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Ask Slashdot: How To Pick Up Astronomy and Physics As an Adult?

dlevitan Re:Volunteers are Usually Welcome (234 comments)

Which goes to show how valuable programming skills are. Ideally, PIs want someone with a background in their field and the capabilities of an software engineer. It's very, very hard to find those, so you either get a PhD and tell him/her to learn how to code (often leading to horrible code that does the right thing) or get a software engineer (leading to high quality code but simple mistakes at the conceptual level - particularly since smaller projects have no requirement documents or the like). Typically you get more of the former and less of the latter.

With a programming background you can definitely get a job like this (as in your case). If the OP is more IT than computer science/programming, then he can also get a job but it'll be doing IT. Plenty of demand for it, but oftentimes not the most interesting thing.

about 2 months ago
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Ask Slashdot: How To Pick Up Astronomy and Physics As an Adult?

dlevitan Re:Volunteers are Usually Welcome (234 comments)

It's unlikely you can make the transition to working in the field without some really major sacrifices. (And if you do, it will probably be more on the computational side.) But if you love it for it's own sake I'd suggest talking to local labs and seeing if you can get involved in any projects - especially projects where you can work remotely at least part of the time, since your time is limited. And as a volunteer, you often get to avoid some of the more tedious bits that people who are being paid have to work on. My experience is that people with solid computer skills are needed, and people who will work are needed, and there's way more cool work to be done than there are money and people to do it.

I'm not as sure this would work out. Yes, computer skills are very much in demand, but if your background is in IT the only thing you can do independently is IT work, just in astronomy. Astronomy volunteers are typically on the leading tours or administrative side as opposed to the research side. Why? Because it takes several years of PhD work to understand what you're doing and another few just to be able to work semi-independently. I'd also point out that without the ability to work independently, you'll take up a lot of a professional's time. Yes there's more projects than time/money, but volunteers typically require a good amount of mentoring time (often more than you get out of the volunteer). Why should he/she work with you instead of, say, an undergrad who has an equal amount of time and a more recent background in physics/astronomy? The exception here is if you can offer something valuable - data analysis skills, image analysis, machine learning, and similar are all things that many astronomers don't understand who which are less domain specific.

about 2 months ago
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Ask Slashdot: How To Pick Up Astronomy and Physics As an Adult?

dlevitan Getting into astronomy (234 comments)

I was an astronomer until I left the field last year after I graduated with my PhD. First, I definitely think it's great you want to contribute to research. My personal suggestion is to find a local astronomy club and see what they're doing. Find some books, news articles, etc... to read. That will hopefully give you a decent introduction. If you live near a university with a decent astrophysics program, you can also see if they have any public lectures or, if you want something more intense, attend seminars (though they're typically during the day). They're typically open to the public, but you should probably e-mail first just to double check. There are also things like Galaxy Zoo and similar projects that let you get involved without any commitment.

If you want to get more serious, you should think about what you want to do. Do you want to do any research? Participate in volunteer activities? Just go observing? For the latter, local astronomy clubs (or star parties) would be a good first start. Some of the big observatories also have programs for amateur observing. Mauna Kea is absolutely amazing for this - every night at the visitor center they bring out some decent sized telescopes (decent sized for seeing with your eyes) and there's usually a bunch of volunteers to help understand what they're pointing them at. Oftentimes dedicated amateurs will come up as well with even bigger telescopes and are happy to share. You also sometimes get professional astronomers who hang out there (like I did a few nights) though the amateurs are usually better at describing what you're seeing (professional astronomy is all about physics - not pretty images).

If you live near a big observatory (mostly southwest US, California, or Hawaii) you can also try to volunteer to be a docent there or something similar. Many of the observatories have some program for volunteers to help lead tours, attend public talks by researchers, and similar. The more dedicated volunteers get some perks, like joining for observing runs, seeing some of the behind-the-scenes things at the telescopes, and similar.

On the research side, it's a lot harder and a lot more investment (time, money, or both). To be able to do semi-independent research in astronomy you'd need to basically do a PhD. That's 40-50 hours a week (at least) for 5-7 years. It's hard. You can do more limited things though. For example, the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) is a great organization that organizes observing of variable stars and provides some support to write up the results. Amateur data has been used in many papers. But, this requires having your own telescope that can take scientific quality images. You can also work on data analysis, but this will definitely require some time to understand how to do it. I'd also point out that most people underestimate how hard it is to write a scientific paper. Especially your first one.

As for going into it professionally, I agree with others who have said there are few jobs in the field. Especially if you have a family, it would be very hard to start from scratch.

about 2 months ago
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Boeing 787 Makes US Debut

dlevitan Re:That doesn't really show anything. (317 comments)

Except that if you compare US airlines to foreign airlines including Europe, they have far better "soft products" despite labor costs.

They may have better soft products, but that's because of increased costs. A similar ticket in the US costs 1/3 less than in Europe (e.g. LAX-SFO vs AMS-LHR). Want to fly cheaper in Europe? Then you get stuck with low cost carriers, who are efficient and make their money by stuffing more people into airplanes than anyone else (my knees are still complaining from an Iberia express flight a few days ago).

Moreover, in the US, if you fly a decent amount, you get status quickly. In Europe, it's several times harder (e.g. discount economy gives you only 1/2 miles and the number of miles you need is higher). I fly enough, and use United for every trip. I get a lot of small perks, including more legroom, priority security, etc... And I don't pay much more than the low cost carriers in Europe. So, for me, US carriers are much better than elsewhere.

Now, if you have the opportunity to fly on a legacy from Europe, or, particularly, from Asia, then that will be much nicer. But you'll pay for it.

about 2 years ago
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Patent Expires On Best Selling Drug of All Time

dlevitan Re:Choosing the correct tactics (491 comments)

I'm unclear here. Since when did pharmacists suddenly get the right to override a doctor's prescription? How can Pfizer actually get a pharmacist to sign an exclusivity agreement.

Pharmacists don't override a doctor's prescription. Lipitor is the brand name of the drug Atorvastatin, which was developed by Pfizer. A prescription is for Atorvastatin (or Lipitor, whatever the doctor) writes down, but the drug is the same whether or not is was made by Pfizer (and called Lipitor) or by a different company (and called atorvastatin). Pfizer has simply made exclusivity agreements that pharmacies would not sell generic versions of atorvastatin. This might be bad for the consumer (price-wise, not health-wise), but they can always go to a different pharmacy if theirs refuses to sell the generic.

more than 2 years ago
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Ask Slashdot: How To Enter Private Space Industry As an Engineer?

dlevitan Academics is not the most important (283 comments)

A few questions/thoughts to think about:

1) How do you know you'd enjoy working for the private space industry? Sure, it sounds cool, but until you try it, don't assume you'll love it.

2) Academics is not the most important thing. More important is getting experience. Look at the schools you're interested in and see what professors have contacts with the industry. E-mail them and, ideally, try to meet them. Most professors are very approachable and interested in working with undergrads. Sure, you'll be essentially free/cheap labor for 4 years. But you'll get hands-on experience and learn a lot, and, if you're any good, the professor will drop a note to his former students at SpaceX or whatever other company, who'll get you a job as soon as you graduate.

3) Take classes besides engineering. You'll learn a lot, meet new people (networking is the most important thing), and get a different perspective on life. And, you might decide something else is more interesting. Treat college as a chance to explore and learn, not a something to deal with on the way to what you think you want to do.

4) Male/female ratio and social interaction in general is essential. If you go to a good school, you will be battered by problem sets, projects, etc... You survive that by having friends, a significant other, etc... You don't survive that by just working harder. Having a good social life (which does not mean partying all the time) is vital for having a good college experience and being successful. Plus, you never know when your friends will be able to help you later in life. And learning how to socialize (which you're probably not the best at right now) while in college means you have the skills to be confident both for future personal relationships and when you look for a job and need to deal with other people.

5) If you/your parents don't have any money, go to a good state school or to a school that gives you a good scholarship and save >$100k. It's not really worth the hassle if you really take advantage of the opportunities in your school. And you can always work with a professor at another school during the summers.

6) If you do have the money, go to the best school you can. The advantage of those schools is not that the education is better, but that the networking opportunities are much better and that the professors there have the best connections. MIT and RPI are good. Also Cornell has a top notch engineering program (and it's my undergrad alma mater). Carnegie Mellon is very good. Also Cooper Union, UPenn, Princeton, and Columbia. Probably some others as well.

Good luck and remember, academics is not everything in life!

about 3 years ago
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Amazon Folds In California Sales Tax Deal

dlevitan A bunch of BS (639 comments)

There are times I like the NY Times, and times I really can't stand them. This is one of the latter. Sales tax is not a reason that B&M retailers are having problems competing with online retailers. Price and service are.

Almost always, I can order something for half the price online. What do I get for doubling my cost if I go locally? Horrible customer service and having to drive to the store (even more money) instead of having it come to my door. Plus, my service experience with Amazon is better than just about any retail store. This lack of service basically rules out me buying electronics in any local store. And the price is usually cheaper online even with sales tax.

So when do I buy locally? When it's something I need that day, or is very small, or when the extra service (from a good store) is important. Local stores need to stop whining about sales tax and start offering better service. Who does this work for? Costco for example. I routinely pay more to buy from them (and pay sales tax!) because of their customer service and their return policies.

Why do people not pay use tax? Because it's a mess to figure out exactly how much you owe. Same for internet stores. Some municipalities have insane taxation rules where certain things are taxed, but not if they cost more than $x, or less than $y, or 20 other rules.

If states want to get paid salex taxes, simplify things. For example, all catalog/internet purchases are charged a 5% sales tax regardless of what you're buying. Even if each state set its own, one sales tax on all products linked to each state is simple to deal with. Particularly for smaller stores, setup a national processor (paid for by the taxes) that each store can simply send its collected taxes to with a state-by-state break down.

That's how you collect taxes on online purchases, not by whining.

more than 3 years ago
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Ask Slashdot: Do I Give IT a Login On Our Dept. Server?

dlevitan Academia is different than Business (1307 comments)

What most people here don't get is that academia is very different than business. I have no experience with academic hospitals, but it if's primarily a research hospital, I wouldn't be surprised if it's similar to most places in academia. I'm currently a PhD student, and neither my current university nor my previous one had any restrictions on servers so long as you didn't generate too much traffic. Most departments (in fact, most large groups) in universities have their own IT person who runs their own servers, and the main IT department is only responsible for managing campus-wide services (i.e. non-departmental services). Hardware owned by each department is subject to the policies of that department - some will enforce much more control than others. But I've never seen the situation where you couldn't bring in your own laptop and use it to work.

Again, this may or may not apply to academic hospitals, but the notion of a port being closed in a university is absurd.

more than 3 years ago
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UN Backs Action Against Colonel Gaddafi

dlevitan Re:Similar Revolts (501 comments)

I am of the opinion we will see more revolutions, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even possibly Iran. This will get real interesting, especially if places where the oil interest become threatened.

Nothing of the sort will happen. The only reason the UN backed the Libyan rebels is because the Middle-Eastern countries agreed to it. The reason they agreed to it is because Gaddafi is crazy, and no one likes him.

Bahrain did have a revolution. It was crushed by the Bahraini, Saudi and UAE militaries. Sorry you missed it - it ended almost before it began. Saudi Arabia will not revolt (the government is way too strong and is slowly...very slowly...implementing reforms). As for Iran, anything is possible, but the government there has too much public support even with Ahmadinejad in power.

more than 3 years ago
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Ask Slashdot: Is There a War Against Small Mail Servers?

dlevitan VPS (459 comments)

Get a VPS. You can get one for $20/month and set up a full e-mail server on it. You'll get better hardware and better connectivity than your own server. Your IP will be seen as coming from a data center, not a cable modem pool of addresses. You can also host your own website, and leave the server you have at your office for internal things only. For mail access, just set up IMAP and SMTP with TLS, with the latter on port 587 (known as the submission port) which is generally not blocked like 25 is.

more than 3 years ago
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Obama Calling For $53B For High Speed Rail

dlevitan Re:Its not the speed that is the problem. (1026 comments)

Amtrak works by having the right of way for a certain window for each train. Basically, they have a schedule, and if they stick to it, it's fine. On the one long distance trip I did (LA to San Francisco) we left on schedule, stayed on schedule, and arrived on schedule, with no waits. But if they get behind at any point, it becomes horrible.

The problem is that Amtrak trains are very, very slow. LA-SF takes 12 hours. It takes 6 hours by car driving the speed limit. They also cost just a bit less than airplanes. The major advantages of Amtrak are lack of security and the space. Sadly, for high speed trains, I'm sure the first will be removed, and who knows about the second.

Therefore, why build high speed rail except in markets it actually would work due to the high concentration of people (northeast).

more than 3 years ago
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Sensor Measures In Fingertips If Driver Is Drunk

dlevitan Only until the first person dies... (549 comments)

It'll only last until the first person dies from one of these sensors. Someone will have a heart attack in a rural area where ambulance service is at least 30 minutes away. Their spouse/friend will carry them to the car, and try to start the car. The sensor will malfunction, and refuse to start. By the time the ambulance gets there, the person with the heart attack will be dead. Instant lawsuit against the car manufacturer and the government. And I'd support it 100%. It's one thing to mandate sensors for people who lost the right. It's another thing to mandate it for everyone.

more than 3 years ago
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Kongregate App Pulled From Android Market

dlevitan What's wrong with this? (139 comments)

Last week Google took a page from Apple's book and pulled the Arcade by Kongregate app from the Android Market for violating its terms of service.

Except that on my Droid I'm still allowed to download the app from Kongregate's website and install it, no matter what Google thinks. They can even update their app automatically, or, even distribute more than one app. I have apps like that on my phone. Of course, they don't get the exposure of Google's app store, but there's nothing inherently wrong with Google saying "We don't want that in our app store". As opposed to Apple, I choose what can and cannot be installed on my phone, not Google/Apple.

more than 3 years ago
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Join a Worldwide Planet Search

dlevitan Re:Cumbersome interface (54 comments)

Please e-mail the people in charge of the Planet Hunters people with everything you just wrote. I'm not involved with this project, but I am in the collaboration that supplies the data for the Supernova Zoo. I don't work much with that part of the project (I use the same data for stellar work), but for them SN Zoo is a crucial part of the discovery pipeline. Anything we can do to help people help us is something that would definitely be considered (and probably implemented if we have the resources), and I'm sure the Planet people are the same way.

more than 3 years ago
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US Trials Off Track Over Juror Internet Misconduct

dlevitan A more informed jury? (405 comments)

There seems to be two general categories of Internet communications when it comes to trials. One is making comments about the process or trial. This I think has always happened to some extent, but was never made public (i.e. telling your spouse about your jury service). The addition of the Internet has made this more of a problem, because in the end, it is supposed to be the juror's decision about guilt, not him/her and the readers of his/her blog.

On the other hand, looking up terms or information about the trial, I think, only makes for a more informed jury. Otherwise, your only piece of information is from the prosecutor and defense lawyer, which are both extremely biased opinions. Granted, jurors have to be careful to judge information on the web carefully, but we're asking them to do the same thing in the courtroom as well.

more than 3 years ago
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Wal-Mart To Launch Unlimited Wireless Family Plan

dlevitan Re:May not be as cheap as you think (278 comments)

"You and I" must be a very selective group. I use my Droid a lot, but in the last 10 months of owning it, I've gone over 500 MB/month once, and hit 400 MB/month 2 months. The rest of the time I haven't gone over 300 MB, and mostly at the 200 MB level. Why?

A good chunk of the time my droid is using wifi (at home). I used to be able to do it at my office as well, but then froyo broke WPA/Enterprise compatibility with cisco access points (well, actually wpa_supplicant broke, but froyo has an older version with this bug). Although android does have many issues with wifi compatibility. Plus, I don't stream music and even with 3G youtube takes a long time to load. And I don't tether my laptop (which is generally prohibited anyway).

On the other hand, I use it as, essentially, a PDA, navigation/gps system, and light browsing (the web browser is good, but I can only deal with so much browsing on a 4" screen. Great for looking something up. Useless for browsing a long time. VoIP may change things, but for the time being I only use VoIP when I'm in locations with wifi but not cell signal.

Personally, I'd be very glad to have a plan like Walmart's. I currently pay $30/month for unlimited data, and use on average, say 400 MB. Over the last 10 months I've paid Verizon $300. With Walmart's plan, I would've paid $160. Even adding on VoIP with a 64 kbit codec (the highest quality SIPDroid offers) for 450 minutes/month adds 216 MB of data usage. (or does it need to be doubled for both ways?)

You're right that the carriers are scared...because it won't be long before real VoIP apps appear for android that anyone can use, and the carriers are reduced to data carriers, not phone providers. Unfortunately, T-Mobile's network is nowhere as good as Verizon's, so I won't even consider it.

more than 4 years ago
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Smart Trash Carts Tell If You Haven't Been Recycling

dlevitan Re:Deposit Scheme (622 comments)

Just please don't follow the CA scheme. In NY, where I lived before Los Angeles, every grocery store had a few machines and you could bring down the bag of bottles you had whenever you wanted to. There was never a line, and everything just worked.

In CA, it's horrible. First, a lot more stuff has deposits on it. Second, most stores don't have any machines - they're only at special stores that have a separate booth on their property that handles recyclables (and not the ones I shop at for the most part). There's two automated machines per booth + one person who handles people who bring in huge amounts of stuff. Whenever I go, it takes me about a half-hour to wait in line while the professional bottle collectors in front of me off-load 5 huge garbage bags full of bottles. Half the time, the machines simply aren't working. And the booths operate from 9 AM to 4:30 pm. Oh, and there's usually a few homeless people pan-handling for money.

When I first moved here a few years ago, I'd store bottles on my apartment balcony for half a year, and then bring them down to get my $5-10 in deposits back. A few months ago I just gave up and decided I'd just recycle those bottles along with the rest of my recyclables. $20/year is not worth all the aggravation.

more than 4 years ago
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Gestures With Multitouch In Ubuntu 10.10

dlevitan Re:It's just a toy (185 comments)

Multi-touch on my Macbook is great. Two finger scrolling, three finger flipping from page to page makes life significantly easier. Yes, I can do everything with a mouse, but usually don't have mine out if I just have my laptop. And of course I can always use the keyboard, but why when I can do the same thing 10 times faster with a few finger movements.

more than 4 years ago
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Things To Look For In a Web Hosting Company?

dlevitan Re:slicehost (456 comments)

If you're going to go the VPS route, I suggest RimuHosting. The have absolutely amazing tech support (I've never waited more than a half-hour or so for support, without using the emergency option), great performance, actively monitor their servers, and do a great job keeping the hardware and networking running. They're willing to compile custom kernels for you (mine has ipsec and tun/tap support for openvpn), provide a nice admin panel for dns/mx/general server statistics, and apparently will help you with software installation and configuration without (in general) charging you.

I've been with them for a few years now, and have absolutely nothing negative to say.

more than 4 years ago
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Verizon CTO Says 4G Service Is On Track

dlevitan Re:Impressive.... (74 comments)

The lack of voice over LTE is because it will use the same data channel for voice (i.e. VoIP). So it's not like any of the hardware has to be change. The reason it's not being deployed now is that there's no consensus over how voice should be done on LTE. I'm thrilled that VZW is waiting. LTE will be the global standard, and it will be good if they maintain full compatibility with global networks. Unfortunately, VZW is one of the first companies to deploy it - it appears the rest of the world is lagging behind.

As for it needing to retain CDMA on phones, that's also good. IT will be a while before VZW deploys LTE with the same coverage as CDMA. This is needed for backwards compatibility.

While I understand it's a slow process, consider that VZW, unlike most of their competitors, is actively pushing forward with LTE.

more than 4 years ago

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