Thursday, August 31, 2006

Missile Defense

Remember a few months back how great our missile defense is (I think it was a different system, but you get the idea)? Remember this is something that got implemented despite the fact that it wasn't passing the tests (or maybe "because" is the better word)?

Well, a recent, contrived test got cancelled "because of bad weather." I think CNN should be sanctioned for helping rogue nations... after all, CNN is basically telling nations that if you're going to launch an ICBM attack against North America, you really got to do it in bad weather!

Update: It looks like the test was carried out yesterday and was successful. How do I know? Lubos of course! I really hate to pick on Lubos because he's so entertaining, but he doesn't mention the weather delay. Nevertheless, he asserts:

This $85 million test has increased the measured reliability of the system slightly above 50%.

Huh? What in the world is he talking about? This test was very contrived? Well, the Pentagon won't release the details. So I have no idea where Lubos gets this 50% number (maybe Bayesian probabilities?). Maybe it's something like if Iran launches in clear weather, sends no decoys, and transmits the missile's trajectory 3 hours ahead of time, we then have a 50% chance of destroying it. Something like that I guess!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Big Brother Allstars

So I'm pretty safe admitting that I watch Big Brother All-stars for certain reasons. For those who do not know what it is, they pick a bunch of people and keep them confined in a house. No TV, no books, and they have to scheme to get food and to vote out housemates via various competitions. This is the seventh season, so there tends to be some universal behavior. Winning competitions helps you stay in the house as does scheming with others in "alliances." However, laying low and doing badly has its benefits because you appear not to be a threat. Keeping your emotions in check and being able to adapt to benefit those in power that week is key.

Anyway, in my more cynical moments, I'm amazed at how much this whole physics world is like that. With whom do I align? How do I possibly work with people for whom I have no respect? I've learned not to hold grudges...I don't let certain people know how upset I am that they screwed me because there's no point. I see my relationships basically as just how do I get what I want from them without giving up too much.

It sounds pretty bad, but remember that I pretty much suck at these games, so I'm sure I'm pretty tame compared to those who find this stuff obvious.

While I'm on the topic let me just list the best shows on TV (go Season Pass them now):

  • Simpsons
  • Modern Marvels
  • Scientific American Frontiers (when it's actually on)
  • Nova (not all of them)
  • Colbert Report
  • Pardon the Interruption (when it's not baseball or football seasons)
  • Mythbusters
  • Daily Show
  • Extreme Engineering
  • How It's Made (just stumbled on this recently)

Thinking about TV, the other day they had the Simpsons on in which Lisa becomes a vegetarian, causing a big rift with her father Homer. This one has the funniest Simpson's line ever:

The whole family is at the table, Homer is trying not to talk to Lisa because she sent his grand, roasted pig down a hill during his big BBQ, everyone starts fighting, and Homer yells at Bart to go to his room, and Lisa yells "Why don't you just eat him!".

Friday, August 25, 2006

Selling Yourself

I've been meaning to write about selling one's was going to be a good way to procastinate and put off writing a couple proposals, but unfortunately I got too busy. For those that missed it, that's my dry humor.

Coincidentally there are other posts today on selling yourself. Doug is talking about people promising the moon in grant applications. And Chad is posting his CV in prep for coming up for tenure. I think people might be more interested in seeing his research and/or teaching statements...the majority of career advice questions I get concern those two statements.

Anyway, so when you apply for a job, you have to sell yourself. When you apply for a grant you have to sell yourself. Some of you are going "duh!" so don't read. Others are going "why?" Those are my "peeps" (did I spell that correctly hipsters?).

So, say you've got lots of papers, done really well, and feel like you've been very meritorious. Why do you have to sell yourself. There are two main reasons. The first is that there are plenty of people with lots of papers whom you may not want to be around. In other words, it's tough to tell how good someone is. Maybe the papers are of no consequence, or come from a single line of research. Or maybe they were in collaborations in which you played little role.

The other reason is that no matter how good you might be at using Backlund Transformations to find new solutions to certain equations, people may not care about that ability and very likely don't care to fund it.

So start early. Don't go overboard, but know a good way to motivate why someone should take interest in the work you do. I've never really learned to do this, and you know what they say about old dogs. Don't be an old dog. Oh, there's very common advice you might hear, and I can hardly believe I'm about to say this, but ...."elevator speech."

I'll end by mentioning that theoretical physicist Janna Levin "acquitted herself quite well" (as they say) on the Colbert Report last night (although I could have used a bit less of the nervous laughter). It's not on YouTube yet, but I'm sure Chad or Steinn will have a link soon enough. There's no way I could have done that well on TV.

Finally, there's some talk on the blogs today about how students should address you. I think two more practical questions are: (1) How do you enforce whatever choice you make? (2) How do you sign your email consistent with this choice? Say you want to be call Professor Brainiac, do you really sign your email "Professor Brainiac"? I can't bring myself to do's akin to my aversion to referring to myself in the third person which means I'm not suited for reality television.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Peer Review

Wow, lot's of stuff going on, that's why I've been pretty silent. All that Perelman stuff (and the Fields' Medals) to read, and the direct evidence for Dark Matter. Exciting times.

And if I have to read one more post by Lubos insinuating that String Theory is responsible for the great results in Ricci Flow, well...well...I'll just have to call him out on it (again), that's what.

Physical Review now provides a link for a referee to see the results of all their reports...which manuscripts ultimately got published in Phys Rev and which are no longer being considered. I was a bit stunned by how many papers came my way, and more than a bit happy that so many never got published. I kind of figured the ones I rejected just asked for a new referee and got through.

Of course, as Peter Woit points out, is getting slammed because that's where Perelman "published" his papers (and only there). Referee reports, schmreports.

And links, shminks.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Cosmos (apparently "the biggest-selling Australian science magazine") has an article about string theorist Michael Kaku. I've never been a huge fan of him, but it's an interesting article describing how he

"Because my parents were poor, I knew from a very early age that I would have to be self-reliant. Hence, in high school, I built a 2.3 million electron volt atom smasher, which helped me to get into Harvard. My parents did not understand at all what I was doing, but they realised it was important, and helped in any way they could. The atom smasher used up 22 miles [35km] of cooper wire, which my parents and I wound on the high-school football field over Christmas vacation."

The atom smasher consistently blew the fuses at his parents' home. But it also impressed atomic scientist Edward Teller, who arranged a scholarship at Harvard University for the young Kaku.

Later, one finds the quote

...tediously having to memorise Maxwell's eight hideous mathematical equations that describe electromagnetic fields

and one hopes these are the author's words not Kaku's. Presumably the author is trying to contrast Maxwell's original equations with that written in covariant form ala Kaluza-Klein, which shows up a few sentences further down.

Anyway, a bit more on string theory shows up, and some comments and quotes about Kaku's thoughts on God appear later.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Yet more Perelman

Slate has a quick read on Perelman's work on the Poincare Conjecture Theorem. In particular, he mentions that people may see all the press this is getting and think there's some practical benefit, something that hadn't occurred to me:

Perelman's work isn't important because of its applications. It won't help anyone build a bridge, aim a rocket, crack a code, or privatize Social Security. Mathematicians, no dummies, like to point out that, in some unspecified future, Perelman's theorem might pitch in to help with these problems in ways that aren't obvious now. But its real significance is like that of the fact that a times b is equal to b times a; it's a basic structural statement about how the world is organized. If you prefer order to chaos, that's something worth caring about.

The obvious thing to say w/r/t this is the remarkable utility of Einstein's theory of gravity for geolocation (GPS) (Ashby has written much about this). Who would have expected in the early 1900's that a theory of gravity which provides very small corrections to the marvelously useful Newtonian theory of gravity would turn out to be essential for modern navigation and positioning?

But more than that, and it's hard to say this without sounding incredibly corny, this is a tremendous and unexpected achievement of our species as a whole. I'm not sure to what to compare it, but imagine someone comes along and runs a 2 minute mile. No practical benefit, but golly, what an achivement.

Funny stuff at Slashdot

I don't usually read the comments at Slashdot, but a post there about the magazine Consumer Reports' efforts to test antivirus software for the PC by creating slight variants of existent viruses engendered some funny ones. Apparently, the makers of the software aren't happy, claiming that it's not responsible to create new viruses.

Perhaps I found them so amusing because they make light of such a depressing state of affairs in this country:

Testing security only emboldens the terrorists!

Why does Consumer Reports hate America?

I hear the Yale company is still furious over the time Consumer Reports tried a bunch of random combinations on their locks.

And there's even a funny one, presumably in opposition:

Be sure to read our other Consumer Reports articles, where we:
Test the efficacy of burglar alarms by attempting to break into consumers' homes,
Test the efficacy of the 'morning after' pill by creating unwanted pregnancies,
- and -
Test the skill of your local emergency room doctor by randomly stabbing people outside the hospital.

Thanks, Consumer Reports. Thanks bunches.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Dark Matter Announcement

Yet more Chad...
(terrible joke alert: I haven't seen this many "chads" since Florida circa 2000!)

He mentions an upcoming announcement about dark matter...the sizable part of the Universe that we can't see directly because it doesn't interact with light (it doesn't reflect, emit, etc) but for which we do see evidence of its mass. Anyway, here's the NASA announcement which shows our good friend Sean Carroll as a participant. Not sure in what capacity he's participating (especially since he is supposedly on vacation!).

Varied thoughts

  • Over at Chad's blog (so much easier to type than Uncertain Principles), there's an answer to why mathematicians are so weird...the commenter's answer that "it's hard." Which begs two questions:

    Which is harder, math or physics?

    On the whole, who is weirder, mathematicians or physicists?

    Clearly, the answers are "the latter" and "mathematicians" (the proof is left to the reader).

  • Apparently Blogger is getting a long overdue revamping...though it's not clear how long it'll take for the upgrade to make its way here.

  • Chad is on a tear with interesting he's looking for a new car. Lot's of people are recommending the Fit, though I suggest he wait for the (rumored) hybrid. It's interesting looking at what people drive. I know of a pretty senior faculty who wears jeans and untucked button-downs everyday, and what does she drive? Just a brand new, 7-series BMW. Of course, there's also the younger faculty member having trouble getting through the tenure process driving a new-ish 3-series.

  • More Chad...he solicits musical suggestions. If I were younger, I'd try out the suggestions in the comments. But no, I'm old and lazy, and addicted of course to Pandora (free, internet radio). Update: Oh, I forgot to suggest Tanita Tikaram...probably a bit too mellow for some, but....

Where has Perelman gone?

The NYT (free sub. reqd.) has an article on the "elusive" Perelman mentioning how he's a favorite for the Fields medal but has turned down awards before. I had not seen his picture before (he's described in the article as appearing like a "Rasputin").

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Not the best time

This was not the best weekend to fly! (but perhaps we should be thankful people are still dressed on the plane). And, since it was a quick trip, I didn't check any bags which helped with all the flight changes, but it meant that not only did I have to buy all new sundries including toothpaste when I got there, but then I had to throw them out on the return!

Was reading Susskind's latest The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, and one of the flight attendants asked me about it. She knew a bit about string theory and was very interested in time. I was impressed, though I did find it strange that she kept insisting something about how physicists need to take time into account, despite my protestations that time indeed plays a pretty big role.

I'm not done with the book but my general impression is favorable. Some of his explanations seem better than other popularizations, and has narration is less dry. He's got a goal for the book and simply needs to educate you to get you there. Other books take an approach which seems more along the lines of "let's keep feeding you different stuff till you explode." I've got a few issues with some of his arguments, but I appreciate hearing them.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More cool gifts

Continuing in the tradition of pointing out cool gifts for kids take a look at this one:

Unfortunately, this is not a real gift, but instead a gallery of the worst toy ideas (via Gizmodo).

That thing you do

  • Camera news: Nikon is out with it's new D80 and Gizomodo has lots of links. What's more, they've got the scoop on a new camera by Fuji which can see in the infrared and ultraviolet. Apparently they're marketing to scientists (among others). (insert requisite dumb string theory joke here)

  • Universe News: Good discussions of some recent studies of the age of the universe can be found at Rob Knop's place and Bad Astronomy. Bottom line is: we'll stick with the current 13.7+/-0.2 billion years, but there's an interesting result that conflicts with it. I always like to ask my students what their uncertainty would be if they were to guess my age? How does that compare to the percent uncertainty quote above? Pretty amazing, huh?

  • Career News: Steinn and Chad discuss the problems of the physics track and whether people should go into physics. I'd like to add my thoughts, but I just don't have the energy to go into it at any length. But here are some quick thoughts:

    • I know plenty of postdocs who have been out of grad school for close to (or in some cases past) ten years.
    • Some have an easy time of things, but you should expect a rather painful process at low pay as you watch your friends go off and buy sports cars and such.
    • You should be prepared for other options at almost every step. You should always try to keep your options open, or at least know what the options might be. There's the financial industry: derivatives pricing, risk analysis, etc. There's biological stuff (protein folding, drug design, etc).
    • My experience has been that senior people made us undergrad and grad students aware of the bleakness of the job market. To their credit they acted a bit like a Jewish Rabbi confronted with a potential convert...a good friend who was marrying a Jewish guy talked to a rabbi about converting and was "turned away." Apparently, the tradition is for the potential convert to be turned away three times. The moral being only those "destined" to be physicists will persevere in the face of such bleakness.
    • And, at the same time as I acknowledge many out there are stuck in a postdoc rut, I'm amazed at the number of people I know who have gotten faculty jobs.

    Oh, also check out this post about blogging professors at Hsu's place.

  • Political News: Lieberman lost in the primary as did Delay in his quest to get himself off the ballot.

Monday, August 07, 2006

PTI and Salary

I was watching PTI today (who knew Wikipedia would turn up before an ESPN link and would have so much detail on the TV show!), and Wilbon wondered how much someone in the pit crew for NASCAR drivers made annually. I'll defer posting the answer till tomorrow (unless someone cares to put it in the comments) so that people can ponder it for a while.

However, I thought I'd take the opportunity to mention physicsist/professorial salaries. Taking my extended family as a small sample, people have little idea what a professor makes. Some people seem to think I should be well-off, and others offer to lend me money! You can take a look at some averages over at the CHE, but there's a fair amount of spread. I've seen advertised starting salaries at podunk, rural colleges in the mid-$40Ks, and I've seen senior salaries top $120K. And apparently some fields get paid lots more, but in physics, I'd hazard that the bulk of us make between $50K and $90K (that's not including any summer salary).

Update: No PTI watchers out there? $75K plus bonuses. Not sure what I make of it. I wouldn't want to risk my life to change tires and fill gas, but I'm sure lots of people would love to be so close to the action.

August is like Sunday

It's August which means we're at the tail end of summer. Next month school starts. Reminds me of Sunday with the "oh boy, another week of school coming." As a researcher with a nonvanishing teaching load, there's always a balance one seeks in terms of effort in teaching versus research. This is well exemplified by when you decide to start preparing for the Fall classes. Mark Trodden has already started, but I know the earlier I start the less efficient I'll be. And so I wait.

But I ran across the following that I'll have to remember to check out:

when I start getting ready.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

More links

  • Looks like U. Chicago has begun the process of finding Sean's replacement. I would think you'd have to be pretty confident to go in there expecting tenure.

  • I wonder what history will ultimately say about so many things related to 9/11, and it would seem the released tapes concerning United 93 will help unravel some of these.

  • Here's a neat toy that would probably make for a good gift for a kid. I had seen mention of it once somewhere and had meant to get for someone. Never did, and saw it again today on Gizmodo.

  • The NYT (free reg. reqd.) has an article up about a photographic post-processing technique I hadn't heard about: high dynamic range photography. You take a series of photographs with a wide range of exposures which are (as close as possible) otherwise identical. The software then combines these so that the brightest and darkest spots are similarly captured. Here's an example.

  • I am a bit dumbfounded by Lubos's commentary about some rich guy named Jeffrey Epstein involved with some female minors. I've got no idea if this guy is guilty or not but the Crimson article reports

    According to a police report, the Palm Beach Police Department believes it has probable cause to charge Epstein with four counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and of lewd and lascivious molestation.

    What does Lubos think? He seems to think the guy should get off because the whole prostitution must have been a misunderstanding common among the billionarie-set and regular folk:

    The kids and others who have had some kind of contact with various billionaires almost always think of possible ways to get a lot of money from their partners. The billionaire always thinks that every single act is consensual and supported by mutual feelings and permanent confidentiality - except that the non-billionaire frequently reveals that everything has been a theater.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding Lubos, but is he saying that the kids faked interest in this guy, had consensual relations, all with the intent of getting some money? Surely he has a problem with an adult having relations with young minors (if that's what happened) whether or not they get paid?

    Update1: Lubos has added a clarification about his position, and thankfully does want protection for minors:

    ...let me make it clear that I am absolutely supporting important laws protecting children from sex and from other activities for which the children are not ready.

    Update2: Peter Woit (see the comments as well) and Tommaso Dorigo also discuss this episode.

Who would want to major in Business?

I've been meaning to comment on the fact that so many of the youngin's I know going off to college these last few years have gone off to college to major in, of all things, "business." Many of these same people have shown lots of ability in actual fields of study, but then they seemingly abandon all reason and, I'm guessing here, go for the money and/or supposed job stability.

I'm pleased that Uncertain Principles echoes this disappointment:

I also can't help wondering how useful a generic degree in "Business" could really be, compared to, you know, actually knowing how to do some particular thing, and then learning management skills to complement the knowledge of an actual specific business.

I'll enter my curmudgeon mode here:
College is about getting an education, not a job. If you want training for a job, go to vocational school, or a vocational program at a community college, or perhaps an apprenticeship. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's great. Not everyone is meant to go to college. The fact that so many default to going to college appears to have diminished what a college degree is all about.

Poor astronomy security

Apparently 3,000 students at California Polytechnic State University are endanger of having their social security numbers used for identity theft. These stories aren't uncommon, but then I read:

The students whose information was exposed all took physics and astronomy courses under John Mottman, a professor at the university

So what, did he enter their SSNs along with their name in a grade spreadsheet? That seems overkill. Maybe if his classes are huge, something like this becomes necessary?

It had crossed my mind that giving professors listings of student names, addresses, and SSNs probably wasn't the best of ideas, not just because someone might lose the list off SSNs. I'm not so cynical to suspect nefariousness so widespread, but there are just so many profs, adjuncts, instructors, etc, that something bad was bound to happen. And it's so unnecessary. The good news is that it seems all schools are moving away from using the SSN as identification.