Thursday, October 8, 2009

- Dems vs. Reps

What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

Republicans are dumb, and democrats don't have the balls to tell them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

- Blog etiquette... or not?

Is the a rule about replying to your own post comments?

Some people have blogs just to write their thoughts and they really don't care whether their posts are read by a number of people. Another group write posts with the intention of having an audience (whether you have one or not is a different story). I read several blogs, and while I typically find the posts interesting the part I like the most are the comments. A post can be a polarizing, one-man (or woman)'s point of view. Comments, on the other hand, can level the playing field and usually present a broader view of the same situation.

People who blog for themselves I kinda get, although sometimes I think it might be better for them to have a private blog. The thing that I don't understand, is why some people who give the impression to be blogging to an audience do not (almost ever) reply to the comments. I don't expect the post's author to go to the commenter's blog and write there nor to answer with another post-long entry. Just a quick reply in their own blogs seems fair to me.

Monday, June 29, 2009

- Fucking unbelievable

Typically I am in disagreement with posts about how women are discriminated against in science departments. It has been my experience that both women and men are treated equally and I regarded scientists like MsPhD and FSP as mostly bitter, unhappy people. Until now.

A friend of mine, who is also a graduate student in a physics department, just found out she was pregnant. Apparently it wasn't planned so she is very surprised and since she is relatively young, also scared. She is a fifth year, foreign student. Being a foreign student puts a lot of conditions on your status (full time student every semester, working at most 20 hrs/week for example). She is also close to, but not there yet, graduation. So she went to her advisor to inform him and see how to work out the future situation and the idiot didn't like the news. His response was that, since she uses dangerous chemicals for her experiments she wasn't going to be able to do that now that she is pregnant. Then he went on to explain (in a bad mood apparently) how his funding was going to suffer because of her pregnancy. As if the reason why he isn't so scientically profitable is because his students get pregnant. These are enough reasons to think/know he is an idiot, but what was just way too fucking much was that after laying out all the points why this pregnancy wasn't ideal he asked... so, are you going to keep it? What a fucking asshole.

The sad part is that this girl is so worried about her being pregnant, plus scared because she is foreign that she won't pursue any legal action against her advisor. I hope she does, and I hope he gets fucked big time. This shit shouldn't happen in our times, it shouldn't happen at universities where supposedly smart people work.

Anyways, I guess FSP, MsPhD and anyone else out there who has shared an experience in which they were not treated equally than their male coworkers deserve an apology from me. I am sorry this shit happens to you and I hope it gets better. I will now keep my eyes (more) open and take action if I witness any type of abuse.

Friday, May 29, 2009

-Healthcare costs

John at Cosmic Variance just wrote a dangerous (in my opinion) entry on healthcare. It is true that healthcare is very expensive (particularly in the US) and that having for-profit insurance companies sounds like a big conflict of interest, however, this topic is nowhere close to being a simple one.

Insurance companies often deny a procedure or treatment based on many different, and some times stupid (see here), reasons. Most likely, the motive behind the rejection is to increase profits by cutting down on expensive procedures. One side of the issue that is NEVER discussed is why the procedures are so expensive in the first place. Note that this has nothing to do with the insurance companies, a non-insured person can go to the doctor and pay out of pocket just to find out that a (typical) 45-minute MRI scan costs around $800, and this is probably on top of the cost to just get to see the doctor. Wikipedia even quotes a much higher cost (~$4000). According to the typical cost of the equipment mentioned on wikipedia, at $800/patient the $3 million investment would be recovered in about 4000 patients. Certainly doctors scan way more than 4000 in the lifetime of the MRI machine. MRI centers can probably get their investment back in one year (at 45-min/scan, they can do 10 patients in an 8-hour long work day. If they open for 300 days that is 3000 patients/year). In this case, I don't see the insurance companies abusing the patient, it's more like the doctors performing the procedure are overcharging for it.

Some people argue that doctors have to charge that much given the fact that they come out of school with a significant amount of debt. While this might be true, I don't see why medical school has to be so expensive. It doesn't really require that much more time to become a medical doctor (even with a specialty) than to become a professor in science (5 years of PhD, 3-5 years of postdoc experience). So why is one much more expensive than the other one? and why do medical doctors expect to make so much money when they get out of school? Maybe if the cost to become a doctor is cut down it will be more affordable for a patient to get treated. However, it's possible that it is too late for the US to make changes in this area; the culture of medical school is probably too ingrained in the people when you have many students going (or at least trying to go) to medical school just to become rich afterwards.

Can we do something as scientists? Well, for one, we not only need to be working on getting new technologies, but also on making the currently available ones way cheaper. This last point might sound more like engineering, but I still feel scientists can do a lot more to help on it.

Everybody (yes, even terminal patients) should get whatever treatment/procedure could possibly mean recovery, even if only temporary. Reducing costs by cutting treatment to terminal patients and instead offering counseling, as John suggests, is the wrong way to go. It is no different than insurance companies denying care because they think it will not matter at the end. We need to find other places to cut costs while at the same time we increase treatment to current patients and extend it to new ones.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

-What should be funded?

Obama seems to believe there is (some) wasteful spending going to defense-related programs. I am sure many people (mostly republicans) believe these expenses are necessary for the security of the nation. While I am not republican, nor I agree with many of their ideas, I do believe defense is a very important part of any country and as such a lot of money should be spent on it. However, it is all about timing: is right now the best moment to invest on that particular technology? The answer is probably no for many of the ongoing programs. This got me thinking if there is any wasteful (well, I am not sure I would actually call it wasteful, but I will use it nonetheless at this point) spending in science.

First of all, I should say that if money was unlimited all science should be funded (no, not all defense programs should be funded) as far as I am concerned. However, given the fact that the budget for research-oriented agencies is relatively small (compared to the number of scientists and the cost of their proposed projects) many projects will have to go unfunded, at least for a few years.

As far as science is concerned everything is important, and I am sure every scientist out there believes their project is the most critical (or at least very important) for the particular field. But when taxpayer money is involved, I believe there is an obligation for the PI to not only think their projects through, but also to be objective as to whether or not this particular moment in time is the right one for that project to be funded.

For example, should a project (costing millions of dollars) that attempts to obtain a new decimal place for the gravitational constant, or the speed of light be funded when we have, for example, very serious diseases affecting us? Nevermind the possible energy and/or water crisis we might face in the future. (Actually, while writing this I realized it doesn't only apply to projects, there are also several university-affiliated government-funded centers that are not producing much usable at this point in time)

I am sure any fundamental scientists that reads this post will probably come out with a great reason for their projects to be funded, and while scientifically I will agree with the importance of them, I will in many cases (but of course not all) disagree with their timing. At the very least, we should be able to explain why this is the right moment for the taxpayers to pay for a particular project.

-Teaching physics: is there only one way?

For the last year I have been the TA for a pre-med physics course. My job was basically to prepare the homework questions, hold a few hours of problem sessions a week and have reviews every time they had a test coming up (the nicest part was that I didn't have to grade anything, the professor decided to do the grading himself). I had always taught labs for engineering students and the experience of TAing for a lecture has been very different than that for labs. For one, in the labs we are always given a manual (written by professors in the department) with the experiments, procedures and goals all stated in it. As a TA I never had any chance of doing things the way I wanted or thought would be better.

This time, it was very different. I was given 1)the syllabus, with all the dates and topics/chapters the professor would cover in the lecture and 2) a copy of the textbook they would be using. The rest was up to me: what to do during problem sessions and how to review for the exams. It ended up with me first giving a mini-lecture of the most important concepts in the chapter and proposing a few problems to solve. The rest was for students to ask questions about their homework problems.

At the end of the semester I asked the students to give me their feedback on my performance (I do not get official evaluations as a lecture TA, but I would as a lab TA). I was surprise because this time almost all of the students that filled out the feedback form said that my teaching style and analogies was what actually helped them get through the course. Apparently (I say apparently because I have never seen the professor give a lecture), the professor did a horrible job in the classroom being way too technical in this teaching of physics. I told a few fellow grad students and they wanted to know that this teaching style and analogies was all about. So I decided to give them an example:

One of the last chapters covered in this class was on Quantum Mechanics, mostly on potential wells and hydrogen-like type of problems. When I was trying to describe that in these "constrained" systems the particle can only take discrete values of energies I noticed that while everybody shook their heads in a yes motion, most of them didn't understand what that meant (I found this out by asking them a question and very few got it right). So I made the analogy to a stair, I said: Unless you can fly, the only values of potential energy that you can have while both feet are at the same level are those given by mgh, where h depends on the number of steps you have gone up or down. Then, I realized that I could use this same idea to explain why lower energy levels are always first filled, I said: Now, imagine that the atom (for example) is actually a concert hall, and in the nucleus you have the stage. You are an electron that wants to go see the show, would you like to sit in the front or in the back? Everyone said front. If you imagine a concert hall with the layout of the room we were in, the front seats had the lower energy, and therefore electrons would take always the front seats, to be closer to their idol (Ok, I actually said American Idol and they all laughed). The professor later gave a quiz related to level-filling and I checked to see how "my" students did. Most of them were in the higher-grade group.

When I was done telling my fellow grad students my analogy, they all disagreed with my "style". They asked: is this how you always do it? I replied, well, it's definitely not always the same analogy :), and it definitely depends on the audience, but yes, for not physics and engineering majors this is how I do it most of the time. Some got mad at me, and said that I was hurting physics instead of helping. They reasoning is that while I might've told them how things were, I didn't teach them why things were that way. Plus, my analogy was incomplete. They couldn't tell me how it was incomplete and I conceded that yes, in a quantum well, the energy levels depend on the mass of the particle and in my stair example they didn't, but that was beyond my point. All I was going for was that there are discrete energy levels.

I asked them how they would teach the same idea, and two of them said that the only way to do it was through the mathematics, another said he didn't know how to except by repeating what was in the book.

I don't care what they think, in my opinion doing mathematics doesn't explain either why things are the way they are, it only tells you how they are. I am not even sure physics can explain why things are a certain way. But what worries me the most is that many non-majors students will (and many already do) encounter people that think physics can only be thought one way: the way a Physics PhD learned them. Plus, the final grades in this class (not assigned by me, so you can't claim I was biased) were much higher in average for the people that attended my office hours than for those who didn't.

For those of you who teach physics for non-majors, and think/know you do a good job, do you follow the book, rely heavily on mathematics or use alternative methods to teach? If you use the last option, can you provide me with some examples?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

- Subjective grading?

FSP has an interesting comment on an article about student's expectations when it comes to grades.

I agree with FSP that it is somewhat ridiculous for a student to expect a high grade (particularly an A) for "effort" that (s)he put into the course without any (or very little) concern about the actual knowledge/understanding gained. Simple presence in the classroom doesn't gain you any points just like showing up to an office and not work doesn't gain you any money. But, these feelings of entitlement are not always misplaced, there are a number of reasons students develop this sense.

The original article mentions some reasons for students to feel entitled, and not surprisingly, not a single University/College professor that was interviewed blame themselves or the university's system. I didn't do high school in the US, but from my experience in the US, K-12 does have something to do with the fact that students have unreasonable expectations (not only about their grades) in college. Family might also play a role, but I am not convinced it is a big one. However, something the article fails to mention and I think it's important is the role of the university/college system and their instructors in the encouragement of the sense of entitlement. In particular, the idea of subjective and extremely discrete grading.

First, the possible grades a student can get are very limited (A-F), some places have +/- but even then, you can only separate them in 11-12 categories. As a student, if my friend has 3/100 more points than I do at the end (say 92 vs. 89), and (s)he gets an A and I get a B (or B and C), I would really feel like something was stolen from me. The problem here is the big difference between an A and a B. This is less pronounced if one gets and A and the other an A-, or A- and B+. As long as the grading scale is so discrete, you will have more unhappy students looking for a grade that to the instructor looks ridiculously high based on the student's performance. I think many more professors would be willing to bump a student up from a C to a C+, or C+ to B- than from a C to a B.

And now that we are talking about extremely discrete grading, to me it seems nuts to give a student who gets a 100-98/100 in the course, the same grade (an A) than to a student who averaged 90/100 at the end. I think there is something really, and I mean REALLY, special about a student who doesn't virtually make any mistake.

The grade issue becomes worse when you consider that in very few courses (in my experience at least) you get at the beginning a translation chart from a number to a letter grade. Only in the courses for pre-meds (I wonder why...) that I've TA'ed they get a table with the equivalence between a number and a letter (for example <90 class="blsp-spelling-corrected" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">throughout the semester whether they are doing good or bad if they do not know ahead of time the curving scheme? Is it surprising that students get confused and possibly expect higher grades if their friend took the same class with Professor X, got an average numeric grade of 85 and ended up with an A, and they took it with Professor Y, got an 82 and ended up with a B? Are 3 points really that different?

I (kind of) understand that as a university or department you intend to standardize your courses, but to me curving that leads to some subjective grading is wrong. If the professor is grading subjectively, why should the student not expect a subjective grade? Even if (s)he bases it on unmeasurable effort?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

-Retention rates

In my department there is a group of "elected" students who form part of a professor-student committee in charge of discussing and providing a student's viewpoint in graduate students issues, ranging from TA/RA salaries, qualifying procedures, coursework and syllabi, etc.

A few days ago I had a conversation about retention rates with 3 students from this committee. I am a second year (at this univ) and they are third or higher year students, so it is possible their "data" is better than mine. Nonetheless, from what I can see, the dropout rate is no more than 10-20% per year (which translates to about 3-6 students in a typical 30 students class). So far, nobody from my class has left but since we are only second year, very few, if any have taken the quals. It is possible that some will not make it, but again, I would guess that the number is 10-20%.

I should mention that from the people I know left the program (only 3), only one of them did so due to low grades/performance. The rest left for one or a combination of personal reasons such as financial issues, realization that being a PhD is not really what they wanted, marriage, the arrival of a baby, etc.

But my perceived dropout rate seems to be low according to the students in the committee who claim it is closer to 50%. I seriously doubt that half of my class will not finish, and I doubt even more that those who do dropout will do it because of academic underperformance.

I am now curious about the actual rate and I will be asking the department for some numbers, but I would like to know how bad/good it is at your university/department.

Monday, December 15, 2008

-Really? Is that so surprising?

The electorate is misinformed according to this article. Wow, what a surprise (sarcastic gesture)!!!

The article starts with:

"We saw more aggressive fact-checking by journalists in this election than ever before. Unfortunately, as a post-election Annenberg Public Policy Center poll confirms, millions of voters were bamboozled anyway."

Aggressive fact-checking? Maybe just at the end with Joe the Plumber and I am not so sure I would call it aggressive fact-checking. I never saw a piece on detailing the different proposals the candidates had.

Then it goes to say:

"There are deeper reasons as well"

Deeper reasons? I don't think so. The reasons are simple, the media has never bothered to publish/air reasonable information. Anyone who sees Bill O'Reilly's show will either completely agree with him or completely disagree. There is nothing fact-checking in those shows. The media has an inherently large power. Reporting should be done responsibly. If they knew Obama was not a Muslim or Arab or that McCain's medicare plan would not cut benefits, why air the ads? They should be held accountable in some way.

Things will never change unless someone thinks responsibly.

Monday, October 20, 2008

-technology insurance

It's well known that health care issues are at the top of this election season in the US. People want, but not all can have it, and of those who do have some kind of insurance they don't really get what they expected/wanted.

Now, the reason why people buy insurance is to pay for something (in this case health care) at a lower rate now to then get it cheaper or sometimes even free in the future. People are willing to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for their health insurance because they are very aware of what it takes to get treated by doctors in the US.

I propose to have a "forced" technology insurance, in which every household pays a few cents for the technological apparatus they use in their house, say TV, car, phones, etc., and then we use that money to fund the sciences (which ultimately had everything to do with the discovery of the technology used in those "luxuries" we know have) more. This will be an attempt to guarantee that technology will be accessible and at an affordable cost in the future, and that science will continue its course.

According to wikipedia, the average household size is around 2.5, so if every household pays from $0.5 to $1.5 max a month ($18 max a year) for their technology insurance, that would add up to a minimum of 720 millions to a max of 2.16 billions, which then would be used ONLY to fund science and technology. That means that 10,800 labs a year at $200,000 per year could be funded. Of course, I haven't thought all the details out, like who would assign the money to projects, how much money per year can a given lab get, etc. but I think they idea could work.

10,800 labs at $200,000 a year for only $1.5 max a month,!!!! who can seriously argue that without that $1.5 their families won't eat? They can drink one less beer a month.

I brought up that idea today with my labmates and their first reaction was that it would be hard to convince the people that it is in their best interest to pay this extra tax. First of all, it's not a tax, it's an insurance that they "buy" now and from where they will be given the benefit of having new devices in the future (fundamental research has also contributed to development of devices, so they should also be funded). Secondly, while I agree that the current situation makes it hard, I don't think it is impossible, but it requires a lot from professors. It would now fall (I think it has always, but somehow some profs get away with it) on they hands to teach the average Joe (I guess now it's Joe the Plumber) how scientific concepts from simple ones as Hooke's law to difficult ones as particle collisions have, can or will affect their lives for their own good. It's not enough to get in front of the class and say, well, here are Newton's laws, here's your HW and if you stay among the average you'll get a B. We would have to do our best (this is very difficult, particularly because so far I haven't seen any good undergraduate basic physics book being used) for people to understand the importance of science, and not so much all the mathematical,boring details.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

- is it not obvious?

I was recently sick and had to see a doctor. When I was called in to see him, the nurse greeted me with: How are you doing?... I looked at her and said, well.. I feel really bad. She was confused, she was expending a good or great for an answer.

I noticed that they do that to everybody, but isn't it obvious? If you go to the doctor's office is not because you are well and happy. Right?

Monday, September 1, 2008

-The right choice? Part 2

In the first part of this post I mentioned some of the "bad" things during PhD studies, to summarize:

1) Grad students are "abused" by professors (not by all, but a good number of them nevertheless) and students are kept from graduating a little (or not so little) longer.
2) The assistanship (money you get to pay for expenses during grad school) is very little.
3) Physics is hard, even if you like it, you are in for stressful times.

There are probably more issues that affect a grad student, but those are the more universal ones I've seen. It doesn't end there though, once you obtain your PhD there are many more issues to deal with, a very important one is the job you will perform.

Many physics students (with no solid data, I would say that at least 70% of them) enter grad school with the hope of ending up in academia or something similar doing research that they like. Some also like to teach but mainly at a more advanced level than high school math or physics.

Life's a bitch, so the actual percentage of PhDs will not end up doing that. You will end up working as an engineer (if you are experimental) or as an advanced data analyst. A good number of my friends ended up working for either a finance firm or an oil-related company. It's true the money is good, and I think that's the reason they don't complain as much, but they're not doing what they wanted to do.

ISP proposes making a 2-year Master's degree in Physics more popular. After all, those who choose this path will not spend many years in school and might not regret working on something that's not physics. In a way I have always thought that a Master's degree in physics is useless so I see a few problems with this option. Here's why:

First, if I decide to go for a Master's degree I am basically throwing away any chance (as low as it can be with a PhD) at teaching at an advanced level or at research, and if I really want to do that then a Master's is not the way.

Second, assuming that you have thought about the first point and decided to give up that small opportunity at doing research by ending your student career at a Master's degree, why would you get a Master's in Physics? The only reason I can think is because you really have no idea what to do with your life. This is probably more common than people think, at least among physicists. So if you are "lost", you can go for a Master's degree which will (hopefully) give you a couple more years to mature and to find out what you want to do. But, what if you know what you want to do? You must remember that at this point you have given up on teaching or researching at college/university level. Well, if you know what you want to do, I would suggest you go for a Master's degree in that field. If you want to do finance, get at least an MBA, if it's engineering then go to an engineering college. You will learn what's relevant to that field and you will probably get a bigger check just because of your specialized background.

In my opinion no one should just go for a Physics Master's degree (OK, maybe science school teachers, but that is it). If you start the PhD and then you decide you don't want that for you anymore then a Master's degree in Physics is not a consolation prize nor any less than a master's in a different field and you should get your degree and leave. Plus taking the degree will at least help fill the two years otherwise missing on your resumé. But to just enter grad school to pursue a MS in Physics doesn't seem like the best idea to me.

Now, back to the topic of a PhD in Physics being the right choice. It's OK to get a PhD in Physics, it's fine if the students are willing to take the risk of giving up years of their lives for a small chance at a dream job (read academic job). What's not OK is that a lot of those students are not told what's waiting for them (the lab I am in right now has 3 grad students, none of us knew anything about what to expect in and after grad school).

Sure, Harvard and other top schools don't have to say much. After all, it's people from those schools that most likely will get the faculty job. But most of the PhD granting universities are not top, and they still need the grad students to teach labs, grade HWs and to some extent do the research (professors are too busy writing proposals). Those departments will flat-out lie to you promising a bright future. I know, I've been in one of those places.

If after being told the truth about your future you still want to go for a PhD, then go ahead, you will probably have fun and won't be disappointed. However, I get the feeling many of you will read this post a bit too late...

-First commenter

Thanks to Okham, Coherent States has gotten its first comment.

That's it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

-The right choice? Part 1

There is an intense discussion over at ISP that started as an idea on the over-supply of Physics PhDs and has heated over whether Physics (in general Science) as a career represents a bright, happy future.

I thought I should throw in one (the one related to the path towards the PhD degree) of my two cents, the next will come later. So, here it is:

Science is indeed a difficult career, it takes a lot of time and effort but in principle it will provide a great deal of satisfaction whenever a "discovery" is made. Science is not for everyone, I personally think that anyone can learn science but only a few can actually do science. If you are in the latter group and want to learn about science, go for an undergraduate degree. As a physics graduate, I can tell you that I learned a lot during my undergraduate and when I finished I was as prepared (I think even better prepared) than my engineer friends.

But it was at that point that I noticed a big difference between those friends and my physics friends. They didn't want to go to grad school, at least not for an engineering degree, and I wanted to go. I had the idea that pursuing a PhD would give me the opportunity of learning a lot more about the things I thought were cool, do research while in grad school and at the end do independent research. On top of all of these, I thought a PhD degree would provide greater job security since there would not be many people capable of replacing me. With these in mind, I embarked in this grad school journey.

After a few years into studies, I have found out that it is not what I thought it would be. It turns out that chances are I will not end up doing research as I thought if I go for an industry job (many of my older friends that already obtained their degrees have engineering jobs that could've probably performed without the PhD), and if I decide to go for academia, it can easily add up to 10 years (5-6 PhD, 3-4 postdoc) before I get my first real job. It can take another 5-6 to get tenure and then have maximum job security.

It feels worse when you include some professors' attitude towards grad students. Grad students are considered cheap (sometimes free) labor, with long hours, no or little personal life and very, very low pay. And grad students are the ones that actually get the results in the lab (sure, professors come up with the ideas and money, but it is the student who does at least 90% of the lab work). In basic words, students are like slaves and the more you have and the senior they are the best. This presents a conflict of interests in my opinion. Universities (through professors) will demand more and more money to support grad students, and if you get professors to talk about your professional future they will all (ok, not all, maybe Okham, Doug and IP are more understanding) promise you the chance of a fairly paid, nice research job when they know it's probably not true.

I have witnessed professors that purposely keep students from graduating to get more results out of them with no consideration for the student's future, and I have seen many professors who keep their students as long as they can as TAs, demanding the same results as if the student were full time RA.

Science is a tough career, not so much for the science itself but for all the other aspects that make a science career. Many of those aspects happening even before you get to look for a job.

Is the (bleak) hope of a tenure-track position enough to still go through all that? Maybe, I can't tell for sure yet. What I do know is that I would have appreciated it if someone had told me before finishing my undergrad degree that grad school and academic life would be tough in respects I could have not imagined then. If they had told me that I would most likely end up working as an engineer and that even in that position I would make less than the guy that actually went to engineering school.

I also know that I would not call it a science career if it ended with grad school.

-Shooting the rain

As Gustav approaches New Orleans, people start preparing for its arrival. Some people leave town, some people barricade in their houses with hopefully a full pantry, and some other people go buy guns. Yes, apparently gun sales are through the roof.

Whether these people are buying guns for their return, or to protect their belongings while riding out the storm, all I can think is of how stupid this is.

I can't say I know what it feels to lose everything, but if this is what it comes down to there is something really wrong.

Anyways, good luck to those in the hurricane path. I hope nothing really bad happens.