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Showing posts from August, 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.
@astrojohnjohn I made some changes to my web following your guide. My sister's boyfriend (CS major) helped a lot
— R. Sanchis-Ojeda (@SanchisOjeda) August 16, 2013 Roberto's new site demonstrates the value of having computer scientist friends!

Book review of High Price by Carl Hart

I recently finished reading an eye-opening book called High Priceby 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…

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!

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 com…

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.Brilliant!

Why wouldn't we pay college athletes?

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…

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 …

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 …

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.

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 bee…

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&…

Career Advice: d00d, get a webpage!

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:

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 modest…

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

Lori asks: I 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-…