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Really? Is it that different? May 11, 2015

Posted by gordonwatts in life, university.

An article from the New York Times is making its rounds on various social media circles I’m a member of, “What is the Point of a Professor?” It has lots of sucker-punch quotes, like

But as this unique chapter of life closes and they reflect on campus events, one primary part of higher education will fall low on the ladder of meaningful contacts: the professors.

Or this one:

In one national survey, 61 percent of students said that professors frequently treated them “like a colleague/peer,” while only 8 percent heard frequent “negative feedback about their academic work.” More than half leave the graduation ceremony believing that they are “well prepared” in speaking, writing, critical thinking and decision-making.

Obviously implicit is that they aren’t well prepared! This is from an op-ed bit written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory. He also authored a book titled (which I have not read):

“The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).”

You can probably already tell this has pissed me off. Smile

This sort of hatchet job of a critique of university students gets it part-right, but, I think, really misses the point. Sorting through the article and trying to pull out a central idea that he wants all professors to adopt, I came away with this quote:

Since the early 2000s, I have made students visit my office every other week with a rough draft of an essay. We appraise and revise the prose, sentence by sentence. I ask for a clearer idea or a better verb; I circle a misplaced modifier and wait as they make the fix.

This one-on-one interaction he stresses as the cure for all the ills he has outlined. Let me just say that if I were devote this much time to each of my students I’d still be single. In the modern day and age of universities and professor’s lives (and jobs), there just isn’t time! Too many people want a university education, and there just isn’t enough money in the education system to fun this sort of interaction (and it is getting worse in many of the national largest publics).


But, frankly, if I look at my life and my work, it doesn’t seem that bad. I’m constantly mentoring undergraduates and graduate students. He claims that professors who do research don’t want interaction with their students because it detracts from their research… I doubt it is any different in English than it is in Physics – but that interaction is pretty much the only way I can get good undergraduates to start working with me! And I’m far from alone at the University of Washington.

The two views (I’m doing plenty of mentoring and his that there isn’t enough contact) are compatible: student/professor ratios are an easy explanation. But that isn’t everything – my students are not the same sort of student I was. This quote really irked me as being rather arrogant:

Naturally, students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding.

Wow. I don’t think he has met most of my students! By the time they get to me they have a pretty good understanding of how the world works. I can help guide them though quantum mechanics and the philosophical questions that raises, but the internet and their friend groups are much stronger influences than I am for everything else!

His book title also makes me think he has missed everything that the new digital age has to offer. It feels like the constant discussion I have when organizing a conference: should we turn off wifi in the conference room and force everyone to listen to the talks, or leave it on? I see benefits and detriments to both – but you can’t hold back progress. Especially as the younger generations grow up and start attending conferences this will not be an option. And they and forward conference organizers will find ways to use it to the attendee’s benefit – the same way I hope it will happen in classrooms. I should say as a caveat, I don’t know anyone has universally cracked that nut yet!

In short:

  • He is right, in large classes can undermine the interaction between students and professors. Blame lies not just with the professors as his article implies here.
  • There is a lot of interaction going on none-the-less. Taking advantage of electronic communication, not just in-person.
  • Undergraduates learn at a university from many sources (e.g. the internet, social groups/media, etc.) in a way they didn’t a generation ago. This is good, not bad.
  • The kids are better than he seems to be giving them credit for. Smile

Edit: I originally saw this post in my fb feed, and my friend Salvatore Rappoccio had a fantastic response. It was private at the time, but now that he has made his reply to the article public”":

What? I can’t hear you over the four undergrad students I’m sending to Fermilab for the summer or the two undergrads per semester I’ve mentored for three years. If you want to chat you’ll have to take a number behind the 20-ish students per semester I sit down with for philosophical discussions or career advice outside of my office hours. I have, in the last semester, discussed physics, career choices, fatherhood, kerbal space program, and drywalling with a 3-tour vet, a guy working full time as a contractor to put himself through school, an electrician going back to school for engineering, and a student practically in tears that I bothered to tell her that she improved a lot over the semester, just to name the most memorable ones.

So What’s the point of a professor, you ask?

To educate, obviously. And not just in the classroom. Maybe it’s just you who falls into the “useless” category.


Cherry Blossoms April 7, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in life, University of Washington.
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It happens once a year, of course: Cherry Blossom Season. You can find it all over – Japan is famous for it. But back at the University of Washington we have our own little grove of Yoshino Cherry trees on the Quad. For the two weeks or so the place becomes a bit of a tourist destination – it is packed with people. Some just sitting and reading, but most walking around and snapping pictures. I went a little crazy this year. If you love this stuff, you can find it all over the web. Here are links to some of the stuff I’ve taken:

  • Pictures from a cloudy day on flickr.
  • A large panorama view. This is probably the easiest one to get an understanding of what the square looks like.
  • A giant 451 photo 3D reconstruction (a photosynth). I’m really looking forward to the technology (recently previewed) where you can walk around with a video camera and that is enough to build one of these!
  • A desktop theme pack for Windows 7. If you like having your background image change every 30 minutes to a different view of cherry trees, well, this is for you!

Enough till next year!

How was your year? December 31, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in life.
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Watching my Facebook stream I’ve seen a bunch of comments about how bad their 2010 was. That got me to thinking about my 2010. Actually, I’m lucky: it has been pretty good. I got to live for almost 4 months in the South of France (and got a lot of work done there), the ‘mo moved through her 4’s – a very cool age (for those of you who can’t remember that far back!). Work-wise was also great – had my last Tevatron student get his Ph.D., finished being convener of the ATLAS b-tagging group, watched the first set of calibrations for b-tagging get “published”, and effort I helped start over 3 years ago, hired a very cool post-doc. And got to learn a bunch of things.

That isn’t to say lots of bad stuff happened – the poor economy continues to push back; I’ve not had a raise for the last two years and I would guess I won’t have one for the next two either. However, I do have a job, and, even, a job I like a lot. My eyes are going. Our condo’s price still hasn’t recovered.

Bye 2010! Looking forward to 2011. Oh, wait, I only have a few hours to make resolutions! Ack!

Where did I go? March 18, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in blog, life.

There was an almost 3 month gap between those last two postings. Several of you privately asked me if everything was ok, and a few publically (on the blog) as well. So, thanks for asking! And I’m just fine.

It was a collision of a bunch of things that took me out of posting. I don’t think any single one would have done it, but they came together. I thought it would be fun to list them – as it might give those of you not on the inside of this science-rat-race a picture of what goes on. On the other hand, most of you may find it amazingly boring and feel I’m whining as everyone is really busy.

That is mostly what it came down to: busy.

  1. I was teaching a graduate particle physics course. You’d think, as this is my field of research, I’d be expert in this. Well, some aspects I suppose, but basic field theory and phenomenology? Not really. I suspect that course was eating up about 20-30 hours a week, depending on what set of topics I was trying to teach.
  2. I am co-leader of the ATLAS b-tagging group over at CERN. This has translated into my traveling to CERN almost once a month for the past year and a half. Let me tell you – that trip takes a lot out of you. Sometimes when I get back my body declares enough! And I end up sleeping from 9pm to 7am several days in a row. For a guy that does most of his work late at night let me tell you – that takes a bite out of productivity. Another thing this job has caused me to do is often get up very early for European late afternoon meetings. Which means, in general, I’m more tired. But I wouldn’t trade these two years – doing this as data first rolls in has been exhilarating!
  3. If feels like our kid has started sleeping less or something else has changed – I get a lot less done than I used to on the weekends and in the evenings. Don’t read this wrong – our kid is about 3.5 years old and a hell of a lot of fun to hang around (and teach – she just learned how to spell her name with wooden alphabet blocks). But as any of you who are parents know, this takes real time!
  4. Some of the topics I often post about on this blog are causing me a good deal of frustration. In particular, watching what this state (and others) are doing to the US public education system. We already know that grade school and high school do not measure up well in the rest of the world. Our college and university system, however, is second to none. You’d think the obvious thing to do would be to try to bring the grade school and high school education up to par. Instead, we seem to be doing the exact opposite. And let me tell you, there is nothing more depressing, frustrating, and anger inducing for someone like me than reading the comments of the Texas board of education members after their vote recent textbook vote. At some point one gets worn out. 🙂
  5. HOLY COW. LHC DATA!!! Yes – that is right. And lots of it (ok, that is a relative thing). The group I help lead has produced lots of plots. Helping to guide these plots and analyses through ATLAS has been a great deal of fun, but it has also been 1000’s of emails and lots of headaches as everyone tries to figure out the right way to get these results out of the collaboration. Remember – technically all 2000 authors have to be given a chance to comment on these things. The resulting overhead is bound to be complex and will take a few iterations to get right. Further, the LHC has just restarted and now we are going to be running for an extended period at 7 TeV – it won’t be just performance plots anymore, but now real physics. And maybe hopefully some involving b-tagging. This means my summer will be “hell” [well, I’ll move to the south of France again for the summer, so hell is pretty relative].
  6. Facebook. Yeah, I know, I know. I do love that it has reconnected me with so many people and as a result I do spend probably an hour or two on that site during a normal week (much more when traveling or when I’m trying to write an exam or homework solutions! ;-)).
  7. Hobbies. These include things like photography and (yeah) computer programming (i.e. the deeptalk stuff). Actually, these have almost dropped to zero as well since December. Along with this blog I’m trying to restart them because they are, like this blog, things I enjoy and have missed.

I love my life. I’ve worked my butt off for many years to get to where I am now. Sure, there are things that could be better, but as far as it goes I’m amazingly lucky to be where I am now. Sadly, there are only 24 hours in a day, and so, sometimes something gets dropped on the floor.

At any rate, it is the start of finals week here at UW and next week is spring break. Which means I’m off to Chicago for a quick visit to Fermilab and my student and the D0 DAQ system, and then off to Geneva for a week long ATLAS meeting. But… no teaching. So I’m hoping I can get my blogging groove back.

But, honestly, the blog posts I do, I do because I like doing them. The second this feels like a chore… well… 🙂 At any rate, I should have something up for the logbook shortly – that is a fun topic to think about for a nerd like me!

Happy New Year January 7, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in life.
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I’m back in Seattle after a nice several week break. I hope everyone had a fantastic break and a good New Year. This year should be fantastic. The LHC will get its first decent slug of data at (we hope) 7 TeV. The Tevatron should pass 8 fb-1 of data for each experiment. Perhaps someone will release a Dark Matter result.


What do you mean it isn’t about the $$? December 16, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CERN, LHC, life.

A cute article in Vanity Fair:

Among the defining attributes of now are ever tinier gadgets, ever shorter attention spans, and the privileging of marketplace values above all. Life is manically parceled into financial quarters, three-minute YouTube videos, 140-character tweets. In my pocket is a phone/computer/camera/video recorder/TV/stereo system half the size of a pack of Marlboros. And what about pursuing knowledge purely for its own sake, without any real thought of, um, monetizing it? Cute.

Something I found out from this article – The LHC is the largest machine ever built. Ok. Wow. Ever!? I would have though that something like a large air craft carrier would have beat this. Still.

The attention span is another interesting aspect I’d not thought about. You know that the first space shuttles were using magnetic core memory (see the reference in that Wikipedia particle). There were a number of reasons for this – one of them was certainly there was no better technology available when they started. Before it was built more robust memory appeared – but it was too late to redesign. Later space shuttles were fitted with more modern versions of the memory.

In internet time, 6 months or a year and you are already a version behind. And it matters. It would seem part of the point of the now is to be using the latest and greatest. You know how everyone stands around a water cooler discussing the latest episode of some TV show (i.e. Lost when it first started). Now it is the latest iPhone update or some other cool new gadget. Ops. Hee hee. I said water cooler. How quaint. Obviously, I meant facebook.

Projects like the space shuttle or the LHC take years and years. And a lot of people have to remain focused for that long. And governments who provide the funding. You know how hard that is – especially for a place like the USA where every year they discuss the budget? It is hard. Some people have been working on this for 20 years. 20 years! And now data is finally arriving. Think about that: designs set down 20 years ago have finally been built and installed and integrated and tested.

This science does not operate on internet time. But we are now deep in the age of internet time. How will the next big project fair? Will we as a society have the commitment to get it done?

I like the writing style in this VF article – a cultural look at the LHC. They do a good job of describing the quench as well. I recommend the read. And, finally, yes, this post ended up very different from the way it started. 🙂

Thanks to Chris @ UW for bringing this article to my attention.

Building a Park November 15, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in life, Seattle.

Hi. My name is Gordon, and I’m 43 years old, and I’ve never been to a town meeting. I guess my kid finally made me see the light of day, admit I had a problem, and attend.

Ok, I know, not such a big deal. I suspect that most people haven’t been to town meetings. I don’t mean the political things where you talk to a candidate – rather I mean the town meetings where very local issues are discussed – like safety, zoning, and… parks.

Seattle has allocated almost 3 million bucks to turn a street into a park. The idea is to shrink the 2-lane street down to one late, and use the reclaimed space for a “strip-park”. This will be right around the corner from my house and run 5 blocks. This is a very cool idea – there is nothing like this around my house. I regularly take my kid down to the Sculpture Park to play – and that is a good distance. If they make it possible for kids to hang out in this park, well, that should be a real improvement. The idea reminds me of things they try to do in Europe – small cities have lots of small parks littered about. J-mo and I and Paula got a lot of use out of them.

But the real reason I went was safety. There is one section of the street that is prone to drug deals. On it there used to be a park. It totally failed and was taken over by drug dealers, their clients, and homeless who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to take advantage of the local housing opportunities. The result was that no one that lived in that area used it.

They re-made that park into a dog park. I’m not sure why, but it works. Maybe it is there are people. Maybe that there are so many dogs running around it all the time. Whatever – the drug dealers have all been pushed out onto the street. A pain for pedestrians, but their numbers are smaller. So – if they do this park right, they will hopefully reduce their numbers even further.

And if the park is done right, perhaps it will attract more people to the area – which will make it even more safe. Certainly, if it becomes a destination for folks…

The town meeting was something else. It was clear that the overriding concern was safety. Almost everyone had a comment about it. And the meeting facilitator had a lot of trouble getting people to talk about the design of the park. Lots of comments along the lines of “No Park Benches!”, with the sub-text – that is where the homeless & drug dealers will hang out. Ugh. If the park is designed from that point of view then it will definitely not be enjoyable. Sort of the way Fermilab went over-board and put in Kerberos for their security making it one of the most difficult labs to interact with.

Even though I went to talk about security, I ended up making only design comments. They had a mouth-full… And… well, I felt a little sorry for them. Also, and please don’t take me wrong, this is an urban environment – it seemed like some people wanted an environment much like the idyllic suburbs. Something I don’t think is possible (nor totally desirable – after all, there is a reason to live in an urban environment). And a park with no-place to sit? 😦

Something else, more related to the themes of this blog, occurred to me as I sat listening. There have got to be other cities that have done things similarly – and some must have succeeded and others failed. Have there been studies of what works and what doesn’t work in a situation like this? While it isn’t all science, I bet there is some useful studies that could be done to provide guidance.

My favorite comment at the meeting was the cigarette butt one. You can’t smoke in bars in Seattle. And bars aren’t allowed to put cigarette butt trashcans outside the bar. A community group said they picked up 4 trash bags worth of butts over a one block area of one of the popular bar streets. 4 trash bags!!!! Of butts! Ohhh, if I were only John Stewart, I’d feel a great riff coming on…

Fire July 23, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in life, Marseille.

Wow. I’ve never seen a forest fire up close. But the calanque behind Luminy were burning yesterday. It has been very hot and everything is very dry and yesterday was quite windy – perfect conditions. Luminy is where CPPM, the lab I’m working at here in the south of France, is located:


The #1 marker is where the building I work in is located, and the #2 is the approximate location of the fire – quite close! Most of the region is a protected national park, so I couldn’t really get very close to the actual fire – perhaps a good thing – but I do have decent resolution on my camera:


At the start of the day we couldn’t even see that there was a fire other than this helicopter kept hovering over the area. But in the afternoon they got serious and a whole slew of airplanes started arriving every 15 minutes to drop water on the fire:


These planes are pretty cool – they fly over to the sea – very close buy – and scoop up sea water. They never land – they just fly right above the water and use their speed to fill their tank. It must be quite difficult to keep the plane at the right altitude as it gains all that weight.

The smoke was impressive – covered the city and made for a nice sunset. This morning there is still smoke – and the fire wasn’t out yet (apparently under control, however). 480 people are fighting it in the air and on the ground. Wow.

Update: Some houses burned (no one hurt), the road to Cassis was temporarily closed too. I saw someone’s pictures who was living quite close to the fire. Flickr has some good pictures of the fire as well.

What I want July 22, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in computers, France, life, Marseille.
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Well, it is basically my birthday (whooo!). I can’t complain. Hell, check out the view from where I’m living in the South of France right now:


I’ve managed to get started on all but two projects I wanted to tackle this summer (re-do my class for the fall and a GUI tool to allow me to ask quick and dirty questions of a Monte Carlo file).

I can’t complain.

And yet… there is a certain feeling of malaise settling in. At first I thought it was the constant heat. But I’m basically on the beach. Can’t be it. Perhaps it is eating too much rich French food? Maybe it is the economic crisis.

Finally figured out what it is – my current cell phone is almost two years old! I feel better already!

When I return to the USA it will be time to buy a new one. Unfortunately, I have a few basic requirements. One I’d really like to go for this time is that it run both Adobe Flash/Air and Microsoft’s Silverlight. The later because that is a geek version of Flash – one I can actually write code in. Initially I thought that killed the iPhone, but it turns out not to be the case – the open source version can be run there as long as you drop half the features which violate the iPhone’s service agreement (which is also the reason that Flash isn’t on the phone – this isn’t technical, it is business). Unfortunately, I have to own an Apple to do any development work and pay some developer fee and I can’t just post my app on a web page – I have to go through the Apple censors. So that puts a significant dent in my enthusiasm. On the other hand the iPhone has the best interface of any phone I’ve seen – though I really really like my current keyboard for replying to email.

It would also be nice if I could play subscription music on my phone, but that isn’t a 100% must (I currently carry around 120 gigs of music, video/audio podcasts, etc. on a big Zune). The phone needs to have all the usual stuff to – PDF reader for those arxiv papers, web browser, 3G, SMS, and MMS.

Android looks very interesting – though I’m waiting to see a Flash/Silverlight port. At least there is no company blocking the port in that case, so perhaps it will happen? I hear Microsoft is preparing a new phone as well. The Pre sounds nice, but I can’t tell how much traction it is going to get.

I might have to wait a year. All of a sudden I don’t feel so happy anymore…

Spring in Geneva April 30, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in CERN, life.

I’ve been here in Geneva for almost a week now – and it has been all rain. For the first time today it was really sun, however. I almost missed my first meeting of the day to snap a few pictures of the amazing fields of yellow (click for much larger versions!).


And this one for dramatic effect: