29 June 2008

Eat Drink Man Woman review

Eat Drink Man Woman has become one of my favorite movies. Or shall I say Drink Eat Man Woman since that is the literal translation of the Chinese title <<飲食男女>>?

The movie is about a father, Mr. Chu, and his three daughters living in Taiwan. The father (as typical in many Chinese families) is not very good at verbal communication. He only knows how to show his love through cooking. Even though his three daughters are adults, they still live with him and they are required to be home for a special Sunday dinner every week. As time goes on, one daughter after another leaves her father's house and becomes independent. That's all I can say without giving anything away.

I really enjoyed watching a film that depicted modern Chinese society. I was frequently struck with the feeling of seeing my own family on camera. Chinese people tend towards stoicism and this aspect was emphasized in the family interactions. I can relate to the way that the Chu family struggles to communicate. Asian families don't hug or express verbal affection. Just doesn't happen much. They express their love through actions like Mr. Chu's cooking or the second daughter's criticism.

Eat Drink Man Woman has often been called a food lover's film because there are extended scenes of the father cooking extravagant meals. He uses all the freshest ingredients including fish out of the tank and chickens from the coop. It's almost as if the passion is focused on the food in the first half of the film, rather than on the people, who seem repressed. In the second half, this dynamic flips around and we see people's emotions boil over. Another great foodie film is the German movie Mostly Martha. The food aside, it's also an outstanding movie overall.

Eat Drink Man Woman is a funny movie and even more so to me, because I have the personal experience of growing up in a Chinese family. In one scene, Mr. Chu worries about his friend's elementary school aged daughter. He doesn't think the girl has a proper lunch, so he cooks a hot lunch for her and swaps this lunch with the lunch prepared by the girl's mother. Of course, the girl's mother is a terrible cook, and Mr. Chu ends up having to eat it. I can see my own father doing the exact same thing. The final kicker is that the girl starts "taking orders" from her classmates and sells her lunch to them for extra cash. Another scene I really like is when Mr. Chu goes to the bedrooms of each of his daughters and wakes them up in the morning. In particular, he tells the second daughter not to sleep at her desk because it's bad for her posture. My dad did the same to me when I was growing up. Although this was not supposed to be funny, I liked how the sisters talked while washing the dishes by hand. You know it's a Chinese family, when there are only human dishwashers. There are many other humorous scenes, but these three are the ones that were most personally relevant to me.

[Spoilers below]

The main source of tension between the three daughters is who gets to leave home and who has to stay behind and take care of the father. I expected that the eldest daughter (the spinster, religious schoolteacher) would be the one who stays at home and takes care of the father. In fact, it's the rebellious, independent-minded second daughter who ends up staying at home. She realizes how much she has in common with her father (she loves to cook) and how much she loves him. The ending scene where she cooks dinner for her father is especially touching.

28 June 2008

Ferrite beads suppress high frequency noise

Via Lifehacker, I read about using ferrite beads to stop cell phones from buzzing during exposure to high frequency noise. I had no idea that ferrite beads are commonly found in USB cables.

That made me curious about ferrite beads. Since ferrite is magnetic, the bead probably acts like an inductor or an inductor in series with a resistance. Maybe with an L/R time constant?

"The meaning we make does not always have etiologic implications"

I've always wondered about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and while I was looking for information on the topic, I ran across this website run by Dr. Ostroff at Yale. The site contains a link to an interesting essay called "Depression: An Overview with a Focus on ECT."

No, I am not interested in getting ECT, but I was surprised to learn that ECT is such an effective treatment for depression even though it has a reputation as "cruel" punishment or as a last resort. The author suggests that people should consider ECT earlier in their treatment.

But I'm digressing. The real reason I wanted to write the post was because I found the first page of the essay very interesting. It begins:
Depression is an illness and like any illness, it has an impact on biological, psychological and social functioning. Individuals may experience job difficulties, interpersonal difficulties and a variety of physical symptoms that may mimic other conditions. It is common for the patient to attribute the experience of depression to a life event, for example, the failure to get promoted or marital stress. It is human to make meaning of our experiences. It is important for clinicians to remember that the meaning we make does not always have etiologic implications.
I am reminded that coincidence does not imply causation. As a scientist, I am pretty careful to avoid that fallacy in my own work, but this quote cautions me that I can very well make the same fallacy in other areas like in the way I judge people.

As an example, the author tells the story of how he diagnosed a man with Hodgkin's disease. The man became convinced that he had "caught" Hodgkin's disease from walking outside on a damp, cold night because his first symptoms of Hodgkin's started around the same time.

The essay goes on to link the Hodgkin's case to patients with depression.
Like my Hodgkin's patient's experience of cold and coryza that felt like an ordinary flu, patients with depression often experience it as the outcome of immediate life events. Social and psychological events are closer to everyday human experience than neurotransmitter dysfunction in the central nervous system and are readily identified as causative agents.
I don't think the author is trying to say that depression is simply a chemical disorder that should be medicated at every opportunity. Here's my interpretation. Some people are genetically pre-disposed to depression. The other people were healthy individuals who suffered stressful events and the "bad" chemistry has persisted long after the inducing events. The external environment plays a big role, but it's not the entire story.

[Aside: I'm not sure if I believe this view completely. I used to think that everything is just "in your head," but I'm gradually coming around to the view that depression is a complex illness involving interactions between mind and body.]

Towards the end of the essay, the author discusses the implications of meaning and etiologic reasoning on the friends and family of the depressed individual.
Unfortunately, family members of the depressed individual struggle with a concept of illness that is unique to depression. Unlike illnesses that exist in the body in ways that give the appearance of being markedly discontinuous from the patient's emotional environment, such as rheumatoid arthritis or coronary artery disease, depression gives the impression of being related to, if not caused by the patient's emotional milieu...
... Since the depressed individual does not give the impression of being physically ill and a cardinal symptom of their illness is their mood, there is an almost irresistible tendency on the part of their loved ones to try and alleviate their mood. The family wants the depressed member to "snap out of it" or "cheer up" and will go to great lengths to achieve this end. Whereas the coronary patient's family won't let him mow the lawn or shovel snow, and the arthritic's family encourages them to avoid stressing their joints, the depressed patient's family will actively pressure them to change their mood...
... Because the cardinal symptoms of depression often involve emotion states, the family is posed with the problem of understand that emotional states can occur independent of internal or external environmental factors... The family of the depressed patient must understand that the depression is not a reaction to them, but rather a state that arises because of a physiologic problem that requires treatment.
The author notes that misguided family efforts can have significant real-world impact.
If there is a consensus that some external factor caused the depression, there is an overwhelming tendency to eliminate the external factor. I have repeatedly seen families and patients assign etiologic significance to school or work and decide that quitting the situation would eliminate the depression. A significant part of helping the family and patient recover is educating them to not make significant life decisions until recovery is well underway.
This discussion is very useful to me, since I have tried to help depressed people in the past and I will probably be trying to help someone in the future. I have to repeatedly remind myself "the meaning we make does not always have etiologic implications!"

26 June 2008

Gym program

My current gym program is the following.

Monday: Legs and Core
Tuesday: Run on treadmill
Wednesday: Upper body and Core
Thursday: Run on treadmill
Friday: Legs and Upper body

Squat 3x8 [25 lb]
Deadlift 3x8 [25 lb]
Leg curl 3x8 [37.5 lb]
Calf raises 3x8 [75 lb]
Hip abduction 3x8 [25 lb]
Hip adduction 3x8 [25 lb]
Rotary hip [37.5 lb], all four directions, both legs 2x8

Upper body
Bench press 3x8 [45 lb]
Dumbbell flys 3x8 [2 x 5 lb]
Assisted pullups 3x8 [-60 lb]
Tricep pushdowns on cable [setting 4]
Bicep/hammer curl 3x8 [2 x 10 lb]
Dumbbell press 3x8 [2 x 5 lb]
Lateral raise 3x8 [10 lb]
Wrist curls 3x8 [2 x 3 lb]
Reverse wrist curls 3x8 [2 x 3 lb]

Leg raises 3x8 [body weight]
Trunk rotation 3x8 [37.5 lb]
Lateral pull down 3x8 [37.5 lb]
Seated row 3x8 [25 lb]
Back extension 3x8 [37.5 lb]
Dumbbell shrug 3x8 [2 x 7.5 lb]

Bicycle crunch 3x? [body weight]

I always fail on Friday, because I don't want to be in the gym for 2.5 hours lifting both legs and upper body. The current schedule is really hard because I lift for anywhere between 1.5-2 hours on alternate days and run just 15 minutes on the intervening days.

To even things up, I'm changing to the following schedule.

Monday: Upper body and treadmill
Tuesday: Legs and bicycle crunch
Wednesday: Core and treadmill
Thursday: Upper body and treadmill
Friday: Legs and bicycle crunch

By changing from a three-day split to a five-day split, I can do 1.25 hours each day, which will hopefully make for a happier workout!

Summer hockey league team names

Today, I'm playing hockey. Our summer league hockey games are on Thursday nights. It's hard to believe, but I've been playing in this league for the past four summers!

I remember a funny conversation I had with a woman last year (who plays on my women's team during the regular season). Whoever managed our summer hockey league that summer decided to give the teams, let's say, "interesting" names. The woman complained:
How can I tell my kids that I play on Team Psycho??!! Well, at least, I don't play on Team Plumber's Crack. That would be even worse.

24 June 2008

Mark Bell, troubled Maple Leaf

Since I'm a San Jose Sharks fan, I have followed the case of Mark Bell, a former San Jose Sharks player who was traded from Chicago to San Jose in 2006 before he was consequently traded to Toronto in 2007. Shortly before he was scheduled to report to training camp in San Jose, he was arrest for a drunk driving accident and for fleeing the scene of the crime. Consequently, Bell was suspended for 15 games from the 2007-2008 NHL season and sentenced to six months in prison. Ironically, Ron Wilson (Sharks head coach from 2002 to 2008) was just fired by the Sharks and hired a few weeks ago by the Maple Leafs. Here's what he said about Mark Bell:
Do I think Mark Bell can help? That is hard to say, Mark has gone through a ton in the last couple of years. Obviously he ran into problems before we ever really got to know him in San Jose. It made that year difficult. That is hard to say. That is something we have to sit down with Mark Bell and see where he is. I have coached a lot of guys, and Mark has paid the price and shown remorse, paying his debt to society if you will. He has been a true professional. At some point, I may be able to finish moving from out in San Jose, be able to sit down with Mark and have a long talk with him to see where he is at in his life and his career. He has to worry about his life first, not Mark Bell the hockey player.
I think the key point is that Bell has to worry about his life first, not his career. If he can fix his personal life, the career will come.

Song of the day: "Wonderful Guy" by Rodgers and Hammerstein

I didn't really like the "I'm as corny as Kansas in August" line at first, but this song has really grown on me. The verse "I'm as trite and as gay as a daisy in May/A cliche comin' true/I'm bromidic and bright as a moon-happy night/Pouring light on the dew!" is beautiful. The long vowels in the lyric make the song flow off your tongue. Thanks Mr. Hammerstein! And I learned a new word "bromidic." I'm always running across new words in song lyrics.

From South Pacific
I expect everyone of my crowd to make fun
Of my proud protestations of faith in romance,
And they'll say I'm naïve as a babe to believe
Every fable I hear from a person in pants.

Fearlessly I'll face them and argue their doubts away,
Loudly I'll sing about flowers in spring,
Flatly I'll stand on my little flat feet and say
Love is a grand and a beautiful thing!
I'm not ashamed to reveal
The world famous feelin' I feel.

I'm as corny as Kansas in August,
I'm as normal as blueberry pie.
No more a smart little girl with no heart,
I have found me a wonderful guy!

I am in a conventional dither,
With a conventional star in my eye.
And you will note there's a lump in my throat
When I speak of that wonderful guy!

I'm as trite and as gay as a daisy in May,
A cliché comin' true!
I'm bromidic and bright
As a moon-happy night
Pourin' light on the dew!

I'm as corny as Kansas in August,
High as a flag on the Fourth of July!
If you'll excuse an expression I use,
I'm in love, I'm in love,
I'm in love, I'm in love,
I'm in love with a wonderful guy!

I'm as trite and as gay as a daisy in May,
A cliché comin' true!
I'm bromidic and bright
As a moon-happy night
Pourin' light on the dew!

I'm as corny as Kansas in August,
High as a flag on the Fourth of July!

If you'll excuse an expression I use,
I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love,

I'm in love with a wonderful guy!

Link of the day: "The Ultimate Code Kata"

At Coding Horror, Jeff Atwood writes about "The Ultimate Code Kata." To quote a quote from his post:
Contrary to what you might believe, merely doing your job every day doesn't qualify as real practice. Going to meetings isn't practicing your people skills, and replying to mail isn't practicing your typing. You have to set aside some time once in a while and do focused practice in order to get better at something.

I know a lot of great engineers -- that's one of the best perks of working at Amazon -- and if you watch them closely, you'll see that they practice constantly. As good as they are, they still practice. They have all sorts of ways of doing it, and this essay will cover a few of them.

The great engineers I know are as good as they are because they practice all the time. People in great physical shape only get that way by working out regularly, and they need to keep it up, or they get out of shape. The same goes for programming and engineering.
The way I interpret this idea is that quality of practice matters over quantity. As Atwood says, you have to be focused (you are telling your mind "I'm practicing this skill right now") and you have to find ways to challenge yourself. Frequently, physicists will think of small problems and try to work them out. I talked to one of my fellow grad students once and he said that when he was tired of research, he would practice programming in Mathematica. For example, he would try to have Mathematica compute the prime numbers between 500 and 1000.

Off and on, I practice hockey shooting by shooting off a board into a lacrosse net. I realized that I didn't want to keep shooting from the same position, so I tried various challenges like moving the board, shooting off balance, shooting from an extended reach, shooting from a squeezed reach, trying to shoot as high as possible, picking a corner to shoot at, etc. I think this is an example of "kata."

23 June 2008

Thirdly Review 2008, Part 2

I've been remiss in doing my quarterly review. I had it on my schedule to write up my review a month ago, but then I felt a little down (I had to send in my laptop for repair), so I put off writing it.

Also, I realized that quarterly isn't accurate since I only plan to review after each semester and the summer. So the title has been appropriately changed to "thirdly." Onto the review.

The contents of this review are only going to address January through May, even though I'm writing in June. My work output really hasn't improved since my last report. First, I went through a craze where I spent vast amounts of time analyzing Sondheim musicals. I think it was useful to use musical plays as a means of self-reflection, but it did take up a lot of time. Then after that ended, I had a whole bunch of visits from various people (including my dad coming to see me for a whole week) plus I flew cross-country to see my sister and I had a weekend-long hockey tournament in Vermont. Somewhere around April, the Stanley Cup Playoffs started and I would find myself watching a 3 hour game every 2-3 days, going to bed at midnight or later (because my favorite team lives in the Pacific time zone), and then trying to get up early and failing. Ugh. Normally, all of this stuff wouldn't be a problem, but if I'm already having trouble getting started on my work, disruptions are major sabotage.

Non-work wise, I just had the usual activities: reading my RSS feeds, checking online forums, watching Battlestar Galactica, and playing hockey. I think the amount of time I read RSS feeds is reasonable (average of 1.5 hours a day). I could definitely cut back, but I'm not sure I want to. I check Facebook once a day but that doesn't take long (about 10 minutes a day). I feel like Facebook has gotten to the point where you have to check it daily like email. I don't spend as much time on forums (hockey, musicals) as much as I used to. I learned what I need to know for the most part, so it's not necessary to spend as much time. Hockey, next to RSS feed reading, takes up the most time. Of all my activities, this is the only one that involves real contact with people, so I am definitely keeping this one. I just concluded my second season with the women's team and I really feel like part of the team now. I genuinely enjoy the company of my teammates. It's wonderful.

This third, I'm planning on staying in town for the most part except for a few day trips. That will cut down on distractions and help me focus on work. I'm trying to put less pressure on myself and keep up a sunny disposition (listen to South Pacific!). I think it's helping me a lot. To keep me on track, I'm slavishly trying to follow a schedule where I get up at 5:30 am every morning and go to the gym 5 days a week. It's really hard, but I think it will be worth it. The trick is to focus on just a few things at a time. I just find it so hard to let go of all ridiculous ambitions.

Now that I'm socializing more with my hockey teammates, I would like to extend that to fellow graduate students. I have a habit of turning down invitations. Being alone isn't so bad, but it is definitely not a good thing in the long term. I have to work on making eye contact and stopping to say hello to people more. I need to get back to my friendly West Coast self! My hockey teammate recently pointed out to me that I see relationships as a black-and-white thing, which unfortunately is not true. I want to work on getting more comfortable with "gray."

That's pretty much a wrap. The key is to want to get better and to believe that things will get better.

22 June 2008

Grad Hacker

I found a new productivity blog (yes, I know, yet another one). It's called "Grad Hacker" and written by a graduate student in the natural sciences. I like his view on productivity:
Let me start of by declaring this outright: my goal in personal productivity is not to minimize the amount of time I spend “goofing-off” it’s to maximize the amount of time I spend in the focused, imaginative, stress-free “flow state”. I spent some time walking the first path and it just made me tired, bitter, and sick. But, now, changing the way I view productivity has made life absolutely splendid.
Here are some posts that caught my attention:
Overall, a great blog! I look forward to more thoughts from Grad Hacker.

Song of the day: "Younger than Springtime" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein

My vocal range is alto, and since there are no good songs for altos (see the song "Alto's Lament"), I do best singing tenor songs. I've been practicing this song when I walk outside and when I work alone in my office. "Younger Than Springtime" is a slow, romantic ballad and I have a lot of trouble with the three long high notes at the end.

From South Pacific
I touch your hands
And my heart grows strong,
Like a pair of birds
That burst with song.
My eyes look down
At your lovely face,
And I hold a world
In my embrace.

Younger than springtime, are you
Softer than starlight, are you,
Warmer than winds of June,
Are the gentle lips you gave me.
Gayer than laughter, are you,
Sweeter than music, are you,
Angel and lover, heaven and earth,
Are you to me.

And when your youth
And joy invade my arms,
And fill my heart as now they do,
Then younger than springtime, am I,
Gayer than laughter, am I,
Angel and lover, heaven and earth,
Am I with you!

And when your youth
And joy invade my arms,
And fill my heart as now they do,

Then younger than springtime, am I,
Gayer than laughter, am I,
Angel and lover, heaven and earth,
Am I with you.

Python mutable defaults

In the short time that I've learning Python, the most annoying "feature" is Python's mutable defaults. You can define a default parameter for a variable in a function, but if the variable happens to be mutable (like a list), you get strange side effects. The book Learning Python by Mark Lutz gives a detailed explanation on pages 373-374. I will follow some of Lutz's discussion with a few of my own comments.

Suppose you write the following function.

def saver(x=[]):
... x.append(1)
... print x

Then you run it like so:

>>> saver([2])
[2, 1]
>>> saver()
>>> saver()

The third output is probably not what you wanted. You probably wanted [1]. The problem is that the default parameter is only evaluated once, when the function definition is evaluated. A common solution is to stick an if statement at the beginning of the function body.

def saver3(x=[]):
... if x is None
... x = []
... x.append(1)
... print x

Another solution is to use an or statement.

def saver3(x=[]):
... x = x or []
... x.append(1)
... print x

Both solutions give the same behavior because they force the default parameter to be evaluated for every function execution, rather than just once as with saver(). It's really confusing, isn't it? The x in if x is None evaluates the default value, but the x in x.append(1) doesn't. I can't really think of any logical way to remember this difference. I guess I just have to memorize it.

However, as Lutz notes in his book, saver2() and saver3() aren't quite the same because if you pass an empty list, saver2([]) keeps the passed list whereas saver3([]) creates a new empty list.

Link of the day: "Why I never hire brilliant men"

There is a tendency in the business world not to hire overqualified job applicants and this very old 1924 article "Why I never hire brilliant men" summarizes the gist of it.

Of course, part of it is that businesses don't want someone to disrupt the cog-and-wheel atmosphere of the workplace, but there is some truth to the article. People don't really talk about the downsides of being "too smart." When you know too much, you can either be overly ambitious and try to do too much (thus being a bad finisher as the article states) or you can be overly depressed and do nothing because you project far into the future. Of course, I think these things can be overcome, but it takes some work. The more brain power you have, the more you have to use to control it.

20 June 2008

Link of the day: Upgrade an unproductive day

Via Lifehacker, I read an interesting post called "Upgrade an Unproductive Day by Mentally Rehearsing a Better One." I agree; there is considerable value in replaying the "tape" of how your day went and figuring out why it went wrong. For instance, I found that it was hard to get up in the morning. I finally realized the reason was that after I turned off the alarm clock, I didn't know what my next step was. So I decided that my next step was to make coffee/tea and that has really helped.

Catching hard passes in ice hockey

I've never been very good at catching/receiving hard passes. However, last week, I was practicing with a training aid called the Fury Ultimate Passer (see demonstration video) and I noticed that if I hold the stick blade straight up (perpendicular to the ice) and hold my blade down firm (by keeping my arms really stiff), I can catch a hard pass more easily. I know I've done it right if the puck makes a loud noise when I hit the stick, I feel the vibrational feedback in my arms, and the puck stops dead on my blade. This "stiff" method of receiving a pass is different from what I was taught, which is to cup the puck pointing the stick blade slightly down towards the ice and cushion the puck by bring your stick blade back with the puck. This "cupping" method doesn't give any sound when you catch a pass.

The big advantage of receiving passes with the "stiff" method is that you kill the spin of the puck, which prevents the puck from rolling off your blade. I find that with the "cupping" method, I have to worry about losing the puck.

There are some other pros. With the "stiff" method, when you receive the pass, the puck will be in the ready position, rather than slightly behind you as with the "cupping" method. Moreover, because the puck stops right away with the "stiff" method, you are in a position to quickly execute your next action, whereas with the "cupping" method, there is the lag time from having to cushion the puck. The "cupping" pass method might work better for a soft pass, but in a game, you should always be throwing hard passes. So it seems to me that the "stiff" method wins over the "cupping" method in all situations.

The only caveat is that I've only tried this out with my composite blade. The results may be different with wood blades.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has made these observations. This webpage says basically the same thing.

Incidentally, I've been told (on the ModSquadHockey forum) that killing spin also plays a major role in successfully catching backhand passes. A condensed version of the discussion:
A good way to cheat it so that it's easier to receive a pass is to angle the top of your blade towards the puck as radio mentioned.

/ for rh
\ for lh

and try to catch the puck around the bend from the hosel to the blade, before the curve starts.

If you angle your blade that way, you kill most of the spin that's on the pass, which plays a major part in why the puck flies off your blade.

18 June 2008

Song of the day: "Everything's Coming Up Roses" by Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim

I love this song because it's the ultimate survivor's theme. Rose is trying to dig up forced optimism in the worst possible circumstances. Some might even call it delusions of grandeur.

From Gypsy
I had a dream, a dream about you, baby.
It's gonna come true, baby.
They think that we're through, but baby,

You'll be swell! You'll be great!
Gonna have the whole world on the plate!
Starting here, starting now,
honey, everything's coming up roses!

Clear the decks! Clear the tracks!
You've got nothing to do but relax.
Blow a kiss. Take a bow.
Honey, everything's coming up roses!

Now's your inning. Stand the world on its ear!
Set it spinning! That'll be just the beginning!
Curtain up! Light the lights!
You got nothing to hit but the heights!
You'll be swell. You'll be great.
I can tell. Just you wait.
That lucky star I talk about is due!
Honey, everything's coming up roses for me and for you!

You can do it, all you need is a hand.
We can do it, Mama is gonna see to it!
Curtain up! Light the lights!
We got nothing to hit but the heights!
I can tell, wait and see.
There's the bell! Follow me!
And nothing's gonna stop us 'til we're through!
Honey, everything's coming up roses and daffodils!
Everything's coming up sunshine and Santa Claus!
Everything's gonna be bright lights and lollipops!
Everything's coming up roses for me and for you!

Longer life

A friend of mine wrote in an email recently, "Life is too short." That got me thinking, what if it were longer? What is it were possible to make humans live three times longer and extend their reproductive capability three times longer as well? Would that fix a lot of social problems? If women had a 60 year window to have children instead of a 20 year window, would it make it easier for them to have a career? Or would people just be expected to "pay their dues" at work for three times as long?

It's interesting to see what a lot of science fiction has to say. Frequently, other alien races tell humans that their short life span is a gift. The fact that humans don't have very long to live makes them tenacious and full of life (according to aliens). Humph.

High-tech Japan running out of engineers

This morning walking to work, I remembered reading an interesting New York Times article entitled "High-tech Japan running out of engineers." Japan running out of engineers? That seems impossible! Here are some reasons given in the article:
But according to educators, executives and young Japanese themselves, the young here are behaving more like Americans: choosing better-paying fields like finance and medicine, or more purely creative careers, like the arts, rather than following their salaryman fathers into the unglamorous world of manufacturing.
Later in the article:
Japan’s biggest problem may be the attitudes of affluence. Some young Japanese, products of a rich society, unfamiliar with the postwar hardships many of their parents and grandparents knew, do not see the value in slaving over plans and numbers when they could make money, have more contact with other people or have more fun.
And a little later in the article:
“Students today are more demanding and individualistic, like Westerners,” said Hitoshi Kawaguchi, senior vice president in charge of human resources at Nissan.
I would like to write a rejoinder that engineering is not worse than finance, medicine, and art as a career, but it's hard for me to say, since I know nothing about Japanese culture.

I must be really old-fashioned. I don't consider myself "demanding and individualistic." Still, if engineering is becoming as respected as plumbing, that doesn't bode well for scientific literacy in first world countries. It disturbs me how Asian culture is shifting towards Western values. I hope traditional Asian values like family, discipline, and respect for elders don't disappear.

15 June 2008

Why not?

I remember talking to a postdoc about quantizing electrical circuits. I felt like it shouldn't be allowed. His response was "why not?"

I've been listening to the new South Pacific recording for the 2008 Broadway Revival. It seems odd to listen to such a sweepingly romantic, optimistic score in our age of discontent, a time when darkness is in fashion. But why not? Hope is one of the few things we have. I don't mind singing "I'm as corny as Kansas in August/I'm as normal as blueberry pie/No more a smart little girl with no heart/I have found me a wonderful guy!"

I was watching a Q&A video with Lucy Lawless, the actress who plays "Number Three/D'Anna" on Battlestar Galactica. A fan asked: "As someone whose characters have pushed the boundaries of sexuality on television, what are your thoughts on the D'Anna/Caprica/Gaius threesome scenes?" Lawless's response (in a New Zealander accent):
Oh, I don't really think they went far enough. I mean, there was so much stuff. You know, D'Anna is really handy with the tools ... the power tools, did you see that? That egg beater that she stuck in Gaius's head? And then in the next scene, she's snuggling up to him. What is up with that? Uh, what are my thoughts on that? Really? Truthfully? I don't know. I don't care. People do whatever they want. They're grownups, right? And if those are the kind of people who are going to have threesomes, then it's my job to portray it. (laughs) If Ron Moore tells me to get in bed with Number Six and Gaius... gonna do it! I mean, think of all the other people they could have said... "I want you to get in bed with Eddie and Hoags." I mean, I've always had a thing for Michael Hogan, but... come on.
Besides the video being hilarious, I think Lawless's opinion is a good example of the "why not" attitude. That being said, Battlestar Galactica is a TV show which is not appropriate for children.

Lawless is more well-known for her title role in Xena: Warrior Princess. She didn't expect to run around in a skimpy outfit, swing a sword, and become a lesbian icon (Lawless herself is heterosexual), but she embraced the role and her lesbian fans. My impression is that Lawless (the person) does these outrageous performances, embraces fun and adventure, yet stays grounded. Despite being a sex symbol, she won't post nude. And she took quite a few years off from her career to raise a family. That is a cool attitude, in my humble opinion. There is something to be said for embracing things that are outside your comfort zone. Michael Cerveris, a Tony-award winning actor, says he always takes the acting jobs that "scare him."

If it's not forbidden, if it doesn't hurt anyone, why not?

13 June 2008

Link of the day: Google to host large scientific data sets

Apparently, if you're willing to give Google your scientific data, they will host it for you and make it open to everyone. For more details and links, see Jose's post at Academic Productivity.

12 June 2008

Perspective on a successful physics undergraduate program

Many people, including myself, have remarked on what a great experience we had as physics majors in my undergraduate program. In this post, I explore why the program was so successful.

First, there was a core group of professors in the department who loved undergraduates. There were faculty who liked to hang out with undergrads and talk to them. Some of them were really charismatic, funny, and inspiring. Those guys (no gals unfortunately) were our heroes. The last year I was there, a professor, who I had previously worked with on a research project, came to me with the idea of having the physics undergraduates pick one of the colloquium speakers. I was Society of Physics Students (SPS) president at the time, so I jumped on the idea. Apparently, the physics majors are still inviting colloquium speakers five years later, so the idea must stuck. This sort of stuff happened frequently. An enthusiastic professor and an enthusiastic student working together to make something happen.

There were a few faculty in the department who were always thinking of ways to get undergrads involved. That way of thinking was highly encouraged at our institution in general. I think that when I was an undergraduate there, the institution was in the middle of a 10+ year campaign to improve the undergraduate experience. (I think the university leadership is pretty happy with their work and now they're trying to improve the graduate experience.)

There was a lot of incentive for professors to be nice to the undergrads in their classes because there was always "free" institution-wide funding to hire undergraduate researchers. In fact, if you were an assistant professor in the physics department at our institution, your chances of getting tenure are highly enhanced by hiring a bunch of super-bright undergrads to do your research for you.

Teaching in the physics department was highly emphasized, to the point where apparently there were young professors tenied tenure because they didn't teach well enough. (I guess the chair and associate chair of the department at the time were super-pro-undergrad-education.) For most courses, lectures were taught by one professor (frequently junior faculty) and sections were taught by another professor (frequently senior faculty). So that doubled our exposure to the faculty. It was not unusual for the senior professor teaching section to sit in on the junior professor who was lecturing. The culture seemed to be that the senior faculty demanded great teaching from their younger colleagues. It was also apparent that the faculty discussed teaching amongst each other and that they would trade ideas and use each other's notes.

Having a great physics department for undergraduates is wonderful, but there are costs. Our classes were so hard that everyone had to work together or go to office hours or both. So our lives really revolved around the physics major. I'm not sure if most undergraduates want to have that kind of life.

The postdoc I worked with complained that he was short-changed. He claimed that there was too much attention devoted to undergrads and that the grad students and postdocs suffered. I was also under the impression that the faculty were overworked since they wanted to (or were expected to?) do both great research and great teaching. The fact that great teaching was expected for tenure probably scared off a lot of potential job candidates who just wanted to do research.

Is it possible to have a department that is good to everyone? I don't know. But if you want something to happen, you need great leaders with a vision and a culture that fosters that vision.

Compass project

The Compass project is a program for UC Berkeley undergraduates whose objective is to increase diversity in the physical sciences. It was partially born out of Joel Corbo's frustration with the undergrad physics program at Berkeley, described in this post. It's a pretty cool idea and looks like there is a lot of energy in the project.

11 June 2008

Link of the day: Is Google making us stupid?

I came across this Atlantic Monthly article via Lifehacker called "Is Google making us stupid?" Unfortunately, the description sounds a lot like me. I wrote a bit about a similar topic in an old post called "ADD in geeks."

There is an interesting discussion about how technology can change the way we write. Nietzsche's prose style changed when he switched from writing long hand to using a typewriter. I notice that I can be very shy and restrained in face-to-face conversation, but in email, because I can type so fast and because the text seems virtual, I'll say all sorts of crazy things that I would never say out loud.

How do you stop "internet-thinking" from taking over your life? You should schedule unstructured time to explore places, build things, read books, take long vacations, etc.

02 June 2008

Tiger Woods, Buddhism, and Asian culture

Since my laptop is away on repair, I've been reading a book called The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by David Halberstam and Glenn Stout. One of the stories is a piece on Tiger Woods called "The Chosen One" which you can also find online at Sports Illustrated.

There are many great quotes in this article.

A nice discussion of the conscious versus the unconscious mind:
"I've learned to trust the subconscious," says Tiger. "My instincts have never lied to me."

The mother radiates this: the Eastern proclivity to let life happen, rather than the Western one to make it happen. The father comes to it in his own way, through fire. To kill a man, to conduct oneself calmly and efficiently when one's own death is imminent -- a skill Earl learns in Green Berets psychological training and then again and again in jungles and rice paddies -- one removes the conscious mind from the task and yields to the subconscious. "It's the more powerful of the two minds," Earl says. "It works faster than the conscious mind, yet it's patterned enough to handle routine tasks over and over, like driving a car or making a putt. It knows what to do.

"Allow yourself the freedom of emotion and feeling. Don't try to control them and trap them. Acknowledge them and become the beneficiary of them. Let it all outflow."
Here's Tiger on the differences between American and Asian culture:
I like Buddhism because it's a whole way of being and living. It's based on discipline and respect and personal responsibility. I like Asian culture better than ours because of that. Asians are much more disciplined than we are. Look how well behaved their children are. It's how my mother raised me. You can question, but talk back? Never. In Thailand, once you've earned people's respect, you have it for life. Here it's, What have you done for me lately? So here you can never rest easy. In this country I have to be very careful. I'm easygoing, but I won't let you in completely. There, I'm Thai, and it feels very different. In many ways I consider that home.

01 June 2008

Laura Benanti on Patti LuPone

I was reading an interview with Laura Benanti (who plays Louise in Gypsy) on Broadway.com and enjoyed this quote about her co-star Patti LuPone (who plays Rose):
Patti is the sweetest, gooiest, most exciting, most exuberant, least egomaniacal person I know. She is undeniably brilliant but she's also fun to be around. Her enthusiasm is amazing. She starts everything from a positive. Even a problem is a positive, because the problem can be fixed.
I like the idea that "even a problem is a positive because the problem can be fixed." We should all have that attitude.