Gas station without pumps

2013 May 24

Black out poems

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:43
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Paul Bogush in his blog post Black out poems… describes a rather neat creative writing exercise for middle-school students:

After a couple of days of research we took three books that the library wanted to get rid of.

We ripped out all of the pages … they loved ripping out the pages.

And then the kids “wrote” poems that summarized the life of a mill girl.  I found that in most cases, the student’s ability matched how many words were blacked-out.  Some came back with only 5–10 words not blacked-out, but it matched what I thought the student’s ability was.  This is harder than it seems!

The kids “black-out” all the words they don’t want, and obviously leave the words that will make up their poem unmarked.  Each one took about 10 minutes.

The kids read them afterwards and explained why they “wrote” what they did.

After collecting some and reading them myself, having the kids read and interpret is necessary.  Many were very symbolic, and how you read them can easily change the meaning of what is left on the page. While they were working on these, that really cool “I-am-thinking-so-hard-I-can’t-even-make-a-sound silence” came over the room.

He provides some examples as pictures on his blog: go look at them to see the results.

I suggested this idea to my wife, who is a school librarian, but she has not de-accessioned any suitable books lately.  If any of the teachers at her school wants to do the exercise, she would find suitable books at the Goodwill bookstore or the Friends of the Library lobby store in the Central Branch Library in downtown Santa Cruz.  A suitable book does not need to be particularly well-written, but it needs to have a sufficient density of useful words on each page. In fact, a poorly written book that repeats the same words frequently may be better for creating poetry. Ideally, it should be a book in bad enough shape or of sufficiently low value that a librarian would not shudder at the idea of tearing all the pages out.

2013 May 21

Stanford campus tour

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:56
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This is another blog post in my series of campus tours looking for a school that will be a good fit for my son.  Today the two of us made a one-day visit to Stanford, to take a couple of the official tours.

Stanford is easier to get to by public transit from Santa Cruz than Berkeley is—we just took the Highway 17 Express to Diridon station in San Jose, then took the Caltrain to Stanford.  We could have been lazy and taken the free Marguerite shuttles to campus, but we decided that the 15-minute walk along Palm Drive was more pleasant.  We left the house around 8:05 a.m. and were at the Science and Engineering Quad by 10:40 a.m.

Since our first appointment was in the Gates Building at 11 (we’d managed to get an appointment with a faculty member, even though the Stanford CS web pages say quite explicitly “Our professors do not meet with prospective students.” []), we stopped for a small snack in Bytes Café, across the street in the Packard Electrical Engineering Building.  It was a pleasant café—all the science and engineering buildings are brand new and seem well designed (quite a change from the engineering buildings I remember from 35 years ago), but I was surprised at how few electrical outlets there were for a café in an EE building, given that almost everyone except us had a laptop open in front of them.

After our snack, we went to see the professor. We didn’t really expect him to be in his office, since we had noted on the class schedule that he had a lecture to give at the time that he had told us he had office hours and could meet with us.  I suspect that he had either confused days or mis-read his schedule.  Sure enough, he wasn’t in his office, so we spent some time looking at all the computer history memorabilia in the lobbies of the Gates Building on each floor—there was some pretty cool stuff there.  After checking the professor’s office once more, we went back over to the Bytes Café, to wait for the Science and Engineering tour at noon.

The Science and Engineering tour started from the Packard building at noon.  We were fortunate enough to get a computer science major as a guide, so could ask about class sizes in CS courses.  CS is an extremely popular major at Stanford, but the class sizes are not as enormous as UCLA’s and UCB’s.  The first class is huge (over 600 students each time and 95% of Stanford students take it), but my son is well past needing that level of instruction, and Stanford seems to be flexible about allowing students to skip prerequisites that they don’t really need.  Upper division courses are much smaller, and the operating systems class that our guide was in has only 30 students.

It seemed pretty evident that undergrads have a fairly easy time getting into research projects and internships, and Silicon Valley companies recruit interns and employees from Stanford aggressively (some pay $25,000 for a booth at Stanford job fairs).  Undergrads are also allowed (even encouraged) to take grad courses, unlike the attitude we heard at UCLA, where the faculty member we talked to did not allow undergrads into his grad course.

The engineering tour went past the Product Realization Labs,  which provide state of the art shop tools to Stanford students that are easily accessible once students have taken an appropriate training course.  Because these labs are brand new and Stanford has money coming out of their ears (they were proud of raising $1 billion from alumni last year), the equipment is very, very nice—much nicer than what Harvey Mudd can provide.  There does not seem to be the same culture of almost everyone in engineering learning to use the shop as at Harvey Mudd, but the opportunity is there and about 1200 students a year take advantage of it.

After the tour we had a quick lunch at Coupa Café (another eatery on the Engineering Quad—we’d been warned that the lines at a third possibility, Ike’s Place, got very long at lunch time).  The food was not exceptional, but the café was pleasant.

We had to hurry across campus to get to the Visitors’ Center, which is inconveniently located near the athletic facilities, for an information session and tour.  The information session was run by an admissions officer, and was perhaps the least informative information session we’ve heard so far.  The presenter stood in front of a huge multiple-monitor screen that just showed a Macintosh screen with some Stanford wallpaper.  It was never used, and appeared to be there just to show off how much money Stanford has, that they could have a wall-sized screen that was not used for anything. The admissions officer basically said that Stanford admissions was very competitive (duh!) and that you had to write essays that were distinctively you (double-duh!).  He had to consult his notes a lot during the presentation and was unable to answer some fairly standard questions (like what the difference in acceptance rate was between early admits and regular admission).  According to the Stanford Common Data Set for 2012, 6.8% of males were admitted and 6.4% of females (the numbers were lower this year, for a 5.7% composite, but the common data set won’t be available until the end of the year), but unlike other schools, Stanford does not provide any statistics on their early action program, so there is no way to tell whether using the early action program is a good idea or not.  It is a somewhat restrictive program (no other private school early action or early decision plan can be applied for), but non-binding.

We had a pretty good tour guide for the general campus tour, who did manage to tell us what we needed to know about the theater program—namely that students from all majors got substantial roles and that lots of students attended the performances, some of which were held in the 1700-seat Memorial Auditorium.  The guide did not act himself, but did go to the plays and had seen the majors listed next to the actors in a recent program. Unfortunately the tour did not go into any buildings on the general tour, and we did not see any classrooms or dorms on either tour (I understand that there is a separate housing tour).

We did notice that the Stanford campus has an appropriate level of people—enough to seem lively and friendly, neither empty like Caltech, nor pullulating masses like at UCLA.  The campus seemed to have a similar feel to the Harvey Mudd campus, but larger, newer, and shinier.  Stanford has certainly been engaging in the amenities wars (and, apparently, winning them).

The tour ended on White Plaza, next to the Stanford Bookstore. We had originally planned to visit the CS Course Advisor, as recommended on the web page that said that the faculty don’t meet with prospective students, but the tour ran a little over and we did not want to run across campus from White Plaza to Gates Hall to catch the tail end of the course adviser’s office hours. (My son did e-mail an apology for not making the office hours once we got home.)

Because we were right by the bookstore, and I remembered the Stanford Bookstore from previous visits to campus as having become a really great bookstore (much better than when I was student there), I suggested that we go in and look around.  Unfortunately, the bookstore has really run downhill since my previous visit.  The books are only a tiny fraction of the space now, and it is mainly a Stanford memorabilia and clothing store.  It has gone from being a great college bookstore to a run-of-the-mill one, only a little better than the pathetic one we have at UCSC.  I was disappointed, but not really surprised—the markup on t-shirts made in international sweatshops is much higher than on academic books (which apparently students don’t buy any more).

We did sit in on a class that the course adviser had suggested in his e-mail.  It had about 50 students in a classroom that would seat about three times that many, and neither the professor nor the TA were there.  The lecture was given by an undergraduate section leader, who did a pretty good job of explaining how operator overloading in C++ is done (though he made a lot of typos in his live demos, and he used a black background with lights shining on the projection screen, so his example text was a little hard to read due to unacceptably low contrast).  My son learned one or two things from the lecture, and decided that he’d be better off learning C++ on his own over the summer, rather than taking such a course.

We decided not to have dinner on campus, but to walk back to the Palo Alto Caltrain station and catch a bullet train to San Jose.  Unfortunately, the trains were all delayed this evening.  We heard alternating announcements every 5 minutes for increased delays for the #268 and #370 trains.  Eventually, the #370 train arrived, but it had been converted from a bullet train to an all-stops train, so it got to San Jose about 42 minutes late (there did not seem to be a #268 train at all, unless it was the one 2–3 minutes behind ours).  The train was full (the main aisle and vestibule were packed with people, though there was plenty of standing room upstairs if you pushed past the people blocking the stairs).  Because we had pushed our way upstairs, we actually got seats around Sunnyvale, as people got off from the upstairs seats.  Most of those who stayed downstairs had to stand the whole way.

Luckily the Highway 17 Express buses are about every 20 minutes during rush hour, so we managed to get home by 8:20pm after leaving Stanford at 5:15pm, despite the Caltrain delays.  If our son went to Stanford (winning the 5% lottery), it would be fairly cheap and easy for him to come home for a weekend if he wanted to—a $20 round trip and about 2.5 hours each way.


2013 May 20

Arduino data logger at Global Physics Department

Filed under: Data acquisition — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:49
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My son presented the Arduino Data Logger he wrote for my circuits class to the Global Physics Department on 2013 May 15.  The sessions are recorded, and the recording is available on the web (though you have to run Blackboard Collaborate through Java Web Start to play the recording).

I thought he did a pretty good job of presenting the features of the data logger.

Now that school is beginning to wind down, he’s started looking at making modifications to the data logger code again, and has updated it at

He’s down to only three classes now (US History, Physics, and Dinosaur Prom Improv), though he still has homework to catch up on in Dramatic Literature and his English class.  He’s still TAing for the Python class also.

On Thursday and Friday this week, he’ll be taking the AP Computer Science test and the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism test.  He’s having to take both tests in the “make-up” time slot, because we couldn’t get any local high school to agree to proctor the tests for him during the regular testing time.  Eventually his consultant teacher convinced the AP coordinator to let her proctor the tests, but by then it was too late to register for anything but the makeup tests. We’re way behind schedule on the physics class, so he’s just going to read the rest of the physics book without working any problems before Friday’s exam—we’ll finish the book in a more leisurely fashion after the exam. He won’t be as prepared for the physics exam as I had hoped, but at least the CS exam looks pretty easy to him.

One thing I didn’t realize is that schools can charge homeschoolers whatever the market will bear for proctoring the tests:

  • Depending on the reasons for late testing, schools may be charged an additional fee ($40 per exam), part or all of which the school may ask students to pay. Students eligible for the College Board fee reduction will not be charged the $40-per-exam late-testing fee, regardless of their reason for testing late.
  • Schools administering exams to homeschooled students or students from other schools may negotiate a higher fee to recover the additional proctoring and administration costs.

[ ]

We’re paying $145 per exam (not just the $89 standard fee and the $40 late fee), but I’m glad he gets to take the exams at all this year.

Tomorrow he and I are doing another campus tour—this time at Stanford. He managed to get an appointment with a faculty member, but we noticed that the faculty member is scheduled to be teaching a class at the time of the appointment—I wonder what is going to happen with that. I’ll report on the visit later this week.

Tenure-track’s untouchables

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:26
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Ivan Evans, of UCSD, has just posted a guest post on the blog Remaking the University: When Adjunct Faculty are the Tenure-Track’s Untouchables.  In it he points out that ladder-rank faculty have be complicit in the transfer of power from the faculty to the administration over the past couple of decades, in large part because we have been unwilling to join with the contingent faculty who do not have much job security:

We—and here am I tempted to specifically include you [on the list] alongside myself in this condemnation, but won’t because there’s always a small chance that some of you/us are exempt from these generalizations—in fact appear to take some pride in treating adjuncts as an inferior caste. It is the norm for adjuncts to be excluded from faculty meetings and to be deprived of any say in the management of departments. Instead of resisting the “adjunctification” of the professoriat by incorporating these colleagues—because they are colleagues—into the university and our respective departments, we tolerate them as useful proof of our Brahmin status. They are our untouchables.

I have noted this tendency for tenure-track faculty to treat instructors as lesser beings—I think it is partly out of fear, because they themselves could easily have ended up similarly poorly paid and without job security.  I have argued for providing “lecturer with security of employment” status (essentially the equivalent of tenure) to the top one or two instructors in the Jack Baskin School of Engineering—the ones who can pave their offices with the teaching awards they have been given by the graduating seniors.  The dean and the relevant department chairs are reluctant to do this, as it means that they would have to dedicate a faculty slot to someone who teaches more and better than them, when they could hire a new junior colleague who wouldn’t waste time on teaching, but dive directly into the task of writing research grants—the only activity they admire.  (The actual research is less important than the money, so only the grant writing matters to them.)

Ivan Evans asks

I have recently asked my colleagues at UCSD questions such as: How many adjunct/contingent/non-tenure track faculty are there in your department? Can you name them? Have you met any adjuncts for coffee or lunch on campus? Are they invited to the homes of ladder rank faculty? Do they have office space? Do they have any voting rights in your department? Should they? Do you know how they are evaluated? Should they be rewarded for publishing? Should ladder-rank faculty with poor teaching evaluations be assigned to courses ahead of adjunct colleague with excellent teaching evaluations? Should campus charters be changed to extend representation to adjuncts in the Senate?

Our small department has one full-time instructor (and, yes, I can name her, though I’m terrible at names). I rarely see her, as her classes are not nearby and her office is on a different floor.  She does not have voting rights in the department and does not come to faculty meetings.  I don’t know if this is because she doesn’t want to or because she is not invited.

We used to have another part-time instructor teaching 2 classes a year, while he worked as a postdoc at a university on the other side of the hill.  He has recently gotten a permanent job and no longer teaches for us. I saw him very rarely.

We also have an extremely good researcher and teacher who should be on our permanent faculty, except that he did his PhD with us, and the university has a disinclination to hire their own graduates.  I meet with him frequently—more often than with several of the ladder-rank faculty.  Usually we meet to talk about teaching, though sometimes to discuss his research and that of the undergrad students he is supervising.  I see him less often than I’d like, because his office is in a different building.  (Our department of 8.2 faculty is spread out over at least 4 buildings, and some of our grad students are in labs in another 3 buildings—it’s very hard to maintain cohesion when no one sees anyone else.) I believe he actually gets a pay cut when he teaches classes (the instructor salary is less than the researcher salary), though it does allow him to stretch out the grants that pay his researcher salary.  He is one of the best teachers in our department, and has developed or revamped several courses.  Our department tried to get him a status more in keeping with his contributions (the title “adjunct assistant professor”), but the dean shot it down, for reasons that no one in the department understands, since the title costs the dean nothing, and he gave them out like sugar candy in other departments to people rarely seen on campus.

The lecturers on our campus have a moderately powerful union, so are better treated than at most colleges, but they have little say in the running of university, and sometimes get jerked around by insensitive bureaucrats and department chairs.  I don’t know whether giving them voting rights or adding them to the Academic Senate would make any difference in their lives—I’d be in favor of including them, but I’ve no idea how other faculty in the department feel on the matter.  I suspect that Evans is right, and that they mostly don’t think about the contingent faculty at all.

2013 May 19

On labs moving from UC to private colleges

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:30
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Chris Newfield, starts his blog post UCLA Loses LONI: Why Budget Silence Is Bad for Science ~ Remaking the University with

There’s been much local coverage of two principal investigators switching from UCLA to USC, and taking with them an estimated 85 people from UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI). The Los Angeles Times has run two stories about it, one of which received over 120 reader comments, and the story was Larry Mantle’s lead on his Airtalk show at KPCC, where he had one of the two departing faculty members as his guest.

But beyond a big win for the Trojans over the Bruins, why should the public care?

He goes on with an analysis of the importance and the cost of doing science research at UC, pointing out that the particular PIs lured away were very highly compensated:

I don’t know LONI’s equipment and infrastructure issues at UCLA, but the only publicized financial information was of the leaders’ salaries: over $1 million / year for Prof. Toga, over $420,000 for Prof. Thompson. A good number of highly qualified people will line up for jobs like these.

I had much the same reaction—those are not public university salaries.  A dozen top-notch assistant and associate professors could be hired for what those two were paid.  USC is welcome to sink their money into hiring big names—perhaps they could hire away all the athletic coaches from UCB and UCLA as well (please).

Chris got a lot of flak in the comments for his simile about the cost of doing research:

Public universities can’t fully support their grants because extramural funding doesn’t cover the full cost of research.  Labs burn money like a jet burns fuel, which is what they are supposed to do.  LONI spent $12 million a year, as a case in point. 

$12 million dollars for 85 people is only $141k per person.  Given the huge salaries of the PIs (not to mention the costs of their benefits), the expenditure per person for the other 83 was under $125k, and salaries were probably less than half that (given the necessary costs for reagents, equipment, travel, publication charges, benefits, …).  So most of the lab was making only modest salaries—only the PIs were raking in the dough.

Chris ended with 4 conclusions:

  1. UCLA’s core problem is a funding shortage, not surplus bureaucracy. (UCLA is the wealthiest UC campus, so things only get worse from there). 
  2. Public universities need to tell the truth about research funding.  This will include the facts that science loses money, that some portion of undergraduate tuition funds offset research costs, and that most funding doesn’t “produce” anything in the near-term, except findings [for] more research along with a great deal of useful failure.
  3. Public universities need to explain why research like LONI’s should be to some large extent at public universities.  Why does it matter to the science, to the public impact, to the education of the next generation of scientists? Perhaps there is more openness and accountability at publics, and therefore more innovation. Perhaps scientists at public universities have a better feel for public needs and do more useful research.  Perhaps public universities uniquely have the necessary scale to train the thousands and millions of researchers in all fields to solve our ever-mounting problems.  We now need a new theory of public universities, before things get even worse.
  4. Universities both private and public need to open up  discussion of spending priorities to their academic communities.  Given rising costs and shrinking revenues, choices have to be made. They  need to involve the faculty, from all disciplines, and students of all levels.  This is as true of USC as of UCLA, which has a poor record of consultation and can only buy a limited number of LONI-type labs with (in part) student tuition and non-STEM cross-subsidies.  Privates can now raise tuition only so much. Academic choices need to come from a bottom-up debate of a kind that higher ed has never had.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments to his post, mainly pushback on point 2, as STEM faculty see their overhead being spent on everything in the university except the proper indirect expenses that it is supposed to go for, while Chris looked at the overall expenditure on support for science research and the income from indirect costs.  I think that a lot of the discrepancy comes from the cost of new buildings for science labs, which are very, very expensive, but cannot be charged to grants.

I’m in agreement with Chris that UC has done a very poor job of making a good case for research in the public universities, talking about it mainly as a revenue stream or in PR terms as enhancing the image of the university.

In one of Chris’s comments, he restates his main point as a desire for greater budget transparency:

So my suggestion as always is that faculty across the disciplines stop being cynical about “byzantine accounting” and push for full data on funding flows—universities can’t even start the negotiations for ICR rates without this accounting to show federal agencies—let the chips fall where they may, and then have an involved discussion based on actual budgetary facts about what to do. My position is always that I do not want cuts to STEM research. I want research to be fully funded. The patchwork we have doesn’t work any more—for any field. Things will continue to deteriorate unless we can drop our longstanding mental habits get clarity on how our own institutions work .

I think that greater clarity in how funds flow around the university would be helpful—particularly to those of us at the underfunded campuses (UCB and UCL have long gotten far more than a fair share of state funds and tuition dollars, and even the “rebenching” now in progress has been carefully designed to perpetuate the inequity).  If the research grants are not paying what the research costs the University, then indirect costs need to be raised, or the state needs to provide explicit support for research to cover the costs, or the University has to make a much, much better case that undergrads benefit from the research and so their tuition should be used to cover the shortfall.

I think that the case for undergrad benefit is quite different on different campuses and even in different majors.

For example, in the bioengineering major at UCSC, all the undergrads do research, either individually with faculty, postdocs, and grad students, or as part of a group project supervised by faculty.  They use equipment and labs funded by research grants and get a lot of high-contact instruction in these projects that could not be duplicated without the money brought in from federal grants, grants from non-profits, and even industrial research contracts.  Some of the undergrad students in the bioengineering major are doing exceptional research, and all are being very well prepared for grad school.  I have no trouble asserting that these students are benefiting substantially from the active research programs in biomolecular engineering and molecular biology.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been visiting colleges to find a good place for my son to apply in computer science (see College tours around LA and UC Berkeley college tour), and neither UCB nor UCLA had much involvement of undergrads in computer science research. I’d have a hard time telling a student whose smallest class in their major had over 50 students and most upper division courses had 200, that research opportunities for 5–10% of the undergrad students were a good deal for them. (To be fair, this may be more discipline-specific than campus-specific, as the computer science department at UCSC also seems to have less involvement of undergrads in research than the other engineering departments.)

It is not clear to me whether student tuition is supporting the research mission or research grants are supporting student instruction.  I’ve seen arguments for both, and I don’t really believe any of the arguments are really solidly based on facts.  The UC budget is such a tangled web of inconsistencies that people can read anything into it that they want.

Although UC has certainly failed on budget transparency, I think that the bigger discussion that has been missing is Chris’s point 3, explaining why research is an essential part of the mission of some public universities.  Obviously it is not essential for all (neither the community college system nor the California State University system have research as a major part of their missions), but UC administration and faculty have never made a clear case to the public of the need for research in a public university.  I think that it is time to do so, but I don’t know that I can put together a clear case for it—certainly not to the point where I could say how much of student tuition should be going to support the research mission.

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