Sunday, January 30, 2011


One of my and Owen's favorite players is former Cal Bear Deshawn Jackson, who plays for the Eagles. Here's a representative play from the explosive wide receiver:

Here's Owen's take on the theme:

BTW, this was from just after Christmas in Texas. Uncle Brian and I were cracking up so hard because Owen did the celebration s spontaneously. While we often talk about aspects of the game later, we never really talked about the endzone dive until after he spontaneously reenacted it on the farm.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Did I really just see that?!

One of my many pet peeves about NFL television broadcasts is the focus on a "narrative," usually played out by zooming in on players and coaches on the sidelines hoping to see them scream in anger, or smile, or jump around and celebrate. Annoyingly, this usually happens when actual action is happening, or just happened and I'd really like to see an instant replay. But instead of seeing how the running back was able to run untouched for 15 yards and a first down, we instead have to watch the opposing coach stand there stoically and blink his eyes. Oh! Teh drama!

As a result, I was extremely excited to finally see something interesting during one of those glances at the sideline. The Steelers were in the red zone, poised for a score. The cameraman finds the opposing quarterback Mark Sanchez on the sideline, probably hoping that he's wailing and gnashing his teeth. But instead:

That. Was. Awesome!

Monday, January 24, 2011


Marcus running down the hill beside the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shorts vs. Shorts

Owen and I like to watch basketball videos on Youtube. This morning we were watching some Magic Johnson highlights and Owen asked, "Why did they wear shorts?" I had to think for a second, and then it dawned on me:

1990 shorts

2010 "shorts"

Friday, January 21, 2011

Professing for the first time

I joined the Caltech faculty back in August of 2009. During the first year I frequently had the following exchange in conversations:

Person: "So, what do you teach?"
Me: "Nothing right now."
Person: "Wha? I thought you were a professor."
Me: "I am. I'm just not teaching right now."
Person: "So...what do you do all day?!"

What do I do all day? Professor stuff! Advising students. Writing proposals. Reducing data. Writing papers. In astronomy, nominally we're hired to be instructors. But in reality, we gotta pay the bills.

My tenure decision in about 6 years will be based primarily on how many papers I publish, how important those papers are to my field of research, how much grant money I bring in (Caltech keeps a percentage of all the grant dollars I raise, to keep the lights on, pay salaries, etc), how well I use Caltech's telescope facilities (my papers), and the quality of the work of the students I advise. Oh, and I'm sure they'll make a cursory check of my teaching evaluations. You know, to make sure the students don't hate me. 'Cause if they did, well, um...How much grant money did I raise?

I wanted to make sure I got off to a strong start at Caltech, so I negotiated a year off from teaching. Thus, my first year ended up being like a third year of a postdoctoral fellowship, with few responsibilities beyond my own research and some student mentoring, yet much higher pay!

This is not to say that I dislike teaching or that it's not important to me. First of all, I really enjoy doing it. I figured out that I spent half of my 14 semesters at UC Berkeley teaching, either as a TA or as the instructor of the IDL programming course I designed. That's just the Berkeley way.

Secondly, one of the most important things I've learned from one of my favorite scientist/educators, Bob Mathieu, is that teaching, advising and research need not be separate ideas. Your research can generate projects for your advisees, who quite often must learn from you as a teacher. That's one obvious route. A less obvious route is that your teaching in the classroom can generate research ideas and teach you, the advisor new tricks. And as I learned last quarter, the learning often comes directly from the advisees and students!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I decided to step well outside of my comfort zone and teach a brand new course on a subject in which I am a long way from mastering: Statistics. The official course title was "Statistics and Data Analysis in Astronomy," but my friend Jason refers to it as "Practical Astrostats." I really like this title and I think I'll go with it in the future. Here's a link to the course syllabus.

Observational astronomers do a few things on a day-to-day basis. Two of them are programming and data analysis. In many ways programming and analysis go hand-in-hand: you need to code up your analysis method. However these two topics are rarely found in the official course requirements of most astro programs. Indeed, the courses are rarely available at all, except through the computer science and statistics departments, respectively. And those courses rarely provide a direct link between the subject matter and astronomy (not to mention the tendency for most statisticians to be about as interesting as a tax form, yet somehow less engaging). Hence, Practical Astrostats.

I followed Sensei Mathieu's advice on several fronts. First, I blended the normally disparate concepts of instruction and evaluation. Usually the professor follows a rigid syllabus in a linear fashion, and evaluation occurs at set intervals during the semester/quarter. Students learn, learn, learn, and then they're tested. Then they learn, learn, learn. Then tested.

In my class I was constantly evaluating the students, and the feedback I received from the evaluation shaped what I was teaching. At the same time, the process of evaluating the students quite often helped me evaluate my own knowledge, and guided what I needed to learn better, so I could teach better, and then evaluate how well I did. As a result, the course ended up as only a shadow of my original plan as laid out in the syllabus.

I constructed this feedback loop by doing something somewhat crazy and unorthodox: I shut up and stopped lecturing. Lecturing is a one-way street. Even instructors with the best intentions can only get something like a 10% feedback rate. "Any questions? Anyone? Anyone?" This is because asking students to ask questions in front of a class of 10 to 100 other students is a very high-stakes proposition. We can insist that there are no bad questions, but let's face it: some people in the room get it, and if you're asking a question, you're not one of those smart, getting-it people. Yes, you might get clarity on what you don't understand, but only at the price of feeling like the dumb person in the room.

So instead of lecturing, I turned my statistics class into a lab. Students brought their laptops to class, I gave an intro mini-lecture, and I then distributed a worksheet (here's the first first worksheet). This allowed me to wander around the room evaluating their progress, and evaluating how well my worksheet was conveying the subject of the day. When students got stuck, they got stuck with a partner, and the two or three of them could ask me a question off to the side of the rest of the class, which greatly reduced the stakes of interaction. These questions were never bad, and by the second week they were comfortable asking them. After all, if the student asking the question was dumb, then so was their partner, and the probability of finding two dumb Caltech students in the same two-student group is the product of two small numbers.

Another method of evaluation came in the form of "rolling oral quizzes." Every class period my TA and I would pull individuals out of the classroom and have an informal conversation about some aspect of the course material. "Okay, let's suppose you had a photometer and measured to flux levels F1 and F2. What's the probability that the levels are equal? What's the probability that the flux is rising with time?" These conversations were great because they allowed me to evaluate how well the student was keeping up with the reading/HW/classwork. They also helped me evaluate how well I was teaching that material, identify what I should emphasize more, and test how well I understood the material. The latter was often humbling, but extremely useful.

The end result is that I taught a class of 14 (10 grads, 4 senior undergrads; huge by Caltech astro standards) in what may be the first statistics course in history with > 90% attendance and during which no one fell asleep. Not one sleeping student! My post-term student evaluation scores were consistently above the historical average for both astro courses in particular, and Caltech courses in general. Yes, I'm bragging :)

Oh, and that TA I mentioned? That was Tim, a fourth-year grad student working with me. He'll be taking his Ph.D. candidacy exam next month, and his thesis is focused on the statistics of exoplanets. Here's our first paper together. More to come soon!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing and music and fighting

I cannot get over this song/video by the White Stripes. I realize I'm extremely late to join the band wagon, but better late than never. I've encountered them before on others' recommendations, but for some reason I never connected. However, this song has excited a strong resonant response somewhere deep down inside me. I don't know how to explain it (maybe it's just gas?), but I'm thoroughly entranced.

I finally became interested in the White Stripes after watching the documentary It Might Get Loud. If you have Netflix it's available on Instant viewing and I highly recommend it. The movie follows a conversation among three guitar giants: The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White. My favorite part among many amazing scenes is when Jack describes his crappy, plastic, red guitar that he bought from Montgomery Ward. He laments how many guitarists obsession for collecting pretty instruments. In contrast, with his music and instruments he prefers to "pick a fight with it, and win." His son then proceeds to stomp on the guitar.

One of the Youtube commenters says it perfectly, "That poor guitar had no choice, Jack White forced it to give him everything, including its soul. He possessed that guitar and made it do his bidding."

I'm no musician, but I can relate to this notion of picking a fight and winning when it comes to creative processes. I'm doing that now with my research and my teaching. As a recent example, I realized that my understanding of statistical methods was, while on par for astronomy, not good enough to do a lot of the science I wanted to do. So back at the IfA I joined forces with some of my fellow post docs and a few students, and we collectively picked a fight with statistics. By seeking to understand the subject at a fundamental level, we won on several fronts (see here, and here, and here). I then took the leap of teaching a new statistics course here at Caltech (more on this later). If I wanted an easier first quarter of teaching, I could have taught an exoplanets seminar. But I think I'm much better off for having stepped out of my comfort zone.

Another fight for me is the process of writing. For me, writing is definitely like a fight. The challenge as I see it is that writing---technical writing specifically---is a very linear form of communication. However, our brains are decidedly non-linear. Ideas bounce around, words dance and play and often refuse to cooperate. Sitting down and writing is the process of wrangling those words and ideas, forcing them to walk in a line, yet allowing them to play just enough to make your writing worth reading.

I'm still a long way off from where I want to be, but I constantly remind myself that it's an ongoing battle. You win not by arriving, but by continuing. (Ooh, I like that!)

P.S. Here's another great scene from the movie

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Updates from the Andrew Lange Memorial Trampoline

He made 4 out of about 12 shots before we turned the camera on. I was thinking, "Of course now that the camera is on he'll start missing." Then:

Owen: "That's the one I'm talkin' 'bout!"

Teaching about race

I came across this excellent piece of MLK Day reading this morning by a guest writer on Ta-Nahisi Coate's blog:
Of course, I think it's important that she know this history. I think it's absolutely crucial that, at some point, she understand how race works in America, not the least of which is because she'll inevitably learn it the hard way (and I suppose it says a lot about how sheltered a life she's had thus far that she hasn't been confronted with it)[3]. Most importantly, I want to raise her with an investment in social justice and that means she's going to have to intimately understand the history and function of race and racial inequality.

I just hoped this would all come "later."
I have thought a lot about Owen's future as a mixed-race kid, particularly because he'll likely be attending public (read: colored) school. But I haven't yet had a conversation about race with him. I guess, like the TNC guest blogger, I've been hoping this will be something we talk about later.

I think I'm enjoying Owen's current state of innocence about race. One day he was talking about one of his friends from school. I asked which friend he was talking about and, not thinking, I asked, "Is he black?" Owen said, "No! He's not black! He's brown, like Papa."


It's really too bad that I can't preserve for Owen the notion that people just come in a continuum of shades, ranging from "kinda pinkish yellowish brown," as Owen describes his grandmothers' skin, up to dark brown like his grandfather. He'll eventually have to learn the "adult" notion that there are "clear" borders that make this guy black:

and this guy equally black:

Now, is that clear, son?

Martin Luther King Day

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
This dream was once considered radical. In some ways it still is. It's like realizing what it means to love your neighbor as you love yourself. I can say I believe it, but it takes constant practice to realize it in even a portion of my daily life. Similarly, our nation needs to constantly remind itself of this belief as it evolves through the decades. From time to time, and for certain groups of people, this radical notion must be advanced from dream to reality.

Happy MLK Day! Take the 20 minutes you'd use to watch your favorite cooking show or reality TV program and recall his amazing speech (says the guy who twice on Sunday forgot that Monday is a holiday):

Sunday, January 16, 2011

misc photos

Mar rocking Daddy's Bose headphones on the way to Houston. Thank you iPod and PBS Kids downloads!

Owen, Mar and Nonna rocking the Victrola. We're still trying how to get that from Houston to Cali. Check out Owen's new do! He wanted a haircut just like Daddy's. When Erin's first attempt left too many curls for his liking, he took scissors to his head. The end result is that I had to remove the guard and shear him like an Army recruit. I love the new style. I think even Erin had to admit it looks good, despite the pain in her heart.

Immediately after The Haircut.

Mar and Pokey Man (Pokemon?). Mar thought that guy was a total ass. Everyone agreed.

Owen's new haircut bends time and space around him.

There were 17 three-week old baby goats at Aunt Jeanette's and Uncle Dave's farm. Erin managed to catch one using a fishing net.

One handsome dude.

Mommy and another handsome, yet goofy dude.

Erin and Aunt Jeanette going to check the mail.


Erin's college friend Carey and her daughter with Mar and Erin.

Owen's invention: Peanut Butter and Jellyfish.

Fun with holiday anagrams.

Owen and friends work on an "art project."

Making Auntie Amy proud.

The Frontier is Everywhere

I really needed to see this today. I crawled past my astronomical existential crisis long ago. My new challenge is hoping for a bright future for Owen and Marcus. I hope they'll live in a world that provides them with the luxury of studying the stars and dreaming of other planets like our own. Of course, Carl Sagan nicely summed up this idea long before I came on the scene. This NASA PSA encapsulates the sentiment nicely:

h/t: Andrew Sullivan

Speaking of old pictures

Some beautiful video poetry (and beautiful music) by The Books.

Thanks, Bri, for introducing me to this band.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Just born that way

I had a lot of fun browsing this photo blog tonight. We all had at least one of these guys or gals in our school (or maybe you were one of them!). I remember my friend James in first through sixth grade who was way into Barry Manilow. He always wore an impeccably ironed shirts to school and always sported the nicest haircuts among the boys. I'd go over to his house after school and all he wanted to do was stage piano recitals for me, singing Mandy or some such.

I didn't know he was gay then, and I can't be 100% certain now. But then again, looking back...with some people, you know, right? I really hope James is as fabulous now as he was back then.

Some of my favorites from the blog:

Colby Brumit, age 9
Door County, WI (1988)

"All that summer we listened to George Michael's Faith album on cassette endlessly, and I was mesmerized by how cool it was...Looking at it now, I feel so, so lucky that my parents let me fruit out as much as I wanted to."


South Texas (1976)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Like, you know?

I plan to make all of my students watch this video:

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

I've noticed the creeping vines of questions crawling on sentences in many recent science talks, especially by the "young'uns." The non-question question mark is a defining characteristic of Caltech undergrad speech patterns? I've also noticed a lot of, "Today, I want to tell you about low-mass stars." Oh yeah? You want to tell me that? Well tell me, instead of leaving me in doubt right off the bat! "Today I'm going to tell you about low-mass stars." Period. Then do it!

Another pet peeve of mine is "sort of." There are way too many things in astronomy these days that sort of do things, and sort of correlate with other things. In practice, you don't sort of extract your spectrum. So don't tell me you did.

Tell me what you know. Be the expert in the room. Not just for your sake, but for mine and the rest of the audience.

Hat tip to my seester Amy P. for the video.

P.S. Can you tell I'm suffering from post-AAS burn out?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Home Again

We've returned from Houston, safe and sound. The boys traveled like champs. We ate, imbibed and even exercised at the Pousson homestead. I love xmas time.

I'll be off to Seattle for AAS soon. I might post on the road, but more likely I won't. Perhaps Erin will post pictures from our trip if you pester her enough in the comments section.

For now, I'll leave you with a love song from father to child, and child to father (you've seen this, right?):