Archive for April, 2009

On a lighter note

2009/04/29 Comments off

So I’ve spent about 3 years each in 2 different sciency, natural resources, save-the-world kind of workplaces. Both of which are university affiliated so you get those hardcore science nerds (I’m talking about storm chasers and, no joke, stream chasers because runoff is just good clean fun) and a random assortment of folks who just wound up in a university job for whatever reason (entirely unrelated to money). I’m going to go all out science here and make ginormous assumptions about the components of these groups, all on a sample size of 2. Here it is, the list of people every natural resources research group with an IT element must have to function. Sort of.


  1. The socially inept, i.e. single with dogs, basically incompetent IT guy. Must also be really into community theater to the detriment of all work relationships and, in the end, the job. You might see hints of a major break with reality during conversations about past events (the team says X happened, your guy says Y happened) that will ultimately end in the guy quitting his job to focus on his acting career. In community theater. 
  2. The programmer who spends as many weekends as possible attending or racing in rally events. They’ll own a beat up, stripped down Subaru and recount how many tires blew out and at which mile they blew out every Monday. On the plus side, you don’t mind traveling with them for fieldwork or conferences if they had navigator experience until you get tired of having someone shouting “Hard left, 200 meters” when you approach a stop light. 
  3. The hyper-granola eco-feminist. Can detail water law or the farm bill in detail and sports a lot of North Face gear. On weekends, they can be found hiking in some wilderness or volunteering to help with some environmental cleanup or outreach. 
  4. The specialist science über-nerd. If it’s a climate guy, they can be found gawking at charts of air pressure while bouncing from foot to foot trying to decide if it’s time to go storm chasing. Hydrology guys chase up and down side streets trying to find laminar flow and can be stopped, deer-in-the-headlighty-like, by a video of rising floodwaters. Depending on how socialized they are, their only definition of a hockey stick comes from a climate graph. Beware the ones that talk about sports too much — you’ll spend all of your time setting up their R analyses.

I, for one, had not realized how many rally racers and community theater participants there were out there. All I can say is that you should avoid #1 at all costs since you will wind up doing all of their work and being unable to convince anyone of their incompetence (unless they are really, really terrible actors, in which case you should keep telling them how great the are in the hopes that they pursue their true calling of the theahter). It’s a wonder anything gets done. 

If you fall into #4 as a climate nerd, go check out the Effing Hail game. Awesome.

Additional thoughts on the state of the university

2009/04/29 Comments off

A few days ago, a column from the New York Times was making the rounds on the interwebs, even making an appearance here. In it, the author laid out a case for radically changing the structure and purpose of higher education. Essentially, universities are churning out PhDs but, because of the shift towards adjunct professors and other issues related to tenure and the economy, are not able to provide employment to those grads. We’re all being trained to be a tenured professor with almost no way of becoming a tenured professor. That’s just one of the issues facing our system today. A post over at Bioephemera hit upon another — the idea that a good scientist is one who pushes their specialty a little further up a hill (hill-climbers) rather than one who is able to integrate across the boundaries of different fields (valley crossers). To quote from her quote:

To be most effective, Smolin argues, science needs a mix of hill climbers and valley crossers. Too many hill climbers doing normal science, and you end up sooner or later with lots of them stuck on the tops of local hills, each defending their own territory. Science then suffers from a lack of enough valley crossers able to strike out from those intellectually tidy positions to explore further away and find higher peaks.

It’s a shame, really. I’m wondering if all first-year STEM majors, all of them, should take a full year of History of Science classes. Not just the basic Aristotle + Copernicus + Galileo + Einstein = Astronomy Today kind of deal, which is important (and I have taken that type of class), but more of the kind of story-telling that you find in the Science section at the bookstore. The sort of books that focus on absolute zero and the progress of our knowledge or one of the biographies of Feynman or Buckminster Fuller (and now you know some of what’s in my library). Heck, it could even be a seminar where current scientists talk about their process (I’m thinking of a program on PBS a few years back that was about women researchers, maybe a NOVA or NOVA Science Now). Forget the charts and the bullet points and focus on what it means to be a scientist, in a university setting or not. Of course, first we’d have to work on the bias that you get from ‘real’ scientists or computer science folks or whoever towards people who came from a different background. I still get those dismissive looks and comments after 6+ years in my current field once they learn about my background. It’s frustrating and counter-productive. That’s what collaboration is about — you do the hydrology, I do the visualization and maybe we get a much better product. Cultivating that openness is very important to really making the big leaps forward that we probably need to be making to solve the environmental and social problems we’re facing. King of the mountain is a pretty destructive, and lonely, game.

Brief programming note

2009/04/28 1 comment

So the alien cupcakes seem to be a big hit. I’m thinking I’ll include a gratuitous image of baked goods in every post from now on. I have no problems bribing you folks with frosting.

But for now, I’ll just comment on the NY Times column about the current PhD situation. I haven’t been tempted by the siren call of extra letters before or after my name much since my first few years of college. Part of that is simply not really wanting to get so focused in on one tiny little aspect of something and being stuck with that for a large part of my professional life. At twenty whatever that just seems like an enormous collection of doors closing to go “I’m going to research the reaction of an 18th century family to a bedbug infestation” for the next 3-5 years. Yarg. Also, I don’t think a PhD is necessary for some fields, especially if you’re not interested in going for tenure or in turning into the typical “old white guy with an attitude”. A PhD shouldn’t be used to bludgeon everyone around you with misguided management ideas or proclamations of “This is how it works” in fields COMPLETELY UNRELATED TO THE PHD. It’s like all those extra letters are somehow crammed in your ears and over your eyes, leaving you completely oblivious to the world around you. It should be a sign to the world that you are willing to go out into the world and search for answers, search for questions; not the zenith (or close to it) where it’s all just a downward spiral to complacency and mind-numbing committee meetings. 

The piece touched on a lot of things that I’ve noticed over the last few years of my time at major land grant universities. I’m not quite convinced about the problem areas instead of departments — you still have to be able to get the core knowledge for a field. But mostly, universities should teach you to think and to learn. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the university experience is for everyone and that it should be for everyone. The race for the bottom just leaves us with garbage like Hole in the Wall. There needs to be a shift in the culture to value technical skills as well as academics. And a second shift to avoid situations like this:

Alternatively, I think that I would try the Heisenberg faculty principle, meaning that you cannot know both whether the faculty member can meet with you and how soon they will come up with a conflict for an already-scheduled meeting.

from Neurotopia (although I do appreciate the application of scientific principles to the wackaloonery of professors). And a third shift to handle the changes in the culture from guy supported by spouse at home so he’s free to pursue tenure to a system that can handle child care and elder care and the understanding that not everyone aspires to be an old white guy. That’s really very difficult to do for a lot of us. 

Here’s hoping Obama’s promise to spend 3% of the GDP on research holds up. And that someday, that percentage goes up.

Categories: Science Tags: , ,

A note on Earth Day

2009/04/22 Comments off

I believe in global warming. Not just that there are natural swings in climate brought about by the Earth’s wobble and sunspots and volcanic activity and, well, you get the idea. Those are all important factors and absolutely influence climate. No, I believe in global warming because of my neighbors.  You see, here on the great open plains of the U.S., I am surrounded by people who can, with 3-4 people/household, fill up a normal trash toter (30-50 gallons I think) not once, but twice a week. And some times even have enough trash left over to require a second little trash can or random assortment of boxes and bags by the curb. That is a lot of stuff. A lot to manufacture, a lot to transport, a lot to do something with (probably involving electricity or water), and a lot to throw away. 

It’s not so easy to just say “Stop buying so much cheap stuff!” We stop buying cheap stuff, underpaid Chinese people, for example, wind up with even less. And no, I’m not advocating unregulated consumerism and growth. I’m just saying that it’s complicated. It takes dealing with inequality in wages, dealing with unsustainable farming practices, dealing with the lack of a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing system, dealing with unsustainable lifestyles, dealing with car culture. That is a lot to change and it’s quite overwhelming to think about. It takes revising a view of the world that’s very polar — rich & poor — to one that’s not homogenous, but far more equal. No utopia (those are boring), just less extreme. It goes back to the “Think globally, act locally” bumper sticker with a footnote about waiting a little longer to afford quality is more cost effective than buying cheap and replacing it more often. Anyway, Earth Day is nice, but it’s going to take a whole heck of a lot more than a little face painting and organic hot dogs to fix our problems. Especially if the neighbors don’t even notice one day.

Side note, I think the EPA should go after spammers. Well, somebody should go after spammers. Not just for making a pretty useful tool fairly obnoxious a lot of the time, but for wasting enough energy annually to power 2.4 million U.S. houses for a year. And most of that is from people having to go delete it. There’s a little people-in-glass-houses rock throwing here — blogging isn’t carbon neutral, but hopefully there’s some benefit to someone.

Thousands of vacations ruined

2009/04/21 Comments off

If you’ve ever gone to Four Corners and stood in four states, well, turns out you haven’t. According to the article, the original survey was off and no one bothered to correct it when the monument was placed. I’d say not too many people have actually stood in all four states at once. I think we stopped there on a family trip 12-13 years ago, but a hunk of bronze in the middle of nowhere doesn’t really do anything for me. I find the Confluence project far more interesting. It gives more of a sense of place — photographs, stories of the journey, even a bit of weather.

Now this is dedication

2009/04/21 Comments off

So this guy sat down in his spare time to find letterforms in Google Earth. The I is fantastic. 

Google Earth Letters (from Australia)

Google Earth Letters (from Australia)

via swiss-miss. via rhett dashwood.

Categories: GIS Tags: , ,

Four color conundrums

2009/04/15 Comments off

We all have our little ways to make office life a little bit more entertaining – we can’t all work at Google. Some folks collect Dilbert cartoons, channeling Andy Dick’s Matthew from NewsRadio (still one of my favorites); I try to apply the four color problem to my whiteboard. It’s a challenge since it’s not like I plan out the board. It is by nature ephemeral, until I take a picture. But that’s part of the fun, adding new chunks in a way that’s meaningful to whatever the project at hand is while trying to keep the colors separate. 

trying to solve the map problem

trying to solve the map problem

This one worked pretty well, I think. For anyone who doesn’t know, the four color problem refers to the idea that, no matter how complicated your polygon map is, the polygons can be symbolized with as few as four colors without polygons with the same color touching. It took over 150 years to prove that four colors was all you needed –  Four Colors Suffice (Wilson) has a very thorough discussion of the problem and the history. Lots of fun illustrations and pictures of goofy old white guys. Good times all around.