23 February 2010

Self-Organization: Fractals in the Heart of Africa

I'll bet there are a couple of readers out there wondering if I really am an anthropologist given all the stuff about technology and professional development I've been posting lately.  I haven't forgotten, I've just been a bit side-tracked.

Royal palace, Logone-Birni, Cameroon (Musee de l'Homme, Paris)

This morning I received an interesting email that brought together a few subjects near and dear to me - Africa, indigenous knowledge, and fractals.  "Fractals?" you say.  Yes.  Fractals.  They are everywhere in nature, art, architecture, and even, as I will discuss, African society.

Queen Anne's Lace - Daucus carota - More images at WebEcoist

The email came from a listserve for folks interested in indigenous knowledge that is based at Penn State - ICIK.  It seems that in June 2007, Dr. Ron Eglash, an ethnomathematician gave a TED talk and someone in the forum found it, sent it to the co-director of ICIK, and she (Dr. Audrey Marezki) posted it round to the listserv.

Eglash's talk started out with some background about the history of fractal math in Europe and what exactly fractals are.  "Pathological curves" are one definition used by mathematicians, but really they are self-organizing systems/patterns.  Each part looks like the greater whole - a property of self-similarity, where recursion continues into infinity.  He then went on to talk about African architecture, art, and social organization.  His work, beginning with a Fulbright to explore why African villages and towns, used fractal math to organize, shows that while some of the use is unconscious, much of the use of fractal mathematics in Africa is deliberate.  And the village layout patterns are repeated in the clustering of houses and organization of rooms within homes.  Fractal algorithms even appear in the seasonal cycles of religious ceremonies, funeral ceremonies, and spirit/ancestral houses.

“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”  - Eglash, Designers 421

Eglash then moved on to discuss fractal math used in the game Mancala, wind screens made in West Africa for desert winds, and the origin of binary code in Bamana Sand Divination.  Yes, even the humble code that allows me to produce this blog finds its origins in Africa.  According to the talk, explorers carried the Bamana Sand Divination to Moorish Spain where it was picked up by alchemists and incorporated into their geomancy divination practices.  Later, Leibonitz derived binary code from geomancy.  If you watch the video I've posted below, you will see that Eglash makes the story far more interesting with inclusion of giving out gold to 7 lepers and sleeping with a kola nut.

Dr. Eglash ends with a discussion of how this knowledge is being applied in American classrooms - encouraging black students to connect to their mathematical roots - and how the robust, self-organizing algorithms found in indigenous knowledge could be applied to finding solutions to many of the African continents' problems.

More links:

Eglash, R.  2008.  Bamana sand divination: recursion in ethnomathematics.  American Anthropologist 99(1): 112-122.

Eglash, R. 1999.  African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design.  Rutgers University Press.

TED Profile on Ron Eglash with the link to the original video talk.

Ron Eglash's African Fractals homepage.
  • Link to CDST page with teaching applets (cultural design and math).

20 February 2010

E-Portfolios and Multiple Blogs

This past Wednesday I took a course on what I thought was blogging as part of the professional development offered to Penn State postdocs.  I figured it would be one of those classes where they discuss copyright issues, intellectual property, what Penn State frowns on, etc.  It ended up being a short course on e-portfolios.

E-portfolios are actually a neat way to build a professional online presence without having to go through the hassle of building a webpage.  Yeah, I know webpages aren't all that difficult but my knowledge of html coding is still in the baby stage - bolding, italics, centering, adding photos and links to discussion posts in forums, and that's about it.  So with the Movable Type software (free BTW) we learned to use, I can have permanent pages with stuff like my CV, text-based vita, ongoing research projects, and links, as well as a space to blog my thoughts about my research or what I am reading.

Which brings me to the dilemma of maintaining two blogs when I can barely manage one.  What goes where?  This one has been out there longer and apparently people even read it on occasion.  The new blog, Through the Postdoc Looking Glass, is my professional stuff so no cussing, discussion of personal stuff, or weird crap that catches my interest.  :)

There will likely be times that I double post, but I assure you that I will keep up the work here.  In the meantime, if anyone has any experience with maintaining multiple blogs I'd love to hear about it.

18 February 2010

Breaking bad habits

So yesterday was the beginning of Lent - 40 days of fasting or denial of sinful temptation if you ascribe to a Christian view.  A period of major importance to Catholics, and used by some Protestants to illustrate just how much Jesus gave up so that you can go to Heaven.  Or at least that was how I interpreted it as a kid.  Back then, even though my family wasn't Catholic, I recall giving up stuff like biting my nails, bubble gum (that was the toughest), ice cream, and soda pop. 

Even though I don't practice any particular religion anymore, I still see value in using Lent to rid myself of some bad habits.  Given that it takes at least 3 weeks for good exercise habits to develop, 40 days is a significant period of time to focus.

Lately, I've noticed two bad habits creeping into my eating - drinking excessive amounts of coffee and eating candy when I don't have time to make a real meal.  Although this was a problem while I was dissertating, it has gotten worse since my postdoc started.  PB & J or soup or a bean burrito is probably okay as dinner or lunch once in a while but not every night for months on end.  To make up for the missing energy I chug coffee or eat a piece of candy.  The problem is that after the sugar or caffeine rush, I burn out 2 hours later. So these are the 2 that I will be working on.

1. No coffee - full caf, half-decaf/half-caf or full decaf.
2. No candy - no chocolates, no hard candies, etc.

I know I will hate this.  I'm already hating the no coffee today.  But since I don't drink soda and rarely eat ice cream or chew gum, I think I have a chance and weaning myself off the candy and coffee.  I just wish I could stop biting my nails.

09 February 2010

Setting Postdoc Goals

Prior to the weekly meeting with my mentor last Friday, Petra emailed me to say that we would be developing a one page mentoring plan for NSF.  Beginning April 2010, all NSF proposals that request funding for a postdoc will require a mentoring plan.  There was a little confusion, since ultimately this requirement doesn't affect me.  I'm funded by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.  However, we decided that this would be a good exercise for both of us anyway.

My immediate reaction to her email was to google what was out there.  Why reinvent the wheel?  Surely other postdocs have done this and someone has posted an example.  Nada.  I did find a nice IDP (individual development plan) at UCSF that outlines an exercise to help postdocs think about their skills, career goals, and annual goals.  The IDP is designed primarily for life science grads and postdoc trainees.  As I went through the questions on the form I could see that with some modification, it would also be useful for social scientists. 

I showed the IDP to Petra during Friday's meeting.  And she set in motion the exercise that brings me here - setting goals.  I spent the better part of this afternoon thinking about the projects I will be working on for Petra as part of ALCCAR, but also my own research in Mozambique that I need to continue analyzing and writing up for publication.   I filled four pages in my lab notebook and numerous pieces of scratch paper during my brainstorming session with the projects Petra wants me to work on as well as my own stuff.  Now that I think about it, I could have used the whiteboard in my office.  I only planned the timeline through May 2010 though.  Summer research in Ghana begins in June, and at this time I am not sure when I will be in Africa.  Planning out my field research schedule for Mozambique was sort of like this, but really I don't think anything in grad school fully prepared me for developing my career.

Eugene Russo writes in his 2004 Nature article that postdocs need to "map out their own path."

Successful, quick postdoctorates are most likely when students take at least as much responsibility for their own training as the institutions and faculty do.
Sitting down to think about my priorities - both for the year and for my career - wasn't something that I thought I would be doing.  But further reading on the internet suggests I'd be a fool not to do so, particularly given the current employment climate.   I like research and teaching, but do I want the high pressure environment of a Tier I research university or something a little less stressful?  What would that look like?  Will I fit into a traditional anthropology department?  Or is my interdisciplinary take a little to broad or narrow?  Would I be employable in say a geography department?  Is my interdisciplinary background a help or a hindrance?   Should I just give up on academia and look for work with an NGO or governmental-type agency?

Then there is the professional development component to postdoc skill growth that goes beyond the How to Write a CV, Give a Job Talk, or Create a Good Powerpoint.  These are all valuable skills but not the sum total of professional development.  I knew this and had tried doing some of this while I was working on my doctorate, but now these activities have become really important.  Networking, brainstorming future research plans and papers, attending a few interesting seminars that could inform my research, catching up reading that I missed while dissertating, and creating research and writing schedules/timelines are some of the things I'm now working on.

So far, I've attended seminars in indigenous knowledge, ethnohistory, and gender & climate change in my efforts to network with folks outside the geography department, and learn something new and different.  Yesterday I registered for a professional development conference at PSU sponsored by Graduate Women in Science.  I also sent in my dissertation abstract to an interdisciplinary working group, DISCCRS, that hosts annual symposiums for newly-minted scientists studying climate from all sorts of perspectives to network and gain additional research and communication skills.  It is the first step in their symposium application process.  All of these groups have already started sending me notices about resources online.  A definite next professional development step is to figure out how to be more efficient with my email.

My final step in this goal setting process will be to post my final IDP here as an example.   :)

Additional Resources:

Masur, S.K. and S.L. Schmid. 2009. Goal setting and time management for postdocs.  Presentation MSSM Postdoctoral Program.

Russo, E. 2004. Fast track: charting the course of your postdoc. Nature 431: 1126-1127.

Ali, L. and B. Graham. 2000. Moving on in your career: a guide for academic researchers and postgraduates. Routledge.  (online sample)

Feibelman, P.J. 1993. A PhD is not enough: a guide to survival in science. Basic Books. (online sample)

08 February 2010

New Year, New Job, New Start

Technically, I've been at my new job for 4 weeks now.  However, the coming and going of myself and my new postdoc adviser in the first two weeks meant that I really didn't start until the end of January.  The first week Petra, my adviser, was in Ghana until Thursday morning with work.  And the second week, both of us were in Atlanta for separate conferences.  (I was presenting some of my dissertation results at the AMS meetings.)  So I feel like I didn't really start full on until that last week of January, even though I was reading and organizing and figuring out what my postdoc projects would be.

Every Friday, Petra and I have set up a time to meet to go over what I've been doing and what I need to do.  Having a deadline to be responsible for is good for me, and I appreciate having a set time where I can ask my questions (of which I have lots).  I struggle, as always, with time management.  As my mom likes to remind me, "You do work best under pressure."  But as the small, sane voice in the back of my head says, "You need to find a better way to get your work done that won't drive you crazy."

The very first meeting Petra gave me a huge list of all the projects she wants me to work on this year.  I panicked.  Full on "Why the fuck did I take this job?  I'll totally fail." panic and confusion.  The following Sunday, I spoke with my brother and told him what was up.  Wil was impressed with my adviser's organization, and reminded me that she didn't expect me to get it all done at once - this was a year's worth of work.  Petra later confirmed this.  *breathe*  I felt better, but I'm still scratching my head over when I'm going to find the time to work on getting out my dissertation chapters and working on other data that I had.

Moving to State College, Pennsylvania in midwinter sucks.  With the snow, cold, and seasonal darkness I have no incentive to get out and check out the area.  This leaves me a lot of time to work.  At the same time, I want to establish some boundaries between work and play.  Downtime, play so to speak, is good for my brain.  I have found, in the past, that it gives my brain a chance to process what I've been working on.  Sleep works too, but all work and no play makes Jen a dull girl.  One of my personal goals for this new start in the new year is to find a better balance between work and play - even if my work sometimes seems like play and my play sometimes feels like work.