27 July 2005

Blogs as a tool for research

Following up on my recent post about the usefulness of blogs, here is a long discussion about possibly using blogs as a forum for scientific research ideas.

26 July 2005

Two good reads: A Prayer for Owen Meany and Blink

I recently found a couple good books in my local Barnes and Nobles.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel about faith and the meaning of life and lack thereof, set during the Vietnam War Era. I've never read anything by John Irving before, but apparently he is quite a famous author worldwide (incidentally more popular in Europe than here in the United States). Irving has been called a Dickensian author and rightly so. His characters are larger-than-life and well-developed. Irving uses language cleverly and grabs the reader. He also makes maximum use of the flashback to drive home his theme of faith; the events are mostly in chronological order, but they jump around a little.

The story is about an abnormally small boy named Owen Meany who grows up into a Christ-like figure. The narrator is Owen's best friend, who gradually becomes a "believer" in miracles. I found the first 3/4 of the book fun, but not striking. However, the ending was shocking and moving. It made me want to go back to the beginning and read the book over again. Overall, a very well-written story with a strong, moving message (no, I won't give it away).

Blink is a pop-psychology book, but well-written compared to others in the genre. The theme of the book is the split-second decision or judgment. Gladwell doesn't really have a coherent message, which makes the work feel more like a biography of split-second decisions. He says that sometimes quick decisions can be amazingly accurate or incredibly wrong, depending on the situation and the knowledge of the observer. The lack of a strong conclusion may be disappointing to some, but as a scientist, I was relieved to read a book that didn't make grand statements and I appreciated Gladwell's patience and throughness in covering all the nuances of his subject. Gladwell has a gift for researching vivid examples and writing eloquently. For once, I wasn't bored by a popular science book.

17 July 2005

What are blogs good for?

[I seem to be on a writing binge today.]

I still remember an email exchange I had with a former mentor of mine. He said that blogs were narcissistic and that most people (including him) didn't really have anything worth saying.

I was pretty mad at the time. I read blogs all the time. Is that a comment on me?

In the months since that email, I've lingered over this issue. I'll write up a few thoughts here.
  • Yes, most blogs are silly and narcissistic. I still remember the blog about raising a baby and the blogger posting pictures of the amount of breast milk they went through daily (complete with graphs.) A lot of blogs are diaries (and if you post that on the web, you are by definition a narcissist.) But then again, so is the majority of TV, books, and other media. Blogs are mostly a form of entertainment.
  • There are serious people who write blogs. I haven't read them, but I assume there are some interesting blogs about politics. Michael Nielsen writes my favorite science blog. Unfortunately, you have to either be really smart or have a lot of time to write anything meaningful.
  • Blogs can be a useful way of obtaining hard-to-find information. If you want to get a review of an obscure or just-released gadget, blogs are an excellent resource. I've also found many interesting links to articles in blogs. Plus, it's fun to see what "smart" people are reading.
  • Blogs can foster a sense of community. It cheers me up when I read about a fellow grad student struggling to finish her thesis. I guess it's a little sad if you're reading blogs to get a vicarious thrill, but maybe there are some people out there who are lonely and live in the middle of nowhere.

Most of my posts are of several forms: comments on other things people have written, links to things other people have written or created, explanation of an idea (my way of teaching myself), and my original thoughts (rarely). You can see a pattern here. This blog is mostly me writing to myself! It's like my personal scrapbook, so I don't publicize it. Hmm, maybe I am a little bit of a narcissist.

Bad physics jokes

Here is the link. I don't think I need to add more.

Tamar Schlick on women's issues in science

I'm a member of a women scientist group, made up of mostly biologists, some chemists, and me -- the lone physicist. The group recently hosted Professor Tamar Schlick of NYU for a discussion about women's issues in science. Schlick studies computational biology and holds a PhD in applied mathematics. The discussion was actually quite general and not really so much about women's issues.

One point I remember was about politics. There is a lot of politics in academia, but that's true of almost any job. Some departments cross-list female professors from other departments so they can claim to have more women professors. There might be the crazy department head who gives assistant professors the worst teaching assignments. And as an assistant professor, you can't say no to anyone senior until you get tenure.

There was also an interesting discussion about interdisciplinary science. While it's exciting to speculate about the possibilities for interdisciplinary work, it's quite difficult to organize the people and resources to make it happen. Being an outstanding interdisciplinary scientist is different from being an outstanding one-discipline scientist. You only have to be, say, the 90th percentile in several fields rather than the 99th percentile in one field.

I asked Prof. Schlick what she thought good mentoring was. She said that the best mentors give you advice about the big picture (which I assume is career related guidance and ideas about what research problems to pursue). Technical advice is easy to get; sometimes you can even buy it (e.g. software administrators).

In general, Prof. Schlick appeared to have a balanced view about the obstacles women face in academic science. I got the impression that there are obstacles, but you just have to deal with it and roll with the punches. There are definitely unique problems that women face, but we can have a rational discussion without resorting to the kind of hysterics raised by Nancy Hopkins (the MIT scientist who told reporters that she left Larry Summer's talk because she was feeling ill).

A new kind of sci-fi TV show

I used to be a die-hard sci-fi fan. I read Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, etc. and loved Star Trek and Babylon 5. However, I think, like many fans, I was turned off by the recent incarnations of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. It just got old. There were too many plot shortcuts (time travel was a real culprit) and too many non-humans who for some reason wanted to be human (what about diversity and happiness in being yourself?)

Sci-fi fell off my radar for a while, but just yesterday, I saw a New York Times Magazine feature about a genre-shaking sci-fi TV show called Battlestar Galactica. Despite the awful title, the show is apparently outstanding. I guess it has to be pretty good to make the New York Times, the default newspaper of high culture addicts.

I read a number of reviews and watched some trailers. The premise is very intriguing. Strip away all the high tech gadgetry and romance of sci-fi and focus on the story. This idea sounds much more like Frank Herbert's Dune or Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy where there was technology and weird stuff but it was merely the backdrop for an interesting story. The technology was interwoven naturally into the story, rather than overwhelming it (as in later Star Trek shows).

Battlestar Galactica takes this idea very seriously. The characters look like they're running a 21st century naval fleet which happens to be in space. They use phones and pencils. They dress and look like people we would see on the street today. There is advanced technology (for instance, androids), but it's pretty limited compared to Star Trek. I'm not sure if I would have went that far, but then this show is about breaking all our conceptions surrounding science fiction TV. The focus is on the characters and how they deal with the version of reality that they face.

If it works (I haven't seen the actual show yet), it sounds like a clever idea. A major problem with sci-fi and fantasy is that the writer can spend far too much time on constructing the alternate "world." The new technology that is introduced has be logically consistent and the author has to stop and explain why things are the way they are. [There are people who like this type of world-based sci-fi/fantasy, but I'm not one of them.] A way to keep the writing tighter and more focused on a particular issue is to only introduce significant technology (like DNA modification) -- stuff that really impacts the human condition.

Update your spyware detection software

I thought I was religious about keeping my computer clean. But I didn't realize that I needed to update my spyware detection software.

Today I downloaded the new versions of Ad-Aware (last version: 27 May 2005) and Spybot (last version: 1 June 2005). My previous software was about a year old and therefore wasn't catching a lot of new spyware.

A scan using both programs removed over 100 "problems," mostly tracking cookies.

13 July 2005

Washington, politics, and science

In my recent issue of the APS (American Physical Society) News, there was a nice op-ed piece called "Making the Case for University Research" written by Norman Augustine.

If you work in science and care about the state of your field, I would urge to read this article.

What I found most interesting was Augustine's claim that Washington politicians have a low regard for scientists especially ones that appear self-serving (when they ask for government funding). Reminds me a little of sitting next to an MIT alum on a plane and being told that people in industry view an MIT PhD as a negative asset. Fortunately he quit grad school and merely left MIT with a master's degree!

The right attitude

Over the past year, I've seen many articles written either by activist female scientists about the injustice women face in science and engineering or conservatives labelling these activists as whiny feminists who have an unbalanced perspective.

So it was a refreshing breeze when I read the following article in the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope that the women of my generation and younger will find science and engineering welcoming fields in which to pursue their dreams.

11 July 2005

Steve Jobs's commencement speech

Since I'm collecting commencement speeches, check out a nice one delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford's 2005 graduation.

People seem to really like it. I've gotten it from two folks already.

Introductory quantum computation text

If you're trying to learn about quantum computation for the first time (technical reading), here's a text by Riley Perry (via Michael Nielsen's blog).

09 July 2005

Link of the day: Art of Science

And you thought art had nothing to do with science. Check out the Princeton Art of Science Competition webpage for some mind-blowing pictures.

08 July 2005

What to do with loose change?

I switched to a wallet without a coin pocket so now I find that I have spare change lying around all the time. While this is sometimes useful for the soda machine, I'd like to put the change to better use.

Check out this article I found on the web for some advice.