Archive for August, 2009

HowTo: write research articles

August 18, 2009

Here is Andrew Gelman:

The American Statistical Association organizes a program in which young researchers can submit writing samples and get comments from statisticians who are more experienced writers. I agreed to participate in this program, as long as the authors were willing to have their articles and my comments posted here.

I’m going to start with my general advice after reading and commenting on the two articles sent to me. I think this advice should be of interest to nearly all the readers of this blog. Then I’ll link to the articles and give some detailed comments.

General advice

Both the papers sent to me appear to have strong research results. Now that the research has been done, I’d recommend rewriting both articles from scratch, using the following template:

1. Start with the conclusions. Write a couple pages on what you’ve found and what you recommend. In writing these conclusions, you should also be writing some of the introduction, in that you’ll need to give enough background so that general readers can understand what you’re talking about and why they should care. But you want to start with the conclusions, because that will determine what sort of background information you’ll need to give.

2. Now step back. What is the principal evidence for your conclusions? Make some graphs and pull out some key numbers that represent your research findings which back up your claims.

3. Back one more step, now. What are the methods and data you used to obtain your research findings.

4. Now go back and write the literature review and the introduction.

5. Moving forward one last time: go to your results and conclusions and give alternative explanations. Why might you be wrong? What are the limits of applicability of your findings? What future research would be appropriate to follow up on these loose ends?

6. Write the abstract. An easy way to start is to take the first sentence from each of the first five paragraphs of the article. This probably won’t be quite right, but I bet it will be close to what you need.

7. Give the article to a friend, ask him or her to spend 15 minutes looking at it, then ask what they think your message was, and what evidence you have for it. Your friend should read the article as a potential consumer, not as a critic. You can find typos on your own time, but you need somebody else’s eyes to get a sense of the message you’re sending.

I got the link to Gelman’s post via Seth, who has his own suggestions and also a pointer to Alex Tabarrok’s comments on the same at MR.

A culture statement

August 17, 2009

Here is the NetFlix company culture statement: link via Bruce Eckel who says:

Netflix’ goal of creating an environment where you get to work with exceptional people is very compelling, and it gives me some insight on why my friend Carl left Google to go there.

Do yourself a favor, especially if you’re starting a new company, and go read their culture statement. It’s undoubtedly imperfect and it modifies existing company structure rather than trying to reinvent the company (as I’d like to do) but it is filled with excellent insights and ideas.

Take a look!

The baby grand of MS

August 14, 2009

Is now housed at Kalakshetra!

Swine flu facts

August 14, 2009

A nice piece in the Hindu today.

Electromagnetic radiation interaction with electronic system of real materials

August 14, 2009

Here is a review from arXiv:

Electrodynamics of correlated electron systems

N P Armitage

Physical and chemical systems can be characterized by their natural frequency and energy scales. It is hardly an exaggeration that most of what we know about such systems, from the acoustics of a violin to the energy levels of atoms, comes from their response to perturbations at these natural frequencies. It is of course the same situation in `correlated’ electron materials. We can learn about the novel effects of strong electron-electron interactions and the properties of collective states of matter (superconductors, quantum magnets etc.) by characterizing their response to small amplitude perturbations at their natural frequencies. In solids, these natural frequency scales span an impressively large frequency range from x-ray down to DC. This incredibly broad range means that a blizzard of experimental techniques and analysis methods are required for the characterization of correlated systems with optical techniques. This short review and lecture notes attempt to lay out a brief summary of the formalism, techniques, and analysis used for `optical’ spectroscopies of correlated electron systems. They are idiosyncratic, occasionally opinionated, and – considering the breadth of the subject – incredibly brief.

Here is Doug’s recommendation for the review:

This is a great set of lecture notes from a 2008 summer school at Boulder. These notes provide a very good, pedagogical overview of how electromagnetic radiation interacts with the electronic systems of real materials, and how one can use measurements ranging from the THz (mm-wave) to the ultraviolet to infer details of the electronic properties. These sorts of reviews are a wonderful feature of the arxiv.

Nation ready to be lied to!

August 13, 2009

Proclaims the inimitable Onion:

“I thought I wanted a new era of transparency and accountability, but honestly, I just can’t handle it,” Ohio resident Nathan Pletcher said. “All I ever hear about now is how my retirement has been pushed back 15 years and how I won’t be able to afford my daughter’s tuition when she grows up.”

“From now on, just tell me the bullshit I want to hear,” Pletcher added. “Tell me my savings are okay, everybody has a job, and we’re No. 1 again. Please, just lie to my face.”

The national call for decreased candor began last month, after the Department of Labor released another soul-crushing report that most Americans agreed “wasn’t helping anything” and “didn’t need to be so specific, at least.”

Mark Twain on banking problems

August 13, 2009

As Mark Twain once remarked, “If a man owes a bank a dollar and cannot pay, he has a problem. If he owes it a million and cannot pay, it has the problem.” If that happened today, the lender’s bank would probably sell some of that debt to another bank, which would buy it with money borrowed at 40 times its own capital. To Mark Twain’s admonition we may add this: If a bank owes another bank a billion and cannot pay, everyone has a problem.

From this excerpt at NPR. Take a look!

Test taking!

August 12, 2009

In the magic world:

He shrugged.

“Anyway, I was bored. The test told me I was done after twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes?” Quentin was torn between admiration and envy. “Jesus Christ, it took me two hours.”

The punk shrugged again and made a face: What the hell do you want me to say?

Among the test takers, camaraderie warred with mistrust. Some of the kids exchanged names and home towns and cautious observations about the test, though the more they compared notes, the more they realized that none of them had taken the same one. They were from all over the country, except for two who turned out to be from the same Inuit reservation in Saskatchewan. They went around the room telling stories about how they’d gotten here. No two were exactly the same, but there was always a certain family resemblance. Somebody went looking for a lost ball in an alley, or a stray goat in a drainage ditch, or followed an inexplicable extra cable in the high school computer room which led to a server closet that had never been there before. And then green grass and summer heat and somebody to take them up to the exam room.

From this excerpt at NPR of what sounds like an interesting read.

William Nix’s Von Hippel Award lecture

August 5, 2009

Yesterday, I got to read the piece, and it is a must-read:

Exploiting New Opportunities in Materials Research by Remembering and Applying Old Lessons
2007 Von Hippel Award

William D. Nix

The following article is an edited transcript of the 2007 Von Hippel Award talk, presented on November 28, 2007, at the 2007 Materials Research Society Fall Meeting in Boston. Nix was cited “for his original contributions on the deformation and failure of materials, particularly in the areas of thin films, small volumes, and high-temperature alloys; for pioneering mechanical test methods; and for educating and mentoring future generations of materials scientists.” The Von Hippel Award, the Materials Research Society’s highest honor, recognizes those qualities most prized by materials scientists and engineers—brilliance and originality of intellect, combined with vision that transcends the boundaries of conventional scientific disciplines.


Recalling some of the progress that has been made in understanding the mechanical properties of materials over the past 50 years or so reveals the importance of remembering and applying old lessons when addressing new opportunities in materials research. Often, the classical lessons of the past are especially useful as a guide for thinking about new problems. Such an approach to new problems is intimately connected to the creation of simple models that capture the essential features of the phenomena involved. Experience shows that, although such efforts might not pay off immediately, they come to be useful many years later when new problems are confronted. The merit of applying old lessons to new problems is described herein by using examples from the author’s career in characterizing and understanding the mechanical properties of materials. It is hoped that these lessons are sufficiently general to be applied to other areas of materials research. Problems ranging from the high-temperature creep resistance of titanium aluminides, to the residual stresses in deposited thin films, to diffusive relaxation processes in thin films, to the size dependence of the strength of crystalline materials at the nanometer scale, all provide examples of how applying lessons of the past can help to understand new problems. An effort is also made to identify new, emerging problems in materials research where the application of the lessons of the past, together with new capabilities of the future, can come together to produce a fresh understanding of material behavior.

Thanks to my colleague Prita for the pointer.

HowTo: mentor yourself

August 4, 2009

Mary Jane Hurst has some suggestions: the last tip, for example, is about meticulous documentation:

It is important to understand the institution’s mission and to know the rules and procedures within the department, college, and institution. Read the faculty handbook and be familiar with the official policies and procedures. Know the written and unwritten rules. Keep your ears open to discussions about tenure or promotion cases in the years ahead of your own review. Ask to see examples of successful teaching portfolios or tenure dossiers. Take advantage of whatever information sessions or workshops are offered to help newcomers learn the ropes.Once a person knows what he or she needs to do, then the next step is to document everything related to completing the expectations and requirements of the job. Maintain a folder for every class taught, keeping the syllabus, course information handouts, assignment sheets, tests, and other materials. Preserve clear grade records for every class and be ready to explain and defend, if necessary, every grade assigned. Keep numerical records of and examples of teaching evaluations done by students. For every manuscript, grant application, or work project, keep copies of drafts at each stage, maintain meticulous bibliographic records, and save every letter from an editor, publisher, or agency. Keep conference programs and travel records proving that you attended a particular conference and gave a particular presentation. Keep copies of offprints. Keep letters of appointment and letters of thanks for committee work. Keep copies of the annual report, of a chair’s or review committee’s annual evaluation, and of any peer teaching evaluations. Keep everything, and, ideally, keep it well organized.

At some institutions, a faculty member may be expected to present all such materials for an annual review, probationary review, or tenure review. At other institutions, a person may be expected only to provide a summary of one’s work, but, even in such cases, it is important to have the documentation available should it be requested.

While it is necessary to keep paper records in good order, it is also critical to keep electronic materials well maintained. One’s vita, syllabi, or other professional material should be stored electronically as it exists at a particular point in time, labeled clearly with a date in the title (as in MentorEssay20May09). Then, when the document is updated, it can be stored as a new version with a new date (as in MentorEssay15July09). Especially for long-range projects such as book manuscripts that may take years to complete, keep multiple copies of clearly labeled drafts. Store an extra disk, CD, flash drive, or other portable device with the latest copies of one’s most important materials in a safe deposit box or other secure location. This may sound overly obsessive, but no one wants a flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, computer crash, theft, or other unexpected loss to wipe out months or even years of work.

When it comes to maintaining professional records, it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Even award-winning teachers have students complain about them. Even eminent scholars may be wrongly accused of misrepresentation. So, build a reputation for competence and integrity while building a record of success – and have the documents to prove everything.

Link via Abi.