Maurer/Stier 2013 Annual Letter


206 Benjamin West Ave

Swarthmore PA 19081-1421

Jan 6, 2014


(Steve writes)  I wrote my first annual in 1973, when I had just moved to Waterloo Ontario for a postdoc and was living in the residence of a Roman Catholic order.   I was full of energy for describing the new things in my life.  I even had energy for arranging the stamps on the envelopes.  At that time 1st class postage in both the US and Canada was a few cents and rates to the other country were the same as domestic, or almost the same.  Canada, like the US, had 1,2,3,4 and 5 cent stamps – the Canadian series at that time had line portraits of famous prime ministers.  I remember spending a lot of time arranging different combinations of these stamps on different envelopes.


For years after I returned to the States, drafting the annual was the first thing I did over Thanksgiving vacation, so I could hone it and still send it out in early December.


The interest in stamps has continued, judging by the amount of time I spent in November finding special issue forever stamps, some not available at local post offices, for mailing letters inviting students to apply to MathPath.  (Have you seen the Harry Potter stamps, or the Lewis Hine stamps, or the Charles Demuth stamp?)


The eagerness to write, however, has not continued. Hence our family’s delay in getting out these letters – my fault. It’s more a sense of duty now that gets me to write eventually.  Having gone on 31 years, we should go on till death.  It will make an interesting historical document, and an important gift to our children.


As usual, I will leave the family summary to Fran; I concur with her judgment that it was a quiet year for us and a reasonably good year for our sons.  In my section I will discuss a few things that stand out from my viewpoint.


The biggest news is that I have committed to retiring.  This fall I exchanged letters with the provost saying I would teach at most half time, starting next fall, and continuing for at most 3 years.  So by August 2017 I must retire in full. I am also pulling out of some other professional activities. My term as editor of a Math Association book series ends in 2 weeks and I will no longer mentor Swarthmore students during the summer on Math Images projects (see previous annuals). I have not accepted successor positions.


It’s daunting to commit to retirement, because you can’t turn back.  But Swarthmore let’s you transition and I am looking forward to teaching halftime, which may mean 2 courses one semester and 0 the other (then Fran and I can travel at times we couldn’t previously), or 1 and 1, depending on what works better for the department. Having half a job will leave me just about the right time to do my MathPath commitments well, instead of frantically trying to fit them around everything else.  I am hoping that MathPath will turn out to be a nice retirement activity that I can stay with for several years.


Trips. As usual, let me point out personal highlights. Any trip I took with Fran is described in detail on her blog, - she gives links to specific entries later.


I took only 5 trips of any length this year, in order:


1. To the Bay Area in March to attend a summer math camp workshop at AIM (American Institute of Mathematics), funded by the family of Fry’s Electronics and built out of a corner of their Palo Alto store, perhaps the world’s only combination wild west and big box electronics store (sample photo and another; I somehow failed to take pictures of the cowboy and Indian on horses hung from the ceiling). I spent one extra day in San Francisco, with Aaron, including walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Everyone should do this sometime, if you are there on a day with clear weather.


2. To Macalester College in St Paul MN all July for MathPath.


3. To East Anglia in England in August  with Fran – see below.


4. To Maryland in October for my 50th high school reunion.


5. To Madison with Fran in October to visit Leon. Mostly this was to meet the people Leon works with, but we also did some sightseeing.  I highly recommend the surprisingly large and good University Art Museum.


Back to England.  East Anglia – Constable and Gainsborough country - is a region we had missed before and Fran wanted to see it.  Most international tourists only visit Cambridge in this region, but we continued farther east and north. The scenery was pretty modest, with the exception of the north coast from Comer to Blakeney. At Salthouse you could go right up to a long , little visited public beach, with immense pebble dunes, from which we looked out into the misty North Sea. These two photos only begin to show the grand expanse.


The cathedrals in East Anglia are very pretty.  I particularly recommend those in Ely, Norwich, and Bury St Edmunds.  I particularly liked the views of the ceilings and into the central towers.


Karen Brown is right about one thing: Kersey is the perfect English village.  This photo, taken from the churchyard on a hill south of town, begins to give the idea, even in the rain.


The biggest surprise for me on the trip was Norwich.  First, it’s pronounced Norig   as the auto repair man told us (see below), “the w is silent”, and the d is almost silent (you didn’t know there was a d?).  Second, it really has some things to see.  I already mentioned the cathedral. Then there are some practically medieval streets – the industrial revolution, which rebuilt many towns, passed Norwich by. Next is the castle, on a mound in the middle of town. The keep was enormous, well, not quite as enormous when I realized it was originally two floors, but still impressive and interesting. And finally, the keep and the whole surrounding mound has been turned into a general museum, the Norwich Castle Museum, with quite varied and interesting collections, from the time of the Angles to contemporary paintings and history.


In the Anglo-Saxon period room (a period when East Anglia was far more central than today) was quite a surprise.  There was a gold seal ring – one of those things you used to prove your identity by stamping your seal into the wax that closed a letter.  This one had 2 sides to the stamp; you could swivel it either way.  One side was a fairly standard royal stamp, proving it was the seal of Queen Bathilde from the 600’s.  The other was an image of a man and a woman that today would be called pornographic.  The museum warned us that it is hard to say how the image would be viewed in those times.  Take a close look yourself; you must be at least age 18:

My thought is that this side was for Bathilde’s personal letters to her husband King Clovis II, while he was traveling, meant to remind him how much she enjoyed having sex with him. Or meant to remind him how much he enjoyed having sex with her.  As in, stop messing around and come home soon.


Auto repair. In England, or at least East Anglia, even major 2 lane roads have no sidings, but instead curbs! In towns the curbs sometimes jut out and the roads get even narrower.  And thus, on our 3rd day, in a small town outside Ely, I pulled left to avoid scraping an oncoming car – just as the curb jutted out – and hit the curb with the front left tire. I heard no flat, but just the same, when we stopped 5 minutes later to go walking on a National Trust Fen park, I checked the tire.  It seemed fine.  I checked it again 2 hours later when came back from our walk to drive back to Cambridge.  Seemed fine.  Unfortunately, we were parked in grass, and I hadn’t appreciated, that when Hertz had “honored” us by giving us an upgrade from a Ford to an Audi, they had given us a car with a new sort of low profile tire than can run some time at moderate speeds on a flat – and hence there was no spare in the trunk.  The tire (or tyre in the UK) was flat, but because it had a low profile anyway, and was in grass, I didn’t see it.  And because it could run on flat, I didn’t hear it.  Eventually the car got noisier and started pulling to the left, but it couldn’t be the tire because I had checked that.  Or so I thought until at a roundabout a few miles from Cambridge another motorist yelled at us that we were running on a destroyed tire.  I was lucky I didn’t destroy the wheel.  Of course it was a Sunday, and this fancy car took a rare tire size, so none of the few open repair shops had it and (according to the Automobile Association repair guy Hertz sent) there wasn’t much to do except drive it (very slowly now) to a major tire store and leave it there until Monday, when they brought in the rare tire from Birmingham.  We lost a day. (When the repairman saw the tire he said, “You hit a curb.” Yes, I said, how did you know?  Happens all the time.)


I was frustrated because I thought I had been doing all the right things.

And the story is not over. My Signature VISA card is supposed to pay for auto damage overseas. I had used them once before (also for an accident in England, maybe 15 years ago) and expected they would be a hassle as they were then.  Sure enough, they asked for 10 detailed items of information, and when at home I was able to put together and send them what I thought they wanted, they eventually replied that the repair bill from Hertz was not detailed enough, I should get a “cost matrix”.  Of course, Hertz had told me at the time that the cost information they gave me was what VISA needed, but VISA didn’t think so.  And the bill from the tire place didn’t help because it had no prices on it, because Hertz paid it all through the front office on a contract the local store doesn’t see. 


So I got back to Hertz in London via email and after some delay they did produce a more detailed tire repair cost sheet for the very Audi I rented.  But it was for a repair bill in October and a different make of that special tire.  Seems I am not the only one to destroy a tire with that car!  Well, I am still waiting for Hertz to get me the right repair bill.  And then maybe VISA still won’t like it. Stay tuned.


Health. I have a number of medical problems, many reported in previous annuals. Let me mention just two.  Last year I told you my diagnosis with Parkinson’s.  It’s still at the nuisance level, but more of a nuisance, despite taking some medication now (Mirapex). My left arm and leg shake more, I make even more errors when typing (most due to short spasms of my left hand), and even my right-handed handwriting is getting poorer (I can’t hold paper still anymore with my left hand). But on a day-to-day basis something else bothers me more – back problems.  I’ve had back problems since my 20s; then they were serious but very occasional – some little thing would throw by back or neck out, and it would be a week before I could move without great pain. (X-rays then showed no specific cause, like a slipped disk, that could be fixed by surgery.) Then for the last 10 years or more the problems mostly went away.  But now I have chronic problems where I wake up sore on the back right and during the day the soreness jumps around from right to left but doesn’t go away.  It affects how I stand and walk and it affects my balance.  Since Parkinson’s also affects walk and balance, at first I thought this was a Parkinson’s effect, but my neurologist says no. Of course, I’ve also talked to my primary physician, who wisely asked, on a 1 to 10 basis, with 1= no problem, how would I rate this problem.  When I last saw him in October, I said 2 or maybe 3.  He said take 2 Tylenol each day (which I only occasionally do).  Now I would up the rating.  I am probably headed towards a more substantial intervention.


So what is the State of Stephen? The fact is, I have been slowly running downhill both mentally and physically.  Physically I’ve talked about.  Mentally I am about as sharp as ever, but my ability to deal with many deadlines has gone downhill. As I wrote in an annual a few years ago, I find it hard to work on A because B is due; but I find it hard to work on B because A is due. And whether working on A or B, I am so much slower. I guess that is why some people have In and Out boxes on their desk, so that things get done in the order received.  These days I work on the things I like most first; I figure I have worked hard for enough years that I have some right to follow my preferences.  But this approach doesn’t always work.


I am hopeful that working halftime will help.  I may have just A,B,C to do instead of A,B,…,Z.  I will feel I have more time to exercise and take breaks.  Stay tuned for next year’s annual, which will come after a half year or working half time.



Fran’s part: Prologue I’ve kept a journal for years, sending weekly Burbagrams to a few family & friends.  Every year, late in December, I print out that year’s diary, punch holes in the sheets, put it in a binder, and mine it for Annual tidbits.  The computer files go back to 1992; before that I wrote in bound books. 

However, this year has a hole.  My desktop hard drive got fried in June during a thunderstorm.


I spent Mon night on the phone with Dell support (from India, of course), who was telling me to turn my computer on & off & press F12 very fast, “tap, tap, tap, tap, tap”.  I pressed F12 very fast.  I pressed F2 very fast.  The pre-boot diagnostics ran, then the guy thought I could boot, so I pressed F8 very fast for a long, long time, to no avail.


In principle, we had a Western Digital drive that was backing up files – in fact, the backups stopped in Oct 2012, and I’d never noticed.

It took weeks (and the combined efforts of Leon, Steve, and a computer repair service) before the router, backup drive and my poor crippled desktop were in working order.  Mom emailed Burbagrams from Jan-July back to me & I reassembled them.  I was back in business.


Fran’s part:  Summary  My step-father, Sid, died late in 2012, so this year has been hard for my Mom.  Leon, Aaron, Steve, and I are mostly doing the same things as last year. 


Leon’s research continues at UW Madison—pretty much every phone call to us includes updates on how his (long) simulations are faring. One day early in November he used 4.6% of UW’s entire computing capacity.  I can parrot “surface roughness and thermal conductivity in silicone nanowires”, but that’s about all I know.  Steve, however, has much more in common with him


L filled in for Irena in a graduate semiconductor class, which led to a long discussion between him & Steve about chalk – S has a box of Binney & Smith chalk that he’s been hoarding, that he claims will get buried with him,  but ordinarily makes do with Prang.


Leon visited Aaron in California during March (and went skiing in t-shirts & shorts in 50 degree weather).


Recreation is biking, gardening, XC skiing, ice fishing, and LAN parties (mostly with his friend Robin, studying math at U of C)

Leon had a LAN party in Chicago (at the Math dept, using grad student offices) – the last one had been 50-60 people, and kind of free-form.  This one was smaller (30-40) and there was a schedule of games.  The problem with real-time multi-player strategy games like Starcraft (which L prefers to 1st person shooters), is they’re relatively complicated.  (many people just want to [virtually] run around and shoot things).   L and Robin set up a computer in observer mode, and set up single-elimination brackets.   They also gave out medals (beer pop-tops pinned with safety pins) for helping set up, etc, and people wound up with a chestful of medals


We visited Leon in October :  the LR of his apartment has 2 bikes, many pairs of skiis, and a 4-foot high ice-fishing drill.


Colleagues thought I was being a helicopter-Mommy


Zhenyin v. funny when I told him I was flying to Madison primarily to catch a glimpse of Leon’s major professor.  I said I wanted to know what she looked like.  He said – you could look up her picture on line (and sent me a link).  He said, parents meet their childrens’ teachers  when their kids are in high school, not grad school. 


Aaron continues working at Acumen, modeling enrollment and cost in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicare.  Claim cost and incidence are meat and drink to actuaries –it’s an easy topic to draw him out on.


He took a course on stochastic processes at Stanford during the summer and is applying to Master’s in Statistics programs for next year.


Alex came east with Aaron for my Mom’s 90th birthday and Pesach. 


Aaron & Alex took Mom, Mimi, So, Beth to the Barnes ...they enjoyed (but agreed there was an excess of fat, pink late Renoirs.  Aaron joked no lady seemed able to bathe in peace w/o Renoir sneaking up on her.)...


After Seder, Sofia and Alex and Amelie discovered they all like Tamora Pierce, and started talking excitedly about books, with occasional squeals of excitement.


Alex’s family includes Aaron in many get-togethers.


Aaron just called from LA – he’s w/ Alex’s family, celebrating Alex’s sister’s graduation from UCLA.  They’re staying at a Disney hotel, and so get to start on the rides an hour early.  The Shepards are shocked he’d never been to Disneyland or DisneyWorld.  Now, of course, I feel terribly defensive. 


I visited in October ate great Chinese food, and got to see nephew Ben Maurer’s office at Facebook.

Leon and Aaron were both home for Thanksgivukkah (which we did sequentially; TG food on Thurs and latkes-and-brisket on Fri)


Leon and Aaron, bless them, got a game of dreidel going for a while, incl Mom & Mimi.  Did I say I’d bought 2+ lbs of chocolate-from-Belgium gelt?  Everyone had to tease me abt that – but I didn’t want to just have the $.25/bag stuff.  Mom & Mimi never played dreidel as children, even in Sunday School.  Too Jewish for Emmanu-el, opined Mimi.


I remembered Ely playing with the kids, using the Yiddish words for the outcomes:  Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht ("nothing"), Hei stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shtel ayn ("put in").  Mom said Daddy used those terms; but I don’t remember that...


I grated up 10 lg potatoes for latkes in the Cuisinart and A squeezed the shreds to get excess liquid out (he’s great at that); it took something like 4-5 eggs to get the mass to congeal a bit, and of course I fried & fried.  A made mulled cider –I had a mug with some whiskey in it to sustain me during the frying; v. sweet and potent.


Aaron now owns a tuxedo.


Alex joined the Spinsters of San Francisco, and Aaron took her to their holiday ball.  He bought a tuxedo, since it was about twice the cost of renting one, and there are several of these dress-up affairs each year.   


Travel:  Mom, Leon and I went up to Mohonk (New Palz, NY) for a few days in July—hot, but less oppressive than NYC or Wilmington.


Steve & I spent a couple weeks in the southeast of England (which I’ve always wanted to see), starting in Cambridge, seeing the Fens and Ely, biking near The Broads, and ending up in Lavenham.  We walked the little length of river that Constable grew up by, and visited wool-churches. 


Steve did 99.95% of the driving and navigating. 


Steve continues intensely involved in whatever he’s doing, whether it’s teaching or finding the right kind of phone jack for the DR, or investigating all the settings on his new printer (which kept him up till 3 one morning). 


The tremor in his left hand is more noticeable.  He leans to the right, because his back often hurts.


Work has gotten more intense; we now do our financial reporting (almost) every month, rather than every three months.  Each reporting period means conference calls every night with Japan for a couple of weeks, over terrible phone lines, and spoken English is hard for many of the participants. 


S (who cooks during the week) brings me up supper, as I sit at my desk, listening to our phone on speaker (muted), when there’s been no time to eat beforehand. 

There were a few layoffs at the start of the year, and no one who’s left since then is replaced – about ½ our floor is empty now.  There were lunches through the spring & summer to wish the last of ALICO’s departing accountants well (that work was consolidated in Tampa).


IT moved our data to Rensselaer in the spring


Did I say IT has taken our servers out & transferred us to a center in Rensallear (sp?), which we now access through a Citrix Xenapp interface?  The interface utterly sucks – it’s slow and awkward and unstable to boot.   It hangs and freezes in the middle of tasks.  The test region of the valuation software we use is on an unsuitable server and takes 10 times as long to run as it used to. Friday, the interface lost the mapping of one of our drives.


(They did manage to mostly stabilize things after a few months). 


In spite of it all, work is sometimes fun (actuaries are easily amused).


The numbers for one line of business changed a lot after a “reval and translate” (the ledger routine that converts yen into USD, not as easy as it sounds, when the value of the yen against the USD is changing through the course of the quarter).  The accountants didn’t have any explanation of why the reval and translate had had such an impact, 12 days or so into the quarter, and X told Y the process seemed “rickety”, which I thought was hitting him when he was down. 


I spent Friday reconciling change in reserve – calculating the change in reserve in local currency and then USD, and showing it matched the account totals in the P&L.  I kept being off $1.7 million in one line for the longest time until I ran detail on the accounts and realized there had been another reval-and-translate error in one of them.  I was so, so happy so see the number I was trying to hit at the bottom of the detail, I almost danced.


Regulators are contemplating massive changes in financial reporting for insurance starting 2018.  I try to pay attention to the details as I listen to presentations, but I want to retire in 2016 (when I’ll be 66) and mostly I’m trying to hang on till then.

Synagogue  I continue being on the board for Social Action, we continue working with the same shelters and food banks.  We continue hosting families from the shelters at Ohev for Martin Luther King Day, funding the kids for swimsuits in the summer and warm pj’s in the winter,  throwing pizza parties in December.  Our congregation has wonderful families who’ve participated in Soc Act projects for years, and generous donors who make everything we do possible. 


However, I’m reading Torah far less often than years ago, I’m less regular at services and haven’t gone once this year to the text study group I signed up for.

Several congregants formed a group to try to reduce gun violence early in the year, but there were objections.  Some of us joined an outside group lobbying to strengthen background checks, others joined a group in Chester seeking to reduce straw-sales (where a person who can pass a background check buys guns for someone who can’t).  Our “kick-off” meeting was in early November.


Bryan Miller talked about how the CITY of Philadelphia had more gun homicides than the COUNTRY of Germany.


Mayor Linder (of Chester) talked about how he grew up on the west side of Chester, a “corner boy”; hanging out on the corner & drinking & talking.  One night, he had a new hat (cost $3.98), and was going to accompany some friends to a party, but 3 boys took his hat.  He ran home & got his father’s service revolver & ran off, resolving to kill the boy who’d taken his new hat, but when he confronted the boy, Linder’s best friend got in between them and said Linder would need to shoot him first.


Four mothers who had buried sons (all killed w/ illegal guns) – one was Muslim (she lived in Lansdown; her son was killed in Phila); the other 3 were Christians from Chester (their group was called Women of Strength).  For one, her son was her only child.  She was talking about how she’d never have grandchildren.  How no one should ever put off doing something with family; who knows if there would ever be another chance?  I was in tears, of course.


There’s debate within the congregation whether gun violence is a Jewish issue.


Fran’s closing  Leon calls Steve & me the slow, old people.  When I started writing, I wondered what I could talk about this year – life is so quiet in our sheltered corner of the world.  I’m grateful for time together and for being mostly well.   Hoping for health and peace for all of us in the coming year.



Leon writes. I had a seizure in July. While I've had seizures before, this was my first since age 5, and I haven't been on medication since age 7. Thankfully, I haven't had another since July.


I was asleep on a plane at the time. From my point of view, I simply awoke from a nap to find my beard full of drool and a host of concerned people around me. A plane is not a bad place to have a seizure; you're seated, and given a large enough flight, there's bound to be someone with medical training on board. I think my seizure even gave the plane priority when landing at O'Hare -- once I convinced people it wasn't necessary to do an emergency landing elsewhere, so the flight even arrived early.


A host of doctor's appoints and tests followed. A CT scan found no brain tumors, an MRI found nothing visibly wrong with my brain, and an EEG found no unusual brain waves. The standard practice with seizures is to only start medication after a second seizure because a fair number are one time events. However, the doctors decided to start me on medication right away, since this could be related to the seizures I had over 20 years ago.


After some research, I'm not convinced they are related. From the symptoms, it looks like my recent seizure was generalized (all of the brain goes haywire), but the old seizures were partial (only part of the brain goes haywire). The new EEG found nothing, but the old EEG found weird stuff happening in one part of my brain. While people with generalized seizures in their youth are at higher risk of generalized seizures at my age, I didn't find any studies suggesting such a connection with partial seizures.


Epilepsy is not well understood. The tests have high false-negative rates, so there's no way to know if a seizure was a one time event or not. Seizures themselves can be hard to detect since we spend a significant fraction of our time sleeping, some people only have seizures in their sleep, and some seizures (like the ones I had when I was younger) are much more benign; some are virtually indistinguishable from simply zoning out, like all college students do occasionally (or frequently) in lectures.


I had one of the more easily detected seizures: I became unconscious and had uncontrolled muscle movements: I drooled, bit my tongue, flailed about, and was very sore the next day. If I had this seizure while asleep in my bed, I wouldn't have noticed being unconscious. I would have awoken to drool and a bit tongue, but I would probably have just turned over my pillow, thought "that must have been a crazy dream!", and went back to sleep. I would have been sore the next day, but I would simply have thought, "Damn it, I shouldn't be this sore until I'm at least 40. Getting old sucks!" Since I haven't experienced those symptoms before, I think that was my first generalized seizure.


No real damage was done, so most of the effects were from taking precautions. The short term changes were not biking or driving. I missed the former more than the latter, since I bike a fair amount during the summer. Driving wasn't such a problem because Madison has a nice public bus system. Moreover, in Wisconsin, you can get your license back after being seizure free for three months. Other states require up to one and a half years, and some countries simply never let you drive again.


The current, long-term precautions aren't too restrictive. A number of things, like stimulants and sleep deprivation, can trigger seizures and should be avoided. However, I rarely drank coffee, and I normally got plenty of sleep. The combination can be limiting though; when tired, it's convenient to get a cup of coffee, but that's now double jeopardy.


The largest effect came from the medication. By necessity, epilepsy treatment drugs (called anticonvulsants) screw with your head. Thankfully, I'm on a medication with relatively mild side-effects. E.g. it's used off label as an antidepressant, which is the opposite effect of some anticonvulsants. All prescription drugs have a list of side effects as long as your arm, but this is the first time I got stung by any. The dosage was increased gradually, but I still ran into short-term memory problems: I'd frequently forget what happened in the last second; e.g. I'd be writing an email, and I'd blank out to find I had typed a word or two more than I remembered. I've since adjusted to the medication, and that no longer happens. However, it's difficult to tell if I'm still being affected by other, more-mild side effects. Many epilepsy medications make you mentally slower. My mouth can outrun my brain while speaking -- resulting in swapped or wrong words. That's not new to me, but it may be happening more often. Still, my brain is working well enough to do what I need to do.


In my case, it's difficult to tell if the drug is effective. Have I been seizure free because of the medication or because this seizure was a one time event? There's no way to tell. I'll be taking medication for the foreseeable future.


Besides the seizure surprise, it was a fairly uneventful year; in the 2012 annual letter, I said my goal for 2013 was to "take it easier", and I generally succeeded.


Research has been calmer; I've done a lot of work, but it was mostly at my pace. My primary focus is still the research I was doing last year (thermal transport in silicon nano-wires), which was not the original plan; it was meant to be a short term project, and while not boring, it isn't terribly exciting either. It seems I've done too good a job at it, so my advisor kept encouraging me to add to the project. Still, it looks like the bulk of the work will be wrapped up soon.


I won't be totally done with the project, in part because I now have an underling (Song) who is extending the work to graphene nano-ribbons, narrow strips of graphite (carbon) that are only one atom thick. Song updated the code to work in 2D, and she is now working to clean up the simulation method, which included a number of approximations we'd like to avoid. However, this has proved to be a tall order; I think the method is fundamentally limited, resulting in sticking points we don't know how to address.


It was a good year for non-research things. Highlights included three short camping trips with different means of locomotion: biking (to Blue Mound state park), canoeing (on the Wisconsin river), and backpacking (at the Porcupine Mountains State Park, on the upper peninsula of Michigan). I organized the latter two, and I took care of food on the first. This included machining my own chicken rotisserie rig (see previous link).


I created the chicken roaster at Sector67, a non-profit tech shop in Madison. I spent a fair amount of time there last year -- much of it spent machining metal and working on electronics. One project, a guide to using the Forth programming language with a simple microcontroller (a small computer in one microchip), was linked to by a popular blog and garnered some attention. I got a couple other electronics projects working, but I haven't written them up yet.


The biggest social change is that the majority of my physics class (students who entered in 2008) have now graduated, and almost everyone else will graduate in the coming year. I'm in the running for last man standing (last to graduate) with only one real competitor. The people who are leaving formed the core of my social circle -- which happens when you spend all your weekends for an academic year together doing problem sets. I'm making progress with finding replacements, but that isn't exactly my forte.


My advisor thinks I'm about a year and a half from graduating, so in the coming year, I should decide want to do after grad school and lay the foundation for it. If I want to go into Industry (my predecessor is making bank at Intel), then I can shift into get-out-of-here mode -- hopefully graduating without too much pain. If I want to do research, either in academia or in a government lab, I must make a serious push this year.


Perhaps foolishly, I think I'd like to keep doing research, but I'm not sure. I'm also not sure if I have another push left in me when there's an easier, appealing alternative. A lot depends on the next few months; if I can get an interesting project going, then I'll try to make a push, and I'll see what happens. Otherwise, I think I'd be happy doing something else; I've always prided myself on having a wide variety of skills, even though I don't consider myself a master of any. In some ways, theoretical physics has felt limiting, because unlike experimental physics, I can't bring as many of my guns to bear on research problems. I've contented myself to using my other skills for hobby purposes, but a job that uses more of my skills is appealing, although I don't know if the right job exists.


In short, the coming year has many known unknowns, but I feel ready for them.