30 September 2006

Link of the day: Degree of difficulty

I enjoyed reading a post called Degree of Difficulty" on Malcolm Gladwell's blog this morning.

I've caught myself sometimes thinking, "Heck, that job doesn't seem too hard. I bet I could learn how to do it well in a month." If the work is partially related to things I've done before (organization, technical, etc.), that seems legitimate. But there are aspects of life I have very little experience. For instance, I would be a horrible psychologist without a lot of practice. At one time, I thought, "Hey, all you have to do is sit there and listen." But you have to get into another person's head, which seems nearly impossible if there is no cultural/background overlap between the two of you.

Being an expert psychologist, wood carver, children's book writer, circuit designer, violinist, surgeon, theoretical physicist -- all those things are an art. It takes a long time to understand the subtleties, but that's what makes it fun. A mentor of mine from college says that he finds theoretical physics a bit impersonal, but he keeps do it because he loves the "craft."

The craft is what made me consider a career in the academy. As a professor, you have the challenge of research, of course. But there is also the challenge of teaching to students who don't know anything about your subject and the challenge of mentoring students to become critical thinkers and possibly future professors and scientists. So even if you master one area (say teaching), you can still work on research or mentoring. Perhaps the more realistic scenario is that you discover you suck at research and decide to hone your skills in teaching instead. I haven't even covered the area of administration. You could also hone your craft in leadership: running a happy, effective research group, hiring faculty, being chairman of the department, etc. The university is a rich, diverse, vibrant place and there are immense opportunities for changing your career focus.

21 September 2006

Digital audio recorder: Roland Edirol R-09

Digial audio recorders were featured today in the New York Times technology section. One exciting product is the Roland Edirol R-09. Unlike voice recorders, the Edirol samples at a much higher rate (44 kHz) and so can record music. The Edirol has a built-in stereo microphone. It also uses AA batteries and 2 GB SD cards, which is great if you are doing a marathon-recording session. One promising application is to record snippets of unconventional music (e.g. folk music in a remote country), particularly if you're a music historian or a composer. To learn more about this recorder, check out the review roundup here.

Editing TeX in text editors

I recently wrote a LaTeX document with the help of AUCTeX. This add-on software to Emacs allows the user to create macros for TeX commands and compile TeX code right inside the Emacs window. If you're not an Emacs user, there is also Vim-LaTeX for vim (though I have not tried it).

Free break reminder software for Windows and Linux

For all Linux and Windows users, there is an excellent, free break reminder program called Workrave. I like how the rest breaks come with animated exercises (usually a feature that only comes with paid software).j

16 September 2006

What programming languages should a theoretical condensed matter physicist learn?

I have a question: What programming languages should a theoretical condensed matter physicist learn? I know there are the old staples of C and Fortran, but surely there are better languages for less-heavy-duty applications. I understand using C for supercomputing since computing time is the primary concern and C is optimized for efficiency. But I have heard that scripting languages like Python and Perl are easier to use for lightweight calculations. These dialects are known for emphasing programmer usability over computational efficiency.

04 September 2006

One hour a day

Many people have told me that a good method for learning a subject is to read one hour a day on that subject.

I have decided to start reading one hour of physics a day, with the requirement that the material has nothing to do with my research and that it be fun!

Currently, I am reading Gravity: An Introduction to Einstein's General Relativity by James Hartle. I'm hoping that this text will give me a better intuitive feel for GR and teach me about the landmark experiments in the field.