I just finished the first year of my PhD program, so I took a weeklong vacation to Southern California. My friends Lisa and Lister were getting married, and I also wanted to do some hiking and exploring. I flew in on Friday, May 29 and stayed with a couchsurfing host in Claremont. On Saturday, I met up with my hiking partner, Richard, whom I had met through the MIT Outing Club a few months before, and we went up to hike Mt. San Antonio (aka “Baldy”). We took the ski lift and the devils backbone trail, mainly to get some acclimatization. It was very dry and dusty, and the sun was powerful. Even with sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses, I got burned on my neck. I was impressed with the diversity (ethnic, gender, age, etc) of people out hiking. The views from the summit were pretty nice. In the evening, I went to the wedding party in Monterey Park at a large Chinese seafood restaurant. It was quite an experience to see such a large number of people having such a good time. On the other hand, one thing that really struck me about LA was how few people I actually saw, because I seemed to be driving all the time from one place to another on the freeways. Having become accustomed to the car-free lifestyle in Boston, it felt alienating to not come into contact with people as I was moving around.

On Sunday, I bought supplies and drove through the Mojave Desert to Lone Pine, a small town in the Owens Valley. On Monday, Richard and I drove up to Horseshoe Meadows and hiked up Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Springs Lake, where we spent the night. The lake is at about 11,000 feet and is surrounded by cliffs. It was a beautiful area. We met a lot of Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers at the camping area. On Tuesday, we hiked north along the PCT and then scrambled up to Cirque Peak, which had a magnificent view of the surrounding area. It reminded me of Byers Peak in Colorado, another wilderness hike I had done with my Dad a few years before. It’s a nice feeling to look around 360 degrees and not see any sign of civilization. It’s humbling too.

We then descended to the trailhead and drove to the Whitney Portal. We started up the Mt. Whitney Trail with our 45 pound packs and camped near Lone Pine Lake. In contrast to Mt. Baldy and Cottonwood Pass/Cirque Peak, it was nice to see running water along the trail. The unique plants and animals were fascinating too, as well as the splendor of the high granite cliff walls on either side of the valley. On Wednesday, we hiked to Trail Camp (12000 feet) and I spent some time practicing my ice axe self-arrest techniques on a snowbank nearby. We met several interesting characters in the camp, including father-son team Carter and Theo Brown. They were working on the state high points and Theo (8 years old) told me he wanted to be an Arctic explorer when he grows up. Carter had completed many difficult hikes and mountaineering climbs and said that he “used to be a juggler“. While I admired his accomplishments, it made me realize that I don’t want to be a full-time adventurer like him, but rather, someone who occasionally goes on adventures but also enjoys life in other ways. Richard, who has a family of his own, agreed with me that there is more to life than climbing mountains, even though it is a really awesome hobby.

We left camp at 3am Thursday morning (June 4) to make our summit attempt. We ascended a moraine on the trail, then put on crampons and started across a snowbank toward the “chute”, a steep snowbank leading all the way up to Trail Crest at 13600 feet. Before we got to the base of the chute, we noticed thick, dark clouds moving in and blocking the full moon. We decided to turn back around 4am, not wanting to get caught in a storm that seemed likely to develop once the sun came up. We broke camp and carried our packs all the way down to the trailhead. The temperature dropped rapidly and it started to rain and hail, with some snow as well. Looking back toward the summit, we saw that dark clouds had enveloped all of the ridges above about 12000 feet. We were glad to be off the mountain safely.

I thought that I would be disappointed to not reach the summit, but surprisingly I was relieved. I had been nervous about driving all the way back to LA to catch my flight after such an exhausting day. Also, I think it is easy to fall into the habit of peak-bagging and counting high points, losing track of the fact that it is the experience of the hike, and the beauty of nature encountered along the way, that is the real benefit of hiking. By not reaching the summit, it changed my focus from “getting to the top” to “enjoying the experience”, which is something I probably needed. I am grateful to my companion Richard for sharing his wisdom and knowledge to be able to make the decision about turning around, and also in planning out the acclimatization hikes so that we did not experience any altitude sickness. I consider the trip to be a success, because we got to see some really cool natural enviroments, and because I learned a lot of new things. For example, I experienced several “firsts” on this trip:

  • first time to use a bear canister
  • first time to use a “WAG bag” to carry out waste
  • first time walking on a snowfield with crampons

Now that I’m back in Boston, I am ready to focus on my research and on spending more time with my wife. I am very grateful for her patience in my crazy goals of mountain climbing!

Even though I’ve lived in Boston about half a year now, I sometimes still feel like a tourist, since I spend so much time in classes. When we first moved here in the summer, we had more free time and did a lot of exploring around, especially when my family came to visit. Here are a few suggestions I would offer to anyone planning a visit to Boston. I am mainly listing the “popular” stuff. I will put a (*) to mark things that are more off-the-beaten-track. This is not a comprehensive list, of course.

Downtown Area

  • Quincy Market/ Faneuil Hall
  • Aquarium/ Long Wharf
  • Italian restaurants in the North End
  • Freedom Trail
  • Bunker Hill
  • USS Constitution
  • Boston Public Gardens
  • Community Sailing*
  • Barking Crab restaurant- good seafood, less expensive than Quincy Market area.
  • Science Center

Back Bay/ Fenway

  • Trinity Church- taking a guided tour is recommended.
  • Duck Tours
  • Boston Public Library
  • Museum of Fine Arts
  • Fenway Park
  • Isabella Steward Gardener Museum*


  • Harvard Square
  • MIT Campus
  • Mt. Auburn Cemetery*- has a cool monument tower you can climb for an excellent view of the city. Also many famous people are buried here.
  • Minuteman Bike Trail*- an old railroad grade extends from Alewife all the way out to Lexington/ Concord

Other Places

  • Pleasure Bay*- it’s fun to watch the tide come in and out, and to see the windsurfers.
  • Arnold Arboretum*- Jamaica Plain neighborhood
  • South End neighborhood*- many interesting townhouses and shady streets
  • Larz Anderson Park*- South Brookline. Has a unique automobile museum and excellent sledding/ kite flying hills.

Python is a fantastic programming language for the beginner (and everyone else too!). Here is a list of some resources I have found useful in my ongoing experience of learning how to program in Python.

Free Online Tutorials

  • Official Python Website has information for beginners and links for downloading python itself (although if you have a mac or linux/unix/etc it may already be installed!
  • Learn Python the Hard Way emphasizes general-purpose programming skills and has a somewhat sarcastic tone.
  • Codecademy focuses more on web development and has a more friendly tone.


  • Learning Python by Mark Lutz is the book I used myself to learn python. It is very long and goes into probably more detail than the beginner would need about object-oriented programming. There may be other books that are better but this is the only one I am personally familiar with.

Text Editors

This is what you use to write the python programs!

  • IDLE is what I used when I first started. It is included when you download python itself.
  • Text Wrangler is what I currently use on macs
  • Notepad++ is what I currently use on windows machines.
  • If you want to impress your friends, and/or do things on remote servers such as in the Amazon cloud, check out the command line based text editor called Vim. It’s a bit tricky and not recommended for beginners. Vim Tutorial

General Programming Resources

  • Command Line Crash Course is a good quick tutorial on basic shell commands, which are handy in executing python scripts and many more things as well
  • Github is a social, open-source focused platform for hosting code. I highly recommend using git or some other version control system in all programming projects. Feel free to take a look at my personal python sandbox here.
  • Bitbucket is a good alternative to github if you need private repositories
  • Stack Overflow is a question-and-answer site for any programming topic. If you run into difficulties it’s an excellent place to go for answers
  • Although it is controversial, I admit to having used the w3schools SQL tutorial. Understanding SQL is essential to dealing with most databases, a task that will likely come up eventually in one’s programming life

Python Tools

Once you are familiar with basic programming in python, you will find yourself wanting to leverage third party libraries and advanced tools. Here are some cool things to check out.

  • PIP is a package manager for installing third party libraries rapidly from the command line. It also manages dependencies (installs automatically all packages that your package needs to run). It’s not the smoothest thing to install but is very useful once you have it. Here are some packages I recommend (feel free to look them up, I will maybe add links later):
    • pandas, numpy, scipy, and matplotlib for scientific computing (especially statistics and linear algebra) and graphing. These are probably easier to install from the official websites than from pip since they have a lot of fortran and C dependencies.
    • httplib2 for HTTP requests
    • oauth2 for dealing with authentication when interacting with certain application programming interfaces (APIs)
    • simplejson for parsing JSON, a common data transfer language in many APIs and web services
    • nose for automated unit testing (testing your own code)
    • selenium a way to programmatically control a browser through “web-driver” commands (eg, for testing someone else’s website)
    • web.py is a web framework I have used to make a dynamic web site. Django is another popular one but I haven’t tried it personally.
    • cx_Oracle is useful if you need to interact with Oracle databases. It’s hard to install via pip due to complicated C dependencies, so just download the installer from their website instead.
    • sqlite3 is useful for working with SQLite databases. Be careful about the versioning though (it’s easy to confuse the version of the python package and the version of the SQLite database and install the wrong one).
    • xlrd is good for extracting data from Microsoft Excel files
  • iPython is a handy interactive shell with a lot of interesting features
  • iPython Notebooks are a great way to present projects that include code, graphs, mathematical formulas, and other heterogeneous content in an organized fashion. They are similar to the popular Rmarkdown documents in the R statistical computing language.
  • If/when you want to create your own python packages, be sure to check out Virtual Environments for testing the deployment process on your local machine. This is more for advanced users.

Programming Challenges

I have enjoyed trying to solve problems on the following sites as a fun way to build up my programming skills:

  • Project Euler is a puzzle site focusing on mathematical challenges that can be solved with programming. It will help you improve the speed and efficiency of your code. You might need to look up some topics about number theory from time to time.
  • Rosalind is a bioinformatics learning site with great interactive practice problems for learning python

MOOC Sites

This isn’t particularly python-related, but if you want to keep learning more about programming (or really anything else for that matter), the following massive online open course (MOOC) sites are recommended:

  • Coursera is one I have used myself. The Machine Learning class is particularly famous and worth trying.
  • Udacity I haven’t tried but it seems to focus more on practical skills like entrepreneurship than academic topics
  • EdX seems to be similar to Coursera except maybe is less strict about deadlines for course assignments
  • Khan Academy is a friendly site with a lot of nice videos about high-school and college level subjects (eg, if you need to quickly review a particular topic in calculus or basic programming)

I hope these lists of resources were helpful for you. If you think of any that I missed and you realy like, feel free to add a comment and I’ll try to update the post to benefit future readers.

In August 2013, Tina and I went back to Colombia for a couple of weeks. The last time I was there was in 2010. It was nice to see some old friends again and make some new ones as well. Our first stop was of course Bogota, where we got to see Arieta and her boyfriend Will, who is originally from San Francisco. He had opened an excellent Italian restaurant in La Candelaria which we very much enjoyed. They also took us on a tour of the huge Paloquemao Market which I had not seen before. I took Tina to visit the La Merced neighborhood in La Macarena area, but sadly noticed that the El Cafecito hostel where I stayed before was no longer operational.

We then flew to Cartagena, where we were able to walk around the old city wall and watch the beautiful sunset. We had a long conversation at the hostel with an Australian exchange student, and a Doctor/Nurse couple from Michigan who were about to move to Alaska. They had lived in Duluth, MN for a while and shared several fascinating stories about working in the hospital. The next day we walked over to the huge Castillo de San Felipe (a giant Spanish fort). It was fun exploring the tunnels. We also passed through a surprisingly clean and fancy mall nearby. At lunch we met a local guy named Getty who talked with us for 2 hours about his career as an architect, the local politics, and his friends and family. The fish stew was amazing but I can’t remember if the hole-in-the-wall place even had a name it was so small.

Next, we took the bus to Taganga. I was re-living my memories of long family road trips when I was a kid by playing pokemon on my phone and Tina took a nap. In Taganga, we walked along the shore to the beach. It was way more crowded than I remembered, and full of noisy people, trash, chickens, and stray dogs. However, we found a good cove to swim in, and it was comforting to see many police stationed along the cliff trail. In the hostel there were many colorful characters, such as a sketchy older Argentinian man who was lounging around shirtless and watching Robert de Niro movies. He insisted that I look up some obscure jazz composer that he liked. A friendly Spanish guy was trying to access some gay websites on the computer, but then a crowd of kids ran through the room shoving and looking for a kitten that was hiding under the couch. The next day we rested and went to Santa Marta for some souvenir shopping and met two friendly ladies from a local church who helped us find our way. The following day, we hiked to Parque Tayrona. There was a plethora of other foreigners at Playa Cabo San Juan so we had to camp in a tent instead of staying in the hammocks over the rocks like I had before. We had dinner with a nice couple from Bogota- a tango instructor and a lady who was involved in some kind of herbal supplement pyramid scheme. At night, we kept waking up because the tent leaked and we had to put a big sheet of plastic over it. Of course, under the plastic we would start sweating due to the lack of ventilation and end up just taking it off and letting ourselves get wet anyway. We awoke at 5:30 am to see a beautiful sunrise. We went swimming in the cove and after breakfast hiked back out to the road. We rested at a hostel in Santa Marta and ate a lot of fish and drank delicious guava, pineapple, blackberry, tomate de Arbol, and passion fruit juices. There were many mosquitoes and not many people in the hostel, and “Home Alone” was playing on the TV.

We flew to Medellin. The long bus ride from the airport had beautiful scenery of the mountains. A nice local guy helped us get on the subway system, which was very clean and convenient. We stayed at the Palm Tree Hostel where we shared dinner with a friendly Dutch couple named Rody and Carliene and an older British couple who were vegetarians. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Colombian-American guy named Orlando gave everyone travel tips and shared a lot of interesting historical and biological information. The next morning we explored the center of the city where we saw many Botero sculptures. There was a long line of people outside a bank waiting for government checks. We then went up the cable car and chatted with an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter who were from New Mexico. They were in town for the Pan-American Games. Their son was a javelin thrower from the Naval Academy. At the top of the mountain, we enjoyed exploring with bikes and even got lost on a short hike before luckily finding a guided group who showed us the way back. We bought tons of vegetables and an enormous guanabana at the Exito grocery store (like a Colombian version of Costco or Walmart). We made a big stir-fry and shared it with our new friends at the hostel, some of whom seemed to not know what ginger root was (!). To my surprise, no one liked the guanabana because it was too sour. Orlando told everyone about an interesting, sweet fruit called borojo which we had not tried before. Later, a Canadian girl and a Taiwanese girl arrived and told us they had been separately robbed and stalked in Cartagena. I definitely got the feeling Cartagena had gone downhill somewhat since I was there last. On the other hand, Medellin was as pleasant as ever.

Around this time, there were a lot of agricultural and student protests going on all over Colombia. This made us nervous about trying to get to Santa Rosa de Cabal by road, but we decided to chance it anyway. The road was a classic South American mountain highway- viciously curvy and clogged with slow trucks, which the bus driver never hesitated to try to zoom past in the lane with the opposing traffic. We passed Manizales and got off at the outskirts of Santa Rosa. To our surprise, our host family pulled up almost immediately and boisterously hugged us and took us back to their new house, which was larger than the one I stayed in before. Also, last time they didn’t have a car. I was glad to see they were doing well and able to have some conveniences. Their younger son had really grown up a lot since last time, and they also had a new dog, “Midas”, who loved to bark at skateboarders as they would pass by in the street. I noticed that many of the young people we saw all over the country now had iphones, ipads, and other technological gadgets, whereas before, folks were using the older flip-phones. I think this may have been facilitated by the recent US-Colombia trade agreement, which seems to have been a bittersweet deal in that it also may have contributed to the Colombian farmers’ difficulties in paying for fuel and fertilizer while having to sell crops at lower prices due to increased competition. At least, that’s the sentiment I felt from talking to local people.

After spending a few relaxing days in Salento and Valle Corcora, which was just as lovely as ever, but a bit more touristy, we flew from Armenia back to Bogota. Since we wanted to visit the downtown area, we stayed in La Candelaria, something I had not done before. After visiting the fascinating Gold Museum, we headed to the northern part of the city to explore a bit during the day, especially enjoying a large flower market. On the way back, we were physically unable to cram into the overcrowded transmilenio buses due to failing to anticipate the rush hour. So, after walking about 40 blocks, we finally hailed a taxi cab. The driver almost kicked us out when he heard where we wanted to go, claiming that due to the massive crowd of protesters that had converged on the Plaza Bolivar near our hostel, he was afraid to go anywhere within 10 blocks because “anarchists would throw rocks and burn his cab”. We gave him double fare and he let us out in the outskirts of the frightening scene. We heard distant shouts and popping noises. We carefully skirted the back streets and with a sigh of relief dashed inside the hostel. During the night, the drifting clouds of tear gas would come in through the open courtyard and everyone’s eyes would start burning. We were riveted to the television, and everything seemed surreal. Thankfully, we were able to get out of the city unscathed the next morning and catch our flight home. I don’t know if there is any lesson or moral to the story, but it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

While our last couple of days in Colombia were somewhat more “exciting” than we had hoped, it hasn’t changed my opinion of the country as one of the most beautiful and friendly I have ever visited. I only hope that the people there will continue to prosper and can hopefully find ways to resolve any future conflicts in a peaceful manner. On another note, I will never forget how brave and resilient Tina was during the whole unpredictable trip. I feel truly fortunate that she later agreed to be my wife!

Last weekend, my girlfriend and I took a trip to Pittsburgh. She had lived there before and we stayed with her friends “C” and “H”. On Friday I was fortunate to meet one of the Statistics PhD students at Carnegie-Mellon who showed me around the campus. I chatted with the amiable department secretary who explained that Pittsburgh folks are mostly from Eastern Europe, while the Scots-Irish people settled closer to Cumberland, MD. “H” took us to the top of the University of Pittsburgh “Cathedral of Learning”, the second tallest academic building in the world, and explained that peregrine falcons nest on its spires. We saw evidence of this in the form of a bluejay carcass in one of the window sills.
On Saturday, we parked near an imposing, multi-story jail building and walked around the downtown area. We saw the confluence of the three rivers that surround the city, and passed by the famous Heinz Stadium. We ate lunch at former Steelers halfback Jerome Bettis’s “Grille 36” sports bar, which was excellent (if you go, be sure to try the Turkey Burger!). I was impressed by the tall skyscrapers everywhere, and H explained that at one point in history, Pittsburgh was one of the largest and most economically dominant city in the United States due to the importance of coal and the steel industry. Now, however, the health and technology industries dominate, and the former headquarters of US Steel is inhabited by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is one of the best places in the country for organ transplants. I rented a bike and rode up and down the Monongahela River, observing giant cauldrons that once poured molten iron, and long barges filled with coal coming down the river from West Virginia. It’s amazing that a barge could navigate all the way from there to New Orleans uninterrupted by whitewater rapids, while merely 20 miles or so from DC, the Potomac is blocked off to river traffic by Great Falls.
Later that night, we took the Duquesne (pronounced “Doo-kayn”) Incline to the top of Mt. Washington to get a night time view of the city. “H” explained to us that the inclines were constructed in the early 1800s and would transport steel workers back to their homes at mid-day for lunch with their families. We were extremely fortunate to meet one of the engineers, “L”, who had spent 40 years working in a gear factory. While gleefully expounding on the relative merits of plastic versus wooden cog teeth, he showed us the underground system of cables and enormous spools that was running the incline car up and down the steep mountain. In one of the rooms, a wide area was fenced off with a “high voltage” sign. He said sometimes the wall of fuses and switches throws off showers of sparks, and to him that is “when the fun starts”.
On our final day, we tossed a frisbee in the vast and verdant Schenley Park and had lunch at the one of the famous Primanti Brothers restaurants. Their sandwiches are notable for having coleslaw and french fries BETWEEN (rather than beside) the bread. We also stopped by the Conflict Kitchen, a stall serving food from different countries in opposition to the US (to raise awareness, I suppose?). On our way back to DC, we took a detour and drove up to Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania. There was a spectacular view from the observation tower at the summit. On the road down the mountain, we passed by numerous Amish folk driving around in horse-and-buggies. I am continually amazed at the wonderful diversity of the people of the United States. We are truly fortunate to live in a land where one can choose to live with however much technology they wish. Whether I find myself seeking solitude or cheery companionship, I am sure I will find myself drawn again in the future to Pittsburgh and the beautiful Allegheny Mountains.

When I lived in Charlottesville, I used to love exploring around the fringes of the town on the Rivanna Trail. On one occasion I was scouting out my next jogging route and noticed a huge, mysterious house through the woods on top of the hill behind the University of Virginia (UVA) campus. I asked around and no one seemed to know who lived there or whether it had any connection to the rest of the town. Even on Google Maps, it somehow reminded me of the kind of place Scooby Doo and the gang would encounter a spooky monster.

Having moved away from Charlottesville, I forgot about the mysterious house until recently when I had a strange dream about it. This inspired me to do a bit of research. Based on gisweb.albemarle.org, I found out the current owner Lewis Mountain LLC obtained from previous owner Everett Lee Campbell (an MD in TX?) in 2010, who inherited it from Julia Courtenay Campbell. Here is her obituary. It seems their application to have it recognized as a historic landmark was successful. This also shows the house was designed in 1909 and built in 1912. And through that I found a couple of fascinating articles describing the history of the house:

The process of learning more about the idiosyncrasies of our local surroundings is such a delight. It reminds me of William Blake’s poem, “To see a world in a grain of sand…”. I hope the folks living there don’t mind my curiosity. I would not wish for anyone to intrude upon their personal sanctuary. However, such an impressive structure, in such an unusual location, deserves to have its story told.

Before the Super Bowl, someone in our office comes around with a 10×10 grid on which folks pay $10 to write their name on a square. One person can buy many squares if desired. Once all squares are filled with names, the digits 0-9 are assigned randomly on both the horizontal and vertical axes. Each axis represents the last digit of the score of one of the teams. So, if you chose square (4,3) and the score at the end of a quarter in the Super Bowl was 24 to 13, you would win $200. If the final score was 34 to 23, you would win an additional $400. Because of the vagaries of football, not all squares are equally likely to come up. The folks at dataists have created probability matrices based on historical Super Bowl data. My coworker Jon used similar data to create a cool web app.

However, players don’t know which combinations they will be assigned before writing their names on the grid. The only decision they can make is about how many squares to buy. I wanted to see if there was an advantage to purchasing more than one square. Using the dataists’ code, I ran some simulations to see what the optimum choice was in terms of how many squares to purchase. As you can see, after 10,000 simulations, there is no clear relationship between the number of squares purchased and profitability. Note that the graphs show absolute profit, not relative. Also, as we run more and more simulations, the gap between maximum and minimum profits for all squares diminishes, suggesting that the expected net profit is essentially zero regardless of the number of squares chosen as the number of simulations approaches infinity. In conclusion, it seems like Super Bowl pools are fun, but not a good way to reliably make money.


Sometimes, especially when reading news articles, I get the feeling people consider probabilities and odds to be the same thing. For example, here is a Business Insider headline claiming that Nate Silver is predicting “92% odds” of Obama victory. I think what they really mean is that Mr. Silver is predicting a 92% probability of Obama victory. There is a big difference between these two statements! Mathematically, the odds of an event are defined as the probability of the event happening divided by the probability that the event doesn’t happen. So, while a probability can take on any value from 0 to 1 (or, in percentage terms, 0%-100%, the odds can range anywhere from zero to infinity. In fact, when the odds of an event are 1, the probability is only 50%. In the example from above, if the odds of Obama victory were really 92% (=0.92), then the probability of victory would be only 0.48, or 48%. Here are some plots showing the relationship between probability and odds:

Finally, here is another blog post from “Simply Statistics” that illustrates the importance of variance in comparing statistical estimates. The main idea is that if the variance of your estimate is small (ie, that the estimate is very precise), then it could be numerically close to some other comparison value but still be considered “significantly different”.


One of my classmates in my statistics class at Georgetown asked me how I went from doing tropical biology to becoming a software tester. I decided to share my response here because it might be interesting to others who are contemplating a radical change in career direction.

I was convinced throughout college that I wanted to be a tropical field biologist. I studied abroad at a field station in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and after graduation spent almost a year doing research in the Philippines on seed dispersal of a particular understory tree. I even got a publication out of the latter in a German ecology journal. So, I was all set to go for a PhD in bio, but while I was in Manila and Bataan I took some time to reflect on where things were going and I realized I didn’t want to do fieldwork for the rest of my life. It is an amazing experience and I’m glad I had the chance to try it out, but as a career it is a very isolated and difficult lifestyle. You have to spend a lot of time in very remote, uncomfortable, and occasionally dangerous situations to collect data. Experiments often fail, and you have to wait a whole year until you can try again (due to the seasonality of flowering, fruiting, migrating animals, etc). Almost no one pays attention to biology research unless it has a medical application, and most tropical biologists spend their lives documenting the ongoing destruction of species and ecosystems they care for very much but feel powerless to protect. What this means is that in order to follow this path, one must be extremely passionate and dedicated to their discipline. I actually had the good fortune to study under such a person in the Philippines- a man named Leonard Co who in my opinion was a modern-day Linnaeus. Sadly, he was shot about a year ago while doing fieldwork. He was a cheerful, multilingual, botanical genius whose whole life was dedicated to scientific discovery and conservation.

Yet as much as I admired him, I realized I did not want to follow in his footsteps, because I couldn’t imagine myself specializing and focusing so intensely on a single subject. I like learning about a wide variety of things, and since the financial crisis was going on at the same time, I started reading a lot about economics, which I didn’t know much about previously. Furthermore, I had never lived in a big city prior to Manila, and even though I always thought of myself as a rural person, I learned to love the excitement and mental stimulation of the urban environment. By the time I came back to the US, I was totally confused about what I wanted to do career-wise, so I just decided to keep an open mind when I got a job offer to do software testing in Charlottesville. I have enjoyed this work for the past 3 years and am grateful to the folks who decided to take a chance on hiring someone based more on his sense of curiosity than his programming experience. Since I still enjoy learning about both biology and economics (and especially how they sometimes intertwine), I decided to go ahead and try for a masters through night classes in something that seems to be useful in both fields, which is how I ended up studying math and statistics. My career philosophy now is more about just making the most of whatever opportunities come around and trying to always be learning something new rather than having a master plan to save the world. I do hope to someday use my technical skills to help conservation efforts in places like the Philippines and other parts of the tropics, but I imagine it will be more in my personal time than as a career. Indeed, I have continued to visit tropical countries and am always inspired by the beauty of the landscapes and the generosity of the people in places like Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Malaysia. I also feel fortunate to have maintained a connection to environmental issues through my work in that most of my projects have been supporting government (EPA) air quality and energy efficiency programs.

My Dad sent me a link the other day about entitlements, and how some of the most popular google searches in recent months have been people looking for ways to sign up for government benefits like unemployment, disability, etc. Also there was something about how a large fraction of Americans now depend on the government for at least part of their income. I don’t have a full understanding of these complex issues but here are some ideas about it floating in my head.

I agree that the entitlement system is unsustainable in the long-term. I’m reading a book right now called The Forgotten Man about the Great Depression that strongly argues against the New Deal, which was basically the start of the system we have today. The author argues that FDR’s heavy-handed, government oriented approach, which was partially inspired by observations of socialist policies in England, and to a lesser extent those of soviet Russia, stifled private sector innovation. She instead thinks Wendell Wilkie would have done a better job as president. On the other hand, according to this article, the historical origin of the entitlements was not out of the beneficence of the elite but rather a concession to avert European-style class warfare which could have led to an even more radical outcome (revolution), like it did in Russia and China.
“The Gilded Age plutocrats who first acceded to a social welfare system and state regulations did not do so from the goodness of their hearts. They did so because the alternatives seemed so much more terrifying.”
So as far as I can tell we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Keeping entitlements undermines the strength of the national economy due to excessive tax burden on workers and investors, but eliminating them could lead to violent unrest among those who cannot make ends meet. I have no idea what the right solution is, but it seems likely it would have to involve some way of improving peoples’ training and education levels so that they can have the skills that are needed to survive. Here’s one social-entrepreneurial example along those lines that I admire: http://www.khanacademy.org/about . Another interesting, related question is, to what extent does technological change affect unemployment?