it, so what more could I want?  I get my free fMRI experience, and hopefully a publication.

The more interesting part of our meeting was the non-QP stuff.  Turns out all the leading questions he was asking me about the decisions I made in my proposal was so he could feel me out for a different plan.  He’s cooking up some sort of holy trinity of researchers and wants me to be the dedicated monkey/grad student for the project.  It’s entirely nebulous as of yet, but it involves liasioning with all three of the language researchers at the CMB and doing something that combines my strengths – sublexical phonology – with theirs (sign, music, fMRI).  It’s a huge undertaking, a thesis-level project for sure, and definitely more like the primordial soup which precedes creation than a tangible and easily managed plan. On the other hand, what better beginnings are there for ones PhD topic than your advisor waxing poetic about the clouds you could reach for and asking you if you would be the monkey/Moses to make something out of it.

To pat my own back here, I feel I must mention that he described me as someone comfortable working in a broad network of seemingly unrelated things and that I was able to think creatively and outside-the-box about things, and this is why he thought I would be the person to lead this effort.  It’s not at the zenith of complements, but coming from my awkward advisor, it was really nice to hear he thought well of me and had been thinking about my future.  Next up is a meeting with these three brains, and it’s going to be quite a trick to keep myself grounded in the fact that I know some things these researchers don’t, and have (am) the manpower they need, without feeling like I’m an inferior member of the group because they’re all brilliant tenured lab managers, and I’m just a dopey grad student unfamiliar with their work.

All-in-all, a very successful but grounded day for me.  And productive to boot!

Optimal / Suboptimal

It was one of those big days today.  Got up early.  Took sister to airport.  Got home just in time to put books in bag and bike to school.

Eventful school-happenings du jour.  Fire alarm during Quechua, thus allowing Michiq and I to do our dialogue outside on the grass instead of inside where everyone is watching.  This is much preferable, but sadly won’t happen again.  Also sadly, we have a dialogue due Monday and it’s much harder than today’s.  This class sometimes kills me.

Had meeting for the rest of the afternoon.  Spent my lunch hour gathering library call numbers for all the semantics reading I need to copy tomorrow afternoon.  Had my second meeting with the professor I’m TAing for, who bears this incredibly uncanny resemblance in both looks and manner to Damien Jurado.  This pleases me greatly.  He’s also much too nice to me, which is breeding a mutual appreciative work situation.  He straightens and staples papers before he gives them to me, makes me an answer key, and posts it online so I don’t have to hand correct anything.  In exchange, I expertly and expediently grade all his papers.  I feel as though this is how TAs are supposed to be used, but I probably shouldn’t get used to it.  Something tells me last quarter is probably a better indicator of TA workload and appreciation than this one.  Odd thing to note: professor mentioned that he had heard good things about me around the department, particularly that I was a good student and worker.  My reputation proceeds me?  Graduate advisor is at it again!

Second meeting with professor I think I’ll dub QP Advisor, for this ought to be his role in best possible of worlds (as in, the world in which this research turns into my first QP).  Advisory was impressed with the bones of the paper (had given me an A, “Excellent!” on it in first grading round) and thought that with the right amount of work we could make it into “the perfect QP”.  This is a good note to start on.  Unfortunatley I seem to have lost the short-lived grasp of Halle’s arguement for morphonemic analysis that I had last quarter and based said paper on, so I’ve got some brushing up to do.  Other than that, advisor gave me a hundred other trees to start barking up, which pretty much cuts my work out for me this week.  Odd things to note number two: QP advisor had heard that graduate advisor wanted me to turn my other essay from last quarter into another QP.  My reputation proceeds me?  Graduate advisor strikes again!

Came home and for the first time this quarter put more than three things on my Tasque list for next week.  House seems a little lonely and quiet without the sister around today.  I guess it’s back to business.  I did get four whole days off (and subsequently had too much fun to blog regularly…) so I suppose I can trade a mini-vacation for a few weeks (8 weeks?) of hump-busting.  It’s really only fair.  Anyway, got everything I put on my list for today back off, which was a fair load.  I’ve got a lot of things lined up for the upcoming weekend, but managed to for the most part avoid putting anything on Saturday when I’m sure to be busy.  I am looking forward to LA.  Been a while since I’ve seen that town!

And now, I really must go to bed.  It’s not very late, but I’ve been nodding off since about 6:30 this afternoon, and I’ve got another few days of early wake-age to get through before my weekend starts (and is filled with more early wake-age).  All in all, a solid way to start the first day of my life under Obama.