Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ho Hey, cluck cluck

Slate had a short piece about the "Chickeneers," who recently performed an all-clucking parody of the song Ho Hey by the Lumineers on the Jimmy Fallon Show. I somehow managed to miss this hit song until today (I was the 57,365,304th viewer on Youtube, yet it was my first time seeing it). So for those of you also behind the times, here's the catchy video for a catchy song:

And here are the Chickeneers, featuring Jimmy Fallon:

Pondering Basketball Scores

Right now I'm watching the Michigan vs. Florida game in the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament. The winner of this game will advance to one of the coveted Final Four positions, and have a chance of winning the National championship.

By most measures Michigan totally dominated Florida in the first half. Florida has never led. Michigan scored the first 13 points of the game. At one point, Michigan led by 24 points.

However, I noticed something that I see over and over again in basketball games: total blowouts are extremely rare. Once Florida scored its first points, the maximum fractional lead was 13 points divided by 2 points, or a factor of 6.5 times as many points as Florida. What I find puzzling is that this fractional lead steadily decreased steadily as the game advanced toward halftime.

This is puzzling because let's suppose that Michigan is 1.5 times better than Florida (on this specific day). This factor is likely smaller given that the teams are ranked 4 and 3, respectively. But let's just suppose Michigan (or any other basketball team) is 1.5 times better than their opponent. This would mean that on any given possession, they have a factor of 1.5 larger chance of hitting their shots. On defense, they should be 1.5 times more likely to force a turnover.

Thus, if Florida has a 30% chance of scoring on any given possession, Michigan should have a 45% chance of scoring. If this is true, shouldn't Michigan's score with 15 minutes left in the half be a factor of 1.5 times larger than Florida's at that point? If Florida scored 16 points with 15 minutes left, then Michigan should have 24 points. Similarly, at the end of the half, Michigan should have 1.5 times more points. The fractional score should be constant throughout the game, right?!

However, check out the fractional score (ScoreM/ScoreF) as a function of time:

(Note: Since Florida didn't score until the 16:29 mark, the ratio is undefined for the first 3.5 minutes)

While Michigan led throughout the first half, their fractional lead decreased almost monotonically, from 6ish down to 1.5. 

In games with mismatched teams, I see this happen all the time. The better team jumps out to an early lead that is huge in a fractional sense. Something like 20-5, or a factor of 4 lead. But thereafter the score difference typically remains roughly constant at, say, 15-20 points. But the fractional lead decreases steadily throughout the game. One team clearly dominates, but they very rarely pull all the way away. This is especially true in NBA games and NCAA tourney games (based on my casual observation). 

If we define a true blowout as a game during which one team maintains a nearly constant fractional lead over their opponent (with a final score something like 90-50), why are blowouts so rare? I can think of a few reasons, but none are particularly satisfying:
  1. Teams let up when they have a big lead, putting in bench players who then match up against the opposing (losing) starters (this is the most compelling hypothesis IMO).
  2. The losing team tries harder when down by a large amount (doubtful. I'd expect the opposite).
  3. The early portions of games are dominated by small-number statistics, and as the game goes on, the fractional lead asymptotically approaches the score expected based on the fractional disparity in ability between the two teams. (this would be interesting, but I don't understand why it would work out this way). 

Has anyone else noticed and wondered about this? If so, are there any other good hypotheses?

BTW, there are 5 minutes left in the game, and the score is 69-51 Michigan, or a 1.35 fractional score. The fractional score has continued to decrease after the half! If the fractional score 15 minutes into the first half (2) held, then the score would be 69-35 right now. But an Elite Eight game with that sort of score difference (34 point differential) is almost unheard of. Why?!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Order of Magnitude Parenting: Lines at Legoland

The Technic Project X roller coaster at Legoland California
Yesterday we took the boys to Legoland, down near San Diego. We've been in Southern California four years, but we've never visited the Mecca of my childhood religion! Oh, plastic, interlocking blocks. Thank you for keeping me out of the heat of St. Louis summers while enriching my mind.

While waiting in line with Owen to ride one of the roller coasters, a kid in front of us asked his father, "How much longer do we have to wait in line?" The father responded saying it would take about 30 minutes. After hearing this exchange, Owen looked up at me as if to ask, "Seriously? 30 minutes?" So I decided to turn it into a teaching moment. "Let's figure it out!"

Owen timing the arrival of each roller coaster car. The cars turned left over our heads and dropped to the left of this picture. We estimated 40 seconds per car. 

The first thing we did was look up above the line area, where the coaster was dragged to the top of the "hill" before plunging nearly straight down, right by the waiting patrons. We timed how long it took for consecutive cars to drop: 41 seconds. Let's call it a car 40 seconds. This comes to 1.5 cars per minute. Each car has 4 seats, so that's 10 people per minute passing overhead. Since there's a steady-state flow of people from the line to the point where they are dropped, screaming over the precipice, This is the rate, $R$, at which people are moving in the line.

Three different sub-lines within the main line. About 20 people per sub-line.

Next, we estimated how many people were in the line. I held Owen up and he counted the number of people in our "sub-line," where the main line wound back on itself. There were 5 of these sub-lines, with about 20 people per sub-line, for a total of $N = 100$ people in line. Thus

$T_{\rm left\ in\ line} = N / R = 100/10 = 10$ minutes

Owen was much happier with this estimate, as was I. As an added bonus, we got to pass the time doing a practical OoM problem.

In the end, it took us 13 minutes instead of 10. After the adrenaline of the ride wore off (it took a while, since it was Owen's first roller coaster), I asked him if he could think of why it took longer. He first answered that it was because we counted wrong. Good point. But I don't think were off by 30% just because of a counting error. In the end, we decided that the cars must be only partially full, on average, with less than 4 riders each.

We went back for a second ride on the roller coaster, and sure enough, every third car or so had only 3 riders. Families and other groups with 3, 5, 7, or any other odd number of riders would result in a partially filled car. In the final analysis, I figured that our counting error was about 10%, and the car fill factor was only about 85%. The second time through the line I estimated our time from the end of the line (6.5 sub-lines). After accounting for the fill-factor (correction of 1.2), I estimated 15 +/- 1 minutes. We got to the front in 14 minutes. Nailed it!

While I could be proud of my abilities of estimation, I was a little less proud of how I did on the ride, as captured by the coaster cam. I did a little bit better than Marcus, but with a lot less dignity:

Look closely and you can see Marcus in the back left seat. Owen's look is priceless. You wouldn't know it from this picture, but Erin was the one who wanted to skip the ride at boarding time.

Overall, it was a really enjoyable day!

Overheard in class this term

One of my students, Mike, took very detailed notes during this term's Ay117 Astrostats course. Here are the highlights from my and my TA's, lectures:


“I don’t have great things to say about Mathematica.”

“Who’s feeling lucky?”

“Are there any questions? Great! Actually, it’s better when there are questions. I should stop saying [great!] and say, ‘Are there any questions? No? Aw, that’s too bad.’”

“Oh god, I do NOT understand Mathematica.”

“Never anything positive out of Mathematica—EVER.”

“Let’s say you wanted to raise your hand at a colloquium. You wouldn’t say—unless you’re Dave Stevenson—‘THAT’S WRONG!’”

“Blackboard myopia—when you’re at the blackboard and it’s harder to do math.”

“Chris, why don’t you come up here? I just ran a random number generator to choose one of you guys randomly!”

“Hopefully everybody’s nodding or getting close to being able to nod.”

“This pen, of course, as always, sucks.”

“It’s both profound and profoundly dumb at the same time.”

“I don’t know what the real name for this is. I call it the ‘stair-step plot.’ I’m pretty sure I didn’t make that up.”

“Look, I want to hear a cacophony of, ‘EXPONENTIAL MINUS ONE HALF…’”

“So how did you guys do with the problem set? I see a lot of guilty smiles.”

“Six months ago, I stopped being able to use Caltech Registered. It’s like they really want me to get out of here.”

“The number of words you think should be on your slides, divide that by 2, 3, or maybe infinity, and that’s the number of words that should be on your slide.”

“I hate whiteboard pens.”

“You’ll never find errors if you can’t see them.”

“I hate texting. I’m so bad at it.”

“If you are worried about the difference between N and N–1 , then you are probably up to no good.”

“I don’t even believe in Mathematica.”

Prof. Johnson:

[Trying to show an online video] “Whoa—don’t look at my inbox.”

“I’ll slap your hand if you get those mixed up. No, I probably won’t. I’ll get sued if I do that.”

“As long as we believe in multiplying probability distributions, we’re all Bayesians!”

“Go ahead and talk about that, or just stare at each other confused.”

[On the approximately equal sign]
“Bacon equal!”

“Since Saturday, I’ve been sick, and I’m still sick, but I’m going to power through this!”

“There are many things that I’ll defer to the National Academy of Sciences guy on. I am a fourth-year professor. At the time, I was a first-year professor. But this is one of those times that I didn’t back down. He was wrong.

“This is why astronomers walk around murmuring under their breath, ‘Root N, root N, root N…’”

“The funny thing is, the more you go into astrophysics, especially if you’re an observer, the more your calculus atrophies. If I were a theorist, things would be different.”

“I didn’t know that. That’s hot.”

“We have a guest today, Renée Hložek, which sounds like ‘logic,’ but looks nothing like it.”

“I went so many years hearing people say, ‘I just did MCMC blah blah blah blah,’ and I thought, wow, those guys must be so smart because that thing has so many syllables and one of the words is the name of a Russian guy. It has to be good and it has to be hard.”

“There are more syllables in Markov Chain Monte Carlo than there are lines of code in the simplest MCMC code.”

“A Markov Chain is like when I have too much burbon. What I do now is dependent on where I was last, but I have no memory of how I got there.” [ed note: h/t to Bri on this one]

“Does anybody not understand how cool that is? Because I want to tell you how cool that is.”

“Every talk that I give, I never apologize for saying things that are supposed to be obvious.”

“Every science talk I do, I aim towards the first-year graduate students in the back row. And the professors love my talks because they get to sit there and sagely nod their heads while the graduate students are getting really excited about my field because they can actually understand what’s going on.”

“You don’t need to know this unless you’re fans of trivia.”

“How about that little happy cosmic coincidence?”

Student: “I’m troubled.”
John: “I’m glad! I’m not glad that you’re troubled; I’m glad that you’re telling me.”

[On making fun of other people]
“It’s not so much that I like putting people down as it is I’m trying to instill a fear in you of doing those things too.”

“It’s every astronomer’s—or every experimentalist’s—mantra: more data, more data, gotta get more data.”

“You see an outlier and you say, ‘Out, liar!’”

“I’m going to use a little pidgin math because I haven’t fully thought this through.”

“I’m notorious because I’m known to throw pop finals.”

“That was a previous measurement that was made of the universe in the Journal of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I win! New high score!

Not to brag or anything, but check it:

Okay, yeah, I'm bragging. Thank you Boomerang!

(checks inbox again)

Oh noez! New messages!

Professing with Depression

I just read an excellent article by an MIT professor, Prof. John Belcher. He describes his decent into full-on clinical depression, and his inspiring recovery with the assistance of modern medicine (yay science!). I found it enlightening and reassuring to read his harrowing tale

It was the perfect storm. My physical coordination went. My thought processes became disordered. I had a hard time, for example, simply reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I became lethargic, and had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Sleeping all the time seemed like a good option. I retained a certain detachment as I was sinking into depression. “So this is what it feels like to become clinically depressed” I would say to myself.

I also learned that there is a big difference from the acute anxiety that I suffer from, and the crushing depression that can cause a person to hole up in their house, unable to face the challenges of day-to-day life. I've seen it happen in my family, my friends and the people around me in academia. It's a real problem and it impedes progress in our field. We must face this source of inefficiency (and unhappiness) in our community. The most effective thing we can all do is to start to de-stigmatize mental health problems and the medication that solves them. 

...This term I am teaching in and co-administering 8.02, a class with 830 students, along with Peter A. Dourmashkin ’76. We both know from long experience that it is statistically inevitable that a handful of our 8.02 students will get into trouble this term, with their own perfect storm, and that clinical depression is one of the possible outcomes. I am no doctor, but I do recognize the symptoms of depression. If a student comes to me with troubles of any kind, I always tell them to go to S3 or Mental Health. In case depression is the cause of the trouble, I also share with them that I have been clinically depressed and am on Prozac, and that there is no shame in that. 
We should all be thankful that we live in this day and age, when these medications and treatments are available. We should not avoid them. In the words of Grace Taylor, “It’s not you, it’s a disease.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hit the 1K mark!

w00t!!11! I just hit the 1000 citation mark! If I were in the NBA, they'd be talking about how I hit the 10,000 point mark. In astronomy, one of our metrics is citations to first-author papers. Other metrics include: number of first-author refereed papers (23), total number of refereed publications (124), total citations to all refereed papers (6101; thank you collaborators!), and h-index (44). Am I forgetting any?

But before my head gets too big, I gotta remember I'm joining a dept with this guy, who has 1.7 more first-author citations than I do...on one of his papers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Food targeted at substance abusers?

Or abused substances marketed as food? Or does it even matter? A review of the Doritos Taco at Deadspin, via Karin:
The reality, though, is that I think we all understand that Taco Bell is to food what the propeller beanie hat is to transportation: wildly insufficient, but not altogether un-enjoyable if approached with the right attitude—where “approached with the right attitude” is just a long-winded euphemism for “inebriated to the point of incoherence.” Even the cybernetic corporate attack drones at PepsiCo understand this, which is why Taco Bell markets itself explicitly at the late-night drunkard demographic, cashing in on the sublime openness to the absurd which characterizes insomniac substance-abusers. If the notion of a taco made out of Doritos seems offensively stupid to you by the cold light of day, just know that, somewhere out there in the world, there’s a coworker or drinking buddy or leathery bean-eating hobo who has heard you, deep into the wee hours of morning and baked out of your mind, ask, “Hey, you know what would be awesome?” and then go on to propose making macaroni-and-cheese, but, like, with Cheetos instead of macaroni, man, whoa.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Between the legs assist for windmill jam

10, 10, 10 and 9.5 from the Russian judge.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Steph Curry, making it rain in New York

For some random reason I was a big fan of the Charlotte Hornets back when they were a new expansion team. Larry "Gram mama" Johnson, Zo Mourning, the tiny point guard Mugsy Bougues, and the sharpshooter Del Curry. Well, Del grew up and had himself a couple of sons, the eldest named Stephen Curry. Steph went to Davidson, led his team deep into the tourney, and is now the star point guard for the Golden State Warriors, one of my favorite teams.

And what a point guard he is! While the elder Curry was a spot-up shooter and a decent defender, Curry the Younger can shoot on the move, drive, dish, bob and weave. He's the full package.

Last month Curry posted 54 points against the Knicks. Check out his shot chart:

Steph Curry is the master of the pull-up three-pointer off of the fast break. But whether set or moving, his shooting form is a thing of beauty. The same can be said of the crop of young NBA players who are the sons of former NBA players, including Klay Thompson (Steph's backcourt teammate and son of Mychal Thompson) and Austin Rivers (son of Doc Rivers). What else do these stars have in common? They're mixed kids, just like me!

Here's a video recap of every point from Seth's historic night:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Heading East, Harvard here we come!

My long journey started around this time last year, and it ended this morning, at least officially. After many department visits, phone conversations and family meetings, the Johnsons will be heading East to Cambridge, MA this summer. I'm joining the Harvard faculty as a full professor!

There were myriad reasons for this change in my career path. At Caltech, over the 3.5 years that I've been there I've come to recognize a fundamental mismatch between what I value (i.e. what I blog about most frequently) and what the institute values. This is not a statement about which side is right, per se. It's just a statement of fact about the nature of different people's values.

There a scene from the TV miniseries The Wire that has been playing on loop for about the past year, which nicely sums up what I've been experiencing:

I've wanted it to be one way in the department I'm a part of. But it had been made abundantly clear to me that it isn't one way. It's the other way. Whether that is absolutely good or absolutely bad, or a mix of both, is a separate discussion. But the fact of the matter is that Caltech is structured to be a lean, mean research machine. To be sure, I have benefited greatly from that structure on the research side of things. The downside is that their small size and elite status constricts their ability to prioritize diversity and makes it difficult to put a meaningful focus on education, especially on teaching innovation. The key is that while this structure works for most people here, it is simply not a good match for me.

Fortunately, I have a choice. If I don't like it the other way, I can go out and find the one way elsewhere. This decision to choose didn't come easily or quickly. For a long time I felt stuck in place, unable to move because of things like the dependence of my research on the Keck telescopes. However, it isn't a machine that has made my career. I did my dissertation on a 0.6m telescope that no one else cared much about. At Hawaii I used the smallest telescope on the mountain. My career has been built on my own creativity and hard work, along with the creativity and hard work of the group I've gathered around me. That's portable, and so am I.

Don't get me wrong, making the decision to leave Pasadena was an option available to me, but the decision was far from easy. At this time last year, the notion of moving was largely a non-starter with Erin, and understandably so. Moving isn't trivial, especially when it involves an entire family. We came to Caltech anticipating it being our last stop and the decision to move had to fold in considerations about my family, not just my research.

However, my job and my family are coupled. If I'm stressed out and unhappy at work, that comes home with me. I started out happy, but gradually my mood faded. This was pointed out to me last year by a very astute graduate student: "When you came here, you smiled all the time. You smile less now." Erin and I realized that change was necessary not just for my happiness at work, but also for my family's wellbeing.

But, wait, isn't this just a case of seeing greener grass on the other side of the fence? Aren't there problems in every department? Isn't it unreasonable to ask that a department meet my specific needs?

Well, if my time at Caltech has taught me one thing, it has taught me what questions to ask and what to look out for. During my many visits to other universities and departments I brought with me a list of very specific, blunt questions to ask those in power. At Harvard, I had the unusual privilege of posing these blunt questions to the president of the university, Drew Faust. Her answers and those of others certainly weighed heavily in my decision.

When it comes to the things I value, I don't need an entire department on my side. I just need a forum to air my opinion, a faculty that respects and listens to my point of view, and a group of colleagues that can work together to identify and address problems---and successes---within the department. I need a team. The rest comes down to leadership and hard work. Fortunately  I will be brought into the Harvard Astronomy Department in a position of leadership. Tenure ain't cheap, and not everyone gets it, especially at Harvard. I'm beyond honored by their decision to award me tenure, three years ahead of schedule at that!

I'll write more about some of the details of the process later, but for now I'll just say that I am thrilled and I'm looking forward to an array of new opportunities in my new astronomy department. Chief among the things I look forward to is the opportunity to be a university professor in the fullest sense. Some people around me have raised concerns about how outspoken I am about teaching innovation, and especially my writing on mental health on this blog and elsewhere. I'm happy and proud to report that I was not hired despite what I've been advocating in the past few years. I was awarded tenure at Harvard in part because of being so outspoken on these things. I'm proud to be a part of a progressive community where something like this can happen, and it buoys my spirits for addressing the problems that remain.

Thus, I feel like I'm going to Harvard with a mandate to continue what I've started here at Caltech. I look forward to joining an academic community that over the past few years has really put its money where its mouth is when it comes to education and diversity/inclusion. Is it perfect? Nope. But the conversation has been started and the gears are in motion. I look forward to joining the effort and leading parts of it in the near future.

On the home front, Erin and the boys are excited, too. We're looking forward to a cross-country road trip this Summer, and we are currently planning on arriving in Cambridge, MA sometime in August. This is going to be another great chapter in the grand adventure of the Johnson family. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013

Marcus' tour of the USS Iowa

Saturday morning I decided to skip my usual pickup game at the Braun courts to spend some quality time with Marcus. I asked Erin if she had any good ideas for something Marcus would like and she suggested a tour of the USS Iowa which is docked down in Long Beach, about 30 minutes south of Pasadena. So I bought an adult ticket online (kids under 6 are fee), and the boy and I got dressed, hopped in the race car, and took the 110 south.

Marcus took a power nap in the car, and when I pulled up to the docks I woke him up to a view of the massive USS Iowa battle ship.

We handed the attendant our ticket at the entrance and walked up the gangplank to begin our tour. The path is marked out clearly and it meanders back and forth, yet steadily up one deck after another. I had a lot of childhood memories from reading military books, and I was proud to recognize about half of what the various tour guides and plaques said. It's a lot of fun to have Marcus becoming intensely interested in all of the same things I loved as a kid: battle ships, carriers, jets, helicopters, guns, soldiers, etc.

We wrapped up our tour with a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and a shared bottle of Sprite in the chow hall below decks. While we ate, Marcus looked up at me and said, "Dad, today I am so happy!" That day, I certainly was, too.
Dad, this water is pretty dirty.
Dad, this is where they load the ammo. 
Long-arm shot.
Dad, we're WAY bigger than that boat. 
The USS Iowa's various anti-missile defenses: chaff mortars (foreground) and "R2-D2" 20mm radar-guided Gatling gun (background)
Dr. Strangelove...
...or, How I came to love the 16-inch main-gun shells. Yeeee HAW!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

My new ride

For all but about 1 month of our 12.41-year marriage, Erin and I have maintained a one-car family. In Berkeley I rode the bus and Erin commuted to work. In Hawaii, I walked 0.8 miles to work in the beautiful Manoa Valley, while Erin drove Owen to day care, swim practice and to the beach. In Pasadena, I'm fortunate to live only about 2 miles from work, and for the first 2 years I rode my bike or walked to/from work.
Jeez, I never before noticed how much dust there was on my car!
However, Marcus now attends preschool near Caltech 3-4 times a week, and will soon go full-time. It's difficult for Erin to drive one direction to pick up Owen from school and then double back during dinner-prep time to pick up Marcus and me from Caltech. Sure, if I were a better person I'd ride my bike with Marcus in a Burley trailer. But that would add about 1 to 1.5 hours of commute time to my day, taking away time from work and/or basketball. Not to mention arriving to work all sweaty.

Okay, okay. This is all just a litany of excuses for me to get a new car. Not that these excuses aren't valid, but Erin and I also have that good ol' liberal guilt hanging over our decision: to buy a second car or not to buy a second car? In the end, we did the LA thing and I decided to buy a second car. And dammit, liberal ideals aside, I love cars. I always have. I know reliance on fossil fuels is bad for national security, and burning those fossils is bad for the environment. But that's not gonna make me give up my subscription to Car & Driver magazine, nor is it going to keep me from lusting after the latest high-revving sports coupe.

So I began my research into a new car last Fall. My goal was to maximize along several dimensions: price, practicality (useable space, four doors over two), build quality, fuel economy, and driving enjoyment. For the latter two criteria, a manual transmission is a must. Oh how I miss the slick-shifting five-speed in our old Acura Integra GS-R sedan! That car would just whisper "Red-line, red-line!" in my ear on every freeway onramp. And I would nearly always oblige, flooring it in second as the engine screamed its way up to 7900 rpm. What a rush.

An Acura Integra GS-R Sedan, just like the one we had in Berkeley. Oh Paddy, we miss you so.
For the price and quality factors, a Honda is a must in my opinion. Maybe Nissan or Toyota. But Toyotas tend to be pretty bland in the fun-to-drive department, and it's hard to argue for any Nissan model over the equivalent from Honda, except for the 350Z, for which Honda's S2000 is close, but no cigar. But I decide against the high insurance premiums, high costs, crappy fuel economy and limited passenger space of a sports car like the 350Z.

That led me to the Honda Accord Coupe V-6. Because new models run about $30K, I decided to hunt around for a used model (2008 or 2009). But finding a manual transmission is extremely difficult, even in the huge Los Angeles used car market. Or perhaps it is because of LA traffic concerns that getting a stick was especially difficult.
A 2009 Honda Accord Coupe, which I came *this* close to buying
After a month of searching, I finally located a model via in Glendale. So one Sunday the family packed up the Mazda 5 and headed over to check it out. Sadly, I found out that they sold it two days prior and hadn't taken it off of their listing. Cue sad trombone.

On our way off of the lot, Owen exclaimed "Daddy, what's that car?!" He was pointing to a cherry red two-door Honda Civic Si. I replied, "That, son, is a Civic Si. It's a pocket rocket." Owen giggled at the rhyme and ran up to take a closer look at the car. It looked like this:

The Honda Civic Si Coupe

It was definitely a sweet ride. But upon closer inspection, the back seat was a bit cramped, and the boys had a difficult time clambering over the front seats to get into the back. But it did remind me why I love the Si version of the normally humble Civic.

Then, the salesman pointed out a black Civic Si Sedan further back in the lot.

My 2013 Honda Civic Si Sedan
We all climbed in (easily through the four doors) and took it for a test drive. While the new Civic Si isn't as much of a screamer as the previous generation 8000-rpm model (redline is now at 7000 rpm), the large motor generates more low-end torque and slightly more power. I was able to get the tires loose during the first-to-second gear change. The dealer smiled knowingly, and Owen and Marcus exclaimed, "Daddy, this is a race car. You should get this one!"

So I did. That car pictured above is my new ride. Marcus loves riding in the Race Car from preschool, and Owen enjoys running errands with me. Last night on the way to get Thai take-out, Owen and I experimented with launches with the traction control turned off on the Raymond Ave. "Daddy, what's that smell?" he asked. "Son, that's tire smoke," I replied with a huge grin on my face.

Red-line whispers, in LED format
I absolutely love this car. In traffic I can just leave it in second gear and the 170 lb-ft of torque pull easily and smoothly at low revs (our Integra only had 124 lb-ft, way up at 5200 rpm). Around town, I can skip-shift from first to third to fifth and get 28-29 mpg. However, my 1000-mile average is only 24.5 mpg because I can't resist the red-line whispers. Merging onto the highway is exhilarating. This car is an absolute hooligan anywhere past 4000 rpm. The dash has a little line of four amber lights that march across as the revs rise. The manual transmission is like butter, with a positive snick-snick when changing gears (although I have to admit that I still haven't figured out how to go from fifth to sixth smoothly). And, oh! It corners like it's on rails. Off ramps are as much fun as on ramps!

So there you have it. Fun on four wheels. If you see me in your rear-view mirror, move on over to the right, would ya?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Project Minerva Update

Project Minerva construction continued last week and we now have our telescope enclosure on campus and ready for commissioning of the first telescope. Telescope #1 should arrive April 1.

Jon and his daughter meet Harmon Construction for the late-night delivery
Unloading the pieces

Putting everything together

Finishing touches
Our own Aqawan enclosure!

A view inside, with the pier awaiting the delivery of Telescope 1

Friday, March 1, 2013

Feynman Teaching Award (w00t!)

My division chair stopped by my office a couple weeks ago and urged me to be present at the next faculty meeting, during which there would be a discussion on online learning. Given that i served on the ad hoc committee addressing this issue, I guessed the request made sense. However, since I wasn't the chair of the committee, and given that there was no real reason for my chair to know I was on this nonstandard committee, the in-persion request was a little odd.

The campus-wide faculty meeting went well, with Prof. Djorgovski (Astro) among those who talked about the success and challenges of online learning. Then came the next action item: announcing the Feynman Teaching Award. To my surprise:

Planetary Astronomer Wins Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

PASADENA, Calif.—John A. Johnson, assistant professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been awarded the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Johnson was recognized for his dedication, passion, and innovation in teaching as well as his ability to inspire his students.

The Feynman Prize was established "to honor annually a professor who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching." Caltech faculty members, students, postdoctoral scholars, staff, and alumni may nominate a faculty member for the prize. A committee appointed by the provost then selects the winner.

According to the official citation, Johnson "immediately emerged as exceptional—a 'true outlier,' in the words of a committee member."

"Richard Feynman's writing inspired me to pursue physics and astronomy," Johnson says. "It is an amazing honor to have my name in any way associated with his."

Johnson was lauded for his creative teaching methods, in which he eschews traditional lectures and problem sets and instead has students work on problems in small groups. At various times, he has required students to explain what they were learning in a class blog, forbidden discussion of grades, emailed YouTube videos that illustrate the day's material, and brought in guest lecturers to discuss the course material and provide career advice.

"My goal is to help the students take ownership of their learning by guiding them rather than lecturing them," explains Johnson, who says he learned his teaching philosophy from physicist Ronald Bieniek at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. "I'm very pleased to hear that my students feel I accomplished this goal, and that we all had such an enjoyable time in the process."

In a nomination letter, one student wrote that Johnson "rocked the boat in the astronomy department, challenging our conceptions of how astronomy, and the sciences in general, are taught." Another student wrote, "Classroom experiences that are intellectually engaging, practical, and entertaining are incredibly rare. Through his teaching style, attention to detail, and unique course structure, Professor Johnson provides just such an experience."

Many students cited Johnson's "life-changing" influence beyond academics. One called him "a remarkable teacher who can not only enlighten students in the classroom but also sculpt their spirits for their future careers." A graduate student said, "He reminded me…why I wanted to be a scientist in the first place."

Johnson, whose research focuses on searching for planets around stars other than our sun, earned his BS in physics in 1999 from the University of Missouri-Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) and his PhD in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, he joined Caltech's faculty in 2009. In 2012, he won the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, and a Lyman Spitzer Lectureship from Princeton. Johnson says, however, that of all the awards he has received this past year, he's most proud of the Feynman Prize.

The previous four winners of the Feynman Prize are Paul Asimow, professor of geology and geochemistry; J. Morgan Kousser, professor of history and social science; Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry; and Jehoshua (Shuki) Bruck, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering. The first Feynman Prize was awarded for the 1993-1994 academic year. Nominations for next year's prize will be solicited in the fall.

Written by Marcus Woo