Maurer/Stier 2012 Annual Letter

 

smaurer1@swarthmore.edu  http://www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/smaurer1/

franstier@comcast.net  http://burbaldiaries.blogspot.com/

leon.maurer@gmail.com  https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/lnmaurer/web/

ajmaurer89@gmail.com

 

206 Benjamin West Ave

Swarthmore PA 19081-1421

December 31, 2012 (aka Jan 20, 2013)

 

Note: Fran and Leon had their sections ready by Jan 1.  The delay is due to Steve.

 

Fran writes:

Executive Summary:  At the 2011's annual, Aaron had started work in San Francisco, Steve was headed for 3 months in Germany, Leon was headed to WI to start with a new research group, and I was going to Japan for a couple of weeks.  Executive summary of 2012 would be:  Steve loved his year of leave and is now back teaching, Leon's new research group worked well and he's passed his prelims,  Aaron has been thriving in SF, and Japan was great, however, Fran's work-year has been challenging.  We all did an Eastern European roots trip with Steve's brothers in August, and the year ended sadly with the death my step-father, Sid.

(As usual, travel-log and pictures available in burbaldiaries.blogspot.com  )

 

Aaron continues working at Acumen on health care policy – on statistical studies of flu vaccine and (later in the year) on implementation options for the Affordable Care Act.  For every weekend I worked, he worked two.  One of the principals in the group was a night-owl, so for a while in October his workday speeded up at 8 PM, and we were getting phone calls from him as he wound down at 5 AM West Coast time (8 AM EST).

 

I got to SF in July, met his girlfriend, toured wine country for a day with them, shopped, ate, walked and had a wonderful time.

 

He and Steve had a huge correspondence about his 2011 residence, for tax purposes (was he ever a PA resident, or just MN & CA?) . He bought our old Subaru from us in May and got his own auto insurance (again, accompanied by long emails with Steve about policy provisions).  He studied the SF and CA voter guides with gusto and had long discussions with Steve about ballot propositions.

 

Below are some of his memories of Sid:

 

One of my fondest memories is when he decided to take me to a Yankees game. We went along with Charlie. He wasn't that mobile at that point, so it took a fair bit of work, but once we got to the game and got settled, he regaled me with the nuances of the game and the various highlights of his many decades of fandom.

The last time I saw him, earlier this year when I visited him on the end of a business trip, we watched the Giants win a rather exciting, if poorly played, game versus Tampa Bay together. Sid's been a fan of all things New York sports for all of his life, so he was rooting for the Giants. Being from Philadelphia, I'm an Eagles fan, so it was all I could do to tactfully not root against them. On Wednesday, I was considering packing an Eagles jersey I just got so I could wear it during the Eagles-Giants game this Sunday. It seemed a bit soon to make him roll over in his grave though, so I decided against it.

Sid always enjoyed colorful language. When I last visited him, telling him about my life post college, he was clearly really happy for me. I think the way he described it was that I was living it up like a "pig in shit".

 

Leon s year was busy and productive– he TA'd the intro course for physics majors for spring semester, constructed a program to teach Interference and Diffraction, and published a paper on it.  In his main research, he inherited filthy code in an ancient version of Fortran, debugged it and updated it and got results that got him his prelim, so he's now a dissertator.

 

Most of his relaxation involved bicycling (e.g. a 100 mile trip one summer Sunday among 5 breweries), gardening, or LAN parties with a friend from kindergarten (now in math grad school at U Chi):

 

Leon went to Chicago for a LAN party – killed Robin several times in the course of the evening, but they're still friends.  They played till maybe 4 AM, then packed up & went back to Robin's place.  Mrs. Stambaugh (L's calculus teacher in HS) emailed to ask how was L and did he keep in touch w/ HS friends, and L replied that at that very minute he was sitting opposite Robin, trying to kill him.

 

I'm not the only mother of a physics grad student worried about (limited) social life:

 

There was a Holiday Colloquium – production values on some skits not that great, but good material, opined Leon. After the colloquium (as they ate pizza & drank beer), he talked with a post-doc working for X, whose Mom has taken to contacting undergrads on his behalf, or forwarding their contact info to him, trying to improve his social life.   A grad student from China chimed in that she was glad her Mom didn't know English.

Leon decided that in the scheme of things, I wasn't that badly behaved. 

 

His eulogy for Sid is posted here.

 

Steve had a wonderful time at ECLA (European College of the Liberal Arts -- in Berlin), teaching and travelling on trains whenever he could.  He returned in time for Seder (and taxes).  We met in Barcelona for a weekend in February (the provincial museum has a wonderful Romanesque collection).  He coordinated a Roots trip through Ukraine and Poland – more below.   Now he's back teaching at Swarthmore.   However, not all his news is good (see below).

 

For our 30th anniversary, we went back to Greenwood Lake (between NY & NJ), and hiked more or less the trails we met on.   After a couple of miles I was pretty sore (and I try to stay active--Steve was in much better shape than me)-- the light through the trees was beautiful.  Grateful to still be here.

 

Work   I did do work in Japan – just being able to talk with people in person, rather than over conference calls was useful, but what I'll remember most were Kyoto and Kamakura.  The Monday we arrived was a holiday and I scurried off to Kamakura to see the Daibutsu [the great Buddha] (armed with slips of paper for the different local trains I needed to take, written in Japanese by a helpful concierge)—I got there just at sunset—and stood there taking picture after picture, trying to soak in its mass and peacefulness.  I spent a weekend in Kyoto, and walked the philosopher's path.  I told friends I'd emerge from the path a calm, serene person (they all gave me skeptical looks).  

 

Society of Actuaries' management has been pushing us for years to improve our networking and communication skills – to be more outgoing.  This year, however, they seem to have thrown in the towel.  One of the actuaries' annual meeting talks was about the power of introverts – the speaker was taken aback that 90% of us identified ourselves that way, and sold out copies of her book.

 

The low interest rate environment has been hard for insurance companies – we're not the only one cutting expenses and reducing staff.   There was a company-wide reorganization and a lot of uncertainty about where we figured in organizational charts–there've been a bunch of staff reductions.  We all worry where cuts will fall.  Of course, our company's not unique.

 

[A friend's] sister & brother-in-law both work for X. Couple of weeks ago, on the same day, both were told they were being let go in a month.  We bustle about and worry and one day it's all over.

 

On the upside, my colleagues are bright and supportive – most days, I'm eager to get into work and start pushing my boulder. 

 

Coop, Social Action   The coop moved out of its store in August – it's trying to continue as a buying club, but I've pulled back and will stop serving as treasurer later in 2013.

 

I continue as social action chair at Ohev – thanks to the families at the synagogue who've talking on so many mitzvot, year after year.  We continue serving dinners at the Life Center, holding multiple food drives,  bringing books , and  collecting money so the kids at the shelter have swimsuits in summer and warm pj's in winter.

 

Roots: For 2 weeks in August our family of 4, Steve's brothers and some of their family visited the villages that Stiers, Maurers,  Greenmans,  and Reisners came from.  There were 8 of us, with separate arrival and departure dates, and then there was the guide and the driver and his van for the first part and cars we rented for the second part.  Steve and his brothers arranged this through hundreds of emails and dozens of Excel spreadsheets.    Russ's trip report is here (it's a pdf; takes a while to download).

 

We visited Roztoky, a little village strung out along the river Cheremosh (where my paternal grandfather came from) with a memorial to the Jews shot on a hillside on July 5th, 1941.  We talked to the oldest man in the village:

 

He was born in the highlands; his parents were killed by Ukrainian National forces (Bandera), and then he spent 1947-53 in the Gulag.  He came back to the village, found a woman w/ a child, and built the house he still lives in.

 

 We visited Wiznitz, that had the nearest Jewish cemetery to Roztoky

 

Wiznitz cemetery very beautiful, in a wistful kind of way.   Headstones (matzevot) leaning every which way.   The decoration at the top would show braided candlesticks with blessing hands for women, blessing hands for Cohanim.  Animals that looked to me like guinea pigs for men – not sure what they were supposed to be.  Women's epitaphs almost always started," here lies the modest, honest, woman" and men's epitaphs started, "here lies the wholehearted, upright man".  Very few names I could pick out.  All epitaphs ended with the first letters of Samuel I 25:29 "may his soul be bound up in the bonds of life".

 

We visited Lezajsk and Przeworsk (where my Mom's Father's family came from)—very little remained of the Lezajsk cemetery, while the Przeworsk cemetery was now a bus station, with a small, low memorial in the corner. 

 

I'd printed out some guides to deciphering Hebrew tombstones, but in fact couldn't make out anything beyond the first few words and the last letters.

 

We travelled in a white van

 

fitted with 3 seats in front (Caroline sits there, being the thinnest), two middle seats (prime real estate) The three rear seats bounce a lot and have no seat belts.  The bouncing matters because the roads in Ukraine are rutted (deep holes) or, if they're just uneven, Alexi (aged 23, an unemployed comp sci graduate) is driving 100 kph.  The roads are 2 lane, often nec to pass – it talks a while to get used to tearing down the left hand side of the road.

 

Our trip centered on a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the annihilation of the Jewish community of Biecz – it's one thing to hear about 6,000,000 deaths; it's another to hear about a couple dozen people known to the narrator.

 

Ira (organizer of the commemoration) read from an account of the 80 people shot by the Germans in the months leading up to the community's annihilation – some shot at 3 AM in bed.  Literally, people went to sleep not knowing if they'd be alive in the AM.

How he was sitting in his grandmother's house on Shabbat and the Germans came in, took out a relative and shot him in the hall.  How a school friend of his was shot in those days.

 

I'm so grateful my grandparents & great-grandparents emigrated.

 

Election  I was obsessed, of course, continually looking for updates on FiveThirtyEight, wearing a Hebrew Obama campaign pin for months (Steve was calmer but he was the one who volunteered as a poll-watcher), and very glad for the outcome.

 

Sid died Christmas Eve, aged 91.  He was so at ease with people and with himself.  We all loved his stories – we'll all miss him.

 

Frannie's conclusion:   A Better Chance does a fundraiser selling luminaria in Swarthmore every New Years – very successfully—almost every house in almost every street is lined with light by 5 PM on Jan 1st.  Steve and I never get ours out soon enough in the day, and almost always find ourselves fumbling with matches and swearing at dropped wicks at the last minute.   But once the lights are lit, it's so beautiful to walk up and down the streets looking at the lights.

Hoping your year is healthy and peaceful.

 

Steve writes:

ECLA. I was first there fall 2007.  I returned for Jan-March 2012, this time living in an apartment above their cafeteria. Officially I again taught one course, but I was less busy this time because I took fewer courses (no German course).  I did participate in an optional student-faculty seminar reading Euclid and ended up running it.  I probably should be embarrassed to say I had never read more than snippets of Euclid before. It was really quite interesting. Clearly a masterly organization.  In some ways quite modern, and in others not at all.

 

Because I wasn't so busy, I traveled every weekend, either around Berlin or over half of Germany on the wonderful dense German rail network, which has lots of price cutting options.  I love that most tickets are good on any train of the class you paid for or lower, and that most routes run hourly.  Wherever I went, I stayed as long as I wanted and then I wouldn't have to wait long for a train to the next place. I was a happy camper. Their website is great too, for planning out complicated trips.

 

Let me mention just 2 of many wonderful sights

1.    The Hamburg main train station. Some people think this is a gloomy black cavern, but I found it inspiring both inside and out. Because all trains use the same level, a train comes or goes every 2 or 3 minutes.  Berlin is more populous and has more trains, but the main station there has 2 levels.

 

2.    The Erfurt treasure. In correct anticipation of a pogrom in 1349, a rich Jew buried his family treasures. He must have buried it quite well, because after the pogrom the town council asked citizens to go digging for just such treasures.  It was only found, by accident, during some construction in 1998 (649 years later!), and it was so tightly sealed in a canister that, when opened, it looked almost new. Brooches, hairpins, coins, and the most amazing gold wedding ring, 2" high, with tiny Hebrew letters saying Mazel Tov.  See  http://alte-synagoge.erfurt.de/jle/de/altesynagoge/ausstellung/

All this stunning collection is housed in the oldest standing synagogue building in northern Europe – not burned down by the Nazis because it had long ceased to be a synagogue, indeed, it had been forgotten that it had been a synagogue.  But now it, and several other Jewish buildings of old Erfurt, have been restored (e.g., a mikva). By the way, a few years after 1349 the town council invited the Jews back – even built them new housing – and they came back.

 

MathPath.  For the first time we reached 100 students, which I think will be our steady state.  Our students and parents gave us our best ratings ever and I am quite pleased with what we have accomplished. But each step of growth is more work to manage it, all year round. As with a family business, there is really no time off.

 

Roots Trip. Fran has described this pretty well, especially if you consult all her links.  I'll just add a few thoughts.

       It was the most complicated trip I have ever planned. It was amazing that we got an excellent guide and pulled it all off, given how late I started planning it (the real planning only started 10 weeks before, when an earlier general plan fell through).

       To me just walking the towns of my ancestors meant something.  There were middle sized towns and tiny villages.

      It was stunning to see the difference in development between Ukraine and Poland.  We could see it as soon as we crossed the border into Poland – much better paved roads, nicer houses. Communist control ended about the same time in both places.  I guess the decisions a country makes can make a difference. (It helps that Poland is in the EU, which supplies development funds.)  

      As always (in Germany too) I am particularly moved by Holocaust sites. Biecz (Beitch) Poland was my father's father's town, from which he emigrated around 1900. Our leader there, Ira Goetz, was one of 3 Jews to escape the deportation of all Jews in 1942 to death camps that we came to commemorate.  How did he do it? The town square of Beitch is on a steep embankment, maybe 100 ft high, over looking the river Ropa.  There is a small level strip next to the river, on which a single-track rail line ran and runs. There are certain small caves (hollows really) in the embankment.  Ira ran to the embankment and hid in one of these caves.  Of course, the SS weren't dumb.  They stationed guards at the top of the embankment, guards on the tracks below, and had men with dogs walk through the embankment, and then just waited.  Do you know the scene in Schindler's List where an apartment building is evicted and some kids hide in a sewer area, lodging themselves in the top so they wouldn't be seen if a solider bent down to look.  I think Ira said he lodged himself in the top of the hollow.  Anyway, early one morning, with no one around, I went to this area, climbed up and down the embankment, and then stood for a long time on the railroad tracks, imagining SS men with machine guns every 50 meters.  I think I saw a scene like that once in Burt Lancaster's The Train.

 

Fall in Swarthmore. I was on leave last academic year.  This fall I returned to full-time teaching (5 semester courses a year) for the first time in over 10 years.  I had been chair from summer 2003 until my leave, and an associate provost for several years before that, giving me course releases. My new chair helped me ease the transition by giving me my 2-course load in the fall; I will have almost 3 times as many students in the spring.

 

Was full time a rude shock? No, but to my surprise I was busier than ever. I thought, no longer being chair, I would be much less busy.   Why not? Partly it took a while to refamiliarize myself with the material.  (I did my 2 favorite courses, a linear algebra seminar and discrete math, both of which I had individualized.) Partly, I had a big new college committee assignment, the IRB (Institutional Review Board, federally mandated to screen for abuses in human subjects research – in principle a most ethical thing to do but practically an awful time sink). Partly this year there are special department projects we all have to share in – writing a lengthy self-study for an outside review, and reading 500 folders (well, some of them) for an unanticipated hire.  Partly MathPath takes all the spare time that I don't have. Partly, I still have other commitments, like editing a Math Association book series.  And partly I think I have slowed down, or at least don't respond effectively to pressure the way I used to. I can't multitask on several big projects at once. So I can't start on B because I haven't finished A.  But I can't start on A because I haven't finished B.

 

Further, I no longer wake up thinking first thing how I want to teach my classes, the way I used to. Indeed, some things about teaching (or grading papers) I find myself putting off to the last moment.

 

Swarthmore lets you retire in stages, 3 years of teaching part time as you see fit.  I think next school year will be my last full-time year.

 

Health. Two serious medical conditions arose this year.

 

Prostate trouble. For several years I have been making regular visits to a urologist for slowly rising PSA.  After the first large jump (to around 4) I had a biopsy back in 2007. I had no cancer (or maybe the 10 samples missed it, my internist told me cheerfully).  My PSA thereafter went up and down and only gradually up, until this March it jumped to 6.6.  Time for another biopsy my urologist said (or rather, my new urologist, as the practice of the old one was having a war with Blue Cross, so Blue Cross refused to pay).  I had this 2nd biopsy in late August after MathPath and Roots.  I fully expected it to show cancer this time.  The urologist wouldn't tell me the results over the phone.  But no, I was clean again.  I had dodged another bullet.

 

By the way, it is now debatable one should have these biopsies.  A big multiyear study has come out comparing men at the same PSA levels who have prostate surgery and those that don't.  Not only is life expectancy about the same, but even the occurrence of prostate cancer is about the same!  See http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/choosing-watchful-waiting-for-prostate-cancer/ and http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1113162. These biopsies are not fun and take a few months for full recovery of your functions.  One of my brothers refuses to have the PSA tests, because he refuses to have the biopsies or prostate surgery.  But this year, already having the PSA results, I wanted to know more.  I might refuse further biopsies.

 

Tremors.  I reported last year that my left arm shakes when I hold things. The rule of thumb is that shaking when holding things is benign and not uncommon with age; it is shaking at rest that is of concern.  Well, this year my left arm started to shake when held still, and sometimes my left leg. Now my doctor was interested and this fall I went to a movement disorders neurology specialist. His conclusion:  I have Parkinson's. My bullet-dodging days were over.  (It had been possible that my tremors were still benign with "Parkinsonian symptoms", but the neurologist said no; rather, the earlier tremors when holding things were actually a form of Parkinson's.)
 

Of course, Fran and I have now done a lot of reading. Parkinson's is an inexorable progressive disease.  While it is often slow, if you live long enough – if age or other illness doesn't kill you first – you become a physical basket case, and in many cases towards the end a mental basket case too.

 

Fran was quite upset at first.  She has always regarded me as a hypochondriac because I have always talked with her about my medical conditions and what they might mean.  (I think it's a family difference; my family always talked about medical matters and her family didn't.)  So she has typically pooh-poohed any medical condition I mentioned.  But now she couldn't.  I smiled and said, "Just because I am a hypochondriac doesn't mean I can't be sick."  She laughed and relaxed.

 

There is some good news.   Great progress has been made in medications that alleviate Parkinson symptoms; they can mostly be masked for 1 to 10 years, depending on the patient.  There are even some medications that may slow down the underlying degeneration (your brain produces less and less dopamine, and eventually forms Lewy bodies) and medications under development may slow it with certainty.  Furthermore, so far mine is a mild case, and the neurologist's gut feeling (based on his 30 years of cases) is that it will progress slowly.  When I said I might like to teach at least part time for up to 5 more years, he said he doubted the disease will make me retire sooner than I want. I asked about planning for the time when I can't drive and can't navigate our 3-story house.  He said it is too early to plan for that; such developments may be 10-15 years off.  But he also cautioned, "So far I have just one data point."

 

For now I have started taking a medication that, in theory, should slow down the degeneration but has little effect on symptoms.  As the doctor noted, "Of course, you'll never know whether it actually worked or not."

 

I am somewhat surprised by my calm perspective on my future.  People don't usually know very far in advance how they will die.  Final illnesses often last a month to a year.  Well, my mother's final illness (a brain tumor) was, what, 5 years, but because her sort of tumor can usually be removed with success, it was maybe only the last 2 years that she/we knew her fate.  On the other extreme was my father, who died suddenly, at age 84, at his desk in the State Dept.  I think he would be pleased to think that he died with his boots on. 

 

But I have been given an unusually long sentence.  I know years and years in advance what is going to happen to me.  It's a strange feeling.  Just like financial markets, which discount far future events, perhaps I have discounted my unpleasant future too much.  Or maybe, precisely because the prospects are so far out, I am mistaken to think I have been told the future, because so much could happen in between.

 

Fran made the point: our family has had good fortune so far.  We shouldn't complain about a rough ending.  And she is the one who will likely have to take care of me; given how long her mother's family lives, she will probably outlive me.

 

As you've read, Fran's stepfather Sid died just before Christmas, at age 91.  At the funeral, the rabbi remarked that Sid had told him, I have done everything I wanted to do.  That's a satisfying thought at first, but can it really be true of anyone?  Have I, or will I, do everything I want to do?

 

Similarly, Fran once said to me, some time ago: I have had two sons; I have fulfilled my biological purpose.  That too struck me as odd.

 

So let's start with our sons.  We have indeed raised them.  They are off on their own now, and they are skilled, employable, decent people. I was so impressed by the thoughtful remarks they wrote for Sid's funeral, wise beyond their years (and linked by Fran above). But while they are independent, I think as parents we can say our job is not done.  Leon is not out of grad school, and Aaron has to decide if he wants to go to grad school.  They are not settled in permanent careers.  They are not married – well let me be more open-minded about that and say they have not determined their steady-state lifestyle and whether this will involve a life-partner.  Fran would say, what about grandchildren?

 

As for professional work, I have mostly done what I wanted to do.  I wrote the books I wanted to write.  I have developed the courses I wanted to develop.  I am not as intrigued as I once was about learning or discovering new math.  The main professional thing left to do is get MathPath on a permanent footing.  It is financially stable now, but it needs a next generation of managers and a better legal footing.  I am working on that, but it will take a few more years.

 

But surely, even if at some point I really have done my last major project, there would still be a lot to do each day: interesting articles to read in the newspaper or online, movies to see or see again, places to travel I haven't been yet.  For now I haven't changed at all how I manage my days – indeed, I am farther behind trying to do things than ever.  But one advantage of retiring soon: I will be able to fit in things like travel that I should do while I am still able.

 

When I had my hemicolectomy at age 48, and then kept hemorrhaging and had to be reoperated, I was in my hospital room for several days after that under observation.  Finally one day I was feeling much better, and had been disconnected from tubes, and I got up and went to an adjacent lounge, where there was a table for my laptop and I could work much better.  In the meantime, my surgeon made his daily visit, this time with interns and nurses.  When he didn't find me in my room, he looked in the lounge and saw me working away.  "These are the people who recover quickly," he said to his entourage.  Would the doctor say that again after my next hospital visit?  Time will tell.

 

Leon writes:

At the time of last year's letter, after a couple years of research failure, I was about to switch research groups -- from experiment to theory/simulation. However, I didn't start the new research in earnest until May; I was temporarily back to taking classes and being a teaching assistant.

 

I spent my first year as a teaching assistant in a large, non-calculus class. This time, I was the sole teaching assistant in a small class aimed at future physics majors. This meant the students wanted to be there and that I had a fair amount of control over what the students did in lab.

 

Initially, I did things by the book, but I soon realized the lab manual had issues. I encountered this when I TAed before, but then there was always an older TA -- familiar with the issues and how to work around them. I didn't think about why these known errors weren't fixed. It turns out the answer is simple: no one bothered reporting the problems to the instructional lab director. I'm not sure why; it does take a little time, but graduate student time isn't particularly valuable.

 

However, even after fixing and reporting these issues, there was sometimes a more fundamental problem: the teaching approach didn't work. I always wondered if the teaching methods we use are effective, but if students were having trouble in the non-calculus class, there were always too many other variables; maybe they just didn't want to be there, they weren't comfortable with the math, etc. But my current students didn't have those problems, and the labs could still be ineffective.

 

I was taking a class on physics education, and that brought me to a study detailing serious problems with an upcoming lab on interference and diffraction -- how waves can interact, sometimes cancelling and sometimes reinforcing each other. The study asked a fairly straightforward question on the subject to ~1200 students before lecture, after lecture but before lab, and after lab. In all cases, only ~5% answered correctly.

 

Part of the problem is that the standard teaching method never provides a detailed image of how the waves interact, so students develop little intuition and are limited to using a few equations which work for certain cases. The equations didn't apply to the study's question, so students couldn't answer it.

 

I was also taking a computational electrodynamics class, where we learned to simulate waves. Combining all three classes together, I wrote a simulation that visualized interference and diffraction, made a new lab for it, and tried it with my students. Afterwards, 60% of my students correctly answered the study's question. I wrote a paper on the approach, which will soon be published in Physics Education (a preprint is also available.) Getting it published was also an experience; it was my first paper and I basically did it alone, but I won't detail that here.

 

I've long thought that physics education had serious issues: almost never assigning projects, ignoring the existence of computers, etc. However, this was the first time I really saw the failings in detail -- exactly what the traditional teaching method didn't transfer to students. It's something I hope to give more thought to, but the term was over; it was time to do the research I was being paid for.

 

I was well over a year late in holding my preliminary exam, where you present the research you've done and say a little about what you'll do next. Thankfully, I received extensions from the department chair, but passing the exam was my top priority. So, my new advisor recommended a project that I could get working quickly.

 

Silicon nano-wires are structures with a diameter about 1/1000th the width of a hair and a length many times longer than the diameter. They are of interest as thermoelectric devices: either generating an electrical current from a temperature difference (e.g. powering a car's electronics from the waste heat in the engine's exhaust), or generating a temperature difference from an electrical current (e.g. making a refrigerator without moving parts). Rough surfaces give them their interesting properties because the roughness impedes the flow of heat through the wires more than the flow of electricity. However, there are still a number of open questions about these rough surfaces, including the best way to simulate them.

 

An outgoing group member wrote a simulation to model heat flow through these wires using one method to handle the rough surfaces. I was to modify his code to include other methods and compare the different methods with each other and experimental results. This turned out to be complicated, mostly because the code contained several bugs, was poorly designed, and was poorly written.

 

For those of you familiar with big O notation, here's an example of its poor design. We needed to calculate Discrete Fourier Transforms (DFTs). Normally, this is done using the Fast Fourier Transform algorithm, which runs in O(N*logN) time. However, the code calculated the DFT a naive way, in O(N^2) time. When I realized this, I switched to the faster method, and what once took 3 hours now took 1 second -- a speedup of ~10,000x.

 

My fixes got me second author on a paper, but it meant that -- despite sinking a lot of time into it -- the code wasn't ready until October. My prelim was in December, leaving little time to get results. However, I just managed to get enough data, and I passed the exam.

 

I'm still not sure how to feel about this line of work. On the one hand, I do enjoy the programming, but that's something I could do elsewhere (possibly for better pay). The simulation had very little new physics in it; I was solving known equations, with a known technique, using different boundary conditions -- getting basically the results we expected. There was a little excitement because I found a small problem with one of the boundary conditions, but that was about it. However, this project was chosen because it was expedient, not because it was exciting. Now that my prelim is done, I'll be starting on a new project which will hopefully be better. At a minimum, I won't be inheriting shoddy code.

 

The net effect of all this (TAing, taking classes, personal project to improve labs, fixing code and getting results in time for a prelim) is probably the busiest year I've had. I put in some time cycling, gardening, and cooking, but that has been about it. Thankfully, this leaves me with a simple new years resolution: take it easier. Since I don't have a looming deadline, that should be simple. I'm hoping to get back to some personal electronics projects that have been on the backburner for ages, and I joined the UW outing club; I've already taken part in several of their activities.

 

That wraps it up for this letter. Many of the other things that happened to me are documented online. Enjoy the new year.