XKCD does technical communication right.

Most nerds/geeks are already fans of Randall Munroe’s webcomic XKCD. Friday’s cartoon, which describes the recent “Heartbleed” security hole in OpenSSL, shows once again that Munroe is a master of communicating technical ideas in simple terms that everyone can understand.  (If you haven’t read about this security glitch, educate yourself and update your software!  Security expert Bruce Schneier’s blog is a good place to start; he says, “On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.”)

Back to XKCD:  communicating science and technology is a major challenge in both research and industry, and it’s great to have a popular comic raising the bar for all of us. Thanks, Randall!


Rosenwald Schools: education, race, history

I’d like to share a piece of history that I learned recently: a Rosenwald School—  “the name informally applied to over five thousand schools, shops, and teachers’ homes in the United States which were built primarily for the education of African-Americans in the early 20th century.”

There’s a lot to love and appreciate here; to name just a few (quotes are from Wikipedia):

  1. A wealthy industrialist pursuing a radically progressive philanthropic agenda
  2. The communities’ support for educating their children
  3. The impact: during the 20th century, “… the Rosenwald program accounts for a sizable portion of the educational gains of rural Southern blacks”
  4. Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington: “Rosenwald endowed Tuskegee so that Washington could spend less time traveling to seek funding and devote more time towards management of the school.”
  5. Efforts continue to preserve the Rosenwald Schools (the pictures on Wikipedia are spectacular).

Some days, it’s tempting to be cynical, to give up because the world seems full of terrible deeds and apathy.  On those days, it’s important to remember that things used to be much, much worse, and ask, “Where would we be–where would I be–if those who came before us had given up?”  It is our turn to do all we can.

[Naturally, Winston Churchill put the sentiment best: “These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”]

Late to the party–my research, in the thousand most common English words!

In the spirit of XKCD, and thanks to the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, I bring you, my research, explained using only the thousand most common English words (well, some of those thousand get used more than once, and many do not get used at all):

I study the forces between the small things that make up the cells in our bodies. What makes this hard is the fact that these things are surrounded by lots of water and even smaller things. Sad to say, finding the “perfect” right force means adding up every possible way to place all of them, so I make trained guesses about what I can leave out. It is hard to believe, but true, that the most simple guess works pretty well. The written form of the guess has been around for two hundred years, so we have a lot of cool and fun and fast ways to use it on the biggest of the small things I study. I use a weird and fun way that almost no one else uses, but I care a lot that it’s the right way and I have my reasons (perhaps I have people problems? =).

Anyway, it used to be really hard to make our guesses better because small things are, well, small, and hard to study in their normal setting, and the water forces are even harder to study! So it used to be hard to see where your guess didn’t work.  Today things are way better because computers are big and fast so we can study pretend waters and small things on the computer! (Please understand, though, that doing this takes a whole lot of numbers, that you add together and other stuff, over and over again!)  Then any normal bright person can, after many years of school, make a new guess and see if it works or doesn’t.

A few years ago I learned about a new kind of guess as to the forces between water and my small things. The new guess looked pretty cool and important, but the people who made it were having a hard time making their computers get the right number out, and even when they did get the right number out, they had to wait for a very long time for it. I was happy to be able to help them get the right answer fast (I had been working for a long time on a class of guesses that is a lot like their new guess).  It was nice to work with them because I don’t think I ever would have made that guess.  Even better, I know enough about making pretend waters on a computer, that I was able to get some exciting numbers that say the new guess might really be better in some important cases! That was fun, and now I’m working to make the guess better still.

Improvisation, academia, science communication, and life!

The first 2014 issue of Nature has a great article on the benefits of training in improvisation. Front and center in the article: my friend and colleague Raquell Holmes, founder of improvscience, and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook. Both groups are doing terrific work, and I’m thrilled that Nature is supporting their mission by sharing the advantages of improv training.

[A personal note: my first experience with improv was at the 2012 CSGF annual program review, when Raquell taught an amazing day-long workshop.  This led me to start taking classes in 2013, and I am so incredibly glad I did.  More on that another time.]

Go Raquell, go Alda Center, and go improv!

Ring in the new year with three funny short videos!

Hi everybody.

Remember Miss South Carolina’s uncomfortably incoherent answer to a question about education in the United States?  You can refresh your memory at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj3iNxZ8Dww

Well, recently Elsevier representative David Tempest stepped up to the plate to explain the necessity of confidentiality clauses in Elsevier’s contracts, and his attempt … um…. Miss South Carolina comes off as articulate by comparison:   http://svpow.com/2013/12/20/elseviers-david-tempest-explains-subscription-contract-confidentiality-clauses/

Mr. Tempest, congratulations!  You really earned this:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hfYJsQAhl0

It’s a shame that it took replacing Billy Madison’s earnest naivete with your greedy duplicity, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

2013 Computational Science Graduate Fellowship application is now live

If you are a computationally minded undergraduate about to apply for graduate school, or a first-year graduate student in computational research, you should definitely have a look at the Computational Science Graduate Fellowship (CSGF) program, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Nuclear Security Administration.  The CSGF program is an absolute treasure for American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): fellows join an amazing community whose members cover all areas of STEM, unmatched opportunities to meet and work with pre-eminent scientists at national labs, and excellent mentors.  Highly recommended–the CSGF program changed my life and I can’t say enough good things about the fellowship and the Krell Institute, which administers the program!

The application is available at https://www.krellinst.org/doecsgf/application/ and the deadline is January 7, 2014.


Standard disclaimer: The content of this post is entirely the responsibility of the author and and does not represent the official views of the Krell Institute, the U. S. Department of Energy, or any other organization affiliated with the CSGF program.