Category Archives: ressources

Most notable science and technology from the last 20 years, and predictions for the next 20

Here is a selection of the most notable advances in science and technology over the last twenty years.

I’ve collected these from people working around me (there may be a Berkeley Lab or Optics bias!) or by looking at what around me had made life different (a  an Academic life or California bias!) They are listed in no particular order, but the ordering tries to highlight some relationship between the topics.

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There ends the 2020s

The first two decades of the twenty first century are over! I’ve spent more than half of my life there, and here’s a very incomplete list of what I admired the most in the creative genius of the human mind!

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Jonas Mekas

20 Best Movies

Up
Skyfall
Kill Bill
Respiro
Paterson
Memento
8 Femmes
Lord of War
Holy Motors
A separation
Social Network
The Dark Night
Mulholland Drive
Castle in the Sky
Lost In Translation
Mountains May Depart
Les Amours imaginaires
En la gama de los grises
Blue is the warmest color
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

20 Best albums

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Science and politics – Part 1

On October 30th, 2019 I’ve organized an event at Manny’s (3092 16th St, San Francisco) on Science and Politics, with accomplished scientists Elaine DiMasi and Michael Eisen who chose to run for congress, in the wake of the 2016 US election, the Women’s March and the March for Science.

Dr. Michael Eisen and and Dr. Elaine DiMasi, who respectively ran for US Senate (CA) and US House of Representative (NY-1) , at Manny’s in San Francisco on October 30th, 2019

The setting was quite ideal for the speakers (Manny’s has held event for 17 out of the 20 Democratic candidates to the US Presidential election), and the two accomplished scientists shared many thoughts on their unsuccessful run.

A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed — I well know. For it’s a sign that he tried to surpass himself
George Clemenceau

Of the wave of scientists who ran in 2018, few were elected, but it’s is hard to change a political machine that has been here for many decades on the first attempt.Trial, error, re-calibrate, try again. I hope to shortly provide a summary of lessons learned in a “Part 2” (I have a recordings of the event, but it’s low quality.)

While there is a lot of work done in the realm of science policy (how to inform our representative and make sure they make evidence-based decision)—groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) or closer to me the Berkeley Science Policy Group and interesting programs such as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships— very few scientists do engage politics frontally, as candidates.

While other countries do have trained scientists at their helm (Angela Merkel from Germany and Xi Jinping from China are both doctors in Chemistry, and their respective term have been relatively successful up to this point), other countries not so much. Currently, Rep Bill Foster (D-Il), Steve Englebright (NY state assembly) and Dan Kalb (Oakland City Council) are scientists in public offices; Vern Ehlers and Rush D. Holt were the first physicists to be elected in congress (party did not matter so much, Ehlers being a Republican and Holt a Democrat; see College Professors Who Have Served in Congress – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2014) for a partial list)

Interestingly, a few rising stars (or shining bright already!) of the Congress are professors (but not scientists): Katie Porter, ❤️Kirsten Sinema💙, Elizabeth Warren. Jess Phenix is a geologist who has ran for the House of Representative; she has still been unsuccessful, but her time might come.
https://vis.sciencemag.org/midterm-science-candidates/

(edit 11/8/2019: note that Olivier Ezratty published a post on “Do we need more scientists and engineers in politics“, quite thorough (in French.) And if you speak French there’s this podcast on Les sciences peuvent-elles aider la démocratie?  (“Can sciences help democracy”) featuring Philippe Kourilsky (author of De la science et de la démocratie) – I was a bit disappointed: it’s mostly about scientists helping democratically elected leaders, not participating in it, but at least there’s some conversation.

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Threads

I’ve been using Twitter (@awojdyla) more frequently over the last 3 years, finding a lot value in this tool which allows to address a worldwide audience and reach out to people in a very effective way.

Straight goals

Twitter is a very strange medium, in that it can be extremely helpful to reach out to people (the six degrees of separation collapse to one, basically), but whose rules and purpose are hard to understand.

Here’s a few remarks on my experience, and some resources if you’re interested in engaging the tweet game!

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Good optics

Here are collected pictures from the vendor exhibition at the SPIE Optics+Photonics 2019 conference in San Diego, CA.
I always find these exhibitions strangely fascinating, and I wanted to capture why. Enjoy!


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The New Yorker and the current times

Since I arrived in the US about six years ago, I’ve been interested in learning about the culture of my new country. An obvious way is to read the magazines and learn what people are talking about. Alas, the free press is usually not very interesting. Some magazines are standing out; I’ve been subscribed to The Atlantic, the Pacific StandardWired and Rolling Stones, and I’ve read GQ, Vanity Fair, The Economist (though British), but while there’s a bunch of good articles, they are plagued by terrible layouts, dull advertisement, and I can’t find any thing that matches some of my favorite French magazines, such as Les Inrocks or Le Nouveau Magazine Litteraire, though I must say I now realize they often feature subjects that have been thoroughly digested by US magazines.
There is however a publication which is consistently good, entertaining, frequent (every week) and almost free of advertisement: The New Yorker, which contrary to its name suggests doesn’t delve too much on the (otherwise great) city of New York.

“He tells it like it is.” August 18, 2016

Agency

Not only the quality and the length of the articles, which are often sheltered from the ceaseless stream of news, allows go deep into some subjects (some arcane but always interesting), but they do make an impact.
For witness:
It is quite remarkable for a journal to be able to uncover so many stories. Maybe the times are ripe for that and comes the reckoning…

Legacy

The publication has a tremendous legacy, with writers such as Hannah Arendt (who published her series on the banality of evil there), James Baldwin who covered the civil rights movement and Susan Sontag who mused on various topics (see her collected articles in Against Interpretation and On Photography.)

I am speaking as a member of a certain democracy and a very complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded. Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too. – James Baldwin

Culture

There are many contributors to the magazine, but there are three I am particularly fond of, maybe because I can relate and they write things I don’t even know to express. Jia Tolentino covers Millenial generation with great nuance, and how we navigate the navigate the culture rift; Adam Gopnik often writes about culture in the broad sense, often threading from his experience in France (he has a very acute knowledge of France culture and how it differs from US culture); Louis Menand writes excellent book reviews.
It is interesting to see that both Gopnik and Tolentino released books in the past month (“A thousand small sanities” and “Trick Mirror”), which both deal with the current, heavy, atmosphere that lingers over the country as a whole, not complaining, but trying to find an outlet.

Open access – redux

Wow the levy is about to break on Open Access!

I’ve written a few times on Open Access (here, and here), and things have been changing at an incredible pace.

A quick explanation about the topic: scientists share their research by publishing into very specialized journals. These journals then either charge a fee (>$10) for any reader to read a specific article, or as is more often the case, collect a subscription for an institution so that all of the people who work for this institution get complete access to a journal or a set of journal. The problem here is that the research submitted by the authors is often funded by public entities, which do not have the right to read the publications of other group freely (open access.) And the subscription fees have skyrocketed (e.g. in the order of $10 million for UC Berkeley.)

But now, large entities are rebelling.

The first salvo came from funding agencies, which require the papers to be made freely available, either by sharing the pre-prints (e.g. on arxiv) or by publishing in an Open Access journal (journals where the authors pay (usually $1000!) to get published, and where anyone can read.)

Then came Germany, which reached an impass with the academic publisher Elsevier (one of the leading actors, together with Springer and Wiley) and decided not to pay for the racket (projekt DEAL). The issue has not been resolved yet and German researchers still do not have access to publications such as Cell (they can however directly contact the authors of the papers to get the papers — which actually sound like a good way to start off collaborations!)

Next is the University of California (the whole UC system, with UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, … including Lawrance Berkeley National Lab and Los Alamos), who decided not reneged a deal with Elsevier. That’s a lot of people, for the most important public university system in the world. The impact can be quite dramatic…

And soon will be the turn of Europe as a whole, with Plan S, starting next year…

I can’t wait to see the science literature being unshackled!

Still, don’t expect much changes in the conduct of science… “Authors do not publish to get read, they publish to get reviewed.”

 

How to promote diversity among scientists

This is a compendium of the things I’ve learned discussing the issue with other trained scientists and running an association with many young researchers. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but should help with the discussion. This discussion is primarily based on gender imbalance, but intersectionality applies (sometimes in weird ways), though the case is not as thoroughly documented.

(I wrote this initially for colleagues in my organization, since I couldn’t find a good resource. Here’s a bunch of additional resources – Ideas In Action – that have sprung out since. I’d be very grateful if you could point me to other concise lists)

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The lab touts about the number of Nobel Prizes in spurned out, but it is remarkable, if not surprising that none of them are women (Nobel Prize in physics awarded to women (3) are rarer than total solar eclipses in California.) While there are many great women scientists at the lab who will eventually receive the coveted distinction, we must, given the historical significance of the lab and its stature, move forward, lead the way set some guidelines.

 

Personal safety

The first and most important step to promote diversity among scientists is to promote and enforce personal safety, first in terms of fighting against harassment (sexual or other), not only in physical safety terms and how women are depicted (sexist and lewd jokes, prejudiced opinions; see Tim Hunt’s comment on how “Women in labs ‘fall in love with you … you criticize them, they cry’”), but also in terms of financial safety, especially when some populations can experience hardship due to delayed entry into the (paid) workforce without external support (see also “parental leave” below.) It is also generally a good idea not to eschew virtue signaling when it can make a difference (a rainbow flag on a door can go a long way.)

 

Acknowledge your bias

A common objection from researchers is that they are not biased because, you know, they only judge with the data in hands, and that they can tell a good scientist from another using objective information – a resume, a publication list, a curriculum. The trouble here is that biased are ingrained in us (see Daniel Kahneman), which are somehow necessary for us to navigate a complex world (see Gigerenzer), and that even women have biases against women (see Walton). It is therefore important to acknowledge our own biases in order to try to compensate when needed (e.g. in hiring committees.)

In my experience, the mere fact of pointing at an implicit bias does wonder. People are often willing to help, but they don’t even realized there is a problem. It’s often good to point out to organizers of conferences or panels that they are actually manels when you see one.

 

The luster of meritocracy

The most common bias in science is the idea that no matter who you are, your application should be based purely on your academic records, and not on other factors… such as gender. While it seems logical at first glance, we know better and should acknowledge that these seemingly objective metrics must be understood in a more general social context (for example have learned that even artificial intelligence, supposedly fair and objective, is far from immune to bias, see Katie O’Neil.)

 

The need to fight for diversity

Some scientist would come and say, hey, yes there’s an imbalance, but maybe we should let it be (don’t force women into physics if they don’t like it.) The trouble is that the end result is deeply shaped by the system (Fig. 1) and it is important to act early, ideally at the PhD level by making sure that the contingent is not too skewed towards one gender.)

 

Figure 1. The making of inequality (from Paul Walton)

 

While in a democracy it should be obvious that laws should be made by a legislative body with balanced gender, one might notice that the representative democracy in America is not very representative (only 20% of US representatives are women, while roughly half of US constituents are indeed women), while there is no reason other than history to explain this imbalance.

Though science is not a democratic process (there is no expressed need for equal representation), similar historical factors are at play, and diversity or lack thereof can cancel any competitive advantage in terms of science (see Marie Hicks) and inclusivity of technology (see Caroline Criado Perez.)

 

Alleged differences

Some people will go as far as to say that women are actually undesirable in science, based on alleged differences in mental capacity (see Saini), or more subtly in the “variance” of the population (men supposedly show more variance, therefore more chances of fringe cases; see Strumia, Fig. 2)

 

Figure 2. Excerpt of the infamous Strumia’s talk at the workshop on gender diversity at CERN

 

Similar arguments from the Charles Murray’s racist book Bell Curve are used to promote borderline anti-semitic ideas – see also Jordan Peterson.

Ahh! intersectionality….

 

Role models

It is important in order to bring more balance to have role models to whom young scientist can identify, ideally more recent (and more diverse) than Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. The role models should be invited to give talks on site, but ideally *not in the context diversity* — it is important not to fall in the Bechdel test trap, since (i) you will lose a lot of speaker who are tired of having to repeat again and again the many hurdles they faced (ii) these interventions are usually not very interesting outside the TED talk format (iii) the point of role models is to inspire to do science because of it, not in spite of it (that’s what we have experimented with Series X).

 

Mentors

Similar to role models but closer to the person, it is important to have mentors, that can come naturally or through some kind of pairing. These mentors can provide help and support, through sharing their personal experience, advices, and promoting their mentees through invitations to talks and workshops (that’s what we experimented with forum@MSD and  forum@ESA). Be careful that mentors should promote their mentee, not undermine them – the mentor should acknowledge the accomplishments of the mentee, not their own.

 

Provide a platform

Given the current imbalance in gender and diversity as whole, we must make sure that people from underrepresented groups get invited to the lab and are being able to leverage this position, through announcements and support. Success begets success, and the lab is a good reference when someone wants to get booked in other places. Given that diverse speaker are paradoxically more rare, a budget must be set aside to fly them here and/or for an honorarium (they should not work for free, especially when they are themselves not in a position of power.)

Scientists at the lab usually yield considerable power in their own field, and they should be encouraged to seek and promote diversity when they look for invited speakers (best practices and guidelines can be useful here, e.g. never have an all-male panel or seminar series.)

 

Promote scientists to leadership position

Academia is a very competitive environment, and any differentiating factor is useful when it comes to apply to position, especially when women face external factors that gradually push them outside academia (Fig. 1) Encouraging women to pursue ancillary activities (association, EAA or ERGs), where they can learn leadership skills and strengthen their network, is seen as important, and the lab should further its support to extra-curricular activities.

 

Work-life balance

Work-life balance is a vague concept that still has very real implications: while men do not face the discrimination related to their potential being pregnant, women do. The consequence of childbearing should be shared between the two parents, and initiatives such as (non-gendered) parental leaves are very useful to bridge the gap.

Some policies to make it more convenient to raise children can be implemented, such as policies against emails past 5pm during week-ends, or enforcing one day per week without meeting, to allow for telecommuting (parking at the lab is nearly impossible when an appointment to a doctor pushes your commute later in the day.)

 

Smash the patriarchy

Oftentimes I hear people (old white male) arguing about the current push for equality, dismissed as a PC coup and a threat to the freedom of expression, where they feel that *they* might become victims. This is baloney, and they should learn about the distinction between men (them) and patriarchy (the system), and not feel threatened – this is not about them, it is about all of us. They might have to change their habits coming from a position of power they rarely acknowledge, and learn to speak up when they see something wrong.

This applies to men… but also to women. I seen many times over

 

References

Paul Walton: Gender equal­ity in Aca­demia – what we have learnt

Angela Saini, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, fast and slow

Katie O’Neal, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing

Nearly half of US female scientists leave full-time science after first child, Nature, 19 February 2019

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00611-1?fbclid=IwAR2unznTjBTUUTlkEQJTiFmV6ZOxQUxTmhFQw_5j48r6YFXnHjoDoUEH2wM

Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/feb/23/truth-world-built-for-men-car-crashes

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/06/new-study-nih-funding-says-women-get-smaller-grants-men

http://berkeleysciencereview.com/inclusive-mcb

http://antoine.wojdyla.fr/blog/2017/10/20/sexism-in-academia/

Kolmogorov Access

Back in undergrad, I remember being fascinated by the notion of Kolmogorov complexity in computer science.

Put simply, the Kolmogorov complexity is the minimal length (number of lines) of the code needed to generate a signal, would it be a mathematical sequence (such as one listed in the OEIS) or an image, irrespective to the size needed to store it. It bears deep relations with the notion of entropy (a great book on the topic is Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms by the late David MacKay.)

For example, a series of eight billion ones in a row would require 1GB of memory, but can be written in a few lines of code:

for i in 1:1e9; print 1; end

(To some extent, this is why computer science is often problematic, since one of the goal of a good code is sometimes to reduce its Kolmogorov complexity, but the final code does not show all the lines that have been erased to get there…)

In the field of arts, culture and science, this description seems naive: can you really generate a book based on a script, or has it infinite entropy?

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.
– Immanuel Kant

In the age of the Internet, can we do better?

update 6/10/2019: I’ve seen recently on Twitter the embodiment of these ideas, see Nicole R.‘s thread. Way to go!

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The wonders of West Berkeley

I do love Berkeley, with its wonderful atmosphere and its people, daring to live on a different beat!

The spring and the fall are the most notably beautiful, and walking in the street is always an amazement.

Berkeley in the spring

In the winter, you get the magnolia; in the spring come the fragrant wisteria and the gentle jasmine; the summer has the river flowing to the sea, and the fall, oh the fall with the ginkgo glowing gold on Russell street!

Berkeley in the fall

I’ve seen a few friends moving nearby, and they seem to enjoy every bit of it.

Here’s a few places to check out:

  • Skates to get a drink right at sunset
  • Casa Latina for the best tacos of the East Bay
  • Berkeley Bowl West is such a paradise for the grocery shopper
  • Cal Sailing Club lets you sail and windsurf for less than a dollar a day
  • Bette’s Diner has some amazing brunch
  • Market Hall Foods on 4th street has the best cheese selection I know, plus a hundred of other delicacies
  • Albatross is the oldest pub of Berkeley, with a great selection of beer, darts and pool
  • Ashkenaz has a great music programming; don’t miss Stu Allen’s Grateful Dead!
  • Sola Lucy is the only place to go for thrift shop

For the news, check out Berkeleyside.com and the East Bay Express (free, out every Wednesday.) There’s also a lot of other places closer to downtown which are unique: the Back Room, the Pacific Film Archive, Yoga to the people, Half Price Book, Café Panisse, the Strawberry canyon pool, the Skyline boulevard, the Butcher’s son restaurant, the Melo Melo kava bar, and so many other things!