metal teapot on a table next to two matching round teacups

Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

A quiet sip of tea. Warmth and sweetness. Tang of raspberries. Familiar scrape, chink of ceramic mug lifted, returned to the tabletop.

A reminder to pause. Absorb this moment, this breath, this sip of tea.

A reminder to take time.

Your work may be your life, but your life is more than just your work. Sometimes, in the midst of paper revisions, running studies, writing code, it's easy to forget. But your life is more than your studies. It's more than your art, your hobbies, your sports, your relationships. Your life is all of these. Sometimes, you have to take time away from one facet to tend another. And that's okay.

Some of the best advice I've gotten about balancing my life came from a fencing coach, when I was a teenager. He'd say, come to practice. Train hard. Care about the sport. But he'd also say, "at the end of the day, it's just fencing." At the end of the day, it's only one piece of your life, even if it's a really important one right now. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

That always holds true. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

The hard part is knowing what should take precedence, now or in the long-term. The hard part is taking time when you need it. The hard part is not just taking time once, but continuing to take time. After all, time taken for one part of your life is time lost in another. Right?

Yes and no. I find I'm more myself when I take time for hobbies and relationships. I find I'm more productive in my work when work is not the only thing I do all day, every day. So I use little things to remind myself to take time. I use little things to take time.

A mug of tea becomes a reminder to stay present. I take that moment to pause, relax, re-focus.

A commute on Boston's subway, the T, becomes a reminder to take time for things I enjoy, like reading. I bring a book, fiction or otherwise unrelated to my usual research-related reading, to pass the time.

A walk across campus becomes a reminder to spend more time outdoors or exercising. I remember to relish the mile walk from my apartment to the T every day -- a walk I could easily dread, especially in January. But it's a reminder to see the world. In walking through the city every day, I see its small changes. I notice the first buds in spring. I see the snow fall, stick, and melt away. Sometimes, I use the walk as time to call family or keep in touch with friends. A reminder that relationships matter.

Find small moments to take time. Be present in your life. We all know how easy it would be to spend all day and all night in our labs and offices.

But sometimes, other stuff take precedence. Other stuff matters too.

I use little things to remind me of that.

What are your reminders?


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I've posted a decent number of photos on my blog so far. Although one could feasibly wander back through my archives to view them, I'll spare one the trouble -- here's the collection.

pink clouds on a pastel sky, smoke rising below from a volcano, lit from the last sunlight of day

Sunset over Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua

a pair of pale pink magnolia flowers in the sunlight

Magnolias

tracks in the sand made by GROVER2's tank treads

GROVER2's first field tests on the beach.

Comprehensive list of my photography-focused posts

  1. Digital Moments – from road trips, autumn, and baking in 2012
  2. Indiana: Winter, Spring – photos from the end of winter and start of spring in my current corner of Indiana, in 2012
  3. Watching leaves turn - a series taken through my bedroom window at Vassar my senior year, showing the seasons changing in 2010-2011
  4. Trip to Wallops - photos from the NASA Goddard Engineering Boot Camp 2011 trip to NASA Wallops Flight Facility and Assateague State Park
  5. Fencing, thesis, snow - several snow-themed photos from winter 2010-2011
  6. Autumn Colors - a collection of autumn-themed photos at Vassar, fall 2010

I should also note that nearly all the photos that ever appear on this website or on my blog are photos I've taken.

three VC women's foilists sitting in green chairs, backs to the camera

VC women's foilists, January 2011

a flock of round picnic tables, cream-colored umbrellas shading benches of snow, with the buildings of Cleveland rising in the background

Winter picnic

laptop, piles of printed papers, a robot programming text, a highlighter, a flash drive and a pen

Ingredients for a paper

Through the Student Lens exhibit

In the spring of 2011, I got an email about the upcoming Through the Student Lens exhibition that would be held in Vassar's Palmer Gallery.

I almost dismissed it offhand; after all, it was just another solicitation about some happening at Vassar, right? We get a lot of those. But I was in the middle of my last Vassar semester. I'd been thinking a lot about my time there (what close-to-graduating senior wouldn't be?), and I realized I could probably contribute something to the exhibition. This was about the same time that I decided to write a piece for the Vassar 150 memories website. My experience at Vassar was just that: my experience at Vassar. No one else would know what it as like unless I told them. Or, in this case, shared photos.

I dabble in photography. I'm not an expert; all I have is a hand-me-down digital camera that's at least six years old, probably older (for a digital camera, that's old). I've never taken a photography class. I just try to capture the feeling of particular times and places, since it's the feeling of a moment that I know I'll want to remember later.

The photos of mine in the exhibition are Lake Mirror and Circle Time.

The first is of Sunset Lake, taken during just after a Fourth of July picnic in 2009. That was my second URSI summer; it was also scant weeks before I traveled south to Australia for a semester. The photo captures both the sunshine and happiness of that summer and the quiet reflection I associate with change -- in this instance, being on the cusp of going someplace completely new, leaving my friends and family behind for four months of adventures on the other side of the globe.

Vassar's sunset lake in July, water still and perfectly reflecting the green trees and a puffy white cloud

Lake Mirror

The second I took just before one of the fencing team's home meets last fall. It's a calm before the storm photo; the quiet moment before an intense day of competition begins.

calm before the storm: circle of chairs in Walker Bay 5 before an intense day of fencing competition

Circle Time

The Vassar Miscellany News posted an article titled "Student Photo Exhibit Captures Generations of Experience" on the exhibition on Oct. 27th, 2011. Alas, the article is no longer on their main site. The archived version of the article is here.

You can look through more photos from the exhibit on the Vassar archives flickr stream.


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Why did you pick cog sci?

When I can tell a ten-second answer is all that's wanted, I say, "because I took an intro cognitive science class in my first semester of college and loved it."

_yellow-orange gradient background with word cloud showing fields influencing cognitive science: education computer science artificial intelligence neuroscience philosophy anthropology linguistics psychology_

Some people realize I must've had some reason for signing up for an intro cog sci class in the first place. They tend to be satisfied with an answer like "because I read a book on consciousness before college, and wanted to know more."

The real answer, the one that's actually about why, is this:

No one knows yet how or why I'm a self-aware person. And I'd really, really like to find out.

Mysteries and mysteries

A couple years before I ventured across the country to begin my Vassar education, I started reading books about mysteries. Not fiction mystery novels -- actual mysteries, in which no one knows whodunnit yet, though a whole lot of people have theories. Things that are hard to think about, or crazy difficult to conceptualize. The nature of space-time. Infinity. Perception. (My favorite my favorite exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco was always the optical illusions.)

_optical illusion of several rings of color that appear to move when you look at them_

First, it was books like Richard Wolfson's Relativity Demystified, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds, Mario Livio's The Golden Ratio. All the grand mysteries of the universe, its structure, and the math and physics underlying it. I didn't completely grasp the details of the theories, but it was sure fun to try!

Then I decided to read about people. I honestly don't remember why I picked up Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction -- was I just browsing the generic non-fiction science books section? I remember the library. I remember kneeling on the carpet, pulling the book off one of the lower shelves.

This book opened my eyes.

At first, I was a little disappointed. Why couldn't Susan tell me how people worked? How I worked? I wanted answers! How am I a person? Why am I a person? Why can I think about myself thinking? Perhaps I'd assumed, up until that point, that scientists had all the hard problems figured out and now were just filling in the details.

My dismay was swiftly and thoroughly overridden by the realization that here was one of the Big Questions in the universe. Still so much left to discover. The twinkling thought: could I help discover it? And utter fascination. I distinctly remember standing on the local community college campus before a class, staring wonderingly at the landscaping, thinking, what is it like to be a tree?

_xray-like image of the human head from profile view_

So I read more. I read what I could find in my local public library system. (I wonder what I would have read and learned had I instead had a proper university library at my fingertips.) I also bought a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, which intrigued and confused me. I was severely disappointed by Andrea Rock's The Mind at Night, because I'd naively assumed that I could read one book and then understand why people sleep and how dreaming works.

I read William Calvin's How Brains Think, which didn't actually tell me how brains think but did introduce me to some relevant terminology. I learned how complicated memory is and how to pronounce aplesia from Eric Kandel's memoir In Search Of Memory. Judith Rich Harris's No Two Alike was part of my introduction to the nature-nurture debates, a lot of twin studies, and just how important the environment and an organism's interactions with it are in determining what the organism is like.

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense, and some others, too. As before, I'm quite sure that I did not fully understand any of the theories presented, not having a background in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, or neuroscience at that point.

Basically, I discovered the mind sciences at an opportune moment, in time to sign up for an introductory cognitive science course my freshman year.

And now?

I still don't know why or how I'm a self-aware person. No one does. I do, however, have a much better idea of the theories other folks have, the problems being tackled, and some of the methodologies being used in the quest. Maybe, now, I'll be able to help solve the mystery myself.


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street in Georgetown, dark against a bright sky

Meandering along a street in Georgetown recently, I looked out at the throngs of people, walking in pairs and groups and singly, ethnicities as varied as their unseen motivations in walking out that day. I saw them, and felt apart; not disconnected or of some different species, an outsider looking in, but in the way of feeling that I was more self-aware at that moment. A single cell in a much larger organism, looking out and seeing the workings of all other cells. It was a knowing that I could see us all, self-organizing sacks of meat composed of so many tiny molecules, marvelously complicated and simple at the same time.

Hierarchies of behavior, heuristics for selecting actions, emotions and motivations influencing them all. Somehow self-aware, conscious of being, conscious of our consciousness. And I, in that moment, more conscious than the rest, looking at the curve of the road, the brick buildings squeezed up beside white-painted shops and little restaurants, the cars and trucks speeding by, and the people, all blissfully ignorant of everything at my level of awareness.

It was a feeling of awe. If I were a religious being, perhaps I would say I felt the hand of a god, touching me then, showing me the vast oneness of the universe. But I am not, and so I interpreted the feeling otherwise: not a part of any great unity, no; merely one agent existing in a world and conscious of that existence. Marveling at that existence -- that any clump of matter could build a society, could conquer the land and sea and air, could walk briskly down a cement sidewalk thinking or not thinking of the weird complexities of the animal brain that made any of these accomplishments possible. That we could organize ourselves such that societies are possible, and so are streets, and restaurants, and cars.

Sometimes it strikes me like that: The realization that all we are, all we ever are, are clumps of molecules bumping around. We have motivations, emotions; we have what feels like intentionality and we speak to each other, creating stories and lies and truths. But we are not special. We have no meaning. The most marvelous thing of all is that we have no more meaning than the simple biologically-inspired, behavior-based robots I created for my thesis. Agents, existing in and interacting with a world. Fascinating, brilliant agents.

Moments like these, wondering at how any of us can exist and marveling at how we do and are conscious of it, I know I picked the right thing to study. That I can be here, writing about the meanings we create and believe, is stupefying and wonderful.


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