Monday, September 24, 2012

Making happiness in the lab

I spent a month in the summer of 2006 working in Kent Pinkerton's lab in the Center for Health and the Environment at UC Davis. The students and postdocs in the lab who worked with Kent were intelligent, articulate, and kind. They supported each other and helped me considerably. Despite feeling underqualified, I felt welcome with all of my colleagues (although I feel that I'm arrogating myself to call them that).

It didn't take long for me to realize that Kent's influence over the lab was considerable. He was respected for being very capable in his work, but he was loved for being a kind tutor. He communicated effectively and did an admirable job of helping people feel good about themselves. Before my month in his lab was over, I found myself observing him to learn what I could about the art of building others up. I've practiced what I learned over the years and, although I don't claim to be a master of this art, my ability to build others has improved greatly.

With this post, I hope to simultaneously thank Kent for this significant contribution to my life and to pass on some of what I've learned about this important skill.

I think that the first thing I noticed about Kent is that he's sincere. It's simply impossible to not believe him, even when he says incredible things. I still remember meeting with him at the end of my time in his lab. I'd done some simple analyses of some slides and remember that he exclaimed, "You were worth every penny!" I certainly hadn't thought I was worth every penny; I actually had thought of myself as something of a charity case. But the way he said it made it impossible for me to disbelieve him. Sincerity was not a new idea to me, as I'd been taught to be sincere all my life – but Kent's sincerity was so apparent that I was able to see why it mattered.

As I attended lab meetings and watched Kent doing research with the others, I also realized that he was very specific in his compliments. He would isolate exactly what someone had done or a characteristic that someone had and talk about it. Specificity matters because it communicates sincerity and because it doesn't sound like a platitude. I blame my egocentricity for the fact that I don't remember any specific compliments that Kent gave to others in the lab, but I do remember that he told me that, "We'll make a scientist out of you yet." At the time, I was planning to become an electrical engineer and Kent recognized specific aptitudes and abilities that would make me valuable in research. Without this comment, made in passing, I may never have considered a career in research.

The two compliments I've mentioned were effective because I could tell that Kent really cared. It wasn't that he cared about me (although I have no doubt he did and does), but that I could tell that the things he talked about really mattered to him. His enthusiasm made compliments that would have been nice into great compliments. The first compliment showed his enthusiasm for good evidence to inform the community. From the second compliment, I inferred that Kent values his field and wants it to do well – and that he wanted me to be a part of it because he saw that I could contribute.

I appreciated his comments particularly because they addressed insecurities of mine – things that kept me up at night. At the time, I was not at all confident that I was worth the hassle and the pay that I'd cost the lab. And I wasn't confident that my abilities were up to par. Such emphatic, unsolicited validation eased the burdens that I'd been trying to carry without addressing them externally.

It is crucial to note that these compliments described essential, not superficial, characteristics. They complimented who I really am on the inside and not something ancillary to my character, such as my appearance or a first impression of me. Addressing people's identity raises the stakes; the insults that sting the most and the compliments that provide the largest preponderance of warm, fuzzy feelings are the ones that describe the soul.

Of course, my listed generalities only help so much. It can be difficult to find useful and effective compliments for other people, especially on demand. Over the years, I've discovered that a few habits have greatly improved my ability to give compliments.

I've learned to observe people carefully. I'm not content to know what people are doing because understanding why they do what they do gives important insight into who they are. It helps to never assume that I've achieved my goal of understanding people. They are infinitely complex, which makes them interesting and which gives me cause to keep observing. Of course, passive observation has its limits. I have found it useful to combine careful observation with good questions.

I've also learned to believe the best of people. It's easy to assume that people do what they do because of some character flaw or other, but I've found that there is a deeper understanding to be had of virtually every person's motivation for any action. Assuming the best allows me to stop judging and to keep looking for others' good qualities. As I do so, I'm able to see specific characteristics of other people that I wouldn't see were I judging them.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned to do to build people up is to care about them. When I care about people, it shows. They respond with trust, which allows me to understand them better and therefore to build them up more effectively. As I have chosen to serve others, especially those to whom I'm not naturally drawn, I've found it easier to love them. This increased love has enabled me to build them up as I could not do previously.

One of the principal joys in life is sharing a sincere smile with someone else. Giving good compliments makes me happy because it makes my friends happy. I hope it does the same for you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Apple's patch Wednesday

Apple released several updates yesterday. Most talked about was iOS 6, but there were also upgrades to Mac OS, Xcode, and other Apple software.

I'd heard about iOS 6 but don't have a device that will benefit much from it, so I didn't bother with it.

I use my Mac for school. It's basically a Linux laptop with shiny hardware and an aesthetically pleasing (if space-wasting) window manager. I use homebrew to manage the software I use from the FOSS ecosystem. So when I checked for updates last night it told me that my Xcode command line tools were out of date. This typically means that Xcode itself is out of date. I'd expected to see the update notification from the App Store, as Apple had just forced me to upgrade a few months ago to get a version integrated with the App Store.

It turns out that although the update was available, the App Store hadn't yet notified me. This isn't a huge problem; it just means that I can't trust Apple to notify me as soon as critical security updates are available. And, of course, I love the irony of being notified by a third party application that my Apple software needed to be updated.

I opened the App Store and checked for updates. I told it to upgrade everything (Xcode and iPhoto) and typed in my password to authorize the process. I quickly noticed that the update was over a GB. Having just been released, this patch was in high demand among developers and the download was painfully slow. I was only somewhat surprised that Apple doesn't use something sensible like BitTorrent to distribute its patches; after all, Apple maintains tight control over its products – even after the products have been sold to customers.

Hours later, I checked to see if the download had finished. For some reason, it was still listed and I instructed the App Store to update everything again. I typed my password again. For some reason, the patch was larger. It's possible I missed a detail somewhere, but I'm quite sure that 1.6 GB is larger than 1.3 GB.

The next time I checked, iPhoto had still not been upgraded. I told the App Store to install the update and authenticated a third time. It quickly reported that it wanted to upgrade but that it couldn't until I updated my operating system. Apple, of course, hadn't notified me that an update was available.

So I opened Apple's update tool and installed the upgrade, which forced me to authenticate (I think – at this point, it was late enough that I may have missed something) and then restart.

After restarting, I told the App Store to upgrade a fourth time and authenticated yet again and it happily complied.

When I launched Xcode, it had an update waiting inside of itself that I had to install before doing anything else. Then, finally, I dug my way through the preferences menu to find a way to upgrade the software contained within Xcode, including the command line tools. It listed four updates but said at the top that no updates were available. After ignoring the message at the top, I tried to install one of the tools. After authenticating (twice), I was told that my Apple Developer account doesn't have access to iOS 5. I have no idea why Apple maintains farcical security around its developer tools, as they're certainly available on the Internet without Apple's red tape. And it wasn't immediately obvious how I could convince Apple to give me the software. So I ignored the iOS 5 emulators and moved on to what I really needed.

The other updates didn't hassle me (although I think I had to authenticate again for each one). I was finally done. The experience left me thinking of the years I spent working in technical support for my department as an undergraduate, installing OEM copies of Windows XP on professors' laptops and doing battle to find and install the drivers they needed in order to operate properly. Apple had actually succeeded in creating its own Patch Tuesday (except that it was a day late, as it all came out on Wednesday).

So, Apple, I pose my questions to you: how do you justify such a horrific experience? Are you willing to own up to the fact that your developer tools are clearly an afterthought? Are you even bothered by the fact that third-party tools notify your users about updates (which could be security-critical) before you do, despite the fact that you control the operating system and applications that can deliver these notifications? And we all know that stealing ideas is how the computer industry works, but didn't anyone tell you to steal the good ideas?

Monday, September 17, 2012

A rock feels no pain

I recently experienced a significant disappointment. It didn't come as a surprise but it wasn't really what I wanted, either. Since that experience, I've paid careful attention to my emotions and have been surprised at how gentle they've been. I feel fine. I'm not sure that I ought to feel fine, though, and I've been wondering if there's something wrong with me and my emotions.

I'm sure it will come as no surprise to my friends that I took a while to question what the ideal of emotional experience is, what my current experience with it is, what difference exists between them, and what I can do to close the gap. I had an interesting thought yesterday: what price would I pay to experience more emotion?

This question probably deserves some background. As I've discussed previously, I decided long ago that anger would not be a part of my life. Since then, I've chosen to avoid acting on feelings of anger and have learned to process those feelings. I've learned to give others the benefit of the doubt and to be patient. Years later, I sometimes experience frustration and occasionally indignation but anger really isn't a part of my life. When I do experience a feeling like anger, I'm able to arrest its development, remove myself from the situation, and deal with it on my own without expressing it at anyone else. I've cultivated this control carefully over the years. I've considered it to be a part of the ideal that I call emotional maturity for some time. My conception of this ideal, in summary, has been that a person ought to use reason and emotion together to make decisions without allowing either one to dominate the other. Anger should be avoided because it's specifically condemned in the Sermon on the Mount and because it is so strong that it overrides reason.

Yesterday, I questioned that ideal. Specifically, I asked myself if I would be willing to sacrifice the control I've cultivated for more than half of my life if it meant deeper emotional experience.

I thought about it and discussed it with some close, trusted friends. I concluded two things: if there were something wrong with me emotionally because I've been controlling myself too tightly and if it were possible to remedy the situation by letting go, I ought to do so. My experience has been that when I've gravitated to one extreme, I have to release the fear of the other extreme in order to progress towards a proper balance between them. I also decided that I don't think there's anything wrong with my emotional state. I'm not hiding from my emotions and I'm not suppressing them; I just don't happen to have a strong emotional response to some things and that has surprised me but simply is the way it is.

This morning, I was flipping through Preach My Gospel as part of my daily scriptural study. I came across the section about hope in chapter 6. As I read, a strong feeling of peace came over me. I realized that I have learned hope. I live it. I believe that good things are coming. I believe that, no matter what happens, my life can be happy – and that other lives can be happy, too. I realized that when, as the saying goes, the Lord shuts a door, I don't stand there and look at it as darkness closes around me; I simply locate the best open door I can find and move towards it. I was grateful to be reminded that I can, in fact, feel emotion and more grateful for the divine approbation that this communication implied.

Now, dear readers, please excuse me. I have worlds to conquer.

Monday, September 10, 2012

All is not as it seems

Philip Guo recently published a memoir of his experience as a PhD student in computer science. His is a story of self-discovery and triumph. Getting a PhD is hard, especially for someone who hasn't already discovered a burning passion for a subfield, which Guo had not done when he started his PhD.

Having completed two years of PhD school in computer science myself and not having identified a subfield for which I have a consuming passion, I strongly sympathized with Guo as I read his memoir. Accordingly, I read closely and imagined myself in his situation. I came away hopeful that my experience would be similarly serendipitous. I also came away more acutely aware of the problems with the academic peer review system. Of particular note is the fact that Guo submitted papers that were rejected because his writing didn't meet the arbitrary expectations of current experts in the field, not because his research was unoriginal or uninformative. I believe in good writing and recognize that good writing necessarily reflects familiarity with an audience. I'm not taking issue with the need for good writing, but I believe that some of the requirements for publication are detrimental to the academic community as a whole.

Allow me to explain.

Early in his graduate career, Guo submitted a paper to a conference and was rejected. His research was, as the memoir tells, of a similar caliber to other research that was published. Guo's failure was in convincing the entrenched researchers in that community that his work was original and useful. That is, it wasn't the quality of work that mattered for publication. What mattered was the apparent quality of his work. Guo's paper went unpublished because the system evaluates whether or not research seems to be good, not whether or not the research is good.

To be fair, this is a scientific community and it strives to be objective. There isn't a way to determine if research is good objectively, so the community makes do with the best solution that it has found to date.

The problem with peer review is compounded by the fact that the quality of a scientist is estimated by his or her publication record (see, for example, h-index). This leads to problems such as this, where a scientist manages to falsify peer review in order to seem like an effective scientist.

Unfortunately, problems of this kind are found everywhere. We get a job not by being the best candidate for a job but by seeming to be the best candidate. Dating works along the same lines. Sports revolve around what the officials perceive, so they have precisely the same issue. Political discourse clearly emphasizes seeming over being.

Being something allows us to act. Other people's behavior towards us, however, depends on what we seem to be. It isn't possible (or desirable) to avoid seeming to be something. Instead, we should all try to seem to be what we are and to avoid seeming to be what we are not. If you find yourself trying to seem in a certain way, check to make sure that it's actually true. Are you really confident or do you seem that way? Are you actually good at what you do or do you just have a killer resume? Keep in mind that self-deception is not just possible but commonplace.

This is not to say that we should not aspire for greatness beyond what we have yet attained. And reaching for greatness requires emulation. We should try to improve by emulating the best that we see in other people. The purpose of this emulation must be for us to acquire positive characteristics, not to seem better than we are. And when others try to improve, we should encourage them instead of calling them hypocrites.

Since we interact with others, the question of our own characteristics is insufficient; we must also question our perceptions of others. Do you and I assume that the things we perceive are reality? When someone seems to be self-absorbed or quiet or happy, do we assume that this is generally the case? Do we disregard others' ideas when they aren't presented as we are used to hearing ideas or when they come from unusual or unproven sources? Do we assume that people remain the same or do we believe that people can change for the better?

The most important thing that we can do is personal: each of us can work at becoming better. We can concern ourselves less with how we seem and more with how we are. And we can give others the benefit of the doubt. We must also encourage societal change to value actuality over mere appearance. We must consciously choose to value genuineness over the appearance of virtues. We can expect people to be good but not extraordinary, freeing them from the pressure to seem to be good enough for our unrealistic expectations. Relatedly, we must put less pressure on people to be something that they are not; introverts and extroverts and everyone in between are good people. The same goes for scientists and liberal arts majors. In other words, we should encourage people to grow but not to be untrue to themselves. We also need to encourage virtues, such as honesty, industry, and kindness – but never assume that we see them clearly in others. Hardest of all, we must strive as a society and especially as individuals to acquire these virtues.