30 September 2007

Universities as corporations

The more I think about, the more universities seem like corporations than schools. We've always heard that research universities want their professors to spend most of their time on obtaining grants rather than teaching or mentoring students. I tried to find some budget numbers to prove that claim. Here's a (very hard-to-read) revenue graph from the MIT Tech Talk newspaper. You can see that research grant money is roughly 1-2 times larger than tuition money in terms of contributions to the university revenue (over the past 50 years). No wonder Harvard, Columbia, and other schools are rushing to expand their science campuses. Anytime a professor wins a grant, 1/3 to 1/2 the grant money goes to the university in the form of "indirect costs."

It all makes me wonder what is the central mission of universities? To educate students or to act like engineering/pharmaceutical companies?

29 September 2007

Ask a Scientist

I helped out with the Girls' Science Investigations program today. It's an outreach program run by a woman Yale physics professor. We spend a day teaching girls about some interesting aspect of physics. Today our topic was the electromagnetic spectrum and observing charged particles in bubble chambers.

At the end of the day, the girls wrote down questions on notecards and the chairwoman Meg Urry (an astrophysicist) answered the questions.

Here are a few of the more humorous questions:
1. How do you have sex? (Meg said that the girls were too young to know the answer.)
2. What is string theory?
3. How much pressure do you have to put on someone's nose before it explodes?
4. Do physicists have real fun? (I noticed that Meg Urry completely avoided that question.)
5. I like chicken. How does it help your body?

27 September 2007

Grouchiness = productivity?

I don't know why but it seems like as I get more productive, I get more determined and hence am easily annoyed with anyone or anything that gets in the way. In short, I become a grouchy, taciturn individual. I wonder if this is just the way I am, or if I can work on becoming both a productive and pleasant person at the same time?

Quote of the day by Robert Heinlein

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet, you can’t win.
- Robert Heinlein

23 September 2007

My sister insisted that I watch this video of a lecture (available here) given by a Carnegie Mellon professor, Randy Pausch.

The basic backstory is that Randy has just a few months to live because he is dying for cancer and so he is giving his "last lecture" in which he tries to tell people what is most important to him. The lecture is about all his childhood dreams, how he achieved most of them, and what lessons he learned along the way. Of course, it's really sad that he's dying, but the cool stuff is all the work he did on virtual reality and using entertainment technology to teach children how to program. I also really like how he talked about multiple failures he had in life and how he got around them. For instance, he was not admitted to his undergraduate or graduate
institution but ended up getting into both! For those of you who wonder how you can help people despite being a professor, watch this video.

22 September 2007

Two things I'd like to work on

First, I want to only eat vegetables, fruit, grains (like rice, pasta, bread), and lean meat (like turkey, fish, and chicken). No animal fat and no vegetables or meat covered in oil.

Second, I want to stop checking my email in the morning. I'm moving my Yahoo calendar notifications to an email address that no one knows about, so that I can still get my notifications without being distracted by other message.

Science outreach for girls

I volunteered to help out with an outreach program that involves introducing major physics concepts to middle school girls. I find a few things disturbing about the program.

First, the professor running the outreach program is a woman and the outreach program is a requirement for her NSF grant. Are there men doing this outreach programs as a requirement for their NSF grants, too? It would be extremely unfair if female professors were required to do outreach in addition to all their other responsibilities. Frankly, no tenure committee will care if a professor does outreach. It seems like a way for female professors to have even less time for their research. Certainly, the male assistant physics professors in my department are not doing any outreach.

For this outreach program, the male volunteers are supposed to stand in the back while the female volunteers are in the spotlight. I find that a bit disconcerting. In real life, male and female scientists work together. I don't really see why it's necessary for the male volunteers to hide. In fact, it seems a bit like lying to me; just like how people write children's books trying to push their political views (e.g. saving the environment). Brainwashing children is evil.

Current blog reading: hard news only

I've known for a while that I waste far too much time on reading RSS feeds. The worst time-sink was the New York Times, in particular, the popular articles and the headlines. As one of my friends noted, the New York Times has been leaning more and more towards soft news because unfortunately, that is what sells. People don't really care what's happening in Iraq. They'd rather read about autism or college admissions. Anyone who actually cares about world news will flip to the relevant section anyways.

So now my news feeds consist of the New York Times national news, New York Times international news, Wall Street Journal US business news, Wall Street Journal economy news, and Wall Street Journal market news sections.

In addition, my daily blog reading includes the headlines of physics articles, a physics blog or two, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lifehacker, the Writer's Almanac, and a photo or two. I think this gives me the most efficient and representative mix of work, news, and culture.

20 September 2007

Addendum to my self-absorbed rant

I should have added that being self-absorbed is something that we all have to work very hard to drive away in the modern age. Perhaps one might have even said that my rant was a little self-absorbed (though I'm not sure that discussing self-absorbed people is a great way to make dinner conversation).

Marketing is huge which results in materialism. More and more you hear about companies creating jobs that cater to the millennium generation. Most universities are headed towards institutionalizing many student concerns; MIT even had a dean of alcohol at some point. Of course, some of that is good, but I wish there were a message that counterbalances the former message. That we should embrace challenges and work out our own solutions and perhaps even come to see the silver lining of the things we complain about. By far the worse thing is how competitive our world has become and it feels like we must constantly be building and tweaking our market brand. That is understandable, but what concerns me is all the talk of attaining the perfect job or living in the best city. The "please me first" attitude makes me uncomfortable.

I think the best way to keep yourself from being self-absorbed is to work with other people in a non-profit driven activity. Like tutoring. Many people who apply for faculty jobs don't really want to teach, but I wouldn't be able to do research all day anyways and teaching is an excellent way to complement research. Let's stop the trend of everyone marketing to each other. This is no way to live.

18 September 2007

The 21 day complaint free experiment

This is an interesting idea. You wear a bracelet as a pledge to stop complaining. You might also extend this method to other problems like worrying.

Sick of selfishness and self-importance

I thought I'd use this blog post to complain. I'm tired of people who are self-absorbed. I feel like most of the people I talk to just automatically launch into what's important in their lives. They don't even bother to let me into the conversation. I'm tired of everyone being too busy and constant scheduling (although I have to say that I sometimes use the excuse of being "busy" too). Nowadays, if you ask someone for their time, they mentally scan their schedule and decide whether you're worth their time. These are people who are just in school, behaving like CEOs. I understand that everyone is busy, but I don't like being treated like a number in a queue. I'm tired of people who treat email like junk mail. They don't respond timely; sometimes they don't even respond at all. Well, I don't treat email like junk mail. I put time and thought into what I write. Maybe I just start sending people written letters instead. I'm tired of parents who treat their children like investments. I understand that in modern society, families only have 1-2 children and spend a lot of money on them. But children shouldn't be expected to turn around and pay interest or face constant emotional guilt-tripping. The point of having children is to raise emotionally healthy, independent adults.

Maybe I'll just move to a small town or move to a cabin in the mountains.

On a side note, one of my friends sent me an article about cheating in school from the San Francisco Chronicle magazine. Pretty depressing.

14 September 2007

Sharpie micro pocket pen

I settled on the Sharpie micro as my pocket pen. Here's a photo of it with an index card laid over my shorts:

10 September 2007


I've seen these nice straps/cords used to attach one object to another. Finally, I've learned that these tools are called lanyards! I've been looking for a lanyard to secure my keys and recently found a nice website for buying them called the Lanyard Factory. (You can get hundreds of different kinds lanyards with different attachments and customized in different colors and prints.)

So here's the lanyard I ended up getting (model number LY-2E-404HD-Ez). A picture of the lanyard attaching my key ring to my belt hook:

A closeup of the lanyard itself:

06 September 2007

Yahoo Pipes for more efficient reading

One of my colleagues complained that there are too many journal articles. I think a way to fix that problem is to use Yahoo Pipes. A good place to start is a nice tutorial from Lifehacker. You just give Yahoo Pipes one or more feeds, some filtering criteria, and then Yahoo Pipes will generate a custom feed for you. I haven't tried it yet, but it sounds like a great idea.

Journals for negative results

I have been told by more than one person that it would be useful to know what *didn't* work so that people wouldn't constantly go down the wrong path designing and building their experiments. Apparently, there is at least one real journal for negative results: Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine.

05 September 2007

Nintendo DS Lite as a travel sanity device

I was looking for the entries in Lifehacker's Show Us Your Go Bag series and I noticed that many people keep a Nintendo DS Lite in their go bag. I realized that I can bring a DS Lite with me when I travel to drive away the blues and the torture of being in airports/airplanes. On my very last trip, I took the DS Lite with me and played Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. One of my flights was delayed by almost two hours; thank god for Nintendo. I had told everyone that I had given up video games, but I guess I can make an exception for traveling (yay, a treat!) (My new rule is that I'm only allowed to play my DS when I travel.)

04 September 2007

Link of the day: Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs video lectures

I was so psyched when I found out that my all-time favorite course had video lectures available for download! I took the fabled Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs course (known as 6.001 to the students) as an undergraduate (though not with the creators of the course, Abelson and Sussman). I loved how we went through all the cool stuff in CS in just one course! We covered recursion, object oriented programming, compilers, streams, and of course lambda calculus (keep in mind that this was meant to be an introductory course). My favorite project was the object-oriented adventure game.

03 September 2007

Link of the day: Genius on demand

Tim Ferriss thinks he has a routine to create genius on demand (or at least on a somewhat consistent basis). Check out his recipe.