Thursday, 31 March 2011

What are you supposed to get out of college, anyhow?

The most excellent Dr. Palmer has written an interesting post on how she views many biology graduate students shoot themselves in the foot through focusing on the wrong skills in their tenure as students. While on whole I would agree with what she's written, especially the bits about non-transferable skills, I think the focus on `soft skills,` things such as lit reviews and public speaking, is slightly misguided.

While soft skills might help you get a job in the future (potentially one goal of a Ph.D. student), I'm not convinced they're the major determinant of your ability to get hired. You see, I've just suffered through a hiring committee - I wasn't actually on it, but everyone even tangentially affiliated with me was, which meant I might as well have been on it given how often I was caught up in conversations about it. While quite a few of the candidates were highly polished presenters, with style and panache, that didn't necessarily correlate with  getting into the final list of candidates.

What's more important, I would argue, is not the technical skills - those will vary over time. Learning R now is like learning SAS 15 years ago. Sure, it gives you a temporary window of relevance, but unless you're constantly chasing your tail picking up the latest technical skills, you'll quickly become irrelevant (Yes, I am arguing SAS is passé). But nor is it the soft skills - Billy Mayes would not be a top candidate in any academic job search, should he still be alive, no matter how much useless junk he can convince people to buy. The important things to get out of a Ph.D. education is an integrated worldview and conceptual framework upon which to hang your hat. It's raw knowledge.

Don't forget you're at an institute of higher learning. While there's just a bit more to a job search than being bright, in academia we tend to be awfully capitalistic in how we pick professors. Results matters, and to generate really good results, you either need to be a) lucky or b) good. Since you generally can't count on a lucky career path falling in your lap, it's better to focus on being good. And the most important aspect of conducting good research is not methodological prowess, or your ability to communicate your results to the public, but your ability to have the conceptual framework to conduct robust, appropriately nuanced research.

Here's a question I've found really reveals the strengths and weaknesses of any graduate, be it Ph.D. or B.S. Ask them, quite simply, "What do you think the big, unanswered questions in your field are?" If they start prattling on about P52 protein structure, it's clear they don't have the right conceptual framework, or they're hopelessly mired in the details. Likewise, if they feel there aren't any big parts of the map with "Here Be Dragons" written on it, they haven't thought critically about their field either.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Beer notes from last week

I had this written up last week, but for some reason never sat down at the computer and typed it up. I've been emptying out all those bottles I've been hanging on to with the intention of trying. Hopefully I have a Japanese beer in the queue, and an Aussie (Sorry, it's not Boag's Premium). I'm hoping to crack them open in the next week, once I'm done with this great pomegranate juice I found...

Alaskan Barley Wine Ale, Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau AK
Wrapped in the typical Alaskan Brewing Company 65cl bottle, I can't find any indication of the date of origin for this particular bottle. When I pour it out, the beer looks smooth and thick, a deep burgundy who's head dissipates into a thin white ring while I'm still smelling the beer. The hops are incredibly floral, and leaps out after fragrance of the grains. There are subtle hints of something malty lurking underneath that I can't quite put my finger on, with how strong the other two odours are. When I sip it, the Barely Wine Ale opens up with a bitter taste, followed by a mere whiff of the grains involved, and ending with a crisp and bitter aftertaste. How can something so thick be so crisp? It's like drinking oil, it's so thick, and yet there's a distinct bite at the end. It's a paradox, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a beer.

There's something underneath the hops that feels almost oaky, but it's hard to work it out from the power of the rest of the beer. It's vaguely disappointing, because Alaskan seems to do better balancing their beers than they've done with their Barley Wine Ale. The end effect is that the beer tastes too simple, and too heavy on the hops for my tastes. That's not to say I couldn't finish the bottle - you barely realize there's alcohol in this beer at all, it's so well hidden. Still, one bottle is a bit much for one person, and it might be best split between friends over dinner.

3.8 out of 5. B+

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Alaska Census changes, 2000 to 2010

Data time, people! Behold, tables:

Borough or Census area 2000 estimate 2010 estimate % change
Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area 6,551 5,588 -14.70%
Ketchikan Gateway Borough 14,070 13,477 -4.21%
Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area 6,146 5,559 -9.55%
Valdez-Cordova Census Area 10,195 9,636 -5.48%
Kodiak Island Borough 13,913 13,592 -2.31%
Bristol Bay Borough 1,258 997 -20.75%
Lake and Peninsula Borough 1,823 1,631 -10.53%
Yakutat City and Borough 808 662 -18.07%
Dillingham Census Area 4,922 4,847 -1.52%
Denali Borough 1,893 1,826 -3.54%
Sitka City and Borough 8,835 8,881 0.52%
Aleutians West Census Area 5,465 5,561 1.76%
Haines Borough 2,392 2,508 4.85%
Nome Census Area 9,196 9,492 3.22%
Northwest Arctic Borough 7,208 7,523 4.37%
Wade Hampton Census Area 7,028 7,459 6.13%
Aleutians East Borough 2,697 3,141 16.46%
Juneau City and Borough 30,711 31,275 1.84%
Southeast Fairbanks Census Area 6,174 7,029 13.85%
Bethel Census Area 16,006 17,013 6.29%
North Slope Borough 7,385 9,430 27.69%
Kenai Peninsula Borough 49,691 55,400 11.49%
Fairbanks North Star Borough 82,840 97,581 17.79%
Matanuska-Susitna Borough 59,322 88,995 50.02%
Anchorage Municipality 260,283 291,826 12.12%
Hoonah-Angoon Census Area 3,436 2,150 -14.79%
Skagway Municipality 968
Wrangell City and Borough 6,684 2,369 -21.11%
Petersburg Census Area 3,815
Statewide 626,932 710,231 13.29%

I have the table organized by the number of citizens gained or lost. Note that Hoonah/Skagway and Wrangell/Petersberg is reported differently between 2010 and 2000, so they take up two lines (Only one value in 2000 per either pair). What leaps out at me is most of the change comes from the MatSu - a wopping 50% change in population! Yikes! Fairbanks has also grown at an accelerated rate, but not nearly as much. I was wrong about the North Slope - it has a greater % change than the North West Borough. I was correct about the YK, but too conservative about the rate of growth since both major census districts topped 6% growth. I was too conservative about how horribly hard SE is getting hammered. Aside from Bristol Bay, the biggest percent changes were in SE. The biggest absolute change, though, was in the Yukon-Koyukuk area:

Borough or Census area Absolute Change Percent of State Change
Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area -963 -1.16%
Ketchikan Gateway Borough -593 -0.71%
Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area -587 -0.70%
Valdez-Cordova Census Area -559 -0.67%
Kodiak Island Borough -321 -0.39%
Bristol Bay Borough -261 -0.31%
Lake and Peninsula Borough -192 -0.23%
Yakutat City and Borough -146 -0.18%
Dillingham Census Area -75 -0.09%
Denali Borough -67 -0.08%
Sitka City and Borough 46 0.06%
Aleutians West Census Area 96 0.12%
Haines Borough 116 0.14%
Nome Census Area 296 0.36%
Northwest Arctic Borough 315 0.38%
Wade Hampton Census Area 431 0.52%
Aleutians East Borough 444 0.53%
Juneau City and Borough 564 0.68%
Southeast Fairbanks Census Area 855 1.03%
Bethel Census Area 1,007 1.21%
North Slope Borough 2,045 2.46%
Kenai Peninsula Borough 5,709 6.85%
Fairbanks North Star Borough 14,741 17.70%
Matanuska-Susitna Borough 29,673 35.62%
Anchorage Municipality 31,543 37.87%
Hoonah-Angoon Census Area -318 -0.38%
Skagway Municipality
Wrangell City and Borough -500 -0.60%
Petersburg Census Area
Statewide 83,299 n/a

Anchorage had the greatest growth (Gold star for me) followed by MatSu and Fairbanks and the Kenai. Juneau, as I anticipated, remains essentially flat. I might have to double back on the Rural-to-Urban migration idea. There's 214 more rural residents than there were in 2010, which is a minuscule increase. Either there's more immigration than emigration, but elevated death to compensate, or births are higher than deaths, and there's a net emigration. The second scenario seems more likely.

Why didn't this show up in the school enrolment records in Anchorage? Well, it could be that people more likely to move don't have children yet, or maybe they're not all moving to Anchorage. Or, what I think is most likely - there's serious flaws in how we calculate enrolment in schools, where students from the bush are more likely to skip classes (true) and therefore not be reflected in the annual counts. This downward biases the enrolment numbers, and therefore funding, of schools with the students who need the most help.

But, that's navel gazing and guesswork. The real way to address this is to follow individuals, not counts of individuals. Census summaries we have access to can't show that that +1 person in the Kenai came from Juneau as opposed to Kansas. You need to do a more detailed breakdown than that to find those sorts of trends.

Finally, on the diversity front, diversity increased slightly (69% White to 66% White descent) mostly to an additional 1 percent more people of Asian descent, and a grab-bag of other.

There's a lot of information here, and I've barely played around with it. Hopefully, I'll get more time to dig deep into this well of information in the next little bit.

Before the AK census data

The AK census data will be posted today at 10am, AKDT.  Before they post it, I want to make some minor predictions about what the data will show.

This is like the Nenana ice classic, except I don't get anything if I'm right.  ;)

Big winners - Anchorage and Fairbanks. Juneau will remain relatively flat (less than 2% growth if any). In South East, some of the islands in the Alexander archipelago will show a decline; I'd be surprised if it's more than 5%. The YK will show flat to moderate growth (the couple of districts will show 1-5% growth). North-West (Kotz area etc) will show some minor growth, while North Slope will shrink slightly.

I'm torn - I know the nation, as a whole, is diversifying. But the big drivers in state population are migrants to Fairbanks and Anchorage/Matsu, who are predominantly white. So whether the state follows the trend and becomes more diverse depends on the exact balance between internal growth and migration.

I strongly think the data will not reflect a rural to urban migration like people (including me) were suggesting a few years back. I think the preliminary data in the form of enrolment makes that dubious - total rural migration will be small, or zero.

And, as a wild card prediction, Anvik will become the new state capital, stunning the rest of the state. In your face, Juneau!


Monday, 14 March 2011

CNN Skepticism

Last night, I was having dinner out at what I thought was a normal time, but thanks to DST was really nearly 9 at night. Consequently, the restaurant was very empty, and there wasn't many people to talk to or do the normal social things with while you wait for that one cook left around to fire up the grill again. I started watching TV, to kill some time. And let me say something that's been bugging me for a few years now.

Now, I'm willing to accept that some people have a nice, well-rounded education. I'm even willing to accept that these people are more likely to end up as TV anchors - thought I might think it has to do more with their looks than what's going on upstairs in some cases. But some anchors try too hard to come off as knowledgeable about everything. Here and Now, on NPR, is horrible about it. I can't listen to that show, because the host tries to act like she's an expert on car engineering as well as Mid-East geopolitics. I'm even willing to accept that the TV has an anchor that knows something about earthquakes, and disaster recovery. But honestly. Am I really to believe that their anchor just so happens to be an expert on nuclear power too?

It's not a topic you can B.S. your way through - I remember enough of my nuclear chemistry from college to know that the person was far past the limits of their knowledge. They couldn't pronounce any words right, and they had a frazzled idea of how things worked . It's clear someone tried to bone up on the subject in the 3 minute commercial break from reading off flash cards. Did she really have to act like she was familiar with the inner workings of a modern(ish) reactor? Honestly, if there's one subject where you can say "Well, I'm not sure what's going on, but the here's what the real experts say:" it's got to be nuclear power. But now, the "Energy Corespondent" was acting like they'd just got done teaching a short lesson to a class of graduate students and where now favouring us plebs with their bountiful knowledge.

So, to keep me from giving in to the same temptation that they have, let it be known I only have two areas of expertise. The first is critters. The second is Justin Beiber-ology. Maybe I am qualified to be a news anchor afterall.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

DInner, deconstruted

What do you do when you're richer than any human could possibly want in a lifetime? If you're former Microsoft CTO, Nathan Myhrvold, you start out advocating searching for dinosaur vomit. After all, birds will sometimes spew, and what are birds, if not modern dinosaurs? But a man has to have a hobby between encouraging people to dig for Dino-Pellets. Nathan's is running a food science lab of his own making, which has just released a 2000+ page, 6 volume set on their years of research. It's called Modernist Cuisine.

Quite a few people have written about the kitchen lab, such as this current Network Today article, and this older New York Times article that shows that its been on their radar for a while. But I've noticed people have focused on the equipment Nathan's lab has, more than the really interesting bit - he's employed a scientific hypothesis testing framework for organizing his romp through the gastronomic world. Here's an example from the above NY Times article:
The conclusions have often been backed up by careful scientific exploration. For example, confit, the French technique of cooking slowly in fat, is supposed to impart a unique taste and texture as the fat penetrates the meat.

But Dr. Myhrvold said: “There’s no way it could penetrate. The molecules are too big.”

He said double-blind taste tests proved that the same tasty results could be achieved by steaming and then rubbing some of the fat on the outside.
This isn't new to the world - people have used it before -  but even normal advocates for culinary science are applauding him for how far he's take the process with this work. Cooking, sadly, is filled with too much woo - such as the load of misinformation surrounding organic vegetables (Isn't it enough to eat them because they're sustainable?), or the linking of cost with quality (the best thing you can do to improve someone's wine tasting experience is to tell them it's an expensive and rare wine). Some rigour is nice to see.

Sadly, such a book is not for the likes of me - it's 625 dollars for the full set. I'll have to be content with this really cool hamburger deconstructed infographic from the WSJ that came with their own story about Modernist Cuisine.

photo from the WSJ infographic mentioned above


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

In the annals of Dim Things To Do.

I've said it before. Heck, I've said it here. Do not pet the moose. You do not share a deep spiritual connection with them. They won't recognize you as a kindred spirit.  They aren't your bestest friend in the world. Some of them may be quite cute, but forget about taking them home with you. It isn't going to end well for either of you.

Even not counting car collisions, a moose is more likely to injure you than a bear or a wolf. People fail to appreciate that even a small moose can weigh 800 pounds, and can kick hard enough to break bones. It's not uncommon for wolf biologists to find that wolves in our area have had their skull fractured seriously at some point because a moose kicked them in the head. And a wolf skull is a lot more robust than a human's skull.

And besides, you probably wouldn't like it if a total stranger (and a different species to boot) came up and started petting you, either. Even moose like their personal space.

Petting a moose is about as dumb as it gets.


Saturday, 5 March 2011


I saw this on the lovable Orac's webamablog, a parody of the song "Billionare" about vaccination. Watch. It's hillarious.

Almost as good is the blurb on the creater's YouTube channel:
I'm a hospital physician and purveyor of educational medical satire. On staff at a major academic institution, I strive to practice only evidence-based comedy...everything on this site is clinically proven to be (slightly) funnier than placebo.
You can check out the creator's web page here.

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