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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, September 02, 2005

Media Blackout, or Death of a News Junkie

Back during the first Gulf War (or, as Jim Henley would prefer, when the ongoing Gulf War started), I was a sophomore in college. As I didn't have a lot else to do, I spent much of the war sitting around the rec room in our dorm, playing pool and watching CNN. I turned into a bit of a news junkie for a while after that, and used to watch Headline News regularly. There was a point in grad school when I probably could've named all the anchors, and the order in which they appeared.

By the time the September 11th attacks happened, I had mostly gotten over that (largely due to CNN's ongoing efforts to make Headline News suck). I relapsed somewhat after the attacks, and watched several hours of news on the day of the attacks. I quickly went back to getting news from text sources, mostly on the web.

In the current situation, I managed something less than half an hour the other day. The devastation in New Orleans is horrific, but the coverage is sickening-- a twisted combination of grief-pimping and mugging for the cameras.

On reflection, this is inevitable. The list of events for which minute-by-minute coverage is really necessary is a pretty short one. The situation in Louisiana is going to unfold over days and weeks, not hours and minutes, so there's just not enough information flow to justify continuous live coverage. As a result, you get the same snippets of video over and over, and the pathetic spectacle of news anchors trying to out-do one another in their expressions of shock and dismay, just to fill time.

My dissatisfaction with this process has now spread to include the "blogosphere" (more or less right on schedule, given that I first discovered it around 2000). Repetition does not add information, and partisan sniping and paranoid ranting are not useful commentary. Even sites that I generally like are pissing me off, and some have become well-nigh unreadable.

There's nothing I can do to force other people to have the common decency to refrain from explaining how this catastrophe perfectly illustrates the correctness of all their political opinions, at least until they finish fishing bodies out of the water. I can, however, reduce their reading audience by one.

I've got classes starting next Wednesday, and research work to do, and I really can't afford to be as cranky as blog-reading is making me. And given my demonstrated inability to reliably filter out things that are going to piss me off from things that are interesting or amusing, that means it's time for another media blackout. I'll continue to monitor email and comments here (to remove spam, if nothing else), but other than that, I don't plan to even fire up a browser until the 16th (to cover the sure-to-be-irksome 9/11 anniversary as well).

Why bother to post this? Well, obviously, because I'm such an arrogant jackass that I assume you all care deeply about my web-surfing habits. But also so that if I end up not re-starting for a longer period than planned, there's some explanation of why I stopped on the page, rather than just a rant about Windows.

Posted at 9:20 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Why My Software Is Out of Date

I've been doing the SneakerNet thing a lot this week, as the person who controls the off-site access to the server hosting the department's web page is on vacation. So I edit images and HTML files at home, then copy them over to a USB drive, and upload them from my office.

This involes a fair amount of file-swapping, which revealed a bug in my Windows system at home, where the folder view wouldn't refresh automatically. I'd drag a new file into a folder, and it wouldn't show up until I manually refreshed. Worse yet, changing the name of a file didn't trigger a refresh, leading me to think that the name hadn't actually changed, so I then attempted to change the name of a now nonexistent file. As you might expect, this produces all sorts of unhelpful error messages.

A bit of poking around revealed that this is a known bug (it'd be hard to miss), and was supposed to be fixed by Service Pack 2, which I installed ages ago. But, I figured, what the hell, I'll update Windows anyway (I have Automatic Updates turned off, as it reminds me periodically).

So, I go to the Windows update server (which of course puts its fingers in its ears and chants "La la la la" when confronted with a browser other than the latest version of Explorer), and it tells me that before I update the system, I need to download and install an update to the update software. Which I did two months ago, but apparently there's been an update to the update to the update software.

That takes ten minutes. Then I'm kicked back to the beginning of the update process, where I'm told that I need to "validate Windows" to make sure that it's a licensed copy. This involves downloading and installing another widget, that does God knows what.

After that, I'm kicked back to the beginning of the update process yet again, where I finally get the list of patches and bug-fixes since the last update a couple of months back. And I get to spend ten minutes watching that download, followed by rebooting the whole system.

Half an hour and a big blood-pressure spike later, the bug does at last seem to be fixed. Of course, in that time, I managed to forget what it was that I had wanted to do in the first place...

There's no reason why this should be such a complicated process. There was nothing wrong with the previous update software. Hell, there was nothing wrong with the update model in which you downloaded one great big file, and ran it from your desktop. There's no reason why this should involve three stages of downloading and installing different little programs.

"Well, yeah, that's a hassle," you say, "but just turn Automatic Updates on, and you won't need to worry about it." Except then, this shit is going on all the time in the background. Even when I'm not trying to download anything, Windows is downloading stupid little updates-- and I'm not comfortable with having the network activity light flashing when I don't know what's being sent back and forth.

It also bogs things down in a big way. Before I turned Automatic Updates off on my lab machine, that 2GHz processor was running at about the same apparent speed as the 1 GHz machine running Windows 98 in my office (which has since been upgraded to XP, and then replaced by a new machine, lest you think we're total primitives). It still glitches up every ten minutes or so, as the machine seeks new instructions from Redmond, or something. That's deadly when it's supposed to be controlling the lasers for my experiment, so I'm probably going to have to unplug the network cable when I need to run for real.

It's almost enough to make me consider Linux.

Posted at 8:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Why Are You Asking Me?

In the previous post, I commented on disciplinary differences in hiring, and how that can make it difficult to give advice to people looking for liberal arts college jobs. Of course, that doesn't really account for the trouble I have with the idea of giving advice to other atomic physics types-- after all, my own experiences ought to be relevant there, right?

The other big problem I have with being asked for job-hunting advice is that I really don't feel like my own experience is much of a guide. I managed to get a tenure-track job at a good school, but I'm not entirely sure my experience in the job market is typical enough to be any use. My approach to the whole thing was a little idiosyncratic, and even talking about it runs a significant risk of making me sound like a complete jackass, and an arrogant one, at that.

It's probably worth talking about a little bit, all the same, just to be clear on where I'm coming from. This will necessarily be pretty sketchy, but I'll provide at least the broad details of my job search. Please do not take anything herein as gloating-- in retrospect, it's clear to me that I was very lucky in many ways, but at the time I didn't really know any better.

1) The Pool. I knew from the minute I began thinking seriously about grad school that I wanted to pursue a faculty job at a liberal arts college. I loved the atmosphere at my alma mater, and I really enjoy both teaching and research, so the chance to pursue both was very attractive.

The year I applied (2000-2001) was a particularly good one for college jobs in physics. The dotcom boom had inflated the endowments of most of the good private colleges out there, and they were all looking to spend money on new faculty. One of my current colleagues drew up a list of openings, and came up with something like 35 positions roughly comparable to the one I have now, and there were probably another few dozen at schools in the next tier down.

Of those openings, I applied for 15 jobs (based on counting the cover letters on my hard drive). This was largely due to the experience of a guy who was a post-doc when I was a graduate student, who applied for something like 40 jobs, and only later realized that probably 35 of them were jobs that he wouldn't take if they were offered to him. I figured there was no point in wasting my time and the time of the hiring committee, so I only applied for jobs I was sure I would want.

I narrowed the list down using a few fairly arbitrary factors. The most significant cut, somewhat ironically, was based on the infamous US News rankings-- I only applied to schools in the upper portion of the National Liberal Arts Colleges rankings (I don't recall if it was the top 50 or the top 100). I ruled out at least one other school on the basis of geography (there is no way I would be happy living in Mississippi), and a few more because they had an explicit religious affiliation, and I wanted no part of that.

(This is the part that sounds horribly arrogant, given the number of jobs that a lot of people wind up applying for, and the fact that many people are very happy at schools I rejected out of hand. But those are the schools I was really interested in, and I figured I could always extend my post-doc by another year if I needed to, and widen the pool the next year.)

2) The Timing. I applied kind of late in the process-- my applications went in the mail in early December. I actually flat-out missed the deadline for one school, and sent materials out after the "we will begin reading folders" date for some of the others. My recommendation letters were even later.

This was a ridiculous thing to do, in retrospect, but I thought I had a good reason for it at the time. We were working on a paper, and the "paper torture" process kept dragging on. I didn't have any other publications out of my post-doc, and this was a big one, so I thought it was important to be able to mention it. At the beginning of the application process, I thought that we could get the article accepted by the time I needed to send stuff out. By the end, I was happy just to be able to write "submitted to Science" on the publication list.

I should've just bit the bullet and sent the materials in on time (though the letters still would've been late). I had enough invited talks on the CV at that point to indicate that the work was significant, and I'm sure my tardiness got a number of my applications summarily trashed.

3) Research Proposal. The work I proposed doing (and have been working on ever since) was more closely related to what I did in grad school than what I was doing as a post-doc. This was a calculated risk-- the post-doctoral stuff was much sexier, but I didn't have any good ideas in that area that I thought were feasible in a small-college context.

(Of course, there are days when what I'm actually doing now doesn't seem feasible, but I get over that eventually.)

That's another thing that probably hurt me a bit. Also, what I proposed is expensive-- I've burned through well over $100,000 putting together my lab, which is on the high end of the start-up budgets available at small schools. I've been able to get grant money to fill out the budget, but that's not a sure thing, and a cheaper research program would've been an advantage.

4) Teaching Statement. This was by far the weakest part of my application, as I had basically no teaching experience. This wasn't entirely my fault-- I had a fellowship in graduate school that paid me a modest stipend, and that put me at the bottom of the priority list for TA jobs, and I never got any. I probably could've arranged something, though, either as a student or a post-doc, but I made research a higher priority.

I tried my best to finesse my lack of teaching credentials by talking about my experiences as an undergraduate, but I'm sure this got my application tossed aside with great force at several school. Including the nameless school whose rejection letter said "After reading a great many applications, we have decided to close our search for this year, and offer the position again next year"-- in other words, "We decided that not hiring anybody at all would be better than hiring you."

My one real hope was that I would look strong enough in other areas to get called in for an interview, at which point I could demonstrate teaching ability by giving a really good job talk. This is not an approach I would recommend.

5) The Results. I had two phone interviews (one went well, one went... less well), and one campus visit (not at either of the places I did phone interviews). I got two more requests for in-person interviews the day after I accepted my current job.

Having been on the hiring committee for a couple of visiting positions now, this suggests that I was in the mid-to-high "B" range-- a candidate who looks good in some areas, but has a significant weakness or two in the file. These are the people you call in when you need to go to a second round of interviews, after your first choices either wash out or turn you down.

This is borne out by things that I've been told about my hiring here. I apparently just barely squeaked onto the short list, and then jumped ahead by giving a really kick-ass job talk (if I do say so myself). So my brilliant plan did work in the end, but once again, I really, really don't recommend it.

So, there's the capsule sketch of how I got my job. If you're currently shaking your head and saying "This clown is the luckiest sonofabitch in the world," well, yeah, I feel the same way sometimes. Particularly when I talk to people in the humanities, with their cattle-call interviews at the MLA meetings and so forth. Also, you really don't want to ask how I got my post-doc job.

That's why I'm uncomfortable giving job-seeking advice to other people. I've got a little more perspective on the process now, so I can sort of see what the "right" way to do things would be. But looking back at things, I did just about every step in the process about as wrong as I could, and I ended up with a good job at a good school. So, who am I to give anyone else advice?

Posted at 6:49 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

You Insensitive Idjit Galoot

This is mostly a test post to test the problem with Blogger eating my ASCII art, but I do have a question about the New Orleans situation: How is it that the city ended up being 20 feet below sea level in the first place? Was it above sea level when they originally built it? Did sea level rise or the city sink?

I'm sure the answer is out there somewhere, but my Google fu is weak, my DSL connection is flaky, and I need a short blog post anyway. So if anybody knows the answer, drop me a comment.

As for the disaster itself, as usual, I really can't say anything remotely adequate. It was a very nice city when I was there last summer, even if the climate is not really to my liking. The devastation is just horrible, and the coverage of the disaster is pretty darn bad (the phrase "insult to injury" comes to mind), so I won't attempt to say anything else about it.

(Also, how on Earth can my choice of browser cause Blogger to go back into the body of an old post and change the test inside of pre-format tags, but not anywhere else?)

(Will updating to the latest version of Firefox fix the problem? Stay tuned...)

(Preliminary result: No.)

Posted at 7:27 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Monday, August 29, 2005

So You Think You Want to be a Liberal Arts Twink?

One of the strangest things about the Gordon Conference I went to back in June was the fact that four different people asked me for career advice. That just felt bizarre, because I still think of myself as not all that far removed from being a student, and yet postdocs in great programs were asking me about how to get liberal arts college jobs.

Since then, I've been thinking of doing a "So You Think You Want a Tenure-Track Job at a Liberal Arts College?" post, and haven't quite gotten around for it. Of course, as is often the case, by procrastinating, I managed to lure someone else into writing about the same basic topic. In this case, it's Carol Kolmerton of Hood College, writing a "First Person" piece in the Chronicle (that's a time-limited email forward link, so look quickly before the paywall eats it):

Finally, don't even think about applying to a small college unless you love teaching. Students will eat you up. Their need for your time and your energy could overwhelm you, and if you don't love the idea of the enthusiastic undergraduate student just sitting in your office, sipping coffee with you, while you talk about voice in Faulkner or imagery in Toni Morrison when all your papers are just sitting on your desk waiting to be graded -- then the small college is not the place for you.

Of course, her piece also illustrates one of the major problems with trying to write something about how to get a job at a small college: there's no single way to get the sort of job you want, and advice that works well in one field may be laughably inappropriate in some other field.

As with most Chronicle writers, Kolmerton seems to hold the implicit belief that all academics are humanists. A lot of her comments don't really translate all that well to the sciences. For example, when she describes reading cover letters:

Yet I remember last November when, as head of our department's hiring committee, I read more than 150 cover letters for a one-year position in my department. Like so many years in the past when we have advertised a position, I felt as if I were reading the same letter over and over.

Most letters looked alike in their emphasis on The Dissertation and sounded alike -- as if they were being generated by some amorphous, jargon-laden computer: "My dissertation, based on the theory of [insert theorist here], informs the impact of cultural practices found in [insert adjective here] literary sites."

While that may be a good description of what people write for jobs in English departments, it's almost completely alien from my perspective. I mentioned my dissertation in my cover letters, but it was a throwaway reference, there mostly to allow me to mention my famous advisor. Almost none of the applications I've read since getting this job have discussed the dissertation at any length.

And it would be awfully strange if anybody did go into their dissertation at length in a cover letter for a science position. Your dissertation work, by definition, was done in somebody else's group, as a part of somebody else's research program. That's over, from the perspective of the hiring institution-- what matters is what you're going to do when you strike out on your own, which needs to be something different than your thesis work.

(So, I guess, her advice actually is pretty good-- don't talk about your dissertation in the cover letter. But not for the reason she's using.)

There are a few other things about the article that are slightly off from my perspective. She talks about "yearn[ing] to hear a real person writing to us -- a person who has her own voice and lets us know who she is through a clever and witty letter." While I'll admit that I did really enjoy the one clever and witty cover letter we got in our last job search, I'm really not interested in reading cover letters that look like epistolary novels. I'm more interested in the Teresa Nielsen Hayden form of the cover letter: "Here is my application for this job. I have enclosed the following materials. You can contact me in the following manner."

In pseudo-CS terms, the cover letter is the README file for the application packet. It's not the main thing I'm going to look at to evaluate a candidate, but it serves as a convenient index to the things I actually will use. A good cover letter will catch the eye, and a bad one will land your folder in the trash, but personally, I'm more interested in the letters of recommendation than the cover letter.

But that's really the heart of the problem. I'm not interested in the cover letter, but Carol Kolmerton is. And it's a little hard to know in advance which of us is going to be reading your file.

The ultimate problem here is that nobody ever really talks to academics about how to apply for jobs, or how to evaluate other people when they're applying to you. Which means we all end up doing everything on the fly-- we come up with our own ways of putting together an application packet, and send them to people who are inventing their own ways of evaluating applications as they go.

That situation makes it damnably difficult to give any specific advice. You can talk in broad terms about what to do and what not to do-- the bit about teaching quoted above really is excellent (modulo Faulkner and Morrison, anyway)-- but attempting to really get down to details is doomed to failure.

Which, of course, won't prevent me from sounding off further on this topic, in posts to come.

Posted at 7:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

All Is Not Lost

"What is your destination?"

"We're heading up to Quebec City for a few days."

"What is the purpose of your visit?"


"How long will you be staying?"

"Through Sunday. That's, um, four days."

"Are you bringing any wine or liquor in?"


"Do you have any friends here?"

The above is an approximate reconstruction of our conversation with the crack security team at the Canadian border on our way up to Quebec for vacation. The return pass through US Customs was pretty similar, with the weird final question being "Is this your car?" (Because, I guess, there's a huge international market for stolen six-year-old Tauri with the driver's side mirror held on by five-minute epoxy.)

I have no idea what information or insight they hope to gain from "Do you have any friends here?" ("What, in the Customs office?") I couldn't help feeling we were being subjected to some sort of prototype Voight-Kampf test ("I'll tell you about my mother..."), or maybe dealing with some of the magical automata from The Face in the Frost (which I re-read last wek to clear my mind after Olympos).

Anyway, it's good to see that despite many horror stories, US-Canadian border security hasn't really changed in spirit from the class trip I took to Quebec twenty years ago. On the way up, the whole busload of us were each asked to show proof of citizenship. On the way back, the US agent got onto the bus, called back "You all American citizens?" When we responded "Yes," he said "Welcome home!" and waved us through.

At least he didn't ask if it was our bus. That would've been a tough one.

Posted at 8:40 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

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