30 April 2008

Wiscmail Down

The campus-wide e-mail servers here at UW-Madison seem to be down right now. If you're trying to get in touch with me via my main account and have somehow found your way here, note that you can reach me via my gmail account, a link to which appears in the second box on the top RHS of this page.

29 April 2008

Non-Secular Programming

First, a Sports Night scene to set the mood:

CASEY: Finish the story.

DAN: The story is, we had a conversation. Seriously. Someone had clearly briefed her on my stuff with the public schools and I told her about my opposition to secular programs that are publicly financed. I really spoke up and she seemed to listen.

CASEY: You mean non-secular.

DAN: What do you mean?

CASEY: You don't oppose secular programs that are publicly financed. You oppose non-secular programs that are publicly financed.

DAN: Yes.

CASEY: Go on.

DAN: Wait.

CASEY: I'm right.

DAN: Are you sure?

CASEY: Non-secular means bound to religious guidelines. Secular means free of religion.

DAN: (Thinking.) Okay. I'm sure I got it right at breakfast.

CASEY: Fifty-fifty chance.

(DAN is still pondering the odds that he got it right.)

CASEY: So go on.

(A distracted DAN reaches for a change of clothes.)

DAN: I'm gonna go and change my clothes.

CASEY: Okay.

(DAN drops the clothes to the floor.)

DAN: I didn't get it right.

CASEY: I know.

DAN: I blew it.


DAN: I mixed up! I inverted the definitions of secular and non-secular!

CASEY: Looks like that might be the case.

DAN: Hilary Clinton thinks I'm an idiot!

CASEY: Either that or a religious bigot.

I wanted to open with a little levity as a heads up about some decidedly non-secular programming. I've talked about God and science previously on this blog, but the link below steps things up a theological notch, I think.

I was asked to preach at St. Francis House a couple Sundays back, and I decided that what I came up with was too CSC-ish not to post here. Of course, this blog isn't publicly financed, and I'm not a religious bigot (in fact, I've danced around some wording to avoid confronting a tough passage that one author calls "disturbing [] to our pluralistic ears," which mine decidedly are), but I nevertheless just wanted to mention the original context of the link below.

Anyway, feel free to have a look if you're so inclined (here).

Update: The link should be working now. Sorry, I thought I'd thoroughly tested that the place I'd posted it before was publicly accessible, but apparently it wasn't. Thanks to whoever brought it to my attention.

28 April 2008

Local News of National Import

It's weird when you get news about your community from a national news source. Sadly, that happened today to this Madison, WI resident:

Reluctantly, a Daily Stops Its Presses, Living Online (New York Times)

Was I the only one who hadn't heard about this? I'm not a very good local news consumer, so I guess I'm part of the problem at work here.

We'll miss you, Cap Times.

27 April 2008

Sunday Judgment VII

Today's lesson: not all copy is created equal.

If you have the final responsibility (or even part of it) for the copy in some publication, I submit to you that it's a good rule of thumb to spend twice as much time copy editing the text in headlines, captions, etc. than you would on the same volume of text in some random paragraph. Why? Because everyone loves pointing out mistakes, and there's a much greater chance of others finding them when they're in conspicuous places. Cruelly, there's also a decreased chance of you, the copy editor, finding them, since it's easy to take their correctness for granted ("oh, I would have noticed an error in that cutline already").

It's 8:52 a.m. CST, and an online caption for a photo in the New York Times Magazine's "Young Gay Rites" article still has a pretty whopping error. Can you find it before they do?

23 April 2008

Can This Just Be My Career?

My baseball partner-in-crime Matt sent me this awesome link to a New York Times story I missed about a month ago.

If you want to know how tons of nuclear engineers spend their time, look no further. We run simulations like the one in the article. Except instead of flipping these virtual weighted coins to see how simulated batters fair over the course of their careers, we're trying to see how simulated neutrons (or x-rays, or electrons, or whatever) fair over the course of their lifetimes (from their creation in the reactor or whatever until their eventual absorption or leakage from the system). Of course, for a binary process (e.g., DiMaggio either gets a hit or he doesn't) it's OK to visualize coin-flipping, but I think it's better to think of the "randomness driver" as the roll of a many, many-sided die--which is why the Men from Mars referred to this clever trick as a Monte Carlo method. (In fact, I used Monte Carlo to write this absurd little simulation, which happens to be about rolling dice.)

Man, writing baseball simulations for a living would maybe be my dream job. Hey, Baseball Prospectus: need any more modelers?

21 April 2008

Playing Catch (-Up)

In honor of yesterday's beautiful weather and the associated (and long overdue) first game of catch, I checked out a couple of baseball blogs today.

Perhaps I'm too much of a Turnbow apologist, but I think this guy is partially misplacing the blame for today's Brewers loss. I was only listening to it on the radio, but it seems like base-running mistakes really cost us a chance to take the lead in the bottom of the eighth, which could have kept us in it. Nevertheless, I think Brewers Bar looks worth reading, so I've added it to the new Sports links at right. (Speaking of sports blogs, did you see this? I'd like to hear more about Cuban's viewpoint, which sounds a little hypocritical but is perhaps only superficially so.)

In other news (since I'm still just getting slammed at work and need to knock at least one story off the old ToBlog queue before I lose all my momentum), congratulations to Professors McMahon and Murphy on their recent teaching awards. Watch for Insights' interview with Regina Murphy in the next edition. I was there for the brown bag and thought she covered some really interesting stuff.

In the meanwhile, here's some wisdom from McMahon:

"He inspired me to think of students as 'candles to be lit, not vessels to be filled,'" she says. "I think of myself not as a conduit for facts, but as an exuberant tour guide introducing students to the joy of problem-solving and learning about the world around them."

We need more exuberance.

17 April 2008

What I Did All Day

As it turns out, only this (click to enlarge):

It's getting to be that time of the semester where scheduling and time management become both more difficult (because the time-uncertainties in end-of-semester-type activities are so much greater) and more important (because of the number and importance of said activities). Case in point: the above plot took me all day to make, and I really only had to generate the dotted line today. It turns out that every time I've solved this particular two-region reactor physics problem (at least twice while studying for my qualifying exam), I've done it wrong. It took me about two hours to realize my mistake, another two to find and fix it, and another hour to find the additional mistakes I incorporated in moving my solution from one piece of software to another. I can't tell you how many other items were on my todo list today (including--I'm just realizing--eating lunch), which tasks of course I'm scrambling to do now (well, in about another two minutes, obviously). I'll try to explain this problem and plot some other time, since they're kind of interesting and have some bearing on the "What have we got to lose?" modeling question.

Anyway, I just wanted to sort of explain my absence from this space this week and see if anybody had suggestions for dealing with this problem of how you can manage your time when the tasks you're juggling are both more important and more unpredictable in terms of how much time they take to finish. As far as I can tell, the standard answers include "sleep less" and "forget to each lunch."

OK, back to work.

13 April 2008

New Insights Online

I linked to the March edition of our College of Engineering's Teaching and Learning Insights newsletter last month, mostly because I'd written a piece for it. But it would be a shame if I didn't pass the April link along as well. This issue rules.

In particular, check out the feature about my friend and sometime collaborator Laura Grossenbacher and her work on WAC (that's Writing Across the Curriculum, not Western Athletic Conference) in engineering. This project's got it all--interdisciplinarity, technical writing, authentic learning, and more. So I guess by "it all" I mean "stuff I'm interested in." If you are too, check it out.

There's also a write-up of our journal club's most recent article and a piece on using blogs for assessment. Geez, they're productivity tools, assessment tools, brainstorming tools...makes me wonder why it took me so long to get back in the blogging game.

12 April 2008

Science News: Patterns

All the stories that caught my eye in this week's Science News digest had to do with violated patterns.

(1) I was checking out the videos of the big Intel young scientist competition finalists and was pleased to see a few non-biological scientists getting some recognition. It seems like almost all of the elite young science students you hear about are heading toward bio-related fields (and who can blame them?), so I'm glad to see that some de facto traffic and materials engineers made the cut.

(2) This week's Math Trek discusses the inherent statistical noisiness of individual performance in baseball:

"In fact, according to a new analysis by Lawrence Brown of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, predicting that a player's batting average will be the same in the second half of the season as the first half is about the worst plausible method out there."

Fair point, but I think it's a bit misleading to call baseball a noisy sport, since it's a mere pin-drop compared to the deafening statistical roar in team sports like football, where the variables are so hard to isolate and control that nobody seems to bother much. (Well, except for these guys, from the looks of it.)

In any event, though you don't need to be an Ivy League professor to realize that two weeks' worth of baseball is a minuscule sample size, this story was still a soothing balm as I contemplate the early struggles of several of my very high fantasy picks: Jose Reyes, Russell Martin, and Hunter Pence in particular. C'mon guys, TeamGuido needs you!

One non-violated pattern involving this story: my continuing professional crush on Julie Rehmeyer.

(3) I don't pay much attention to elements with atomic numbers higher than about 98, but apparently element 114 is giving some physical chemists a little trouble. If their results are correct, ununquadium seems to violate over 100 years of unflappable electro-numeric periodicity. (Man, there's no way that's the right term, but I like the sound of it.)

Why? Well, "nuclei with more protons attract electrons more strongly. Those electrons orbit faster, and according to Einstein's special theory of relativity, time for them stretches out. As a result, some of the electrons' orbits are tighter than in lighter elements, affecting that element's chemistry."

There seems to be some debate about whether such relativistic effects, which have been observed before, should be great enough to significantly alter the-element-that-would-be-Atlantisium's chemistry. This work is worth keeping an eye on, to the extent that any artificial material with a half-life on the order of seconds is worth knowing anything about. (Full disclosure: I'm being a little flippant here, but the prospect of 114-298 being stable is pretty exciting, the difficulties of cramming nine more neutrons into 114-289 notwithstanding.)

Well, unlike the subjects of these stories, I don't tend to violate a lot of patterns. Case in point: I just burned another Saturday morning doing armchair science writing despite boatloads of real work ahead of me (and, also as usual, I didn't get past the Saturday morning Science New digest in order to get to all the other interesting stuff I'd saved up all week). Ah well. Happy Saturday, everyone.

P.S., I've been getting a lot of nice feedback about this blog lately. Thanks very much for reading, everyone! I hope the rest of you are enjoying CSC as well, and I hope you'll all consider leaving comments, dropping me some email, blogging about interesting posts you find here, etc. I'd love to make this space more of a conversation; if there are ways you think I can better facilitate that goal, please let me know.

11 April 2008

Strange Indeed

One of the very, very few reasons I regret not having a car is that getting to Madison's east or west sides for movies hardly seems worth the investment in bus-riding time (we miss you University Square, you of the $4.75 student admission and reasonably priced beer).

This week I'm doubly bummed due to this weird convergence:

"If you are in the mood for a movie about the rejuvenation of an aging, widowed college professor — and don’t pretend you aren’t — then this is a weekend of rare and unexpected abundance. By some miracle of film industry serendipity, two such movies are opening today in limited release. Even more bizarre: each is pretty good."

Of course, The Visitor isn't even playing here, and Smart People is at the slightly-easier-to-get-to-(though-astronomically-priced) Sundance Cinemas, so I may very well get a chance to catch it. I miss seeing movies easily, is the general point here. Would someone please open another student-oriented theater downtown?

Thanks, A.O.: Smart People, The Visitor

08 April 2008

News Wire: (Mostly) Underwater Edition

Three of the four science stories that caught my eye this morning take place under water:

"Case study: Making waves with new power generation technology" (Financial Times)
"What's Making That Awful Racket? Surprisingly, It May Be Fish" (New York Times)
"Growing Pains for a Deep-See Home Built of Subway Cars" (New York Times)

Not content with those choices? The last story involves the Monty Hall problem applied to psychology experiment:

"And Behind Door No. 1, a Fatal Flaw" (New York Times)

The answer to the MHP is pretty neat, a great example of the kind of reasoning you can do when you're willing to consider the counterintuitive.

(Full disclosure: the MHP, along with the Birthday problem and the Shake of the Day problem, have all been covered by what we might as well call the Society for Spontaneously Arguing About Math in Taverns. I originally got it wrong.)

07 April 2008

Final One

Well, the unscientific verdict ("unscientific" because saying anything based on one tournament or especially one game is foolishness) is in: if you're looking to win some money or whatever, you can do a lot worse than to start from the pure LRMC rankings and go from there to make your bracket picks, at least given this year's result.

Unfortunately, by the end of the tourney I was rooting against my brackets, partly because I have a friend from Memphis, and partly because I thought maybe we'd stumbled across a Moneyball-style inefficiency (full disclosure: I also have to admit that watching a fast, "exciting" team that you actually kinda like is pretty sweet, my love for Bo Ryan's teams notwithstanding). Just like speed is overpriced in baseball, at least some of this year's tourney suggests that maybe free throw shooting is "overpriced"--great if you can get it, but you can win without it if you're good enough in other areas. That's a rhetorically unsatisfying conclusion to reach, though, given tonight's result.

By the way, despite the great race in the West and all the Celtics intrigue, I'd like to put in a request to just cut the NBA season off right here so we can put basketball behind us and get on with the real business of watching baseball. Who's with me?

04 April 2008

I Didn't Know We Could Do That

Two fascinating stories off the morning science wire today:

Paper planes tested for launch into space --What have aerospace engineers got to lose? Everything but a single sheet of spray-coated sugar cane paper, apparently. I mentioned this project a while back, and I just can't get enough of it. I hope it works.

10 impossibilities conquered by science -- I like all the decisions except the one to begin the title with a numeral. "Harnessing nuclear power"comes in at number five.

Funny story about number three (heavier-than-air flight): Apparently whenever one of my professors sits next to someone on an airplane who's complaining about a delay due to technical problems (you know, the whole "in this day and age" bit), he just looks at the person and says "Well, I'm a professor of engineering physics, and I'm amazed they work at all. Let me tell you about what can go wrong..." I guess that usually shuts the person up.

I'm gone this weekend at a church retreat at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. Beautiful place, should be a nice weekend.

02 April 2008

...What To Leave Out

I got a hat tip from the Freakonomics blog today in reference to a recent post about the Wikipedia article for "real life." The post accepts the premise that fantasy and reality are complements rather than substitutes (a position Contraria Sunt Complementa naturally supports), and it zeros in on Robin Hanson's pro-complement point that "fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model" (hyperlink added).

Of course, such suppression is a big part of the game for us researchers who write simulation software. In fact, I'd argue that it's the game. Not because implementation is trivial (it's not), but because fantasy has to start from scratch, so to speak; without "suppress[ing] irrelevent detail," even the fastest model builder never has a chance to catch up. There's just to much detail to try to capture.

I talk a little bit each week here at CSC about editorial judgment, a subject that--despite going-on six years of engineering training--I have much more real-life experience with than its engineering analog. I'll make an effort to rectify my recent lack of engineering-judgment coverage in the coming weeks, especially as I try to summon some myself in order to finish up my work on GENIUS by the end of the summer.

I admit to occasionally succumbing to the need for a motivational Post-It note above my workstation. "Simplify, simplify" wouldn't be a bad motto in light of the addition-by-subtraction nature of modeling. But I'm going to go with the titular reference from the Douglas Adams piece that--almost four years ago now--first got me thinking about the importance of teaching engineers how to decide what to leave out:

"What have we got to lose?"

01 April 2008

Long Time No Hear, Here

Just a quick announcement: Natalia Zukerman is finally coming back to Madison! She'll be playing at Cafe Montmartre (it's still gonna be there, right?) on April 23, according to her mailing list. Time, cost, and opening act are all TBA.

Zukerman is one of my favorite artists, despite my general lack of interest in acoustic singer/songwriters. Why? Well, because she's a great instrumentalist (her dad is Pinchas Zukerman, not that I'd guess he taught her much about slide guitar); her songs are clever, sophisticated, and harmonically interesting; and her genre-mashing choices are right in my sweet spot.

Zukerman is a terrific live performer (funny, warm, great voice), and she recorded her new album at Willie Porter's studio (my friend Patrick and I discovered her when she opened for him a while back), so I'm especially pumped about its release as well. Let me know if you're interested in coming with me.