Saturday, August 31, 2013

Featuring another update personal astro site

Because I'm not that great at the Twitter, I didn't see this tweet from MIT astro grad student Roberto Sanchis-Ojeda until this weekend. D'oh.
Roberto's new site demonstrates the value of having computer scientist friends!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book review of High Price by Carl Hart

I recently finished reading an eye-opening book called High Price by Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. The subtitle provides a nice abstract: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Prof. Hart tells the story of his non-traditional journey from the "special needs" classroom of his youth (where he was tracked along with the other black kids at his school) through his eventual graduate and post-graduate career in academe. He also mixes in the results of his research on the effects of drugs on the human brain that cast a boatload of doubt on our government's ongoing war against its citizens, also known as the "war on drugs."

Here's a fairly typical yet mind-blowing excerpt about the 1986 law that resulted in a huge disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine possession:
Under the 1986 provision, a person convicted of selling 5 grams of crack cocaine was required to serve a minimum sentence of five years in prison. To receive the same sentence for trafficking in in powder cocaine, an individual needed to possess 500 grams of cocaine---1000 times the crack cocaine amount...From a scientific or pharmacological perspective, the disparity wasn't justified: it didn't accurately reflect any real difference in harm related to the drug.
This is because the only differences between crack and powder cocaine crack is cooked with baking soda, which allows it to be smoked. The two forms of cocaine are otherwise nearly identical chemically. Sadly,
One of the keys to crack's success on the market was the selling of very small doses at a low price, something that obviously increases the number of transactions...Crack cocaine increased the prevalence of both street markets and frequent transactions in many black communities. Law enforcement agencies placed considerable resources in black communities aimed at arresting both dealers and users. This combination of factors meant that creating disparate sentences for crack would inevitably---even without any racist intent----put more black people in prison for much longer terms. 
But isn't crack super-addictive? No more addictive than powder cocaine. And according to Prof. Hart's research, cocaine in any form is not very addictive at all, and certainly not as it is portrayed in government propaganda and the popular media. Indeed, 80-90% of people who try "hard drugs" do so without negative impact on their lives. After all, even one of our former presidents dabbled in cocaine without becoming a "fiend."

I highly recommend this book. But be forewarned: once you know something, it's impossible to un-know it. And once you know what's going on with the "war on drugs," it's difficult not to be deeply angered and saddened.

1000 Posts!

So I was arranging my draft blog posts on my Blogger front panel this morning and lookit what I saw:

Booya! 1000 posts. What a milestone, eh?

Thanks to all of you who have been following me since the first post back in 2007. Thanks to all of you who started reading more recently. And thanks especially for all of the encouragement and feedback over the past six years. Given this number of posts it might not look like it, but writing is a continual struggle for me.

I overcome my struggles by practicing. ABW. ABW. Always Be Writing. This blog has been an extremely important tool for me to practice writing, work out my thinking on various matters, express myself and to simply have a lot of fun (hello twerking spiders!).

Here's to 1000 more!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Twerking spiders? Really, evolution?

One of my favorite things about evolution is how over time the same solutions to various problems have been worked out by very disparate species over the vastness of time. For example, both mammals and fish have worked out the whole living-in-water thing. Marsupials like kangaroos and rats have both worked out hopping as a means of propulsion, with giant, energy-storing leg tendons. Succulent planets evolved separately in the Americas and Africa, with thick, non-porous exteriors that help store water in dry environments. If animals need to do it to survive more effectively, time and natural selection have worked out how to do it. It's known as convergent evolution.

But a link between the mating behavior of peacocks and...spiders? Really, evolution? It turns out, yeah, really. There's a tiny little jumping spider in Aussie that has evolved a beautiful booty-shaking mating dance that is reminiscent of peacocks and birds of paradise. Check out the video below. Sorry about the commercial at the beginning, but you can skip it after 5 seconds. The spider-twerking starts at the 3:00 mark.

(Credit: Discover Magazine online. Also, I originally wrote this post with a title inspired by one of my favorite Tumblr feeds, called WTF Evolution? I went over to the site to grab the URL for the citation, and what were they featuring? Peakcock spiders! That's what I call convergent blogging!)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tuesday morning dance break

Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" featuring the dance stylings of Christopher Walken. Wait, what?!

In case the embedded video doesn't work, here's the Youtube link.

Monday, August 26, 2013

More promoting of new/updated personal sites

From Veselin Kostov:
I took some time in the past few weeks to get my site running after hearing too many comments like 'I searched for you online and could not find your site...!' 
And yes, I am European... 
Here it is 

I like this site. In addition to bringing one more European astronomer in from the dark, the design is clean and the layout is logical and functional. Based on the link at the bottom of his front page, he used Weebly to assemble his page, which is a free service with options ranging from $4-$8 per month. 

Also, thanks to Veselin's newfound web presence, I was able to find his widely read arXiv paper "Winter is Coming," in which he addresses the strange weather patterns in the world of G.R.R.M. From his abstract
...we attempt to explain the apparently erratic seasonal changes in the world of G.R.R.M. A natural explanation for such phenomena is the unique behavior of a circumbinary planet.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thursday afternoon dance break

Daft Punk's "Lose Yourself to Dance":


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why wouldn't we pay college athletes?

(Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)
The latest NCAA scandal---scratch that. One of the latest NCAA scandals involves Johnny Football, a.k.a. Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. The freshman phenom one the Heisman trophy last year, and this off-season was busted for...dunh dunh DUNNNN! selling his autograph for thousands of dollars. This is not okay because college athletes are supposed to be "student athletes" with amateur status. The whole sanctity of college athletics rests on the notion of college students who just happen to be pretty good at sports and play a little football in their free time.

Of course, the colleges occasionally make some net income off of this free-time activity. It's all in the name of keeping the lights on at our most prestigious institutions. So if a college just so happens to make a whole lot of money in ticket sales, merchandise, TV deals, etc, then it's fine to compensate those who helped bring in that extra money. This is why college football coaches such as Jeff Tedford at Berkeley make an order of magnitude more than a National Academies of Science astronomy professor: Tedford grossed \$2.9M in 2011, compared to \$0.24M for the top-paid UC astronomy prof. This make sense. UC Berkeley football brings in more dough than astronomy. Right?


But wait, how much did UC Berkeley's star football player bring in? Well, he got free tuition, room and board, and a per diem whenever he traveled. He also got some quality tutoring. The top student in astronomy? Well, he/she got about the same deal (with tutoring optional, of course. But unlike the football player, if the astronomy student breaks her ankle, she gets to keep her scholarship. Not so for the "student-athlete.")

So how dare a star college quarterback go off and make a couple thousand extra bucks on the side selling his autograph?! I'm being facetious, of course. But this is the stance of the NCAA, who would like to revoke Johnny's football-playing privileges for next year. No worries, though, because Johnny can just go to the NFL and bring in millions. Except that he can't, because the NCAA has rules specifying that prospective NFL players must wait three years after high school before turning pro.

Wait, what?!

And if you have any arguments to present based on what paying players would do to the competitive landscape of college sports, please go read this short piece by David Berri at Time:
Competition is unbalanced because the poorest schools are not competing, and if we apply some basic economics, we can see that the NCAA’s prohibition on paying players is part of the problem.
A competitive market uses prices to allocate resources.  But if price increases are not allowed, then non-price issues will dictate the allocation of resources. 
It is well past time to figure out how to pay college athletes. My modest proposal: Let athletes sign sponsorship deals on the side, and stop paying college coaches millions. My less modest proposal: scrap the NCAA and start a true minor league for football and basketball with real salaries. This way the pros would get their feeder league, and college football would retain a true sense of amateurism with far less corruption. Maybe.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Decreasing the murder rate by decreasing lead

Crime is down by 40% in Jamaica, and one of the major reasons is the banning of lead in gasoline (Matthew Yglesias' Slate article here).

Wait, what?

Well, the symptoms of lead poisoning include insomnia, delirium, cognitive deficits and confusion. People don't naturally go around murdering people. Murder isn't intrinsic human behavior. However, if a person suffers from delirium, a lack of sleep and cognitive disorders, mix in a bit of poverty, frustration and free time and you have a good recipe for abnormal, pathological human behavior.

I'm sure there were other sociological factors at play, but I wouldn't be surprised of lead poisoning were the dominant factor. After all, when was the last time we saw a 40% decrease in the murder rate in the US? As pointed out by Yglesias in his article, "Climate change tends to outshine all other environmental worries these days, but the lead-crime link is a powerful reminder that a whole range of issues people care deeply about have significant environmental aspects."

Personally, I'd like to add that this is a really good reason for having government agencies to set policies that benefit the populace, even though it might mean imposing an unprofitable regulation on industry. This should be obvious, but in today's political climate it's often important to remind people that "big government" isn't always a bad thing. Let's hear it for unleaded gas, (relatively) clean air, and clean water. Yay for the EPA! 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fake it till you become it!

Check out that picture above. It's Usain Bolt winning yet another race. Look at what he does. He opens up his body and takes on a "power pose." This is not unique to Usain. Even blind people who have never actually seen another person do this when they win. They open up their body.

Contrast that with what we do when we're inferior:

Aw! We close up in defeat.

This is non-verbal communication. In our society, women close up more than men, and men open up more than women. In academia, minorities close up while the confident strike power poses. We can see it in others, but we see it and reflect it in ourselves.

Does this mean we should strike power poses in job interviews? No. But our brain can follow our body's lead. Believe it or not, taking on a power pose for two minutes before being evaluated can lead to significant physiological and psychological changes.

This is all inspired by Smadar Noaz who sent me the video below, with the subject line "Fake it till you become it." This is in contrast to "fake it till you make it."

Feeling small? Feeling a lack of confidence? Here's a 21-minute TED video by Amy Cuddy, a Harvard prof, that very well could change your life! (skip to 16:00 if you're short on time and you'd like to hear her amazing impostor-syndrome story and how she overcame it by faking it until she became it.):

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What if Star Wars Episode 1 were, actually good?

Belatedmedia wonders aloud about what modifications could have been made to Star Wars Episode 1. I really like the result! (h/t @pattonoswalt):

The importance of mentoring for fostering diversity

Check out my post on this topic over at the Women in Astronomy Blog. An excerpt:
Mentoring is distinct from teaching and academic advising, but not necessarily separate. An academic adviser or teacher can serve as a mentor, but in my mind the processes of advising and teaching are separate from the process of mentoring. Mentoring is based on a personal relationship, often with someone with a set of shared experiences. The mentor's role is to serve as a guide for the mentee, to help them develop professionally and personally.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Liveblogging Joan Schmelz on Unconcious Bias

Joan Schmelz, the chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, is here at the CfA to talk about Unconscious Bias, Stereotype Threat & Impostor Syndrome. I'll be liveblogging the event.

The Pratt Conference Room room is standing-room only! The audience is predominantly female in composition, but the Astro dept chair Avi Loeb and the CfA director Charles Alcock are in attendance. Awes! Lot's of students, too, including the REU summer interns, and many grad students.

Unconscious bias: men and women both unconsciously devalue the contributions of women. We're in this together! No finger-pointing in this room.

Stereotype Thread: The anxiety that [minorities] face in a situation where they have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their group. This anxiety alone can result in documented cases of lower scores on standardized...tests.

Side note: Sociologists consider 30% to be the critical mass for a minority group to make inroads. We have been at 30% women at the postdoc level for over a decade, and the percentage is increasing at the asst. prof level.

Impostor Syndrome: The inability to believe in one's own competence which causes the individual to live in fear of being "found out."

More info in AAUW Why So Few?

Advice: Give two-fer talks, with one science talk and one diversity talk per visit per institution. Men, too! Use unconscious bias to your advantage: the audience will be more receptive to this message coming from men. AAUW has excellent collection of slides and prepared text just for this purpose. Guess what I'll be doing in the near future.

Also, watch out for Joan's series of posts to appear on the CSWA blog.

Unconscious Bias

We all want a meritocracy. So we should be aware of and address bias.

- Steinpreis, Anders & Ritzke conducted an experiment. The convened mock hiring committees comprising men and women. They are given two applications, one from Karen and Brian. Committees preferred Brian to Karen 2:1. But the CVs were identical! (note that no committee saw both Karen and Brian. The got one or the other, with the name being the only difference). Also, when evaluating for a more senior (tenured) position, Brian got the nod 4x as often!

- Similar experiment by Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) for John and Jennifer, evaluated for a lab manager position. On a score scale of 1-7, John scored 4.0 and Jennifer got an average of 3.3. John also got a much higher starting salary (~15% higher). Only difference was gender. This test was done across academic discipline of the hiring committee. Biology, Physics, Chem, etc.

Whoa! Where does this bias come from? Answer: A legacy of patriarchy.

Question from audience: How did they control for differences among committees?
Joan: Sociologists know statistics better than astronomers :) Be sure to read the articles for details of the methodology and data. I'm only presenting the highlights here.

Question from audience: What about anonymous applicants? Can that help the situation?
Joan: Difficult in a small community like astronomy, where we can guess the identity based on the contents of the proposal. Tough problem!
Comment from audience: For papers, referees want to know the identity to judge based on his/her record. (Discussion breaking out in audience on gender-neutral language).
Avi Loeb: Perhaps the best way to address this bias to make it explicit.
Joan: Exactly! This is why the current discussion is so heartening!

Joan: Relates a personal story of discovering her own unconscious bias in the process of reviewing proposals one year. Eye-opening process! Upon first review, the only two women in the dozens of proposals were ranked lowest. Upon reevaluation, the men's scores stayed put, but the women's scores moved to the midpack (not the best, but not the worst). The chair of the CSWA suffered from unconscious bias!

[discussion continues in the room! We haven't moved past slide ~10!]

If you think you are excepted, check out the Implicit Association Test! (readers: take the test today!)

Men and women both undervalue the contribution of women. Whites and non-whites undervalue the contribution of non-whites (Americans that is).

Stereotype Threat

Students selected based on excellent math SAT test.

Group 1: Test given under normal GRE conditions
Group 2: Group is explicitly told that test is "unbiased" and "gender neutral"

No difference in the exams!

Group 1: men and women got same average score
Group 2: women did much better than men!

On the SAT, the women got scores equal to the men, but with stereotype threat. On the GRE "test" there was no stereotype threat, so they performed at their true level, which was higher on average than the men in the experiment!

Again, the only difference was the statement that the test was "gender neutral" (see Why So Few report for more info)

Impostor Syndrome

STATUS Magazine (2011), see my post here.

Whoa! Joan is now citing my blog post on Impostor Syndrome!

Running short on time, so moving forward quickly:

See the CSWA Resource Page for more info on:
  • Two-body problem 
  • Work-life balance
  • Sexual harassment
  • Unconscious bias
Closes with an image of the cross-section of an onion. The middle is the science we're all after. The outermost layers are "Overt Discrimination," "Sexual Harassment." The latter changed with Anita Hill's bravery. Next layers are the topics of this talk: Unconscious bias, stereotype threat, impostor syndrome. We're dealing with these now. Next layers after that is work-life balance, two-body problem (solution!).

We hope that as we peel back the current layers that there won't be any more in the way of our pursuit of science as a meritocracy.

Promoting New Personal Astro Websites

Here are two fine examples of personal astro websites. This one is from Ann Marie Cody, a former Caltech grad student and current postdoc at the Spitzer Science Center: 

Ann Marie says: "I made the design, software husband kindly coded it up." Just to be clear, her husband is skilled in writing software. I'm pretty sure he's not just a software rendering of a person :)
Bonus points for the awesome pic of her rappelling outside her office window.

And OSU grad student Matthew Penny's page:

Matt opted for the straight-forward HTML layout, putting all of the important info right up front in easy-to-update plain text. Matt writes: "Thanks for the post - it inspired me to do some housekeeping on my website. It remains mostly as it was, but I was guilty of not having my CV on there, and you had to click around to find some information. It's more concise now, and easier to find what you're looking for (I hope)." Yes, I agree. Matt's comment is also a nice reminder that we need to keep our pages up to date (I'm looking at me right now...).

I like both pages. They both provide all of the vital info about these two researchers in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Nice work Matthew and Ann Marie!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Publicize your new webpage!

If you create a new personal webpage as a result of my previous post, please let me know and send me your URL. I'll collect the links and make a post to publicize your new web presence!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Career Advice: d00d, get a webpage!

The internet is a series of tubes where you should have a presence in order to promote yourself and your work.
Would you like to increase your profile in the astronomy academic community? Get a webpage. Seriously, if you are anywhere beyond your freshman year studying physics or astronomy with plans of staying in academia, there's no excuse for not having a web presence. Applying to grad school? Get a webpage. About to publish your first paper? Get a webpage and link the paper's arXiv listing.

Looking to live a life of anonymity and unemployment? Stay off the interwebs: does not necessarily support the views of But the pictures make us giggle from time to time.
European astronomers, I'm looking right at you. Let's talk one-on-one for a sec. Why do European scientists eschew web presence? I loved your paper and I'd like to know what you look like so I can find you at the upcoming conference. Or I'd like to suggest you for our open postdoc position but I don't know your career stage. Or invite you for a talk and I need your bio. But I can't find you! This is not good for you. I'm sure you have a noble explanation for this phenomenon related to modesty or some such, but the end result is no one can see you or your outstanding work.

Okay, sorry about that. I had to talk to my European friends for a moment. Now that I'm back, here are the basic ingredients of a webpage:

  • A short, professional biography. Where'd you start your career and where'd you go after that? What are your research interests and how do you pursue them? Here's a really good example of a concise yet complete web bio by Selma de Mink, who I recently looked up after seeing her light up the Rumor Mill last year.
  • A photo. This is optional, I suppose, but handy if you like to meet people at conferences or around campus. Here's Phil Murihead's photo, which shows you what he looks like and provides some nice context of what he works on (instrumentation, Project Minerva). Also, note how he uses very simple HTML to good effect, providing everything you'd need to know about him: NIR and optical instrumentation, Kepler-42 and spectroscopy of M dwarfs. In a similar vein, here's Peter Plavchan's photo and straight-forward yet very effective web page. It's all right there up-front.
  • A statement of research interests. Here's Heather Knutson's very professional research page and research summaries. I like this style of general heading followed by a one-paragraph summary. The exercise of coming up with these summaries is handy for helping you remember what exactly you're doing, and just as importantly, how to communicate it concisely to others. Here's Julie Comerford's similarly professional web site, which inspired me to get my web act together 4 years ago.
  • If your personal web page contains one thing, make it your CV (but seriously, have more than one thing). Here's Andrew Youdin's CV which is on the long side, but in no way too long. Here's a shorter CV by Phil Hopkins (I'm sure he has a long version given that he publishes ~10 papers/year). And here's the CV of Sara Seager, a highly accomplished astronomer. We should all strive to have our CVs as long as impressive as Sara's! Note what these and other CVs have in common (contact info, educational history, research interests, list of publications and other academic activities). After you publish your first paper (even Nth author) you should create and post your first CV.
  • A list of publications. NASA ADS can hook you up with a personal library. Link to that library from your web page. Here's my personal library containing my first-author publications.
  • Your email address. There are ways of protecting your addy from teh evil bots. 
  • Optional: Nifty simulations! Check out Ben Brown's award-winning simulations of stellar magnetic fields. Full of awes.
  • Optional: You in the news. Did you discover Y dwarfs, like Mike Cushing? Of course you didn't (that is, unless you are Davy Kirkpatrick, who needs a better webpage :) ). But maybe you made the news in a similar fashion. Promote it!
Did I forget anything? Sound off in the comments and on the FaceTwitBlags.

Friday morning listening

José Gonzales sings Heartbeats

And the famous Sony Bravia Bouncy Balls commercial based on the song:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ask a Prof: What can you do with an astronomy degree?

Lori asks: was wondering if I could make a blog request of you: could you please write a post summarizing some different possibilities that are available to people who get their B.S. in astro or planetary related subjects?

...I get the sense that many people (including fellow Caltech undergrads) think that the only thing they can do with such a specific science bachelors degree is continue on the fixed track of gradschool-postdoc-professor-die, all with varying degrees of uncertainty and tedium. But I personally feel like we have so many opportunities and options, and I would love to hear your opinions!

This is an excellent question, and one that is becoming increasingly important for undergrads to ask as the number of open professorships continue to shrink due to federal cutbacks after the 2008 financial meltdown. If you are unsure about whether you can commit to 5-7 years of grad school, 2-6 years of postdoc, 5-10 years as an assistant professor to reach a permanent job with a six-figure salary (the latter segment is the "professor-die" part), you should start thinking about what your bachelor's degree in science can take you after graduation. 

I should state up front that my knowledge about this is limited since astronomy does not have a well-defined "industry" route, unlike chemistry and biology. Also, since you are asking a prof, you're asking someone who committed pretty early in his career to the academic path, and as a result I'm biased by my personal experience and limited in my viewpoint. I hope that people fill in the blanks in the comments!

First off, here is a list of jobs that my friends and acquaintances have moved into after receiving their B.S., M.S. or Ph.D. in a "hard" science field (physics, astro, chemistry, bio):
  • Wall Street data analyst
  • Programmer for a startup in Austin, TX (now Boulder, CO)
  • Programmer for Raytheon ("building better missiles" as he put it)
  • Bike shop mechanic
  • Lab manager for a university chemistry lab
  • Part-owner of a boat and surf board rental stand in Waikiki, Hawaii
  • Web designer
  • Technician on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Professional musician
  • Technical writer for Atlas Obscura 
  • I.T. staff member for a physics department
  • Outreach director for a planetarium
  • Engineer for an amateur telescope manufacturer
  • Technician at a national oil and gas works
  • Keck telescope observing assistant (and Gemini, and Subaru, and lots of other telescopes)
  • High school teacher
  • Analyst for the the Department of Homeland Security
  • Founder of an environmentally-friendly heating and air conditioning company
  • Project manager at an aerospace company
  • Film director
I think the take-away point from this eclectic mix of professions is that your degree in a science field can take you many places. You just have to be willing to look around, keep your eyes and ears open, attend job fairs, make connections at your university while in school, do an internship during the summer, and generally get yourself out there. But a B.S. in science makes you a very employable individual, as long as you keep your mind open to a wide range of opportunities.

Based on what I've heard talking to people working "out there," the best things you can do to position yourself for a post-B.S. job while in college include:
  • Go beyond the required programming 101 course. Learn and become proficient in several languages (C, C++, Python, Matlab, Java and PERL immediately come to mind as languages to choose from). Practical programming skills, combined with a physicist's ability to learn new things quickly, make for a very employable individual. But don't confuse high-level scripting with programming. Using IDL or IRAF is a good start, but make sure you understand object-oriented programming philosophies and techniques.
  • Find research assistantships that provide opportunities to work on analyzing "big data." Looking for correlations and patterns in millions of SDSS galaxies is very much analogous to searching for patterns that reveal customer preferences in large collections of user data. 
  • Put some serious, high-quality time and effort into your writing courses, and if your schedule permits, sign up for a technical writing course or two.
  • Network while in school! If/when you hear about that upperclasswoman (or man) who goes out and works for a startup, ask them questions about how they found the job; what classes they took and hobbies they had; and stay in touch with them.
  • Get a Linkedin account and keep it current
  • Build a personal webpage. Keep it simple and up-to-date
  • Job fairs are not just for engineering and business students! Attend them early in your college career, talk to many people, and come prepared with questions
The same advice holds for grad students pursuing master's or PhDs in science. There exists a wide range of career routes for highly-skilled scientists with diverse skill sets, open minds and a taste for adventure. The academic grind is not for everyone, and the earlier you discover that you'd rather opt out, the better it will be for your job prospects and long-term earning potential (retirement accounts started when you're 25 grow to be much larger than if you wait until you're 36). And I should mention that I've never met anyone who left academia and was unhappy as a result or ended up unemployed. 

If you have any other questions for a Prof, please send me an email or leave a comment!