31 May 2006

Link of the day: Coccinella

My friend uses Coccinella to collaborate long-distance on theory projects. He showed it to me on his Mac. The program acts like a digital whiteboard. If you buy a pen tablet, you can write equations and draw figures on an "electronic" whiteboard that your friend can see on his/her side of the internet. Combined with talking over phone/internet, it's almost as good as an in-person meeting.

Finance: Divide up big payments

My rent is due in really big chunks (approximately 3 a year). So I always panic when payment time comes because I have to make sure I have enough money in my bank account.

A solution around this situation is to schedule (say monthly) payments to your savings account. If you have to pay $12000 in rent annually, put $1000 in your account per month. Then you won't have to worry. Better yet, set it up the deposits to happen automatically. Thanks for the tip from Lifehacker.

Tech: Keurig coffee maker

On a spurt of inspiration (maybe from all those caffeine guzzling theorists I know), I bought a single serve coffee machine. It's a Keurig B40 Elite model.

It is really nice. All you have to do is put some water in it. Then turn the machine on and it will take about 30 seconds to heat the water. Insert a "K-cup" (a pod containing ground coffee) into the machine and press the brew button. It takes just 10 seconds from there for the machine to make a cup of coffee for you! The serving size of a "cup" is 7 oz -- just right for me.

Whether or not the Keurig will turn out to be cost effective, I'm not sure. But I enjoyed being able to wake up on a Saturday and grab a cup of coffee right away.

28 May 2006

Kinkless GTD

Merlin Mann mentions a neat software add-on called Kinkless GTD (version .83). I don't have a Mac, but it looks really cool. Check out the screencast.

Link of the day: Lab management

My sister sent me a very nice link about "lab management." The materials were developed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Check out the huge "practical guide to scientific management for postdocs and new faculty" and the video "Starting a Research Group in 1978" featuring Nobel laureate biochemist Thomas Cech.

27 May 2006

Link of the day: Visualizing websites as graphs

Here's an interesting Java applet that generates a graph to show the nested structure of a webpage. A explanation of the method is here.

If you run the applet on this site, there is one central node (probably the blog entry section) with lots of orange, green, and blue dots as is typical with a mostly text based site. I haven't yet figured out what is that offshoot node with the ball of orange dots around it (the lyrics of "Blow Gabriel Blow" with many line breaks?)

26 May 2006

Teaching: Chemistry problems website

My sister also sent me a link to a problems website run by the Harvard Chemistry and Chemical Biology Departments.

A databank of good and interesting problems is a great idea. (I don't know much about chemistry, but my sister claims that these are good problems.) Just as it is hard to find good textbooks, it is difficult to find good problems -- they should do this for every quantitative subject. There is the additional problem of cheating, but that's another topic...

Aside #1: I think that most students can tell the difference between the professor who is giving them random problems from the book and the professor who genuinely wants them to learn and only assigns problems that he/she would actually be willing to do. If students actually enjoy doing the problems (at least after solving them) and the problems tie in well with the course, then you have a successful class.

Aside #2: I used to think that my teachers brilliantly came up with their own problems, but I quickly learned that. For example, one of my best undergrad classes was the second and third semester of the quantum mechanics sequence. It turns out that one heroic and brilliant professor developed all the course materials and they get used over and over again (though sometimes people add a little something new). As my high school English teacher told me, the best teachers "steal."

Career: Academic skills

My sister sent me a link to a class that teaches "Graduate Research Methods In Psychology". I like how it is organized by a senior graduate student.

It would be nice if we had something like that for our physics department. Our department sponsors graduate student pizza lunch seminars and that seems like an ideal venue for "skill" talks. We could have talks on topics such as speaking, writing, ethics in science, creativity, life hacks (my personal favorite), etc.

25 May 2006

Tech: Wacom tablet

If you don't like the mouse, an alternative is the Wacom tablet. I'd like to try one someday.

24 May 2006

Link of the day: Collection of physics limericks

You might enjoy some physics limericks.

I particularly liked this poem:

The Condensed Story of Miss Farad
by A. P. French

Miss Farad was pretty and sensual
And charged to a reckless potential;
But a rascal named Ohm
Conducted her home--
Her decline was, alas, exponential.

Link of the day: Make the computer useful, not easier to use

I enjoyed this editorial article from OSNews. Now that our population getting more computer literate, it should be legitmate to scale back on the "user-friendliness" designs which may look nice to novices but are in fact counter-productive for heavy computer users. The opinions of the author seem right on.

23 May 2006

Surfing on standing waves in Germany

My friend told me about a place in Germany where supposedly two rivers meet and form standing waves. From a cursory search, I think he meant the Eisbach River. Apparently, the waves are perfect for surfing.

Lyrics: "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" by Cole Porter

I love Cole Porter. His lyrics are so playful and exuberant.

From Anything Goes
Do you hear that playing?
Yes we hear the playing,
Do you know who's playing?
No, who is that playing?
Why it's Gabriel, Gabriel playing,
Gabriel Gabriel saying,
"Will you be ready to go when I blow my horn?"

Oh blow, Gabriel, blow,
Go on and blow Gabriel blow
I've been a sinner, I've been a scamp,
But now I'm willin' to trim my lamp,
So Blow, Gabriel, blow

I was low, Gabriel, low,
Mighty low, Gabriel, low,
But now since I have seen the light,
I'm good by day and I'm good by night,
So blow, Gabriel, blow,

Once I was headed for hell,
Once I was headed for hell,
But when I got to Satan's door,
I heard you blowin' on your horn once more
So I said, "Satan, farewell"
Now your all ready to fly
Yes to fly higher and higher and higher
Cause' you got through the brimstone,
And you've been through the fire
And you purged your soul, and your heart too
So climb up the mountain top and start to

Blow, Gabriel, blow,
Go on and blow, Gabriel, blow
I was enjoying your happy band,
That played all day in the promised land
So blow, Gabriel, blow,

Blow, Gabriel, blow,
Blow, Gabriel, blow,
Blow, Gabriel, blow,
I want to join your happy band,
To play all day in the promised land
So blow, Gabriel, blow.
Blow, Gabriel, blow!

22 May 2006

Link of the day: Creativity techniques

Lifehacker mentions an interesting collection of creativity techniques.

21 May 2006

Plan your free time

Everyone knows about planning your work, but what about free time? I've recently realized that it is just as important to plan your free time. Usually, when I take a day off with no plan, I end up doing short-attention span activities like surfing the web, playing video games, etc. Not that it's bad to do that once in a while, but I don't think it's very rewarding in the long run. I've decided to schedule time to plan my free time and do longer-term activities like reading a book, learning a new subject, going on a hike, exploring town, etc.

Career: Talk to people about your ideas

Talking to people about your ideas is not a new concept, but it's worth emphasizing. If you want to gain confidence and make progress with intellectual activity, you have to talk to other people about it.

I used to work in a lab with a postdoc. I was a master's student so I barely knew anything. Yet the postdoc would constantly bounce ideas off me. I quickly realized that he was just using me to talk about his ideas. Not that I minded; I was rather flattered.

Talking to other people is especially important for theoreticians since they get very little feedback, unlike experimentalists who have to work with the reality of nature. You can spend weeks fiddling with a model, but if your apparatus blows up, you know something's wrong right away.

Alternatively, if you're embarassed/shy about your ideas, you can start off by talking to yourself in a blog, like me.

Steve Pavlina on personal growth

I've found a new favorite personal productivity website along with 43Folders and Lifehacker. It's run by Steve Pavlina who is self-employed in the business of personal growth.

Here are some articles I enjoyed (progressing from practical to spiritual): "Self-Discipline", "Overcoming Procrastination", "Triple Your Personal Productivity", "Environmental Reinforcement of Your Goals", "Are Your Friends An Elevator Or A Cage?", "Living Your Values", "Self Acceptance vs. Personal Growth", "The Meaning of Life"

Most of the material wasn't news to me. I had either figured it out myself or read about it somewhere. I did learn a few interesting ideas:
  • Compile a values list.
  • Imagine all the different lives you could have.
  • What is your true purpose?
  • Separate your identity from your growth. (e.g. In my case, I should avoid putting all my identity and self-esteem on being a physicist)
  • Use will power in short, powerful bursts when you need to make major changes. Then use habit/routine to automate it so you don't have to use much willpower. Save your will power for important stuff since it is exhausting to use it all the time. (I once used my will power continuously to get through a very difficult, estended period and ended up burning out shortly afterwards.)

Tech: LyX text editor

Do you like LaTeX's beautiful output but hate its nasty scripting syntax? Well, maybe LyX is the software for you. It tries to give the user-friendliness of WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") editors like Microsoft Word but keep the power and uniform elegance of LaTeX. The authors of LyX call their philosophy WYSIWYM ("What You See Is What You Mean"). Check out a review of the program here. Available for Mac, UNIX/Linux, and Windows.

I haven't tried it since I'm old fashioned (I still code webpages by typing the HTML tags.)

Title IX in science?

Many scientists (both men and women) have proposed the idea of enforcing Title IX in academia. Here is an article from the perspective of a chemist. The idea is to replicate the success of Title IX in high school and college sports.

It's a good idea in principle, but I see some problems. In particular, athletic teams have a very high turnover rate and there isn't much at stake. Unless you have a nationally ranked basketball or football team, athletic teams are not a big part of the university budget. In contrast, university faculty jobs are lifetime tenured positions. For a Title IX plan to work, I think we would have to give up the tenure system. If you have an all-male math department, what are you supposed to do? Hire women for the next thirty years? Hire adjunct women professors?

Competition in the academy

The fight for top 10 level prestige among US universities seems to intensifying. Columbia went on a hiring frenzy to boost their economics department and NYU has been on a hiring binge as well. I also found a Boston Globe magazine article about star professors and poaching in academia.

I think it is all a part of growing big business nature of American universities. Every elite member of society has to go to college, and they want to go to places like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, etc.

My hope is that if talent will be spread out more evenly among universities, hopefully it will dilute the notion that you must go to a brand-name university to be successful.

19 May 2006

Some of my GTD implementations

First, I try to write down personal productivity ideas in a moleskine. It's color coded so that I can identify different categories quickly.

I also have a shoebox cover that I use as a tray for stuff I should take with me when I leave home.

Finally, I have a checklist for things I should be doing daily. These range from my work to health issues (e.g. going to the gym, eating fruit). I also record the fun things I do. If I see that I've spent my last week's free time on video games, I might try to do something different the next week.

18 May 2006

Dopp wallet

Following the discussions about minimalist wallets on 43 Folders and Lifehacker, I decided to get a Dopp Regatta 88 Series Front Getaway Pocket Wallet.

It's my favorite wallet so far. It has just enough capacity (3 credit card pockets, one other pocket, and an ID window), but it is still a very elegant wallet (all leather). The only downside is that I have to pull all the bills from the currency section to get the particular bill I want.

There are more minimalist wallets like the All-Ett. I don't like the All-Ett because it looks cheap (made out of sail-cloth) and it doesn't have any convenient easy-access card slots. It is, however, much thinner than the Dopp wallet.

If I was really hard-core, I could make a duct-tape wallet, but I think I'll stick with my leather Dopp.

17 May 2006

Physics: Haidinger's brush

This morning, my advisor told me about an optical phenomenon called Haidinger's brush. It looks like a horizontal yellow dumbbell crossed with a vertical blue dumbbell. I'm still trying to see it.

Career: Jobs in industry for quantum computer scientists

I thought there weren't any jobs for theoretical physicists outside of academia. But maybe I could go work for DWave Systems, a privately financed company started from the University of British Columbia. They just secured $14 million of second round funding.

16 May 2006

Developing new habits

Here's a great article about how to establish long-term habits. Also related is Steven Pavlina's 30 Days to Success article.

Waking up early leads to success

According to this Fortune article, one of the most common traits among successful people is that they wake up early. I'm trying to move my schedule up a bit now to see if that works.

Life hack: Carrying an electronic encyclopedia

Since we depend on using the internet to look up references, many have foreseen a future where we carry around Wikipedia, etc. on small flash or hard drive and take it with us when we don't have internet access (or if it's expensive).

In fact, one physicist has already downloaded the contents of hep-th from the arXiV and made it available as an 8 GB file.

Life hack: Organizing .pdfs of publications

My sister and I have been having a discussion about the best way to organize your electronic files, in particular .pdfs of publications.

I suggested using long filenames (which I learned from my master's thesis advisor). For example, the famous superconductivity article

J. Bardeen, L.N. Cooper, and J.R. Schrieffer, "Theory of Superconductivity," Phys. Rev. 108, 1175-1204 (1957)

could be saved as


"SC" is a category label for superconductivity. Then you could use UNIX commands like grep to search for the words in the filename.

My sister didn't like that idea, so she asked around and her friend suggested using JabRef. I haven't tried it out, but apparently it's a Java based (thus platform independent) program that can understand LaTeX's BibTeX format. The screenshots look pretty good. You can search by author, title, etc. and see the abstracts in a subpanel below the listings of your collected publications.

If you're paranoid like me and worry about depending on any software more advanced than emacs, you could implement both systems!

11 May 2006

Hockey: What I learned from watching the Stanley Cup playoffs

Unfortunately, the Sharks lost to the Edmonton Oilers in triple overtime last night. At least, I learned a lot. I've decided to record some of the (rudimentary) concepts I've observed while watching the playoffs.

Offense: Strong forechecks can be a good way to keep pressure up. Dump the puck into the attacking zone and tie up the defenseman who is getting the puck -- hopefully your offensive partner will pick up the loose puck. Change up the tempo of the game by taking your time behind the net. Follow up all your shots on net. Try a drop pass.

Defense: If you are under pressure from a forecheck yourself, find the open person and break out. When defending against an offensive rush, plug up the middle and force the offense to go up the boards. Box out the forwards and prevent them from screening your goalie.

Goal: Strong positioning is a major aspect of good goaltending.

Psychology: Don't have a bad first period. If the first period is going badly, hang in there and come back for a better second period.

Linux migration links

While on a break from work, I found some really good articles about how to make the switch to Linux: "Boot out Microsoft, boot up linux" and "Everything you wanted to know about Linux." I also found out about CrossOver Office, an application that allows you to run some Windows software directly in Linux. Finally, an interesting article about a Linux alternative: BSD.

09 May 2006

The most amazing hockey play ever

Maybe I'm a bit biased since I'm a San Jose Sharks fan, but you have to check out this video clip of last night's playoff game (Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers)

At the beginning of the clip, the Sharks are on the penalty kill with a 2 man disadvantage (5 on 3). The Oilers play keepaway, two Sharks defenders break their sticks, and finally a Shark throws himself on the ice, knocking the puck out of the zone with his glove. When I watched this scene on TV last night, I could not believe my eyes.

Tech: Motion LE 1600 Tablet PC

Being the organizational freak that I am, it would be wonderful to take notes pen-and-paper style (simple, robust) and be able to refer to those notes electronically (the power of search!) Ideally, you would have software that reads your handwriting and converts it to electronic format (even mathematical symbols). I guess an alternative is to LaTeX your notes at the speed of light, but I don't have enough talent and attention to do that.

One neat tool out there is the Tablet PC. I like the idea of a slate tablet (as opposed to a so-called "convertible" tablet that tries to be both an ultraportable laptop and a tablet). It would be nice to try the Motion LE 1600. If only it wasn't $2000.

Make your office reflect who you want to be

It was a pleasant surprise to spot these links from a Lifehacker post today: Set up your workspace and Creating a productive workspace. All good advice about how to think about creating an ideal work environment.

A few weeks ago, I also did a small office makeover. I decided I wanted to be more serious so I removed the cartoon poster from my wall. I cleared everything off my desk except what I was using for my current project. A few months ago, I also added a few plants. It's nice to have something to take care of (besides spyware on computers).

I also like the idea of working in different positions. I've tried sitting on top of my desk and propping my back against the wall with a cushion. I also put my book on a book holder and put the holder on top of a file cabinet so I can read standing up. Sometimes it's just good to do something slightly different; it feels refreshing.

Link of the day: PBS Nerd TV

Via Lifehacker: Nerd TV. It's a show where they interview nerds, in particular famous people from the computer/electronic industry.

08 May 2006

Bedside capture device

I use a spiral top notebook with a mini-Sharpie and a keychain white LED tied to the spiral.

Another possibility is a voice recorder.

07 May 2006

Practice makes perfect

If you weren't convinced that hard work pays off, check out this New York Times magazine article.

Why grad school rocks

Since my last post about grad school was depressing, I thought I would write a counterpoint post. Here are some reasons why grad school rocks.
  • You get to spend all your time thinking about one project (once you finishing classes and TA requirements).
  • You get paid to learn about cool stuff.
  • You don't have any administrative responsibilites (like your poor advisor). Well, maybe the occasional hapless undergraduate research student to supervise.
  • You get to travel to nice places for conferences.
  • You are surrounded by lots of smart, educated people who are your age.
  • You have the most flexible work schedule. (Hmm, how about ditching that colloquium to run to the hockey store?) The downside is that your parents expect you to come home for vacation all the time.
  • Another excuse to continue living in that haven we call school.
  • More opportunities to dabble in all your esoteric hobbies: art, history, literature, juggling, climbing, politics, music, etc.
  • Reasons why it's better to be a grad student than a postdoc: Your advisor cuts you a lot more slack since you're not officially certified (no PhD yet); there is usually a much larger grad school community than postdoc community; you don't have to worry about getting a real job yet; you're still of sufficiently low status to joke around with your professors and not worry about the consequences.

Drink more water

Buy a 32 oz Nalgene bottle. Choose a wide mouth (so you can really gulp that water down) and an outrageous color (so that you notice the bottle). Place the bottle within your field of vision while you work.

Also, a side benefit of drinking a lot of water is that you have to get up to use the bathroom and refill the bottle -- providing a natural break from sitting still.

Staying awake

It's 2:30 pm in the office and I'm falling asleep. How to wake up?
  • Answer a few quick emails.
  • Call my sister.
  • Check Bloglines and read a few news updates.
  • Exercise, e.g. do dips or pushups, run up stairs.
  • Play games (if no one is around) like garbage can basketball, stick handling with a hockey stick, target practice with paper cups, etc.
  • Drink water.
  • Play music. If no one is around, sing. (Thanks to my sister for reminding about this favorite.)
  • Annoy one of my fellow graduate students.

I guess this is the best I can think of now (besides gulping caffeine).

Index card + Ion Pen

Over on 43Folders, Merlin Mann likes to talk about the hipster PDA.

I'm even more minimalist. I like to keep one index card (folded in half) and a Cross Ion Pen in my front pocket. (I'm not the only fan of the Cross ion pen!)

It's pretty handy. When I'm bored during a seminar, I can jot down notes on good and bad speaking skills. Or I can plan my next out-of-town trip. Or jot down grocery lists, etc.

06 May 2006

Change -> E-certificate

If you have spare change, you can take it to your local Coinstar machine. You can get a cash voucher for an 8% fee or better yet, an electronic gift certificate to a store like Amazon.com, iTunes, Starbucks, etc. I'm definitely going for the Amazon certificate next time!

Worker's high

In the last year, I've been under the weather a lot. A cold here, an injured knee there, feeling tired, etc. I don't remember feeling sick so often in my undergraduate years.

Am I getting old or unlucky? Sometimes I wonder if there is psychology at work. When you're working to make deadline after deadline in college, there isn't time to think about being tired or sick. You just go. In grad school, all of sudden you have all this time to think. Much of this is good: I now exercise at least every other day, I read the world news, etc. But I also have more time to sit around and say, "I feel tired, do I really have to work?"

I guess what I want is a balance between switching your brain off and being mindful of everything around you.

03 May 2006

Grad school guide links

My sister found some nice links about grad school survival.

This site gives a quick run-down of good habits in grad school.

Here is an entire article about the subject. It was published in the ACM student magazine.

Why grad school sucks

I had a discussion with a good friend of mine about why grad school is depressing. I thought I would summarize some of our thoughts.

Graduate school is very isolating. You are often the only one thinking about your project (and occasionally your advisor). The other grad students are stressed out and worried about their own problems, so they are sometimes not very friendly. You are working on a very narrow topic so no one outside your department has any idea what you're talking about. Sometimes even the fellow grad students in your department aren't interested in your research. I still remember running into some grad students and saying, "Hey, today's colloquium is on your research. Are you going?" They just gave me a blank look and said, "No."

Another aspect to your isolation is that your main interaction is with computers, books, and equipment -- not people. Also, the academy tends to have a monkish culture. Even when there are those rare opportunities for casual socializing, professors and students don't really jump on them. I've been organizing a happy hour for my department and I can see the interest dwindling after doing it for a year.

Of course, I haven't even mentioned the stress of qualifying exams, classes, and not knowing what you're doing. I'm also assuming that you're paid reasonably well. I can't even imagine what it's like to be a humanities grad student in New York City. How do those people even pay the rent??

Then there is the problem of always feeling like a failure. After you finish exams and classes, there is no one to tell you "Good job!" You don't get the good feeling of turning in a problem set every week or mastering a class. Progress in grad school is very slow, on the time scale of years, and there is very little feedback. You spend a lot of time trying to learn about your field which is impossible because there are at least a hundred years of research ahead of you. You have no idea what is important. Research is very slow; you can spend weeks on a problem and not get anywhere. You might even find that the problem isn't worth doing at that point. When something works, you quickly solve the problem and move on, so the feeling of success is fleeting.

There are no obvious short-term goals. It's not like medical school where you pass a bunch of classes and tests and then boom you're a doctor. In grad school, all you know is that you're supposed to be keeping your eye on that nebulous, faraway fruit: the PhD diploma.

All of this adds up to a feeling of depression even if you're at a great school, not starving, and have a fantastic advisor.

If you'd like a more light-hearted perspective of suffering in grad school, take a look at the PhD Comics.

I don't want to end this post on a depressing note. I think there are solutions and I hope to come up with some in future posts. The best thing is that grad school is temporary. You will graduate someday. There is (hopefully) a payoff at the end of all this hard work. Just like a minor leaguer working his way to the major leagues, just like the music conservatory student training to become a solo performer -- we have to pay our dues.

Learning the ropes

One of the big hurdles in graduate school is figuring out what the heck is going on in your field.

My sister had the excellent idea of starting a question blog. The idea is to record all your questions in a blog, sort them by category, and update the entries when you have an answer.

Another idea I have is to start your own dictionary. So everytime you come across some new jargon you don't understand, record it and figure out a good definition (something that you understand). Someday, you'll have your own personal technical dictionary. I'm not sure what is the best way to do this: a wiki, a blog, a text file, a LaTeX file?

Career category

I'm starting a new career category in my posts. It will cover topics like job hunting, becoming a more skilled researcher, etc.

For this inaugural post, I will say that it is helpful to think ahead. So if you're an undergraduate, start acting like a graduate student. Start asking pro-active questions and tying together seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge. Similarly, If you're a graduate student, start acting like a postdoc. Start thinking of your own research ideas. If you're a postdoc, start thinking like a professor. It will make the transition much easier.

Of course, if all else fails, maybe you can just marry a superstar professor and rely on nepotism.