28 April 2006

Ergonomic book holder: Atlas Ultra

I'm a fan of nice ergonomic stuff -- fun and useful for your long-term health. I have a cool Goldtouch keyboard and I have my eye on a Herman Miller Aeron chair (when I have enough money to justify the cost someday).

One thing I've noticed recently is that there is no ergonomic way to read a book if the book is lying on a horizontal surface (like a table). My sister suggested a book holder. A quick web search, several months ago, led me to the website of Atlas bookholders.

I now have two Atlas Ultra bookholders (in black). OK, I have expensive taste, but I really like them. They're very adjustable and they come with little metal rods which act as page stoppers.

Now I can read my books without crunching my neck and back. I'll avoid developing academic hunchback syndrome as illustrated in this comic.

24 April 2006

Brain cross-training

The BBC News had a recent article about the handheld video game Brain Age and other games like it.

It looks like a lot of fun and I might even buy an Nintendo DS Lite just to play Brain Age.

My sister brings up a good question. Those of us who work in the academy get a lot of brain "exercise," but maybe it's a good idea to cross-train. For example, maybe scientists and engineers should go to museums and look at art or read classic literature. What are the different "muscle groups" of the brain? Are there equivalents to arm, chest, leg, abdomen, and back muscle groups?

Can I count playing puzzle-solving video games like Prince of Persia and Paper Mario as part of my cross-training?

16 April 2006

Faculty candidate interviews

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up my service on a faculty search committee made up of half dozen graduate students. We interviewed six senior-level faculty candidates (there were more, but we missed a few). It was an interesting experience.

I was present at four of the interviews. So what did I learn? Having good social skills really makes you stand out. I suppose that physicists didn't get into their field because they were interested in people, but we certainly took note of candidates with particularly good people skills. By social skills, I mean shaking hands at the beginning/end of the interview, engaging the committee and talking about how your research relates to their research, remembering people's names, general enthusiasm and dynamicism. Personality certainly makes an enormous role in a graduate student's choice of advisor. This skill set doesn't seem much different than the business world.

I think it also helps to give concise but meaningful answers to questions. Going on and on about your research forever is not a good idea. Straying from relevant topics like research, teaching, university environment, etc. is not good either. I also think it's a bad idea to speculate about working on projects that haven't been funded yet.

I noticed that most of the candidates didn't have much to say about teaching. I guess that's probably because I work at a big research university. I'm not sure how much the faculty at my university care, but I would have liked to hear more innovative ideas about teaching. Making up something like "oh, it would be neat to teach pre-meds about mechanics of the skeleton in a lab class" doesn't sound very impressive.

Our committee liked it when candidates were up front and honest, especially about why they wanted to work at our university. Saying you want tenure or to work on a particular project is much more compelling than saying you want to work at a university with better funding and better students. You have to sound like you really want this job!

All the candidates were very good at explaining their research at a level that graduate students could understand. I guess that can be expected since they already got one job, being seniorish people.

It would be interesting to see how interviews of junior-level faculty candidates differ.

I hope I remember all this when I go interviewing...

Discovering podcasts

Podcasts have been popular for a while (the last year or so), but I had yet to give them a try myself.

I find that hobbies are much more satisfying if you do them consistently. They become a kind of familiar ritual and you can build upon what you've learned. I'd rather follow one hockey team then be superficially up-to-date on baseball, basketball, football, etc.

So of course, the first thing I had to do was find some podcast aggregation software (very similar to RSS readers). During my cursory experiment, I tried Odeo.com and the open-source Juice (formerly known as iPodder). Odeo is a web-based podcasting aggregator (the analogue of Bloglines). It seemed kind of slow, so I opted for Juice. The Juice software is installed directly on your computer (Linux, Mac and Windows are supported) and it downloads podcasts onto your hard drive, which seems more efficient since a podcast can be in excess of 10 MB. The neat thing is that it automates the downloading process so all you have to do is "subscribe" to some podcast feeds and whenever they post new podcasts, these will automatically be downloaded to your computer where you can watch them at your leisure.

Here are some podcast feeds I've been trying:

I like the idea of listening to radio/podcasts. It's a good way to practice focusing on one thing and listening carefully. The computer makes me too much of a distracted, multi-tasking, visual-oriented person.

12 April 2006

All-nighter advice and being hard-core

I found the following article about "how to pull an all-nighter" via Lifehacker.com. The author, Christian Montoya, says he has a lot of experience with this from being an electrical engineering major at Cornell.

Ah yes, I, too, pulled some all-nighters as an undergraduate. I pulled most of my all-nighters during my freshman year when I was adjusting to a new school and environment. However, after that, most of my all-nighters were for literature essays that I wrote at the last minute. I like Christian's point about "really wanting" that all-nighter. The occasional, well-done all-nighter can be a satisfying experience (says I). It's kind of like climbing Mt. Everest. You do it because you want to prove you can. I also get a nice adrenaline rush after turning in my assignment or completing whatever task I was cramming for (provided that I followed Christian's tips). I remember staying at lab until midnight or getting into work at 6 am (usually with the stereo cranked up). Sometimes the pride (maybe self-delusion) you get from being the last person or first person at work is a great motivator. Another good reason to pull an all-nighter is creative inspiration. That great idea you have at 3 am will probably be lost if you go to sleep now.

Before anyone concludes that I'm insane, I would like to say in my defense that I don't pull too many all-nighters. But sometimes going on a hard core burst can be uplifting. It's sort of like going to the gym; you feel like you did something.

11 April 2006

Link of the day: Cabspotting

Social science and art comes together in an Exploratorium project to track cabs in San Francisco using GPS.

Actually, physicists also study traffic patterns using statistical mechanics methods.

09 April 2006

Cool hack: Caltech cannon stolen

MIT students stole a cannon from a Caltech dorm and put a brass rat on it. Awesome hack!

08 April 2006

Managing playtime

I'm continuing to tinker with my schedule so I can "play" at the optimal times. One idea I have is to reserve Friday night for video games. I can play all the video games I want from 5 pm until I go to bed. Video gaming is a binge activity, so it doesn't seem to make sense to play 1 hour a day for 5 days. I'd rather play 4 hours in one sitting.

I'm also thinking about when to do my internet reading. I was thinking that after lunch would be good because I tend to be sleepy after lunch. And before bed is good, too. I like the idea of reading before going to bed, but I don't want to be reading anything important. I can read the news half-asleep and not feel bad about it the next day.

Link of the day: Build your own kite

Too bad it was raining today, otherwise I could have built a kite...

07 April 2006

Time management

A very good point made in 43Folders.com is that you should "honor thy energy."

Time management isn't just about checking off a bunch of items on a to-do list. You want to do things at the optimal time. For example, I read the news for an hour in the morning. But really it might be better to save that for the evening when I'm tired. I could better use that morning time to do hard work. Same goes for down time. What do you do at night before bedtime? I used to play video games, but I think that's a bad idea since they're very stimulating.

Which leads to another question: how do you figure out when to play and when to work? If you goofed off all the time, you would lose your job. If you worked all the time, you would become a nasty grouch. It's hard to flip the switch from work to play and vice versa. There's a significant amount of energy needed to switch states (at least from play to work) and a time lag, too. [Now I make people sound like circuits.]

I'm trying to figure out how to efficiently work and play. I like RSS readers because I only subscribe to a certain number of feeds and I'm pretty good about only reading what's on my RSS reader. I would call that efficient playing. How about working? I find it hard to work all day long without a break. But then my breaks are too long. Well, I have worked all day (i.e. stayed put in my office), but then I feel so tired when I go home that I don't manage to get tedious, but important things done (e.g. cleaning my room, going through email).

I'm still working on it and when I get closer to an optimal situation, I'll write back.

05 April 2006

ADD in geeks

Here's an article about health problems in the geek population that I found via Lifehacker.com.

I like the part about ADD. I do feel like ever since I've started using computers a lot that I have a hard time listening. It's hard for me to follow audio arguments and sometimes I assume the speaker said something completely different from what he/she actually said. I'm good at visual information processing since I've been reading since I was 6 years old. Using computers reinforces this. In fact, I'd rather read the New York Times online than listen to the 6 o'clock news. TV/radio news is "too slow."

But as the author of the article says, it should be possible to train yourself to listen. Maybe I should practice listening to audio books or NPR broadcasts.

Link of the day: Home-made USB charger

This idea looks pretty cool.

Michael Peskin

Today, Michael Peskin, a SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) particle theorist, gave a very nice introduction to dark matter. He is also the famous co-author of the quantum field theory text Peskin and Schroeder.

I've been told that Peskin is an encyclopedia of physics. The following blog entry seems to confirm this rumor.

Sounds like a cool guy. I like physicists who give you a hard time.

01 April 2006

KVM switches

A neat idea I found about today in Lifehacker.com: KVM switches. KVM means "Keyboard Video Mouse". It's a way you can control multiple computers with a single keyboard, monitor, and mouse.

If you use multiple computers, it's a good way to save money, especially if you have fancy 20"+ LCD monitor.