Category Archives: Personal

Fractal Doritos!

Students and faculty at University Preparatory School in Redding, CA have created the world’s largest Sierpinski triangle constructed entirely out of Doritos. (Well, it’s probably the only one, but still.) It is 64 feet long and made out of 12,000 Doritos. This was done as an entry to the Doritos Crash the Superbowl contest. Watch, and be awed:

Can a 128-, 256-, etc. foot long Dorito Sierpinski triangle be far behind? I bet the parent company for Doritos would seriously consider some corporate sponsorship.

Thanks to Cory Poole, math and physics teacher at U-Prep, who sent this in. That’s a great, creative way to get students interested in math. (And you can eat it when it’s done.) There’s more on the video here.

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Friday Random 10: 1/29/2010

Happy Friday to all:

  1. Without The Light (Kelly Joe Phelps, Roll Away the Stone)
  2. Partita #3, Menuet II (Paul Galbraith, Bach: The Sonatas and Partitas)
  3. Tenderoni (Chromeo, Fancy Footwork)
  4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles, White Album)
  5. Jump Up! (Imagination Movers, For Those About to Hop)
  6. Birdland (Weather Report, Best of Weather Report)
  7. Get Up, Stand Up (Bob Marley, Legend)
  8. Territories (Rush, Power Windows)
  9. The Remembering (High the Memory) (Yes, Tales from Topographic Oceans)
  10. With My Own Two Hands (Jack Johnson + Ben Harper, Sing-a-Longs and Lullabies)

Lots of good stuff to feature here this week — the Bob Marley piece is an especially welcome reminder of warmer climates right now, as it’s 15 degrees and snow on the ground here in Indiana. But in the spirit of 80’s music started last week, here’s a live version of Rush doing “Territories” (#8). Watch it for no other reason that to see Geddy Lee doing three things simultaneously — playing a hard bass line, playing intricate keyboard hits, and doing vocals — any one of which would give most musicians (<raises hand>) fits.

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Friday Random 10: 1/22/2010

It’s Friday again, so for your musical pleasure:

  1. Bad Dream (Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Essential Chicago Blues)
  2. All About Love (Earth Wind & Fire, Essential EWF)
  3. No Such Thing (John Mayer, Room for Squares)
  4. Look Mama (Howard Jones, The Best of Howard Jones)
  5. Brick House (The Commodores, 20th Century Masters)
  6. The Red Plains (Bruce Hornsby & The Range, The Way It Is)
  7. How Do The Fools Survive? (The Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute)
  8. Soul Power (James Brown, The CD of JB)
  9. A Venture (Yes, The Yes Album)
  10. Kiss Your Tears Away (The Smithereens, 11)

I think Howard Jones is a genius and doesn’t get nearly the appreciation he deserves, so here’s the video for “Look Mama” (#5). It’s vintage 1985, complete with big hair, but that’s part of the charm.

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Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day assembled and ready to go. Then I get the kids up (if they aren’t awake early, as is all too often the case) and we’re out the door for school by 7:15.
  • I try to get to the office by 8:00 or a little after and reply to messages for no more than a half hour. Anything messages I don’t get to wait till the afternoon or later. I don’t even use Entourage or a “push” email client; I use the web access to our email server so that I’m only alerted to new messages when I ask it to alert me.
  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I try to take 8:30-9:30 and do something scholarly and/or creative. This might be working on a computer program, watching part of a video from MIT OpenCourseware or iTunesU, reading a journal article, working on a blog post, or the like. When I first became a professor I was instructed that I needed to find large chunks of time in which to do research, but this approach simply hasn’t worked for me. Instead, I try to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook,  shoehorning intellectual work into my busy schedule one 30- or 60-minute segment at a time.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually don’t teach at all (it’s a feature of my college’s scheduling). So I give myself until 10:00 to do my GTD Weekly Review. Then I take the entire remainder of the day and try to get every single course I teach fully prepped through the following Tuesday. That way there is no preparation work to be done through the week, and all I have to do is pull out my materials and walk to class when it’s time. This doesn’t always work, but no ritual works all the time, so I don’t let it bother me as long as I am prepared for at least tomorrow’s classes.
  • I almost always make dinner for the family, and I eat with them and then play games or horse around or what-have-you until it’s bedtime for the kids, which is 7:30-8:00 at our place.
  • From 8:30-9:30, I like to spend time walking on the treadmill while I am watching a course video from iTunesU on the iPod Touch. (Right now I’m doing Gil Strang’s linear algebra course at MIT; also on my “course schedule” is an intro biology course at UC-Berkeley and a basic statistics course from a community college.) I do that 3-4 nights a week. On the other nights I will try to practice my bass guitar (through headphones, of course), work on blog posts, or something else fun.
  • I always read in bed until I fall asleep, usually by 11:00 PM.

And I try extremely hard never to bring work home — no grading at nights or on the weekends for me unless it’s crunch time. This is a commitment I made to myself and to the family early on. I eventually became a GTD disciple precisely because I’ve found that particular approach to work to be very amenable to a satisfying family life, uninterrupted by work tasks that could (should) have gotten done earlier had I been more focused.

Now it’s your turn. What are your daily routines and rituals? How do they make you happy and productive?

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Friday Random 10: 1/8/2010

I just realized that last week’s Friday Random 10 was dated 1/1/2009. I guess it’s taken a week for the New Year to become natural to write. Anyway, here’s this week’s selection:

  1. “Black Cow” (Steely Dan, Aja)
  2. “Remember” (Wes King, A Room Full of Stories)
  3. “For Real” (David Wilcox, East Asheville Hardware)
  4. “How Mountain Girls Can Love” (Ricky Skaggs, Ancient Tones)
  5. “She’s Nineteen Years Old” (Muddy Waters, His Best 1956-1964)
  6. “Pleiades” (King’s X, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska)
  7. “Te Deum” (Choir of King’s Choir, Cambridge; John Rutter Requiem)
  8. “Clean My Room” (Imagination Movers, Juice Box Heroes)
  9. “Superharp” (James Cotton, Essential Chicago Blues)
  10. Samba de Bênçä0 (Maria Bethânia, Toquinho, & Vinicius de Moraes, Days in Mar Del Plaza)

Steely Dan as the first selection, two weeks in a row? Hmm.

Although it’s tough to pick from a list including classic rock, Christian pop, folk, bluegrass, Chicago blues, metal, modern classical, and Brazilian samba music… I give the nod this week to Imagination Movers (#8). They’re an alt-rock band for pre-schoolers that have been a favorite at our house ever since they hit the Disney Channel a couple of years ago. They are not the typical smarmy kids’ band. These are four guys, three of them dads themselves, who are students of 80’s and 90’s rock and hip-hop and write their own music accordingly. My wife and I find ourselves listening to the Movers even when we don’t have the kids around.

Here’s a shortened-for-TV version of “Mover Music”, a sort of theme song for the band (and it appears with different lyrics at the end of every episode of the show). If you can’t hear the Romantics and the Cars in this then you probably should listen more closely:

We saw them in concert last fall when they played Indy, and despite serious sound system issues, they played an outstanding show.

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Friday Random 10: 1/1/2009

No re-start of this blog would be complete without a return to the Friday Random 10 feature, where I pull off 10 random songs in a row from the iPod and do some kind of video focus on one song or artist that shows up. Here you go:

  1. “Black Friday” (Steely Dan, Katy Lied)
  2. “Broken” (Jack Johnson, Sing-a-Longs and Lullabies (Curious George soundtrack))
  3. “Hammer to Fall” (Queen, Classic Queen)
  4. “The Dancing Flowers” (The Wiggles, Whoo Hoo Wiggly Gremlins)
  5. “Work in Progress” (Alan Jackson, Drive)
  6. “Let Everything That Has Breath” (Phillips, Craig, and Dean, Let My Words Be Few)
  7. “Spanish Fantasy” (Phil Keaggy, Acoustic Sketches)
  8. “Can You (Point Your Fingers and Do the Twist)” (The Wiggles, Here Comes the Big Red Car)
  9. “Partita #3 (iv)” (Paul Galbraith, Bach: The Sonatas and Partitas)
  10. “The Calling” (Yes, Talk)

If by some accident you have never heard of Phil Keaggy (#7), here’s a video that gives an idea why he’s all over my music library. This is “Addison’s Walk” from Beyond Nature, which was a staple of my graduate school-days listening diet.

That’s just ridiculous.

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Ten rules for financing a transition to academia (Rerun/bumped)

This post is a rerun from December 2008, which was itself a re-posting from an article I wrote for the Young Mathematicians’ Network. If you’re headed to the Joint Mathematics Meetings this month to interview for academic positions, or if you’re one of the lucky ones who have already lined up a job for next year, or if you just want some ideas for New Year’s resolutions about money management, maybe this will fit the bill. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.

———————

Right now, if you are on the job market, you are thinking of two, maybe three things. The top attention-getter, if you’re in graduate school, is getting your thesis done. Next down the list, you’re probably wondering what all those search committees are thinking, particularly what they are thinking of you and where they put you in the pack of applicants for their positions. And third, you might be thinking about the Joint Meetings next month, where you’ll likely get your first dose of interviewing.

But what many job applicants, particularly those still in graduate school, don’t think about at this time of year is how things are going to unfold after the interviews have been done and the job offers extended and accepted. Very soon, you’ll be done with your thesis and signed on to start a new position in the fall. And the gap between finishing school and starting a new academic job has to be paid for.

A failure to plan for this gap can create a huge financial mess, as you can tell if you look at my story. I accepted a job in April 1997 and defended my dissertation in May of that year, but not once did I plan for the interim period between finishing school and starting my job. When the summer following my defense came, I had virtually no income and absolutely no savings. So when I made my move from Tennessee to Indiana, I had to put everything — groceries, apartment deposits, and so on — on credit cards at 15% to 18% interest. My indebtedness went even deeper when I discovered the simple fact that my first paycheck wasn’t due to arrive until the middle of September. So I had to live for two months on my own with no money, living like a graduate student, racking up high-interest debt, after telling myself I’d finally be able to afford nicer things once I had a job. I absolutely failed to enjoy the new, comparatively luxurious income that I had earned by getting my job, because I had to spend the plurality of it paying off the debt I incurred while moving to that very same job! It took me the better part of four years after starting my job to pay off the debt I incurred from May through September.

We mathematicians are so good at quantitative ideas and yet many of us miss the boat when it comes to real-life personal finance. Here are ten pieces of advice about money and finances that I wish I had gotten prior to my last year in graduate school.

Things to do BEFORE interviews

1. Use a good online salary/cost of living calculator to get an estimate of monthly living expenses in all the areas you might live. You can Google and find a whole lot of these. Find out what the average starting salary is for the position to which you applied, and start plugging and chugging to find out what that compares to in different places.

2. Starting NOW: Save up for two months of living expenses based on the average monthly cost of living in your potential new locations. Those two months are August and September. This is very tough, because moving to a new location involves lots of one-time startup expenses that can mount up very quickly: deposits for a new apartment, fees to turn on utilities, tags for your car, and so on. Add to that the fact that many employers issue paychecks only once a month in the middle or sometimes (like my current college) at the end of the month. That means that the big, fat paycheck you’re looking forward to is not going to come your way until potentially 6-8 weeks after you actually begin working, and you will have a lot of expenses in the meanwhile to deal with. You have to have a cash reserve that is sufficient to handle these expenses and get you through to your first paycheck.

3. Starting NOW: Procure summer employment and benefits. In light of #2, it’s especially important to try and get some income sources for the time following your completion of school and (hopefully) your thesis defense and prior to your move. Fortunately, summer employment is usually easy to find if you are willing to get outside your comfort zone. There’s a good chance that your current university can hire you on as an adjunct to teach a four- or eight-week summer course. Adjuncting is a gig that usually pays fairly well, doesn’t involve as much grading during the summer as a regular-term course, and keeps your classroom skills fresh. Community colleges are also a good source of these kinds of jobs. If you don’t want to teach, there are always seasonal jobs in retail; or you could tutor; or you could babysit; or whatever. The point is that most graduate school assistantships run out at the end of the academic year, and you will need an income stream once this happens in order to save up for living expenses in August and September. The time to get busy finding such a stream is now, particularly for teaching jobs, as most colleges plan their teaching schedules out 4-6 months in advance. And don’t forget benefits, either, like health insurance; if you carried health insurance as a part of your graduate student assistantship, and you’re no longer a graduate student, then you should look into getting a COBRA or finding a summer position that has health insurance as a benefit.

4. Starting NOW: Pay down or pay off credit card debts and make a pact with yourself to use credit cards only if you know you won’t carry a balance. If you can pay off your credit card and personal loan debts now, then you can use the money you are pumping out to the credit card companies and salt it away instead for your living expenses later in the year. And since the use of credit cards and personal loans is easy to justify when you have to scrape income together to get by, you have to be serious with yourself about using them sparingly, if at all — or else you’ll end up with debt that takes years to pay off, like I did.

Things to do DURING and AFTER interviews

Once you start having phone interviews and/or Joint Meetings interviews, and then go on to on-campus interviews and eventually job offers, it’s time to be more precise:

5. When you are able to make a short list of schools under consideration, do detailed research on the cost of living in each area and revise your calculation from #1. You’ll have between two and ten schools that are holding your interest and which are reciprocating that interest by now. Look at each school in turn and find out: average monthly rent on apartments, average cost per square foot for houses, property tax rates, car and health insurance rates, and so on. You now have to consider the prospect of actually living in one of these places. And the cost of doing so is at least as important of a factor in considering job offers as anything else. If a school in central Indiana (one of the most affordable places to live in the USA) offers you a salary of $50K per year, that’s much different than getting an offer from a school in San Francisco or New York City of the same amount or even $20-30K per year more than that. You can find out information on most of these things online at your salary/COL calculator, local real estate web sites (which let you search for apartments and homes in the area), and Chamber of Commerce sites.

6. When doing on-campus interviews, take time to explore the area to check out housing prices and neighborhoods, rent for apartments near campus, going to grocery stores, etc. While you can do much of your cost-of-living research online, there’s no substitute for pounding the pavement and putting yourself in the actual location in which you might be living. That college’s web site might make it look like an idyllic, forested setting, but maybe that’s just good photography — and the reality is that the college’s town is run-down and crime-ridden. On my first job interview, the college actually loaned me a college vehicle and paid for the gas so I could spend an afternoon on my own driving around to see the place, and that was a major factor in my taking that position.

7. When an offer comes, negotiate for relocation expenses. The cost of actually moving your stuff from your current location to the new location is a significant expense that can be a huge one, if you have more to move than just yourself and a small amount of stuff. Many colleges automatically give some sort of relocation allowance and are happy to do so, but you want to do the research beforehand to estimate just how much it’s going to cost you to actually move (How big of a truck will you need? How much mileage and gas? Will it take one day or multiple days? Do you need movers to handle your stuff?) and then make this a point of negotiation during the offer. If you are attractive enough of a candidate to get an offer at all, most colleges would have no problem spending a little more on a one-time basis to help you move there. (And if they are not willing to help you on that, turn the offer down — who wants to work at a stingy college?) This is a summer expense that you can totally avoid if you have hard data to support your estimate and halfway-decent negotiating skills.

8. Consider living in an inexpensive apartment or rental house for one year after moving, rather than buying a house. There are a lot of reasons in general to prefer owning a home over renting. But when you are moving to a new location, renting for a year will free up income (since rent is typically less than a mortgage payment) and will allow you to do four important things:
(a) Research the housing market in your area, figure out where the good and bad neighborhoods are, and figure out just how much you can really afford per month on a mortgage payment.
(b) Set aside money towards a down payment on the house that you really want (if you really want one). The magic number is often 20% of the house’s value, which will allow you to avoid mortgage insurance costs later.
(c) Build up an emergency fund of at least $1000 that will give you a cushion if something unexpected comes along.
(d) Continue to pay off debts.
Also, since it might be expensive just to travel to a place to look for housing, getting an apartment first doesn’t involve so much guesswork (apartments are pretty uniform in quality whereas houses can look great online but turn out to be terrible in person), and setting up your apartment can be done online or over the phone without having to travel.

9. Make a pact with yourself that you will not splurge on nice stuff until you actually have an income from your new job. This is very tough, because you’ve been living for 4+ years on a pauper’s income and eating Ramen noodles for two meals a day, so you really, REALLY want to go out and buy an iPhone or a new car. But you have to tell yourself that just having a job doesn’t mean you have money — not yet. I think a good waiting period on new stuff would be one semester after you start. By then, you’ll have an idea of just how far that paycheck will stretch each month and you can avoid getting in over your head. Some items, I agree, you have to buy right away — like furniture for your apartment. But you can often get multiple-years same-as-cash deals on things like this and defer payments until after the first semester is over.

10. Continue to educate yourself on personal finance matters. I highly recommend, and have largely stolen from in this article, the work of Dave Ramsey as a good source of learning about financing. He will challenge you to change the way you think about consumerism and debt, and if you listen, you will get on a sound financial footing for the rest of your life. His best book is Total Money Makeover, and his Financial Peace University classes are offered all the time in churches and community centers, usually for free or a small fee. He also has a radio show, web site, and podcast on money matters.

The point here is that you not only want to get a job you love, you also want to give yourself the ability to enjoy it to the fullest by not having to worry about money or how to pay off all the debt you gathered while finishing up.

Do you have other ideas or advice for getting financially ready to transition from grad school to the working world? Leave a comment!

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