Monday, October 31, 2011

Tony LaRussa has Retired

Wow, I didn't see this one coming: Tony LaRussa announced his retirement today. He goes out on top, as he just managed the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Championship. Next stop: Cooperstown.

(Tip of the cap to my brother Adam, who sent me an e-mail about the news while I was busy tutoring.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Caltech: The Hottest Thing in Irish Lifestyle

After Caltech got named the #1 university in the world, the biggest newspaper in Ireland interviewed me -- as well as a couple of other familiar names -- to talk about it.

Unfortunately some of my best quotes got removed from the article. (Our book isn't even mentioned anymore, and my comment about physics and Dungeons & Dragons was in an earlier version of the article but got cut. The reason I was interviewed is of course because of the Legends of Caltech III book.)

Update (11/05/11): I found a link to what looks like the middle of an article that has some of the stuff that was left on the now-proverbial cutting-room floor. If any of you find a long version of the article to which I link above that contains something approximating a union of the text in these two URLs, please let me know.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Hold on to Your Penises!"

I'm going to tell you a story from way back in 1987 that I don't remember ever previously telling. (Of course, I could easily have forgotten past story-telling.) It's been 24 years, so some form of statute of limitations must be in place.

I haven't thought about this incident for many years, but for reasons that I cannot understand, John Steinbeck's return to San Francisco in Travels With Charley reminded me of this story.

It was the summer of 1987, I was 11 years old, and my immediate family and I were taking a 3-week trip up the coast of California up into Oregon and briefly into Washington. Unsurprisingly, one of the stops was San Francisco, which is where the incident occurred. Some of my family members and I were riding one of the trolley cars -- what are these things actually called? -- and some of the streets consisted of a serious of extremely steep hills. Even on some individual blocks, it seemed like we would go up at a 45 degree angle and then back at a 45 degree angle between consecutive street lights. The trolley was going pretty fast, and this proved to be a bit painful for a certain one of my appendages. Going fast downhill was particularly bothersome, and at some point I suppose I found that holding on to it eased the pain.

And I was a very helpful child. So when I saw a particularly steep descent coming imminently and I thought about the possible pain some of my fellow trolley-riders might be in if this caught them unaware, I decided that the prudent thing would be to warn them -- by saying the words in the title of this blog entry in a sharp, loud, insistent voice. I was only trying to help.

After my urgent words of warning, I remember an eruption of laughter coming from all around. But I could understand what was so funny. People were in urgent peril, and I was trying to prevent them from having to experience physical pain, because I knew that from my own painful experience.

I think it took me a couple of years to retrospectively figure out why people were laughing, and then I became retroactively embarrassed. (I don't remember anybody explaining this to me.) But it's been 24 years and I think it's a good story.

Anyway, I was only trying to help.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More Fruit Fly Sex

One of the winners of the 2011 Dance Your PhD Contest comes from Oxford, and the video is about mating in fruit flies.

And if you're wondering about the title, it's because of this blog entry.

(Tip of the cap to Philip Maini.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

At Least it was Honest

I just got a spam e-mail titled "Spam Application for Summer Internship". At least the person who sent this to me was honest.

(This was one of the usual e-mails that are mail-merged rather than an application meant specifically for me out of sincere interest. "Spam" was actually in the title of this e-mail---it was not flagged as such by my e-mail server.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Is it Examinable?"

Today I have spent most of my time writing up the solution set to one homework problem and writing up the problem sheets for the final three problem sheets in the brand new statistical mechanics course that I am teaching at Oxford this term.

I am not yet done writing up these problem sheets, so I really ought to continue work on that, but there is a major issue that arises both in lecture material (the actual lectures as well as the notes that go with them) and in coming up with problem sheets. These can be summarized neatly by the question in the title: Is it examinable?

First, let me say that I hate this question. I completely understand why Oxford students---including the best ones---ask this, because a module's end-of-year exam counts for everything in providing official recognition of what a student did or did not learn in a course. This sets up a whole swath of entirely understandable but rather artificial motivations for our students. Simply, they are in many instances judged almost exclusively on their exam results, so students will concentrate on working in order to maximize those results instead of working to maximize their learning of the material. These two things can coincide (and might even coincide a lot in some cases), but there are crucial situations in which they clash against each other---and this is especially true in advanced classes:

(1) Exam problems are supposed to take 45 minutes and are split into parts that are meant to help guide the student. Real problems don't work that way. The guidance can often be helpful for the learning, so that doesn't particularly bother me, and indeed I think it is desirable to add such things to homework problems as well. The 45-minute thing is a huge problem, though, because to learn most material in any reasonable fashion (and especially once one gets to the third and fourth years of the course), one needs to think about much more difficult problems. And then students understandably start asking about what can be tested and what can't be.

(2) As soon as one indicates that something is "not examinable", most students here (again, even the best ones) will typically not spend any more time trying to learn it, because the incentives they have been given by this system tell them that that is the optimal thing for them to do. So I can't blame them.

(3) Points (1) and (2) come into conflict a lot, as one wants to be reasonable (and, indeed, one has to be reasonable) regarding what can be asked on an exam, but there are things that one should learn from an advanced course in a certain subject---and those things are important for research, general education about problem-solving, and possibly even later classes.

(4) In my third-year and fourth-year courses (and beyond), I like to bring in some ideas from current research and to prepare my students for thinking about problems that have not been completely solved. In fact, at this stage of my students' education, I think that it is not just important but genuinely crucial to do this. One way to help do such things is to have some open-ended issues on some homework problems. This will help them not just for the material related to the course, but for other things, such as new applications of such material, modelling issues, and other really important things that many (and perhaps most) of these students need to learn for research, their future jobs, etc. Of course, if a student knows something is not examinable, the incentives at Oxford make it very difficult for such endeavors to work as intended. Sigh...

(5) For advanced courses, I would rather have examination via some kind of project or an open-ended exam (or both) and that would help get around these issues, but it's very difficult to set up such things here.

(6) I'm sure there are other things, and of course many of the things that I have mentioned above are deeply correlated with each other, but a fundamental observation remains: There are so many ways that examination can just get in the way of education---and the latter is obviously my goal when teaching a course!---and the inevitable "Is it examinable?" question that pops up so frequently around Oxford really underscores these conflicts.

OK, now I am going to stop ranting (at least temporarily) and get back to work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Assess", Not "Asses"

Note to self: Next time, write "assess" in the grant proposal instead of "asses".

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mason Porter and Me

Many moons ago, I found out via the magic of Google that there is a bluegrass band called "Mason Porter".

Friends of mine bring this up with me periodically (well, perhaps quasiperiodically or maybe just 'every so often'?), but the band doesn't appear to be that well known. It doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.

Moreover, it is a little-known fact that my twitter handle of 'masonporter' single-handedly prevented the band from using that handle, so they had to settle for 'masonporterband'. I purposely 'liked' the band's Facebook page just to give my friends a newsfeed item of 'Mason Porter likes Mason Porter', though I quickly hid the group because I didn't actually want to see the band's posts.

Today, I got a request from the MySpace page of Squid Music, who wanted to 'friend' me because they apparently thought that I was actually the band. In fact, I don't think that I have logged into MySpace since the day I set up my account (in around 2005, I think). Of course, if Squid Records wants to give me a free guitar---based on their website, they seem to sell guitars, among other things---then I might consider accepting their "friendship".

I think I am going to have the meet the band members someday, because I'm not sure if my life could ever possibly be complete without that. I wonder if they know who I am too?

Finally, just like the band Mason Porter, I like to believe that I "evoke[] the spirits of each and every person whose life [I] touch", because that's just the kind of guy I am.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tales from the ArXiv: Best. Abstract. Ever.

Michael Berry, one of my academic heroes, has posted a new paper to the arXiv that official has the Best. Abstract. Ever.

Title: Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?

Authors: M. V. Berry, N. Brunner, S. Popescu, P. Shukla

Abstract: Probably not.

(Tip of the cap to Annals of Improbable Research.)

Update: I am reminded by AIR (who were in turn reminded by one of their readers) that a certain John Doyle from Caltech previously had what one might construe as a Best. Abstract. Ever. [Actually, I had seen that paper before and totally forgot about that abstract. And, of course, I am absolutely shocked that John Doyle would do something like this. :) ]

Update (10/15/11): Courtesy of AIR, here is yet another Best. Abstract. Ever. However, I don't think that this one is as funny as the other two.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Community Structure in the United Nations General Assembly"

The final version of my paper on the United Nations is out, and it has a 2012 publication date.

Title: Community Structure in the United Nations General Assembly

Authors: Kevin T. Macon*, Peter J. Muchaa, Mason A. Porter

Abstract: We study the community structure of networks representing voting on resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly. We construct networks from the voting records of the separate annual sessions between 1946 and 2008 in three different ways: (1) by considering voting similarities as weighted unipartite networks; (2) by considering voting similarities as weighted, signed unipartite networks; and (3) by examining signed bipartite networks in which countries are connected to resolutions. For each formulation, we detect communities by optimizing network modularity using an appropriate null model. We compare and contrast the results that we obtain for these three different network representations. We thereby illustrate the need to consider multiple resolution parameters and explore the effectiveness of each network representation for identifying voting groups amidst the large amount of agreement typical in General Assembly votes.

* Notice that one of the authors on this paper on networks has the name "Kevin Macon". Hence, I have a Macon number of 1. (Technically, I already had a Macon number of 1 because of an earlier publication---but this clearly bears repeating.)

Physics Versus Math

Sometimes, all you need is a comic strip.

(Tip of the cap to Alex Cayco-Gajic.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Spear" Ribs and Lamb "Stakes"

Between the "spear" ribs on tonight's menu and the lamb "stakes" on tomorrow night's menu, Somerville College is doing its best to prepare its students for the impending vampire onslaught.

(And, for reasons that I cannot fathom, Facebook thought that "The Beatles" were somehow related to my recent post of the above words.)

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Watch the Signal. Obey the Signal. And Don't Careen into Me with Your Damn Bicycle.

Having a bike crash into me while it is going at full speed isn't fun. To quote Kramer, "My day was ruined!"

Although my left foot---the part of me that the bicycle wheel went over---does hurt, I have been walking on it without a problem and only a very slight limp, and I think the pain is mostly psychosomatic. The old lady who crashed into me fell off her bike in a heap, and she too seems to be fine. (I stayed to make sure she was ok, and several people came to help pick her and her bike up from the ground.) I must be as hard as a rock, because I'm pretty sure I never left my feet.

But here is a lesson to Oxford bikers everywhere: When the light for your direction has been red for a while and the traffic signal is a very clear green walk signal, please obey the bloody signals---especially when there is somebody walking across the street right in front of you (I was something like 10 full steps into the street) who clearly has no idea that you are going to continue careening at full speed while blatantly disregarding all of the traffic signals. This message was brought to you by the organization "Pedestrians who Think People on Bicycles Should Obey Traffic Signals". Thank you.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

It's not Wikipedia, bit it is a Start

I apparently have a wiki entry as a "writer" at BoardGameGeek because of an role-playing game article I wrote for Polyhedron in 1999. (I got the publication as a winning entry in a contest to design a character based on a picture published a couple of issues earlier in the magazine.) Somebody else wrote the page, and I just now added links to my blog and my Oxford home page.

I'd prefer an entry in Wikipedia, but I think I will need to become a bit more famous first. (And I'm not crass enough to write my own page.)

It is nice, however, to be have an entry on a gaming wiki. Ideally, the Legends of Caltech movie project will eventually land me with an IMDB entry.

You Know You're in Oxford When...

Now that some time has passed and Somerville's shiny new building actually has occupants, I think it's finally safe to tell a little story about one of the discussions that occurred during the long planning and building process. I wish I had remembered to bring this up on opening weekend, but a comment about something else entirely in an e-mail about completely unrelated things has reminded me of this.

When the 999-year lease on Somerville's new building was brought up a couple of years ago in a Governing Body meeting, a GB-member who shall remain nameless brought up---in all seriousness, at least as far as I could tell---what we should do when the lease expired. And then GB discussed it---in all seriousness, at least as far as I could tell---for the next 5 minutes. I'm pretty sure that I facepalmed, and I probably didn't do it only in my mind's eye. As I mumbled quietly for the benefit of the people sitting around me, "Why don't we leave some things for future generations to decide?" (I also mumbled comments along the lines of "I assume that my followers will have taken over the world by then." and "Are we so sure that the human race will still be around then?")

(In GB, we usually discuss more serious things, like the color of the couches in the Senior Common Room.)

Anyway, I just wanted to give you a little window into our "first-world problems". (I really like that phrase, by the way.)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Quote of the Day: Nobel Prize Edition has an absolutely wonderful quote in its sidebar on its article about this year's Nobel Prize in Literature: The award has gone to obscure Europeans three of the past four years.

Hah! Well done! (I approve!)


I think the squirrel that darted in front of home plate while Roy Oswalt threw a pitch was the highlight of yesterday's game between the Phillies and the Cardinals. Apparently, the squirrel now has a twitter account (go to the bottom of the article).

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

RIP Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Apple founder and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs died yesterday (or today, for those of you in earlier time zones, like in the USA). I can't say I expected to see that. I'm quite the Apple-phile, and (biased as I am) Jobs was quite the innovator.

(Tip of the cap to numerous people on my Facebook friends list.)

Teaching in the Ivory Tower

Perhaps I should really call it the "Stone Tower", but in any event I need to rant: I know things are really hectic right now with term about to start and I myself am running around like a headless chicken these days, and I know this can get extremely frustrating at times, but some of my Oxford colleagues seem to actively dislike having students around and also to actively dislike teaching. Well, I have this answer for them (and they do seem to dislike it whenever I respond this way to their seeming disdain for students and for teaching): Go somewhere else --- perhaps outside of the ivory tower --- and get a job that doesn't involve teaching! It's funny how they didn't bring up their dislike of students up during their interview! Sheesh.

Teaching is always time-consuming and often very frustrating --- and there are times when I will complain (rather loudly) about certain aspects of it --- but that doesn't mean that I don't value it. One of the blessings of being at Oxford is the awesome quality of most of the students here. I bring up what our undergrads and my research students can do, and frankly my colleagues at other universities are jealous of what we have. And they should be. This doesn't mean, nor should it have to mean, that there can't be lots of frustrations. (There is little more frustrating to a teacher than the brilliant student who is wasting loads of talent through laziness, real-life stupidity, or some combination of the two.) Another really great aspect about students here --- and this one, I think, is much less apparent until one actually gets here --- is the student-teacher relationship. Namely, at Oxford, the relationship between students and faculty is not an antagonistic one, and that contrasts very starkly with what one sees at many (and perhaps most) US universities. What we have here with the students is so much better than what academics have at just about any other place.

So, while it is true that there are times that teaching will take up loads of time from my research---and it's ok to be frustrated by that (I know that I am sometimes, and I'm more than willing to express it)---I have only one piece of advice for those colleagues who seem to have open disdain for students and for teaching: Leave.

Chemistry Nobel Prize Awarded for Quasicrystals

Physics didn't work out this year, but the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to some very cool stuff---namely, it's been awarded for the experimental discovery of quasicrystals, which are (i) damn cool and (ii) caused the very definition of "crystal" to need to be changed. You can read more about it on wikipedia.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Weekend at the Karolinska Institutet

That's an interesting loophole: The new Nobel Prize in Medicine pays unintentional homage to Weekend at Bernie's. Maybe they'll prop the new Nobel Laureate up during the ceremony?

The article I am citing mentions that the Nobel Peace Prize is the most anticipated of the prizes. Personally, I care most about the prize in Physics, and I hope that Michael Berry finally get his richly deserved Nobel Prize this year. Fingers crossed! (That said, I would kill for a Nobel Peace Prize...)

Damnit, I Am Not a Sheep.

Is this commercial from Air New Zealand somebody's idea of a sick joke?

I am so not ever flying on this airline, though at least this commercial has an obvious theme song.

I'm going to go crawl into a hole now.

(Tip of the cap to Ravi Montenegro.)

What Happens in Leeds Stays in Leeds

I took the 3.5 or so hour train to Leeds this afternoon, and I arrived here a couple of hours ago. (I managed to get a direct train that goes all the way to Edinburgh, so I didn't have to change trains.) I will be giving a seminar in applied math tomorrow.

I just had dinner at a local Mediterranean cafe, which earned points for playing excellent music (including--but not limited to--the greatest hits album of the Gipsy Kings, to whom I am now listening on my computer). Amusingly, the cafe listed "iced coffee" among "hot drinks". Sadly, it never occurred to me to bring my camera until after I was already on the train and out of Oxford.

One thing that I noticed is that tons of the people getting off at Leeds are rather emo. Do any of you know whether Leeds has a reputation for that. Seeing so much of this style as I exited the train was rather striking.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Unconditional Justice

My Bayesian friends and colleagues are not going to be happy about a UK court ruling that Bayes' theorem cannot be used to analyze statistical evidence in trials.

I have five comments:

(1) Is one still allowed to use Newton's laws for evidence in a course case? You know, just in case gravity might be relevant. about a minute ago

(2) Maybe this is what EPSRC had in mind with respect to building UK capacity in statistics?

(3) Seriously, what the fuck?

(4) Facepalm!

(5) I guess UK justice is unconditional after all.

(Tip of the cap to Mariano Beguerisse Díaz.)

Update (10/03/11): Cosma Shalizi has posted some nuanced commentary on his blog (much more nuanced than my commentary, as I was quite obviously in full attack mode). As I stated in my response to his comment in this space (when my head was a bit cooler than when I wrote the original post), I do agree with his point in general, so we will see if reasonable uses of Bayes' theorem remain permissible in UK courts. I am most definitely cynical enough to doubt it, so I am still not happy about the situation, but we will see what happens in practice. Yesterday, I admittedly went into my usual Kill-Billish red-alarm mode when I saw the article in The Guardian. However, Cosma and I might have to have some words about confounding me with Brits. :) I am only Brit-employed, and you won't find me going out in the midday sun* anytime soon.

* Except for the last few days, in which we actually had midday sun.

Monkey Rankings: Back for 2011

The monkey rankings (aka: random walker rankings) are back for 2011.

Through games of 1 October, we have Clemson at #1 for most parameter values.