Monday, September 22, 2008

The truth about particle accelerators

Jorge Cham, the genius behind Piled Higher and Deeper recently visited CERN. Because he's Jorge Cham, you know his take isn't going to be another reverent paean to the progress of mankind or more confused mysticism about God particles and accidental apocalypses. Instead, he gets down to the nitty gritty with the scientists who work there, and comes back with insights about what working on a project of this nature is actually like... Less fun than you might think. (Especially when things like this happen.)

The five part comic strip series starts here, and parts 3, 4, and 5 happen to feature a friend of mine who is now a post-doc at CERN. I don't know that I would've recognized her from the drawings alone, but her personality comes through clearly enough for me to easily recognize her from that.

If you're fascinated by particle accelerators, you ought to read those comics for an inside look.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Defending the Thesis

Well, Ken and I are now "Dr. and Mrs."

Okay, not totally official yet -- he still has to submit the thesis to the grad school, and the university awards degrees only in December and June. But traditionally, defending your dissertation marks the end of a very long process, a last great hurdle. And that is what Ken did on Friday.

It was a two hour long talk of 170 or so Power Point slides, every one soaked in blood, sweat, and tears. (And don't think I'm being figurative about the blood, either. Lab injuries happen all the time.) It was a strangely bittersweet two hours. Even though I'd seen him rehearse the talk a half dozen times, seeing all of those figures and pictures, reliving the past few years in front of an audience, was moving in a way that I didn't expect. A lot of what he, and our lab, had done seems much more successful in retrospect than it did at the time. This stuff is hard -- our advisor even gave a little speech about how hard, by way of tribute. And it looks pretty damn impressive, all piled up together like that.

I can't announce anything yet about the "what next" part, except that it won't be the unemployment line. There are a couple of possibilities, and we should know within the next week or two which one it is.

To celebrate, we bought some fancy beer for the weekend:

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

An interesting mathematical model...

I'm of the age now where I have to start actually thinking about how to balance career and family and all that, so I found this mathmatical model of the benefits of having kids as a function of age kinda fascinating. From that link you can download an excel file and instructions on how to fill it out. It has a bunch of curves, representing your professional productivity and social life and "ability to enjoy a child" as a function of age, and takes into the relative importance of family, career, and social life, and the different options -- taking varying amounts of time off or working part time while the child is young. I find it funny that it seems to imply that the "utility" of having a teenager is relatively low. It's supposed to automatically incorporate fertility and medical issues as well. It's aimed at women, but really it seems like the best idea would be for a couple to use it together.

It's a pretty impressive model, I'd have to say, although it can't quite incorporate every factor that comes into play in a real decision -- relationships with your boss and co-workers, how close you live to family, how many kids you eventually want to have, financial considerations... Trying to include everything might make the model unworkably complicated, of course. It is nice that it doesn't just tell you an "optimal age" -- it gives you a graph of "utility" as a function of age.

There's a press release about it that anyone can access, although it doesn't tell you much, and a journal article about the model that you can read here if you have access to academic journals.

I know some people would think this is a ridiculously inappropriate problem to try to solve mathematically, and part of me agrees and finds it a little bit hilarious. But really it's just a more sophisticated version of the old "pros" and "cons" list. If you're comfortable with mathematical modeling at all, it's pretty easy to use. The questions it asks are basically "If you think your professional output will drop when you have kids, how much do you think it will drop? How long will it take to go back up? Will it go all the way back up, or if not, to what fraction?" and likewise for social life, and a few other factors. It's still oversimplified, but it's a nice tool to have, to help you keep all of the effects, over at least a couple of decades, of this kind of big decision in mind all at once.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Old News

The Chicago Tribune is getting a redesign and it sounds like bad news.

I buy a Sunday Tribune every week from the little grocery store across the street. I read it slowly over the course of the week. First the opinion section. Then the comics. Then the front section. Then the local news and opinion. And then the rest - arts, business, weather, even the featured obituaries sometimes, even the real estate and auto sections.

I'm not the best customer in the world, buying only one a week, and I don't read it so much for the hard hitting news coverage. But I buy the Tribune instead of the Sun Times because I like the old fashioned broad sheet format. I eat oatmeal, watch baseball, and read the Chicago Tribune. I'm boringly traditional, and that's how I like my newspapers.

Sam Zell, the Tribune's new owner, also wants to sell the Cubs, and sell Wrigley Field separately. He was even talking about selling the naming rights, as if anyone would every call it anything but Wrigley.

I don't know. I understand the paper isn't making much of a profit. Is it that Sam Zell is a villain or is it that the world has moved on? Why can't the Trib make money as it is? Is it the internet's fault? But how does anyone make money providing news on the internet -- I don't pay for any of it? Are newspapers doomed? Will there be such a thing as reporters, twenty years from now... Or only bloggers?

I know a lot of journalists have a lot more angst over these questions than I do, but all of the sudden it's striking close to home. No more Metro section to read over my oatmeal. It makes me sad, sadder than I'd expect.