Saturday, December 20, 2008


  • Signs I'm getting old:

    • As the Community College Dean points out, "I lost the ability to do circular rides without bad side effects somewhere around thirty," though for me it occurred later.
    • I'm usually the last to get cold, and slippers were just for getting the paper in the morning. Now, on cold days, I look for slippers to keep my feet warm.
    • There are more, but I can't remember (a sign unto itself!).

  • Quantum, in modern, common usage, tries to sound like science and therefore should bare some resemblance to its usage by physicists. With that said, it should therefore connote a discrete quantity. But more than that because otherwise you could just use the word discrete. So what it really should connote is a quantity of something that would normally be thought continuous, and therefore it has to be a terribly small, discrete quantity. In that sense, most common usage is just plain wrong. Of course, I still used the term nuke to cook something in a microwave oven (which is far from nuclear both in size/wavelength and the fact that we're not bombarding the food with any nucleons!).
  • Have you heard who won Survivor: Gabon? What skills would the oldest Survivor winner have to possess to win? Oh, I don't know, maybe just intimate knowledge of physics, that's all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

If I were a boy...

  • Nice use of the subjunctive in Beyonce's "If I were a Boy".
  • I'm sure this is a sign that I'm hanging out with the wrong people (i.e. administrators), but I've heard the term "silo-ing" a few times in the past few weeks.
  • Can I take the resurgence of old quarterbacks in the NFL (Favre, Collins, Warner, etc), as a good sign for my importance as I age?
  • I'm sick of going to big conferences and learning more news online than by attending.
  • So TV broadcasts are going all digital. They say that if you've got cable you've got nothing to worry about, but what if you don't want to rent one or more of their cable boxes for each of one's analog TVs? It would seem that the converter boxes would do one no good since they're meant for over the air. But if the cables change all their channels to digital, then analog TVs with their coax input won't get the signal. We're already running into this problem with our Series I Tivo having lost a few channels to digital already.
  • It's a bit ironic that the Iraqi reporter was trying to humiliate President Bush. Like Josh Marshall, I was impressed, and possibly even proud, of our President for his reaction.
  • Finances:

    • So the credit crunch has finally hit me. The other day I got the letter cutting off our HELOC. This line of credit was nice as a safety net in case we needed money. A bit ironic that the lender was mitigating their risk by cutting off the credit and thereby transferring the risk to me (since my risk is still theirs since they hold the mortgage as well). Also ironic was that they were cutting off a secured debt but yet were still offering me a 0% APR for twelve months credit card which is unsecured debt.
    • Every December, I like to run guesses for my final numbers through TurboTax or TaxAct online. That way if any gotchas come up, I have a few weeks to do something about it. So I plug in some numbers and it seems the AMT may be a problem and there's not much to be done. It seems TaxAct has an old amount for the AMT exemption, so I'm thinking I'll be safe. I suppose I should try TurboTax and see what it gives me....the problem is that final versions aren't out yet since the year isn't even over.

  • I've been meaning to comment on something Arjendu wrote recently. However, I've barely even skimmed it. In short, I agree. It's easy to lose confidence, and the business of physics takes all kinds. Similarly, even for those who persevere, it's hard to maintain one's confidence. I struggle a bit evaluating my own abilities. And for many professional physicists, the culture is one of talking down to others and seizing upon mistakes. There are numerous guilty physicists even among the popular physics blogs, and I'm not talking about their comments sections. Of course, a counter-argument to this, is that we don't want to pamper the incompetent, many of whom manage to thrive where meritocracy fails.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama will hire a physicist?

I've not been able to surf today so this may not be new news (redundant?), but TPM is saying that Obama might pick Steven Chu for energy secretary. I saw him give a talk recently, and it was a good one. The kind of talk where you think, "Why doesn't the government listen to this guy?". This is cool, maybe enough to break the funk I've been in, though picking out $50K worth of toys with grant money hasn't broken it, nor getting an invite for next semester. What's wrong with me?

Friday, December 05, 2008


  • I am impressed at some of the smartphones coming out lately such as the G1, the iPhone, and new ones by Blackberry. I was an early adopter using my Sprint phone with their Vision service as a modem, tethered to my laptop. Back then, I paid an extra $10/month and got the first few months free. I quickly dropped it, and then dropped down to a prepaid phone so that my cell bill is under $10/month. What I don't understand is why so many people pay so much for their cell service. I suppose if one doesn't have a landline or broadband at home, possibly it makes some sense to spend $50-$100/month for voice/internet on your phone. However, I doubt that most people are in this situation. And for those who can use home services for an entire household, it seems even more difficult to justify huge cell expenses. I look forward to more integrated plans which cover your house, the various cell lines, and all data in one, reasonably priced plan.
  • I got my annual physical today. My current doctor is worse than the folks at the dealer where I get my car service. At least at the dealer, I decide what services I want for my car...picking only those listed in the service manual and not all the extras they push on me. However, with the doctor's office it seems much more difficult to provide input. Do I need an EKG every year if I've shown no circulatory problems? I used to go to the doctor so rarely. With my previous doc, I had what might have been a sinus infection and I had a trip coming up, so I went in asking for antibiotics. My doctor told me I hadn't been in to the office for four years.
  • A good explanation of the time Tivo saves you from Freakonomics.
  • If you were reading a recommendation letter for a postdoc, how would you rank the following: (i) support strongly (ii) sincerely support (iii) strongest support (iv) recommend (v) recommend as one of the best candidates (vi) recommend among the best graduate students I have seen, (vii) recommend without hesitation.
  • Saw the movie The Visitor recently. A socially awkward, senior professor gets thrust into a new situation with foreign immigrants. I enjoyed it, though one shouldn't expect too much, just a captivating story well done.
  • Talk tips: (i) Construct the first couple slides so that you can basically just read them. This gives you a chance to get over initial jitters, but make sure later slides encourage you to talk more freely once you're warmed up, (ii) Make sure your last slide clearly indicates to the audience that you're done so there's no awkward wondering when to start clapping.
  • I am not in favor of the automobile bailout. It's not clear it'll work, it's not clear that we need to, and it's not clear to me where the line should be drawn between industries that should be bailed out and those should not. More generally, however, I just don't get giving money to the top and assuming it'll help the all those workers who might otherwise lose their jobs. How many workers are we talking about? 100,000? What if let the Big Three fail, and then everyone who can show harm and who makes less than $100K/year can file and receive $10K. That may be as cheap as a single billion dollars and has the advantage that the money will almost certainly be spent helping the economy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


  • The Incoherent Ponderer decries people going into finance because it's not a "real" business. I've heard this from a number of physicists. I really don't know where this comes from. Sure, lots of the industry doesn't serve much of a useful purpose, but that's true of many industries (please, someone tell me what good is a Yankee Candle?). What's strange is that of all times to disparage the finance industry as not being real (surely, the industry deserves disparagement over incompetence), it would seem now is precisely the time when one would see what the industry does in fact provides financing for those that need it. I'm not a finance guru, but companies need money to buy things and often have to borrow it. They pay for this privilege. The investor lends and is paid for taking on the risk. There are lots of variations on this theme with IPOs, derivatives, etc, but again these are services that investors and companies want. We can argue about the ills and ethics of such people, but can't we agree it's a "real" business?
  • It's strange that I find myself defending these types. It reminds me once where I actually encountered someone bashing Bill Gates so much that I found myself defending him. I've got nothing much against the guy, he's a business person and a pretty good one (both in terms of being able to make money and in giving it away). His company however is criminal.
  • I've been wondering about the brain lately. I happen to watch some show that had lots of cover songs of hits from the 70s and 80s. I'm usually pretty good at naming the song and singer from that era, but I couldn't. I could easily recognize that I *knew* the song, I just couldn't identify it, not even the sex of the original singer of the song. It was so frustrating to know the memory was there but not to be able to access it without hearing the original voice (in which case, I could probably do it with just one syllable sung). It's like, I imagine, a corrupted filesystem in which the files are there, just one cannot access them.
  • The thing I'm wondering about and meant to research, but didn't is why we like music. What evolutionary advantage would there be to our appreciation for music? Is it related to our language development...probably not since we can appreciate pure instrumentals. I seem to recall people have looked into this question, I just don't remember any answers.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Steady Hand at the Tiller

  • Chad mentions in a comment:

    There are lots of blogs by scientists in my RSS feeds that haven't seen a new post in months.

    I don't get the whole thing about maintaining any kind of regular posting frequency. It's a blog! It's not a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine. And we've got RSS feeds, so it's not like you waste time checking if there's something get notified. For the same reason, I never apologize about not posting. Rather, I'd argue that blogs should be measured by signal-to-noise. I've never dropped a blog because it doesn't post enough, but I certainly have stopped reading a number of them that post too frequently.
  • Some cool pictures taken from high above.
  • I'm generally pretty reticent when contacted by the media. There's just so many ways something can across the wrong way. Even more so when communicating electronically. But of course my contact is minuscule compared to that of Sean at Cosmic Variance who seems to be the goto guy for a cosmology quote. So it always surprises me when he adopts such a defensive or hostile tone in his comments section.
  • I'm chairing a committee, and I sent around an email of a meeting in a month. One person responds asking if I can send a reminder the day before the meeting. Another seconds that saying that would be a good idea. Am I crazy for thinking these faculty members idiots? Don't they have calendars, electronic or paper? Are they not capable of keeping appointments?
  • I'm amazed at the poor design of websites. I went to Gucci's website (don't ask). For starters, the site instructs me to get a "new" browser, despite mine being the latest release. Next, it takes a few more clicks to get a listing of store locations for the US (despite having already picked a country upon first entering the site). Fine, maybe I'm an American looking for a store in Europe. But then, and this really is the kicker, it gives me a list of stores without links to any maps! Keep in mind this is a very fancy and expensive looking website (but of course!), but yet clearly no one is thinking in terms of function. The text isn't even selectable so I have to type in the address to Google Maps.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The G10 is here!

  • Peter laments physicists remaining anonymous on the web. Well, those who launch nasty attacks under cover of anonymity anyway. I mostly agree, but I think there's a place for anonymous comments. This industry we're in is based on a pretty strict power structure, and anonymity can give voice to the powerless. After all, some of the people complaining about such attacks are full professors at top schools and it's a bit hard to have too much sympathy if their feelings get hurt. But, to reiterate, certainly there are abuses and it can be taken too far (as can most things in life).

  • Driving home from my University in my fuel-efficient car, listening to NPR while wearing sandals being nostalgic about my Ivy League much better could I match a stereotype?

  • My department chair was talking to me about a father of a student threatening to sue about his son's grade. I'm not one to back down from a fight, but were I the one threatened, how would I pay for lawyers? Anyone out there know? Does the University typically provide a lawyer? I imagine any suit would be against both the school and the individual instructor, but presumably the instructor needs his or her own lawyer. I have an umbrella policy but I checked that such policies are meant to provide additional coverage on auto and home related claims only. Apparently, there's something called "professional liability insurance" which I imagine is something like medical malpractice insurance. Does anyone out there have such a policy? I did some Google searching but couldn't find much particularly relevant.
    This would seem a good topic for blogs because who wants to go around asking about such a policy engendering some curiosity about why one might need it.

  • More Gizmodo:

    • Have you seen the movie Lars and the Real Girl? Is this a real life example?
    • Anything you can do with thermite is cool!
    • THE G10 is HERE!: The news is all over, but here's Gizmodo's post. It's got the wide-angle that I want, it has RAW output, the brand new DIGIC 4 processor, image stabilization (in the lens). It has movie output, but not high-definition output. I can probably live with that. I don't see how big a sensor it has. I don't care how many pixels, but rather its light gathering ability. If only it had a big sensor, but since it's not mentioned in the release, it's probably the standard size (ie small).

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Anger Management

  • I've always been convinced that too much income inequality is not a good thing. It's nice to read someone who can explain why. I'm no socialist, but I just can't buy the whole libertarian position.
  • What do I think of McCain's selection of Palin as his VP running mate? I'm pleased that he picked a woman, even if he did so purely for political reasons (well that, and probably a bit because he couldn't get along with the men under consideration). She seems like the kind of woman you might want to have a beer with or go camping with. But a heartbeat away from the Presidency (and a 72 year old heart at that)? I never faulted Obama for a lack of experience because no one has the experience to be President. But at least he seemed a bit battle tested and as ready as someone could be. Palin? Sure, she may be up to it, but how would we know? Ultimately though, the thing I want to get on the record is that, whether McCain wins or loses this election, everyone will be attributing it to his choice of running mate.
  • I come into my office today to find an expense reimbursement returned to me in my mail box. I had submitted this over three weeks ago, and it's a couple thousand dollars. There's a note in there with a couple issues which don't apply in this case, and one matter that should have been easily resolved without my involvement. I'm steaming. So much so, I can't work. I call the administrator who returned it, knowing she'll be at lunch since it's noon. I turn to email her but know that I shouldn't, not in my agitated state. At 1:30pm, I call again and she's still not there. I write an email addressing each matter. I spend 10 minutes deleting every word and phrase that's not absolutely necessary. The email is terse, but not obviously angered. Though still mad, I'm at least pleased I've not yelled at anyone yet. Five minutes later I get an email from her with the first sentence saying she's working from home, but either through dedication or insanity she's responding to emails. The next paragraph basically just tells me to send the paperwork back and she'll address it promptly. Fine. It's dealt with. I email her back a nice thanks, hopeful she'll be better next time. But here's the rub...I had emailed her boss as well, and sure enough about an hour later, her boss emails that the administrator is out today for a family medical issue but should be back in tomorrow. So I respond that she took care of it from home, and the boss emails me back extolling the virtues of the people under him! So this administrator who seems barely able to do her job, is getting kudos from her boss because of me! What did I do wrong?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

  • Gizmodo:

  • Thoughts on the Olympics:

    • I thought I saw cheerleaders at the women's beach volleyball events. That was strange enough, but the announcing also seemed...a bit unconventional.
    • I'm not sure that the sprinter Bolt's performance overshadows that of Phelps, but certainly just winning 8 gold medals doesn't imply being the best Olympian. And Freakonomics make all this admiration graphical.

  • I've finally caught up on Backreaction:

    • I like that she complains about academia because certain physics blogs are way too cheery for my taste. However, when she says "I don't know anybody who was particularly happy during his PhD," I have to laugh. I was just saying the other day how stress-free my life was during grad school. No more so than once I was done with classes, and just researching. I suppose I've always been a bit of an underachieving, laid-back, slacker so perhaps I'm not the norm. It was only when I stumbled upon a tenure-track position that I got somewhat ambitious. Most of the stress in my life is fighting that ambition (or giving in to it, depending on how you look at it).
    • In the same post, she talks about the lack of availability of supervisors. Again, I play the contrarian. I pretty much sought to avoid mine. I always found it best to ask questions during social occasions, especially ones with alcohol present.
    • Sabine has broken a cardinal rule of physics blogging. Just as Stephen Colbert cannot see color, we cannot judge the attractiveness of colleagues. Luckily, she apologizes in the same breath which may hold off the hordes for a bit, when she says "who is really cute, sorry, but this has to be mentioned."

Friday, August 15, 2008

The First Post To Demonstrate....

  • Why are so many banks going up? I haven't entered any branches of my main bank in many years. I just don't understand why these chain banks need so many branches? Perhaps, the physical buildings don't represent too much cost but presumably employee salary and benefits must be significant. Or perhaps, such a physical presence attracts enough business and serves as advertising to make it worth their while? Not sure I buy that argument even though it's my only one.
  • I'm no fan of using "first" in a paper. Everything that get published should be the first to do something. So when I see people using the word, as in "We present the first case of ..." it strikes me as inappropriate in an academic pursuit. Just tell me the result. Besides, someone may have done it already and just not published or not published in anything read by you. Which naturally leads to the derivative "To our knowledge, this represents the first time...." which lays bare the ambition of the's pure salesmanship, not science.
  • Clearly, this guy needs to start yet another "angry" blog. Does mooning fall under academic freedom?
  • Anyone with any remaining faith in McCain's character from 2000 should follow the link and read Joe Klein.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Whom you know

  • Further doubt about nuclear fusion coming from sonoluminesence since Purdue has found scientific misconduct.
  • DVRs are not yet commodities. I've got a Scientific Atlanta box free for a year and its UI is lightyears behind that of Tivo.
  • Gizmodo does more physics movies: fluid dancing on water and lightening hits camera.
  • My Facebook activity has continued...lots of old high school friends. Strange when some people ask me to "be their friend," contrasting sharply with their rather indifferent behavior towards me so many years ago. Strange also juggling personal Facebook I have a name which can feel a bit strange sometimes when switching from blogging to Facebook'ing or vice a versa. Another strange thing...looking at these old high school "mates" puts one in the awkward position of evaluating one's accomplishments relative to what one expected of others in high school. Current friends have confirmed that such reacquaintences leads to such reconsideration.
  • What's the deal with these conference webpages using various certificates? I often have to accept them or they cause some browser error, and I really don't see the point. And my browser always seems to find something wrong them. What in the world are they protecting? Furthermore, for any conference organizers out there, for coffee breaks, please try to find some sort of non-sugar snack. I'm a sucker for free food but when all that's available is either high sugar or high simple carbs, what am I to do? Inevitably, I succumb and quickly crash or get a headache.
  • A somewhat interesting answer to "Does using revolving doors help?"
  • I share Doug's skepticism about the FQXI grants. I'm also a bit skeptical about the amount of correlation among Panel members and awardees.
  • Camera news: I think I've mentioned that I'm waiting till the Fall to get a new camera. Apparently, the new stuff comes up in August or September, and new news has been leaking out. Here's some more, via Gizmodo: a Nikon SLR which records video, the promise of yet smaller SLRs from Olympus, and a wide angle superzoom from Fuji. Still no news of a Canon G10.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


  • I went Google searching a colleague in order to find info on his latest unpublished work and came across his page on RateMyProfessors. Keep in mind, this guy is widely and highly regarded, and is a nice guy. So I'm not sure what it says about me personally that it gave me some pleasure reading all the very negative comments about his teaching. My own comments reflect that I'm a bit tough, but otherwise good (with a few scatterings of negative reviews just to ensure I don't appear too easy).
  • These physics toys might be of interest.
  • Do you play the lottery? Your odds may be even less that than you think. I don't quite get the lottery. State governments mandate a state-sponsored monopoly on gambling, presumably with some justification along the lines of, "Well, if the people want gambling, we'll provide a safe and secure way." And then they go and advertise it? Do they want to generate more gambling? If so, then why not just legalize it for non-state sponsored gambling. If not, then "provide" the lottery, but do not advertise it.
  • Gizmodo link dump:

  • Is it just me or does the physics blogosphere seem a bit boring lately?

Thursday, June 26, 2008


  • Krugman questions whether we as a country place too much importance on home ownership. It certainly felt strange when I bought my first house...the subsidy given by the government was huge by allowing the deduction of interest and property tax. I had a vague feeling of crossing some threshold from being held down to being helped up. Of course, I think they've since moved the line now!
  • Gizmodo has some cool pictures of a damper...Maybe a good problem for intro mechanics to calculate the motion of an idealized building with such a damper.
  • I'm glad this aura of intelligence associated with Justice Scalia appears to be feeding. Wherever one stands on gun control, Scalia's defense of his latest decision is not defensible.
  • I've wondered whether our IT department monitors our browsing as discussed by the CHE. In part I wonder because I occasionally click on stuff labeled NSFW (mostly from Oliver). Some faculty here are paranoid that such "monitoring" extends such that our emails are being read!
  • Camera update: There were no SLRs sub-$600 that I really liked. I had a film SLR (actually still do), but I'm not sure I'm ready to go back to the bulk and the expense...and in today's digital world, SLRs have two other disadvantages: (i) very susceptible to dust collecting on the CCD and (ii) none record movies which can be handy even if not up to the standard set by cheap camcorders. So then I looked at so-called bridge cameras...high-end cameras with lots of manual control but not interchangeable lenses. The Canon G series has generally set the bar in this category but the current model, the G9, isn't particularly well reviewed. So then I figured I'd wait for a new model, e.g. the G10. But then somehow I got researching a bridge to a bridge a point-and-shoot. Since I started with cameras near $600, a $300 point-and-shoot sounded pretty cheap. I was pretty set on the $300 Panasonic TZ5...a wide angle, good video recording (high def at that!), face detection, and optical image stabilization. I just can't pull the trigger. It's not clear how happy I'll be with the quality of the images, and because it's pocketable, the sensor isn't big so its low light performance won't be great. And it doesn't have any viewfinder. So while I'm debating that, I'm seeing all these deals on the various incarnations of the Canon ELPH series for around $175. Uggh, so difficult.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


  • I've hardly watched any of the NBA playoffs. I started watching some of the New Orleans versus San Antonio series, but it wasn't fun to watch. The home team just kept winning and by big margins. I know some of the theories about the advantages enjoyed by the home team, but I'm not buying them. Especially when I see the refs play such a large role. I'm not saying they're crooked, but they're at least biased...and now I've got some support from Freakonomics (unlike me, they have names, but I don't feel like looking them up).
  • More kid gift ideas:

    • $35 basketball hoop at Walmart for a 4 year old which you can use indoors.
    • $35 EyeClops microscope-like thing which you connect to a TV for a 7 year old.

  • How's this for a new class?
    Physics of Photography--Introduction to the physics involved with photography for nonscience majors. Prerequisites include high school math though experience with (algebraic) geometry and (abstract) algebra are helpful. Topics to be discussed:

    • Light: From geometric optics to second harmonic generation
    • Lenses: Negative indices of refraction and gravitational lenses
    • Holography: Interference to AdS/CFT, and the nature of information
    • Resolution: Film to CCD to spin foam and the Planck Scale
    • Aesthetics: Loops or Strings?

  • You all haven't been the most helpful blog readers, but I'll give you a chance to make it up to me: I want a new camera. I've looked at the SLRs, but none excite me too much. The Olympus E-520 looks nice and compact, but the reviews say it's slow to focus. I don't care about status, size, or variety of lenses...I want:

    • a reasonably fast focusing and shooting camera
    • with good white balance indoors (which rules out most Nikons)
    • pretty good low-light sensitivity
    • a fairly wide angle lens (zoom is fine)
    • RAW capture
    • Update: Price for body & lens under $600

    I'm not shooting sports, but I like to be able to freeze candid reactions of people when I press the button. As I mentioned, I wouldn't think I necessarily need an SLR, but it seems that it is only within the domain of SLRs that one can expect such speed. I was thinking something along the lines of Canon's S5 or G9, but those don't seem to fit the bill in terms of excellent picture quality and speed. Any help?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


  • Why does my school's online catalog for the library provide less information on books than Amazon?
  • I put the Fedora 9 Linux distribution on a machine the other day and it didn't have tcsh on it! I was able to find Stellarium on there though.
  • While listening to the radio in the car today, a good song came on and I found myself reaching towards the dash to tell the radio I liked that song...too much listening to Pandora I guess.
  • The other day, while walking across campus, I went a bit out of my way to chat up a Dean. Normally, I'd just avoid such an encounter and certainly not make an effort to engage. So perhaps I'm making progress in my sociability.
  • I recently saw the movie Into the Wild. I had heard it was good but expected it to be that kind of good where it deserves a good review, but is otherwise not that enjoyable to watch. In any case, I found it captivating. I completely sympathized with the protagonist's desire to be free and experience life. But I also sympathized with the guy's parents and what they were going through. And of course, I was envious of being in those locales.
    In any case, the movie fits with the motif of success running through my head lately. I've been envisioning a "success test" along the lines of a personality test. You'd plug in your job description, number of kids, committed relationships...heck even the kind of car you drive if that's your thing. Out pops a measure of your success. I just Googled to see if anyone had constructed such a test, but all I find are tests supposedly predicting successfulness. Au contrare, I want to know how successful I am now!
    Continuing with the theme, I was thinking what people might hope for their kids. For example, would you rather one of your kids (or future kids) growup, get some mid-level corporate job with two kids and a house in the suburbs or for that kid not to growup, but instead head off to save the polar bears in the Arctic? Would you rather have a boring A- kid who dutifully does their homework or a wild B- child who never does homework but is passionate about...well anything, but let's just

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Juggling as meditation

I've always been a fairly introspective type, and juggling has fit well with that. I've not seriously juggled for quite some time, but I can say that I served as an unpaid extra juggling in a commercial play. But even if you're not a juggler, this NY Times piece about one of the best jugglers in the world is well worth the read. A son of a math professor and someone who eschews the showbiz aspects of juggling, I can really relate.

And article or no, check out some of his juggling videos on YouTube.

Monday, May 19, 2008


  • I agree wholeheartedly that young Americans need some improved basic financial education.
  • I had meant to mention that I picked up some stamps honoring Pauling, Hubble, and Bardeen (and Gerty Cori of whom I've not heard). Since that was months ago and since the rate has increased from 41 cents to 42 centers, I'm not even sure if they're still available.
  • Philip Greenspun, who usually has what might be called a "fresh take" on current events, has a rather strange post questioning why Farrakhan/Jackson/Wright would vote for Barack Obama.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


  • Krugman seems to be showing quite a bias towards Hilary Clinton. No big deal I suppose, but I've certainly looked to him as one of the more intelligent and objective observers out there.
  • With classes over, I'm trying to decide on what to concentrate this summer. Be safe, and just do what I'm equipped to do? Or start this new project I've got in mind for which I'll have to learn new stuff and which may not work out?
  • These so called rebate checks from the government's stimulus program... in what sense are they a rebate? The letter I got from the IRS called it something like a "stimulus payment" that doesn't need to be repaid when one files 2008 taxes. So, unless I'm missing something, it's just the government giving me money. (I don't consider a rebate on 2008 taxes since the payments can be more than one has paid in tax).

    Update (5/30/08): Here is a FAQ on the so-called "rebates" which mentions this naming issue:

    You have a good memory and, like the 2001 rebates, this really ought to be called a "prebate" because it is a prepayment of a special tax credit created for 2008. Because the point is to stimulate the sluggish economy, though, Congress didn't want Americans to have to wait for their money until they file 2008 tax returns next spring. So, the prepayment was authorized and the "rebate" misnomer was born.

  • Chad notes one of the funnier problems with students and uncertainties, that being their religious faith in all things digital. I find teaching uncertainties totally frustrating. Some (neh, most) kids will never get it...and what's going on in their bio and chem classes? It seems that those classes don't even mention uncertainties.
  • Via Gizmodo, an article at Popular Science on experiments to model brane inflation with a BEC. Somehow it transitions to black hole analogues.
  • What's new with sonoluminescence? Not my field (which field is it?), but can some physics blogger out there give us the latest? It seems I've not heard anything new for a few years.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Faculty Shuffle

  • The Ponderer wonders why there aren't more faculty shuffles. On the contrary I can easily see how such moves aren't so common. Sure the superstars can pick where they go, but for a school to hire an established, proven, quality professor presents a number of obstacles. Assuming tenured, the hiring school has to convince a department and administration to make a big commitment. But more than that, the school has to come to grips with itself. I think most departments have an inferiority complex and suffer from the complex "if this person wants to come here, they must not be stellar." With a beginning person, they see it as a gamble and there's not a clear sense of how good a new person is. But for an established person, it's so hard to rate them appropriately that you get some strange stuff. Recently, someone in my field did a mid-career shuffle, but they're the exception. They're easily subpar in the field, but have an uncanny ability to project a sense of "expertness" to those outside it. Very discouraging, but what can you do?
  • I'm not too clear on this whole Facebook etiquette thing. Can someone enlighten me...Recently I've had a few friends from back in high school try to "friend" me. I dutifully say "sure," expecting to get some message to the effect of "hey, what's up?" However, no such message comes. After all this time, they find me listed on Facebook, and just want to add my entry to their ever-growing list of friends? It seems almost rude. Am I the one who's supposed to send the message?
  • Regarding sports, I'm quite happy that Roger Clemons is being dragged through the mud. I've disliked him for a long, long time, but especially after his wussy behavior with Piazza a while back. On another note, I wonder what percentage of the audience for PTI watches American Idol?
  • Nina Totenburg interviews Scalia and corrects him about an Oregon case on which he ruled. Not sure which segment I heard, but here's a link.
    And then The Daily Show the other day showed a clip of him on 60 Minutes totally dismissing the Gore-v-Bush case in 2000. What an ass.
  • Doug and the Ponderer discuss cheating. I was recently amazed to hear about a number of professors at my school who simply ignore cheating. Beyond simply abdicating what is part of their job, they make things harder for me by essentially encouraging the practice of cheating.
  • When this presidential race started, I was delighted we had a good female and a good African American candidate in the mix. I didn't have a strong preference, though I wasn't so thrilled with having yet another political dynasty (Bush/Clinton). But Clinton has really turned me off. Fine, she can go after Obama and fight hard and maybe a bit dirty. But to say nice things about McCain in her effort to question Obama! I'm referring to her comments about her perception that only she and McCain have proven their ability to be president. And now her support of the cessation of the gas tax? Come on! The NYT has a nice editorial pointing out how silly that is.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


  • I know I'm too old to listen to Miley Cyrus' song "See you Again," and certainly too pedantic to be critiquing its contents, but it just bugs me to hear the lyrics:

    I got my sights set on you and I'm ready to aim

    I ain't no gun nut, but if you've got your sights set, haven't you already aimed?
  • I saw this quote at Confessions of a Community College Dean

    After going through several fruitless interviews in a short span, it's easy to fall into the 'always a bridesmaid' kind of self-pity and self-questioning.

    and was really hoping for some consoling words of wisdom. Oh well, at least others feel it as well.
  • Avis has a new fuel policy which bugs me to no end. If you drive fewer than 75 miles, then they will automatically charge you for fuel unless you show a receipt. I often drive very few miles and don't get refueled since the gauge still reports a fuel tank. To combat people like me and to extract more money, they institute this new policy. You might say "fine," but the nerve they have to act like it's a convenience. My inclination is not to show a receipt even if I did stop for fuel. I returned my car and said "I'm not showing a receipt, but the tank is full." The attendant said he had to charge me anyway even though the tank is full. I ask that all readers of this either avoid Avis, show a receipt for fuel purchased months ago (there's no fine print about dates), or a receipt for $0.01 of gas. Please report all good stories.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Collaborations II

  • I mentioned collaborations last time. In keeping with what the Incoherent Ponderer said, the dynamics of these can get bad very quickly. In particular, people in the collaboration will have other projects outside the collaboration, naturally. However, then each individual is basically faced with deciding how much time to dedicate to the collaboration in sort of a reverse of the prisoner's dilemma...that is, if all dedicate themselves to the collaboration, then all succeed. However, if some do not, then they receive the benefits of the collaboration (name on papers, funding, etc) but also enjoy the fruits of their outside work (which is essentially all of their work). So then it doesn't pay for *anyone* to work in the collaboration and it stalls, or, at best, proceeds on the basis of graduate students alone since they essentially have no choice what to work on. Uggh.
  • Not to sound like a Seinfeld-esque comedian, but what's the deal with showing logos during one's academic talks? A couple on the title slide or ending acknowledgments is one thing, but I've seen people with a logo in each corner and the name of their associated lab as a footer on *every* slide! I'd feel dirty doing that, and I suspect these people are in no way compelled to do so. They must get some kick out of this, though I don't understand at all how.
  • Who watches any of the 24hour news networks for any length of time? I'm pretty well read when it comes to current events. Politics, sports, etc. I read two or three newspaper sites regularly. But when I'm stuck in a hotel and sick of working, there's often nothing to watch so I just put on the news networks. It's so repetitive and uninsightful (if that's a word). I could forgive them if they frequently did the silly stuff that the Daily Show ribs them for because at least that's entertaining. What a skewed view of the world one must have from watching...and I don't mean conservative or liberal.
  • I was in a bit of a funk there for the last month or so. They say things come in threes, and I got three bad decisions in the past few months. How quickly things change...I've had a series of three good to very good things occur in....the last three days actually! Pretty cool. Strangely, I have to force myself to think about this to make myself happy. In technical terms, it seems that the relaxation time of my psyche to its stable equilibrium is very short. BTW, thinking of the happiness/sadness landscape in dynamical terms is something I do often, and I wonder about human beings in general. Sometimes I'm amazed that the suicide rate isn't much larger than it is. I also wonder what evolution should be expected to have done for these dynamics. To guard against suicide, it would seem we'd evolve to being very stable. However, it is our urges and desires which can bring about procreation and survival (and hence further procreation). I wonder if one could do some type of modeling and find some "natural" balance between sanity and so-called "animalistic" urges/desires/rages/etc.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I've been meaning to write about collaborations for a while and hearing this (not too convincing) story on NPR today helped motivate me. Apparently this study, using a slightly modified "prisoner's dilemma" game found that those who cooperate and don't punish slackers do the best.

Throughout my years (I like to sound like I'm an octogenarian), I have enjoyed/endured a number of collaborations. There are all types. There's the "tease" in which someone talks up a project at a conference only to never follow through. Those aren't a big deal since all you've invested is some thought and excitement. One step up is the person who gets you to start something but never follows-up. In my case, I hit an obstacle and didn't have the expertise to push past without some help. Oh well.

There's another, much more involved one that I've mostly put behind me. The lot of us were left scarred and maybe I'll discuss that later.

Of more importance is one I'm in now. There's one person who is a pro at these things. He does the bare minimum to remain involved, but otherwise doesn't even respond. He's always gung ho at the beginning of something to ensure his name gets attached but little follow through. I'm pretty much used to him, though I don't appreciate the dilution (and cost) of his presence. It's hard to leave him off though and he knows just what little is to be done so that it is difficult.

But perhaps the worst of all is this one person who gets much of the credit. Some grad student will ask a pretty standard question and this guy is the first to answer as if the answer springs from some bottomless well of knowledge. Have a problem? This guy will be the first to say he'll look at it. Nevermind, that his look never comes and if it does, with no help. But this guy is a pro. He talks the talk as if he's humble, as if all the underlings deserve the credit, but I (if only "we") know better.

So why do I stay? Of course, because it benefits me. These people can do things I can't or won't. Even if I could, I'm more productive with them than without them. In terms of advice, I would just reiterate that doing well in academic physics is very much about perceptions, interactions, and networking, things I had hoped to avoid by going into academia. Sure there are some who go off and work on their own and become stars, but those are few and there's a large element of luck in it. The safest bet is to go into things aware from the beginning.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Wo is me

Reasons to be depressed:

  • My intro physics class consists of students who have no interest in the subject and in whom none can be inspired.
  • The University committee I chair consists of the laziest faculty on campus.
  • The NSF budget is wreaking havoc on my plans/research.
  • I've been plugging away on two different projects for months with only incremental success and continued obstacles appearing.
  • I wasn't invited to talk at the last couple significant meetings.
  • A certain someone I've self-appointed as my most comparable competition put out a pretty good paper in the last couple weeks.
  • Wondering if it's normal to think in lists all the time...or maybe I just started this when I started blogging? Or maybe I've got some kind of Lisp virus infecting me? I try to wash my hands.
  • I've been so busy, I haven't had time to read blogs, let alone to blog myself. Now, I'm all caught up on my blog reading which is, itself, reason to be depressed because I'm not working hard enough.

Logical reasons to be happy

  • I've got my health.
  • I've got a pretty good job with a likely pay raise coming.
  • My NSF funding might actually hold up until the budget havoc straightens out.
  • I've actually had some time to try to figure out some physics lately in between all the proposal writing, refereeing, etc.
  • My home life is mostly good.
  • None of my secret, wicked ways have been made public with a force resignation, nor have I lied to Congress recently.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sanity Test

  • Does 1+1 equal something other than 2?
  • Have you seen an alien?
  • Was the Holocaust a fabrication?
  • Was the moon landing a fabrication?
  • Do you think Creationism or Intelligent Design qualify as scientific theories deserving of being taught in public school science classes?
  • Do you put any credence in a horoscope?
  • Does the US Constitution protect a child's right to participate in organized prayer in public school?
  • Given all we know about the execution of the Iraq War, if you could go back in time, would you still support going to war?
  • Despite all the reports about warming, is the Earth fine with no reason to change anything?
  • Do you respect draft dodgers who criticize wounded and decorated veterans as a political ploy?
  • Do you respect Senators with medical degrees pronouncing diagnoses based on a video of a patient?
  • Do you consume more than one gallon of gas in your one-way commute to work each day?
  • Are you so computer-partisan that you have any OS-affiliated adornments in your office (e.g. Microsoft/Apple/Linux poster)?
  • Are you so lazy that you make a habit of (i) littering (ii) pressing the "handicap" switch to open a door?
  • Do you generally associate certain cars with genders, such as "I couldn't drive a minivan instead of an SUV" or "That's a girl's car"?
  • Do you regular (i) use the left-most lane of highway for cruising? (ii) refuse to signal turns (iii) refuse to turn on your lights when it's raining?
  • Have you ever forwarded some internet story which you later came to realize was a complete hoax or urban myth?
  • Are you still unclear about how to score this test?

Sunday, January 27, 2008


  • Some blogger recently used an offensive word that I think a lot of people don't realize is a slur. I forgot exactly who and I don't want to call attention to anyone. However, consider this a PSA that words such as "gypped," and "welsh" are slurs. Remarkably, it seems "chintzy" is safe.
  • I think we've got some good candidates this time, so I really haven't paid any attention to the subtle differences in policy between the three, Edwards, Obama, and Hilary. But I really am opposed to dynasties, and would prefer Obama on that count alone.
  • I have been tagged to answer the question

    Why do you teach and do the work they do and why academic freedom is critical to that effort?

    I've always enjoyed teaching...till I started getting paid for it! No, seriously folks, I enjoy about one class a semester. Anything more becomes a burden. I like the challenge of seeing something from many viewpoints. I like having people ask me strange questions...these can challenge me and show me perspectives I never would have thought of on my own. I like seeing people light up with interest (well, it happens sometimes). As an agnostic solipsist (you might exist!), everytime as a kid I thought about the purpose of life, it all came down to my senses...cram it full. Learning, listening to music, eating, and doing stuff outside. That's what life is about. I'm no good at music and couldn't make a living outside, so I stuck with the learning. In fact, I doubted I'd become a professor. As opposed to many in the blogosphere, my professors did make me quite aware of the chances of getting a position. For me graduate school was just the logical conclusion to keep learning physics. I figured I'd eventually leave the field and go to Wall Street or some other society-sucking profession (such as patent lawyer...I even took the LSAT).

    So I've been teaching for a long time. Tutoring all through high school and college, some TA positions in undergrad and grad, and then this job. I've got lots of ex-students that have liked my classes, but I'm not one of those with uniformly good student reviews (about whom I tend to be quite skeptical). I can do a pretty decent job of it without sacrificing on my research much. And I usually like it. So I teach.

    My friends tell me I could never hold down a "real" job. I'm not so sure, but certainly I couldn't do it without some crushing of my soul. When I was a teenager I worked thirty hours a week (during school) in typical teenager jobs. During college summers I had a couple internships at your standard big employer. The challenge was to look busy after completing a two-week task in a day or two. I have a great job now. On the best of days, I get to figure out ways to do things no one else has *ever* figured out. On the worst of days, I have silly meetings, and grading to catch up on. On other good days, I'm in some far off country listening to a good talk after which a bunch of us head out to a great restaurant. On other bad days, I get nothing done and simply decide to open up a long dormant book or magazine and read about some other cool physics.

    As for academic freedom, I'm not sure it's really been an issue for me. Certainly I was more outspoken before I got tenure.
  • I keep meaning to discuss some of the issues by the Incoherent Ponderer, but he is
    just too prolific.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


  • I long ago stopped buying music. I can't stand the RIAA. I know there's independent music out there, but the days when I could afford the time to just listen to great music and be transported elsewhere are long gone. But if I were younger, the overprocessing of music these days would bother me.
    Funny, I remember in college an EE major was trying to argue with me that CDs were demonstrably better (neh, perfect) than analog recordings with some simple sampling arguments. So this stuff doesn't affect me much, but I have a similar complaint w/r/t the audio on current movies. The first of which is why do movie studio movies lack reasonable audio sometimes? Two people talking outside but sounding like they're in a small room really bugs me. And then you watch a movie on DVD at home, and the movie is super loud in the action sequences but the conversations are so low you can't hear it. Here's we need such audio compression. As a followup, you might read on Slashdot about the return of vinyl.
  • A surprising amount of physics in a NYT article on the role of heat in cooking.
  • If, like me, you've wondered how people can possibly vote as they do, you might enjoy this article. Update: Sean has some more comments on this.
  • I go through notebook computer batteries pretty quickly. I think because I actually use it as an extra desktop. So this time, every time I park my laptop on my desk for any extended length of time, I switch out my recent, good battery for the old one. I'll let you know how well this works. And yes, I know I could just leave the battery out, but it's nice to have a battery in there in case I have to move it or the power goes out or something.
  • The Incoherent Ponderer has some posts on faculty pay and on tenured folk's ability to say "no." Regarding the former, I wanted to mention that one of the nice things about this job is that I can look forward to someday simply changing what I research. I can simply take a sabbatical and learn a whole new field. Regarding the latter, there are many who abuse tenure. I've pretty much thought of it the same way I do about welfare. Yeah, people abuse it, but it's still a good idea. However, I'm becoming more and more skeptical (of tenure that is, not welfare programs).
  • Chad turned me on to this new physics blog, which discusses refereeing. I can certainly concur that there's way too much which gets published in my field. This over-abundance means that I'm hesitant to respond to an editor that the paper is out of my field. Basically, I give the paper a quick read (e.g. a "smell test"). If I can tell it's probably bad and if I have a chance of making a convincing case of it, I take it. If I can't make much of it or can't argue against it, then I pass it back. What's more interesting is that, for some reason, I'm often called in essentially to arbitrate papers when either the authors and referees are getting hostile or different referees wildly disagree. I get a small ego boost out of such requests, but I imagine it is only because I basically make it a rule to pretend that my reports might become public with my name attached.
  • I went to a show the other night, and a woman from behind me tapped me on the shoulder. She just wanted to let me know that if her daughter, who was directly behind me, kicked the seat or acted up it was because she was autistic. I didn't know quite what to say, and basically just said that was fine, and thanked her for letting me know. Indeed, I was quite thankful because I could easily dismiss such behavior in that case, but it would drive me nutty otherwise. It turns out, the girl behaved quite well with only occasional kicking and a couple very brief exclamations. A boy who appeared to be her brother however was very loud and buggy, but I suspect he's not autistic (I didn't say anything).