Thursday, May 31, 2007

Day 3 at the 210th AAS: I Am So Tired

Yesterday was a slow day for me. While there were several individual talks I was interested in going to, there weren't any sessions I was willing to stay in for more than half an hour. But since yesterday was the first day my poster was up, I spent most of my time hanging out in the poster room. The two posters on either side of me were getting a lot more traffic. One was simply an interesting idea involving the gravitational lensing of gamma ray bursts by primordial black holes as will be viewed by GLAST; instead of a "classical" lensing, an interference pattern should be seen in the signal. While the probability of such an event is low (10-5) and contingent on which model of primordial black holes and subsequent destruction you take, it is still a neat idea. On the other side of me was a poster about the dynamical origins of the local Hercules stream—they think it's due to a dynamical ripple thanks to the Galactic bar. People like hearing about the structure of the Milky Way, so this project was one of the three discussed at the press conference I attended (as an interested listener) in the late morning.

In the afternoon, also in the exhibit hall, I got the chance to go inside the Star Lab they have set up in the corner of the hall. For the low low price of $15,000 you too can own the ultimate tent for camping out in the living room. The Star Lab is essentially a portable planeterium, a big grey plastic bubble that you crawl into, with the stars projected onto the inside surface. The inside of the bubble goes up to 10 feet high and is large enough to lay down in while the presentation is being given. The presentation I was given focused on Hawaiian navigation: how did the Polynesians and Micronesians find Hawai'i? Apparently there was this big controversy about four decades ago over whether or not the Hawaiian islands were "stumbled upon" or purposely found. I don't really understand how you can purposely go find something you do not know (or have reason to believe) exists, but anyhow. In the 1970s a group called the Polynesian Voyaging Society formed themselves and learned how to navigate cross-ocean using no instrumentation. They built a few double-hulled canoes and went from Hawai'i to Tahiti... with no instrumentation. In canoes. We re-learned all of the familiar constellations and asterisms with their Hawaiian legends, and a few of the more southern constellations I have never seen with my own eyes.

Today is the last day of the conference, and things will be pretty much done by lunchtime. I have no idea of details yet, but I'm hoping to find some people to explore the island with... I've gotten only a few blocks from the hotel and convention center since arriving here on Sunday.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Day 2 at the 210th AAS: Wide Field Surveys

Yesterday there were no big invited talks, only posters still up from Monday and three day long topical sessions: Astrophysical Ionizing Radiation Sources and their Impact on Life (think about how nearby supernovae or the orbit of the Sun around the Galaxy might have affected evolution type thing), Turbulence in Diffuse Astrophysical Environments (the majority of the talks here had "turbulence" in the title), and Wide-field Surveys in the 21st Century. I spent the day in the Wide-field Surveys room, and I got to hear a lot about how Pan-STARRS is going to be amazing, but in general I liked most of the talks because I like it when astronomy can be a "real" statistical science instead of mere stamp collecting. The two main reasons, I think, why people keep talking about Pan-STARSS here is because it's starting this year and because it is largely based in Hawaii. (In the afternoon I finally heard why I had gotten the impression that people outside of the Pan-STARRS collaboration speak of it with a bit of a sardonic or deriding tone in their voice; apparently it got its funding as a rider on some bill in Congress... was it the Iraq war bill?)

Lunch yesterday was the calmest of my meals here; I went out with just one of my officemates who is here, a former grad student from Ohio State who is now planet hunting at Space Telescope Institute (and actually finding them, unlike when he did his thesis), and another guy from STScI. It's been less true even this meeting than when I attended the 2005 winter meeting of the AAS in San Diego, but one of the nice things about these kinds of meetings is seeing people you haven't seen in a long time. I've been meeting a lot of new people, certainly, and as I guessed before coming, attendance here seems to be dominated by grad students and young postdocs.

Today will be much more interesting: my poster goes up today and I'll be attending a press conference, so stay tuned for tomorrow's report!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Day 1 at the 210th AAS

To the left is the view from my room. It is sunnier this morning, but yesterday I enjoyed watching the fog (or perhaps that is rain?) in the valley lift up and re-descend. Jet lag here isn't so bad; I like the concept of being a morning person, but in practice it never holds.

The conference kicked off yesterday morning with a talk by John Tonry on Synoptic Sky Surveys. Essentially, the Sloan Digitial Sky Survey (SDSS) is coming to a close. Sloan has mapped about a fifth of the sky in visible wavelengths, with stupidly large numbers of cataloged stars, galaxies, quasars, and what-have-yous. I think in some ways the holy grail of observational astronomy is to have the entire sky mapped down to the faintest magnitudes possible, at all wavelengths, and to continually observe the entire sky for time variability. According to Tonry, we are rapidly approaching the first goal for visible wavelengths; it is likely that in ten to twenty years, the entire optical sky will be mapped down to the faintest magnitude allowed by the atmosphere. Surveys like Pan-STARRS and SkyMapper are coming online this year. In 15 years, will astronomy be a field of searching databases and waving the wand of statistics, or are we practically already there with SDSS?

After the first talk, everyone trickled down to the room with the posters and exhibits; more specifically, the room with the pastries and coffee. I like going around to the exhibits and talking to the people there; I've already collected half a dozen bookmarks (to make up for forgetting to bring one with me) and more stickers than I know what to do with.

Then it was time to break into individual sessions, with five minute "normal" talks and fifteen minute "disseratation" talks. Several people simply did not show up to give their talk in a few of the sessions I attended; I cannot understand how someone can not only just not "show up," but also be rude enough to not inform the organizers that their plans have changed. I managed to miss most of the talks I had wanted to go to, since I was skipping around the galaxy evolution and galaxy cluster and variable star sessions, but most of the talks I heard were in fact interesting.

At lunch, I found myself with a solar physics group from Boulder, Colorado. This meeting is in conjunction with the Solar Physics Division, which is to say, there are a lot of astronomers here who have taken the "day shift." The sun is fascinating; one would think that being the nearest star, we would know everything about it we might want to. But people don't even agree on simple-seeming things, like the amount of oxygen relative to hydrogen. It is also an interesting field in that we can measure all sorts of things from the sun that we can't in other stars: details of sunspots, coronal mass ejections, granulation, helioseismology, sun flares, etc. etc.—things we would looooove to know about Other Stars, but we just can't make the measurements yet. After all, the sun is just a star, and what we really want to know about is stars, and in many plots, we only have the one data point. A few of the solar folks I talked to are excited about the upcoming missions to search for extrasolar planets; by making exquisitely accurate measurments of the light coming from stars, we can also hope to learn about astroseismology (literally, starquakes) of stars not our own.

Speaking of extrasolar planets, apparently the big news release yesterday was on a bunch of new ones being announced. (One of the breakout sessions yesterday was on extrasolar planets, but I did not go.) There have been rumors circulating for months that 2007 will see a huge increase in the number of known extrasolar planets; many of the ongoing searches for transiting planets are finally coming to fruition. It is heartening to see people announcing more than a handful of planets at a time; it means that the field is growing from one of stamp collecting to one in which they can actually do statistics and begin to really learn about planet formation.

In the afternoon, I went to the COSMOS session. I have a soft spot for the COSMOS project since it was my first real introduction to astronomy; the summer I spent at Caltech in 2004 was centered on playing with all of the HST COSMOS data that was available at the time (about half of it). It's a gorgeous data set. Apparently the S-COSMOS data set, the Cycle 2 Spitzer data of the COSMOS field, is now available. Many of the talks were about these infrared bright galaxies, though the talk I found most intriguing was the one on asteroids found in the COSMOS field with Spitzer: one person's trash is another's science.

After all of the talks, I went over to some nearby beach with a group of graduate students mostly from the University of Hawaii. Yesterday being Memorial Day, there was a Lantern Floating ceremony; people light little lanterns on little boats in remembrance of lost ones, and at sunset let them out into the sea. There was music and ceremony and many many people. I took lots of pictures, but none of them are very good. I didn't care much for the overly fancy rituals projected onto the big screen by the people running the shindig, but watching the people who had brought their own personal lantern boats walk to the ocean, I think I like this way of honoring and remembering the dead. As the sky grew darker, the water became more and more littered with bright lights.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Day 0 at the 210th AAS: Honolulu!!

I flew in yesterday afternoon via Chicago on American Airlines. It was a 9 hour flight, and yet they didn't have any food resembling a meal back in steerage class, just things like overpriced chips and overpriced cookies and sodas. I guess I've been spoiled by the only four hours longer trans-Pacific flights where they have two real meals, as well as snacks. So when I arrived at the hotel yesterday afternoon, I didn't know if I was more hungry or more tired.

I've never been to Hawaii. It's 7 a.m. here, six hours behind the east coast of the continental US. This kind of jet lag isn't so bad, as I can both sleep for a long time (still recovering from a cold) and feel like I'm getting ujp early. From my hotel room (which comes with a nice balcony!), I can see two moutains with either really thick fog or rain between them. From what I've seen so far (airport, mall, convention center), this is a really indoor-outdoor place; I like it. I like how I can not realize that I'm outside until the ceiling above me disappears.

Last night there was a small reception on the roof of the convention center. This is another way of saying, there was a small amount of food, but enough to make me not want to go foraging for a real meal. I only keep mentioning the food because I really haven't eaten since like Saturday, but I'm not a breakfast person, so I still don't feel like eating now. Anyhow, I met a group of people from the University of Texas, a girl who plans on conquering the infamous eigenvector 1. In the increasing darkness over dumplings and fresh fruit, we discussed said eigenvector and other AGNy things like the broad-line region, FeII, FeVII, and NeV, with Greg Shields and Richard Green. I sometimes wonder what's going through people's minds when they ask me the simple question of what I work on, and I stammer a little, explaining that I am presenting here on variable stars at the Galactic center,
but now I'm working on the Lyman-α forest. Do I seem well-rounded, or indecisive and noncommittal?

Today is the first day of talks and posters. The posters will be up in two batches; the first batch today and tomorrow, and the second batch Wednesday and Thursday. Mine is in the second batch. There are several simultaneous talks I know I will want to go to, and I haven't decided which I'll actually go to yet. One thing people always complain about with the AAS meetings is that they are so big; talks are limited to 5 minutes each (and, of course, people routinely go over, which mostly serves to annoy the audience and the moderators). The irony is that since the meetings are so big, no one comes. They say it's good for undergrads and graduate students (and, to an extent, postdocs) to go and meet people, but if no one who "matters" goes, then who is there to schmooze with?

A much more relevant question, though, is whether I give this post an EST or an HST timestamp.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ready for Honolulu

I leave tomorrow morning for Honolulu for a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). I just want to assure everyone that astronomy conferences are not always in exotic locales. Here, for instance, is a picture from the last conference I went to, in Ishigaki, Japan.

While I'm sure there won't be any talks nearly as interesting as this one at the AAAS this March, it will probably be a fun and interesting conference. I will have a poster on variable stars at the Galactic center; the paper has been accepted for publication and I even bought a nice purple poster tube to carry it in. I might even try to post on the exciting goings-on while there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Sort-of Book Review: I Sold My Soul on eBay

Hemant Mehta, also known as the Friendly Atheist and author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, will be at Ohio State on Thursday night to discuss his book. (Details on his blog; apparently he will also be at Easton on Sunday signing books.)

I bought and read the book about a month ago, and I've been meaning to write up a review-type-thing, but well, haven't. But since those of you who have a chance to go to the talk should go, and since anyone at all interested in religion (if you are a churchgoer, you count) should read his book, I might as well try saying something.

As he explains in the first few pages of the book, he didn't actually sell his soul on eBay; the title is a descendant of an (embraced) inaccurate headline. Hemant is an atheist who, because he was raised in a non-Christian religion in a nation innundated with Christians, is interested in learning about Christianity. He figured the obvious way to do this was to "go to church," but as someone who knew nothing about churches or Christianity, he decided it would be more fun to sell the right to pick which church to go to on eBay. The cost was $10 per hour in church; all money raised by the auction was donated to a secular organization.

The book is a fast easy read; I read it over the course of two short flights, though unlike some I wasn't interrupted by entertaining or annoying conversations. Unlike many in the religion debates, Hemant does not describe his point of view as something which he believes the reader should embrace. Take, for example, Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation (also an enlightening read). Harris explicitly tells the reader that belief in Christianity is harmful; as a prelude to the reasons why religion is bad, Harris details why it is first and foremost wrong. Hemant is less antagonistic; he explicity tells the reader why he does not believe in the supernatural, but he does not explicity pass judgement on those who do. In fact, one of the main selling points of the books is to tell Christians what they might want to try if they actually want to attract and convert (and not alienate) atheists. There's even a discussion guide for Christian groups at the end of the book.

If you are interested in more reviews and opinions, Hemant has a decent compilation of them on his blog as well.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Mother, the Math Teacher

The post a while back wherein I mentioned my dad's crazy doings was somewhat popular, so I figure I'll go with the flow and let y'all know about my non-stereotypical mother. Consider it a belated Mother's Day post. The actual impetus is Friday's xkcd comic:
a(b+c)=(ab)+(ac).  Politicize that, bitches.My mother is a chronic middle school math teacher. She half-heartedly tried retiring sometime when I was in high school, but continued to work full time. Then, about a year ago, we had a big retirement party for her because she was quitting for real. So then she worked part-time for most of the last year... and announced earlier this week that she will be teaching part-time next year. My brother and I keep reminding her of the definition of "retirement," but the message does not seem to stick. We think she is beginning to think of herself as a "free lance math teacher." This new job will not be at the school she's been at for the last 15ish years; instead, she will be teaching at a "gender magnet school," teaching 8th grade girls Algebra I and Geometry. This will be her 40th year of teaching.

The xkcd comic also rings true because my mother is not the kind of person who decided what she believes about the way the world should work decades ago, only to stop thinking about it now. She still talks about what she wants to be when she "grows up" ... perhaps she thinks retiring is the same as growing up? Regardless, it's going to be interesting hearing her perspectives on same-gender education over the next year. She says she hasn't given it much thought yet; she took the job because it's a good job, not because it involves teaching in a gender-separated environment. The more I think about it, the more morally opposed I am to gender separation in an academic environment; but then, it's something I've never had to actually experience myself. The teachers and the students are the ones who can attest to how bad or good of an idea it is, and how it does or does not "work." I'm yet to meet a student who has had both co-ed and gender-separated education and believed the gender-separated to be superior.

And, sadly, this is certainly one way to "politicize" math. Jerks.

UPDATE: Comments were disabled for unkown reasons. Everything should be working fine now, though.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

People Study Astronomy; Hijinks Ensue

Typically, one would be afraid that a 244 page anything showing up on astro-ph would be dry and boring in addition to being long, especially if it lacks figures. The recent summary of Astrophysics in 2006, which showed up on astro-ph Monday evening, is in fact a 244 page report sans figures. But it's far from dry and boring—instead it's fresh and funny and snarky. I like snarky. And I know you blog-reading types are more likely to look for ways to punt on Fridays than other days of the week, so here you go. Think of it as a an astronomy blog carnival, only, papers instead of blogs.

The paper goes into all sorts of "real" astronomy, like "things of which there is currently only one (habitable planets, the Sun, and the universe)," but what I find the most entertaining are the sociological-esque aspects. This is especially true as the suspicion is that one motivation behind this treatise is providing an opportunity for the first author to rant. See for example,

the departures of Wesley Huntress, Eugene Levy, and Charles Kennel from the NASA Science Advisory Comittee. Their error seems to have been in advising that science continue to be done.

Or, in Section 4.2:
Each year, anything from 10 to 50 folks respond to requests for suggestions of highlights of the past year. The request is intepreted in interestingly different ways, ranging from “My gut feeling is that, for the first time in my career, the most exciting things may be in the fields of solar system studies and the discovery of planets rather than in my own realm of the extragalactic” to a list of 17 papers on arguments for the respondent’s own ideas, of which he is the senior or sole author. The “he” is deliberate. None of the responses of that sort were from women, though this may be a selection effect − 10% of 10% of 50 is 0.5 (and you must supply your own hermaphrodiate joke). This year the author who collects most of these responses thought it only fair to be sure that at least one paper or topic proposed by each respondent get mentioned. A good many of the suggestions already had green circles, red rectangles, or other notebook entries; some were out of period (perhaps in Ap07) or otherwise not in the data base.

Can you imagine having collaborators like this?:
We caught at least two papers being retracted out from under their first authors, who either disagreed or were not consulted (Nature 437, 940; Science 310, 49; Science 310, 425). One of the first authors concerned plans to sue.

Of course, to the outside world, the biggest happening in astronomy in 2006 was that whole Pluto and "definition" of a planet mess. So, of course, this is mentioned on at length, including some of the press reaction:
Concerning Kuiper Belt and Trans-Neptunian objects, there is both good news and bad news. The good news is that 2003 UB313, the one that caused all the fuss and bother about what is a planet is now merely Eris, named for the goddess of discord, and her moon is Dysnomia, goddess of lawlessness and daughter of Eris. Those are IAU committee decisions and so to be trusted as much as any IAU committee decisions. But the LA Times article reporting the names also declared that Clyde Tombaugh named Charon after his wife Charlene. Yes, Tombaugh (1906−1997) was very much alive when Charon was discovered in 1978 (by James W. Christy of the US Naval Observatory), but he was not the discoverer, and his wife was Patricia (nee Edson) 43. You might want to start over and assume that Christy’s wife’s name is Charlene and that the LA Times has (at least) one editor like the one who just processed a chapter of ours for a book on evolution in general.
Given that I like the sociological aspect, the most entertaining (and potentially embarassing) section is the final one, "Misteaks Were Made." A few of these are clear honest errors (e.g., “four redshift bins over 0.1 Mpc < z < 3.0 Mpc"); others were just plain hilarious:
ISS is like an old suitcase whose handle is missing − it is totally useless, but you just can’t bear to part from it” (Nature 437, 1214).
They also mention at least twice the acknowledgements including the "faint praise" of "EB thanks the Israeli Army for hospitality during the last month of this project.” And did I mention the snarkiness?:
“Does it really make a material difference whether references are arranged by authors (alphabetically) or numerically?” (Nature 437, 1232). Oh, only to the grammatical structure of about every third sentence.
Mmm, snarky.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Abell 611 from the LBT

I apparently still don't feel like blogging, so here's a pretty picture of a nice galaxy cluster, Abell 611, for you to look at:
This is one of the clusters we're looking at with the LBT for our weak lensing study. A nice example of strong lensing is the pair of blue arcs above and to the left of the center of the image; those are background galaxies being lensed by the cluster.

Some stats for those of you who care about that kind of thing, copied blatantly from the CCAPP webpage which was in turn copied blatantly from the observer who took the data and made the pretty picture:

Details: the image is about 2 arcminutes on a side, North is up, East is to the left. The integration times were 20min in Uspec, 60min in g-SDSS,and 15min in r-SDSS. The image quality in the combined images is about 0.6" FWHM in g and r, but they were smoothed them to match the 0.7" image quality of the u-band image.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Lyman-alpha Forest

It seems that I am now working on the Lyman-α forest, a fair cry from stars or the Milky Way. One of the great aspects of working on the Lyman-α forest is that it relates to so many other aspects of astronomy. And, recently, it's been difficult to spend much time here and not become interested in the composition and geometry of the IGM (e.g., this and this and this).

I had heard about the Lyman-α forest for quite a while before truly understanding what it is; in this particular case, it was a picture that made all the difference.

For example, this cartoon, shamelessly borrowed from Ned Wright's page explaining the Lyman-α forest. There are three separate pieces needed to explain what is meant by the "Lyman-α forest, " or what is commonly written as the Lyα forest. First, there's the Lyman-α bit, which involves a bit about atoms and rudimentary atomic physics. Then, there's the large reservoir of gas between galaxies creatively known as the intergalactic medium, or IGM. Finally, there are the notions of redshift and thermal broadening and other fun things that can happen to change the wavelength at which a photon of light is observed.

Atoms and energy levels: As you should recall from your high school chemistry class (or as wikipedia [or here] would remind you if you were asleep that year), atoms come equipped with energy levels, and the electrons can move between the different levels. These transitions have different names, and the Lyman-α transition is the one between the n=1 and n=2 states. (Lyman-β is n=3 to n=1, Lyman-γ is 4 to 1, Lyman-δ is 5 to 1, and so on. The series of transitions into n=other states are have different names; the Lyman series is just the one named after some dude named Lyman.)

When electrons move from a higher energy level to a lower one, a photon (or two if it's a super-duper-forbidden transition) is emitted by the atom in order to conserve energy. Because the photon is carrying away the energy the atom had when it was in the excited state (i.e., when the electron was in the higher energy level), the energy the photon has is exactly equal to the energy difference between the two levels. So, when one counts the number of photons as a function of energy of some source—this is called taking a spectrum—there are certain wavelengths at which there are lots and lots of photons because lots of atoms have undergone energy transitions and emitted photons with near-identical energies. These are called emission lines.

Of course, the same thing can happen the other direction. If a photon of just the right energy encounters an atom, the atom can absorb the photon, essentially moving the electron from a lower energy level to a higher one. So if we take a spectrum of some bright source, we will see regions where a bunch of atoms have absorbed a bunch of photons all of one wavelength. These regions are known as absorption lines/features/troughs/whathaveyou.

The Intergalactic Medium (IGM): Hydrogen is by far the most common element in the universe; roughly 75% of all atoms in the universe are hydrogen atoms. Nowadays, most of the hydrogen is ionized, so instead of a proton and an electron hanging out together, they are separate. For electrons to be able to move between energy levels, it has to be associated with some nucleus, i.e., the atom has to be neutral. Even though the vast majority of hydrogen atoms in the IGM are ionized, there is enough neutral hydrogen around that Lyman-α (and other) transitions can trace the structure of the IGM. Of course, there are lots of other elements in the IGM, but we can only observe those with atomic transitions in convenient wavelength ranges; commonly observed other species are singly-ionized magnesium (MgII in spectroscopy lingo) and triply-ionized carbon (CIV).

As it turns out, the cartoon description above of the IGM as a bunch of isolated clumps of gas is wrong. A more accurate model has the gas distributed much more smoothly; the gas isn't perfectly uniform, and there are regions of low density and of high density, but the contrast between these regions is not large enough to think of the high density regions as "clouds."

Redshift, etc: The real key to being able to use absorption features to study the IGM is redshift. If we observed all of the intergalactic gas to absorb light at one wavelength, then it would be next to impossible to decipher any physical structure from a spectrum. Luckily, though, we live in an expanding universe, and so light travelling across long distances is redshifted, that is, the wavelength of a single photon gets longer as it propogates. (This is a redshift since longer wavelength means redder light.) The amount by which light is redshifted depends on the distance the light has travelled; this so-called cosmological redshift is the main thing for which Edwin Hubble is famous for figuring out. So, to return the the cartoon above, if we have some really bright faraway source, like a quasar or a gamma ray burst, then light coming towards us from this source will be redshifted. Specifically, light that was originally bluer than that of the Lyα transition will be redshifted to this wavelength, and if there is some neutral hydrogen sitting around where this happens, then it will be able to absorb that light. The more neutral hydrogen (i.e., the higher the neutral hydrogen density) at a given location, then the more Lyα light that will be absorbed. There is a lot of hydrogen in the universe, and the universe is really big, so spectra wind up looking more like this than the above cartoon:
The big peak on the right is due to Lyα emission from the quasar itself, and all the mess to the left (bluewards) of that is the Lyα forest. Lots and lots of absorption.

If this was the end of the story, then it would be fairly easy to go from a map of absorbed light to a density map of the IGM along some line of sight. Alas, this is astronomy, so there are lots of extra things going on. The first is that the gas in the IGM isn't perfectly cold; it has some temperature and so the atoms are moving around relative to one another, which causes individual lines to be smeared out. Observationally, this isn't all bad: we astronomers like knowing about temperatures as well as densities—and the relationship between the two.

As I mentioned earlier, astronomers now know that the IGM does not consist of discrete clouds floating around in a vast emptiness; the gas density instead fluctuates about some constant value. Part of what I am working on now is to try to determine what sets the scale of these fluctuations, or, equivalently, what sets the scale on which the IGM and the Lyα forest are smooth.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Let's Play Good Idea, Bad Idea

Recently, a Chemistry professor at OSU had their house broken into. Among the stolen items were two laptops. Typically, when someone has their laptop stolen, it sucks for them, but that's the end of the story.

But this is Ohio. They do things differently here.

You see, the laptops were ones on which said professor stored class rosters. And, among other things, these class rosters included the social security numbers of approximately 3,500 current and former students. Which is bad. And so the university has had to find and contact these 3,500 some odd individuals and let them know their identity security has been breached. Some of these students were from many many years ago, and as such, private investigators and the like had to be hired. Which costs money. Apparently this has cost the chemistry department and the university something like $80,000 so far.

That was in February. In early April, some other computers on campus were hacked into and something like 14,000 SSNs were "exposed." These SSNs are a subset of everyone who receives a paycheck from OSU ... including various faculty and staff, which (it seems like) was enough to make people go from saying "this is a problem that should be fixed" to actually trying to, you know, fix it.

There is much specialness abounding in this situation. The most obvious one to me is that there is no reason why a professor should ever have students' SSNs. So why do they? Well, it's because at this prestigious university, SSNs have long been used as student ID numbers. (Yes, I have complained about this before.) What this means is that they are routinely included on all class rosters, grade lists, etc etc. Which means that someone somewhere along the way had to think that was a good idea. Sure, it might have been back before the days of identity theft when everyone was all good and moral ... but a lot of software (e.g., for grade submission) has been written since then that didn't need to include that information. And once it became obvious that this practice could cause problems, someone somewhere had to make the decision to "phase" in a solution (apparently they've been saying this for years) instead of doing a rapid change manouver.

Which is what they're trying to do now, but with a great deal more... panic. No one likes a lawsuit, so another brilliant decision that someone somewhere made was to hold individuals liable. Not just the poor sap who has SSNs stored in his mail from over a decade ago, but also the individual responsible for that computer, aka, your friendly local tech support guy who is really not enthused at the idea of policing a department's worth of computers for nine digit strings, but is rather motivated at the idea of keeping their job.

Best part is, someone has realized that all of this goes against FERPA regulations ... pesky laws. We're assured that it'll all be fixed by the start of Autumn quarter in September, and the Astronomy department is definitely being all pro-active in purging computers of these data records. Besides, it's not every day you learn that Professor X has found Famous Astronomers Y and Z's social security numbers on their computer ...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Jorge Cham at Ohio State

So I've not felt like blogging lately, apparently. According to Jorge Cham, this isn't a bad thing; "procrastination is when you're doing what you want to be doing." I heard him say so himself Tuesday night when he gave a talk here at OSU to an auditorium full of graduate students. (Is it bad that though I knew there was a coffee shop on the first floor of the building, I had no idea what its name was?)
Anyhow, the talk was entertaining, even for someone like me whose been reading the comics regularly for the last, uhm, six years. It started with a routine "I had to learn about Ohio State before coming here" bit ... talking about how the Wikipedia article for OSU is gushing about how big and great of a university it is ... and then we find out that Larry Sanger apparently is an OSU alum and it all begins to make sense.

So this part isn't going to be funny; I know, and I'm sorry, but deal with it. Apparently one of the main points of Cham's talks is that many graduate students are depressed. Apparently, for many people, graduate school is the first time when the ratio of what they think they know to what they think they don't know becomes very small, the first time they feel as if they are not "one of the best" at something. Uhm, so that would have been ... 11th grade for me, at the latest. And if it hadn't happened then, a few days at MIT would have cured that right up. And it goes without saying that my self-confidence is muuuch higher now than it was when I was an undergrad ... although that really isn't saying all that much. My view of stress as an undergrad v. as a grad student is somewhat skewed; while MIT is a high-stress environment, it's also true that my current department most certainly is not, relative to other places (or what's portrayed in the comics). And, seriously, if people are unhappy as graduate students because they don't like what they're doing, then, uhm, why are they in grad school to begin with? People should be doing what makes them happy.

Anyhow, the talk was pretty good and all around entertaining; the only thing that could have made it funnier would have been if he'd actually made a L'Hopital's Rule joke instead of just alluding to the possibility of one. More jokes about how annoying undergrads are would have also been appreciated. They were, unfortunately, not selling the new book (which ships, I think, tomorrow). I'd even brought money from one of my officemates (which I should return ...) to buy one. Instead, I was one of three people to win a raffle for a free (old) book, which is funny because I already own both books. Two years ago Cham gave a talk at MIT, and instead of going, I took a nap. (I was thesing, OK?) A friend bought both books for me—and got them autographed—as a graduate gift. So, I decided to give my free book to one of my officemates, who had decided to not come to the hour-long talk because he needed to work. No lie. Severe workaholic silliness I try very hard to not compare myself to.

Regardless, how come there aren't any couches in my department? My brother, a graduate student in history, maintains his office has one exactly like this:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I'd understand if this was April 1, but it's May 1. And so I don't understand:

It's like Google is getting it on with my computer and/or iPod, and I'm just not sure if I'm OK with that. And why doesn't Apple already have iFoo trademarked for all Foo?