Fun . . . with drums

Oh drums, you never steer me wrong. After years of neglect, I have started spending time during the week working on my drum technique. I’ve also met several people here in Dallas who seem interested in jamming. This has only made me more interested in having fun with drumming.

I’ve missed drumming. It’s in my bio as something I do (indeed, I never actually gave it up). I have neglected it for a while, and now with the new place in Dallas we finally have the space to have a music room. I’ve setup a small personal recording area, using an old laptop and a lot of cables. It’s not too bad for a cheap amateur rig and no sound engineer. The centerpiece of this is my electric drumkit, which I got for Christmas last year. It’s fantastic. It has limitations, yes, but it lets me play and practice without fear of bothering the neighbors. And it does sound pretty good.

I’ve been using GarageBand to lay down some instrument loops and then design a real drum part to go with them. Here is one recent thing I threw together over the weekend. Even a total moron like me can make sounds that resemble music with GarageBand. While I am NOT an Apple fanboy, I see a place for some of their technology. This is one such place. Sorry, Linux.

Enjoy! Heres “Vacuum (Part I)” from my little GarageBand personal project, “Tadpoles”.

Vacuum (Part I)

Fall Politics – Science Perspectives

It’s a good day to look ahead to politics and science as we enter the fall. This is not only the day that Congress went “back to school”; it was also the day many kids in the U.S. did the same. The President addressed schoolkids today. We’re about to leave the days of false controversies (e.g. the President addressing schoolkids) and enter the days of over-focus on healthcare. While there are a thousand reasons to worry about healthcare, it’s not the only responsibility of the Congress. They also have this pesky responsibility to . . . you know . . . pass a budget for the United States by Oct. 1.

To start this look ahead at the fall, let’s begin with the nuts and bolts. A glance at the THOMAS search engine summary of appropriations bills [1] tells me what I need to know about how Congress is doing on passing the FY10 budget. Not a single bill has made it to conference committee (I don’t count the budget resolution). Only 4/12 of the appropriations bills have passed the Senate; of the 8 that have not, we see two of the bills containing science: Commerce/Justice/Science and Labor/HHS/Education. The Energy and Water bill has passed the Senate and needs to be conferenced. While this may be the furthest along the Congress has been on a budget in years, it’s painfully close to being forgotten in the health care debate.

More important, we cannot let these other debates blind us to what’s in these bills. We have to be prepared to respond quickly as the other bills make it through the Senate and go to conference. We also need to be aware of what differences exist. Of those differences, we must know which are to the disadvantage of science. Science is one of the critical ingredients that has been neglected for too long, cut to the bone by bad decisions throughout government. We’re finally seeing muscle put back on the bone, and it would be a shame to let it slip due to distraction.

We also must not forget to be thankful for stimulus plan money. However, we must treat stimulus money like a starving refugee would treat an apple pie. Thanks for the sugar, now give me some protein. We mustn’t let the government forget that stimulus is not long-term funding for science; just because you pump millions into science, you have not solved the problem of long-term stability for scientific funding. Science needs stability, not stimulus. Ideas flourish on stable ground, where no more is the fear of losing the earth beneath your feet.

Let’s bring this back to today. Today was the first day of school for many kids, and the President took the opportunity to encourage children to make a commitment to education. I was pleased to see science mentioned in several ways. For instance,

Maybe you could be a great writer — maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper — but you might not know it until you write that English paper — that English class paper that’s assigned to you. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor — maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or the new medicine or vaccine — but you might not know it until you do your project for your science class. [2]

(Science and writing – two things near and dear to my heart)

Later, he tied the little lessons in school to the big issues facing the U.S.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

So far, science has done well in the Executive branch. The President takes opportunities to mention it every chance he gets; the Energy Secretary is a research scientist with leadership and vision; the science advisor is truly grounded in research. Now it’s time for the representatives of the People to do their part. Fund science. Avoid the dangerous omnibus process that has plagued us for years. Think about FY11, and FY12. Don’t be blinded by the glitzy and painful healthcare debate, by the chance to jab at your opponent. Focus on what matters to this nation. You want to help save this nation? Fund it. Fund education. Fund research. Give scientists the resources they need to play their part in the future.

[1] http://thomas.loc.gov/home/approp/app10.html

[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-in-a-National-Address-to-Americas-Schoolchildren/

Skype Spam!

Skype has become an invaluable tool for communicating with family and friends. PC-to-PC calls are free and PC-to-phone calls are cheap. Lately, I have been trying Skype on Linux, Windows, and Mac. As an avid follower of the (not frequently updated) “Skype for Linux” blog [1], I was pleased when the latest beta version for Linux, Skype 2.1, was released. Yes, Skype is two releases behind for Linux (on Windows, we’re at 4.X). However, the quality of the basic functionality – making calls – is not noticeably different on Linux and Windows.

What I DID notice was that the new version of Skype brought with it the Skype SPAM I have been seeing on Windows. Skype SPAM is when you block all non-Contact list people from contacting you, but where you cannot actually block “requests” to be added to your contact list. This is a loophole in the blocking logic, allowing bots with fake accounts on the Skype network to bug the crap out of you. On a typical day, I have to deal with 10-20 Skype SPAM requests.

I consider them SPAM for several reasons. First, they are not from anybody I want to talk to. That alone classifies them as junk-mail. Second, they’re not even from real people. I’m not stupid; there are not that many people with the last name “hottie.”

Skype clearly either added a feature (contact requests) or unblocked an old feature. They probably did this with the best of intentions, but to me the negatives outweigh any positives. I’m not alone in this belief. The Skype forums has turned into a flame-fest on this very topic [2].

Even if Skype is responsive to this issue, I fear it will take months or years for the feature-fix to appear in the Linux version. The current Linux beta has the worst of all combinations of features: you get the Skype SPAM, you cannot select all the incoming requests like you can in Windows, and so you must right-click and block each request separately. It’s annoying.

Am I annoyed enough to drop Skype? Not yet. But there are two things that risk breaking my back on Skype. The first is the glacial pace of Linux development. The second is the general Skype sluggishness to respond to the community. I’ll give it more time, but the annoyance-point is fast approaching.

[1] http://share.skype.com/sites/linux/

[2] http://forum.skype.com/index.php?showtopic=99101

The message: “Women in science, prepare to be mistreated?!?!”

As part of my faculty preparations, I have been required to take a web course in research ethics. Let me begin by saying that ethics in research are the single most important thing to me in the lab, and they are things which I strive to imbue in others. I do not tolerate academic cheating, nor would I tolerate the fabrication of data, plagiarism, or any other such practice that cheapens or distorts the scientific process. I am glad that SMU requires all researchers to take and pass this class if they want to submit proposals through the Research Office. I encourage other institutions to do the same, at every level – students AND faculty.

That said, I want to comment on some observations I made about the class that SMU offers. It’s run by a third-party, and SMU clearly pays for the right to offer the course to its faculty. I started taking it yesterday. There are about a dozen required units, and you have to take four additional elective units. You must have a grade about 80% (on average) to pass the class.

The first unit was about mentoring. It defined the role of a mentor, the expectations of a mentor, and the expectations on a trainee seeking a mentor. It was actually pretty good reading. However, I noted two things in the module that stuck me as a little . . . odd.

The first was spelling and grammar. The module wasn’t well-written. The module was all about setting standards through words, actions, and behavior. It made statements like, “If a mentor argues for rigorous authorship criteria, but fails to follow his or her own advice, then lessons learned by the trainee may include that the mentor is an unreliable source of information and that the standards of conduct in research are poorly defined.” The module then, just paragraphs later, had this little grammatical gem:

“Too stimulate mentoring activity, . . . ”

I’m pretty sure that’s a textbook case of failing to set a good example by your own actions. Being lectured about being a good mentor by a text with mis-spellings, bad grammar, and poor writing was ironic, at the very least.

The second observation was a deeper one. The module presents examples of situations of bad mentoring, or stories of ethics compromised by pressures from poor mentoring, through movies and “case studies.” The first example focused on two grad students, both women, feeling abandoned by their male advisor. After failing to get an award because the mentor won’t advocate for them, one student commisserates with the other about their experiences. Is it gender bias? Is it bad mentoring? The audience is left to guess.

In the other case studies, a female grad student needs to find a replacement member for her thesis committee. She picks a male, untenured assistant professor. We don’t know the gender of the other members of her committee. The case focuses on the struggle the male professor feels when he has to judge the quality of her proposed work. Her proposal appears poor, but is he making the right decision if he turns down her proposal? In another study, a female post-doc’s research is ripped off by her male boss. In the next study, a female grad student discovers her faculty advisor plagiarizing and is told that she shouldn’t worry about it, that it’s “no big deal”. In another case study, a female student’s dissertation work is published before results are actually ready so that her male boss can secure grant funding for their lab.

See a pattern? What the hell! While I am very willing to accept that women in these positions face a much worse set of situations than their male colleagues, the message coming across from this course is that every situation involves a women in a subservient position to a male whose ethics are challenged by the male, whose work is stolen by the male, whose values are cheapened by the male. I don’t think this is what the course meant to teach, but that’s what it’s teaching.

It was after the fourth consecutive movie/case study that I got concerned (the sixth case study did actually involve a male grad student). While abuses of younger researchers might more often involve women than men, abuse can go all ways and there are male researchers who are asked to do outrageous things by their mentors or advisors. It would have been nice to see one situation early in the module that I could directly relate to, without needing to adjust my own gender schema to read for subtext.

Courses should speak to people. In total, 6/7 of the movies and case studies in the mentoring chapter were women abused my men. As a male, it would have been nice, early in the course, to read  one case study of a male student and one of a female student abused by their mentor or advisor. It would have allowed me to immediately bring my own experiences and values to the table, rather than having to calibrate constantly to make sure I wasn’t missing a gender-bias subtext in the story.

I did do another module in the course yesterday. It, too, had case studies focused on women abused by men.