Monday, December 02, 2013

Some Pokemon Math

With all the travelling I do with my job, portable games are great for me. Last month, the new Pokemon games came out and I decided I needed to do some catching up. I'd played the original Red and gotten White 2 last year, but there were still several games I'd missed. So I've been working through Soul Silver.

One of my biggest frustrations thus far has been that the progression isn't smooth. There's been several notable instances where I need to challenge a gym leader to advance, but there's no areas with wild Pokemon of comparable levels to help me get ready. At present, I'm getting ready to face the Elite Four. Their pokemon are all level 40-50, but the highest level wild ones are only in the low 30's. So I'm now grinding XP off enemies 15 levels lower than me. And it's taking a long damned time.

But I'm the kind of person that wants to know just how long.

This is an annoyingly tricky question to answer. In part because I'm trying to level 6 pokemon, the amount of XP isn't consistent per level, and not even consistent across all pokemon. Fortunately, online resources list how much it takes based on their leveling speed.

So I could look up the total amount of XP needed per pokemon to go from a current level to a desire one and total it all up to get the total XP I needed to.

The question then becomes how much XP I'm gaining per battle, on average.

And now there's another trick: Different enemies give different amounts of XP, and have different probabilities of showing up. Again, these probabilities can be found online. A few test battles tells me how much XP each enemy offers, and I could then use a weighted average to determine the overall average.

I'm not going to go through all the numbers here, but I will say I've already been grinding for about 3-4 hours and I've got a long way to go to where I want...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Paid in Full?

Posting an idea for a mini math project so I don't forget it and to let other people play with:

In the recent lawsuit of Apple v. Samsung an urban myth has sprung up that Samsung decided to pay a 1 billion dollar fine with a bunch of 5 cent coins. Why the article is calling them 5 cent coins instead of, you know, nickels, I dunno.

First off, let's ask if this is a realistic number. I started by looking at how many nickels are minted annually given I don't know what other 5 cent coins they could be talking about. It fluctuates, so I added up the past few years and took an average to try to get a rough idea. Between 2007 and the data they had for 2011, it averaged out to about 750 million a year. Glancing back a few more years that looks like a pretty decent average so I stopped there. But if that's the case, you'd be looking at 100% of the nickels minted for 13 years being entirely dedicated to this payment. Sounds pretty sketchy.

But let's go with it. Let's say someone dumped off what was supposedly a billion dollars worth of nickels and you're in charge of making sure you've been paid in full. A lot of commentors on the article are saying to weigh it and divide by the weight of a single nickel. Doesn't sound so hard but there's a few catches. The first is in the sensitivity of instruments. Getting devices that can weigh several tons with a precision of tenths to hundredths of grams is not likely.

But for the sake of argument we'll pretend everyone has such a device and it's no problem. Another issue is that due to wear some weight of coins could be lost. Due to gum or other residue, the weight of the coins could be increased. Thus, unless the coins walked right out of the mint and into the supposed hands of Apple, weight will have some small variance to it. Small, but multiplied by 20 billion, small numbers tend to get rather large.

So here's the project. Get a bunch of nickels and weigh them up, build a histogram, fit a bell curve to it and determine the standard deviation. For a few standard deviations in either directions, determine how much you may have been over or underpaid.

Other ideas: The article states it took 30 trucks to deliver the supposed coins. The amount this would actually weigh would far exceed the capacity of any trucks out there, even split 30 ways. So estimate how many trucks it really would take.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Archon Schedule

Archon released its schedule today. Unfortunately, they didn't end up taking one of the talks I'd suggested so instead of doing 3 solo talks I'll only be doing 2: Anime Mythbusters and Modern Astronomy - Reading Our Cosmic Library, a new talk that should have a distinct "Cosmos" feel to it.

I've also been placed on two discussion panels. The first is quite exciting to me. "Space Weather: The Latest Forecast". This is a topic I've written about some in this blog but haven't gotten to talk too much about elsewhere. So being asked to talk about it will be fun.

The second is on "Galactic Cannibalism: Who's on the Menu" and will be exploring interacting galaxies, primarily the Milky Way. This isn't a topic I've had a lot of direct exposure to, but two of my advisors at KU did a great deal of research on identifying stellar streams around the Milky Way that were the telltale signs of a satellite galaxy being tidally disrupted.

I also anticipate bringing my telescope and doing some public viewing when I'm not otherwise occupied.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brother Jed to Get His Own Reality Show

I'm weird. Everyone says that you're supposed to miss school. I don't. At least for the most part. But one of the things I do miss is getting to hear Brother Jed. It's been awhile since I've even given him much thought, but he used to pop up on this blog enough that he has his own post tag.

If you haven't been around long enough to have seen my posts on him, he's a campus preacher that pushes Creationism and has an autobiography that illustrates his lack of higher level thought.

So I suppose that it's indicative of the state of American media that Brother Jed is going to be the focus of a new reality show.

It will depend on how the show is done, but this could be absolutely horrible or absolutely hilarious. Given how painfully Jed shoves his foot down his throat and how exploitative reality shows tend to be, I suspect it's going to be the latter.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Universe Verse Cont...

If you've been following my blog for a few years, you might be familiar with Jamie Dunbar's amazing book series The Universe Verse. It's a rhyming comic that details the development of... well, everything. Book 1 was the universe itself, starting with the Big Bang. Book 2 covered abiogenesis and the evolution of life. Book 3 was higher life to humans.

Now, Jamie is looking to combine all 3 books into a single hardback book. He created a kickstarter to fund the project and has already gotten his full goal, he has some stretch goals that include things like redoing the illustrations for the first book.

If you haven't checked out his work before, he's made a PDF of book 1 available for free until the end of this month. So make sure you check it out. And donate. That's important too. And there's very reasonable prizes for pledging. For example, It's only $30 to get the hardback copy of the book once it's complete. This is barely more than any other hardback book on the market but has the added benefit of containing science!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Can This Die Now?

If you're not familiar with Anita Sarkeesian, she's done a recent series of youtube videos deconstructing tropes in videogames that have sexist components. She first rose to notoriety when a rampantly sexist and not at all small portion gaming community tried to get her kickstarter to create this series, shut down. It ended up backfiring and she grossly exceeded the requested amount.

In response, those against her have continued to vilify her saying that she's defrauded donors for falling behind with her production schedule, sending her death and rape threats, etc....

But the newest tactic I think is the most pathetic yet. It's to declare that Anita isn't a real gamer because during one of her lectures, she said she's not into that games and had to do a lot of research.

Do I really need to explain context to people? That, perhaps when giving a lecture to an academic community, playing up habits that are generally thought to detract from academic focus would be frowned upon? Or that when trying to raise money to perform a through enough analysis or a large genre, she might be inclined to stress the background she does have?

And these aren't mutually exclusive. It can be fair to ask to what degree she may be a gamer, but any degree of gamer is still a gamer. I generally don't consider myself much of a gamer; I do play World of Warcraft casually, and I've played many of the major console titles (albeit usually several years behind the curve). But ask in the right crowd and that absolutely qualifies. The difference is that I'm not being targeted by a smear campaign for daring to point out the sexism in video games (even that benevolent sexism where video game women get treated as objects because guys are so totally in love with them).

It's absolutely the same trope that has been thrown around at conventions with increasingly regularity as "nerd culture" becomes pop-culture; that all these people (usually women) aren't "real geeks" and are just wearing costumes because they want attention. It's incomprehensible that a female would wear a costume because they actually appreciate the character. Yeah right. It's not.

The whole meme of "not a real ______" is a pathetic attempt to change the context of the discussion and isn't even a legitimate objection in and of itself. I seriously doubt that any "hardcore" gamer is going to walk into a job interview and when asked about their hobbies, declare that they spend every waking hour playing first person shooters. Just like Anita, the context determines how vocal they may be. But without a sexist axe to grind no one would bat an eye. Anita is a real gamer and people that think that people that aren't "hardcore" can't do their research, are just jerks.

Dragon*Con Post Con Report

And so ended my first Dragon*Con.

For several years now, everyone has told me what a wonderful and amazing experience D*C is. I've said for several years now that I'd attend and after finally doing so, I can confirm everything everyone has said about it.

I headed down Thursday for the Atlanta Star Party. My intent was to stop by the hotel, drop off the supplies for my friends, get changed into more formal clothes, and head to the star party, but a 2 hour jam on I-75 less than an hour from my destination killed those plans. Instead, I headed straight to the star party, dropped off my scope, had a quick bite, and listened to the talks.

Pamela Gay's was the first talk and very well done, talking about her work with CosmoQuest and the funding crisis she's had.

I forget the name of the second speaker, but recall he was an amateur, from I believe Florida. His talk looked at people that contributed to astronomy but have largely been forgotten. It was a mildly entertaining talk, but not well executed. The style was very much "There was a guy. He did a thing."

The third talk was Nichole Gugliucci. She's big on demos, so she tried doing some little examples of how supernovae work. Unfortunately, they didn't work well. Sadness.

Phil Plait was the last talk and he recapped his Zen Pencils.

There was supposed to be observing on the roof, but with the high temperatures, humidity, and poor seeing, I skipped out since my friends were upset I was holding their alcohol I'd brought (they'd flown) captive. So I met up with them and we ran around to check out the costumes.

Friday my only panel was my Anime Mythbusters. D*C is nice enough to leave 30 minutes between each panel, so I arrived 20 minutes early to get my computer set up. By the time I arrived, the room was already packed and they were turning people away. I was somewhat worried giving the talk this time, because it had been 6 months since I'd really even looked at the material and I'd pulled in a few segments that I hadn't used in a few years. Fortunately, it went exceptionally smoothly.

Saturday I participated in a panel on "Fact, Figures, and Google: Is Teaching Dead?" It was meant to look at teaching in a society drowning in information (much of it very poor). I originally volunteered for this panel early on when no one else had been joining, but by the time of the convention, we had a total of 6 panelists most of them who had been teaching for 30+ years. I think this thinned out discussion too much and things never stayed focused. It was by no means a bad discussion, but not very on topic and without anything ever really coming to a conclusion.

My Sunday had me on two panels. The first was on Creationism/Intelligent Design. It was moderated by the Skeptical Teacher (Matt) and also had Massimo Pigliucci. Matt did a wonderful job moderating and while we didn't disagree on much of anything we had some really great conversation covering a surprisingly large range of topics for such a short time period. They ranged from the factors contributing to the entrenchment of such bad ideas, to current tactics from the ID crowd, to recent skirmishes such as Eric Hedin at Ball State University. The audio of this talk can be found here.

Shortly thereafter, I gave my talk on quantum mechanics which explored what the field is really about to how it's used in Sci-Fi. This was again a room that was packed well prior to starting and I was told that they had to turn away nearly as many people as they let in. This is easily the most challenging talk I've ever created for myself due to how loaded it is with technical information, names, dates, etc... To make it easier, I keep my notes on my kindle, but somehow slides got rearranged and I lost my place several times so I felt it was pretty poorly delivered. I was also worried that I might screw up the science since, besides writing this talk a year ago, I haven't though about QM since I took my course in it... 5 years ago. It didn't help my nerves that prior to starting the track director did a quick survey and there were around a half dozen physics PhD students or higher in the room. Fortunately, at the end, I had a few of them vet the content and say it was one of the better presentations of the material for a lay audience they've seen which makes me feel much better about continuing to perform this talk in the future.

Aside from giving panels, I did attend a few. I first attended Phil Plait's "10 (or so) Amazing Facts about the Solar System". It was a well given talk, certainly, but the material just fell really flat on me. Probably because it was all things that were so self obvious that the wonder has worn off somewhat. I considered that a better format might be to go through the solar system (sun, planets, odd bits), and each give what they thought was the coolest thing about each object. This would allow for some more contrast and I think really highlight just how amazing something is when both people agree on it.

The costumes were really amazing. I'd brought a few of mine with me, but due to the heat, decided not to wear any of them. I've put a few pictures below.

Elsewhere I've seen quite a few people complaining about the length of lines, rude attendees, bad placement of some things, and other things that made this the "worst D*C evar", but my experience was overwhelmingly positive. My biggest frustration was certainly that it took 30 minutes to get across the convention space, but I felt that there were at least things worth getting across it for. Many other conventions I've found lacking things that interest me which is why I've severely cut down on how many conventions I'm attending this year.

Next up for me will be Archon October 4th - 6th in Collinsville, IL where I'm hoping to debut two new talks. There's a lot of polishing left on those, but I'm quite excited to share them.

Mrs. Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus"

The Stepsisters from Disney's "Cinderella"

Marry Poppins and the Chimney Sweep from "Marry Poppins"

Louis Tully from "Ghostbusters"

Chef from Pixar's "Rattitoue"

Garrus from "Mass Effect"

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Great Before/After of Nova Delphini

A user or Reddit today by the name of avdhoeven posted a wonderful picture of the recent nova in Delphinus. It looks like the "before" image is from the Digitized Sky Survey taken in 1990 and the "after" was taken by avdhoeven.

It's a very nice picture to begin with, demonstrating just how drastic of a brightening this relatively minor explosion was. But as with many pictures, I'm always interested in all the other cool bits in the picture.

The first thing that my eye caught was the object to the right. It's slightly bluish and round, so my first though was "Neptune". But the ecliptic doesn't pass anywhere near Delphinus which pretty much rules that out. Then I noticed that there were small "handles" to either side. While these handles were very similar to what Galileo reported when he first looked at Saturn, but again, this couldn't be a planet.

What made it obvious at the end was that there is a small star in the center of the object. Obviously, this was a planetary nebula. Which makes it pretty clear how they got their names. And those small handles? Not rings, but jets. Other redditors already caught that it was NGC 6905.

I also find it interesting because it seems like the "after" image has a longer exposure. Nearly every object is brighter. There's definitely some variable stars that are fainter, but overall, NGC 6905 is also fainter. It's hard to say if that's a consequence of the nebula itself fading and dispersing over the past 2 decades, or different stretching on the image processing.

But perhaps one of the cooler things is a very faint object that someone caught in the upper left. It's a small, red object that moves a tiny bit. I'd completely missed it, but there it is. Once I saw it pointed out, I immediately thought "asteroid". However, that's far too little motion for 23 years apart. An asteroid would be long gone. Instead, it's a high proper motion star.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Upcoming Events - Dragon*Con & Archon

This year has been an odd year for me as far as conventions go. So far I've only been to two, Ohayocon and Naka-Kon. I seemed to have missed all of the local and other nearby ones this year.

But there's a good reason for this. I've been saving up my time off to finally attend Dragon*Con this year! I've been saying I intend to go every year for the past several years and just never quite made it. But this time it's settled. Funds are set aside. Tickets are bought. And if we're going to go to one of the biggest and best conventions, I might as well do it right, and jump on some panels!

So far I've been confirmed for 4 panels. As usual, I'll be doing my Anime Mythbusters talk. I'll also be joining a discussion panel entitled "Facts, Figures, and Google - Is Teaching Dead?" which looks to explore how technology is changing the classroom which will be on the Science Track. As a joint talk between the Science and Skeptics track, I'll be joining a panel on "Creationism and Intelligent Design - Debunked Ideas that Just Won't Die". Somehow I've gotten thrown on this panel with Massimo Pigliucci and Dr. Michael Shermer, so this should be a fun one. Lastly, I'll again be going through my talk on Why Everything You Know About Quantum Mechanics is Wrong. For readers of this blog, you may fare better than the average con-goer, but this talk explores how sci-fi and metaphysicists abuse quantum mechanics and what it's really about, when you get right down to it.

I'll also be returning to Archon this year. Since Archon shares a demographic with other regional conventions, I always try to do something new for them. Although I haven't gotten confirmation, I've suggested two new talks that I'm currently working on. The first is entitled "Modern Astronomy: Reading Our Cosmic Library". This talk is meant to explore how, since the beginning of the 20th century, our understanding of nearly every aspect of astronomy has been rewritten with a focus on the events and evidence that shaped our current understanding. The second is "The Top 10 Misconceptions of Big Ideas In Science". It's obviously going to be heavily weighted towards physics and astronomy topics since that's what I know best and what tends to irk me the most. Anime Mythbusters will likely get a showing there too.

Overall, the next few months will be quite busy for me, with a lot of my free time going towards preparing these new talks, although I'm excited to be doing them.

Stellar Evolution: Identifying Supernova Progenitors

It's been a pretty long time since I've written anything about stellar evolution, but a few weeks ago, a paper on arXiv caught my eye regarding the identification of the progenitor of a recent supernova. Supernovae are one of those events that get everyone excited. With ever advancing technology, astronomers are discovering hundreds of them a year, but they are such rare events for any given galaxy, that we very rarely get to study them in any great detail beyond perhaps their light curve or a bit of spectroscopy.

The best example we have where we've been able to study a supernova up close an personal was the well publicized SN 1987a. With this, astronomers were not only able to study the morphology of the resulting debris, but sufficiently high resolution images of the region were available to pin down the progenitor star. While '87a was a bit of an oddball in that it came from a blue supergiant which were not thought to be supernovae, it did confirm that at least this type II supernova come from a high mass star, an important bit of observational evidence.

It's been 26 years since that historical supernova, and while it still holds the record for the nearest supernova to us since the development of the telescope making it one of the best for study, our telescopes have improved greatly since then. In particular, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 giving an unparalleled view of galaxies even further out. So with this advance in technology, have we pinned down the progenitors of other core collapse supernovae?

Most certainly. To date, over a dozen additional supernovae have progenitors that have been identified. So what have we learned?

For the most part, the notion that type II supernovae should come from red and yellow supergiant stars has held up exceptionally well. Of the 13 supernovae for which progenitors have been identified since '87a, 12 of them have had progenitors identified as red or yellow supergiants. Only one, SN 2005gj, stands out as an exception. This star appears to be Luminous Blue Variable (LBV) much like SN 1987a was. However, this supernova defies the typical type II classification. One of the reasons astronomers give a type II designation to supernovae is when they see hydrogen emission lines in the supernova's spectra, indicating the star still has its atmosphere as opposed to being a stripped down white dwarf that is pushed over its Chandrashekar limit by having mass dumped on it from a partner. While the presence of hydrogen in the spectra was the case for 2005gj, it also exhibited all the telltale signs of a type Ia supernova. As such, the interpretation is that 2005gj was a type IIa supernova surrounded by a very dense cloud of hydrogen, perhaps of its own making. In other words, the star may have been pushed over the limit, becoming a supernova, before it completely shedded its outer layers as a planetary nebula.

Confirming that type II supernovae come from these massive, highly evolved stars is a powerful test of our understanding of stars. In particular, the mechanics of what drives a supernova are all buried deep within the star's core, a place that is quite difficult to probe to confirm theoretical models. While there are still many questions to be answered (such as the amazing diversity of energies of these events) the core predictions of models made decades before we ever identified a single supernova progenitor, that core collapse supernovae come from highly evolved, massive stars, has been confirmed in over a dozen cases.

For those interested, I've put some information below on articles related to identifying these progenitors.

  • 1993J - Red supergiant in binary system, M81, type II(b)
  • 2003gd - Red supergiant, M74, type IIp
  • 2004A - Red supergiant, NGC 6207, type IIp
  • 2004et - Yellow supergiant, NGC 6946, type IIp
  • 2005cs - Red supergiant, M51, type IIp
  • 2005gj - Luminous Blue Variable, type Ia/IIn "hybrid"
  • 2006my - Red supergiant, NGC 6451, type IIp
  • 2008bk - Red supergiant, NGC 7793, type IIp
  • 2009hd - Red to Yellow Supergiant, M66, Type IIL
  • 2009kr - Yellow supergiant, NGC 1832, type IIL
  • 2011dh - Yellow supergiant, M52, type IIb
  • 2012aw - Red supergiant, M95, type IIp
  • 2012ec - Red supergiant, NGC 1084, type IIp

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cosmo Quest Hangout-a-thon

Breaking my broadcast silence here to promote a good cause.

If you haven't heard, the recent budget cuts in the US have had some pretty devastating effects for the astronomy community. Perhaps the largest cut was the effective zeroing out of all of NASA's education and outreach programs pending review. This doesn't mean the programs are cancelled, but funding is temporarily suspended which basically leaves those that rely on that funding in a lurch until their programs are reviewed and their budgets reinstated, if they are at all. In the meantime, those that are dependent on this funding may have to find something else to do which would mean they might never come back.

One of the groups that is being especially hard hit is the CosmoQuest group led by Dr. Pamela Gay at SIUE. Even if you don't know CosmoQuest by name, if you're interested in the astronomy community or even astronomy in general, you have likely seen something they've been involved in.

In particular, CosmoQuest works very closely with the Zooniverse project. This project is an attempt to crowdsource data processing from many of Astronomy's biggest projects to make amazing discoveries. The most popular has been the Planet Hunters project which uses KEPLER data to allow users to search for planets and has been wildly successful. CosmoQuest has helped in shaping these programs and maintaining them, allowing ordinary people to directly access real astronomy. Although I'm not teaching right now, these are programs that I would love to bring into the classroom and I'd hate to see disappear.

Aside from these fantastic projects, CosmoQuest also helped organize the amazingly successful 365 Days of Astronomy, a series of daily podcasts that was originally produced for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, but was so successful that it's still going. The podcast has thousands of listeners and is only possible thanks to the full time work by the CosmoQuest team getting everything organized.

And it's all in danger.

Back in April, Pamela put a post in her blog detailing the crisis she's facing and pledging to try to find some other funding in the interim. This very real fear was echoed by one of her assistants, Nichole Gugliucci.

This weekend, they, along with many others, will be doing a donation drive. Instead of being done on TV, it will be broadcast live through Google's Hangouts on Air. It was originally slated for a 24 hour drive, but there has been such an outpouring of support from people that want to talk about the citizen science and other projects that CosmoQuest drives, that it has been extended to 32 hours of straight talks on these projects!

To watch is free, but as previously stated, the purpose is to raise funds to continue their work. So if you can, DONATE.

Remember, this isn't just a group that tells people about Astronomy. It's a group that allows people to get directly involved and do real science. Without your support, these amazing projects that have literally discovered new worlds may disappear.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Being a Better Speaker

Immediately after saying I probably won't post much, lookit! A post!

I have a really bad habit of leaving tabs open in my browser. Some will stay there for months. I've gotten somewhat better as I've started using Pintrest and just shove a lot of things in there, but sometimes there's tabs that just sit there.

One in particular that I need to close out comes from all the way back in October. The post is from the TED blog, and is on how scientists and engineers can be better speakers. While I don't think it's a bad post, I certainly don't think it's a good one.

First off "Be aware of your audience". Really? I don't think I'd ever heard that before. No. Certainly wasn't something that I've had hammered into my head since elementary school on every topic in which communication was being discussed.

Sarcasm aside, I think it's a fair point to make, but it's also one that should be so obvious that it doesn't need to be said. What needs to be said, is how to find the right level for your audience. And that's not something that can be reduced to a platitude. Fortunately, the author of the post does do some good at that by at least saying that scientists shouldn't "dumb down" the science. This is something I've definitely done in my history as a speaker. In my most popular talk, I've never shied away from bringing out calculus in front of a crowd that's mostly high school students or people that aren't mathematically inclined.

Why? Because sometimes, the details aren't important. One of my focuses as a communicator of science is to remind people that science isn't a collection of facts; it's a process. And even if people don't understand that process, they need to understand it's there. Hiding it away and skipping straight to the conclusions because your audience won't get every detail changes how our culture perceives science. And pseudoscientists play on that. Think of how many times you've heard the Creationist ruse that scientists supposedly engage in circular reasoning when they "date fossils by the rocks and date rocks by the fossils". That's not at all how it works. We don't just make up a paradigm and engage in that sort of specious reasoning. There's a lot more to it. Reminding people of the complexity makes those sort of over simplified strawmen of science be seen for what they really are.

The second point is also a trope. "Show the Relevance". While again, I don't think it's a bad idea, it's really not necessary. Again, pointing to my Anime Mythbusters talk, there is absolutely no relevance to any of it. I can't justify why you need to worry about the UV exposure someone will receive from a fictional Pokemon. Because you really won't need to. And you shouldn't.

Additionally, I think there's a serious issue with the demand that science always be immediately rationalizable. Most of the biggest discoveries, advances, and inventions haven't come because people were out to discover the particular thing they did. To put it another way, science doesn't progress as a series of "Eureka!" moments. It progresses as a series of "WTF?" moments. Stating that science always have a clear purpose with obvious and immediate application betrays the way science works. Ben Franklin was not experimenting with static electricity to power light bulbs.

So what's the take away? Science doesn't need to be relevant. It needs to be interesting. I'm willing to bet that most readers here can think of at least one scientific subject that's wholly boring to them, either because it's just not big enough for them to care about, or they know it so well that hearing it again is sleep inducing. But with the right person telling you about it, their passion becomes infectious. There is beauty in all nature. It just takes a skilled speaker to make people recognize it. But that doesn't mean it's relevant.

The third point is for speakers to "Paint a Picture". This is definitely good advice, but what the author doesn't mention is that it's a double edged sword. While giving a broader picture can help people find those points by which they can connect and apply their prior knowledge, it's also a potential way to lose an audience. It's quite easy to get lost in a picture.

For the past four months, I've been reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms. It's been a pretty awful experience. The author is constantly giving details that do nothing to convey the primary information. It's stories about the hosts he spends time with and then the bus ride to a remote location to look for ancient organisms. The amount of time and detail put into the irrelevant bits swamp the relevant story.

Finally a really smart comment that's all too often overlooked comes in fourth. "Make Numbers Meaningful". Hell. Yes. This is especially important in astronomy where the scales are so large, that the only way to communicate them is with scientific notation. Unfortunately, on scales that large, there's not a lot that you can do. Our human experience doesn't allow any comparisons that are going to be meaningful. But on smaller scales, it's entirely doable. Returning to the example of the UV exposure from a particular Pokemon, the answer ends up being best expressed in scientific notation, but by converting it to a ratio to compare it to typical exposure from the Sun, and then discussing how long it would take a pasty white guy like me to burn, it suddenly coverts a meaningless figure, or worse, a scary figure (since so many people are mathphobic), into something they can appreciate!

Cliches return for the fifth point on "Banishing Bullet Points". It's one that I'm not opposed to but I generally disagree with. The problem isn't bullet points. It's people using them incorrectly. Bad speakers essentially turn an outline into a bulleted Power Point and then use it as a crutch when they present. That's a problem. Rather, the speaker should introduce the information first, and then display the bullet point. As you do this, the audience will realize that what you're putting up isn't new information and as such, they won't tune you out trying to read them.

But if it's not new information, why have them? There's a very good reason. Leaving thoughts on a screen allows you to show they're still relevant. You're hanging on to them because you're going to return to them in a moment. Then, when you're ready, you can point back to a previous point you've left floating there.

Putting them into a bullet list also is a way to organize the information visually, often showing it as a point that falls below a heading which is the general idea. It solidifies the points as being hierarchical in nature. Which is great when you have things that are. And that's a lot in science. For example: Hypothesis, list of evidence. The author even suggests an "Assertion-Evidence" model for slides, but then seems to ignore that not all evidence is presented in the form of "charts, graphs, images, equations, etc". Sometimes your evidence is a list of points.

Another common bullet point mistake is display all of them as once. It's information overload. Instead, as I noted above, each one should be introduced independently and information layered on. When viewed retrospectively it isn't daunting. Especially when each one is introduced verbally.

When should bullets be dumped? If your information isn't linear, you probably don't need them. Flow charts are cool. Consider them. If you're not using it to hang onto a collection of points, you probably don't need them. If it's going to take an excessive amount of time for each one and you don't have anything else interesting going on, you can probably do something else.

A good example of navigating this is my Sexism in Anime talk. During the introduction I introduce 3 categories of a patriarchal society. Under each one I give several specific ways these the general categories are manifest. This is hierarchical information, so bullet points make sense. However, I then want to discuss each of those points in detail as they are exhibited (or not) in a particular series. At that point, I switch over to each individual point as a heading, and examine it with images from the series as my evidence (as shown in the preview image on the above link). When I need to summarize everything, I revive the bullet point and show the information as a collection. It's very effective. While people have a tendency to ignore events because they can't see it all listed in front of them, presenting how badly this particular (and very popular) series fails at representing women as worthwhile characters, it's harder to rationalize the events individually. In that sense, having that bulleted list is entirely appropriate and I wouldn't trade it for any other format.

The last point is very true, but also entirely unhelpful. "Deliver Dynamically". In short, the author says to have an enthusiastic, energetic, but natural style. Easier said than done for many people. So what should speakers concentrate on to pull this off? Hopefully, if you're giving a talk to a more general audience, it's because it's something special. Hopefully, you're not having to report the results of a 10 year study that failed to find any evidence for your hypothesis. That'd be a bummer and hard to find that enthusiasm for. So we'll assume it's something special. Enthusiasm should come naturally.

Similarly, natural shouldn't be a problem. I find it a somewhat annoying that so many people telling people how to speak think being "natural" is an intelligent comment. The reason is that humans are very diverse, even within a single individual. There's times when we're all somber. But there's also times when we're exuberant. Both are "natural" for us. There's very few people I've encountered that I suspect of being dryer than Ben Stein all the time.

But on the off chance that you are one of those people, there's still ways to play it. In particular, being that flat makes even the small variations stand out. One of my professors did have Ben Stein beat for dryness, but every once in awhile, he'd sneak in a joke. They were pretty awful* but they were worth paying attention for.

So in my mind, it's not that doing these things will make you better. You're likely already doing them, but other things are getting in the way. The largest is stage fright. Without realizing it, nervous tendencies will easily take over and pervert or destroy the enthusiasm that would otherwise be apparent. Excited about what you're talking about? Good, says the scumbag brain. Now you're talking too fast without having a dynamic vocal range!

It's hard to get over stage fright. One of the things that I've always reminded myself is that, at almost all of my presentations, I have an audience that's on my side. They're interested in the subject. Otherwise they wouldn't be there. That's something I use to my advantage. Instead of trying to forget the audience is there so I can concentrate on what I'm doing, I try to make sure I'm feeling the audience. Quite early on, I'll always drop something that's going to get a reaction.

In my Anime Mythbusters talk, it's discussing the depressing state of science education that gets disapproving *tsk*s from the audience. I follow that up with a big full slide warning. "This panel contains: Algebra, Graphs, Scientific Notation, Inequalities, Exponents, and Calculus." I say this at a clip of someone reading the fine print on a used car commercial and get cheers for it. I know the audience's energy is behind me, and I take that energy and ride it. Don't be scared of your audience. Use it. Get a good start and it puts you on the right path.

This is a double edged sword of course. If you're reading the audience's emotions and they turn sour, this can take the wind out of your sails and compound the issue. But after all the speaking I've done in the past 5 years, I've yet to have that happen.

I don't know how many of my readers here do much public speaking, but for those that do, I hope this offers something more useful than the cliche advise I've seen so many places.

* - Saturn has a density of 0.687 grams/cc3. This means that if you had a bathtub large enough, it would float. Of course, if you let the water out, it would leave rings.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Welcome to 2013

It's a new year now. Judging by the general trends on other blogs, I think that means I'm supposed to look back over 2012 in a reflective manner and make some goals for this year.

As a blog, I did pretty miserably last year. I've been dropping pretty heavily every year lately. Every year I tell myself that I'm going to write more, but the drive to do so has been pretty much gone. I've grown pretty burnt out on even my pet topics that were the foundation for this blog, which were Creationism and skepticism. It's not to say that I don't think Creationism is a worthwhile topic to discuss anymore. It's just that playing whack-a-mole with idiotic Creationist arguments gets old and causes migraines.

It's not to say I don't think skepticism isn't important either. If I did, I wouldn't attend Skepticon annually. But I've definitely hit a turning point with that too. A few weeks ago I got into a religion debate with a friend of a friend on facebook. He insisted that my arguments were irrelevant because I was talking about how people used to think about religion, but there were all these fancy pants new religious scholars that changed everything and if I'd only read a pile of books, I'd understand it.

In years past, I'd probably have done some research on each book and responded, but as he was making that argument, I had one of the strongest flashbacks I can remember in my life. I remembered an argument from way back sometime around 2006 in which I was still tearing Creationism apart left and right. On one particular occasion I had someone tell me that my arguments were invalid because some fancy pants new researchers had amazing new evidence for Creationism that was changing everything. I'm pretty sure they were trying to point me to the Institute for Creation research or some other such gibberish factory.

And here we are six years later now, and the ICR, AiG, the DI, and all the other Creationist "think tanks" (scare quotes obviously since there's very little actual thinking that goes on there) still haven't come up with a new argument. At best, they slap new names on things, but there's been nothing new.

Suddenly, engaged in the facebook debate, I realized that this was the same argument. I was supposed to buy into something because it was about to be big. And if you believe that, I'd like to sell you some serious stock in my patented wibblets because everyone's going to want one. I promise.

Or not. I've gotten tired of that type of debate tactic.

The Skeptic community tires me too, but for pretty much the exact opposite reason. Whereas debating idiots has turned into a dull monotony, the skeptic community has exploded in the past year or two and is going so many directions at once, I just don't have the energy to get excited by all the directions it's going.

To use another analogy from 2006, I went to San Diego Comic Con. There were so many things to do and the crowds so large, it simply became overwhelming. It was one of the first 5-10 I'd been to and I didn't know how to manage it. Instead of really enjoying the convention as I would do now given that I have a lot more convention experience under my belt, I just sat in the dealer's room for the bulk of the con.

That's about how I feel with the proliferation of topics the skeptic and secular community has been taking. I've grabbed my new pet topic, and I stay pretty up to date with that one, but while I recognize the others are important, I can't summon time time and energy to truly engage in them.

The topic that does occupy the vast majority of my time now is running Naka Kon. This year we're making some big changes, and due to some bumps we've hit along the way (such as a server crash without any sort of backup and several people having to step down for personal reasons without leaving any sort of plan or information for people stepping into the role), we've been doing a lot more work than should strictly be necessary. The majority of my past 3 days has been working on convention planning.

Overall, 2012 was a lighter year on the convention circuit for me. As I've attended more conventions, my expectations have continued to increase and many of the smaller ones lack sufficient programming I care about to earn my attendance any longer. I obviously attended Naka-Kon but also managed to get to Tokyo in Tulsa and Archon. But typically I also attend several of the small St. Louis anime conventions. This year, I missed all of them.

Looking ahead to 2013 conventions, I'm already lined up to attend Ohayocon in Columbus, OH in a few weeks. I'll be giving three talks there. I'll be at Naka again this year. I'm hoping to get to Dragon*Con (although I've been saying that every year for 5 years now), and I'm sure I'll be at Archon again this year.

As far as the rest of my topics for this blog, well, I probably will continue not to write much. It will probably continue to be the epitomes of Creationist inanity that will get posts.

I'll certainly be keeping adding to my list of all the ways our government... I'm sorry, one particular party has been trying to limit womens' freedom and then denying there's any sort of attack going on. So if that's a topic that you care about, perhaps check in on it here and there.

I keep seeing really cool astronomy articles, but aside from bookmarking them for later, deeper reading (which quite often doesn't happen), I have been bad about writing anything on them. Most often because I don't feel that I have anything to add. In particular, I think astrobites has done a really wonderful job of summarizing most of the best arXiv articles, which is where I quite often got things to talk about. Good on them.

So really, I don't think I'm going to make blogging more any sort of New Years resolution. I'm too reality stricken.

Instead, I think my resolutions will be to 1) do a better job of not letting my RSS feed get clogged up (I keep ignoring it for a week and come back to find hundreds of blog posts to read skim). 2) Argue with less idiots. Really. I don't need the migraines.

We'll see how this goes.