[personal profile] lhexa
I don't much like writing about the mundane details of my life, but I think I owe it to my friends to do so. So, awhile back, I decided to write big updates every six months or so, to keep my friends up to date. I fell a little behind in doing so, but here I'm making up for it. And if you're curious why this appears on Livejournal too: all my important writing goes to Dreamwidth, but since the only thing this post is for is to give information to my friends, I don't mind it going up both places.


I started my life in Austin much the same way I did my life in Chicago, focusing on studying but neglecting to build friendships. I did make weekly trips to Dallas for awhile, but that did not make up for my lack of companionship. The result of that lack was another breakdown in spring 2008, albeit a minor one compared with what I went through in Chicago. I was reminded that, solitary though I am, I still need the regular support of friends to maintain equilibrium and perspective. I did find such support, although I veered too far in the opposite direction for a time.

The two main sources of support and companionship (and occasionally sex) over the last three years have been two local furs called Fades and Whines. [1] Whines I met during an ill-fated attempt to help another local, and for more than two years we met weekly for lunch, until the regularity of that event wore at me. He is an interesting, affectionate and creative person, well worth the time spent in his company. Fades, his mate, is a rare self-described extrovert, a good conversationalist and a superb host. I don't yet know another who shows as much concern for his friends as he does. To the two of them I owe the continuance so far of my mental health, and when it comes time to life and I write letters of gratitude to the people who have helped me in that period, their letters will take a lot of time.

Unfortunately, I do reach the end of my interest in exploring them. Two people can only be so large on the inside. So I have made an effort to cultivate other friendships. There's Tofu, an empathetic and gregarious local, and another local Erin, whom I find interesting and affable. I plan to spend more time with them. There are also a handful of other unnamed locals, some of whom I may grow closer to over the remaining years in graduate school, but these are too many for this account. Online, I met Cube in my second semester, and found him fascinating. I also met Rax, intelligent and promising. In fact, I find that it's online where I currently want to spend the most effort finding new people. Perhaps I'm pining for more discussion: the locals will happily engage in conversation on abstract matters, but I usually have to be the one to bring them up.

The past three years have also provided a crash course in handling conflicts with friends and acquaintances, just as the previous two years had provided a crash course in face-to-face social interaction. These conflicts have ranged from stopping some minor behavior I found aggravating, to bringing up matters I had been stewing over for weeks, to the worst, a series of arguments with Fades and Whines which took weeks to resolve (though resolve they did). Previously my only experience with such conflict had been my parting with Raki, which went badly, [2] though thankfully I seemed to have learned what I should from that failed friendship. Thankfully, I've been able to navigate the worst of these conflicts by being communicative and open, a basic but difficult lesson learned. On the other hand, I have been the one to initiate every one of these conflicts, a fact which has implications.

However, I should still appreciate the extent to which I am solitary. In practice, this means spending more time with only one or two friends, rather than scattering myself over a group. I have not been able to do the latter regularly without ending up feeling wretched and lessened. The occasional, irregular group event tends to be enjoyable, though, provided it's among a group I haven't spent too much time with recently. In Dallas, I swallowed the wretchedness because it was, at first, the only way to find the company of my friends. [3] In Austin, I did so out of habit, not yet realizing that I now had the emotional abilities and resources to socialize on my own terms. That realization took place over the course of this year, more or less. What I get out of spending time with friends is, more or less, the opportunity to explore. That opportunity is not present in groups, though I'll grant that there are other good things about such contexts.

Living on my own

The past three and a half years have been the first extended period of time I have lived on my own, supported by my own salary. The closest prior experience were a year and a half (a bad year and a half) spent in a private dorm room. I have learned to survive and even flourish in my own apartment, but I have found myself made helpless by some moods, either my natural lows or the several extended periods of depression that punctuated my graduate school life. In these periods such normal tasks as laundry, groceries, dishes and dealing with bureaucracies, particularly the last, become intractable. I have adapted to those moods and the peculiar crises they inflict on someone who lives in isolation, but the adaptation is not yet full.

When I first moved I had some ambitions of learning how to cook a variety of meals for myself, but that turned out to be too demanding in energy and attention for me to keep it up consistently. For a year or so afterward I compensated by eating out frequently, but that was too costly to continue indefinitely. More, spending money is the most tangible way (though not the most powerful way) that I set other people in motion, and I would rather set them in motion doing more worthwhile things than taking care of me. For now, I eat lots of canned goods and TV dinners along with the occasional cooked meal, which is a decent compromise in the current circumstances of my life. Oh yeah, I did quit caffeine in my third semester, that was a victory. On a related note, I figured out that high fructose corn syrup was the last thing keeping my face from being consistently clear, so with some internal struggle I managed to wean myself from the (many, many) things containing it. I've got a cute face, I'd rather not see it sprinkled with open sores.

I moved down here in my mother's old 1994 Toyota Pickup. [4] It was a wonderful little truck, consistently useful, and kept me good company during an interesting psychotic episode. However, it broke down a year and a half after I moved, lasting only long enough to get me back to Dallas one last time. I purchased my grandmother's neglected 2000 Chevy Impala to replace it, and have probably become spoiled by this new car. It has cruise control and power locks! Heh, anyway, I've taken good care of the thing, and it should last me all the way through graduate school.

While I liked my truck's ability to carry goods, I've found I rather prefer the new car's ability to carry people. Let's see, what are some of the other mundane details of my life... I do laundry in my apartment complex, after some experiments with a nearby laundromat. I fold my clothing after laundering it, which would no doubt have surprised my mother. I get groceries from a nearby HEB, and occasionally from an even closer little co-op grocery store, the only one of its kind in Texas. If I ate fewer TV dinners that would be my main grocery store, but, well, cooking has to take second place to much else. Ah, this is boring stuff, I'll move on to the reason I'm in Austin.

Graduate school

Graduate school started out smoothly. It's been a long time since I've taken a class I couldn't handle, [5] and the graduate level physics ones were no different -- tougher, yes, but nothing overwhelming. Indeed, so far the classes in these three years I've found troublesome were the ones conducted by someone godawfully tedious, plus the ones demanding presentations. Of course, as my new advisor commented, the question every graduate student must face is whether they can translate success in classes to successful research. I hope so, but I still don't know for sure.

However! Doing well in classes is not what graduate school is about. Graduate school is about finding a subfield and demonstrating that you can contribute to it. I came into graduate school with a specific topic in mind (applying model theory to physics), but could find noone suitable to advise me in that topic. It took me two years to unbend enough to start thinking about different research topics, and of course by that point I was getting desperate. I remember awful, anxious meetings with various professors, all of them discouraging. I came to realize that graduate school, and for that matter life as an actual scientist, required social skills that I had neither appreciated nor fully acquired. I made it to my fourth semester still lacking an advisor.

So it was understandable that I did not make the right choice at first. My first advisor, Dr. Shvets, was an interesting lecturer with interesting research topics to provide, and I got along with him alright. I took an advanced electromagnetism class from him my fourth semester, and he was apparently impressed enough to take me on. He had a large, well-funded group of graduate students, which seemed like a good thing at the time. My research topic was to be photon acceleration, [6] and I fairly soon found a new result or two in the more abstract reaches of the topic, most significantly a better momentum equation than the prior one. However, Dr. Shvets kept guiding me back to more applied work, and it slowly became clear that my position was to be something like a glorified programmer. I was to maintain and update a couple of twenty year old pieces of plasma physics code, and run them for various situations requested by Dr. Shvets' group and an associated experimental group. I found out that I do not make a very good programmer.

Not yet realizing this problem, I limped my way through my qualifying exam. I once read a comic showing someone having a nightmare about panicking over missing assignments and forgetting tests for a class, and its punchline was "You will never stop having this dream." I've never had that dream. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the period of time leading up to my qualifying exam factored into a nightmare some day. I guess I did alright, though: I showed adequate command of the subject material, I put together a little movie of one of my simulations to show, I fed my dissertation committee donuts, and I was able to get through the entire derivation of the Bohr model. Yeah, I did alright.

The new advisor is Dr. Morrison, someone I added to my committee because of his specialty in Hamiltonian dynamics (photon acceleration is an example thereof), with whom I took classes this semester and last. He is boisterous and fascinated by his research topics, and the best lecturer (to my tastes) I've found so far at this school. He's also frequently available for and interested in conversation, whereas Dr. Shvets was endemically low on free time, what with his group of a dozen and a half students and scientists. My decision to leave was spurred by having a sudden realization about the relativistic transformation of dipoles, and developing the subject to some degree, only to have the matter repeatedly brushed aside by my previous advisor. Changing advisors was terrifying, as I felt beholden to my previous one: he had given me an RA appointment, and more or less kept me from having to drop out of graduate school. But I was able to do so, and found my condition bettered considerably as a result.

Nowadays I split my time studying between some general work and research pertaining specifically to my current topic, which is that dipole stuff neglected by the previous advisor. The general work consists of going through various textbooks and finishing all (or nearly all) of the problems, in order to build my knowledge of physics and math in general, and to develop my intuition in those subjects. I've completed twelve such textbooks so far, and am on the verge of finishing four more. None were particularly advanced, but pretty soon I'll get to exciting stuff like complex analysis, general relativity and abstract algebra, as I finish off the more basic stuff. The specific stuff consists of reading lots of papers, [7] working through long derivations, and even a tolerable amount of programming. I've yet to hit a consistent enough stride to be able to fill in more details, but that can wait for a future update.

Excitingly, although my dipole work was first to be an addition to one of the papers my new advisor is working on, it now seems to have enough substance to be a paper of its own! So not only will I be published in the foreseeable future, I might be published as first author. This is quite exciting for someone whose research had been floundering for a year previously. It will provisionally be the subject of my dissertation. The future looks bright, and my condition in graduate school has been improving since its low point toward the end of my second year. May it continue to do so.

Writing and Drawing

My last project before leaving Dallas was a series of entries on writing style. It became apparent by the end of that project that this was powerful writing, in its narrow way: that is, the things I wrote had the power to reorient and move me, not just immediately after writing them but months and years later on. I came to think of this phenomenon as writing myself, and organized it into a complete project. Only one part of this project reached completion, and that part was unreadable. I found out as much over the course of many pained conversations about it. Sure, it is an unreasonable demand people make that you write so that they may understand you, but it is not unreasonable of them to demand that you write so that they may read you.

Finding myself to be unreadable has stymied my writing, and it will likely remain stymied for the near future, the scattered bits of fortuitous prose notwithstanding. I do fairly regularly find myself willing to tell some story from my further past, and I carry on enough involved conversations with friends that I can sometimes lift good fragments from them, so I'm not completely silent. Nonetheless, be aware that my current lack of writing is a bad thing -- I've told friends in the past that when I fall silent on my journal I'm doing poorly, but I'm not sure any of them have taken that statement seriously yet. However, the periods when I can write freely, the periods when I am at my best, have been scattered through my life, so this silence isn't actually out of the ordinary.

On a much happier note, I resumed drawing after neglecting that skill for six years. I did so as encouragement to Whines, who was thinking about restarting a weekly drawing event called "Art Night". While I found out after a couple of years of trying to shape the event more to my tastes that I simply do not draw well in company, the event was a useful impetus to redeveloping the skill. I've found I rather enjoy drawing weird little furry comics, which can be found here, although I'm not particularly disciplined and take too much time to finish one. [8] I have occasional thoughts about putting together a longer comic, but I doubt I have the focus and discipline to pull it off.


  • I now have the cutest little office! It's technically a space arranged to hold six people, but one cubicle is piled with old computers, two belong to adjunct professors who very rarely come in, one belongs to an undergraduate in Dr. Shvets' group with a similar habit, and one belongs to an interesting fellow from West Bengal, who is the only person I'm likely to share the office with on any given day. Besides my own half cubicle, I've taken over a couple of small tables opposite it. [9] The place is a converted server room, so it has weird things like grounding cables running down the lengths of the walls, gigantic outlets for four-pronged plugs, sound-absorbing panels, shelves nine feet up, and no ceiling tiles. [10] There's a long aisle down the row of teensy office cubicles, which is great for pacing when I'm here alone... and since my waking hours have shifted to a noon to three AM schedule, I'm often here alone. The only downside is a bunch of space wasted on tables holding junk computers, present because one of the IT guys is a packrat. That area would be great for a sofa or whiteboard.
  • My collection of unread books grows ever larger, of course... I think I'm up to several thousand dollars worth of textbooks, too. My reading has consisted of textbooks, the occasional fantasy or sci-fi novel, and philosophy, mostly Emerson, Thoreau and Cavell.
  • I fell in love with the world in my fourth semester. I'm saying this to combat fear, not because I'm willing to explain the statement yet.
  • I do still play a fair number of videogames. These tend to be one of three types... difficult, demanding games like IWBTG or Super Meat Boy; artsy, moving games like Shadow of the Colossus or Braid; and obsessive, intricately structured games which act as a sort of first aid for depression or panic. I don't think there were any particularly worth discussing, though. Oh, and I did acquire a small taste for watching Starcraft 2 casts, of all things.
  • I tried for about half a year after first moving to do entirely without an Internet connection at home, and was unable to keep that up. However, when I left my previous advisor he took back the computer I was using, so I had to move my own computer from home to my office. I took that as an opportunity to once again try severing my Internet connection at home. I find that the experiment is working far better this time, namely thanks to the privacy I get at late hours in my office.
  • Austin is a really fun city to explore. That's all.

[1] They call their abode "The House of Intransitive Verbs".
[2] Though I still maintain that cutting ties with her was one of the smartest things I've done in my life.
[3] Mainly because I started out afraid to phone people unprompted. My biggest struggles of the Dallas period were matters of overcoming fear.
[4] That was the year before the line acquired brand names.
[5] Also, I'm rather arrogant. Maybe you could tell.
[6] When a medium varies slowly compared to the wavenumber and wavelength of light, the light can be treated like a classical particle. This is called photon acceleration. The most nifty thing is that you straight up use angular frequency, rather than energy. This means that the moments of the distribution function take on new, unusual forms. I'll stop now.
[7] A slow process, if you do it right.
[8] And right now I'm trying to finish a short story rather than working on comics, so drawing is stalled for the moment.
[9] At first I was not happy with the seat I received, since it's the least private of them. But I'm the only person in the place with sufficient desk/table space, so it turned out well, and the absence of the others even secures some privacy.
[10] A fact I like. Rooms feel much more spacious without ceiling tiles, and the exposed infrastructure can be fascinating. This room has obsolete transparent water pipes still in place, with standing water in the bends.
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January 2012

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