Thursday, August 22, 2013

Getting my head around grad school

Well, dear blog, I have made another transition and need to process it. I tried to do this with my "women in science" post about resources I have found, but I think I need to spend some time just writing about where I am.

Physically, I am sitting at my desk (one of four) in my new office. No one else is here yet-- there is one PhD student who's been in this room for a couple of years, but the other three of us are new, and I'm the only one who's already here, since I worked here over the summer. I have two plants on the windowsill next to me, one is an aloe I adopted from my lab at IIHR/Iowa Flood Center, after a colleague and I discovered it had been abandoned and then repotted and revived it. The other is a little succulent I bought in Cedarburg, Wisconsin last weekend where I saw a group of old friends.
My very own filing cabinet is in front of my desk, and on it facing me are maps/diagrams of the Landform Regions of Iowa, the Stratigraphic Column of Iowa, and a Bedrock Geologic Map of Iowa. These came from a stand upstairs-- we share our building with the Iowa Geological Survey. My very own bookcase is behind my left shoulder. Right now it only has six books in it-- two books about Iowa by Cornelia Mutel, Wetlands, Wetland Ecosystems, Soils: Genesis and Geomorphology, and my adviser's copy of Benchmark Papers in Hydrology: Riparian Zone Hydrology and Biogeochemistry. It will fill up soon.

Mine is one of four offices in "The Maze" in the basement of Trowbridge hall. We have a kitchenette and table in the space the office doors open off of. There's a coffee pot and an electric kettle on the counter, and a dozen or so copies each of the "Journal of Paleontology" and the "Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology" on top of the cabinets.

I am reading papers about nutrient cycles on agricultural watersheds-- mostly nitrogen fertilizer, where it comes from and where it goes. I have done a lot of reading this summer and have a really good start on building my intellectual understanding of all the pieces involved in this. I have also done a lot of insecurity this summer. I keep having golden moments of seeing a part of all the interconnected systems that affect a watershed and its hydrologic and nutrient cycles, and then coming back the next day, or the next hour, or after blinking, apparently, and feeling lost. I know that most of this is a mental thing that I do, where I don't think I'm good enough or smart enough or whatever-enough and freak myself out and undermine some key part of my mind. Clearly I also am just not able or expected to understand everything, but I am finding that just being here in the office and letting myself look through things that I've read and notes that I've taken, I have made a lot of progress towards a thesis topic/question. I will post more about that--hopefully soon-- once I've processed just a bit more. Related to this, though, I have been trying to say the words "I am a scientist" out loud as often as possible, to convince myself.

Classes start next week at the University of Iowa, and I am super excited. I am taking a Wetlands class that I waited YEARS for as an undergrad, only to have its normal offering canceled during my last year here--there is only one professor emeritus who teaches it, so it is not offered very often, and having it offered my first semester of grad school feels like a smile from the Universe. I'm also taking Soils and Hydrology, both of which come as highly recommended courses from highly recommended professors, so it's just going to be a good semester all around.

Friday, July 26, 2013

NASA's Earth Observatory "Notes from the Field" post

I had a post about the field campaign that NASA joined the Iowa Flood Center for in May and June this year, and here is a link:

Not Your Backyard Rain Gauge

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Gratitude and Roots

I have been back in the Midwest now for 6 months, and goodness, they have gone fast. I have so much to be grateful for in these months that I don't really know where to start.

I am working for IIHR again, and now mostly for the Iowa Flood Center as a research assistant. The opportunities for learning-- about Iowa, hydrology, technology, research, how science and policy happen separately and how they interact, and all the various institutions that interact to impact and manage the environment-- just at the weekly staff meetings are incredible.

I am close to family and old friends again, which is just beautiful.

I am READING. I am especially trying to learn about Iowa's environment, past and present, but have learned that I read my Goal Books faster if I also let myself read widely and for fun. Being motivated by lists to a kind of ridiculous extent, I've found Goodreads really helpful to keep track of what I have read and what I want to read (50 books last year! 10 already in 2013!). I also made a list there of Iowa nature and history books that anyone can vote on or add to, and I'd love to hear if you have any recommendations!

Iowa looks very different now that I haven't lived here my whole life. Details of landscape and wildlife and food and smalltalk seem less obvious and more precious. I feel like there are Big Things I have learned living abroad that I can express better here than anywhere else, and that I have almost found my voice for expressing them.

I've had a hard time writing this first-post-in-a-long-time. I feel like I need to have bigger ideas better writing to share, but I am just going to post this for now and let it serve as my blog throat-clearing so I can get into the habit of writing here again.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

holidays! presents!

I am always looking for independent artists to support over the holidays. My not-only-biased favorite is my brother's Etsy store, Trippi Thoughts Design,  which he started just this year and is already full of 47 beautiful items. My current favorites are these rose silverware earrings:
these dice earrings:
and these skeleton key earrings:
I... I like earrings.

Christian also had my engagement ring custom made through an artist with an Etsy store, MnM Woodworks. We are both super happy with it (it has been a little hard to finish this sentence, as I have to keep looking at the ring and it is around my neck on the chain that Christian's mother gave me so that involves looking very much away from the keyboard). He chose this artist from similar ones because of their straightforwardness, and had a very good experience. There are a lot of lovely wooden rings, and they have figured out lighting much better than I!

Last winter birthday season (my birthday is December 23rd and Christian's is December 25th) I bought things from the BoingBoing Maker's Market (and somehow didn't realize that it was being shutdown at pretty much exactly that time-- sad story!), and Topatoco, which has been my favorite source of nerdy gifts for years.

Living in Korea, I buy most of my books through What The Book, an English bookstore in Itaewon, Seoul's foreigner-central. In Iowa City, I did most of my book-business at the ICPL and The Haunted Bookshop, which has since moved and become even more excellent! In Ames I both worked and shopped at Firehouse Books, which has changed hands since I moved away but is still a lovely place.

I would love suggestions for more cool places to support and find meaningful gifts for the people I love! Where are you shopping for the holidays?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quotes on A/Theism, to help bake my thoughts

"It’s often imagined that nonbelievers like myself must be, in principle, closed to spiritual life. This is not true. You can have a deep spiritual and ethical life without lying to yourself or to your children about the nature of reality, without pretending to know things you do not know. There’s nothing that prevents a nonbeliever from experiencing ecstasy, and self-transcending love, and rapture and awe. In fact there’s nothing that prevents a nonbeliever from going into a cave and practicing meditation for a year, like a proper mystic.What nonbelievers don’t tend to do is make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the nature of the cosmos, and about the divine origin of certain books on the basis of those experiences. That is a difference worth noticing." --Sam Harris, speaking at Ciudad de las Ideas (Puebla, Mexico, 11/8/2009)

"I have much in common with atheists. What I find time and time again is that the god they’ve rejected is the god I’ve rejected. The god who doesn’t encourage intellectual honesty, the god who doesn’t care about the environment because 'it’s all going to burn'…the god who would condemn billions of people to hell simply because they haven’t said or done the proper ritual that Christians can’t even agree on…Some gods should be rejected." -- Rob Bell

"I was barked at by numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source. They are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional "opium for the people"—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims." --Albert Einstein, in a 7 August 1941 letter discussing responses to his essay "Science and Religion" (1941)

"I have found no better expression than "religious" for confidence in the rational nature of reality as it is accessible to human reason. Wherever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism. ... I cannot accept your opinion concerning science and ethics or the determination of aims. What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is. The determining of what ought to be is unrelated to it and cannot be accomplished methodically. Science can only arrange ethical propositions logically and furnish the means for the realization of ethical aims, but the determination of aims is beyond its scope. At least that is the way I see it. " -- Albert Einstein 

"Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent." --Rumi

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I went to What the Book used bookstore and the Kyobo Bookcenter when I visited Seoul the 15th-16th, and have spent a lot of my out of school time reading since then (partially, I caught a pretty bad cold last weekend and spent most of my time resting. Also I just really like to read).

I read Ender's Shadow, which follows the same timeline as Ender's Game-- probably one of my favoritest books, if someone was to make me choose-- but from Bean's perspective. Christian told me he liked it better, and I think with good reason. Bean is in a lot of ways more socially isolated but also less self absorbed- he is much more aware of himself and able to read what's going on around him. I spent a lot of time thinking about my brain and other people's brains and how we are shaped by experiences and all sorts of good things.

At the same time I started No god but God by Reza Aslan. I don't feel like I can sum this book up sufficiently without it's own really long post, but I'll write a start, at least. Aslan wrote this book as an introduction to the "history, evolution, and future of Islam" and did so with a readable grace that I am very grateful to have found. He describes the the Middle East-- already centered around pilgrimage to Mecca-- into which Muhammad was born. He describes Muhammad's life and the various states and theologians and movements and mystics that have followed after Him and his Quran. I have learned a lot about Islam, and been growing in how I think about religion and spirituality from reading this. (I have been just reading one chapter a day, so a still have a few days left before I finish.)

Next I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Buck was raised in China (her American missionary parents moved there when she was about 2 years old) speaking both English and Chinese. So, while her book has gotten criticism for being a story about 'real' Chinese farmers written by a White American, she was actually pretty informed in what she was writing. The prose is 'simple' to a fault. It reads in an almost train-of-thought flow that shares this Chinese farmer's perspective on the events and people in his life and --impressively for her background-- does this without judgment or any sense of cultural or moral superiority. Buck definitely highlights how awful women's condition was in China, but she makes them and the men in the book real people who interact and think about what best to do with that condition. There are no real heroes in this book--there is a lot of luck, good choices, and bad choices. I don't think this should be the only book you read if you want to understand China-- even if you only want to understand China before 1949-- but is a lovely novel to start with.

I am now reading Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian, who was the first Chinese author to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature. I am only on page 70 of about 500, so I can't tell you its big picture. Thus far it follows two journeys ('mine' and 'yours', which I suspect might both belong to the author, but at different points in time?) in remote parts of China, searching for meaning and self. At this point, I can already pretty confidently recommend it to anyone who has seen different possible lives/versions of themselves while traveling or meeting new people or investigation new ideas or spending time in nature. Ummm. So pretty much everyone. I guess just if you like to read.

Recently I read The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith ('recently' and 'finally', as an uncle gave this to me a few years ago and it took a while to catch up with my in my travels). It advertises itself as a "Libertarian science fiction adventure!" and does not disappoint. It is an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole alternate history, which (while a bit pedantic more than once) is an excellent medium for what the book is trying to do. It shows a USA where the Whiskey Rebellion was successful and its spirit continued to define American politics, and thus provides a model of Libertarian government. It gave me a lot to think about and economically and politically, and the show-not-tell of a novel is a great way to learn a new way of seeing the world (though Smith also does a fair amount of telling through his 'propertarian' characters, so be ready).

I read the first part of A. S. Neill's Summerhill School just before going to Seoul (and then the tone changed a bit in Part 2, and I found new books, and I moved on, fickle reader that I am!). Along with The Life and Work of Maria Montessori by E. M. Standing that I read about a year ago, this helped me re-understand and appreciate my mother's motivation for homeschooling Isaac and I, and gave me a lot of insight into how intellect and emotions develop. Neill founded a school where students are not required to do anything-- if they break something (well, some things) they have to pay for it, and there are rules set by the students and staff together about being quiet at night and such-- but they don't have to go to lessons, ever, if they don't want to. And when students arrive there from the public school system, they don't want to. It takes usually weeks or months and sometimes years before students realize that they WANT to learn and want help doing it. Some students never go to lessons and study entirely on their own, in whatever subjects they like. His students, for the most part, end up successful and generally more confidently creative than their counterparts in public schools.

I have been reading Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer off and on since I bought it at Prairie Lights in Iowa City in August. It's a book about writing autobiography (if you couldn't tell) and does a lovely job of talking about the squishy ideas of how to write about your life with solid examples and advice-- and a lot of respect for how squishy it is. The paragraph that is sticking out most in my mind is one where she talks about how subjective and changable memories are in time and relationships. Depending on how old I am and who I am talking to, my telling of various events in my life change drastically.

Oh man! And I finally read Watchmen, which was good and thoughtful and educational if also graphic. And earlier this year I read Transmetropolitan at Christian's behest (and he is reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler-- which I cannot recommend too strongly if you want to learn about China!). Dystopian futures! Adventure! Good brain food.

I'd love more book recommendations! Love!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Getting a feel for Korea

It took me a while to find Korea. I came as a China Scholar. I still think of myself as a China Scholar. But I came to Korea to be with Christian, to broaden my view of Asia, to calm down and figure myself out, and to earn money. I had a hard time separating my understanding of Korea from my understanding of China-- most of what I saw in Korea were things borrowed from China. I knew that a lot of what I understood as China I should really understand as Asia, but at the same time China has been an 'exporter of culture' for thousands of years in Asia. A lot of things that seem Chinese here are, or were.

... I started this post in a coffee shop in City Hall. I am now sitting at a kind of play/gathering ground (explanation in a moment) by the coast where, bless Korea, there is public wireless internet. There are coffee shops and bakeries popping up all over the place-- a Western fad. (There is also SPAM everywhere-- a product of American military influence in building South Korea's economy after/during the war...) This is a better place to think, and a good example for me to try to untangle my ideas of China and Korea. 

There is a long concrete wall behind me. It was I think recently painted a pale yellow, and has raised sculptures of fish and octopodes and Jeju Women Divers. On the other side of the wall is the ocean, which just switched from a deep turquoise to almost black with the setting of the sun, though there were clouds blocking the sunset for an hour or so.

I am sitting on the top of four large concrete steps that lead down to a large concrete court. The concrete is swirls and blocks of color-- blue and pink and yellow, I think, though I have almost always been here when the sun has been low and the yellow streetlamps distorting the color scale. This court ends maybe another hundred feet in front of me, and stretches probably half a mile from side to side. The area far to my right has basketball and other courts. Along the other edge are vendors. Some of them sell food, and most of them are renting some kind of equipment. Bicycles (for 1 to 4 riders), rollerblades and skates and pads,  child-sized electric cars, balls to throw around. There is only a small crowd out tonight, as it is Sunday, but there are still lots of families and more than a few sweethearts walking up and down the seawall or riding something around in circles. There is a constant murmur of parents telling their kids not to get so far away, or laughing or cheering their approval of some feat of balance, or children who have run out of feats and need a hug. It sounds like a community.

To get here I walked 20 minutes or so downhill from City Hall. The road I took was full of shops-- bags and shoes and pets and clothes-- and to cross the last main road I had to go underground and walk a hundred feet through the shopping strip that runs for a mile (I think?) under Jungangro. I am drinking a bottle of Tropicana Spirit: Juice100 &Sparkling, White Grape flavor. It was part of a 1+1 deal at the FamilyMart (a Japanese chain which competes with the Korean GS25) near my house. And, you will recall, I have my new black netbook on my knees, surfing the web and writing this to you fine people.

Okay. So, this court/public square feeling area could be in China, more or less. I have seen similar places at the center of cities where rollerblades are rented-- it is a good time in any country! But of course, in China the paved public pedestrian areas big enough for this are the People's Squares in the middle of cities (generally in the place where Something Else stood before 1949). But they are used in much the same way. I didn't ever live near the coast in China, and most of Korea is near the coast-- so we can chalk the salt tang in the air up to geographic differences.

Korea went through its lightning fast economic development in the 60s-80s, so the air here feels calmer as well. In China I often feel heavy with the emotional intensity that comes from Chinese people trying to keep up with the changes of the last century and keep track of their identity-- I say that or something like it often and am never sure if I'm getting quite what I mean across. This feeling is a lot of what makes China fascinating for me, though I struggle with it. I know I still do not have a good feeling for Korea's changes in the last century, because so many people here are so comfortable with them. I don't feel that struggle, but I know I also don't feel whatever was lost in it.

Korea is one of Asia's "four tigers" of economic development, and they* are conscious of being taken as an economic model by other 'developing' countries. My East Asian Economics/Economies** professor liked the description of Asian economies as a flock of geese-- Japan is the lead goose, and Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong flank it.

As an American (particularly as a white person, sadly) and walking symbol of the economic development that  both of these countries are aiming for, I am treated differently here. Differently from the way I am treated in American and differently from the way that most people are treated here. Overall, I am not given as much attention here in Korea, but I am definitely noticed. Understandably, not everyone is sure what to do with me. Do they like what my identity represents? Can they interact with me like a regular person? Can I understand even one word of their language?

The vast majority of people I have encountered in both countries have been incredibly welcoming-- embarassingly so, when I think of the way that foreigners, and especially foreigners who don't speak English, are talked about and treated in America. There are cases of discrimination, but they are not the rule. Definitely the main difference between China and Korea is that in China-- at least if you get away from big tourist areas like Beijing and Shanghai-- people are much more intrigued and excited to see a foreigner. Though I have had people in both countries tell me that I was the first foreigner they had ever talked to, or sometimes even seen in person.

Hmm... I think I'm going to stop here and try to come back with another entry just on Korea in the near future. It's I'm still struggling to put my finger on words to describe how these countries feel so very different. There are here, I'll just keep writing til they come out!

*I say 'they' and mean it in a way that is so general as to be pretty much inaccurate. There are plenty of people here who are contentedly clueless about politics and economic development in a lot of ways, just as there are most places.

**I really love that the lines around concepts are different in every language.