Sunday, August 29, 2010

The past two weeks

  So, there has been quite a flurry of activity here that I haven't had time to report on.  I don't have photos from any of this, so I'll try to be relatively brief.

  First of all, on Wednesday the 18th we had a progress session for my group, the EEP (Evolution and Ecology Program), where I presented my research results for the summer for the first time.  It was a mad rush up to the last minute, analyzing data and making plots and preparing slides, but I got it done, and it went well.  Whew!  My results are still quite preliminary and need to be interpreted and understood better, but it looks like the work I've done this summer will make a solid first publication for my PhD career.  Yay!

  Later the same day was IIASA's annual triathlon.  I had considered bicycling in it, but I decided I was too stressed out with the presentation earlier and couldn't deal with it, which was the right choice.  I was one of the two official timekeepers for it, though, which was quite fun.  I was really impressed by the athleticism of my colleagues; I'm pretty sure I couldn't have completed the swimming part at all, and the running and biking parts looked pretty strenuous too.  Respect.  It was fun cheering people across the finish line, and fun going to a heuriger for the after-party!

  There was a YSSP feedback session the next morning that was long but worthwhile.  About fifteen people showed up, not a bad turnout considering we were all buried in work, and we talked for a good three hours and change.  It was worthwhile because I felt that we were really listened to and our views were respected.  The YSSP is a very important thing for IIASA, and they take it quite seriously.

  There was a birthday dinner party for Arame that evening, which was yummy Indian food.  I was given all the leftovers from the whole party (which was quite a lot!) and threw my own little back-patio Indian food party with them the following night.  Both were a great parties with fabulous food, and it was really fun watching Arame's interactions with her little sister, who was visiting her from Senegal.  Thanks Arame!

  The next day over lunch was the start of a shogi game between myself and a researcher at IIASA in the EEP group, Åke Brännström.  Shogi is a traditional Japanese board game related to chess.  Åke is, I think, the first person I've ever met who plays it, and he had a short book on it that I read at the beginning of the summer.  After that, we met up a couple of times over the course of the summer, over lunch, to play.  The first couple of games I got squashed quite thoroughly, but I used to play chess pretty seriously, so I adjusted reasonably quickly.  The game we started this day didn't get finished until about a week later, because other things got in the way, but I won it in the end.  My first shogi win!  The differences between shogi and chess are really fascinating.  It has a much more dangerous, unpredictable feel to it (mostly because pieces that get captured become the possession of the capturer, and can be dropped back onto the board at any location on any later turn in the game, but also because your king is less securely protected, and because your pawn structure is less defended because pawns can't protect each other).  Shogi also has a much more local feel to the interactions between the pieces; you have only one rook and one bishop, and no queen, basically (glossing over lances, which are relatively useless), so your ability to reach across the whole length of the board is severely limited.  Replacing those pieces are "generals" of two types that can only move to squares immediately adjacent to them — like the king in chess, but actually even less powerful, because they can only move to a subset of the adjacent squares).  This makes the game flow very differently.  It can easily happen that one player has an overwhelming advantage in material strength, but all of his pieces are on the wrong side of the board, and it would take a great many moves to get them over where they're needed, so the player with less material is actually able to mate.  Being used to chess, where being up even a single pawn can be a decisive material advantage, that took some getting used to for me!  I will miss these games with Åke.

  The next week — last week — was the final week of the YSSP.  On Monday we had a progress session meeting where all four of us in the EEP group gave an early version of our final presentations, for review by the group.  I had worked on my final presentation all weekend, so I thought I was good to go.  I was met with a volley of critiques and suggestions, all constructive and all excellent, that meant I needed to redo large portions of it.  Back to the drawing board for two last late nights of slide revisions.  I have been practically living in PowerPoint day and night for a couple of weeks now.  Those who think science is all about solitary work in a lab somewhere, think again!  Science is all about communication.  You can have the most amazing findings in the world, but if you can't communicate them to others, you are a failure as a scientist.  It's important to know what you're doing in the lab too, of course, but writing and public speaking are essential skills, and many scientists probably spend more time doing those things than doing actual research, especially at more senior levels, but even down at the PhD student level.

  Tuesday and Wednesday were final presentations by the YSSPers, given to each other and to various researchers and staff at IIASA.  Fifteen minutes each, with ten minutes for questions.  Mine was Wednesday afternoon.  It went quite well; I got lots of positive feedback on it.  Which is nice, given how hard I worked on it; the work-reward cycle is slower in science than it is in software engineering, so it's nice for me when the loop finally does connect and something that I've been working hard on for months gets me a bit of praise and recognition.

  And that brings us to Thursday, the Awards Dinner, which I'll do a separate post on.

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