Thursday, May 26, 2011

SCIENCE!


Maybe you don't know this, but I'm a bit of a nerd. Yeah, I like to watch Star Trek and read the Dune books, blah blah, but I'm also a real nerd, academically. For my career, I'm a PhD Organic Chemist, so naturally science and the wonder of discovery fascinate me and have since I was a kid. And my dorkiness helped in picking organic synthesis as my calling...I always liked to build models and repair things as a kid, so when I was an undergrad and I found out you could make molecules? Well, I was hooked.

So, after 4 years of undergrad, 5 years of grad school to get my PhD, and 2 years of postdoctoral training, here I am at the ripe old age of 31 working as an organic chemist for the last 3 years. Sounds like a nice story, right?

And it is, for the most part, but the one thing that's been nagging me incessantly the last couple of years is the fact that it took me until I was 28 to finish my education and training before I got my first "real" job. And that's on the young side since I finished high school at 17, college at 21, and grad school at 26. Most of my peers are older, anywhere from 1-3 years older, to considerably more (depending on if they worked in between degrees, came back to finish up, etc).

Simply put, the ratio of years education to compensation is not working in the favor of me or any of my other chemist friends/colleagues, at least those of us under the age of 40. Don't get me wrong, I have a steady job and make a good salary. But I started making this money at this job when I was 28. I have friends who graduated with Bachelor's degrees when I did (or later) 10 years ago who were making then what I'm making now...and are making more than me *NOW*. It's a tricky thing, because on one hand, the advanced degree in chemistry has made it so that I have more upward mobility and opportunity in my career future (this horrific economy and job market nonwithstanding), but on the other hand, I "wasted" basically my entire 20s getting this degree and getting paid a pittance for it as a stipend, while a lot of my peers were working real jobs and making real money. Many of us got married and started families in our early to mid-20s (at least, I did) and while I wouldn't trade my wife or 4 kids for anything in the whole wide world (marrying Kristie and having our kids are the best things I've ever done, hands down, and I mean that with every fiber of my being), I feel bad that I spent the last decade not able to support them as well as I could have.

The other thing is, the majors my peers had studied, and the fields that lead to good careers almost right out of the gate, are fields like business, computers, engineering (any of them...mechanical, chemical, electrical, etc). Chemistry, while vital to our country and society in nearly every way, from pharmaceuticals to polymers, plastics, agriculture, materials, medicine, healthcare and beauty, etc, is not a particularly lucrative career path. While you can make a nice living off of it, it takes a long time and a hard road, oftentimes, to get there. And that's the quandary.

I'm torn because I truly love science in general and chemistry in particular. There's been a lot of talk lately in the national media here how we "aren't training enough American scientists." And it is true that the majority of graduate students in the hard sciences are foreign students (not only is this simply fact, I can attest to it from personal experience, having spent the years 1997-2008 in chemistry departments getting my degrees). However, I disagree with their thesis that it's delayed career and compensatory gratification that is the deterrent, because let's face it, the most popular majors on college campuses tend to be in the liberal arts, and those kids come out of school earning next to nothing. So I don't think it's necessarily the case that it's better money too far down the road that's the problem. I think instead it's the fact that, at least with chemistry (since that's what I know), you can come out of college with a BS and make ~$40,000/yr, spend 2-3 yrs to get a MS and make ~$55,000/yr, or spend 5+ years to get a PhD, plus 1-3+ yrs at a postdoc, and come out making, on average, about $75,000/yr. Granted, your future career ceiling is higher if you come out with a PhD at the end. But how much more attractive is it to forgo an extra 2-8+ yrs of school (during which many students are treated like indentured servants and cheap slave labor...true, tuition is waived and we get stipends, but it's barely enough to live off of if you're single, never mind if you're married and/or have kids)*** and spend your 20s making real money instead of making ~$15,000-25,000/yr and still be in school until you're 30? Again, I'm not saying I'd go back and do it differently...I made my decision and for the most part, I'm very happy with it. But it is a concern for current and future students.

I have much more to say on this, but I'm going to stop here and let you digest this and think about it. I'd love to hear from any other people who are scientists or in other fields where this line of thinking may apply. Does love of science trump these other concerns?

***DISCLAIMER I am not saying I was treated like a slave in school, because I wasn't. While both of my advisors were demanding and expected a lot from me, I worked very hard because I genuinely love chemistry, and with a few rare instances, I look back on my grad school career with fondness. I know I'm lucky in this regard, as this isn't always the case...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Music: Is the Physical Format Dying?



(Now *that* is clever in the pic above...CDs that look like vinyl!)

Yes, yes, I know that the question I'm posing in the title of this blog posting is hardly original...

As I'm sure many of you did, I grew up listening to my music on a variety of formats. First there were records, which belonged to my dad, from the 1960s and 1970s. When I would get home from school, I'd go into his office, pull out all of the records I wanted to listen to, and spend hours in there listening on his stereo until he got home and I had to leave the room. I cut my musical teeth, so to speak, on that great music that I still love listening to today: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, etc. I spent hours studying the album artwork, the lyrics, the packaging, in addition to learning all of the words (and later on when I began teaching myself guitar, the music) to all the songs. Then there were cassette tapes...I bought loads of albums on tape, copied others from my friends, and used to request songs off of the radio, tape them, and make my own mix tapes. Then, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, CDs came out, and they were were amazing at the time. You could skip songs quickly, like on vinyl, but at the press of a button, and the sound was so much better than scratchy vinyl. From when I got my first CD player at age 13 (in 1993) until, let's say, 2009 or so, I amassed a *HUGE* collection of music on CD...while I've whittled away a lot of bad albums I no longer listen to, or redundant releases (like Greatest Hit albums), at my peak I probably had something close to 1500 CDs. I have a strange compulsion that, when I like a band, I must own *ALL* of their albums, no matter what. Coupled with the fact that I'm addicted to music, you can see why I grew to have so many discs.

But, something has changed within the last few years. With the rise of iTunes and iPods, digital music downloads, and the internet, buying, storing, and listening to music has become easier and more convenient than ever before. For instance, when I was in high school and then college, I had a 50 CD changer with 4 large speakers for blasting my tunes. Honestly, I haven't used that stereo in probably 7 years now. I can get *BETTER* sound by plugging my iPod into smaller, more powerful speakers, or even through the mini-speaker set I have hooked through my computer. I now carry around 15,000+ songs on my iPod, over 110 GB of music, so my *ENTIRE* collection of music is literally in my pocket, while my CDs sit in boxes in the basement (much to the relief of my wife and kids, who don't have to look at them lined up on shelves in the house anymore!). Right now, they're only there as a physical back-up.

I resisted downloading music from iTunes for a long time...I like physical copies of my music, both to have as backup, and to have the album art. But something has changed in my mind over the last couple of years. With a growing family (my wife and I now have four children between the ages of 6 years old and 1 month old), space and time are at a premium. It's not as easy as it used to be for me to trek to my local record store and browse for a couple of hours before buying some discs (although I still do this when I can). And what little space we do hhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifave in our home is taken up by kids books, toys, movies, clothes, etc, not to mention whatever things my wife and I have (and I have to plead guilty here...in addition to all of my stuff, I have two guitars, a bass, an amp, loads of pedals and other music gear...I'm just as guilty of being a space hog). So the longer my CDs have been in boxes, the less I yearn to have them within easy reach. And digital music can be stored on a hard drive that's not much bigger than a CD case itself!

I'm at the point now, old codger that I am, where there's not nearly as much new music I listen to (and thus, buy) as there used to be...I think most of it is garbage, and the bands I do follow religiously have been around for years so it's usually a bit of a wait in between releases. So now, if there's only a song or two I like, I'll download them from iTunes. And over the years, I've mentally cataloged the many bands I listen to into "tiers," the top tier being my absolute, all-time favorite bands that I will never stop listening to. *THOSE* are now the only bands I will buy new CDs of, for a couple of reasons, namely the money and the physical space they take up. Plus, I care enough about those bands that I *need* to have the physical release for its art. Everyone else, I'll just purchase it on iTunes.

I've finally given in to the digital age...as much as I resisted, it *is* more convenient, quicker, and space-saving, not to mention cheaper (in most instances). I know many fellow audiophiles will point out that purchased music online is in mp3 format, whereas CDs can be ripped to lossless formats like FLAC before going onto an iPod. But honestly, with those bands who I download, I don't care enough to have it in lossless...the convenience outweighs that. My transition from purist to embracer of the digital age is almost total, although like I said, I do keep a spot for physical releases for the Top Tier of my music library!

So what do you think? How do you purchase/store your music these days?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"What a drag it is getting old..."

Well, ok, I'm not exactly *old*, I just wanted to use that line from the classic Stones' song***. But lately I have been thinking a lot about aging and progressing through life...

I turned 31 this past February and while that hardly qualifies me as *old*, I am finally coming to grips with the fact that I'm not *young* anymore. Over the last few years as I approached and then passed 30, it's hit me that I'm starting to get to a place I never thought I would when I was 20 or even 25. Lately, I've been really nostalgic for the decades I grew up in, the 1980s and 1990s. And by nostalgic, I just mean that when a certain song plays on my iPod or the radio, when yet another product/TV show/movie is rebooted and marketed as "new" to today's youth, etc, it just takes me back to being a kid/teenager and the good times from back then. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy with my current adult life, but the more frequent thinking back to younger, more innocent days is, I think, natural for everyone as they get older, and it's been funny for me to notice that I'm beginning to do the same thing we all used to make fun of our parents for doing when we were kids...talking about how much better the "good old days" were!

The funniest thing for me is how I seem to be less in tune to the pop culture of the day, and it's been a gradual thing. That, and the fact that I feel like more and more of it is garbage. It's been a long time since I've seen a good, ORIGINAL (non-remake/adaptation) movie that hasn't been a kids movie (I have 4 kids so I see a LOT of kids flicks these days). Most TV shows are terrible, most music these days is awful, and I used to pride myself on finding the best new bands before anyone else had caught on, but I recently noticed there hasn't been a new band that I've latched on to and really enjoyed in a good 5-6 years...most of the bands I listen to that are still actively recording/touring debuted years ago.

It's particularly funny for me because now that I have kids, they have no idea what the world was like before the internet, iPods, cell phones, DVD players, video games, hundreds of cable channels, etc. From when I was a kid, I remember:

rotary telephones, party lines, phones with cords, a world with no internet, record players, cassettes, 8-track tapes, VHS tapes, TV antennas on the roof, having no cable, the first primitive home computers, Ataris, video arcades, the original Nintendo, cars with crank windows and no air conditioning, the TV going off the air (the test patterns) late at night, garage doors you had to open by hand, the Walkman, buying comic books at the grocery/drug store, a world before every store/restaurant was a chain...

I could go on and on, but I won't. I just wanted to throw this out there and share this and see what other people think, especially anyone who is around the same age as me (early 30s)...how has your perception changed as you've gotten older?



***Talk about showing my age, quoting a Rolling Stones song from the mid-1960s...how ironic!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

And the best Beatle is...


As all of my family and friends know, I am a HUGE Beatles fan, absolutely obsessed with them and their music. They're just timeless, and apart from *maybe* 1-3 songs, a nearly flawless (in my opinion) catalogue of incredible music. I won't go into details, since we all know how revolutionary, creative, and important they were during their career (1962-1970). But one part of my thinking regarding The Beatles I've changed a lot over the years is which was my favorite Beatle. You know the drill...whenever you're talking Beatles with another person, the inevitable question "who's your favorite?" always comes up. Almost always the answer is either John ("the cool one") or George ("the quiet/spiritual/underrated/mysterious one"). Hardly anyone picks Ringo, even though he was a great drummer and the perfect one for the band. And Paul is always ripped as being a weenie, a sap, a jerk, an egomaniac, etc. John wrote "Imagine" after The Beatles, while Paul always gets mocked by "Silly Little Love Songs," for example. I'm not going to get into their solo work here, but I do want to touch on who my favorite is...

As a teenager/early 20s guy, it was John hands-down. I was full of angst and rage and confusion, as any person is at that age, and John's life story, his biting sarcasm, his wit, and his quite often aggressive songs and lyrics really spoke to me. I knew he and Paul were one of the best songwriting partnerships EVER, and I bought into the whole "John wrote the rockers and Paul wrote the ballads" thing that's been around for years. However, as I got older into my 20s and progressed through life (marriage, kids, job) and also matured as a person (although I'm still a long way from being done in that area!), I realized some things I hadn't thought about before, or at least looked at from a more adult perspective.

I'm going to first preface this by saying it's not an attack on John Lennon...we all know what happened to him in childhood and he did end up maturing quite a lot the last 5 years of his life before he was tragically murdered in 1980. I'm only going by facts and opinions obtained from nearly 20 years of reading/researching/listening/watching anything and everything I could about these guys. But, as I've gotten older, I've realized two things: John was a real jerk to a lot of people, and while he did write scores of amazing and legendary songs, I think Paul was the better writer and musician.

On the first point, we all know the details: John was physically and verbally abusive to his first wife Cynthia, very cold and uninvolved toward his first son Julian, and cheated on Cynthia loads of times during their marriage, eventually leaving her and Julian for Yoko Ono. The settlement he gave them at the divorce was very small and he basically disappeared from their lives for the next 12 years of his life. Meanwhile, Paul had dated Jane Asher for a good 5 years before they broke up in 1968. Yes, Paul cheated on her as well, most notably with Linda, who he began to see in 1967. He broke off his engagement with Jane and by 1969 had married Linda. While John continued to drink and drug heavily, even leaving Yoko for months in 1974 for his "Lost Weekend," where he even had a Yoko-approved mistress, May Pang, Paul (and I don't know if/how much he cheated during this time) and Linda were nearly inseparable, married from '69 until her death in '98. They had a bunch of kids, lived on a Scottish farm, and he purposely included her in his band Wings so they'd always be together. According to both of them (and I don't know how true this is), they didn't spend more than a week TOTAL apart during their nearly 30 years of marriage. Additionally, it was Paul who took Cynthia and Julian Lennon under his wing, making sure they were taken care of, and visiting them and including them in his life from the moment John ditched them in '68. He even proposed marriage to Cynthia after John left her, although this was more a heartwarming gesture according to what I've read, but it still touched her...she's mentioned it in many books. Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that on the way to one of these visits in his car, Paul wrote "Hey Jude" for Julian! So I don't mean to generalize, but the pattern throughout their lives was that John was a very hard guy to get close to (although the friendship he had with the other three guys, and especially Paul, was amazingly close and Paul has never said anything but nice things about him) while Paul tended to be more friendly and warm (although, again, I know he can be a real dick, I've read accounts of that, too, and yes, he *does* have a huge ego). As I've grown up, however, I identify and empathize more with Paul's approach than John's. That being said, Lennon was/is still one of my all time favorite musicians and personalities...a fascinating guy, and his death, especially at a time when he finally seemed to have grown up and cleaned up, is still a great tragedy.

Musically, however, I think Paul as a musician is seriously misunderstood. While both guys could write blistering rockers (Paul: "Helter Skelter," John: "Revolution") and ballads (Paul: "Here, There, and Everywhere," John: "Julia"), I've found the depth and breadth of Paul's compositions and influences to be much greater than John's. Again, not to take anything away from John Lennon, who is deservedly a legend, but Paul wrote so many amazing songs and incorporated so many different styles, from rock, R&B, blues, jazz, to classical, English Music Hall, Motown, that it's pretty amazing when you peel back the layers to see how the songs were constructed. I'm not turning this into a John vs. Paul thing, because John wrote the bulk of "A Day in the Life," he wrote "Come Together," "I Am the Walrus," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "A Hard Day's Night," etc and has a catalog of classics in his own right. But for my taste, I find Paul to be more accomplished a songwriter. He was also the best musician in the band...a fantastic bass player, great guitar player, he played piano, he scored the orchestras for some songs. And of course the singing (again, though, John was incredible here...it's a wash).

I know I haven't gotten as in depth as I could have here, and it's mainly opinion, but I wanted to share it anyway. Again, I love John Lennon's work in The Beatles and if Paul is Beatle #1 to me, John is either #1A or a super close #2, so this was in no means an attack on Lennon...rather, just an appreciation of Paul.

What do you think? Who's your favorite?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Falling back in love with the NHL and the Boston Bruins


Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you I'm a huge sports fan, and most devotedly to my Boston teams (Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots). But a lot of people don't know that I also am a big ice hockey fan. I was a Bruins fan growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. I used to love reading about and watching footage of the great Bobby Orr-led Big Bad Bruins teams of the 1970s and reading about their 5 Stanley Cup Final appearances (and two wins) that decade. I really enjoyed following the great teams that carried over into the 1980s and early 1990s, led by Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Andy Moog, Craig Janney, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, etc. They made two more Cup Finals, in '88 and '90, and lost them both, but they were competitive and contending throughout the decade and into the early 1990s. However, toward the mid-to-late 1990s, I started to lose interest in the NHL...too much fighting, not a lot of great players, boring zone defenses...I moved on and, apart from being a passionate fan of UNH Men's Ice Hockey (my alma mater!), I didn't really care about the Bruins. They hadn't won a Cup since '72, hadn't been to the Finals since '90, and hadn't even made the Conference Finals since '92. And with the 2000s coming and the Red Sox, Patriots, and C's all becoming competitive and winning titles, it seemed the Bruins were just a bad joke.

But I started to get sucked back in in 2007-08 or so when they made a really good run in the playoffs and took the #1 seeded (and hated) Canadiens to 7 games in the first round. It reignited my excitement and interest in hockey, which to that point had been dormant for 10 years. The following season they lost a heartbreaking series to Carolina in 7 games, and everyone knows about last season's historic collapse against the Flyers after being up 3 games to none.

But this season saw the Bruins competing for the top record in the East all season, eventually ending with the #3 seed and a first round matchup with their hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. I won't bore you with the details, but that 7-game series, which the Bruins won, was riveting...3 overtime games (the B's won all 3) and just some high intensity hockey. I think it's safe to say that the Bruins have definitely brought me back into the fold as a fan, and so far these first 2 games against the Flyers in a rematch of last season (both of which the B's have won) have been thrilling, including a game 2 that ended in overtime and had one of the all-time great goaltending performances from B's goalie Tim Thomas. If they could win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime, well, that would just be the icing on the cake. Why not this year?

Are any of you ice hockey and/or Bruins fans? How long have you been a fan, and has the recent success brought you back, or did you never leave?