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February 22, 2015

Intentional Challenges

As of last week, the five-week challenge organized by my good friend Jane is over. As a reminder, here's what I put myself up to and what was at stake, in reverse order:

At stake:
- $100 (to lose)
- shame (to gain)

My challenges:
- Make a real meal at least once a week
- Post at least one blog post a week
- Move my body at least 20 minutes in a go, at least four times a week, with at least one of those sessions being yoga

Sounds like not much, probably. But, as I think I said before, I was going from nothing to something, and my goal was to establish some norms. Overall, I think it worked. And I'm glad.

Since the end of the challenge, one week ago, I've only continued with the blog posts, unfortunately. But I swear I'm going to get back on the wagon.

Jane asked us at the end of the challenge what was good about it and what was difficult. Here are my thoughts.

The power of peer networks
Jane didn't just pull the challenge structure out of thin air. She likes learning about what makes for effective goals, so it's no accident that there was money on the line and social pressure. The money at stake—not gaining $100, but potentially losing it—kept me feeling there was something tangible to keep me on track. It was, of course, on the honor system, but I assumed my peers weren't lying, and I wasn't going to either. And, ultimately, like the saying went in junior high, by cheating I would only be cheating myself. I was in this challenge because I wanted to be, and I knew I had something to gain from it. And I also knew that if I dropped out for no good reason, I would look bad. Peers. Accountability.

Personal empowerment
I liked knowing that I could do these simple things—cooking, writing, exercising. And I *really* liked making them a priority. These challenges helped shift my work-first mentality from last year to a healthier mentality balanced between work in work time and self-directed activities outside that time. These challenges actually gave me permission to live outside work. And to prioritize these things that I had identified as important, even over social activities. It helped me to realize that, as much as I love people, I really am a homebody in many ways. This is why I often don't reach out to people, and make them instead reach out to me (sorry, people). It's awesome to be alone. And it's awesome to know I can make things happen (cook, write, exercise) on my own.

I didn't even realize that last part until now. The challenge was empowering. Both because I was the one directing my time and making these things happen, and also because I got the positive reinforcement that comes with meeting goals.

Go ahead. Do it. Make yourself a small goal. Do it now.

Now complete it.

Feels good, right?

In my rougher days, I would make very detailed lists of very simple tasks and rejoice in each one completed. Make breakfast. Check! Eat breakfast. Did it! Take a shower. Okay, shower good. Get dressed. Bam! I'm a person. See what we can do for ourselves? Those of us who can do these things for ourselves, anyway? What a luxury. Take a moment to think of three things that you can do for yourself that you can rejoice in.

What I wouldn't do anyway
I wouldn't have cooked every week if not for the challenge. I wouldn't have gone to the gym to just hop on the bike. I wouldn't have written about half of the blog entries. I wouldn't have done yoga in my living room. Having the challenge was enough to get me to do these things, to think about them and plan for them. And it wasn't hard. It just took a switch. And I loved that.

The tough side
It's hard to motivate when you're sick. I was sick for an entire week. I was very glad Jane helped me make my goals more general to be attainable in case I traveled, because that also made them attainable while I was sick. For three nights, I did a 20-minute session of bedtime yoga I found on YouTube. The first night I did it on the floor in my living room and didn't even rock side to side in happy baby pose because it hurt too much. The next two nights I did it in bed. It seemed like cheating, but it at least got me in my body, in a positive and gentle way.

I was also challenged with the meal-making in that I made recipes that yielded about eight servings and had issues with leftovers. I would have to make another meal before I'd run out of the last one. Still, it got me working on a system that will save money and facilitate dinners, and lunches too. I bought some more freezer containers and I'll probably need to go for another batch. Then if I can refine just a bit how to plan the meals such that I get diversity in my food I should be good to save money and eat well.

A word on the others
I won't out everyone else on their goals, but glancing over this I think I make it sound like I was in it alone even though I talk about the importance of being in it with other people, so I want to add a few words on the other challengers. Everyone set significant challenges for themselves, and stepped up to them. People drank less alcohol, spent less money, worked on publications, exercised a lot, and cut sugar out of their diets. Two people noted that they found it easier to comply with the elimination goals (like no sugar) than the action goals. (On that note... anyone giving anything up for lent?) One of the things I really appreciated about this challenge is how people commented on Jane's master accountability spreadsheet, to encourage each other. We got to see how and what other people were doing, and cheer each other on.

What's next
I wasn't looking forward to the end of the challenge. What will keep me motivated to do these things I've started doing? What will get me to step them up? That said, I do feel like by setting the precedents I did that I will keep doing what I want to do, and add to it.

I actually gained weight rather than losing it, which was a bit disappointing even though weight loss wasn't a specific goal. I think I need to pay more attention for a while to my intake and learn what is and isn't healthy, and how to balance the types of food I eat with the types of exercise I like to do. This is a big puzzle to me. I'm picky about exercise and not picky about food. Hmmm, another revelation.... Feel free to quote me on that.

Posted by beth at 4:30 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 20, 2015

Sea of Glory: A Book Review

I finally finished reading "Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842" by Nathaniel Philbrick. I say finally because, yes, it took me a long time, but not because it was drudgery. Yes, it's non-fiction, and yes, it's a little bit of a slog, but it's also fascinating. Partly because my coworker, Lou, who lent it to me, told me that it's about a little-remembered expedition that was primarily responsible for the Smithsonian collection.

As it turns out, the expedition's haul doesn't make up the majority of the Smithsonian's collection, as I'd been telling people while reading the book (they don't talk about that part until the end) (sorry for the spoiler), but only about 1/5th. Still—1/5th. It's a lot. And it sounds like it's arguably the impetus for the Smithsonian being what it is today.

Other interesting things about the four-year expedition, led by Charles Wilkes:

- They mapped 1,500 miles of Antarctic coastline, basically confirming (without much credit) that it is indeed a continent.
- One of the things the author keeps coming back to that the expedition brought back was Fijian war clubs. Presumably because many were thrown at the crew.
- They charted 100 miles of the Columbia river and sent overland expeditions across the Cascades and down to San Francisco. This wasn't even really talked about in the book, beyond a mention. They mapped out San Francisco Bay. One of the scientists seemingly obsessively or lovingly documented languages.
- The famous geologist James Dana (whom I didn't know about—sorry, not much of a history buff, getting better) basically confirmed Darwin's ideas about how atolls form and made some nice proto-plate tectonics observations in Hawaii. I make his work seem quaint. He's was a powerhouse who made all sorts of natural history observations both inside and outside his field, and on the expedition he was still quite young.
- A lot can happen in four years and it's really hard to get a feel for it from a single book.

Overall, the book was very interesting, especially since I learned a few things about places I'd been. The Antarctica bits were particularly interesting. I didn't know that Palmer Station and the research vessel and icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer were named for the American sealer whom maybe first sailed along the Antarctic Peninsula, before anyone knew it was connected to a continent. Also, Weddell seals (fat, blobby masses of fat and fur) are named for... someone who killed them, British sealer James Weddell. As my cousin Susan pointed out, Weddell's long gone and the seals live on. So there's that.

The book was dense with information, but easily digestible information. I like that. Philbrick would leave cliffhangers at the end of chapters, keeping me turning pages. What I was a bit perplexed by as the book wore on though is that I learned quite a bit about the expedition and about exploration and trade (the expedition was spurred by the need for better charts for Americans exploiting foreign waters—a phrase the author never uses, but is the frank description: seals, whales, otters, sea cucumbers) I didn't get a good feel for the experience. The six ships sailed through extremely treacherous waters, barely making it through getting crunched by icebergs and getting tossed about by huge seas, almost crashing against rocks and cliffs and requiring long, hard, exhausting work and expert maneuvers to extricate themselves from these near misses. I got this from the text—they did hard things. But I didn't feel it. I don't know what it was like. I don't know ships, and maybe this is part of it. Ordeals were explained, but the closest I felt to being there was standing on the beach at Malolo, Fiji, watching two key crew-members get killed. Perhaps this is because the author had more "emotional information" on this event—people writing about what they saw and felt in their journals about an event that lasted maybe moments rather than hours. I knew those two men on the beach, and I watched them die. I saw their bodies in the water. It's worth noting that I didn't see anyone else's bodies, though—I didn't see the bodies of the multiple Fijians that died on the same beach, but without their friends journaling about it afterward.

Still, overall, the book was worth it. I do wonder at the value of reading books like this. How much will I retain? Is it worth the hours I spent with it? Is it enough just to light up the portions of my brain that engage in the act of reading? Will I retain an impression of the voyage that will somehow serve me, if not the details?

One thing about the book that provides major food for thought is its tale of leadership, which is really what the book is about. Charles Wilkes as a leader. Charles Wilkes as a person. How to lead, how not to lead. It's easy to say that Wilkes was a horrible leader. He was elitist, mean, insecure, rash, painfully egotistical, and often unreasonable. No one whom I would want to share space with. But as Lou, my book-lending coworker, pointed out, the expedition may not have been as successful under different leadership. Wilkes was anal, focused, and belligerent, including after the expedition when it came to producing results and keeping the collections together.

Still, I always like to believe there is a way to be a good, kind, successful, productive leader. I don't think belligerence and kindness are mutually exclusive.

Either way... Now, with my new-found understanding of 16 chapters of history, I can move on to those volcano books that have been calling to me. Island on Fire, wait, I'm coming!

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February 13, 2015

Volcano Season

I got three books today that I'm very excited about. (Okay, I got one of them yesterday.) I decided it's volcano season (now through May) and I'm going to read up. Why now? Two pressing reasons: Alex Witze gave me a copy of her new book, "Island on Fire," which she co-wrote with her husband, Jeff Kanipe, and the plan is to interview them about it on a radio show at the end of March. It's about the eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783, which... well, here are the words from The Economist on the book's cover: "The eruption sparked the first sustained interest in climate science. But the overwhelming impression is that volcanoes have brought regional disaster, with global effects." Okay, I'm intrigued.

The other books are also volcano books. The first one I threw in the cart was "Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano," by Rob Carson. I justified it because I'm going to be doing some outreach at and about Mount St. Helens in May, and I know some about the volcano but it certainly wouldn't hurt to know more. I expected it to be a regular-sized book, but it's a big, magazine-sized one with glossy color pictures. At first I thought, "Shoot, I never read these kinds of books." But then I started getting sucked in by those pictures. I think it's going to be rad.

The third book is "Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions," by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders. This one is mainly because people expect me to know everything about volcanoes since I've studied them, but I don't. Not even close. So I figured it wouldn't hurt to learn a little more, plus volcanoes+people is what I've always been most interested in. At a glance, the book looks like a fun, engaging, pretty quick read. If I like it, I'll move on to their earthquakes book next.

I put a call out to Facebook the other day to ask about recommendations for good volcano books. This is what came up:

"The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag, recommended by Dennis Geist and Alex Witze
"No Apparent Danger" by Victoria Bruce, recommended by Nathan Becker and Alex Witze
"Melting the Earth" by Haraldur Sigurdsson, recommended by Alex Witze
"The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed 30,000 Lives" by Ernest Zebrowski, recommended by Heather Wright

and, perhaps most importantly, Nancy Trigg said, "It's not a book exactly, but there was this awesome episode of the Brady Bunch..."

Nancy, is it this one?

Speaking of which, one of our staff told me yesterday that her daughter's teacher, for their kindergarten science projects, told the class there could be only one volcano. Her daughter wasn't quick enough to get her hand up. I love it. The go-to volcano science project was so popular that they made a rule about it. It's like no Skynyrd in a guitar shop. Or, apparently, no Defying Gravity (a song from Wicked) in auditions. Except that they do allow one volcano. For an 8th grade science fair project, my friend Shannon and I made a model of Pangea. It was her idea. I was at a loss. I wasn't really into the science fair. It was one of the first cases I can remember of "good enough." I had no interest in being an overachiever (until I saw my peers' overachieving and got envious, but that didn't happen until the science fair itself). I just wanted to get it done. I wasn't that interested in science. And it showed—it was highly mediocre. What's more, not only was I not interested in the idea of Pangea, but it actually terrified me. It fed into my fear of infinity, the unknown, that which I have not and could not experience. Really, I guess it was a fear of things the indicated that I am not important. I mean, there was all that time before me, before all of us, when the world looked completely different than it does today. I think it probably indicated that there isn't intentionality in the way the world is today. And then, if there's not, where do I fit in?

And there you go. I had no idea I was going to get existential.

I'm excited to read volcano books. But first, I need to finish my current read: Sea of Glory. Will let you know about it when I'm done.

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February 5, 2015

Why I Love Science Communication

In case it isn't clear, I've moved slowly over time from science to science support to science communication. I love all of it. But I especially love communication.

Someone whom I now work with once asked me why I switched into communication. I gave an answer that made it sound like I was disillusioned by my master's or couldn't hack it. I could put it that way, saying I was exhausted and frustrated at the end of my master's and not ready for a PhD, or that I'm just not that great at math, or that I'm not inspired by power systems, and some of all of that is true. But it's also true that I really, really love communication. So why fight it?

And I don't think communication is a cop-out in the least. Communication has beautiful challenges. It's a constant game of strategy and problem solving, taking information and figuring out how to best express it. And there's no one right answer. As far as we'll know, there's not even a best answer. You can't apply a model and solve for it. You just have to go. Think about your audience. How to 1) reach them, 2) connect with them, 3) motivate them, if that's what you're trying to do. I get to deal in the realm of information and people.

I took a science writing class a few years ago in journalism grad school. About half the students were in journalism, the other half in science or engineering. I ran into one of the engineering students after the semester was over and asked what he thought of the class. It was okay, he said, but I'm going to stick to engineering. He'd like to make a change in the world, he said, and he'd rather do it than talk about it.

Sure. I get it. But no need to be condescending about it. Because if no one's talking about what you're doing, good luck making a change in the world. If you can do the talking yourself, great. I know many scientists who are also great communicators. In fact, I think the trend of scientist communicators is increasing. The National Science Foundation now puts emphasis on broadening the impact of research they fund, whether it's through educational programs, informing policy decisions, or enhancing national security. Major meetings the the annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the largest meeting of Earth scientists in the world, host sessions and workshops on science communication (I'm hoping to teach one this year). People like glaciologist Allen Pope, here in Boulder, find time to tweet about their research while working on their PhDs (find Allen at @PopePolar). Volcanologist Jessica Ball writes a blog for AGU called Magma Cum Laude. My friend the glaciologist PhD candidate Gifford Wong, whom I met aeons ago in Antarctica, teaches scientists to communicate using skills learned through improv. (I'm hoping to learn to do that myself. Seriously.... fun!)

But there are still folks who either aren't so interested in or adept at the communications side, and I like to think that for those people, in particular, there are people like me. Who LOVE to communicate, especially to the public. Mi excitement es tu excitement. And, as it so happens, I love to teach. I love to teach scientists to better communicate. Which means I have to learn the tips and tricks, and then how to teach them. This is the kind of stuff I love thinking about it the shower.

In talking about doing a PhD, a friend asked me a few years ago what I think about as I go to bed at night, or as I wake up in the morning. This is what I think about: How to communicate.

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February 1, 2015

Back in Time: The Channel Islands

I just finally posted some pics from a short trip to the Channel Islands that I've been meaning to get up for... we'll just say a while now. I back-posted them to show up when I actually went. Check 'em out:

Channel Islands!

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