Category Archives: Life


I filed my dissertation this morning; I am now Dr. Arcane Gazebo. (Well, technically the degree isn’t conferred until Thursday when the semester ends, but whatever.)
The main result of the entire thesis comes down to a single plot, shown below. This isn’t the “explain my thesis” post so I’ll just say that the plot shows our ability to control the coupling energy between two qubits by applying a bias current to our readout device, hence the thesis title Solid-State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling. The solid curves are calculations based on device parameters and the dashed curves are one-parameter fits.

Now these points of data make a beautiful line…
If anyone needs me this evening, I’ll be at Triple Rock.

Comics and Career Fairs

Webcomics continue to be too accurate with the latest sequence at PhD Comics. Of course, Jorge Cham’s humor has always ranged from “funny because close to home” to “not funny because too close to home”. This year the strips in the latter category have been especially well-timed: the series linked above, for example, comes not just when I’m in the same situation, but the week of Cal’s major Career Fair. (Identifying other examples is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Anyway, the career fair starts tomorrow; the fraction of recruiters looking for physics PhDs is indeed pretty low (as would be expected for a general campus career fair) but nonzero. (There’s an event specifically targeted at masters and PhDs next month.) I’ll be attending with copies of my resume in hand, hoping to get someone’s attention or, failing that, pick up some good swag. Any advice for this sort of thing?

Quantifying neighborhood walkability

Here’s a site (via Lifehacker) that calculates a walkability score for a given address. I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t appreciate the convenience of being able to walk everywhere until I moved into my current apartment (which scores 82 out of 100). I’ve come to like it so much that, when I next move, I will try to look exclusively at walkable neighborhoods.
One sees walkability being increasingly advocated as a goal in urban planning policy, often for the environmental benefits. Indeed, it’s almost certainly true that I have a much lower carbon footprint than I used to—on a typical week I only make one or two trips by car, and most of the time I don’t need mass transit either. To me personally (rather than on a policy level), however, this is a secondary benefit. (Although the gasoline savings are nice.) The reasons I prefer walkability are more tangible:

  • Accessibility and convenience: if I need something from the grocery store or the pharmacy I can get it and be back within ten minutes.

  • Social connectedness: while out walking I frequently run into friends and neighbors (and, once, a long-lost friend from high school, although I embarrassingly failed to recognize her).
  • Exercise and fresh air: my baseline level of fitness (i.e. when I’m not running regularly) is much higher than it was when I used to drive everywhere. And walking around is just a nicer experience than being in a car (especially in sunny California).

I don’t mean to claim that everyone should immediately move to a walkable neighborhood—there’s something to be said for the personal space and privacy that comes with suburban living. But I was surprised at how much walkability improved my own quality of life, and I think it’s definitely something policymakers should place an increasing importance on.
I calculated the Walk Score of some of my past addresses to get a sense of how the scale works; here they are by city (but calculated for the specific address I lived at):

  • Berkeley, CA (current address): 82

  • El Cerrito, CA: 63
  • Kensington, CA: 45
  • Pasadena, CA: 63
  • New Canaan, CT: 0

Calculate your own score, and let me know if you’re in a particularly walkable neighborhood—I may want to move there.

Strategies in wedding schedules

If this post has gone up as scheduled, I am currently en route to Kansas City for a wedding. (UPDATE: The scheduled post didn’t go up for some reason, and I’m back now.) It turns out that Saturday is quite a popular day for weddings due to the numerological alignment of 7/7/07. I’m just disappointed that I missed the chance to get married on 6/6/06. Maybe next century.
At first I wondered why a couple might pick that day, knowing that it’s a popular day for weddings. After all, this means that some number of people will be unable to attend due to a conflict with some other wedding. Even I got invited to two different weddings on Saturday, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly. But then I realized that this might be a feature rather than a bug. For one thing, the people who decline the invitations to go to another wedding are likely to be not as close to the couple than those who attend, so that the people actually in attendance are going to be a closer group of friends and relatives. This also allows the guest list to be larger than it would be on another day without increasing the expense of the wedding.
But, there’s a counter-counter-argument: the people most likely to have conflicts are the ones who know people likely to get married. I may not be a social butterfly, but I am at an age when a lot of people get married, so it’s not so surprising that a lot of my friends are getting married lately. What this means for young couples is that their friends on the guest list are going to be the ones with conflicts, whereas the old geezers you’ve never met that the future in-laws insisted on inviting are certainly going to be there. Luckily this effect should occur in parallel with the one above, so that the attendees will quickly separate into a group of close friends and a group of random people who will be hanging out with your parents.
Anyway, I’m fairly pleased to be taking this trip; from my perspective, it’s a big party where I hang out with some friends I haven’t seen for a while. (I do occasionally show an extroverted side, even if it’s stymied by shyness.) This, in fact, is the brilliant concept underlying weddings: you get your friends to come from all over the country and spend an evening drinking and dancing. What’s not to like? Well, you might have to spend some time in church first, and I hear the whole experience of getting married is mind-altering enough to make the party afterwards into a blur. Lame! If only you could have the party without all the marriage stuff to get in the way! If only there were some other life-changing event that would make a good excuse for a wedding-scale party!
Like, for example, getting a PhD. Somehow I doubt my more distantly-located friends will attend my undoubtedly massive and glorious graduation party, but they should. Because they’ll have to wait 99 more years to attend my wedding: I’m waiting for 6/6/06 to come around again.

Line-choosing algorithms

Here’s Tyler Cowen on why supermarkets seem to prefer individual lines at each checkout stand rather than one unified line (apparently Whole Foods uses the latter strategy).

The intuition is that consumers can take advantage of price variability, in this case “time price” variability, and come out ahead. Admittedly the notion of “going to the store more often when your innate line-choosing algorithm turns out to be good” requires a mental stretch.
People also might like knowing that the end to waiting is in sight. On the phone they put you on hold and tell you the expected wait time, or they should. At least five times in my life I’ve bolted a supermarket and abandoned the groceries, simply because the lines appeared too long. It is harder to estimate how long a single line will take, and it is harder to compare single lines across supermarkets.

I think there’s something to this; seeing the long line stretching across the store can be daunting even though it may be moving quickly. I would also guess that multiple lines are more space-efficient. My local Safeway wouldn’t have anywhere to put a unified line, and at busy times the individual lines fill the space at the front of the store as it is.
Actually, egregious lines are fairly common at that particular store during the evening rush, but luckily it’s across the street from me so I can easily bail when it’s too crowded and come back later. This strategy only works if I don’t procrastinate my grocery shopping until it’s urgent, but luckily the more upscale Andronico’s is only one block further away and never has significant lines at the checkout, so I have a fallback. I hate waiting in line enough that I’ll walk down to the next store to avoid it even if I don’t save any time that way—at least by walking I get a little exercise and fresh air.
It might be better if I had a good innate line-choosing algorithm, but somehow mine is terrible—I suspect it’s worse than chance, and that I would do better by throwing out my initial guess and choosing randomly from the remaining lines. But surely the readers here can help me improve it. How can I identify the fastest lines at the grocery store?

Careers, locations, and settling

As I start to see the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I’ve been contemplating more and more my various options after I finish. The most obvious one is to go on to an academic postdoc, with the aim of eventually getting a tenure-track professorship somewhere. (Other alternatives are various industries or finance.) At the moment I’m leaning strongly against an academic career, which has lately seemed unappealing for a variety of reasons.
A major such reason is the fact that there are many more applicants for tenure-track positions than there are positions available, so that after slaving away for several years as a postdoc (generally considered to be an awful job) I’d be lucky to be offered a position anywhere. It’s a job market that’s extremely unfavorable to applicants, and having seen the stress and unhappiness it produces in the postdocs I’ve met, I am thinking I should look at other options.
One corollary to the scarcity of academic jobs is that I would have to take whatever I can get, meaning that I will have basically no choice over where I live—the institution that offers me a job could be anywhere in the country, urban or rural, coast or inland. And I’ve realized that where I live really is important to me. I like living near enough to a major city that I can take advantage of the cultural and economic diversity. Furthermore, I want to live in a walkable neighborhood where essential goods and services are close by—not just for conservation reasons, although this is certainly part of it, but because I’ve found firsthand that it brings a definite improvement in quality of life. (This, of course, is also only possible in or near a major city, and only in certain cities that are planned this way.)
And on an emotional level, I’ve found that I don’t want to leave the Bay Area. This surprised me, because (possibly due to my migratory upbringing), I generally feel like I need to move on every few years and explore a new place. I’ve tried to ascertain why I might have a special attachment to my current location: certainly I don’t want to leave my friends, and I like my current neighborhood, but I feel like there’s something more than that. There’s a sense I have of being settled here, that where I’m living now is woven into the fabric of my life. I haven’t felt that way about anywhere else, but I’ve lived in Berkeley longer than I have any other single place (for a continuous span).
I’m not convinced that this is a good reason to want to stay here—I know that living in different places is an enriching experience for me, and there’s some attraction to going and exploring someplace new. But it will probably influence my thinking on career options.

Back east

Ok, so I took an unannounced blogging vacation. I’m now in Connecticut. A couple travel notes:
I shared an airport shuttle with a guy in an MIT baseball cap. He gave directions to the driver in the form “if the light is red, it’s faster to go right; if it’s green, it’s faster to go left”. The driver apparently didn’t have gambits turned on, so this had to be abbreviated to “go right”.
At a Starbucks in Ridgefield, CT I saw a disturbing piece of corporate art: a reproduction of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which the diner had been turned into a Starbucks (and the patrons were noticeably less depressed). I wish I had taken a picture of this since I can’t seem to find one with a Google search.

Other top music lists

If you’d like some other indie-rockish lists of top songs of the year, there’s Stylus’s top 50 singles and Pitchfork’s top 100 tracks. There’s some overlap between their lists and mine; “Wolf Like Me” and “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” appear on all three. Also some respectable alternate choices from some of the same albums I drew from. However, both publications appear to have a case of the crazies: Stylus puts Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” at #6, and Pitchfork names it the #1 song of the year. So approach these lists with some skepticism.
They also have top albums lists up; I’ll do one myself closer to the new year.

Lessons learned in Dallas

I’ve returned from Thanksgiving in Dallas, where I did the typical turkey-and-family thing. It was not especially eventful, although I did learn a few things:

  • The weather in Dallas in late November is actually really good. It was warm and sunny, while Berkeley is now entering its rainy season.

  • I have a friend who claims Dallas is too far north for good tex-mex food. He is crazy (or at least poorly informed).
  • I am an awful pool player. This isn’t too surprising given that I basically haven’t played in like eight years. I’m finding the game more appealing than I used to, but since none of my local friends play it’s unlikely that I’ll be getting better at it anytime soon.
  • The only downside to a second viewing of Casino Royale is having to see the same trailers for mostly unappealing movies again.
  • “And that’s why you don’t use a one-armed man to teach people lessons!”

Readers are encouraged to share their own findings from the weekend.

Suburbs more social

I was surprised to learn of this study that found that residents of suburbs are more social than urbanites:

A new study says that people who live in sprawling suburban areas have more friends, better community involvement and more frequent contact with their neighbours than urbanites who are wedged in side-by-side. The results challenge the accepted idea that suburban life is socially alienating a notion that’s inspired everything from the Academy Award-winning American Beauty to Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.
The study, released by the University of California at Irvine, found that for every 10 per cent decrease in population density, the chances of people talking to their neighbours weekly increases by 10 per cent, and the likelihood they belong to hobby-based clubs jumps by 15 per cent.

(Via Marginal Revolution.) An urban planning professor interviewed in the news article suggests that this is due to greater homogeneity in the suburbs, so that one has more in common with one’s neighbors. That sounds plausible.