Monday, December 14, 2009

Wax On...Wax Off

  • Posting a scathing comment about me to on the same morning that you come to my office hours to plead for a passing grade is pretty risky, especially when I subscribe to the RSS feed!
  • And people criticize string theory for being too pie-in-the-sky? Here's a concrete representation of it for just $90. That may seem cheap, but just remember than you need to buy something like 10 raised to the power of 500 of these to get something like our universe!
  • Teaching Tip #436: I've long been aware of a glaring weakness in my teaching; I'm bad at repeating things. In particular, I suck at reviewing things. I suppose it's because I'm pretty spare with my speech in the first place, and I tend to either understand something right away or I ask questions. So I've always simply expected students to ask if they don't get it. Of course, this often doesn't happen. Anyway, you might think just recognizing this defect means I could easily fix it, but not really. So here comes the tip: teaching is a bit like painting in which one needs to brush in various directions to fill in spots and establish a good covering. It may sound a bit corny, but it really helps me come into lecture each day and try saying the same things from previous lectures a bit differently.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Life Continues

  • Haven't seen this bumper sticker at APS
  • It had never occurred me not to list interview talks on my CV. I pretty much agree with this comment...listing a talk as invited simply isn't very definitive in terms of what it denotes. So if you're reading the CV, you don't get deceived; you just get some vague sense of how interested people are in your work.
  • The last NSF panel I was on, bent over backwards to consider that a PI was a member of an under-represented group. We debated what the person could have meant and what science the person could do. Ultimately we didn't fund that person simply because the science wasn't there, but we tried.
  • Could this be my long sought method for making grocery lists?
  • I'm busy as ever, but I keep meaning to discuss the insecurity of a physicist and how it drives one. I think the best analogy I can think of is a career I couldn't ever attempt, that is acting. Of course, I know very little except from the documentary series that is Thirty Rock and the character of Jenna Maroney in particular. She is horribly insecure about other actors, and I can imagine that she feels a bit similar to how I feel when I see others get invites that could have gone to me. Or when others publish good papers. I'd much prefer it if I could be a bit more laid back, content to publish what I can and enjoy the great job that I have. In fact, I oscillate between these two viewpoints achieving some level of sanity along with some level of professional success. Maybe I'm just bipolar when it comes to professional ambition. I wonder how others would describe their professional insecurity and sanity.
  • I also keep meaning to address the sports world. We've got Andre showing his true colors, Tiger making non-news, Jordan showing the world what a jerk he is, and Serena being a bully. Maybe later.
  • Another thing that keeps me occupied sometimes is thinking about my next car (due in only 10 years or so). I want something sporty, practical, and not ridiculously priced. In the running right now: Mazdaspeed 3, Volkswagen GTI, Nissan 370z. But Honda is coming out with a hybrid CRZ that looks promising.

Friday, November 13, 2009


  • There's a guy down the street from me with a black Ferrari in his garage, which I find very strange for my neighborhood. But two Veyrons is perhaps weirder.
  • And I learned recently that "The magnetic field is sign that Mercury contains a tiny Black Hole." That's amazing...since the Earth has a magnetic field what does that mean about our core?
  • I don't like it when I see perfectly able-bodied folk press the button which opens a door electrically, ostensibly meant for handicapped individuals as indicated by the conspicuous blue signage. How lazy can you get that you need to expend precious natural resources to open the door for you? It's just the energy to open the door but the significant increase in climate-controlled air exchange over the much shorter time period for which a manually opened door would remain open. For dual doors, the effect is even more significant since usually both doors open in unison, in contrast to the manually opened case. In any case, I was happy to read about efforts in Stockholm to fight the laziness
  • I've been darn busy. Lots of traveling. Various proposals rejected and others submitted. Reviewed multiple papers. Readying one for submission. Got to throw together a proceedings contribution. Absolutely sick of most of my collaborators...they don't do what they say they'll do, or they'll ignore important emails. And no one is doing the work that needs to be done, instead they're off on their super-secret side projects. Got to prepare a talk.
  • I've had a lot to say recently but can't recall it now. I'm hoping by posting this, I'll get back in the blogging-swing of things. You know because blogging is just so rewarding!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

As Sorted

  • There's hardly any food that doesn't benefit from being eaten with tortilla chips. Strange that one doesn't find these along with other chips in vending machines.
  • My parents never knew the answers to my science questions.
  • Chad is looking for camera advice and has lots of comments about it. I've posted before about cameras, and I don't find the case for DSLRs very compelling, despite having used a film SLR for decades. And of course that I'm terrified of dust on the sensor (something we didn't have to worry about w/ film) doesn't help at all. But, I also wanted to mention that I would look very carefully, were I buying a camera, at the Olympus E-P1. In particular, I'm excited about this camera starting a trend towards full control, excellent quality, good low-light performance, and compact cameras. You might also take a look at Canon's two latest offerings in the G11 and S90.
  • I'm finding the "have a beer before company comes over" solution is more and more appropriate and useful. Should I be apprehensive?
  • Simple physics demonstrations to "lure" kids to science? I can't vouch for these via Slashdot.
  • Every hotel room should have an alarm clock. What's with European hotels (nice ones at that) lacking an alarm clock necessitating my wearing a watch while in the room?
  • Thinking about blogging anonymously (or rather with a pseudonym)? Remaining so can take some effort and constrain what you can say and you don't get any acclaim for it. Plus, you might still get found out.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


  • If you're organizing a conference:

    • make badges double sided so if that when worn on a necklace and they flap around, the name is always visible. Make the name/institution as big as practical (n small fonts).
    • Don't rely on an online program alone. Printed material should at least specify speaker name, institution, and *title*.

  • Someone needs to change the NSF's Fastlane. Ever since they replaced the use of SSN's with some arbitrary ID number, I can't use my password manager since there are effectively two passwords. A major pain.
  • A long while ago I asked for software that aids in making a grocery shopping list. I didn't get much help, nor did has anyone since let me know about this which I need to try out.
  • If you find yourself related to an academic physicist, here are some tips

    • Remember at least one simple fact about the person's status (e.g. grad student, postdoc, untenured prof, tenured prof). Forgetting this is tantamount to forgetting that someone made partner if a lawyer, or if someone is an attending if a real doctor.
    • Mentioning vaguely some science story you read in the popular press doesn't help conversation. The physicist has to then come up with something vague as well such as, "Oh yeah, there are lots of articles on ...(e.g. slowing/stopping light, finding a black hole, etc)..." If you have some question, then by all means go ahead, but trying to impress with your general knowledge with only vague details doesn't get it done.
    • If you want extra brownie points, you could go for the advanced round with questions such as "How's your funding situation looking?" or "What was your latest paper about?"
    • For the love of all that is holy, do not say something like "So what are you doing while you're off for the summer?"

Bonus Link:
Nice video about the Hubble Deep Field photos via Gizmodo.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


We've got friends coming over soon with two, very poorly behaved young girls. They're not bad girls, it's just that their parents are of the no-scold type. So of course, the kids cry when I tell them, "no, please don't do that," which I refrain from saying for as long as I can stand it. To mitigate my stress, (i) we put away all we can and lock all doors we can and (ii) I'm having a couple beers prior to their arrival. (Update: keeping the kids outside in combination with a number of beers made for a fun time)

Another thing that gets me heated is reading certain people's papers. There are just a few groups in the world who can do what my collaborators and I can do. Instead, of reveling in this exclusivity, the other groups have this ongoing sniping. Where, might you ask, is the sniping taking place? Why, in the printed pages of journals. Of course, this makes no sense forcing future readers to figure out what's what. Instead, it seems obvious to me, our groups should be communicating (by phone, email, or, heaving forbid, in person) directly and resolving these issues and attacks. If we agree, then we publish that, and if not, we acknowledge the difference of opinion. Instead, as an example, we have now in print our original paper, followed by a paper by group 2 which says we are wrong about something. Then along comes group 3 who says we are right about that, but our explanation of another point is wrong. So our next paper will likely address this latter point, and who knows what group 2 will put in print next. Ridiculous.

Some interesting links:

  • cool pic of supersonic plane
  • flying self-contained robots
  • videos explaining physics symbols
  • When I was little, I dreamed of owning a Ferrari someday. I thought them beautiful and the idea of driving one spiritual (I argued I wasn't being materialistic since I didn't want to show it off, and would be happy just renting one whenever I wanted to drive one). That dream has faded a bit, but this post renews my interest.

Finally, I'll close by addressing the utility of mentoring as addressed today by the FSP. She notes that women seem to gain more benefit from having a mentor than men. I have no ideas about that, but I do have doubts that any such study could remove the influence of an unofficial mentor who may not even be at the same institution.

I maintain some bitterness (neh, anger?) about the help that I've seen ``competitors" get from certain, more senior folks in the committee. In certain cases, one sees some senior person essentially adopt a young researcher, getting them invitations to talk, authorship of review articles, etc. Just a couple of such moves have an inordinate effect, because then more invitations and attention flows because people hop on the bandwagon. This young researcher then becomes a de factor spokesperson for the field, independent of the merits of their research. If the young person is reasonably friendly and a good speaker, their career is largely set.
I suppose I'm bitter because my entire career could have been different given a couple such efforts of others. Not just that, but I've also been a bit betrayed by a couple folks in whom I had hopes of being such a mentor. I really don't mean to sound so self-pitying. I suppose I just want to stress to the young folk out there, is to scope out such possible benefactors, and kiss their ass like your career depends on it.

Friday, June 26, 2009


It's been a while. During my "sabbatical" from this blog, I've churned through a number of topics to discuss, but somehow never took the time to write them up. I've had such a tough time keeping up with the blogs I read, it's been tough to allot time for contributing to my own.

My anger has been an issue in my personal life, and I thought about discussing it here. I'm not so much in the mood now, but I suppose the after-school-special, take-home message is that my childhood environment didn't teach me good skills at dealing with my emotions and, lest you think I abandon all personal responsibility, it somehow didn't occur to me that I could actively learn how to deal with them.

I continue in what some might perceive as a purgatory of a physics existence. That is, I have tenure but would prefer to be in a better department with better students. I have more grant money than I know how to spend but my research is being pulled in a direction that worries me. I dream of simply researching what I want. I travel to some great places, but I get bothered that I'm not invited to speak as often as I might. I make decent money, but when I see some others' salaries (via grant proposals that I review) I get envious. Plus, somehow people seem to think professors universally make quite a bit of money.

It's the summer now, and I was very happy to be done teaching. My class last semester was perhaps the least fun ever. The strange part was that i didn't dislike any of them. They were just extremely quiet and I couldn't get them involved. Sure, some will say my teaching was off, but I've taught that class a number of times and have always enjoyed it.

Anyway, I'm finishing up a paper that I'm presenting in two weeks, with another proposal due soon as well. Always more work.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

No Title

  • Why, every time I use self-checkout at the grocery store, does my machine tell me some form of "Please Wait for Attendant"? Can't they design these machines to be more robust?
  • I get that Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme and people lost something like $50 billion. What I don't understand is, where did the money go? Sure, maybe he lived high-on-the-hog, but I've seen no evidence that he could have spent billions of dollars. So where is it? It would seem that the money went to the investors who pulled money out and whom Madoff would have been forced to pay just to keep the scheme going. And so when I read this NYT piece entitled Madoff Had Accomplices: His Victims I expected a story something along the lines of this argument, but no. Continuing this line of thought, I wonder about the stock market as a whole. Those who get out early make a profit at the expense of those who don't. The market seems a big Ponzi scheme except with the wrinkle that there's a little real value added to some of the companies with time.
    Update: Freakonomics addresses these questions. Interestingly, they mention that Madoff, by not investing at all, hardly did worse than the market. We need a new Turing test for whether something is a Ponzi scheme or a market. They also suggest that the feeder funds (to which Peter refers in the comments) may indeed have to pay back some of their compensation. One can hope.
  • Saw the movie Religulous the other day. Not especially good, but certainly more than watchable. I've mentioned I'm an atheist, but generally supportive of unorganized religion. That is to say, I can see that people want to believe in something bigger than themselves, something to give meaning to a possibly meaningless world. This movie, if anything, made me more antagonistic towards religion of any kind. At one point, he points out similarities between the Jesus as Christ story with many others before it...I wasn't aware of the unoriginality of the story.
  • I was listening to Lisa Randall on NPR's Science Friday. I thought she did well, but at one point in the Q and A, I hear her say "First of all it's Professor," correcting what sounded like a young boy asking her a multi-part question. I had to back up to hear how he had addressed her and sure enough he said "Miss Randall." Not sure what to make of that. (I'm referring to a point about three quarters into the "broadcast" clickable in the upper left of the page.)
  • Not sure what to make of this "QuantumGravity" watch mentioned by Gizmodo.
  • Also at Gizmodo, ever wondered whether there's a correlation between college-aged sexual activity and major? At Wellesley perhaps? Somehow "physics" didn't make the chart, but I suspect we can all agree we do better than "Mathematics." Check it out.
  • Looking for a job? How about as a Quant with D.E. Shaw which had a recent listing in Physics Today. Not your thing? How about teaching Obama's children at Sidwell Friends School?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Don't blame physicists on Wall Street, says the NYT.

Clifford isn't good about submitting travel receipts. I'm one of those prepping the paperwork before I even get home.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Discussing Religion

  • Slashdot recently discussed free, open source software for experimental physics.

  • A pretty breezy piece in the NYT about the physics of tackling (in American football).

  • Cocktail Party Physics is literally discussing physics, or rather astrology, at parties, or rather social gatherings. This reminded me of a dinner party from last month. We were talking about what to tell children when they directly ask if God/Santa/ToothFairy/etc exist. I said I tell them I don't believe in God, but I avoid answering the other questions (mostly because I don't want them "spoiling it" for other kids). Anyway, so a friend asked if I was an atheist or an agnostic. Knowing she's somewhat spiritual and not wanting to offend, I gave a response I thought fairly polite (as well as accurate):

    I'm an atheist because I don't think God exists.

    But this person persisted, questioning my use of the word "think." So I continued:

    Well, I don't know that God doesn't exist, but similarly, I don't know that you exist. However, I live my life accepting in pragmatic terms that others probably exist since it's easier than not and there is evidence for your existence (although not conclusive). However, there's no evidence of God's existence, so to the extent that you want to consider me agnostic, I'd have to say I'm just as agnostic regarding the existence of ferries, ghosts, etc.

  • This discussion reminds me of something I read on Facebook recently. This woman from high school I barely know was posting a combination of religious and political stuff. Mostly just enough to merit a smile, like how she joined a group celebrating Sean Hannity. Or a status update about how dare Obama disrespect Bush in his inaugural speech. But then she posted the oft-told parable about a religious Marine knocking out a liberal professor (among many hits on Google, you can read the story at this blog). I'm amazed at the behavior of some people who make themselves out to be very moral and God-fearing. It probably didn't occur to her that she was advocating for violence against anyone. In any case, I avoided commenting, but took the preventative measure (to forestall her getting me upset) of "de-friending" her. Apparently, the de-listed friend isn't notified, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Assymmetry in an Outlet (Part I)

I had mentioned the question posed to me by a layperson (nonscientist) recently:

In a normal electrical outlet, the current oscillates between positive and negative, and hence left and right between the two prongs of some device. So then, why are some plugs polarized? Shouldn't things be symmetric?

There are some helpful comments there, but I think they're perhaps not sufficient for someone with little understanding of electricity. So I figured I'd give it my best shot. This is perhaps my first posting trying to explain physics. There's so much good stuff on the web, but I couldn't quite find what I wanted for this person, so I'll write it myself.

So I'll start with an analogy and restrict myself to the case of DC first. There'll be a quiz at the end so pay attention.

You know the "log ride" at an amusement park (as always, there's a wiki when you need one)? It's an artificial "canal"-type conduit in which you float on an artificial "dug-out" log. Basically a mild roller coaster on water.

So imagine such a ride that is never go up or down. Assuming there's nothing pushing on the water, your log would just sit there. So forget the log, and we'll just consider the water. The water seeks its own level. Here level is the potential energy of the water and it's all at the same potential.

To make the ride interesting, the ride is instead constructed with a high starting point and the water is pumped up to that point. This high water is now at a different potential and it falls because of gravity.

The analogy is that the water is similar to charges and the water's height is analogous to electric potential (measured in the familiar units of volts). The water pump is like a power supply, or, for the case of an outlet in your home, the power company. In either case, you get a potential difference. With the ride, the water is higher than the rest of the ride. With the outlet, one prong is at a higher potential than the other and therefore charges want to make it to the other prong.

Quiz time:

  • If you plug in a simple light bulb to an outlet, you're putting a load across the prongs. To what property of the ride does this correspond?
  • Electrical resistance is essentially a measure of the difficulty the charges face in going to lower potential. What property of the ride is analogous to resistance?

Next time I'll discuss grounding and AC circuits within this analogy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Importance of Being Grades

I read Julianne's discussion of what a graduate admissions committee does not want to see. I thought a couple of the entries a bit funny:

  • Transcripts with three times the number of courses (and substantially better grades) in music than in physics.
  • "Stu Dent has excellent physical intuition and will undoubtedly succeed in graduate school". Except, Stu has mostly B's and C's in their physics courses and a 15th percentile on the physics GRE.

because, with some simple modifications, both probably apply to me (I took a bunch of music classes, but not "three times" as many, I got mostly Bs in physics and no Cs, and I did much better than 15th percentile). Perhaps needless to say, but I don't think undergraduate grades are particularly indicative of much.

So I was happy to see Arjendu discuss the issue from a different perspective.

As for my story, in high school I somehow felt than the only challenge was to get straight As without doing any work. Having succeeded at that, I somehow never recovered in college. I didn't work very hard but of course didn't get all As. So my graduate application was just good enough to get into a good school.

I should note also that I am probably the only physics major of my class who applied to graduate schools in physics who remains in any type of physics career.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How many columnists for the NYT with 4-letter names can you identify?

  • A pretty convincing two part (Part I and Part II) posting in favor of variable toll roads. I've mostly been against toll roads seeing them as part of a slippery slope in which the basics are up for sale (how far off until only the rich get to breath safe air?). But this isn't a case of funding the construction of a road with a toll. Instead it's a payment meant to optimize flow physics terms, I suppose it would be stabilizing a critical point of the system. (Coincidentally, Cocktail Party Physics is also discussing traffic.)
  • Cool picture of millions of dollars cash was airdropped via parachute onto a huge oil tanker.
  • You might check out Frank Rich's column today in the NYT if you want to get angry.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Me Eat Burger

  • Another sign I'm getting old: the average number of pills I take each day, which used to be close to zero, has gone up quite a bit.
  • I don't have much of an opinion on this upcoming or delayed transition to digital, but I can say that HDTV is a bit of a scam. Sure it looks great, but for many network broadcasts, the standard definition shows are just the middle section of the video. So what this means is that when you watch a show in high def, all you gain is some extra field of view on the sides. You know those annoying station identifiers and advertisements for news shows that appear in the corners of the screen? In high def shows, they don't appear in the corners because then the simple video processing to get a standard definition feed would cut them off. So they get even more annoying! And then the cable companies compress the signal, especially apparent during fast motion...
  • I'm more pedantic than the next guy, but this whole "fewer/less" thing is getting out of hand. I was watching TNT or TBS or some channel which kept advertising how it has "less commercials" thanks to the sponsorship of some company. And now there's a TV show by the title 10 Items or Less.
  • Lots o' physics bloggers actually take the time to explain things and answer actual questions. I much prefer asking questions but my readers are the absolute worst in terms of answering. So I guess I'll pose a question recently asked of me, and, when no one else provides an answer, I suppose I'll answer it. So the question is:

    In a normal electrical outlet, the current oscillates between positive and negative, and hence left and right between the two prongs of some device. So then, why are some plugs polarized? Shouldn't things be symmetric?

  • What does an Angry Physicist eat? Perhaps an angry whopper?