How to survive air travel

I have a longstanding rule when flying that if I do not run through a terminal at some point, I arrived at the airport too early. I’d generally rather be outside the airport exploring whatever city I’m in, for as long as I can, with people I like. The benefits of sprinting are numerous and equally applicable within airports.

But Craig Mod might have just changed my mind. Excellently written and based on an impressive CV of international travel, he shares his practical—and occasionally hilarious—approach to getting from A to B with minimal stress and maximum enjoyment.

You look insane — your white mask, your monkey bra, your noise-canceling headphones, but it doesn’t matter. You are satiated, filled with nourishing food; you have gotten your work done, and now you float in a personal outer space. An outer space that sounds like the summer in Wisconsin and feels just as humid within the nose and mouth thanks to your microclimate. You are on a plane but are not. You could be anywhere. You are untouchable. You are possibly the most insufferable traveler ever. You float and smile because you are the Dalai Lama.

This is how you survive air travel.

I am the Dalai Lama. :)

Read the rest: Let’s fly: How to survive air travel by Craig Mod

Resources for a personal finance reboot

I want to talk a bit about challenging financial situations today and some resources I have found most helpful. First, some context. The parameters of our move to Boston included the following: (a) a moderate level of student loan debt, (b) expenses incurred in support of a cross-country move and settling into a new place, (c) a 3–4 month waiting period before finding a suitable renter for my home in Atlanta, and (d) high housing costs in Boston (I pay 2x for 0.5x space relative to Atlanta).

I won’t discuss specific numbers, but suffice it to say the bottom line after the dust settled from all this was overwhelming. I have known people who were facing many times the debt I faced. It’s difficult to even know where to start. Dealing with that level of challenge required a complete reboot in my thinking and approach to money.

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Measure Execution time (Tic Toc) with Python

One of the things I used to love about Matlab were the tic and toc functions, which basically allowed you to time whatever code was bounded by the two commands. You can do something similar in Python to measure execution time within a block of Python code, but I have a use case that I want to discuss here.

Most of my work involves running large finite element simulations on cluster nodes. These simulations are typically batched and it’s helpful to know how long each one takes to run. The simulations aren’t Python code, though. Depending on the day, I might make Abaqus, LS-DYNA, DIANA, or Ansys runs. I need to time these non-Python simulations, especially when I’m doing parameter studies. Here’s how:

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Finishing Two Hours Later

“Sure, I could go see a movie, but that would mean I will finish my dissertation two hours later.”

My friends don’t believe me when I tell them I used to think this way during grad school.

Through no one’s fault but my own, I can admit that I basically forgot how to do things for fun and how to take care of myself. The quote above is a small glimpse into how much I worked.

That’s the literal mental calculus I went through in response to almost every social invitation outside of eating, sleeping, family time, and work. I still think along these lines all the time, even though there’s no reason to. I still feel guilty when I do fun things or play, as if it’s time wasted. I’m starting to accept that this isn’t normal, that ordinary people don’t feel this way. That it’s okay to read books or play ultimate or go to the climbing gym for the evening. It’s a process, but I’m getting there.

I’m learning there are things I’d rather finish two hours later.

Glósóli by Sigur Rós

This video by Sigur Rós is basically as good as it gets in my book. You have to watch to the end. Beautiful and innocent.

Life lesson: Not enough data

Here’s an obvious life lesson: You can save yourself a lot of stress when making big decisions if you can recognize when you don’t have enough data to make the decision.

When we moved from Atlanta from Boston last year, I kept getting overwhelmed by specific decisions I had to make. I felt pressure to just make the decision, but many of these actually had dependencies which had to be researched and finalized first.

I didn’t recognize it for far too long and was just spinning my wheels trying to invert a singular matrix.

Another example: When my daughter was a newborn, I did what every parent does. You analyze every parameter you can find in hopes that you can optimize the mixture of sleep, happiness, eating, etc. The problem is the number of unknowns vastly outnumbers the number of equations. You become a lot happier when you accept that it’s an impossible system to solve and give yourself permission to just do the best you can.

Circular reasoning and your model

Here’s a quote I enjoyed1 from an interview with the inimitable John D. Cook:

It’s easy to get caught in circular reasoning. For example, how do you decide what data points are outliers? They are points that have low probability under your model. So you throw them out. Then, lo and behold, everything that’s left fits your model!

So how do you break out of the circle? You can start by visualizing your data. And after you select a model, validate it. If you’re fitting a model in order to make predictions, and your model indeed does make good predictions on new data, you can have some confidence that you’re not just playing mental games and that your model may be an approximation of reality. (emphasis added)

Full interview here.

  1. I found this quote buried in an old draft post when I imported everything into the new site. There are over 200 of these drafts — what else will I find in there?? 

Not Quite Dead Yet

I’ve been feeling the pull, so here I am.

About a year and a half ago, I finished grad school in a fit and fury. My family and I got on with the business of getting back to a normal semblance of life. And just like any recovering grad school workaholic trying to strike a balance would do, I joined a consulting firm and moved my family across the country to Boston. Now, to be fair, my company has exceeded every expectation I had going in (more on that later). Boston has been a revelation. We survived our first real winter. So many firsts.

But a consequence of all these firsts has been a lack of interest in anything involving a computer outside of work. My evenings have been filled with being with my family, getting up to speed in a stretching work environment, making new friends, forging hobbies, and you get the picture.

But I’ve been missing this outlet. I saw a friend on a trip to DC a few months back and he asked me, “What happened to Only A Model?” His words hit something in me and I remembered how much I used to love this.

This blog has seen me through a lot — some good times, some tough times, some in-between times. From almost quitting grad school to defending. From programming hacks to struggling through answers about my faith. This is probably over the top, but it feels like a part of me. I’ll never forget the early days of blogging when all my friends wrote frequently, commented on each other’s stuff, and we generally felt like we were decoding and discovering the world. Now, I’m a hundred times more nostalgic about this than I should be, but that’s blogging as I remember it.

Even though I can’t convince half of those old friends to pick up the pen again, at least I can.

Programming Notes

Honestly I’m not sure what I’m going to write about. Probably similar topics and themes, but different voice. I can tell you that I used to think about this site in terms of focusing on a niche, building a platform, even thinking that one day I might make some money from writing. I used to think I had a lot of great advice to give. Now I don’t.

But I still ruminate on things and can’t help but think that, one day, it’d be nice to be able to look back and see how far I’ve (hopefully) come. Now, that type of thinking doesn’t have to happen publicly. But on the other hand, what if we all thought out loud more, put ourselves out there more, shared our mistakes and lessons learned, and generally turned the realness up a notch?

That could land somewhere pretty great on the whole.

One post at a time, we’ll see where it leads.


Before I ever started writing Only A Model, I kept a pseudonymous blog where I struggled through topics around my faith. That period involved my deconstruction of institutional Christianity and my explorations into simple, off-the-grid pursuit of Christian community that was a lot more real and authentic than anything I’d experienced before.

Those posts disappeared from the ether and landed in a WordPress export file buried deep on my hard drive. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to bring those posts into Only A Model now, for anybody who might look for those thoughts. You can find those posts toward the bottom of the archives.

There’s a lot in that material that’s kind of embarrassing to look back on. But I should hope that in in another eight years I feel a tinge of embarrassment over what I’m writing today. It’s one way you know you are growing.

Also, just because I’m archiving that content here doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing about spiritual matters regularly. But I might, occasionally.

Technical Details

Let’s talk platform for just a minute. One of the last posts on this site detailed my migration to Octopress. I published exactly one post after that. Octopress is great and all, but there’s way too much technical overhead for me, for now. I needed something simpler and my search for that landed me, believe it or not, at Say what you will, but I have a WordPress install that I don’t have to manage, MultiMarkdown composing1, and with the custom CSS update, I have pretty much all the customization power I want. There won’t be comments. I won’t be trying to build an audience and monetize this site. Just the default template, a few custom fonts and colors, and just like that … we’re off.

Current listening: Bon Iver at AIR Studios (give it 5 minutes)

  1. Proof. 

Stand and Deliver — My standing desk set-up

One of the items on my post-PhD to-do list was to transition to standing while working. Everyone has seen the “sitting is the new smoking” articles (e.g. here, here, or here), and while I’m no medical expert, it’s no stretch for me to accept that our bodies aren’t designed to sit 8-10 hours per day.1 I felt like this was a straightforward step in a healthier and more active lifestyle.

I work for an engineering firm, and my workspace is a cubicle. I wasn’t sure how well the standing desk option would go over, but when I noticed several coworkers augmenting their desks in various ways to stand while working, I saw my open door. I decided to take the low-cost, DIY route to test the waters. In this post, I will show you how to convert your cube to a standing desk.


I closely followed the design of the Standesk 2200, a standing desk conversion kit pieced together from random IKEA parts. Instead of building an entirely new desk, it’s an add-on that sits right on top of your regular desk. The name “2200” comes from the price: $22.00. I made a few modifications that pushed the cost up (Standesk 5000?), but I think these were well worth it. A shopping list is below. I’m pleased with the final result:


As you can see, it’s nothing more than a black coffee table with a shelf mounted on the front. One of the reasons I went with this coffee table instead of the recommended side tables is that the coffee table’s lower shelf provides an inconspicuous spot for my laptop docking station and 3D mouse (when not in use). The keyboard shelf is approximately twelve inches wider than the coffee table. This provides a helpful work platform to the left of my keyboard where I can place papers or books.

One concern I had was that the final product wouldn’t feel solid enough, but I was wrong: it feels very sturdy and the monitors exhibit minimal wobble. I was also concerned whether it would look professional enough, but based on the comments I have received from colleagues, it passes the test. Finally, this design doesn’t have a great option for working while sitting if needed — the best I can do is undock my laptop and sit at a different area of my desk.

The Transition

The transition to standing has been surprisingly easy — much smoother than expected. I’m fairly healthy/fit, but I’m not a big exerciser. I haven’t had much trouble standing all day. I don’t feel noticeably more fatigued at night than I did before. I do stretch frequently during the day and try to walk around periodically. I sit to eat lunch. Otherwise, I don’t know why it’s been such a smooth transition. You might be surprised and find out you can stand all day as well. Five weeks in, I hardly notice it or think about it anymore.

This is entirely subjective, but I feel like my alertness and capacity for sustained concentration throughout the day have improved. This could all be in my head, but it makes reasonable sense that standing would keep you more mentally engaged. Friends have reported similar productivity gains.

When it comes to assembling your desk, you need to take some careful measurements to get the keyboard and monitor heights correct. I used the ergonomics graphic in this post as a guide. I did the best I could ahead of time, but this required some trial and error. Even after measuring, when I brought the assembly to my office, I found that the working surfaces were several inches too low. I’m 6’1″, so several furniture risers brought the set-up mostly into compliance, but I still experienced an RSI flare-up in my mouse hand. Nobody tell Edward Tufte, but my copy of Beautiful Evidence was just the right height to solve the RSI problem. It’s been fine ever since.

I found that the floor in my office was too rigid (carpet on concrete slab). I needed an anti-fatigue mat. I didn’t want foot or knee problems to negate the health benefits of standing. After reading a multitude of reviews online, I learned that anti-fatigue mats are a get-what-you-pay-for commodity. Furthermore, a lot of them are marketed as kitchen accessories and are styled accordingly (patterns, etc.). I needed something that wouldn’t draw attention. This led me to the only expensive component in my set-up: the Imprint Cumulus Pro anti-fatigue mat. It is black, plain, has tapered edges which reduce its tripping hazard, and it is awesome. Once I’ve worked here longer, I might add a wobble board to mix things up a bit.

Good shoes are important. I expected the transition to standing to trigger a shoe upgrade, but my feet have been fine. I repeat: my feet do not hurt at all after nine hours of standing. Several years ago when I began teaching, I splurged on a pair of Ecco Berlins. These shoes are incredible. I now travel internationally with only these shoes, and have put them through everything from multi-mile traipsing on cobblestone streets to climbing through castle ruins. I may upgrade to a “barefoot”-style business shoe in the future, but the Ecco’s are more than sufficient for now.

Shopping List

In conclusion…

If you are intrigued by the idea of a standing desk, I highly recommend you give it a try. My set-up is proof that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to test the waters.

I’ve now spent five weeks with this set-up. I have really enjoyed it so far and am feeling great. I plan to write a more comprehensive review after several months or a year passes, so we’ll see how this ongoing experiment pans out. For now, though, I’m excited.

  1. Yes, I read those articles about how standing all day isn’t good for you either. 
  2. Affiliate links throughout. 

Migration to Octopress

I decided to move my blog to Octopress. I have enjoyed WordPress and the Standard Theme for many years, and have pointed many friends in that direction.

But recently, I’ve been more and more intrigued by Octopress and the like. I have wanted to dig deeper into git and play around with Amazon web services, both to save money and learn something new.

For the uninitiated, Octopress is a static site generator which is written in Ruby, based on the Jekyll codebase, and closely allied with the git ecosystem. An Octopress blog is basically a folder of text files on your computer. You type some commands, and your blog is generated as a static html site that you can host wherever you want.

After you convert your blog from WordPress to Octopress, it’s customary to write an excruciatingly detailed post explaining how (by an act of God) you got everything to work. I imagine that it’s straightforward to set up if your line of work means you already have the dependencies installed. I did not.

But the transition went much easier than I expected. The Octopress docs are great, and by constantly breaking it down step by step, I was able to get things up and running over about 6 or 8 hours. Noting that many of the following steps was preceded by 20 minutes of Googling, I:

  • Exported my WordPress database.
  • Synced existing comments to Disqus in case I wanted to keep them.
  • Installed Octopress.
  • Installed any missing dependencies with Homebrew (highly recommend).
  • Ran exitwp on my WordPress database.
  • Cleaned up a few errors and copied my posts to the Octopress _source folder.
  • Copied my wp-content/uploads folder into the source directory so I didn’t have to rewrite image links.
  • Modified the deploy file to send to S3 using s3cmd
  • Generated and deployed the site.
  • Created a Cloudfront distribution pointing at my S3 bucket.
  • Created a cname alias at my registrar.

And that was pretty much it. You can find ten blog posts around the Internet detailing how to accomplish every one of those steps, so there’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel with more detail.

A static blog is not for everybody, but I really resonate with the philosophy. I found it incredibly liberating to see my blog as a folder of plain text files. Every blog post I’ve ever written right there, a click away from editing in Sublime Text or iA Writer. I also learned a lot in the process and will save quite a bit in hosting costs.

Aside from collapsing the sidebar and tightening up the horizontal dimensions to improve readability, I have decided to keep the default design for now. I plan to redesign it at some point, but I’m content to make this transition in stages.

Update – 1 June 2014

I moved this blog to after a year passed on Octopress without a single post written. Octopress is great, but these days I prefer a platform that somebody else manages, and seems like a good place for that, for now anyway.