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So long, and thanks for all the protons! September 29, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in D0, Fermilab, physics life.
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And there were a lot of protons!

This is a picture of the Cockroft-Walton at Fermilab’s Tevatron. This is where it all starts.

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It isn’t that much of an exaggeration to say that my career started here. You are looking through a wire cage at one half of the Cockroft-Walton – the generator creates a very very very large electric field that ionizes Hydrogen gas (two protons and two electrons) by ripping one of the protons off. The gas, now charged, can be accelerated by an electric field. This is how protons start in the Tevatron.

And that is how most of the experimental data that I used for my Ph.D. research , post-doc research, and tenure research started. Basically, my career from graduate student to tenure is based on data from the Tevatron. The Tevatron delivers its last beam this Friday, at 2pm Central time (the 30th).

I’ll miss working at Fermilab. I’ll miss working at DZERO (the most recent Fermilab experiment I’ve been on). I’ll also miss the character of the experiments – CDF and DZERO now seem like such small experiments. Only 500 authors. I feel like I know everyone. It is a community in a way that I’ve not felt at the LHC yet. And I’ll miss directly owning a bit of the experiment – something I joined the LHC too late to do. But most of all I’ll miss the people. True – many of them have made the transition to the LHC – but not all of them. For reasons of travel, or perhaps retirement, these people I’ll probably see a lot less over the next 10 years. And that is too bad.

I’ll remain connected with DZERO for some time to come. I’m helping out with doing some paper reviews and I’m helping out with data preservation – making sure the DZERO data can be accessed long after the experiment has ceased running.

Tevatron. It has been a fantastic run. You have made my career. And I’ve had a wonderful time with the science opportunities you’ve provided.

So long, and thanks for all the (anti-)protons.

The Ethics and Public Relations Implications of asking for help April 25, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Large Collaborations, physics life.
24 comments

I’ve been having a debate with a few friends of mine. I have definite opinions. First, I’ll lay out the questions. The span ethics and also potential PR backlash. These conversations, btw, are all with friends – no one important, so don’t read anything into this! This is long, and my answers are even longer, but I hope a few of you will read and post (yes, everyone is busy)!

Lets take a purely hypothetical situation. A person has joined a large scientific collaboration like CDF, DZERO, ATLAS, or CMS. As part of joining they agree to abide by a set of rules. For example, not discussing an analysis publically before it has been approved by the experiment.

I apologize in advance to those who are not part of this life, or who don’t care. This blog posting will be even less interesting than normal!

Here are the questions. I’m curious about the answers from both an ethics point of view and a political point of view. Or any other point of view you care to bring to bear. I’ve put my answers below. The setup below is hypothetical! And I have some personal issues with #7! #8 is the one I’ve gotten most push back on when talking with people.

  1. You are a member of said collaboration and you anonymously post all or part of an internal document to a blog.
  2. You are a member of said collaboration and you post non-anonymously to a blog.
  3. The blog owner(s) are unaffiliated with any experiment. Are they obligated to take it down?
  4. The blog owner is affiliated with the experiment (e.g. say someone posted an internal DZERO or ATLAS abstract to my blog). Are they obligated to take it down?
  5. Is it ok for the experiment to ask the blogger to reveal the posters information? For example, the wordpress blogging platform, which I use, keeps internally a record, visible to me, of the posters IP address, which might be able to identify the poster. Is the answer any different if the blog owner is a member of the same experiment? How about a member of a competing/different experiment?
  6. Does the blog owner have to respond with the information to the experiment?
  7. What if the blog owner is a member of the same experiment? Do they have to respond then?
  8. Does the experiment have to ask the blog owner for help?

Ok. So, here are my answers. These aren’t completely thought out, so feel free to call me out if I’m not being consistent. And these are my opinions below, no matter how strongly I state them.

  1. This is clearly unethical. You are violating something that you agreed to in the first place, voluntarily. Further, by doing this anonymously you are basically trying to get away without being accountable – so you are taking no responsibility for your actions – which is also unethical. The PR result depends, obviously, on what is posted. If the topic is interesting enough to the mainstream, articles will end up on the mainstream news sites. If this damages the credibility of an actual result when it is released then real harm has been done. It is not likely that it will damage the credibility within the field, however.
  2. For me this is more murky. You clearly have violated the agreement that you signed initially. But you have also made it clear who you were when you posted it – so you are taking responsibility and accepting the consequences for your actions. The first half you are not behaving ethically, but the second half you are. It seems the PR consequences are similar, except they will be much more personal because the press will be able to get in touch with you. A large faceless experiment, like DZERO or ATLAS, will have a much harder time countering this (people make better stories!).
  3. Ethically, I don’t think you are obligated to take it down if you are not affiliated with any experiment. That was someone else’s agreement, and not one that you signed up for. I follow the thinking of various places that deal with whistleblowers. Now, the blog owner may have their own set of ethical guidelines for the blog, for example, “I will not traffic in rumors,” and then ethically they should not make an exception for a particular post. But that is strictly up to them – they could just as easily say that “this blog traffics in rumors!” The PR aspect of this really depends, if the blog is up front about what it is, then the PR won’t reflect on it as much as it will reflect on the rumor. If the blog does something that violates its own guidelines – like normally it ignores rumors except in this particular one because it is a big one – then part of the PR will be focused back on them. This is a wash, in my opinion.
  4. If the blog was owned by a member of the same experiment then I do think they would be obligated to take it down. The blog owner, upon joining the experiment, agreed not to reveal secrets, and the blog is an extension of the person who made the agreement. From a PR perspective, this would put the blog owner in a fairly difficult position! First, most of us small-time blogs allow comments w/out waiting for approval, so it could be up for several hours before it gets taken down. Any of the RSS comment aggregators would easily have time to grab it before it disappeared. So, it would be out there for anyone with a bit of skill even if it had already been taken down. So the PR would, basically, be the same as the other case. But, if any press came to call the blog owner they would have to say “No Comment.” Ha!
  5. So, it is fine for the experiment to ask the blog owner for any identifiable information about the poster. They are not violating any of their ethics. The PR response, however, can vary dramatically. After the experiment asks, the blogger could respond “Yes” or “No”. And then everyone moves on. But the blogger could also post a copy of the request and say something like “This 3000 person scientific organization is putting pressure on my to reveal my sources. This is a clear suppression of free speech, etc. etc.” What happens next is anybody’s guess and really depends on the blogger’s reputation, their popularity, who picks it up and runs with it, etc. So, anything from forgotten to a PR nightmare for the experiment. For a blogger that wants to prove that they will keep their rumor sources confidential – and thus get more rumors, this could be a big plus. Add this to the likelihood that there is no identifiable information, this makes me conclude it isn’t worth it. Now, if the blogger is a member of the experiment, or the blogger is well known to individuals on the experiment, a small conversation can happen over the phone or in person to see if the blogger might be willing to help out.
  6. First, if the blogger is not a member of the experiment. In this case, I do not think there is any ethical reason for the blogger to respond. By the same token, I do not think the experiment can get bent-out-of-shape if the blogger declines to help. I don’t think there is any real PR aspect to this question (other than what was above). Something to keep in mind: depending on the severity of the leak, you may be ending or seriously affecting someone’s career (judge/jury/etc.) by giving up that technical information – which could be spoofed.
  7. Now, if the blogger was on the same experiment, then things get more tricky. Ethically, you agreed to keep your experiment’s secrets, but you didn’t agree to tattle tail on a fellow collaboration member. I feel like I’m on thin ice here, so any comments yes or no to this would be helpful – especially because I could see myself in this position! While that may be the case, the experiment could bring a huge amount of peer pressure to bear on the blog author if they are a member. This effect should not be underestimated.
  8. This may seem like an odd question. Think of it from this point of view. An internal document has just been leaked. You are one of 3000 people working hard on this experiment. Something that you’ve had no input into, and perhaps seriously disagree with, has been put out on the web. You are still bound by the agreement with the collaboration so you can’t counter why you think it is bad. You have to sand by, frustrated, as this document is discussed by everyone except the people it should be discussed by. Worse, what if this person who did the posting gets away with it!? There are no consequences to what they did? Worse, what if the collaboration changes the way it does internal reviews and physics in order to keep things more secret from even its own members to lessen the chances of another leak? Now the person doing the leak has seriously impacted your ability to work and nothing has happened to you. So, should the collaboration do all it can to track this leaker down? Whew. Yes. But what if tracking this person down causes more damage (like the free speech PR nightmare I mentioned above)? I have a lot of trouble answering this question. In isolation the answer to this is clearly yes. However, when the various possible outcomes are considered, it feels to me like it isn’t worth it.

One final thing. As far as I can see, it seems to me that no actual laws have been broken by any of the proposed actions. That is, you couldn’t sue in a court of law for any of the actions. There is no publically recognized contract, for example. Do people agree with that? Any key questions I missed that should be in the above list?

Scientific Integrity April 22, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, physics life, politics, press, science.
17 comments

… means not telling only half the result

… means not mis-crediting a result

… means an obligation to society to not falsify results

… means not making false claims to gain exposure

… means respecting your fellow scientist and their results

means not talking about things that aren’t public (or, say, that haven’t undergone an internal review)

… means playing by the rules you agreed to when you enter into a collaboration

It means being a scientist!

Integrity is more important that ever given how much the public eye is focused on us in particle physics.

Update: I should mention that this post was authored with Alison Lister.

Digitize the world of books March 26, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Books, physics life.
4 comments

Those of you watching would have noticed that a judge threw a spanner in the plans of Google to digitize the world’s book collection:

The company’s plan to digitize every book ever published and make them widely available was derailed on Tuesday when a federal judge in New York rejected a sweeping $125 million legal settlement the company had worked out with groups representing authors and publishers.

I am a huge fan of the basic idea. Every book online and digital and accessible from your computer. I’m already almost living the life professionally: all the journal articles I use are online. The physics preprint archive, arivx.org, started this model and as a result has spawned new types of conversation – papers that are never submitted to journals. Pretty much the only time I walk over to the library is to look at some textbook up there. The idea of doing the same thing to all the books – well I’m a huge fan.

However, I do not like the idea of one company being the gateway to something like that. Most of the world’s knowledge is written down in one form or another – it should not be locked away behind some wall that is controlled by one company.

I’d rather see a model where we expect, in the long term, that all books and copyrighted materials will eventually enter the public domain. At that point they should be easily accessible online. When you think of the problem like this it seems like there is an obvious answer: the Library of Congress.

Copyrighted books are a tougher nut to crack. There publishers and authors presumably will still want to make money off this. And making out-of-print books available will offer some income (though not much – there is usually a reason those books are out of print). In this case the Google plan isn’t too bad – but having watched journals price gouge because they can, I’m very leery of seeing this happen again here. I’d rather see an independent entity setup that will act as a clearing house. Perhaps they aren’t consumer facing – rather they sell access and charge for books to various companies that then make the material available to us end users. This model is similar to what is done in the music business. I purchase (or rent) my music through Zune – I don’t deal directly with any of the record labels. The only problem is this model doesn’t have competition to keep prices down (i.e. nothing stops this one entity from price gouging).

Lastly, I think having all this data available will open a number of opportunities for things we can think of now. But I think that we need to make sure the data is also available in a raw form so that people can innovate.

Print books are dying. Some forms will take longer than others – I would expect the coffee table picture book to take longer before it converts to all digital than a paper-back novel. But I’m pretty confident that the switch is well underway now. What we do with all the print books is a crucial question. I do think we should be spending money on moving these books into the digital age. Not only are they the sum of our knowledge, but they are also a record of our society.

16,000 Physics Plots January 12, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CDF, CMS, computers, D0, DeepTalk, physics life, Pivot Physics Plots.
4 comments

Google has 20% time. I have Christmas break. If you work at Google you are supposed to have 20% of your time to work on your own little side project rather than the work you are nominally supposed to be doing. Lots of little projects are started this way (I think GMail, for example, started this way).

Each Christmas break I tend to hack on some project that interests me – but is often not directly related to something that I’m working on. Usually by the end of the break the project is useful enough that I can start to get something out of it. I then steadily improve it over the next months as I figure out what I really wanted. Sometimes they never get used again after that initial hacking time (you know: fail often, and fail early). My deeptalk project came out of this, as did my ROOT.NET libraries. I’m not sure others have gotten a lot of use out of these projects, but I certainly have. The one I tackled this year has turned out to be a total disaster. Interesting, but still a disaster. This plot post is about the project I started a year ago.  This was a fun one. Check this out:

image

Each of those little rectangles represents a plot released last year by DZERO, CDF, ATLAS, or CMS (the Tevatron and LHC general purpose collider experiments) as a preliminary result. That huge spike is July – 3600 plots (click to enlarge the image) -  is everyone preparing for the ICHEP conference. In all the 4 experiments put out about 6000 preliminary plots last year.

I don’t know about you – but there is no way I can keep up with what the four experiments are doing – let alone the two I’m a member of! That is an awful lot of web pages to check – especially since the experiments, though modern, aren’t modern enough to be using something like an Atom/RSS feed! So my hack project was to write a massive web scraper and a Silverlight front-end to display it. The front-end is based on the Pivot project originally from MSR, which means you can really dig into the data.

For example, I can explode December by clicking on “December”:

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and that brings up the two halves of December. Clicking in the same way on the second half of December I can see:

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From that it looks like 4 notes were released – so we can organize things by notes that were released:

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Note the two funny icons – those allow you to switch between a grid layout of the plots and a histogram layout. And after selecting that we see that it was actually 6 notes:

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That left note is title “Z+Jets Inclusive Cross Section” – something I want to see more of, so I can select that to see all the plots at once for that note:

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And say I want to look at one plot – I just click on it (or use my mouse scroll wheel) and I see:

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I can actually zoom way into the plot if I wish using my mouse scroll wheel (or typical touch-screen gestures, or on the Mac the typical zoom gesture). Note the info-bar that shows up on the right hand side. That includes information about the plot (a caption, for example) as well as a link to the web page where it was pulled from. You can click on that link (see caveat below!) and bring up the web page. Even a link to a PDF note is there if the web scrapper could discover one.

Along the left hand side you’ll see a vertical bar (which I’ve rotated for display purposes here):

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You can click on any of the years to get the plots from that year. Recent will give you the last 4 months of plots. Be default, this is where the viewer starts up – seems like a nice compromise between speed and breadth when you want to quickly check what has recently happened. The “FS” button (yeah, I’m not a user-interface guy) is short for “Full Screen”. I definitely recommend viewing this on a large monitor! “BK” and “FW” are like the back and forward buttons on your browser and enable you to undo a selection. The info bar on the left allows you do do some of this if you want too.

Want to play? Go to http://deeptalk.phys.washington.edu/ColliderPlots/… but first read the following. Smile And feel free to leave suggestions! And let me know what you think about the idea behind this (and perhaps a better way to do this).

  • Currently works only on Windows and a Mac. Linux will happen when Moonlight supports v4.0 of Silverlight. For Windows and the Mac you will have to have the Silverlight plug-in installed (if you are on Windows you almost certainly already have it).
  • This thing needs a good network connection and a good CPU/GPU. There is some heavy graphics lifting that goes on (wait till you see the graphics animations – very cool). I can run it on my netbook, but it isn’t that great. And loading when my DSL line is not doing well can take upwards of a minute (when loading from a decent connection it takes about 10 seconds for the first load).
  • You can’t open a link to a physics note or webpage unless you install this so it is running locally. This is a security feature (cross site scripting). The install is lightweight – just right click and select install (control-click on the Mac, if I remember correctly). And I’ve signed it with a certificate, so it won’t get messed up behind your back.
  • The data is only as good as its source. Free-form web pages are a mess. I’ve done my best without investing an inordinate amount of time on the project. Keep that in mind when you find some data that makes no sense. Heck, this is open source, so feel free to contribute! Updating happens about once a day. If an experiment removes a plot from their web pages, then it will disappear from here as well at the next update.
  • Only public web pages are scanned!!
  • The biggest hole is the lack of published papers/plots. This is intentional because I would like to get them from arxiv. But the problem is that my scrapper isn’t intelligent enough when it hits a website – it grabs everything it needs all at once (don’t worry, the second time through it asks only for headers to see if anything has changed). As a result it is bound to set off arxiv’s robot sensor. And the thought of parsing TeX files for captions is just… not appealing. But this is the most obvious big hole that I would like to fix some point soon.
  • This depends on public web pages. That means if an experiment changes its web pages or where they are located, all the plots will disappear from the display! I do my best to fix this as soon as I notice it. Fortunately, these are public facing web pages so this doesn’t happen very often!

Ok, now for some fun. Who has the most broken links on their public pages? CDF by a long shot. Smile Who has the pages that are most machine readable? CMS and DZERO. But while they are that, the images have no captions (which makes searching the image database for text words less useful than it should be). ATLAS is a happy medium – their preliminary results are in a nice automatically produced grid that includes captions.

The Ultimate Logbook January 8, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life.
2 comments

I couldn’t leave this alone. I mentioned the ultimate logbook in my last posting. This is the logbook that would record everything you did and archive it.

It isn’t difficult. The web already has a perfect data format for this – Atom (or RSS). Just imagine. Each source code repository you commit to would publish a feed of all of your changes (with a time stamp, of course!) in the Atom format. Heck, your computer could keep track of what files you edited and publish a list of those too (many cloud storage services already do do this). Make a plot in ROOT? Sure! A feed could be published. Ran a batch job? The command you used for submission could be polished.

Then you need something central that is polling those RSS feeds with some frequency, gathering the data, and archiving it. Oh, and perhaps even making it available for easy use.

Actually, there is a service that does this already. Facebook. Sure! Just tell it about every RSS feed and it will suck that data in. Some of you are probably reading this on Facebook – and this posting got there because I told Facebook about this blog’s Atom feed and it sucked the data in.

Of course, having a write-only repository of everything you did is a little less than useful. You need a powerful search engine to bring the data you are interested in back out. Especially because a lot of that data is just a random command which contains no obvious indication of what you were working on (i.e. no meta-data).

And finally, at least for me, I don’t really want something that is static. Rarely is there a project that I’m finished with and I can neatly wrap it up and move on. Heck, there are projects I put down and pick up again many months later. This ultimate logbook doesn’t really support that.

Perhaps it is best to split the functions. Call this a ultimate logbook a daily log instead, and then keep separate bits of paper where you do your thinking… Awww heck, right back to where we started!

BTW, if you think Facebook might be interesting as a solution here, remember several things. First, as far as I can tell, there is no way to search your comments or posts. Second, you might get ‘Zuckenberged’ – that is, the privacy settings might get changed and your logbook might become totally public.

Log Book Follow-up January 5, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life.
1 comment so far

Starting back in March I wrote a bunch of posts on logbooks: where do you keep your log book?, what do you keep in it? (and more of what you put in it). I can’t help it. The logbook is near and dear to my heart. I promised a follow-up posting. Finally… In summary (nothing in any particular order):

  • What goes into a log book: pictures, code, text, screenscrapes, files, plots, handwriting, paper
  • What do you use: Evernote, old style (bound notebook), loose paper, wiki/twiki, yojimbo, google wave, email (as in email a plot to yourself), tiddywiki, blogging software, text file, DEVON Think Personal, Journler (now defunct).

One thing I didn’t ask about but all of you contributed anyway was how the logbook got used (there is no right way – the logbook has to work for you, of course):

  • Gave up – nothing but an inbox
  • Just keep track of thinking
  • Exploded: link services to track papers, paper for jotting down notes, email, etc. – a bit of everything
  • Every last thing goes into the logbook, including bathroom breaks.

No one mentioned using a kindle/nook to read their logbook, btw. For software that gets used most like a logbook it looks to me like Evernote wins.

For me the most surprising method was email. And by surprising, I  mean smacking myself on the forehead because I’d not already thought of it. Here is the idea: just email your log book entries – with files and attachments, etc., to your logbook email account. Then use the power of search to recover whatever you want. And since you can stick it on Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo mail, you have almost no size restrictions – and it is available wherever you happen to have a internet connection. Further, since it is just email, it is trivial to write scripts to capture data and ship it off to the logbook.

Now, I’ll ramble a bit in way of conclusion…

Do you remember MIcrosoft’s failed phone, the Kin? It was basically a smart phone w/out the apps. But one of the cool things it did was called Kin Studio. The point was this – everything you did on the phone was uploaded to the cloud. All the text messages you sent or received, all the pictures you took, etc. Then on the web you could look back at any time at what you did and have a complete record. Now, that is a logbook.

Of course, there are some problems with this. Who wants to look at lots of messages that say “ok!” or “ttl” or similar? And the same problem would occur if we were able to develop the equivalent of the Kin studio for logbooks. It would be a disaster. Which I think gets to the crux of what many of you were wrestling with in the comments of those posts (and something I wrestle with all the time): what do you put in a logbook!? There is a part of me that would like to capture everything – the ultimate logbook. Given todays software and technology this wouldn’t be very hard to write!

In thinking about this I came up with a few observations of my own behavior over the last few years:

One way to look at this is: what do you look up in a logbook? I have to say – what I look up in my logbook has undergone some dramatic changes since I was a graduate student. Back then we didn’t have the web (really) or search engines. As a result writing down exactly what I needed to do to get some bit of code working was very important. Now it is almost certain I can find a code sample on the web in one or two searches. So that doesn’t need to go into the logbook anymore. Plots still go in – but 90% of them are wrong. You know – you make the plot, think you are done, move on to the next step and in the process discover a mistake – so you go back and have to remake everything. And put the updated version of the plot into your logbook. Soon it becomes a waste of time – so you just auto-generate a directory with all the plots. So it always has the latest-and-greatest version. Hopefully you remember to put some of those into your logbook when you are done… but often not (at least me).

What is the oldest logbook entry you’ve ever gone back to? For me it was the top discovery – but that was nostalgia, not because I needed some bit of data. I rarely go back more than a few months. And, frankly, in this day and age, if you do an analysis that is published in January, by July someone (perhaps you) have redone it with more data and a better technique in July. You need those January numbers to compare – but you get them from an analysis note, not from your logbook! In short, the analysis note has become the “official” logbook of the experiment.

I have to say that my logbook current serves two functions: meeting notes and thinking. Meeting minutes are often not recorded – so keep a record. Especially since I’m using an electronic notebook I can mark things with an “action” flag and go back later to find out exactly what I need to do as a result of that meeting. The second heaviest use for me is brainstorming. Normally one might scribble ideas on some loose paper, perhaps leave them around for a day or two, come back refine them, etc. I use my logbook for that rather than loose paper.

Now a days I definitely do not keep a log book in the traditional way. Certainly not in the way I was taught to use a logbook in my undergraduate physics classes! Here is a quote from an ex-student of mine (in the comments of one of the previous posts – and I can copy this because he already has a job!!):

I have a rather haphazard attitude toward these things–I have a logbook, but I use it to remember things and occasionally to sort out and prioritize my thoughts. So it’s fairly sparse, and it certainly would be of no help in a patent dispute! Often I keep my old working areas around on my computer, and I use them if I forget what I did in my previous work.

This is pretty typical of what I see in people around me in the field. Other commenters made reference to more careful use of logbooks. I wonder how much usage style varies by field (medicine, physics (particle vs. condensed matter, theory vs. experiment), engineering, industry vs. academic, etc.)?

Getting WiFi in a conference of online addicts is hard January 1, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Conference, physics life.
3 comments

This post was triggered by an article pointing out some fundamental limitations of WiFi and tech conferences I saw.

Last month in San Francisco at the Web 2.0 Summit, where about 1,000 people heard such luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Eric E. Schmidt of Google talk about the digital future, the Wi-Fi slowed or stalled at times.

I like the way one of my students, Andy Haas, put it once. He was giving a talk at a DZERO workshop on the Level 3 computer farm and trying to make a point about the number and type of computers that were in the farm. He drew an analogy to the number of laptops that were open in the room. It can be a little spooky – almost everyone has one, and almost everyone has them open during conference talks. In Andy’s case there were about 100 people in the room. And when you are giving the talk you have to wonder: how many people are listening!?

There is another side-effect, however. It is rare that the hotel, or whatever, is ready for the large number of devices that we particle physicists bring to a meeting. In the old days it was a laptop per person and now add in a cell phone that also wants a internet connection. Apparently most conference organizers used to use to guess that it would be about 1 in 5 people would have a portable that needed a connection at any one time. Folks from particle physics, however, just blew that curve! The result was often lost wifi connections, many seconds to load a page, and an inability to download the conference agenda! As conference organizer we have long ago learned that is one of the most important things to get right – and one of the key things that will be used to judge the organization of your conference.

The article is interesting in another aspect as well (other that pointing out a problem we’ve been dealing with for more than 10 years now). WiFi is not really designed for this sort of use. Which leads to the question – what is next?

Email is dead! Long live… err… uhh…. hmmm… December 29, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in email, physics life.
7 comments

You know when something is past when the old grey lady picks it up. Apparently e-mail is dead.

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely” — seriously?

Those of you around the web I’m sure have seen this – murmurs have been going on a long time about the death of email. Text – on the phone – has been taking over. You have to look no further than text message usage statistics to see this is very real… 1 in 3 ‘teens send more than 100 text messages a day. [I wasn’t able to find any recent over-all usage statistics for text, but this one is back in 2005] If you look at similar plots of # of cell phones out there, you’ll note the increase is faster – we are sending more of these messages than we used to. Facebook, which is attempting to be our communications hub, is altering how it does email – removing the subject line, etc. – making it more like text messaging. Hotmail and Gmail and Yahoo Mail have already gone through this and they continue further down this road.

I, of course, teach, and so am often in contact with lots of students… and they say the same thing. We’ve heard the comment “I only read my email because old people send me things, like my parents or professors.” (no, I’m not making that up…).

But, really, is email dead? Can it be so? Or is it a situational thing?

David McDowell, senior director of product management for Yahoo Mail … said this was less a generational phenomenon than a situational one. Fifteen-year-olds, for example, have little reason to send private attachments to a boss or financial institution.

This I can buy. Heck, I’m a huge user of email and I am religious about putting a subject on all my emails when I send them professionally. When I use Facebook email for a quick note to a friend of mine… almost never put a subject on it. I am definitely seeing more use of IM – especially now that Facebook has allowed 3rd parties to tap into its IM system – people often contact me through that system with questions or comments – for a quick chat about some physics gossip or where to find some paper, etc.

But with students – the next generation – it really does seem like a more fundamental change is occurring. At the moment, when they enter the work force, they are entering our world and so are, at some level, forced to adopt our model of e-mail usage. But that will change – us old people are living on borrowed time – at some point we will be living in their world. How will communication look? Will it look similar to today or will it be a continuous stream of constant interruptions as text messages roll in? Or will it be a mix of the two, depending on the topic and the kind of question that is being asked?

And second, how do you deal with the modern class? Say I have 250 students. I want to tell them to study chapters 1-7 for the exam later this week. Normally I’d blast a class-wide email. Should I be setting up a class fan-page on facebook (and not all of them will be members)? Get the phone number for them all so I can send a text (sounds like too much work)? Just post to a web page and assume they saw it?

My guess is that all those emails which people just add one “line” and then hit send on are going to become a thing of the past – they will become these text and IM’s we’ve been talking about. How is this for starters? In our experiments we have a number of email lists. The name of the email lists should double as a chat room. When you have a question you post to the chat room. If no one replies, you create a more detailed (and formal) email.

Other ideas?

Good-bye, Uli November 30, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.
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Uli Baur passed away this last week. Uli is well known in my field. Not only did he do good physics, but he was also personable, nice, and a lot of fun (see image above and below for proof of that last bit!). He was great for an experimentalist like me – willing to answer basic theory questions w/out making me feel too stupid – very accessible. For whatever reason one of my more vivid memories is sitting outside the CERN cafeteria some evening. He’d just arrived – I think it was a day late… because his plane had a flat tire. The tire disintegrated during takeoff – or the crew was worried it had – as the landing gear wouldn’t lock when they tried to put it down. His description of everyone running around the cabin, pulling out manuals, etc., was typical of him – enjoying life and what life had handed him. We will miss you Uli. A memorial web page has been setup (and there are lots of remembrances on Facebook as well).

I hope this picture gets used in a talk tomorrow.

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As many of you know, I’ve accumulated a very large collection of images from physics conferences. While not all are on my flickr account, many are. You can find ones that have Uli in them from this link (sorry – my tagging isn’t perfect, as one or two other Uli’s appear in that stream). Enjoy remembering him!

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