Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Books I've Read 2009

I’ve been keeping track of the books I read each year for about 10 years now. I usually just write a page about them in my planner and move on, but this year I thought I would share the list. My goal is to read at least a book a month, on average. Sometimes I get bogged down with other things, or I pick a really long one, so the cadence isn’t right, but I usually catch up with a shorter book or when I travel for work. I usually only get a half hour or so of reading in before bed, but that isn’t every night, so a typical book takes me several weeks to get through it. I’m not a particularly fast reader...20-50 pages an hour, depending on the density of words and ideas in the text.

Instead of going through them in the order I read them, I am clumping them according to subject.


Introduction to Space Weather, Moldwin:

I used it for the text for my class for the first time this year, so I am counting it as a “new” book read in 2009. It’s a switch from what I had been using, but the other one wasn’t really a textbook, so I thought I’d try this out. It’s the right subject, but I think it is too low of a level for the junior-oriented class I teach. However, one student (out of 15) complimented it very highly in their open-form evaluation. I have a few months to decide if I want to use it again or not. For those of you not in the space weather business, this is a nice introduction to the field (with easy problems at the end of each section).


Call to Conversion, Wallis

I really like the Christian viewpoints of Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and author of several books. This is one of them. It’s not a new book, but it was very well written and I enjoyed it very much. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Christianity.

The Shack, Young

I don’t know whether to put this here or in general fiction. It’s not a particularly well-written book , in my opinion, but others were raving about it, so I gave it a try. I like the main religious idea of the book in that God wants to have a personal relationship with us, but I don’t like the make-believe fantasy aspects of the story and I really don’t like the attempt of the author to make it seem like a true story (in the foreword and afterward sections).

Political/Current Events

How Soccer Explains the World, Foer

Clever book in which the author travels to famous soccer venues around the world and then uses the stories and sights of the area to interpret world events. His main conclusion is that even though globalization has made the world smaller and made local name brands meaningless, the local people still have strongly held views of nationalism, even to the point of xenophobia. Even though capitalism loves globalization, actual people usually do not.

The Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the American Tradition, McWilliams

A long and arduous book containing various essays regarding the Founding Fathers. A good read, overall, but some parts were very slow going. I think that I am somewhere in between the Federalists (strong central government, weak state governments) and anti-Federalists (just the opposite), but in general my political leanings are towards the Federalists.

Citizen Paine, Kaminski

This book had a short biography of Thomas Paine and then several hundred pages of quotes from his writings, organized by category. I found the quotes difficult to understand without the rest of the text around them, so after a while I just breezed through them. The bio, however, was very informative. I didn’t know Thomas Paine came to America just a year or so before 1776, and wrote his major works (The American Crisis and Common Sense) after only being here for a very short while. He was a man looking to start fight, one who wholeheartedly committed himself to a cause with fervent zeal. He went on to be a rabble-rouser in France during their revolution a few decades later.

One United People, Millican

An excellent (but slow-going) examination of every single one of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist is still one of the most authoritative works on the thoughts behind the Founding Fathers regarding the Constitution. Millican reaches the conclusion that the 3 writers of these essays are all in agreement that the Constitution supports a strong central government and weak state governments. After reading his book, I agree.

General Fiction

Streets of Laredo, McMurtry

Larry McMurtry is an excellent storyteller. This is number 4 in the Lonesome Dove series (Lonesome Dove is number 3, but it’s the most famous of the set).

The Host, Meyers

Yes, I read a Stephanie Meyers book this year. At least it wasn’t one of the Twilight books, okay?! Seriously, though, she is also an excellent writer and this was a terrific book. I highly recommend it, especially to science fiction lovers.

Kids’ Books

The Lightning Thief, Riordan

Sea of Monsters, Riordan

The Titan’s Curse, Riordan

Battle of the Labyrinth, Riordan

The Last Olympian, Riordan

Yes, I read the entire Percy Jackson series. My son was so excited about them and kept asking me to read it that I eventually gave in and plowed through them. They are good books, and Rick Riordan has a nice way of weaving a storyline together throughout several books. It was worth the time.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, DiCamillo

Okay, I’ve read a lot of kids’ books this year, but this is another that I am including in the list because my son read it for his school “book club” and parents are invited to the discussion. So, I thought I’d read it. It’s a 200-page book, but with the large font and pictures, it took about 2 hours. It’s a captivating story about learning to love, losing love, and moving on to new love.

I’m currently reading Jews and Christians: A Troubled Family as well as Eragon. The latter is a back-and-forth deal with my son where we each read a page. Not quite as good as the Riordan books, but my son is enjoying it. So, I don’t think these two books actually make it on the list, since I am not done with them yet, but I’ll mention them here at the end.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Kind Of Dense

I just realized that pantsmonkey is a friend of mine. This blogger has posted comments on my site several times over the summer, but just now I finally made the connection. I guess I’m kind of dense sometimes.

I see on her blog that she is deeply passionate about GLBT rights, especially gay marriage. She is saddened each time another state declares that marriage is only between a man and a woman, taking away the possibility of GLBT people to experience “the full range of human experience.”

I completely agree with her.

I should also do more to stop the legislative assault on common decency. I do not see how limiting the private affairs of other people helps those who vote for these law and state constitutional amendments. Like I have said, I think that the Bible (yes, I am a Christian) is not anti-gay, and a good website that summarizes some of the arguments in favor of this position are posted here. I am not a Biblical scholar, but I think I know enough to understand that the premises laid on this post are valid and cast serious doubt on fundamental Christianity’s staunch resistance to anything GLBT related. There is a chance I could be wrong, but I would like to at least discuss it and publicly, objectively scrutinize the arguments for and against Christian condemnation GLBT rights.

Not today...another post sometime.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I love to write, but lately I have not had the chance to really complete a manuscript. Other things just seem to get in the way, and the few hours I occasionally spend on a paper isn't enough to bring one to fruition. This is something I don't like about my job: I like so many things about it that spending time on one thing means not doing something else I actually like to do.

Last week I was at a meeting, and a colleague reminded me that I had missed the deadline for a journal special issue. I was very sad, and a bit frustrated, that I had let this slip. He then said that if I can get him a manuscript by December 23, he would include it in the bundle he is sending off to the journal (apparently this journal wants all of the papers for the special issue at the same time). Tuesday night I started converting my Powerpoint slides into a paper outline. I flew home from the meeting on Wednesday, continuing to work on the text on the plane. Thursday I finished my final exam preparations and dove back into writing. Friday I gave my exam, continued writing, and sometime past 5 pm sent out an email to my potential coauthors with a completed (but still a bit rough) manuscript of the study.

I am glad that I have not lost my mo-jo for writing, and that I can crank out a paper in less than a week, given that I completely ignore everything else that I am supposed to be doing.

Today I got an email from my colleague: he had a number of people at the meeting ask him for an extension, so he talked with the journal and the new deadline is January 22. I have time to revise. Ahh. Life is good.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Big Class Next Term

Next semester I get to teach a large survey course for non-science majors. It’s already full and I am giving overrides (I am sure some will drop), and expect the final class size will be the capacity of the lecture hall: 120. Last time I taught it this was the case (hitting 175 that time).

It’s a fun class to teach and I enjoy the challenge, but last time I it was a difficult chore to get them involved in the classroom. At the beginning of the term I used an electronic survey tool, but not enough were bringing their laptops to class and not enough of those were participating in the free response answers, so I eventually dropped it. I did it the old-fashioned way: having them raise their hands for the survey and waiting for someone to speak out loud when I asked a (simple) question. Discussion was limited to small groups, occasionally forcing them to talk to their neighbors for a minute or two, but large-group discussion, even feedback to the whole class on the small-group conversations, was like pulling teeth with tweezers...not exactly painful, just impossible.

This time around, I plan to do it differently. I am going to incorporate a lot more about identifying good-vs-bad science in everyday life than I did last time. I put in a bit of this last time, but not that much and only late in the term, once we had covered the basics of the science concepts for the class. This time I have been collecting “interesting” newspaper, magazine, and web articles this a science component to it (hopefully somewhat relevant to the class topic). I am going to have the small-group discussions again, but force them to report back to the class, and then make those reports part of the homework and test content. Hopefully my teaching assistant will take good notes on the whole-class discussion. I plan on doing this once a week, providing a mid-lecture break every Thursday class session. On Tuesdays, I will do the other thing I did last time: show and discuss videos (web, TV, or movie clips). Again, these were mainly shown last time to identify good versus bad science, but I would do it only on a few dedicated class sessions. This time, I will spread it throughout the term, doing this every Tuesday as the mid-lecture “something different.”

This “every class session” interaction will, I hope, make the class sessions more interesting for the students. I also hope that they learn something from these discussions about being critical of “scientific” information they receive through informal or unintended avenues. It’s going to require some time investment on my part, but I think it will be worth it for me as well. I am looking to the new term.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

One United People

I’ve read several books on the Founding Fathers this past year. In particular I wanted to learn more about Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. I had already read the big tome “John Adams” a few years ago...excellent book, if you have the time. David McCullough poured through all of the letters known to exist that were written by or to John Adams in order to write that book. Apparently some of our Founding Fathers were very prolific letter writers. I only wish I could write that much. Thomas Jefferson is an interesting character because he was so young when it began. He wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while in his mid twenties. Thomas Paine is peculiar in that he came from England literally just a year or two before he starting writing his booklets to stir up support for the independence movement against his home country. He seemed to be zealous in all he did throughout his life, but had a caustic personality that kept his friend count to a minimum (and alienated those he had pretty quickly). He was not a “fancy” writer like Adams or Jefferson, but he was a good one that spoke in a clear and passionate voice that resonated with many people.

The book I just finished was “One United People,” a detailed commentary by Edward Millican on the entire 85 essays of “The Federalist.” The Federalist is a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the pseudonym of Publius and published in a few newspapers around New York in order to help with the ratification of the newly signed Constitution. They were written over the course of 8 months or so, starting in October 1787, just after the Constitution Convention that summer had passed a new document binding the states together under a stronger central government than the original plan under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had left extensive power with the states, and they were hampering anything getting done on a national level (like repaying the debt from the Revolutionary War, or maintaining an army or navy). Trade was also a big issue, as the states were starting to impose tariffs on each other and squabble about economic concerns. There was a grave fear that European countries would soon take control of various states and cause the new country to fracture apart. The new Constitution addressed this problem with the creation of a strong central government, essentially placing all sovereignty at the national level and making the state governments completely subordinate to the new central government. The Federalist essays were written to inflame passion for the Constitution and rebut the arguments of the anti-Federalists, and were not specifically intended to be a complete and polished masterpiece of intellectual discourse. In fact, they might not have actually swayed the legislators of New York to ratify the new Constitution. However, with their publication as a bound book in late 1788, they became the foremost treatise of political thought from America. They are still used today as a reference for interpreting the Constitution, as it is the best collection of essays on what the Founding Fathers might have been thinking when they originally wrote the law of the land.

The argument in One United People is that the Federalist papers provide a clear and unwavering defense of nationalism and a strong central government. Hamilton and Jay were certainly nationalists who didn’t want to leave any power with the state governments, except to manage local affairs. Even these few duties of the states were at risk of being taken away, as the Federalist writers often stated that the federal government should expand its scope as local issues become national concerns. Madison is the only one of the three authors who might be suspect as a strong nationalist, particularly his “fragmented society” article (the famous No. 10) that argues in support of competing special interests as a necessary part of the deliberations of the national government. This is not, however, a defense of states’ rights and a call for a weak central government, and Millican repeatedly shows other places in Madison’s essays as Publius that call for a strong central government and a very limited role for the states. Overall, the Federalist shows that the Founding Fathers wanted the new government under the Constitution to be the only sovereign entity of the United States of America, and to put an end to the infighting that was developing between the states in the period immediately following the Revolutionary War.

So, for those that want to call up the ghosts of the Founding Fathers to argue against a strong central government, specifically for addressing domestic issues like health care and economic regulation, I think that you are mistaken. I think that most of the Founding Fathers would be fine with the current state of the union.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Keeping Up

Okay, I realize now that regularly writing a blog post is not a trivial endeavor. I started at the beginning of the summer, and kept up with it pretty well for a few months. Then, the term began. Woah. Too many other things demanded my time and this blog, along with all of my other e-social activities, dropped off to nearly nothing. I also realized that writing the blog was, indeed cutting into time I used to spend writing papers, and that my publication productivity dropped off this summer. The blog is not entirely to blame, this was a crazy summer on the home front that also cut into work time, but I think it contributed to my slip. I actually thought that writing the blog would help, because it would be keeping me in the writing mode and I would be mentally prepared to jump in and work on a manuscript for an hour whenever I had the chance. Perhaps, but maybe not. I was already a decent writer who could focus on writing when I needed to. I think the blog is just getting in the way.

That said, I will not give it up. I like to write it and hope that anyone out there reading it is actually enjoying it. But, that said, I make no promises at how often I will post. I will probably post a few more times over the next week; I just finished a good book analyzing The Federalist Papers and have a few things to say about it, and this is my venue for those thoughts. I will try to be better than I have over the past 3 months, and certainly better than the past month (when I posted nothing), but it will probably be more like a weekly post, at best, than a daily post. I don’t know how bloggers like Female Science Professor write as much as they do. I suspect she is either so senior that she has lots of time and ideas at the ready, or she is really a team of people all contributing to the same blog.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Allocating TAships

Prof-Like Substance has a good post (here) on how his department allocates teaching assistantships to PhD students.  His department is similar to mine: using TAships as buffer/bridge funding when grant-funded research assistantships temporarily dry up for an existing PhD student.  We rarely give them to first-year PhD students, and instead only take new PhD students if a faculty is willing and able to “promise” funding for the expected 5-year dissertation timeline.  We are still in that happy naive state, however, of not enough PhD students needing TAships compared to the available slots.  So some of the TAships  usually go to the Master’s students, who almost never get funding otherwise.

PLS has emerged from this state and his department is now struggling with how to allocate TAships when there are more PhD students needing such slots than the openings available. In particular, PLS raises the question of what to do when a faculty member with little or no research funding/projects asks for a TA slot. These are actually 2 separate (but related) issues.

For me, I see two clear priorities for TA positions.  The first and foremost is this:  existing students whose professor has been unlucky renewing the grant that’s funding the student.  Most grants are 2-4 years long, yet the PhD timeline (in my field) averages 5 years.  We expect the faculty member to fund the student for all of the years of the student’s PhD, but the faculty makes this promise without actually having the out-year funding in hand.  So, it is very easy to see the need for bridging funds in such a situation.  These cases, in my opinion, should get first priority.

The second use of TAships should be to help untenured faculty build their group.  It’s hard to get grants, especially without a proven track record of productivity with grant funding.  Much is asked of new Assistant Professors, and making them sweat about not graduating enough PhD students before tenure review is not helpful.  If, after the first priority students are taken care of, there are still open slots, then the junior faculty should be asked if they would like to take on a new student or even have an existing student TA for a term (to stretch out their start-up or grant funding).  This is tricky, though, because the junior faculty also wants scientific productivity out of their PhD students, and TAing often slows this down.  But, that’s a choice the Assistant Professor should make (in consultation with a senior faculty mentor) to balance their resources.

After this the prioritization gets fuzzy for me, but here are two other criteria that might come into play.

Existing PhD students who simply want the experience of teaching.  Some grad students (like me, way back when) were continually on RAships and never had to teach as a grad student.  I didn’t really know it was an option, and I doubt I would have taken it anyway.  I wanted to get through quickly.  Others, though, want that experience, and should be allowed to do it, if their advisor doesn’t veto it.  In fact, I am not even sure that I would want the research advisor able to veto such a request.

New PhD students for highly productive faculty.  This seems backwards, but I believe in the saying that “to those who have much, more will be given.”  That is, I think that such faculty have proven themselves able to handle multiple grad students and lead them through to successful dissertations, usually with ample funding throughout for all of their students.  However, sometimes such a faculty wants a new student to start a new project or to continue an existing project for which the current student is about to finish.  The promise of funding is there and real, but just not in place that first semester or year (while proposals are written and/or senior students finish up).  This is a low-risk situation, and the department is usually well served by such a TAship.

As for the deadwood faculty asking for a TAship, the chair or grad director needs to speak frankly with them.  I would not rank this faculty high on my priority list for getting a TA slot.  Not only would it be a new PhD student position but also there is no recent track record of successfully advising (let along funding) a student through completion.  Such a position would be high risk for the department and the student.  I would have serious reservations about making such an assignment.  That said, I am not totally against such a faculty getting a TA slot, for a term or two, with the expectation of copious proposal writing and the threat of losing the student to another faculty if funding does not materialize.  I would also ask the grad director to regularly check with the student to make sure that things are going well, and intervene if they are not.

 In summary, vague rules need to be drafted and adopted and a TAship czar needs to be appointed, one who will make the unfair decision regarding which students get this slots.  This decision cannot be done by committee.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Could've Been Better

I finished the book “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young. I don’t think that this was a well-written book. I like the philosophy behind the personality of God in the book: God’s relationship with us is one of love, care, and compassion. It’s the story that I didn’t like. There actually wasn’t much plotline, and instead it had these lengthy dissertations by the three God characters. The writing wasn’t that compelling and I often found myself questioning the emotions stated for the characters. The text would say that Mack was comfortable with the God characters and loved the way they talked with each other and interacted, but then didn’t convince me of that feeling by actually detailing the comfort-inducing conversation. So, instead of being engrossed by the story and not wanting to put the book down, I found it easy to stop reading each night because the story rarely left in a state where I just had to get to the next page.

I also greatly dislike the fantasy encounter of it and the bitterness it might make others feel who have undergone similar loss. Why hasn’t God invited me out to the Shack yet and had a personal, read encounter with me? This is where I greatly dislike the Foreword and Afterward of the book, in which the writer attempts to convince the reader that this is a true story. These two parts of the book should have been omitted because it completely soured the novel for me. Why even pretend it’s a real story? Then I went to the website and realized that the author’s life is remarkably similar to Mack’s life situation...many kids, lives near Portland, experienced unbearable tragedy. This frustrates me. My understanding of the book now is that it is his advice to others about the style of God he found when dealing with his grief. Yet he wrote it as a novel instead of a nonfiction inspirational/spiritual book. It isn’t that I dislike the image of God that he found and is sharing with others, I just chafe at the method he chose for this distribution.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Almost Mad Today

I almost got mad today. I am traveling to Europe, and had the unfortunate experience of getting into the slowest passport control line available this morning. This is not a good thing after flying all night and only getting a couple hours of sleep. I was watching the other lanes continue forward at a much faster pace than the one I was standing in. I was committed, though, with no way to switch, knowing that switching meant going to the end of a different line and risking that one suddenly becoming slower. I was stuck. Frustrated. Tired. Grumpy.

I almost got mad. I was beginning to get all steamed up about the incompetence of the officer in the booth ahead of me. Clearly this man was a systemic obstacle to efficiency and needed to be beaten with a stick. He was delaying everyone in his line and I could see that others were visibly frustrated with his lack of processing speed. The thought was boiling up within me that he doesn’t care about us and is intentionally wasting our time. I was starting to consider him as not only incompetent but evil.

Then I realized how tired I was. I tried to stem my anger, brushing it off as just my less-than-fully-awake state. Then the thought occurred to me: he might also be near the end of his shift and running on less than full perkiness. He might have been approaching the end of his shift and in need of a break from the fast-paced scrutinization of passport after passport. I started to feel sorry for the guy and let my mind wander about the scenarios he might have been through to put him in this less-than-optimal processing pace.

When I was about fifteen people away from the front, another lane opened right next to mine. I jumped into it and, in so doing, cut the line ahead of me in half. Wouldn’t you know, my new line ground to a halt and my original line picked up. I made it up to the counter just a couple people ahead of where I would have been in the original line. The officer behind the window was not incompetent and processed me through passport control very quickly.

So, a new thought entered my mind: the original line was slow because the particular mix of people ahead of me were especially complicated to process and clear. Perhaps the delay had nothing to do with the officer at the head of the line, that they were all roughly equal in their ability, and that the delay was beyond their control. All anger within me was defused, because I realized that, in the end, I had no idea why the lanes were slow when they were.

My only conclusion is that, when I am in a situation that starts to frustrate me, I should not jump to conclusions about the cause and start blaming people. I will most likely be wrong, and if so, making a fuss would only make a fool out of myself (or worse).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Scary News Story

The death of Annie Le at a Yale laboratory (here) brings up the very real threat of violence on campus. I work at a big university in a fairly urban setting, and I am sure that on any given day, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of graduate students working late into the night in their corner of some building.  I know that one of my female grad students prefers a shifted work schedule, getting in around noon and working until 10 pm or midnight.  That’s her choice, and I don’t have a problem with it, except that it means that she is walking home, alone, nearly every night, well past dusk (even in the summer).  It is a safe campus, but we get crime alert emails whenever something happens, and so we are all aware of the potential danger.  We have card readers on the building’s outside doors, so only those with reason to have access can get in, but there is nothing to stop the violence like that which occurred at Yale.  The charge is that it was an employee attacking another employee.  Our safeguards wouldn’t have caught this.  I doubt that such a crime could be prevented without intense (both invasive and expensive) security measures.

I guess the answer is that it is a personal choice and depends on how safe you feel and how much you really need to do what you are doing while in the building (instead of, say, on a computer at home).  We have desktops for our students, not laptops.  I could let them check out a desktop and have it at home, but then would I ever see them again before graduation?  Hmm.

How do you keep a workplace safe yet accessible?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Strange Coincidence

About a week ago I started reading the book “The Shack” by William Young. It’s this novel about a man who becomes extremely sad when his youngest daughter is abducted while they are on a camping trip together, and the police track the perp to a remote shack, where they find the truck and the girl’s dress but not the girl or the kidnapper.  Three years later, he is called back to the shack to have a very strange encounter with three very loving and generous people.  Over the course of conversing and interacting with them, he learns to understand his pain and accept his loss.  I am only halfway through the book, so I don’t know how it ends yet.  It’s well written and entertaining, and I am enjoying the break every evening to get absorbed into this man’s adventure at the shack.

Sidenote about The Shack:  I greatly dislike the Foreword, which is written from the author’s perspective and tries to convince the reader that the following story is true.  I cannot accept this premise, and my impression of the book is negatively tainted because of it.  To me, the author has spoiled an otherwise engrossing tale with the intentionally misleading deception of trying to make me believe that the events in the book really happened to someone. That is dangerous false hope and unreal expectations for others.  He should have simply left it out.  If you ever get the gumption to read this book, I encourage you to skip the Foreword.

Anyway, back to my story:  a friend from college has been battling cancer for several years, but passed away this last weekend.  She is a mother of 4, and was diagnosed with the illness during her last pregnancy (I think that was 8 years ago now, or maybe more).  I haven’t seen her in over a year, at which time she was well enough to make the trip to another mutual friend’s wedding.  Before that, it had been several years, probably since before the diagnosis, that I had last seen her and her family.  It was a slow decline with ups and downs, but never particularly good and cancer free anywhere in there.  She lived her life as well as she could, and fought the disease with all she had.  I am sad that I won’t get to see her again.  I am sad for her husband, who is a great guy full of life and overflowing with opinions.  I am sad for her children, who really only knew their mom while she was sick. 

I am not looking for a lesson from her death.  It pretty much sucks.  It is a strange coincidence, though, that I am reading a book about sadness after loss and the redemption and healing that God can give you.  Perhaps the book will help me deal with this.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Prayers for Tenure Casebook

My friend (since childhood) is up for tenure this fall.

Tenure didn’t work out so well as University #1 for him.  It was a hard blow, and no one likes to be told to move on, but I think that the culture of that college and that town wasn’t right for him anyway.  He seems to be more comfortable at University #2, and from what I hear, the administration has been treating him better than his former management.  The fit is also particularly good for his wife, as I hear that this town is an excellent location for her profession and that she has developed a well-established network of contacts. 

As with most tenure reviews, this is an up-or-out assessment of his abilities, and the future of his life at University #2 is in the balance.  He is very hopeful about his chances of tenure, but there is still that uncertainty providing a bit of stress to the start of this new school year.

Being in a humanities field, his casebook I am sure will look substantially different from mine.  Books are far more prevalent and expected on his publication list than on mine. I am sure he has topical journals in which to publish, and hopefully he has an ample stack of such papers to show for his years in the field.  In my research area, numerous peer-reviewed journal articles per year are the norm, and books before tenure are an extreme rarity. In fact, I was specifically told not to write a book too early, because it detracts from the regular and expected measures of productivity.

I can only trust that he has received good mentoring from senior faculty in his department (or others in his field elsewhere around the country), that they are advocates for him within the college, and that he has accomplished all that he needs to have done regarding teaching, service, and research.  I can only trust that others in his field beyond University #2 have a favorable impression of his contributions to the field, that they know and respect his work, and that the evaluation letters clearly reflect these positive opinions.  I can only trust that he has mentored one or more graduate students through thesis or dissertation completion, that these former students have favorable impressions of their time with him at University #2, and that they will adequately voice their opinions back to the casebook committee.

So, I hope that you will join me in praying for the success of his tenure casebook, and should it not work out for him, to ask for God to give him the courage and perseverance to move on with his career, wherever it might take him and his family.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bad Advisors

To go along with the “how many grad students” question from the last post, there is a discussion on FSP’s blog about Bad Advisors (BAs). I hope that I am not a BA.  I hope that just being aware that there is such a thing as good and bad advising is half the struggle to avoiding the BA label.  I might be an unintentionally bad advisor (UBA) for some of my students.  I don’t know.  I try to err on the side of over-advising, sometimes at the expense of my own first-author publication production.  This summer has not been good for paper writing, but I have been helping others get out papers and proposals.  I did get to code for a while this summer, and that was fun.  I don’t think I could do this with 10+ PhD students at once, or even 5 grad students.  I would have no time for myself and my own pursuits.  I think that I would be in constant manager mode and wouldn’t get to actually do any science directly.  It would all be vicariously through my employees.  That’s not what I want to do, though.  I am still very interested in coding and making plots and spending time with a problem, and I don’t want to simply be one who gets the money for others to able to do these things.  So, I will not grow my group too fast.  For one, that takes a lot of money, but for another, I want to be able to (very slowly) transition into the permanent manager position.  I am pretty happy with the state of things right now, although I would have liked to have had more time this summer to write a paper or two.  But, I do not regret my time advising others.  This is productive time for me, just in a different direction, and I am not bitter about it.  Just a little nostalgic for the days when I did everything myself.  No, not really.

Monday, August 31, 2009

How Many Grad Students?

I have 3 graduate students working for me right now.  I find this to be enough, along with the undergraduate students I advise on projects (usually 1 or 2 at any time), other faculty I collaborate with, and post-docs or research scientists that I support and/or work with around here. There are a few faculty in my department who have 5 or 6 PhD students at a time.  I am not sure I want that many people reporting to me and looking to me for direction and mentoring.  I know of a few in our field who claim to have 10-20 graduate students in their group.  I don’t see how this is humanly possible.  In fact, I don’t see how that is even remotely responsible. 


To me, having more than 5 PhD students, let alone 10 or 20, is irresponsible on several levels. It means that the faculty member is continuously in meetings with these people (assuming that they have regular interaction with each student).  This cheats the faculty out of time to do their own research investigations, and they are probably giving up all home life in order to publish the first-author papers that I see from them.  It also means that the students don’t get very much one-on-one time with their advisor.  Perhaps this is fine for some students, but I have found that most PhD students like regular interaction with their advisors.  In the early years, they like it so that they learn the field and discover a research project that suits them well.  In the later years, they like it because they have results and need to show them to someone and get feedback.  It is also not good for the field, because such a faculty member is replicating themselves (well, at least producing new PhDs in the field), which increases the pressure on the already over-subscribed traditional funding sources for the field.  It is probably only acceptable to have so many PhD students if you know that most of your students will leave the field and not pursue research careers.  In this case, under-advising and over-producing them is fine.  But, even still, for the few grad students in your group who want to continue as a researcher in the field, life in a huge group might not be the optimal situation.


I will probably have a student graduate this year, and I will probably take a new PhD student next fall.  Somewhere between 2 and 4 grad students seems like a good number for me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Homosexuality and Christianity

I was recently sent this link:

It comments on the recent proposal before the governing board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) to allow open, practicing gays to serve as clergy. The article is posted on NewsMax, so it is written with an anti-gay slant and hints that the ELCA will be split apart if this proposal is passed.

So, the question is this: is homosexuality incompatible with Christianity? As a Christian, should I hate all homosexuals and make it my mission to point out their transgression and actively persuade them to give up their life of sin? Should I protest Gay Pride marches and vocally oppose gay marriage laws?

I think the answer is no. As the article states, the ELCA, and in fact most Christian denominations, do not follow a literal prescription of every verse in some English translation of the Bible. Like the article states, what about women? Paul says that they should be silent with covered heads and no braids. What?! I don’t get the no braided hair rule at all. Why should I not braid my daughter’s hair? She likes it!

In reading the Bible, especially Paul's letters, I believe that you have to take into account the context of the culture and the local circumstances that the particular church was facing. The braided hair concern of Paul most likely was directed at a local custom of another religious sect (like the followers of Isis or Aphrodite). I think he was concerned about people trying to turn Christian worship services into worship of one of these other gods. He probably wrote it to preserve the integrity of the local Christian community, and physically distinguishing themselves from the actions of other religions was a way to do this. Did he mean for the no braids rule to become part of everlasting Christian doctrine? No.

So, what about homosexuality? The book of Romans has a lot to say about this. All negative. It is easy to think that Christians should be anti-gay. However, the local custom was that gays were promiscuous. I believe that this is what Paul was arguing against, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual promiscuity. Paul would probably dislike the scantily-clad leather outfits I have seen on groups of gays in the French Quarter, and would probably have strong words against the one-night-stand mentality of gay pick-up locations. However, I do not think that he would condemn loving, monogamous homosexual partnerships.

Why? Because I believe that our relationships with others is our relationship with God. We should treat others as we want to be treated, and I cannot see how two consenting adults in a loving relationship is against God or creating any problems for me. I fully support gay marriage and I hope that other Christians realize that allowing someone to fully care for their life-partner is the loving, compassionate, Christian thing to do.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Old White Men

After a week of frantic proposal writing, that document is done and sent in to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. I am now at a meeting organized by this same agency on this same topic. Why they scheduled the meeting on top of the proposal deadline is truly bizarre, but that’s what they did. I suspect most of the people here did not write proposals, as it was only open to universities, and there are only about 3 of us here from academic institutions. Tomorrow I get to give my pitch, and hope that those here from the military like it. As I have never actually done anything with modeling (or any research) of artificial radiation belts (i.e., from a high altitude nuclear explosion), I call my talk a pitch because I will only show “natural” radiation belt results, and talk about how the model could be used for this specialized source term. There are about 40 of us here, and I’d like to describe this crew. One of the attendees is female. She also looks Native American, and works for the Air Force in LA. There is another guy here from the Naval Research Lab who is Indian born (now a US citizen, as is everyone in the room). Everyone else is a white guy. About half are over 60 years old, a good number of them over 70. I don’t think I am the youngest in the room, but I am pretty darn close...perhaps 2 or 3 are younger than me. Many at this meeting are a crew that began in this field at the dawn of the space age 50 years ago. The field has lost interest over the years, and I am sure there is some decay lifetime for the number of researchers in this field. In the last few years (okay, since 9/11), this field has gotten more attention within DoD. So, that’s why there are the younger people here, but the younger crew is not a particularly diverse population, and the room (and the opening speaker list) is certainly dominated by old white men.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 5: Going Global

Today, I heard the leader of the Stephen Ministries organization, Ken Haugk, say that they are very close to unveiling a “whole church leadership system," analogous to the Stephen Ministry leadership and management system that I have been learning about all week. This is truly fantastic, as I think that this system is universally applicable to any management situation (see Day 2 post below). I think I might quit my tenured faculty job and go to work for Stephen Ministries to help them develop a “whole scientist leadership system." I did not receive any leadership or management training when I became a professor, or a research scientist, or whenever it was that I had to start writing proposals and funding myself and hiring grad students and building a group. I know that our department offers nothing like this for any of our junior faculty, tenure-track or research-track. While I am not actually serious about quitting my job, I am serious about developing a leadership and management toolkit for scientists...unless someone can tell me where such a thing already exists.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 4: Humor

They keep throwing in funny little tidbits at the beginning of the training sessions. Most of them are very good.

I have nothing for you today, it’s late and I am tired. So, just in case you have not yet discovered this website, here is something that is sure to make you laugh:


A truly funny website. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 3: Leadership Training

This is one of the few meetings I’ve attended where I come back from the sessions more energized than when I went down in the morning. This stuff is great.

I have this nagging fear that I will forget it all when I get back to reality next week, and that the excitement I have for implementing good management practices will fade away and I will simply continue on with how I am doing things now. Actually, I am not that far off from the system they are presenting this week, except perhaps on the planning stages. I think I do a pretty good job with defining tasks to achieve near-term goals (vision and strategy) and pretty good at supervising and mentoring those in my group. Where I need help is in the long-term thinking section of the master plan: defining core values, defining a mission/purpose, and assessing progress against such universal principles. In short, I think I am becoming a good manager, but I have not yet become a good leader.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 2: Management Training

I am enjoying this Stephen Leader Training Course. It’s basically an intensive bombardment of information and activities on how to lead a church program, specifically a Stephen Ministry program. They seem to have taken fundamental management practices and put a Christian twist on them. It’s very nice for me, as I am essentially a manager at work and have never had a formal managerial training course like this. While the day was long without much time for wandering my thoughts to other topics, I’m taking some time this evening to reflect on how the day’s lessons could be applied to my work environment.

The 10 steps in the system:
-- Leadership: picking the right team to lead the program. For work, this is me, but should I expand into a scientific empire, then I need to pick the right people to lead with me.
-- Vision: I should create a long-range, in some sense unattainable, vision statement for myself and my research team, then keep this on my mind as I do everything else I do as a professor.
-- Awareness: I need to publicize my work in multiple ways so that (a) other researchers know what I’m doing and (b) potential students/hires will know what I’m doing.
-- Recruit: I need to actively and conscientiously pursue the best students and potential hires for my group.
-- Train: I need to have a plan for training new students and group members, and then diligently implement that plan. I can see that this will be a hard one to follow, because doing science is an inexact science, but I think I should come up with a general philosophy about training, at the very least.
-- Commission: graduation of undergrads and grad students? Promotion of research scientists?
-- Referrals: not the best translation, as this is Stephen Ministry specific, but I think it means, for my work life, getting my students directed toward the proper project for each one of them, and thinking seriously about these assignments.
-- Supervise: I should regularly meet with them, as a group, to provide affirmation of their accomplishments, support for their ongoing endeavors, and constructive feedback on areas where improvement is needed.
-- Affirm: this is not only part of the last one (affirmation during supervision), but also affirmation in other venues, especially public ones, like promoting my students to other researchers while at meetings.
-- Evaluate: I don’t think I want to implement a periodic evaluation of my students and group members, but I do think that I should occasionally think critically about how things are going, especially with regard to the vision/plan mentioned above.

They give advice and examples on how to do each of these steps. While their material is all slanted towards Stephen Ministry, I can easily see how it is universally applicable to whatever program you are leading and/or managing. So, this is going to be a good week.

Still not much progress on my funding proposal for the military. I will spend time on that now. More tomorrow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 1

Woah. That was quite a week. Last weekend, we took off for a weekend to my wife’s high school reunion. It’s amazing how quickly complete strangers open up and spill their life histories to each other. I especially find it odd the way some of the reunion-goers’ spouses instantly revealed the details of their lives to other spouses of reunion-goers. We have basically nothing in common except that people we married knew each other several decades ago. No matter! Let me tell you about the time my son threw up in the family minivan while going to see grandma last summer... It was a good time, but just a little creepy at moments when a person you really don’t care to get to know has you cornered for a while. Otherwise, a nice evening.

On Monday, my daughter got sick. Coughing and fever. Then wheezing and shortness of breath. With her asthma, we decided to take her in to the doctor’s office. They sent us on to the ER, and then she was admitted. Respiratory issues, with a low blood-oxygen level. She was finally released Friday morning.

Just in time for closing on the sale of our house Friday afternoon. We actually got a small check back, which is something to be thankful for in this day. But, you know what that means...packing, moving, and cleaning, all week long. With one parent in the hospital at my daughter’s bedside. Oof da. I’m tired, and work (let alone this blog) were neglected. It was my summer undergrad student’s last week, too. Fun for him, I only spent about 20 minutes with him all week. Not enough, but it couldn’t be helped.

So, now I am in Pittsburgh at a training conference for a church leadership role (a Stephen Ministry training conference, for those that know about this). It’s going to be a long week of drinking from the firehose, I think, but I have to make time for work, considering the last 3 weeks were blown on programming and then moving/caretaking. The military money proposal is due in mid August, and I am nowhere near done with it, like I wanted to be by this time. Wish me luck.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nerdy Addictions

I learned something about myself: programming is like mainlining heroin. Okay, I've never actually mainlined heroin, but I have seen the movie "Trainspotting," which is a sad but excellent portrayal of heroin addiction (in my very amateur opinion). I just got into a small programming task, and every day for the last 2 weeks I would blow off other work in order to get back to debugging. I had to find this error and make this work, and nothing was going to stop me. Okay, perhaps it’s not quite as bad as heroin, as I did remember to prepare and give a presentation to the summer undergrad students last week. But it is a short-term addiction in that I felt physically drawn to the code and the output files, studying them to find the clue that would solve my puzzle. I am glad the task was manageably small, so that closure could be reached without too much time consumed.

You see, I have not had a good chance to make modifications to my main computer code, myself, in a few years. My students (grad and undergrad) have been working on it, doing the things I used to do myself. Helping them learn how to make these changes usually takes more time than if I just did it myself, but that is no longer my job. I am supposed to educate others, and so hiring these people and spending time with them, to slowly do what I could do faster, is what I do.

Except this month. I laid out a long list of things to do this summer, and programming a new feature into the code wasn’t on the list. As I was cleaning off my desk recently, I came across a printout of an email from a coworker here. It was a mid-cycle review of one of his larger grants, on which I have a very small role. Within the review was a recommendation for a specific code modification, and it even suggested the reference for easily making this change. I had printed it out thinking that I (well, actually, one of my students) should incorporate this change, because it is a change directed at my part of the big project. I sat there staring at this sheet of paper and finally I decided: I would do it. Myself. Right now. Nothing else was that urgent that I couldn’t push it off for a few days, which is a how long I figured this would take, even with the times two factor on my estimate.

It is now 2 weeks later, and I am done. Success! This programming task I undertook so completely absorbed my attention that I didn't do much else and ignored many things until I reached the end. I feel like 2 weeks of my life have disappeared, and all of those things I was supposed to be doing are still waiting for me to do, only now I have 2 weeks less to work on them. I can't afford to do that very often, or I will get into serious trouble.

But I succeeded at a programming task. I’m pretty pumped up right now. I need another hit. No, I can’t go there! I have proposal deadlines approaching!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Crank-Nicolson Scheme

I’m pissed off. The f*ing Crank-Nicolson scheme for numerically solving diffusion equations isn’t stable. All of the textbooks state that it’s unconditionally stable. Liars. The fine print on this stability claim is that this unconditionality is for a constant diffusion coefficient. Large gradients in the diffusion coefficient can cause oscillations in the solution. Another issue is that there is a time and space step criterion on its stability. If the time step is too large relative to the spatial step, then oscillations appear. Another problem is that if the diffusion coefficient is too big, then the scheme tries to rearrange the result too much and again introduces oscillations. The net result is that the solution gives negative and/or very large values and the code crashes. I am now in search of another numerical scheme that can handle my large, spatially varying diffusion coefficients and nonuniform spatial grid. I have wasted nearly a week only to discover that my code was working perfectly and doing exactly what I was telling it to do: oscillate until it blows up.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Bible Study

Over the last 2-1/2 years, I took a rather long and in-depth weekly Bible study class from my church. [For those of you that need to know, it was the 34-week Disciple course. The first one. The “red” one.] Okay, it didn’t take me over 2 years; I went through it twice: once as a student, and then again as a teacher/facilitator. I learned many new things during these years, about the Bible, God, Jesus, myself, and other people (in my church and elsewhere). I highly recommend it to everyone. Here are a few of the highlights of the things that I learned:

(1) The Bible is not inerrantly, word-for-word dictated by the Hand of God. I believe that it is inspired by God but written by people. I already knew this, but taking this course, listening to both experts (my pastor, and those on the videos) and classmates talk about it, and spending some time reading vast chunks of the text (twice!) greatly reinforced this belief. The argument can really be distilled into a single question: which translation is the inerrant truth?

(2) Some parts of the Bible are made up whole cloth. This goes along with the first one, but I am not just saying that the Bible contains a distorted or selectively-picked version of the truth, but that parts of it are pure fiction. I believe that the books of Daniel, Jonah, Job, and Revelation are novels. This doesn’t mean that they should be removed from the Bible, though. On the contrary, fiction is sometimes needed to poignantly yet concisely express a particular truth.

(3) We should ask “why” not “how” when reading the Bible. When we approach the Bible, we should not ask “how did that happen?” but instead “why does God want us to know this story?” Changing this mindset from trying to prove that the story is factually correct and piece together a plausible reconstruction is a huge relief to me. I used to need to find the explanation for how a certain story played out. I no longer have to do this. Instead, I read a passage and think about what that story means as far as my relationship with God and with other people.

(4) My relationship with God is equivalent to my relationship with other people. I do not mean that the two relationships are similar. I mean that they are the same relationship. I was always very frustrated by pastors or pious Christians would blithely state that we are to love God with our whole heart. I had no idea what that meant. Now, I have an answer: it means to love other people, to care for them, to be considerate to them, and to listen to them and try to understand their viewpoint and opinion. Interestingly, this is captured succinctly in one of the most famous verses of the Bible.

(5) The Golden Rule is what life is all about. That verse I just referred to is the one in which Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment from the Law. His reply is to love God with all of your heart, mind, body and soul, but he doesn’t stop there. He continues: and the second commandment is like it: to love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible quotes him several times giving this answer, in slight variations, the other common way is this: do to others as you want them to do to you. The kicker is the phrase in the middle, linking the two. Jesus gives an obscure answer that no one really knows how to do (love God, this invisible supreme entity) with a very specific answer on how to actually accomplish it.

(6) We should help those that ask for help. Again, this is how Jesus explains our relationship with God: when you help the least among you, you help God. This is one of the things I love about my church: it has many social mission activities at the local, national, and international levels for both youth and adults. We’re not a big congregation...we have maybe 300 official members, and far less than that on summer Sundays when we drop down to one service. Even still, we find a way to reach out and help other people: volunteering at the local family homeless shelter, collecting food and clothing for the local social service organizations, and going on work “mission” trips to far-off places. There is essentially no evangelism in these activities, just the example of helping others.

(7) God helps us through other people. This is the flip side of the above 2 points. You know the story of the guy who drowned on his rooftop during a massive flood because he was waiting for God to save him. Over the course of the day, several rescuers come to him, but he refuses their help. When he dies and goes to heaven, he asks God why he didn’t save him. God replies, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter!” I think this joke is actually a fairly true description of how God provides help to us.

(8) God wants us to be in a community. Religion is a private affair, but it is also a very public and social one. God wants his followers to be in a community together, to support each other and help each other learn how to become better Christians. I think that such a community is necessary to develop or maintain a healthy relationship with God, and that those who think their Christianity is a solely private endeavor are severely hampering their spiritual growth.

(9) Jesus stayed out of politics and economics. He did not try to reinvent the local business practices nor try to instill a new governmental regime. The Bible barely mentions either of these major realms of human activity. Therefore, I don’t think it is appropriate to use Christianity to formulate an economic or political philosophy.

(10) Jesus directly challenged religious hypocrisy and continuously fought for social justice. While he didn’t try to shake up the political or economic structure of Judea, he did, at every opportunity, confront religious hypocrisy and injustice. Our spirituality is not defined by how many religious practices we follow, but by what we do for those in need around us.

I’ll probably think of more lessons I learned from this Bible study, but this is a good starting list for now. I will go into each of these in more detail in later posts, but it’s good to finally sit down and write out such a list. It’s been hanging around in my head for a while, and this blog is giving me a chance to finally write it down. Let me end this post by saying that I am profoundly thankful that I took the Disciple class and that I then got the chance to teach it. It is an excellent Bible study that has changed my outlook on life.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moon Landing

I am Space Prof, so I should have a comment about the 40th anniversary of the first human moon landing. My comment is that we should not go back.

There is no point to simply returning to the moon just to do it again. The only reason that I can see might be worthwhile is to establish a permanent base there, to prove that we can live somewhere besides the Earth. Even this isn’t that big of a step forward, because we already have shown this with space stations. These are not permanent dwellings on another solid surface celestial body, though, which would be a notable accomplishment. However, just getting there is going to be expensive. It will cost many billions of dollars just to rebuild the Saturn V launch capability again, not to mention the cost of shipping building materials to the moon for the astronauts to assemble and then use. This will not be a cheap endeavor.

So, I think that we should go straight to Mars. We would still have to rebuild a launch capability for getting people safely out of Earth orbit, but I think that humanity would be better served with a trip to an actual planet rather than the lump of rock orbiting the planet we are already on. This would be truly new and would represent a significant advancement.

People will probably die on the commute. We can’t get to Mars without months of travel time each way. Plus, Mars doesn’t have the strong magnetic field shielding it like Earth does. Astronauts in a spacecraft or on the surface will be subjected to much stronger doses of energetic particles than astronauts in low-Earth orbit, or even on a few-day trip to the moon and back. They will be exposed to some serious cancer-causing radiation, and they will get sick. Some might die. It will not be a pretty site. But we will have done it. We will have sent people to Mars and brought them back. We will have shown that people can go beyond our planet and off to another.

Why? Just to do it, is the main reason. The far-off utilitarian reason is because we might someday need another planet on which to live. Another motherhood and apple pie reason is to spur the imagination of humanity and inspire the next generation of explorers. These don’t really justify the cost of human spaceflight, especially the staggering cost of spaceflight to another planet. But I still think that we should go.

Many in my field will disagree with the above paragraphs, arguing instead to cancel all human spaceflight and just send robotic space probes to these places. The Voyager satellites are at the edge of the solar system right now. They argue that human spaceflight saps away resources from robotic exploration and that the two are in competition. Yes, to some degree, they are. I think, though, that they are tightly linked (certainly politically, and often budgetarily) and that such criticisms are self-defeating. If human spaceflight disappeared, then I think robotic spaceflight would greatly suffer. The civilian robotic spaceflight program would dwindle, and all that would be left is the military spaceflight needs. If that happened, then our view of outer space would change drastically, and probably not for the better.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


I’m going after the DOD money.

My field of space physics is related to national security because the things that humans do and the technology we rely on is influenced by the “weather” of outer space. Specifically, we are influenced by the electric currents that flow through near-Earth space and by relativistic particles that get close to Earth. Up until now, I have only used this connection as a “relevance” argument in proposals to science-oriented funding agencies like NASA and NSF. This helps to get me funding to do research on the natural space environment.

Occasionally, however, there is a military agency that solicits proposals from academics to study something about the space environment that is related to national security. The Department of Defense is different than NASA in that most of their funding agencies ask for short white papers first, and they make the big down-select at this stage. The proposers are told yes or no on submitting a full proposal (usually without much feedback), and those lucky enough to hear “yes” usually then have a better than 50% chance of getting selected for funding. I have made it past the white paper stage once. No funding from DOD yet.

In May I submitted another white paper to a DOD agency, and I just heard that it was selected for full proposal submission. I now get to spend the next month learning about high-altitude nuclear explosions and how they create artificial radiation belts in near-Earth outer space. I know a bit about the natural radiation belt environment, but this will be a new direction for me.

I am still trying to convince myself that I want to do this work. The proposal solicitation is written from a counterterrorism standpoint, and in fact it comes from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. However, I could easily see how it could be used from an offensive standpoint. If the US has accurate simulation tools describing the resulting radiation belts from a high-altitude nuclear explosion (and therefore the threat to space-based assets), then we can perhaps plan how to use such explosions to our strategic advantage. It is nowhere near the dilemma that scientists faced in the 1940s during the development of nuclear weapons, but it is an indirect usage of peaceful scientific advancements for potential destruction. I tell myself that writing this proposal and going after this money is patriotic and good for America. Something keeps nagging me in the back of my mind, though, that I am whoring my expertise for a few extra dollars of research funding, and there will be unintended negative consequences down the line.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The New Mac

Where have you been all of this time, Intel processor for the Mac? I love you!

I have a computer code that I use as a big part of my research. It solves how electrically charged particle move through a region of near-Earth space. It’s a code that others began almost 2 decades ago and I am now the keeper of this code (let me clarify: I am the keeper of the version of this code at my university, as there are other versions out there as well, with different keepers).

It’s solving a time-dependent set of equations, so a typical simulation requires initial conditions for the start-up and then boundary conditions for the time interval of interest. I like to look at storm conditions in near-Earth space, so a typical simulation is usually a day-long interval, and often times I would run a 4-day interval, to capture the quiet time ahead and behind the storm interval.

When I got the code 10 years ago, it ran about 10 times slower than real time. Yes: to do a single storm simulation, I had to wait over a week for the result, sometimes a month. This slowly improved over the years as I kept upgrading my computer. I recently replaced a G5 Mac with a new Intel-based Mac. On my old Mac desktop computer, it used to run about 3 times as fast as real time. This was a big improvement over the previous machine, as it was the first time it passed real time speed barrier. On the Intel machine, it’s now 12 times faster than real time. Not only that, but my new Mac is a dual-quadcore machine, with 8 CPUs inside of it. The timing numbers above are for serial processing jobs. My old Mac was a dual processor machine, and I didn’t like to run it in parallel mode because then I couldn’t much else with the machine until the run was done. This is no longer a limitation. Spreading the run over 4 processors (leaving plenty of processing power for other things) means that the code is now 50 times faster than real time. I can do a 4-day simulation in 2 hours. Oof-da!

For a long while I had been hesitating with code development because it was so painful to wait for results. Not anymore. I can now dive back into it. Now, I just have to remember FORTRAN again. Oh yeah, and find time to actually program.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Peer Review Workload

I review a lot of papers and proposals. It’s part of my job. For those of you not in a scientific research field, here’s the deal: all of the papers I submit to obscure journals and all of the proposals I submit to funding agencies are then sent back out into the world to several other scientists in the field for “peer review.” The editor or program officer then takes these reviews into account when making their decisions. When there is a specific proposal deadline, this usually means that the agency will convene a one or more panels of peer reviewers (in addition to mail-in reviews), where 5-10 people will sit around a table for 2-3 days discussing and rating each of the proposals submitted on a particular topic. All of these people are anonymous to the submitters and are supposed to be unbiased and objective in their evaluations. Typically, journal paper manuscripts go to 2 reviewers and proposals go to up to 5 mail-in reviewers. If there is a panel, then each panelist is usually assigned to be lead on 3-4 and secondary on 3-4 more.

So, with this in mind, I should be peer reviewing several manuscripts and proposals for every paper I submit (as first author) and every proposal I submit (as PI). I submit at least 2 papers a year as first author. I used to submit 4 or 5 as a research scientist, but that another story. So I should do 4 manuscript reviews a year. But that’s not enough. I should also do 2 for every paper my students or postdocs submit (not the research scientists, though), because they will most likely not be asked to review anything yet. This adds another 3-4 papers a year. So, I should be reviewing at least 10 journal manuscripts a year. I submit probably 3-5 proposals a year as well. If the average mail-in review number is 3, then I should be doing at least 10 mail-in proposal reviews for various funding agencies. Also, I submit mostly to NASA (that always convenes panels) and NSF (that sometimes convenes panels), and, because each panelist is lead on 3 or 4 proposals, so I should also be serving on at least 1 panel per year as well (which means another 6-8 proposal reviews from those assigned as part of the panel).

A paper review takes me about half a day, and a proposal review a little less than that. So, this adds up to well over 100 work hours of time each year devoted to evaluating what other people are working on. This is a hidden time sink that no one told me about when I was considering becoming a scientist. Maybe I’m just too nice to editors and program officers and don’t say “no” enough, but I’ve worked out the stats and think I’m doing a reasonable number of reviews for the burden I place on others.

Scientists out there: does anyone else do this much peer review?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Manager Mode

I just submitted a proposal to NASA, as did one of the research scientists that I support. They will be reviewed by the same subpanel of the same program, and will be ranked relative to each other when the final funding decisions are made by the NASA HQ discipline scientist. It’s kind of weird directly competing with another proposal not only from the same department but also from the same group.

This brings me to the concept of “manager mode.” Three years ago, when I was research faculty instead of instructional faculty, I had time to write my own code, do my own simulations, analyze my own data, compare my own model results with the data, and write my own papers. I cannot do this now. The teaching and service loads of an instructional faculty (now tenured, as of 2 months ago!) greatly limit the time I have to do any of those things. Plus, I am expected to maintain a research group. I think I have done pretty well creating one. Three years ago it was me and 2 grad students. Now it is me, 2 assistant research scientists, 4 grad students, and 1-3 undergrad students (2 this summer). Funding all of these people is a major priority in my life and so writing proposals is a constant activity. Proposals usually have hard deadlines, so these often take precedence over everything else for a week or two when such a deadline comes up. Meeting with all of these people is a major time commitment as well. The undergrads need a few minutes (perhaps an hour) every day, the grad students and research scientists a few hours once or twice a week. Between proposals and managing the people in my group, most of my time allocation for research activities is spent. Another chunk of time is spent in peer review. Whereas I used to say yes to every request, I often say no to paper reviews not, not doing more than one every month or two. Proposal reviews I do every time, though, and this takes some effort to do it right. Another chunk of my research time allocation is spent at conferences, which takes away a whole week every now and then.

All of this leaves very little time for me to do my own research. That’s especially true during the school year, when the constant deadline of the next lecture or homework set posting is usually just a day away (and the various departmental committees are active). During the summer months, I now look forward to getting something done. Last summer I wrote 2 first-author papers. The summer before...2 papers. This summer...nothing so far. It’s July 9th; I have less than 2 months to get stuff done. Luckily, this week and next are now fairly open, and I hope to spend a lot of time making plots and writing text.

Do I like “manager mode”? Yes. I like teaching, and that is essentially what I am doing with both my students and my research scientists. My publication rate is actually higher now than before, counting all of the coauthorships on manuscripts. But, that said, yesterday afternoon was very satisfying: I spent it writing code, running the model, and making plots. Today...compare those results with data. Life is good.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Anonymity or Not?

I just sent out several emails yesterday, revealing myself to dozens of people. As these posts are supposed to a replacement for the letters I used to write to them, I would rather have them know the site exists and that it is me than have the posts disappear into the etherworld and totally unfulfill their purpose. Okay, part of the purpose is for me to vent, but it's mostly to replace those letters from the past. For those who don’t know me, I am Space Prof. For those who do know me, please call me Space Prof on this site. All are welcome to comment. Thanks!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Former Students and Code Usage

The steps:

1) I hire grad student to work on a project.

2) Grad student writes a program to do the work.

3) Grad student publishes some papers and the grant is completed.

4) Grad student defends dissertation gets PhD.

5) Grad student gets a job elsewhere.

6) I keep a version of the code.

7) I write a proposal to do something new with the code.

8) Grad student gets mad that I am using “his” code without permission from him or funding for him.

Has anyone else had a familiar experience?

My first response is to tell him to get over it. I paid for the code development and mentored him on the science behind the necessity of the code. My second response, because I want to help him out, is to offer to include him on whatever papers I/my new grad student writes with results from the code. My third response is to actually offer him a subcontract to pay him to help continue developing the code. My fourth response it to totally ignore his unhappiness and continue as if I had never received his email.

The Founding Fathers

It’s July 4th, so I thought I’d write about our country today. I’ve been off of blogging for a week or so, mainly because work was too busy and cut into my early mornings and evenings. Getting back from a long trip always takes a few days to recover and achieve normalcy in the office, but also having a proposal due (for which I had a lot of reading and writing to do) complicated the readjustment. Luckily, I don’t have to teach in the summer, so I don’t have worry about class notes and homework sets on top of it all.

A couple of years ago I read a book about the Founding Fathers by Brooke Allen called “Moral Minority.” She felt it necessary to rebut the claims of the conservative Christian Right that America is a Christian Nation founded on the principles of Jesus. She went through the religious-oriented writings of 6 of the big names in creating our country: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. I think that she makes a superb argument for her counter position that the Founding Fathers were, with only a few exceptions, deists of the Enlightenment era who accepted the notion of a supreme being but rejected the god-nature of Jesus. They were very afraid of a state-sponsored religion and very intentionally left out religion from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The “separation of church and state” argument is not actually in the Constitution (only briefly in the First Amendment), but rather it is discussed in gory detail in the Federalist Papers, the lengthy and numerous persuasive essays on which the Constitution is based.

I think that the Founding Fathers were very perceptive in defining the country in this way. Forcing a religion on people is never a good idea, and history shows us that such enforcement often leads to the bloodiest times for humanity. Even though I am a Christian, I am very thankful that America is not a Christian Nation. I do not think Christianity (or any religion) is served well when politicians make it mandatory. To me, religion requires a deep, personal sincerity that cannot be imposed on anyone by others. You can offer your own religious experiences as an example to others, but only they can decide to truly believe. Enforced membership is counterproductive and, I think, ultimately damaging to the religion such a rule is trying to enhance.

Personal evangelism, though, is a different matter. I like to talk about religious topics, but I also don’t want to push my religious beliefs on others. That’s a delicate and undefined line that I usually don’t know that I’ve crossed until the other person is offended. Religion (like politics) is a tough thing to discuss with others unless they are of the same mindset as you (in which case you simply agree) or they are exceptionally open-minded (in which case they will agree that you have the right to that position). Either way the discussion is often short-lived. I have found that anything less than this leads to arguments or awkward silences. Again, this leads to another short-lived discussion.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Proposals and Soccer

Instead of working on my proposal for NASA’s Mars Fundamental Research Program, I just sat on my hotel-room bed and watched half an hour of soccer on ESPN 2. I have no idea why I turned on the TV, but I needed to take out my contacts, so I flicked it on as I walked past. When I saw the soccer field, I left it there. When I saw who was playing, I sat down. You see, it wasn’t just any soccer, but the US playing Spain in the semi-finals of the Confederation’s Cup. When I turned it on, the US was up 1-0. What made me stop everything and glue my eyes to the screen was that the announcer informed us that Spain is the #1 ranked team in the world. The final score: US 2, Spain 0. Yeah, our national team just broke Spain’s 15-game winning streak (and 35-game unbeaten streak). Spain hadn’t lost since 2006. The announcer said that the US has come in 3rd in this tournament a couple of times, but never made it to the finals. Way cool. We were clearly outplayed most of the game, with Spain constantly stealing passes and pressuring our goalie. He had some incredible saves and our defenders made innumerable headers to clear the barrage of crossing volleys. The US team was solid, though, and attacked just enough to get a second goal with 15 minutes left and help seal the victory. Spain kept pressuring in a rabid fury of shots on goal, but we held them off. Oh yeah, and one of our players got a red card with under 10 minutes left, so we were down a man at the end. Spain couldn’t break through, though. I was on the edge of my seat. Soccer is a great sport.

The contacts are out now, and I guess I should get back to my MFRP proposal, but it’s 11 pm and I’m not up for thinking that hard.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why the Weird Name?

Recipes in cookbooks are always so exact...half a tablespoon of oil, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, two and a quarter cups of flour. I always try to follow them, thinking that the creator of the recipe experimented to get just the right proportions. Then, when you watch a chef on TV (which I very rarely do), they often just toss in ingredients until it feels right to them. So much for the exacting chemistry of cooking. They’re just winging it.

I heard one of these chefs talking on the radio a long while back and he said to add a heaping teaspoon of some ingredient into a mix. I laughed out loud. From then on, “The Heaping Teaspoons” has always sounded like a good name for a rock band. Since I am not forming a band anytime soon, I thought I would use this odd little phrase for my blog.

I hope that it is somewhat fitting for these posts. A teaspoon is a small amount, and that’s what I feel like this blog is, compared to the vast sprawl of blog options that you all have to read out there. But on the other hand, I hope that this is an overflowing spoonful of something good for you. It is for me, as I enjoy writing them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

TV News

I usually don’t watch TV news programs. But I am on travel right now, and I turn on the TV sometimes just to have some noise in the room with me. Last night was good...a soccer game was on ESPN 2, Egypt vs. Italy. Egypt was up 1-0. In the morning, though, there are no live sporting events. You get Sports Center, which repeats itself regularly. Tiger Woods got a double bogey. Tiger Woods got a birdie. Tiger Woods is 2 strokes off the lead. Tiger Woods is held up by a rain delay. Oh yeah, and there are other golfers in the tournament, too. Tiger is a great golfer, but the reporting was monotonous. Sports news gets boring to me in a hurry.

So I try a regular news channel instead. Yesterday, MSNBC was examining the question of whether Obama is overexposed in the media. They were questioning whether he appears too much on the TV, in reports on the radio, on the covers of magazines, and such. I am not making this up: a 24-hour news channel was complaining about overcoverage of a newsmaker. Obama is the President of the United States, of course he should be regularly in the news, especially US news outlets, and of course he is overexposed in the media, because the media bombards us with drivel 24/7. I had to turn off the TV.

This morning, I tried again, CNN this time. They were having what appeared to be an open forum on the question, “Is the word feminism obsolete?” They were randomly interviewing people across America, reading comments posted on their website, doing dramatic camera-angles sweeps and cuts around their reporters in the field, and playing dark, threatening music to set the mood of impending doom. This is the best they can come up with for news? I had to turn it off.

It’s good to remind myself why I don’t watch TV, especially the news. Instead I get 2 newspapers and listen to NPR in the car. It’s more than enough. I also read a few different magazines, not really for news for in-depth analysis of the issues. Harper’s is my favorite.