31 May 2007

Link of the day: Academic Productivity, GTD in Academia

I found two great blogs over the weekend. The group blog Academic Productivity focuses on how technology can help increase efficiency in academia. There are also some posts on GTD-related topics. The solo blog Getting Things Done in Academia is written by Professor Mike Kaspari, an ecologist at the University of Oklahoma. I like his posts on writing effectively and ants (even though that has nothing to do with GTD).

30 May 2007

Living it up at university without the stress

I was both amused and shocked at the revelation of a Stanford freshman imposter.

I won't comment on whether one should regard the event as merely humorous, reflective of our brand-obsessed culture, or a scandalous security violation. But I will say one thing. I have fantasized about all the fun things I could do at my undergrad university if I didn't have classes and stress pouring out of my ears. I had a plan for pulling it off, too. I was going to stay in my co-op (you don't have to be a student to stay there) and "hobo" it at various classes (asking professors I knew for permission). I would go to parties and campus club activities. I guess maybe this is why people in Europe take a gap year to travel. I probably should and would have done that if it weren't for parental pressure. Well, my parents were wrong. All you stressed out undergrads/high school students... take a year off between moving schools!

Link of the day: Up in Alaska blog

Looking through this year's Bloggie awards, I found something right up my alley: Up in Alaska. It's the journal of a woman biking and living in Juneau, Alaska. Nothing to break me out of my closeted academic routine like a picture of snow-capped mountains and glaciers!

29 May 2007

One space after a period

Apparently, I've been in the dark all these years. Both the Chicago Manual of Style and the APA suggest putting one space after a period, rather than two spaces. The reason is that modern typesetting is much better than 50 years ago and fonts are equally spaced. So, we don't need the extra space. The MLA is ambivalent on this issue.

26 May 2007

Reversible fluids

I found a really cool video showing "hydrodynamic reversibility" in a low-Reynolds number fluid. Didn't they teach us in statistical mechanics that the world is on an irreversible time trajectory? Well, not in this case. Check out the video by clicking the link under Figure 1. The film was apparently made by G. I. Taylor.

25 May 2007

Link of the day: "What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20"

Tina Seelig, Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, gave a nice graduation-type talk called "What I Wish I Knew When I was 20." It seems like a collection of practical, well-thought out advice. Here's her list of top 10 things that a 20-year old ought to know:
  • Every problem is an opportunity for a creative solution
  • The harder I work, the luckier I get (work prepares you for opportunities)
  • Find the intersection between your passion, skills, and the market (as opposed to the tired old adage "Follow your passion")
  • Try lots of things and keep what works (try writing a "failure" resume)
  • Don't wait to be anointed. Just do it!
  • It is a very small world... don't burn bridges (you keep running into the same people, so don't make them hate you)
  • You can do it all, just not at the same time (examine your priorities over a long time scale)
  • It is the little things that matter most (e.g. thank you notes)
  • It really is about the team (making other people successful makes you even more successful)
  • Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous.
Her talk is available in several formats: mp3, slides in pdf, and steaming Windows Media video file.

23 May 2007

Link of the day: Physical Review Letters RSS feed

I'm cheating a bit, since I'm writing about a feed, not a link. In Episode 12: What to Read, Peter Fisher says that PRL (Physical Review Letters) is a must-read for all physicists. He thinks that everyone should at least glance at the titles to get a feel for what's going on outside of their field. I subscribe to the arXiv feeds on cond-mat and quant-ph, but these articles are usually confined to condensed matter and atomic physics. So to broaden my horizons, I am now subscribing to the PRL RSS feed. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the American Physical Society (which publishes Physical Review) only bothers to send the first few sentences of the abstract. What are they doing?! Trying to save on bandwidth??

22 May 2007

Link of the day: Myths of Science Writing

Chad Orzel has an excellent post about science writing, in particular, habits and conventions that he finds irritating. It's interesting that these conventions seem to be artifacts of history. Using passive and indirect language is apparently due to Francis Bacon (says Sean Carroll). [Be sure to also read the part where Bacon personifies science as a shy woman who needs to be seduced.] The idea that scientific writing should incorporate "surprise" is probably due to how science is typically presented to the public -- something magical and mystical. For a while, I, too, thought that I needed to hide all my results until the very end.


Yesterday, I learned about the concept of "refactoring" from a post on Eugene Wallingford's blog. According to Wikipedia, refactoring is a term from software engineering. Refactoring is "any change to a computer program which improves its readability or simplifies its structure without changing its results." In other words, cleaning your work up so it's more understandable and getting rid of deprecated and useless stuff. If you don't refactor often (i.e. practice good software hygiene), then eventually your work becomes so undocumented that it's impossible to fix -- a state called technical bankruptcy. I do that with my research from time to time when I write up calculations in LaTeX or annotate plots. Now I know word for it! Weekly review is also a form of "refactoring" in a GTD system.

21 May 2007

Daily checklist updated

A year ago, I mentioned that I was filling out a daily checklist. I was hoping that I'd get a joyful feeling of success every time I colored in a box with my pencil. Paper proved to be too cumbersome and not easily backed up, so I switched to a digital version of the same system in January. Currently, I use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet as a template and for each month, I fill in the cells with colored boxes when something is completed. It sure looks a lot prettier than pencil gray. Here's an example:

Link of the day: Chronicle of Higher Education, Career News Section

I've gotten a really great perspective about academia from reading the Career News section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. It can be really funny sometimes, too. Career News is also the only free section. I highly recommend reading it, no matter your field of study, if you are a graduate student or postdoc. There is also an RSS feed.

20 May 2007

Drawn like moths to computer code

This post is inspired by the following comment by Peter Fisher in Episode 4: To Do:
All of us just love to write computer code and kind of associate this macho feeling -- this is how much code I wrote; I stayed up all night and wrote all this code.

I wouldn't necessarily put it that way. I think writing code just falls into a more general category of things you can do that often seem more productive than they really are. Unless you are writing a really complicated program, you can get the result immediately. It is human nature to love instant feedback/gratification (e.g. instant messaging, cell phoning, etc). On the other hand, if your life really sucks, sometimes it is useful just to write some code or solder some wires. Beware of falling into the trap of doing busy work when you could be coming up with real ideas! The time you spend trying to get somewhere is as valuable (or more valuable) than the time you spend grinding.

Fisher file advice on meetings

I found Peter Fisher's advice about meetings in Episode 5: Calendars and Meetings particularly useful. Now I'll know what to do when I become a postdoc and start to waste my life in meetings!

I took some notes on the main points.

Rules about meetings
  1. Unless there is a compelling reason, meetings should not last more than one hour.
  2. Always send an agenda to everyone ahead of time. Never start a meeting without an agenda.
  3. No multitasking during meetings; really pay attention.
  4. Write a polite email to the organizer if you aren't going to go.
  5. The most important meetings are where a decision is made. PREPARE for these meetings.
  • Schedule a meeting against a hard deadline like the end of the workday (I need to go home and eat dinner) or the beginning of a seminar
  • The chair of the meeting should make sure that all the items of the agenda are addressed briskly
  • The chair should start the meeting by calilng on people
  • When the conversation starts to repeat or become unproductive, the chair should summarize the main points of the discussion and then end with "is there anything else?
  • If someone tries to repeat something, the chair should say "Oh, we already covered this, moving on ..."
  • Eventually, people will get the idea that the meeting needs to move along

A collection of miscellaneous notes on the Fisher Files

I finally finished listening to all 13 of the Fisher Files podcasts. Here are some notes on points that I found particularly interesting.
  • Project is defined as a series of next actions and a "done" state
  • Schedule time for interruptions
  • Job of a scientist (particularly postdocs and faculty) is to share ideas with people, go to seminars, and basically talk to people
  • When you acquire a new tool or piece of technology, put in the effort to read the manual. In order to use any tool well, you have to invest the time.
  • Don't be shy about delegating "crap" tasks to other people; you need the time to do more important things. Research is a team effort.
  • Use an alphabetical filing system
    1. Divide current files into research A-Z and non-research A-Z
    2. Once a year, clean out current files and move them to archives A-Z
  • Make a folder (physical or digital) of important, fundamental papers in your field
  • If you are having a meltdown, make a list of what is causing you anxiety. Then decide to let one or more of the items go. Embrace mediocrity; look at what you can get away with doing badly. Having meltdowns happens to everyone. You can't prepare for it; you can only get through it. After the meltdown, be sure to think about why it happened and if you could have avoided it. Then do a weekly review and move on.

I omitted most of the GTD-like stuff, since I have already discussed quite a bit about that topic in this blog.

Link of the day: Why isn't the sky purple?

Phillip Johnson at Biocurious makes a good point. We learn in undergraduate physics that the color of the sky is due to Rayleigh scattering which depends inversely on the wave length to the fourth power. If that is so, wh isn't the sky purple? You can view the discussion here.

19 May 2007

Humor from the perspective of a Stanford chemistry grad student

Sam Lord manages to keep life light despite slaving away in a physical chemistry lab at Stanford. Here are a few humorous posts from his "best" post list:

16 May 2007

Link of the day: Fisher Files

Peter Fisher, a professor of physics at MIT, has started a series of podcasts about implementing GTD in academia. The material probably won't be new to GTD veterans, but the podcasts are aimed at senior graduate students in science. At the end of every podcast, Fisher ends with a rundown of that week's cool physics research.

06 May 2007

Link of the day: "The Older and Wiser Hypothesis"

I read a very interesting New York Times article about the psychology of wisdom. As writer Stephen Hall re-iterates, wisdom is a very fuzzy topic. There are apparently as many as 13 definitions of wisdom. Hall discusses at least two definitions. One definition is practical experience and problem solving as applied to major life decisions/crises. Another definition is emotionally based. According to this definition, some examples of wisdom are emotional detachment (being "even keeled"), resilience in the face of adversity, and compassion/perspective for other people.

I'd like to propose a physicist-inspired definition. I think wisdom is the ability to identify and apply the right time-scale and person-scale to the problem. Time-scale wisdom is the art of recognizing whether information is important that you should act on it now or just let it go. I'll try to make this statement more clear. For example, it's very tricky for parents to deal with the emotions of a teenager. There are some experiences that are just normal to growing up (failing a test, breaking up with a friend, etc) and a parent should let things be. But there may be instances where a parent would want to stop their teenager from going off on a bad trajectory (for example, going camping overnight with sketchy boys). I don't have very much person-scale wisdom or a good feel for it, but my best definition is knowing who are the relevant parties. Is this a situation where your action will affect multiple people? You might even be able to divide up a person (an even smaller scale) since a person will often have a personality with many conflicting parts. As all physicists know, often the first step to solving a problem is to figure out the relevant time and spatial scales. You don't need quantum mechanics to understand the dynamics of a macroscopic pendulum.

I also like how the article points out that "the old are not always wise and the young are not always lacking in wisdom." There is a tendency in some culture to revere elders and use that as an excuse to abuse the younger generation. I think it's a good thing to respect your elders and listen to them most of the time, but like all things, there is a balance.

02 May 2007

GTD with Google Notebook

I currently use Backpackit for my GTD system, but Gina Trapani at Lifehacker demonstrates how you can also use the (completely free) Google Notebook to implement a GTD system.

01 May 2007

Link of the day: Daily Confession

Do you feel like a bad person? Maybe you should confess... on the internet... for everyone to see! I was amused to learn of a site where you can do exactly that called Daily Confession. It amazes me that people actually write comments.