Grad Student Pay

Fees are increasing at the Grand 'ol UW, same as every institution it seems, and along with it the ire of every graduate student in America.

This year my institution will require approximately one entire week of pay per quarter in fees. This must be paid in full by about the 3rd week of the quarter. Despite my being paid from a grant, which covers my salary and tuition costs, the fees must come from my own pocket. This totals almost a month of pay per year given to the University, simply for the pleasure being employed here and signing up for 10 credits of "independent research" each quarter.

Unlike some of my constituents, I'm not terribly bothered about the low wages we're paid. I generally make a livable wage, and the unofficial benefits of my job are enormous. Indeed, many of my friends who make 4x more at great companies would be envious of the daily freedom, travel abilities, and satisfaction that comes with getting a PhD. To be fair though, wee regularly hear from incoming grad students that UW has the lowest offer of pay from any institution they were accepted to. Ouch.

But there's something absurd about having to give such a huge portion of my living stipend back for "fees". I don't have data on hand about the history of fees at UW, or the cost of living in seattle (though I can say that rent is at least double what it was when I first moved here). I'd love if someone could point me to such data, though!

To facilitate some discussion, here is the history of my salary. Note these are not adjusted wages, just raw numbers. Despite having a small stack of college degrees, the earning profile in academia doesn't exactly resemble what I'd expect to make in industry - and thats OK! This figure is incredibly personal in some sense. Many people judge their worth on their income, and discussing your income (or asking others about it) is very taboo, for reasons that escape me. Maybe I'm more comfortable talking about it because I don't have any money.

So there you go, that's approximately how much money you can expect to make as a grad student in astronomy at UW these days. Be prepared to give a large chunk of it back though... Here's a couple relevant PhD Comics on the subject: Unemployment vs Grad Stipends, and Academic Salaries

I seriously invite some discussion on the subject. Got any data on typical earning profiles as a function of age in industry? Can you point me to some cost of living data, or history of fees/tuition at UW (or other schools)?

A friend of mine in Atmospheric Sciences PhD program sent me their version of my plot for comparison:

Update 2:
Here is the per quarter cost of U PASS since I first became affiliated with the UW

"Quantified Self" Art Show

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The banner for Quantified Self at the Gallery Project.
Fun & self serving news, everyone! A piece of mine (that's fancy talk for some art stuff I made) will be shown at The Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, MI this month!!! I'm super excited, and have never really participated in something like this before. I also found out that the show includes work by the data visualization master, at whose feet we all study, Edward Tufte! As part of my excitement about this event, the banner image for If We Assume will be a version of my piece, for the next month at least.

The piece is called "Capacity", is a medium/large sized print, and is showing in an exhibit called "The Quantified Self". The whole show is an examination of self at the crossroads of data, reflection, and art.  Here is a preview of my piece, Capacity. 
It was derived from the post I wrote, Laptop Battery Lifetime, on the capacity of my battery and reflection on my computer usage. 

Unfortunately due to grad-school budget I cannot attend the opening (Aug 30th), but if anyone you know is in Ann Arbor, tell them to get down to Gallery Project and check my piece out! Quantified Self runs from Aug 30 to Oct 7.

Someone told me they thought Capacity looked like a skyline, so here it is with some simple shading added in GIMP.

Increasing Blog Traffic

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This year I decided to launch my personal blog, and it's been more fun than I ever imagined! Blogging is attractive in similar ways as publishing: people reading and discussing your work. Bonus: Writing about data and science provides me with a great subject matter, and lots of fun graphics. I have lots of cool ideas in the pipe, mostly waiting for free time (in short supply during grad school) to write them.

There is a glut of information online about how to build your blog traffic and increase readership. Some of this I've actively worked on, some seems like obsessive nonsense. A lot of it is spam. Here are seven of the lessons I've learned about building a blog. This is largely an empirical study of blogs, including my own, and meant in good fun...

1. Spend time worrying about the design of your blog/website. The default (e.g.) Blogger themes are nice, but they need to be fine tuned. There are lots of little tweaks that are easy to make, and make a huge difference (I think) in the aesthetic. 

2. Stop worrying about the design of your blog and write. If your website looks like a Dieter Rams masters class, but only has 3 posts, then you'd better keep your day job. For me, the joy in blogging is writing and discussing ideas with people, not worrying about button placement.

3. Let other people do your work for you. Lots of people re-post material, some advocate for outsourcing or splitting your writing workload. I like to get post ideas from my friends/family. I also use Blogger (currently) to host/drive my blog, as it takes all the work out of backend and lets me focus on the parts I enjoy! I don't want to be a web developer

4. Post often. Duh. Otherwise traffic dies off... fast.

5. Post before Mondays. As this figure shows, the analytics on my blog indicate that Mondays have the highest traffic. This may differ based on where you get readers from, and of course your type of content. I've seen it written that Thursday is the best day to post, in time for the weekend e-traffic. I think this matches my results.

6. Prey on people's insecurities. Again and again I find that one of the best ways to gain blog traffic is to write about gaining blog traffic. If you've ever watched television you know that diet pills and enhancement drugs are big business. It seems sensible, therefore, that if you want to easily get large traffic, write about how people can solve their problems without significant effort.

7. Participate/advertise in social media. I like Reddit and Twitter, but haven't had much luck with stumbleupon yet. YMMV of course. These kinds of outlets provide impulsive blog traffic, and converting this to moderately increased long-term readership is the goal. The figure below shows the impulsive response my site has experienced from (mostly) Reddit, with an increasing baseline of traffic.

Voting: Do Small Counties Matter?

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With the Aug 7th primary voting already fading to a distant memory, it occurred to me that I never bothered to look at the results! Between the Summer Olympics, fabulous recent weather in Seattle, King Felix's coronation, and signs from God, I can hardly be blamed for this minor oversight.

Getting "out" the vote has been a major movement for most of my life it seems. Who can forget "Vote or Die", which I still consider to be the most benevolent of any voter sign-up organization. The stench of partisan agenda is never far from such campaigns....

I grew up on the Eastern side of Washington State, and have spent most of the last decade on the Western side. Party lines are drawn through our state as if by Creation itself. Even "Seattle conservatives" believe the East siders live in an intellectual rain shadow.

Of course, the primary results yielded almost nothing surprising. Since they provided nothing witty nor urbane to be overheard discussing about, I intended to promptly forget about them. That is... until I realized there was interesting data on the results webpage: voter turnout statistics. Jackpot.

The Lazy Metropolis

It has been reported that voter turnout flirted with record low levels this year. Let's take a look...

Washington State historic voter turnout percentages for
gubernatorial races, with 2012 shown in blue.
This history of diminishing turnout is fascinating to me. What could it mean? A population that is steadily becoming lazier? Or perhaps more disenfranchised and disconnected from the political system? It's difficult to say - indeed I can scarcely think of a rigorous way to test such sentiments. Figures such as this certainly tell a strong story though, and give cause to wonder: will voter turnout continue to linearly decline? Will we reach a point of negligible participation in our own governance? (In so much as voting qualifies as participation. Whether the entire machine has been taken over by the bipartisan corporate-backed military industrial complex... or aliens... is an exercise for the reader) 

Looking in detail at the voter turnout for just this year's primary may give another clue to the nature of such low numbers.

Washington State Primary 2012 voter turnout for all 39 counties,
as a function of the number of registered voters per county.
Another intriguing (somewhat weak) trend is found when looking at the 2012 Primary turnout for each county: more populous counties tend to have lower turnout! This is especially fascinating, indicating to me that the more metropolitan people can't be bothered as much to vote. In other words, Urbanization may negatively affect voter turnout.

The story might be that over time people move in to cities (Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, etc), and as they do they lose incentive to vote. Again, whether this is due increased laziness towards politics seems difficult to prove with testable predictions. Considerably more data exists for WA, and it would seem beneficial to conduct such a study in order to reverse this trend.

And with an increasing percentage of people living in cities, we do need to reverse it. If such a model for decreasing voter participation is true, we must learn why.

Little Fish

Along the lines of urbanization discussed above, it is worth considering the impact that the more dutiful counties are having. This question results in my stupid title: Do Small Counties Matter?

Here we have the cumulative distribution of registered voters in WA. The way to read this is that we have sorted each county by the number of voters (left to right), and then added them up one by one. The incredible result is that the four largest counties (Spokane, Snohomish, Pierce, and King) contain more than 50% of the registered voters! (actually 58.9%) Urbanization in Action!

This also means, naturally, they have the majority of the voters. But, didn't we just see that the rural counties had higher turnout? Well, yes. Unfortunately it's almost insignificant...

As you can see, the cumulative distribution of actual votes in the 2012 Primary is nearly the same as the distribution of the voters. Nearly - but not quite the same. The proud sense of civic duty earned the 35 other counties 1.1% more of the total votes.

So, it would seem something worth talking about did come from looking at the election results! Vote or Die: participation is not the worst of evils.

Data's Head

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Through seven seasons of Star Trek The Next Generation, the android named Data provides a vehicle to (not so subtly) discuss the human condition. Viewers also delight in the futuristic way Data is constructed, or at least as it was conceived in the late '80s with a limited budget. Time and again we see him disassembled, panels opened, limbs removed, fingernails lifted...

So if you're curious, here's all the manufacturer-reccomended places you can open an androids head:

Curiosity has Landed

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NASA - Curiosity's Heat Shield in View
Doug, the really nice barista at my favorite coffee shop, was chatting me up today about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), better known as Curiosity. We agreed that the entire landing affair was stunning, and the photos being sent back are nothing short of inspirational. I particularly liked the photo from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the parachute deployed on Curiosity.

The interaction got me thinking about the social impact of big news events in science. One curious aspect of the MSL landing (to me at least) has been the online and social networking presence, which I've not really seen in a NASA mission before to this extent. Sure, more traditional media played a large part in the popularity of this landing, but Twitter seemed to be the place du jour to spectate. In fact, Curiosity has its own official Twitter feed, and a less official but perhaps more insightful one as well.

Engineers, NASA interns, space buffs, news outlets... everyone seemed to be Tweeting about this plucky robot. Now, people like me are discussing the discussion (so meta), hoping that it signifies a new era of public outreach/interaction, and driving more suckers inspired youths to study science.

So I thought it would be cool to look back at the trend of Tweets mentioning the landing, using the simple analytics tool from Topsy Labs. Ignoring the bizarre horizontal axis tick spacing, it's fascinating to see the "shape" the event takes: a strong ramp up for a couple days before the landing (Aug 5, if that's not blazingly clear), a sharp declining interest the day after, and a long tail, the latter no doubt filled with pithy humor.
Chart from Topsy Labs
Mars is so cool... bydhttmwfi

Plots that Changed the World - II

Today I'll continue my series of posts Plots that Changed the World. This time I'm focusing four of the most important results in astronomy's history. These are plots that changed astronomy, and in turn our understanding of the universe. 

Astronomy has a long history of changing the world. Ancient peoples relied on astronomy to plan crop seasons, foretell the outcome of wars, and in recent history stars provided the most reliable/accurate means to navigate and tell time.

If you ask your neighborhood astronomer what the most famous or influential figure in the field is, they'd give you a wide range of answers (come to think of it, that's actually a really interesting survey to conduct...). The four graphs I have chosen here are undoubtedly famous, and behind each are wonderful stories of human intrigue and hard-fought discovery. 

Other important physical figures, such as the beautiful clock tower in Prague, the Antikythera device, and (many) complex astronomical alignments of buildings, easily come to mind as noteworthy in the history of astronomy. As always, I've picked graphs that resonate with me, often because of the stories surrounding them. I invite you to share your thoughts on these plots and other famous astronomy results in the comments!

Let's proceed in chronological order...