Saturday, March 21, 2015

The ultimate graduate student website creation guide

Alright everyone, I am about to get up on a soapbox for a moment, so please bear with me. If you are an academic, you should have a website. Period. This goes for graduate students, postdocs, professors, everyone. The only exception may be if you already have your Fields medal and someone else has taken the time to curate your Wikipedia page for you. The website itself can be absolute rubbish, but if I Google you and the first thing that comes up is a drunk picture of you at a party, that is my first impression of you professionally that you can never get back.

I should point out that I, as the token academic for the purposes of this discussion, will Google you often. Examples include:
  • We are attending the same conference and I've never heard of you but you're on the participants list. 
  • You write a paper and I don't recognize your name. 
  • I talk to some other Professor about you and I want to find out more about your status. 
  • You write me an email trying to get into my class with no explanation of your current academic status, what department you're in, etc. Oh my goodness this happens a lot and it is almost impossible for me to give good advice until we have exchanged at least 3 more emails where I try to tease out this information! Please for the love of Pete setup an email signature with 
    • Your name 
    • Your institution 
    • Your department / major 
    • Undergrad vs masters vs PhD 
    • A link to the website I am about to force you to make 
Since I will Google you often, it is in your best interest to put your most professional Internet presence forward. This includes using the privacy settings on your personal Facebook account so that I can't see the things you meant for your friends. This likely also means building a LinkedIn profile, although I apologize in advance for all the useless emails that little piece of advice will send to you. More importantly, you should have your own website. As academics we are completely fine with comparably ugly websites as long as you have the proper information.

Ok, so without further ado, here is my advice and experience with setting up an academic website. 


You are an academic, so you hypothetically are associated with some sort of university. Many of these places give you free hosting space by virtue of your affiliation, so make use of it. This probably means your website address will be something like 
If you are at UAlbany, the necessary information about how to do something like this is here.

Of course, you can also pay for hosting which gives you control of your domain name. For example, I pay a company called ANHosting to host my website, which allows me to have the domain name The perk of this solution is that I don't have to move my website when I move Universities. The downside is of course that I have to pay.

Creating a website and finding a template 

Like I said, your website can be ugly as long as you have the necessary information on it. Websites are created by uploading an html file, which is just a text file. Html is markup language, so you write the plain text with little bits of code wrapped around it and your web browser will figure out how to make it pretty for you. It's a bit like writing a latex file but seeing the output pdf.

Note that UAlbany gives free access to a program called RedDot which apparently is some kind of editor for html that you can use.

There are also many free website templates out there that you can use. Feel free to use my website as a template if you'd like, I only ask that you put a link to my website saying it was my template. Be warned, my code is not the prettiest, so use at your own risk. Also, you can spice up your website by using CSS, which is another file type used to make the html a bit more pretty. If you want to learn html and CSS, I recommend this book.

I should also point out that it is better to err on the side of too simple rather than too busy (See this website for some ideas of what not to do). In general, solid color backgrounds are the best idea since they allow the reader to focus on what really matters... the content.


Alright, what is supposed to be on your website? Some of these things, at least to me, are mandatory and some are less important but useful.

  • Your name. This should go without saying, but I usually can't figure out your name from the alphabet soup provided by the username in the url. Also, of course, this makes it easier for Google to start pointing hits from searches of your exact name towards your website. 
  • Relevant affiliation information: 
    • Institution name. A link from here to the University website is also a good idea. 
    • Department name. Again, a link to the department website is a good idea. 
    • Address. Some people put the University address which is fine. More important, however, is your current office number so people can find you. 
    • Contact information 
    • Email address. Be warned, web crawlers will find your email address because of it and will likely start spamming you. I just have a good spam filter and hope for the best, but some people find other workarounds. This includes providing their email address as an image file with no link, or writing out the full address as we would say it aloud, e.g. "emunch at albany dot edu". 
    • Phone number. This should probably be your office phone number unless you don't mind having your cell number all over the Internet. 
  • A current, close up picture of your face. Not a picture of the back of your head. Not a picture of you walking into the sunset, climbing mount everest, or with another person in the picture so that I don't know which person is you. Not an artsy picture. Not a picture from that super rad party last weekend. Not a picture of your baby. Not a picture from 10 years ago. For goodness sake, not a selfie. This is absolutely my pet peeve, I realize, but let me try to explain why this is so important. Maybe I've read some of your papers and know that you are going to be at a conference. If you have a picture on your website that makes it easy for me to recognize you, I will be able to ask you about it. It also means that later when I google your name trying to figure out when and if I met you, my visual memory will be jogged by having an up to date picture. 
  • A current CV. Maybe I'll put a full rant on how to do this part properly later, but it is so crucial to make a CV early and update it often. This is of course particularly relevant if you are on the job market or will be any time soon. Now we enter the list of things that are super awesome to find on someone's website but are certainly not necessary. 
  • A list of your papers. 
    • If you want to get crafty, a picture for each one is always an excellent idea. 
    • If your copyright restrictions from the journal don't disallow it, a link to the pdf hosted on your website is also awesome, particularly for people with limited library access. 
    • My favorite is when someone provides the bibtex source code for me so that I know I'm referencing the paper correctly and also fixes any ambiguity with what version is most recent, conference vs journal version, etc. 
    • A link to the website where the paper is published. This could be the arXiv, or the peer reviewed journal, or both depending on the situation. 
  • A blurb about your research. This should hit any of the key search terms that are related to your work. Also it should be readable to the mathematical layman (i.e. A mathematician not in your field). If you do interdisciplinary or applied research, it should be able to reach an even wider audience than that. Once you're on the academic job market, you will appreciate having written these sorts of things already!
  • Teaching information. 
    • What classes you taught, when, where, how much responsibility you had, etc. 
    • If there is a website for the course, link to it. 
    • If there is a course description somewhere, link to it. 
  • A video of you doing something. I heard this advice from Robert Ghrist a while ago and I think it's quite excellent.  This video could be a short video of you explaining some basic part of your research or a snippet of you teaching. If you are lucky enough to speak at a conference or workshop that records, archives, and hosts the videos for you, by all means do it and, of course, link to it! What this does is gives people a chance to see your ability to explain yourself and gives them an initial insight into your research even before they get a chance to meet you. 
Finally, here are a few examples of awesome academic websites that follow all or most of the above. These will of course be heavily skewed towards the applied topology community since those are the websites I end up on the most often and thus are the first ones that come to mind.

I hope you found this post useful!  Please feel free to send me any errors or omissions, as well as other examples of excellent academic websites that I should have as examples above.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Ballad of the Broken Sewing Machine

I am crafty.  I don't mean that in a Pinky and the Brain attempt to take over the world type of thing, I mean I like making crafts.  Depending on the day, my obsession changes but it's definitely an obsession and I can get super addicted to various projects.

I love knitting.  There's something therapeutic in the repetition of it, and it makes me feel productive even when I'm sitting in front of the TV.  However, when it's 90 degrees outside (like this week's humidity fest), I can't really bring myself to sit with a pile of wool on my lap.  So, at least for the summer, probably not going to do a whole lot of knitting.

However, since Firas is out of town for the next two months, I really wanted a project to keep my mind occupied.  (Yes, John, I realize I should probably be doing more math instead of making things, but hasn't the math phd made me crazy enough as it is?)  My brilliant plan was to get back into sewing, so I decided to make a dress.  The fabulously wonderful Karen O'Connell jumped on board, so we went shopping and got fabric and patterns and everything, so we were ready to go.

I have a sewing machine, but let me give you the history.  My mom and I made many a renaissance costume when I was little, so I know my way around a sewing machine.  Hers is a fabulous workhorse which I have never seen break despite torturing it with all kinds of thick fabrics (my denim purse idea may have broken a few more needles than I should admit, but not the machine itself).  I think she got it sometime in the mid 70's, so this machine has been running like a champ for about 40 years.  That's what I want.

About a year ago at Christmas, I got a hankering for sewing again.  I think the original plan was to make curtains for my living room.  I asked my parents for a sewing machine like my mom's, and they got me a pretty standard model Singer.  Despite being called the "heavy duty" model, the machine was crap.  In all fairness, I may have just gotten a lemon, but this thing caused one giant headache.  Somehow, the bobbin would never work right, so I would end up with thread vomit all over the back of anything I stitched together.  Vomit may be the wrong word, but it turned into this clumpy mess that wasted an amazing amount of thread while it did nothing in terms of attaching the two pieces of cloth together.
Sewing machine #1
After much arguing with JoAnn Fabrics over whether I was allowed to return aforementioned machine, I managed to get my parents their money back and went in search of a different solution.  As far as I can tell, all new sewing machines are crap.  Total crap.  All of the innards have been replaced with plastic parts, and they seem to be more expensive anyway because you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a sewing machine with a built in computer.  Now, do not get me wrong: I LOVE computers.  Anyone who knows me knows I have a nerdgasm over all things electronic, but in my opinion, computers are not necessary in a sewing machine unless you want to do some weird kind of embroidery.  I don't! I just want to be able to go forward and back, is that so much to ask?

This seems intensely unnecessary.
Having scoured the internet for a good sewing machine and coming up depressingly empty handed, I stumbled on a lucky break: BestFriendJordan's mom apparently had about 5 sewing machines in her basement that were inherited from various relatives and she was more than happy to part with one.

I was in heaven!  A 50ish year old machine that ran like a dream and was, I assumed, indestructible.  Sadly, I was wrong.  The fabulous Karen and I were working on our dresses on a Sunday afternoon when the machine started making funny noises.  Since it was still sewing ok, we carried on with the assumption that I would take it to the shop the next day as it seems that you can't get sewing machine repair or Chick-Fil-A on a Sunday.  Silly Bible belt.  Of course, the machine got steadily worse until I bent 4 needles in a row.  (Bending needles repeatedly usually means something's wrong with your machine's innards.  Darn.)

Sewing Machine #2, currently fulfilling its life's purpose of being an unnecessarily gigantic paperweight.
Having very little patience and being incapable of waiting a day to see what the maintenance guy said, Karen, RoommateJordan, and I took my machine apart to see if there was a simple fix.  In case you were wondering, when it comes to sewing machines, it's seldom an easy fix.  This why sewing machine repair guys can have that job title.  Turns out one of the (plastic!!!!) gears had been stripped, which caused all of the problem.  So this should be easy, right?  Just replace the gear and it will be fine!  Wrong.... I took it to the repair man and apparently this is a $250 fix.  So I left the shop with my totaled sewing machine and went home to cry.
Halley being awesome as usual, and Karen in her almost entirely hand-stitched dress. I am in complete awe of this because I have no patience for hand-stitching.
Yup, that's it.  I don't have a happy ending to this yet.  I've been drooling over an antique model these guys have in their shop, but if I'm going to drop $500 on something, it better have a good graphics card.  I guess I should just return to scouring the internet for some old lady trying to get rid of her old machine who hasn't realized yet how much it's worth.  If you know of some lady with the predicament of having a spare sewing machine, please point her in my direction!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whadda ya do with 14 pounds of strawberries?

This past Saturday, Firas, Maura, and I went strawberry picking.

Firas and I may have gone a bit overboard as we ended up with about 14 lbs of strawberries.  Whoops. So then we had to figure out what to do with them.

Well, first we ate lots.  Then we decided to make smoothies
 Then Firas got super excited about making jam.  Turns out this is an easier process than I remembered, but my memory may be biased by the fact that my aunt and I made GALLONS of jam one afternoon.  Turns out only making a little is much easier....

I think we even successfully managed to get the lids to seal!  There was a point where I wasn't really sure it was going to work.  Basically, the jam was still super hot, but Firas and I kept poking at lids saying "Why aren't they staying down?!?!"  Ok, so we're not supremely patient.

I wish I had a picture of Firas' kitchen post-jam making.  It looked like a strawberry goo ball exploded and managed to hit every surface in the place.

Somehow in the middle of the jam explosion, we also made salmon with strawberry salsa.
I plant this recipe directly in the "meh" bucket.  I think the salsa may have been better with more balsamic vinegar or something, but hey, it was an experiment!

So, to make everyone happy after the meh-salmon, we made daiqaris.
I successfully killed the handle of rum that I managed to inherit after the prospie-party when I was grad rep.  What was that, 3 years ago? Yeah, I don't usually drink rum.  Whiskey on the other hand.....

Right, so where was I? Oh, yeah, so we woke up after the non-enough-rum-and-daiqari evening and had pancakes!
Technically they aren't really pancakes, they're essentially Czech crepes.  In my house we always called them "platski" which is apparently a massive bastardization of the real word.  Google translate has just informed me the correct word is is "palańćinka."  What's so great about them is they're super easy: 1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, 1 egg, a dash of vanilla, an voila! Pancakes!

Hm, now I'm craving platski.  Um, yeah, I'm gonna go now....

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Ikea Adventure

I decided the last time that I visited my brother that he needed couches.  Not only couches, furniture period.  When I showed up, he had a giant living room that was completely empty since "What's the point, I'm just going to sit at my computer desk in my room anyway."  Well that's great, but you only own one chair and if you're sitting in it, I have nothing.

Fast forward a few months.  Jim gets a dog.  A giant puppy, really.  Turns out that having a dog who liked to remove interesting articles from the laundry basket and/or piles of clothes on the floor was just the push he needed to get dressers.  Ok, that's something.

So when I came to visit again, progress has been made.  He has a kitchen table with multiple chairs (I don't have to eat dinner on the floor?!?!?!?!) and a coffee table, but there's still no couches.  So yesterday we took a field trip to Ikea and found a couch and love seat that he liked for not an amazing amount of money.  Of course it figures that they are rearranging the warehouse area and if they are in stock, the salespeople can't find them.  But, as I am promised, they'll be in tomorrow.

Since Jim had to be in class in the morning, I got the brilliant (and later regretted) idea to go to Ikea by myself and get them.  Now, I have a large vehicle: I play the harp, so I have to.  As it turns out, my parents have this obsessive thing with fairness, so my brother has an exact duplicate of my station wagon.

However, when they pulled the first of the two giant boxes that I would need off of the pallet, I was immediately struck by the fear that my big car wouldn't fit one, let alone two of these monstrosities.

If I was intelligent (my blonde hair tends to get the better of me) I would have done one of two things after seeing the size of the boxes:
  1. Buy one of the sofas, hope it fit inside, drive it home, come back, buy the other, drive it home.
  2. Give up on the current endeavor, then have Jim drive his car over and we could take one box in each car assuming it would fit inside.
Ok, so I did neither.  I bought both and happily ambled off to bring my car to the loading dock, sure that it would magically turn out ok.  

The perk of this is that one of the boxes did in fact fit inside my car.  To be quite honest, the only reason this was possible is that I have severely short legs, so the driver's seat is almost as far forward as is physically possible (the only reason for almost as far forward and not as far forward is that I have movable pedals... best invention EVER!).  This gave a few more inches leeway, and box #1 is inside and fine.

Now, there is no way in hell that we are getting the second box into that car.  So, the lovely Ikea gentleman helping me offers to put it on top.  What he doesn't explain to me is that although he will help me get it up there, they legally cannot help me tie the thing on.  They will provide as much string as you want, but they will not help with the tying.

So I stand there for a few minutes as he helps someone else, thinking he's coming back.  He does, but only to explain to me this fun byproduct of an overly litigious culture.  So I wrack my brains trying to figure out the best knots to tie, all the while cursing the Girl Scouts for spending our time on make-up merit badges instead of the fun stuff that the boys got to do.  In case you were wondering, that merit badge was 100% the reason for my quitting the girl scouts.  What a stupid waste of time.

Ok, off my soap box.  Where were we? Right, I am in the loading dock of an ikea wrapping a 130lb box in twine and praying that it will stay on for the 20 mile drive back to my brother's house.  

The one intelligent thing that I did was to have this trip sometime other than rush hour because I got to be "that guy." You know "that guy," the one doing exactly the speed limit (or under, which definitely happened on the 3 miles worth of 55mph that I was on) and in the wrong lane all the time and just doing everything slowly.  However, what I don't understand is that if you come up behind a station wagon driving obviously much lower than it should be with a giant box on top wrapped in twine attached to the top, WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU TAILGATE? Let's think of the awful possibility, shall we?  Let's say I did a bad job.  Let's say something slipped or the twine broke or any other number of awful possibilities.  Where is that 130lb box going? ONTO YOUR WINDSHIELD.

I survived the trip!

Seriously, kids, don't tailgate a station wagon with a giant box strapped to the top, especially within 20 miles of an Ikea.  This advice also goes for driving behind anyone trying to move a mattress and/or a christmas tree.  Well I guess in that case it would be minus the Ikea bit, but I digress.

Lucky for us, that didn't happen, the twine held, my lack of knot knowledge apparently didn't do that much damage, and the car was safely in my brother's parking lot.  I'm still angry at the girl scouts.

So now we have the lovely job of getting these two 100lb+ boxes down a flight of stairs to my brother's apartment.  I made it 3 steps before I gave up on being any form of help.  I am quite sure KB would not have approved of me doing this anyway.  Luckily, the maintenance guy at my brother's complex wasn't busy.  I bet he regretted taking that call...

An hour's worth of stick figure instructions later, mired only by needing to unbolt and rebolt something together because of a factory mistake, we successfully acquired furniture for the living room.  Success! 

What, do you want to take a picture or something?

No windshields were harmed in the making of this blog post. Hooray!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The strangest rehearsal ever -or- why you should never assume the elevator works

Ok, so I have to start this off by saying that I am a professional harpist.  I've played a mess of orchestral repertoire on some very strange stages.  However, I think this one takes the cake.

I was asked to play for a local youth orchestra.  The parts are super easy, so no problem there.  After a string of email correspondence with the conductor, where I am quite sure my emails were never fully read, I am told to show up 15 minutes before the rehearsal and they can get me in.  Ok, well, that's great but I'm a harpist and I have to tune and I'm not capable of getting anywhere in 15 minutes, let alone deal with parking on this major university campus.  So I arrive about 45 minutes early, spend a little time double parking 5 people since that's the only handicap accessible entrance to the building, repark the car and another group is using the rehearsal space, so I find myself a semi-quiet corner and tune, interspersed with parents walking by with their kids saying "look at that honey, a harp!"

Oh, and this is about the time I realize that I forgot to grab my coffee on the way out the door this morning.

This would probably have fixed most of my morning stress.

So finally the other group lets out and I need to figure out a way in.  There are two doors into this rehearsal room, each of which opens directly onto a flight of stairs.  The space itself is basically a giant staircase to make rehearsing easier which is fine except that really the only place to put me is all the way down on the ground.  This too shouldn't be a problem since I find out there is an elevator.  Wonderful!

Ok, so off I go to find the conductor who is going to lead me to the elevator, and she gives her keys to a young cellist who is going to go unlock the door for me.  Basically, the elevator is easily accessible from the main floor, but it opens into a utility closet which is locked.  So the conductor and I ride the elevator down, only to discover that the kid with the keys can't get the door on the other side open.  So she leaves me there to ride the elevator back up (now the only exit from this room).

Let's think about this for a second.  I'm in a broom closet where the only door is locked and the elevator is my only way out.  Has anyone talked to the fire marshal about this one?

So the conductor gets to the other side and is not having any luck getting the door.  She rides the elevator back down with another gentleman, who also can't unlock the door.  So we give up on this and ride the elevator back up.

Now I get to try to get my harp down the stairs.... whee!  Two wonderful (adults) in the orchestra helped me walk it down the stairs and around the corner, all the while attempting to not smash it on the concrete or the violinists' heads as the orchestra is starting to tune.  Its things like these that I try not to relate to my insurance company.

I. Hate. Stairs.

Whee I've made it down here!  Ok, so now I have to frantically set up and pull myself together.  I hate being late for things and now I'm feeling super unprofessional.  On top of that, the two pieces I am here to play are both Viola concerti.  So, I quickly open my music and check: yes this is a viola concerto, yes there is a viola soloist standing in front of me.  Ok, she's starting to conduct in 3 and this piece is 9/8, great, I'm golden, I have 50 measures before I have to do anything.  Wait, why did the meter just switch to 4? There's no meter change here? What's going on? Maybe I'm just not paying attention well enough.  Why didn't I grab my coffee? Crap, I'm going to get a headache.  Seriously, what is going on this makes no sense.  Oh crap, I bet I'm on the wrong piece, yup, look at that (frantically turn to other piece) and no I have no idea where we are and she seems to have no intention of stopping.

At this point I get the kid next to me to tell me where we are (also not my most professional moment), and start playing away.  Whew.  Ok, so that piece is fine, but following this conductor is a bit of a trip.

Let me just take a second to explain this for the non-musicians.  Most pieces are conducted in 2,3, or 4. The conductor's baton tell you what beat you're on.  For all of those set ups, the first beat goes down.  Always.  Ok, easy enough.  The second beat tells you what meter you're in: if the conductor goes up, its in 2, if right it's 3, if left it's 4.  So, by the second beat I know exactly what's going on.

Now, if you are conducting and accidentally go the wrong direction on the second beat, I get MASSIVELY confused.  I think we're on that measure in 4/4 but no, we're actually doing a 3/4 measure.  Suffice it to say, at some point I mostly gave up watching the conductor.  I recognize that this is a general no-no, but I was doing better without.

Luckily the rehearsal went by pretty quickly, I got the harp back up the stairs ok, I managed to not get a ticket from the fanatical parking people at this major university, and now I just get to wait until I get to do it all again next week.  Yippee!!!!

I need a nap.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Touchpad Toggle for Wacom Bamboo Tablet in Linux

So I got the Wacom Bamboo Create Tablet and I'm in love.  I can write notes on my computer, annotate pdfs, draw pictures, it's wonderful!

The only issue is that the tablet picks up both the pen and my hand leaning on the tablet, so I wrote a short script to give me a GUI toggle to turn the touchpad part on and off.  This works for my machine running Ubuntu 11.10.

The code can be found here:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

And now for the best pumpkin idea ever...

I give you.... The Infinite Loop:

The Infinite Loop

Props to Halcy for ideas and help.