The first rule of academic politics

By Charles Sutton on January 25, 2013

“Don’t talk about academic politics”? Ha! I wish. Academic politics is nothing but talking. I guess that’s true for most all kinds of politics, really.

The First Rule of Academic Politics is: No matter what happens, you have to live with these people afterwards.

Another, perhaps dated, way to say this is that an academic department is like an episode of “Survivor”, except that instead of voting people off of the island, you vote them ON. To stay.

How I Make Coffee

By Charles Sutton on January 19, 2013

Pourover is a trendy and delicious way of making coffee. It is possible to make excellent coffee this way. This video by Matt Perger has a great technique for the Hario V60, which the one that I have been playing with since receiving it for my birthday.

Here’s a summary of the video. You will probably need to watch the vide for this to make sense:

12g coffee 200g water brewing time 2:20 total

  1. Add 50g water. Stir. Let bloom.
  2. At 0:30, add 50g water in outward spiral. Make sure no grounds are above water line
  3. At 1:00, add remaining 100g water in spiral pattern, again washing the grounds down the edges.
  4. Around 1:30 or so reseat dripper to even out bed of grounds

How do you know it’s 50g of water? Place your mug on top of a digital scale before pouring.

What kind of kettle do you pour the water from? Unfortunately, this really does matter. It’s important that the grounds be completely saturated with water, and that you pour the water slowly. Otherwise, you will create channels through the grounds through which most of the water will pass, causing part of the grounds to be overextracted and bitter. I am told that the Hario kettle is excellent, because it has a narrow swan neck which allows the water to poured slowly and precisely. But it also costs 50 pounds! It is difficult to find a similar kettle that is reasonably priced, but I have just gotten this Tiamo kettle and so far, so good.

[h/t: Artisan Roast]

Tags: coffee, hobbies

A simple trick to encourage lecture participation

By Charles Sutton on January 12, 2013

It’s the time of year when teaching is very much on my mind. In an essay about his teaching styleMichael Scott says something about encouraging student participation that stuck with me:

I’ve found that the very first class period sets the tone for the whole semester. If I don’t get students to participate on day one, they probably won’t participate at all, and the course ends up dreadfully dull. My first lecture in any class thus begins with a brainstorming exercise, in which I get as many different students as possible to voice a suggestion or opinion. 

Last year I tried something like this in my undergraduate machine learning class. I don’t want to go into details in case I use it again, but it wasn’t a brainstorming exercise (I couldn’t think of one), but a simple quiz question that introduced part of the material. I had the students vote on the correct answer—and everyone voted wrong, because it was of course a trick question. To my delight, I found that year’s class asked many more questions than the one before, even though it was significantly larger. This may be due to random variation, or to the fact that I was better at teaching the course the second time, but it’s enough that I’ll keep trying it.

Tags: lecturing, advice

About to graduate with your PhD? One more tip.

By Charles Sutton on January 8, 2013

A rite of passage for US PhD students is the title page of their dissertation. The way that faculty indicate their approval of the final dissertation is by signing the title page, and students are required to leave space on the title page for this purpose. It’s up to the student to run around to all their committee members (mine had 5) and get them to sign. Holding the final title page, with all the signatures, this bland sheet of acid-free paper that signifies that your hard work has come to something… it’s a heady feeling.

Often people go to a bookbinder to get bound copies made as gifts for their parents and PhD supervisors. I had a copy bound for myself as well (boy was that a mistake). So here’s my tip: Keep a photocopy of your signed title page. Then, when you get your thesis bound, you can include the signed title page with all the bound copies. This looks much nicer than a title page with blank signature lines, which gives the faint impression that you’re trying to pull something over on someone.


Tags: advice

Happy Pi Day! (belated)

By Charles Sutton on November 10, 2012

Pi Day is an international holiday celebrating the mathematical constant π. It is celebrated on March 14, i.e., 3/14 in month/day notation. It is typically celebrated by telling everyone you know, “Hey, it’s Pi Day!” More enterprising people bake lots of pies, take pictures of them, and then post the pictures on the Internet.

After moving to the UK, where the date would be written 14/3, that choice for Pi Day seemed wrong, reeking of American cultural hegemony. There had to be a better way.

So I came up with one. Why not celebrate Pi Day on the 314th day of the year. In most years, this is November 10. This should be easy for everyone to remember, because it is the day after my birthday. In leap years, like 2012, Pi Day occurs a day earlier, on November 9.

Happy belated Pi Day!

(Those amused by the juxtaposition of this post with the preceding one on this blog are welcome to their amusement.)