For the benefit of anybody using BlogTracker (which I recommend), and wondering why nothing new has shown up from the last few republishings, I've just been fiddling around with the settings. I added a few more links to the sidebar (including this silly one, and cut down the number of posts on the front page, to speed loading for those suffering from dial-up access (accessing this weblog from my parents' place, over what turns out to be a 14.4 modem, was pretty painful...). There'll be new content, um... later.
My ears are still ringing a little as I sit down to type this, and I'm a little bleary-eyed owing to some major traffic delays on the way home from the show last night. I got tickets for the last night's Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert in Saratoga Springs (at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC)) as a birthday present. The seats were in Row K, albeit way off on the side, so we were maybe a hundred feet from the stage, so it was a pretty damn good present. (We were also fifty from a speaker stack, hence the ringing ears... Kate, relentlessly sensible as always, wadded up Kleenex to make improvised earplugs for herself, but I stuck it out. It's nowhere near as bad as the last time I saw a show at SPAC (Guns 'n' Roses in 1991), when I was standing under the outdoor speakers for the lawn seats-- I thought I'd done some serious damage that time.)
Petty is Exhibit A when you set out to make the case that Rock-and/or-Roll is the greatest invention ever for ugly people. He's also one of those artists who raises the eternal question "How do you decide who qualifies to the the Name in 'Name and the Backing Bands'?"-- he's no great singer, and he's sort of an indifferent guitarist, so why's he the guy out in front?
The answer in Petty's case is relatively easy-- he's the guy who writes the songs. And while nobody's likely to accuse him of being Bob Dylan (having a voice that sounds like Dylan, yes, but not writing like Dylan), he's very, very good at what he does. They can easily fill two hours with a "Greatest Hits" set where almost everybody in the audience will know every word to every song, and most of the guitar noises, too. He's not especially innovative or pioneering, but he's a reliable author of three- or four-minute rock/pop songs with great hooks and catchy lyrics that sound like you know them by heart the first time you hear the song.
I can't claim to have been a fan all the way back to the beginning of their run, but Full Moon Fever is one of those records that's inextricably bound up with my memories of a specific time and place (in this case, my sophomore year in college, an identification which will have some of my readers rolling their eyes at my youth, while others will mistily recall singing "Free Fallin'" at junior high dances...). Not that it needs nostalgia value to make it work, mind-- it's a great album independent of when I first heard it-- but it was an inescapable part of the soundtrack for that year.
That album, and most of the rest of the band's catalog, is great sing-along-with-the-band material (indeed, in places, the vocals from the stage were superfluous). These aren't songs that have changed the course of human history, or anything, but they're catchy and fun, and there are a lot of them. In short, they're pretty much an ideal summer concert, and I was psyched to get to see them live.
It wasn't the greatest show I've ever seen (that honor would probably go to the Afghan Whigs at the 9:30 Club in DC, he says in a bid to recover a little High Fidelity street cred), but it was a good solid concert. They worked some new material in with the old hits (three songs from an album due in the fall, one of them very good, the other two not great), and generally tried to mix things up enough that it wasn't entirely a sing-along show (like, for example, the Jimmy Buffett show I saw (he says, throwing away what little street cred he regained by mentioning the Afghan Whigs)). They had an unfortunate tendency to try to stretch things out into ten-minute instrumental freak-outs, something which the songs don't really support, but I suspect that was pragmatic: their catalog consists of three-minute songs, and Tom sings them all-- without the occasional guitar freak-out, he'd have no voice at all by the end of the set.
They're a solid band, though, and slightly misguided instrumental excesses aside, they put on a good show. The songs we all knew the words to were played well, Petty knows the Important Rules of Rock Stage Patter (Rule 1: mentioning the name of the town you're in will get a big ovation, Rule 2: judicious use of the word "fuck" will also get a big ovation...) the new stuff was played with conviction, and they looked like they were having a good time. During the mostly-acoustic version of "Yer So Bad," I could see the drummer and bassist miming their parts to one another, and during the ten-minute improvised second verse to Van Morrison's "Gloria" the bassist and utility infielder (guitar, extra keyboards (Benmont Tench only having two hands), and backing vocals) could be seen speculating on just where he was going with this. They also knew how to close things out-- three-song encore, with "Free Fallin'" (wave your lighter in the air, and sing along), "Gloria", and "American Girl", then get right on the bus and get out of Dodge.
The opening act (traditionally relegated to the last paragraph or so) was Brian Setzer with a rockabilly trio (two guys with glasses and big hair reminiscent of Greg Proops from Whose Line Is It Anyway?), raising another of the Great Questions of rock concerts (besides "If it takes half an hour to tune the guitar, why don't you do that before we're all in our seats?"): "Doesn't it suck to be the opening act?" He played most of his set to a half-empty arena, which must be sort of frustrating to a guy who's twice had brief flirtations with actual pop stardom (then again, the opening act for the second leg of the tour is Jackson Browne, who's got to be even more frustrated with the whole thing). Setzer's one hell of a guitarist, though (another factor which hurt the Heartbreakers' instrumental freak-outs), even if he can't manage to duck-walk without looking like he's about to keel over, and he has a G. E. Smith level case of Guitar Face. I'm not the world's biggest rockabilly fan, but it's fun music in moderate doses, and Setzer and the Proopses play it with a lot of energy. He had most of the crowd on his side by the time he bowed out, and left to a nice ovation.
Hey, Baby, It's the Fourth of July...
OK, Patrick Nielsen Hayden beat me to the X lyrics, but it's a great tune, so what the Hell...
I had a thought for a lengthy and witty piece to post today, but, well, it's really freakin' hot, and Kate and I decided we needed to get out of Schenectady for a while, so I'm writing this from Scenic Whitney Point, New York, where my parents enjoy the benefits of air conditioning, at the price of accessing the Internet through a 28.8 modem. Which means I'm just not going to be writing up a long and link-heavy weblog post. Odds are, there'll be nothing here tomorrow, either, as we'll be on the road again.
In lieu of actual content, here are a couple of links for your holiday enjoyment:
James Lileks sometimes manages to bug me by taking cheap shots at easy targets, but this is one of those pieces that reminds me why I read his stuff regularly.
And on that warm, fuzzy, and patriotic note, I'm off. Happy Fourth. I'll be back on Saturday.
Curiously, Fawn Hall was Temping at Arthur Anderson...
I'm going to be tiresomely political again, because, well, it takes less time to do that, and I have a lot of work to do today...
A few days back, Josh Marshall noted that the Republicans have adopted a new tactic to attempt to spin their way out of the current rash of dishonest-CEO scandals, quoting Steve Forbes saying:
Well, I think if you want to look at the tone of the '90s, it started right at the top, at the White House, where the attitude was anything goes. If you get caught, spin your way out of it. The only thing they didn't resist -- they could resist everything except temptation. So it started at the top.
Yes, that's right, it's all Clinton's fault. My first thought was that this sort of descent into self-parody was a bit much even for the Republicans-- OK, maybe David Horowitz or Alan Keyes could dribble out these sorts of statements, but surely they couldn't be stupid enough to try this on a large scale? But it seems to have gone out in the weekly memos of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, with Andrew Sullivan weighing in with his version:
In some ways, they were deeply consonant with Bill Clinton's cultural ethos. When the president of the United States acted as if the only ethical criterion that mattered was what he could get away with, it's not entirely surprising that this attitude seeped outward into the general zeitgeist. I'm not saying Clinton was responsible for this corporate corruption - just that his administration was responsible for policing it and for setting the moral tone of the country.. And the boom began to spiral out of control at exactly the time that Clinton was fighting impeachment and desperately needed economic exuberance to insulate him from potential political suicide.
(Note the deft use of the pseudo-deflection "I'm not saying Clinton was responsible..." followed by further statements that, well, Clinton was responsible...)
Genevieve: God forbid, while he's chasing interns and --
Bill: Thank you for falling into my trap one more time.
Tim: Look into my eyes, you will now be distracted by an affair.
Genevieve: No, no, no... The point is -- when you turn your back on the chief executive of the country and act like what he's doing behind closed doors is okay, what are you signaling to other people in the country? ...
(Found via Jim Henley)
Apparently, I've yet again underestimated the boundless loathing those on the right have for Bill Clinton personally (something I've never understood, for what little that's worth, but that's another topic). They certainly seem to view him as an all-purpose bogeyman, as sure to sway voters to their cause as a promise of bread, circuses, and lower taxes. Avedon Carol refers to this (quoting someone else, who got it from someone else-- do your own source-citing) as the "Tubesteak Messiah" phenomenon-- Clinton's penis is the cure for all Republican ills-- which is both amusing and disturbingly accurate.
The real shame here, though, is that they're not too far off. Not that I'm saying Clinton was responsible (really, do you think good conservative-type businessmen would take their lead from Clinton?), but I do believe that the tone for the current rash of executive malfeasance was set by a past occupant of the Oval Office (not the current one, either). I mean, let's look at the defenses offered by the principal figures in the Enron case: Ken Lay was "duped" by the senior managers, while Jeffrey Skilling "claimed not to know the details of Enron's problematic partnerships." Or look at the Worldcom case, where they're engaged in frantic buck-passing.
The true origin of this behavior has its roots farther back than the Clinton Administration. These people are following the spiritual lead of Ronald Reagan. I mean, think about it-- here we have the chief executives of major corporations disavowing all knowledge of the shady dealings carried on by their underlings, and putting the blame off onto subordinates and contractors (who will undoubtedly wriggle out on immunity deals and go on to profitable talk radio careers and maybe run for the Senate, in the manner of past high-profile felons).
Say what you will about Clinton, but nobody ever claimed he was ignorant of what went on in his White House. Not even his ardent defenders. If you want a cultural antecedent for the current round of CEO's using ignorance and gross incompetence as an excuse for their blatant malfeasance, you've got to go back to the Eighties, and put the blame on Ronald Reagan.
So, what, exactly, is it that I do for a living? (Other than come in to work every morning and respond to disgruntled emails about the grades I hand out, that is...). Depending on the context, I have a bunch of different answers to this question, depending on the degree of detail required. "College professor" or "physicist" seems to satisfy most people (who generally respond with some variant of "Eww. I hated that class."). A slightly more specific answer would be "I study atomic, molecular and optical physics" (I used to just say "atomic physics" but then people would assume I built bombs for a living...), though "Quantum Optics" is also a fairly accurate characterization of some of what I do, and sounds cooler. More specific yet would be "I study laser cooling of atoms and molecules" or even "I study ultra-cold collisions between atoms in laser-cooled samples." I've also worked in Bose-Einstein condensation, though that's not what I'm doing right at the moment.
Since most people are generally lost after "physicist" (and tend to have a somewhat distorted view of what physicists do-- white lab coats are less common than you might think), I'll save the explanations of quantum optics, laser cooling, and BEC for later posts, and give a quick run-down of the various sub-species of physicists. As with all academic disciplines, of course, the categories of physics are infinitely subdivided (and probably fractal in nature), but there are at least a handful of broad and generally recognized categories based on areas of study. In no particular order (and using the topic group headers favored by Physical Review Letters to remind myself of a few of them), these are:
Astrophysics and Cosmology: In a sense, this is the Department of Big Questions: Where did the Universe come from? Where is it going? How do planets/ stars/ galaxies/ clusters of galaxies form? What makes all the neat stuff we see through telescopes actually work?
Strictly speaking, Cosmology (dealing with the questions of the origin and ultimate fate of the whole Universe) is a somewhat separate field from Astrophysics (which deals with how the stuff in the Universe now works), but I'll lump them together here. I'm not entirely clear on where the line between "Astronomy" and "Astrophysics" is located, and as I know this is a subject which sometimes provokes ugly arguments, I won't attempt to draw one.
This is the sub-field most likely to produce amusingly obscure paper titles (my favorite, encountered while scanning the Table of Contents of Phys. Rev. Letters, was "Black Holes Have No Short Hair"), and also one of the most photogenic areas of physics. This stuff turns up in the New York Times science section with great regularity, usually illustrated with nifty pictures from the Hubble Telescope.
Elementary Particle Physics: These are the people with the massive particle colliders, and the whole zoo of quarks, leptons, mesons, muons, kaons, neutrinos, and all the rest. This is probably what most people think of when they think of physics. Experimental work in this field consists of getting a bunch of very small particles (generally protons), accelerating them up to a fair fraction of the speed of light, and slamming them into something else, to see what comes out. It's been compared to trying to figure out how a clock works by throwing it off a building and looking at the pieces that come out when it hits the ground.
On the theoretical side, it consists of some of the weirdest stuff you can imagine. In the regimes where these people work, even the fundamental forces are described in terms of the collisions and interactions of particles. All the fundamental forces start to merge together, the world actually exists in twenty-seven dimensions (give or take a few), and nothing much resembles reality as we know it. This is the domain of people who breathe the rarefied air of string theory (Aaron Bergman is a string theorist, and takes a whack at explaining some of it on his weblog), and judge theories as much by their mathematical elegance as by their correspondence to reality, simply because the experiments are too difficult to manage.
It may seem strange to list this field immediately after Cosmology (which deals with the study of Whopping Huge Things), but actually, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably large start to wrap into one another. If we can understand why the fundamental particles behave in the ways they do, that provides crucial information about how the Universe got here, and if we can figure out where the Universe came from and how the stuff we see formed after the Big Bang, we can maybe shed some light on why the particle zoo behaves the way it does. Think of this field as a sort of Adjunct Department of Big Questions (About Very Small Things).
This is also the Division of Very Large Collaborations. Since accelerators are so incredibly expensive, particle physicists have to team up into very large groups in order to amass the necessary funding. In idle moments, we used to check the author lists of particle physics papers to see if we could find ones with an author name for every letter of the alphabet ("X" and "Q" aren't as rare as you'd think, given the large numbers of Chinese physicists in these collaborations).
It's also the domain of the incredibly arrogant. Among scientists in general, physicists are regarded as arrogant, sneering at chemists and biologists because physics is more fundamental than those disciplines (Ernest Rutherford famously remarked "In science there is only physics, all the rest is stamp collecting."). Among physicists, the elementary particle crowd is regarded in much the same way-- they win all the "my work is more fundamental than yours" contests, and as a corollary, tend to regard their work as more important than anybody else's. Which leads to asking for six hundred gajillion dollars to build a new accelerator, and also to some foot-stamping hissy fits when they don't get the funding.
Nuclear Physics: A sort of intermediate regime between particle and atomic physics. They have to think about quarks and the like, but deal with them assembled into protons and neutrons. They deal with protons and neutrons assembled into nuclei, but don't worry about the rest of the atom, or interaction with other atoms. Experimental work in this field still involves accelerating things to very high speeds and slamming them into other things, but the collisions aren't quite as violent, and the accelerators aren't quite as expensive. The cutting-edge work in the field still involves large collaborations, though not quite as large.
In some ways, this is almost a forgotten field. It's far enough removed from everyday reality that it doesn't get press for producing useful things, but it's not as concerned with Big Questions as elementary particle physics, so it doesn't get press for answering Deep Questions. Other than the sub-set of nuclear physicists who do build bombs, you're unlikely to see these people in the New York Times.
Condensed Matter Physics: If you see a physicist wearing a white lab coat, he's either appearing in a movie, or he's a condensed matter physicist. This may be the largest single field of physics, and it's probably the most important in everyday terms.
Condensed matter physics involves the study of things which are, well, condensed: solids and liquids. It turns out to be easy to describe gases-- describe the properties of the individual particles, and make some statistical statements about the gas as a whole, and you're pretty much done. Solids and liquids, on the other hand, are much more difficult to describe. The properties of the individual atoms are still important, but they're greatly modified by having all those other atoms around, and every atom in the sample interacts quite strongly with its neighbors, all the time. This is a difficult situation to describe, and condensed matter physics has developed a wealth of techniques for dealing with these sorts of problems.
This is important, and profitable, because solids and liquids are the basis of much of modern technology. Condensed matter physicists study the properties of semiconductors (which include computer chips) and superconductors (which may be crucial for future technology), as well as materials science in general (building stronger materials, more flexible materials, lighter materials, or whatever).
Plasma Physics: Another regime associated with difficult problems, starting with "what is a plasma?" (Ask a dozen plasma physicists to define a plasma, you're likely to get fifteen different answers...) Very roughly speaking, a plasma is a gas of ionized particles. The individual components are free to move around as they like (as opposed to being bound into a solid or liquid), but they interact quite strongly with one another (meaning that the problem can't be cleanly separated into individual properties and statistical properties of the whole gas).
Plasma physics covers a wide range of topics, from plasma etching, to fluorescent light tubes, to interstellar gas clouds, to the composition and behavior of stars. Of course, the best-known application of plasma physics is the classic light bulb in a microwave, but only slightly less well known is the pursuit of fusion power generation. Electricity production by commercial fusion plants is no more than twenty years off, and expected to remain that way for the forseeable future.
Biophysics: This is more than just applying the equations of physics to determine exactly how much damage you're going to do to yourself when you fall from a high place. Biophysics is the study of the physical properties of biological systems-- how biological molecules arrange themselves, how electrical signals are transmitted between cells, how various life processes proceed on the atomic or molecular level.
This tends to shade into chemistry and biology (unsurprisingly), but it's a significant and growing field. Other biophysics type activities include developing new techniques for looking inside living things-- (N)MRI systems come from the medical side of biophysics research.
Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics: This is where I work. It's a very broad field, covering everything from laser development to quantum information processing, and from atomic spectroscopy to quantum state engineering. It's a fascinating field, but then I would say that, wouldn't I?
AMO Physics (as it's usually abbreviated) exists in a realm somewhere between plasma, condensed matter, and nuclear physics. We're aware of the nucleus of the atom, and it's important, but we're not overly concerned with the details. We sometimes deal with ions, but not too many of them, and we're generally happier if the atom has all the electrons it's supposed to. We deal with interactions between atoms, but not really large numbers of them at the same time (a well-known AMO joke (which may well have originated with Art Schawlow) runs "A diatomic molecule is a molecule with one atom too many.").
The systems we study are large enough to retain a clear connection to everyday reality, but small enough that quantum mechanics dominates their behavior-- another term which fairly accurately describes a lot of what goes on in AMO physics these days is "Quantum Optics," meaning that you need to treat both the atoms and the light field quantum-mechanically (the atoms behave like quantum-mechanical waves, the light waves are made up of particle-like photons). I've sometime jokingly referred to myself as a "quantum mechanic," which isn't too far off. The study of the physics of individual atoms is, after all, what gave rise to quantum mechanics in the first place.
This is also, generally, table-top physics. Experiments are conducted in smallish groups-- an AMO paper with more than five or six co-authors is rare-- and are cheap enough to be done in small labs on college campuses or the like (even though the cost of setting up a lab can be eye-popping-- I've spent in excess of $15,000 in the past three weeks-- this is small change on the scale of major science funding). It's also a fairly close community, at least on the "atomic" side (there are thousands of laser people)-- while the field itself covers a broad range of topics, it's not hard to keep track of the major players, and conferences in the field are large enough to be interesting but not so big as to be overwhelming.
I'm leaving out a number of categories, I'm sure (non-linear dynamics and statistical mechanics chief among them), but this is running rather long as it is, and the above will serve as a rough guide to the various classes of physics research (and the disparaging comments I make about other fields). So we'll stop here, and pick up at a later date with what, exactly, I do within the field of atomic physics.
There But For a Notable Lack of Genetically Engineered Super-Spiders Go I
Having been tediously political yesterday, I'll mix things up a little by talking about movies. In particular, Spider-man, which Kate and I went to last night (I'd seen it back in May, she hadn't seen it yet). This isn't a particularly new topic, as reviews of the movie ranging from the slightly star-struck to the fluorescently idiotic have already appeared on the web (I seem to recall James Lileks talking about it, too, but his archives aren't the most user-friendly you'll find...), but then I don't see that many movies in theaters, and might as well talk about this one.
One quick initial note: the ten minutes of commercials which preceded the actual film (not just trailers, but actual commercials) were a Bad Thing. If you want to sell ad time in the form of still images flashed on the screen before the stated show time, that's fine by me, but when the Appointed Time rolls around and the lights go down, I want to see the movie I paid eight bucks to see, not ten minutes of piss-poor advertising. I'd also like to ask for a general agreement that 1)the Scooby-Doo movie is an abomination, and 2) Austin Powers is played out. Thanks.
So, Spider-man. I was never a Comic Book Guy, so I can't speak to the movie's faithfulness to the original source material. As superhero movies go, though, it was probably the best I've seen since Tim Burton's Batman, though in a much different vein.
What makes the whole thing work is really Tobey Maguire's performance as a love-lorn dork. The CGI effects were actually a little cheesy-looking to me, and the story included all the usual plot-induced stupidity common to superhero stories (New York must have the thickest population in the entire world, if they can't figure out that Peter Parker is Spider-man. Does it not occur to Inspector Cramer and the boys to ask why the Green Goblin picked Mary Jane and Aunt May to terrorize?). What makes it work is that Parker is such a schlub, and Maguire plays it perfectly-- the enthusiasm for weird science trivia, the social awkwardness, the awkward kindnesses that never quite go where he wants with MJ. I recognize that character. Hell, I've been that guy. (Other than the whole thing with the spider, of course...) Watching him struggle and flounder in such a familiar way gives the story a depth and resonance that these things usually lack-- sure, Bruce Wayne had a tendency to look Troubled and brood a bit, but I've never been an orphaned billionaire.
They also did a great job with the small side details. Willem Dafoe chews scenery with the very best of them, and turns in a nice performance as the villain. They actually managed to find an actor who's slightly funny-looking in the right way to be believable as Dafoe's son. J. Jonah Jameson is great ("I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel."), Jameson's newspaper is run out of the Flatiron building (I've been there...), and there's the obligatory cameo from Sam Raimi fixture Bruce Campbell.
(While I'm throwing out links from IMDB, let me note with mild incredulity that "Macho Man" Randy Savage's real name is apparently Randy Poffo. I guess that probably explains a lot...)
I'm not going to attempt to attach Deep Metaphorical Significance to this movie, and natter on about how it has Important Messages for these Difficult Times, because, well, that would be silly. It's a Summer Movie-- things Go Fast, they Blow Up, the Good Guy saves the day. Lights up, roll credits, drive home safely. Other than a sneaking suspicion that the scene where he poses briefly next to a billowing American flag atop a tall building was added to the movie in November, I can't say this movie made me think about September 11th at all.
Which is, after all, sort of the point of the whole enterprise.
Maybe It's a Catholic Post Office?
Killing time while waiting for a laser to warm up, I stumbled across this Ken Layne piece, where he talks about the hassle of mailing packages from one local Post Office, followed by the joy of discovering a new, clean, efficient branch elsewhere. He ends the piece by saying:
Why is my new Post Office so great? Well, you know those little customer-satisfaction/complaint cards? If a branch always gets negative cards, the branch is pretty much dismissed as a loser Post Office. Nothing will ever get better. If the cards are positive, the branch gets money to fix the air conditioning, more staffing, etc. Our friendly guy at the new branch explained this. Not quite logical, but who expected the USPS to be logical?
Now, something seems really familiar about this... Where have I seen this sort of illogic recently? Oh, yeah: school vouchers...
Two Roads to Hell
Two interesting items crossed my path this morning in my usual scan of the web sites I read. One was this New York Times article about the textbook selection process in Texas (found via Ginger Stampley's weblog, where she has some further comments):
One Dallas publisher, J. M. LeBel Enterprises, after having Jane L. Person's "Environmental Science: How the World Works and Your Place in It" rejected on Nov. 8, spent most of the next night working with state education officials to incorporate a series of changes in this high school textbook suggested by one of [the Texas Public Policy Foundation's] critiques. These changes resulted in the book's approval.
At the suggestion of the foundation, the LeBel company rewrote the sentence "Destruction of the tropical rain forest could affect weather over the entire planet" so that it now reads, "Tropical rain forest ecosystems impact weather over the entire planet." It also added these sentences: "In the past, the earth has been much warmer than it is now, and fossils of sea creatures show us that the sea level was much higher than it is today. So does it really matter if the world gets warmer?"
The foundation also succeeded in having this sentence deleted: "Most experts on global warming feel that immediate action should be taken to curb global warming."
The other piece was a Washington Post Book World article by Craig Nova about the New York State Education Department censoring literary works used in Regents exams (which Patrick Nielsen Hayden commented on some time ago):
The New York State Education Department has been changing texts, by well-known authors, used in the state's Regents Exam for high-school seniors. References to nudity, gender, race, alcohol and other dangerously realistic details have been dropped, without the writers' knowledge or permission, from excerpts used to test students' reading comprehension. For example, in a short piece written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, "most Jewish women" was changed to "most women." In an excerpt from Barrio Boy by Ernesto Galarza, "gringo lady" was changed to an "American woman." If someone was described as "skinny," he became "thin"; "fat" became "heavy."
Such changes weren't limited to a few excerpts but made as a matter of regular procedure in many pieces of writing used by the test. The rationale? The New York State Sensitivity Review Guidelines, which the New York State Education Department uses, as it says, to make sure that no student taking this test will feel uncomfortable.
It struck me, on reading these in succession, that while these two assaults on decency come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they spring from the same misguided impulse to construct a Happy Nerf World where nobody is ever made to feel uncomfortable, let alone get hurt. The Texas case is arguably more about protecting the feelings of adults than children (they want to insure that children aren't exposed to ideas that challenge their parents' world views), but they're both examples of the same pernicious idea: that shielding people from reality "for their own good" is actually a good thing.
It also struck me that I was significantly more irritated at the Texas case than the New York one. At first, I thought it was simply that I find "family values" conservatives to be about as appealing as gigantic cockroaches. Then I thought it was just New York chauvinism (I took the Regents Exams, back in the day, though I can't say I noticed any censorship). But it's not either of those things.
The fundamental reason why the Texas case bothers me more than the New York one has to do with the difference between science and literature. In the New York case, the goals of the censors are not fundamentally incompatible with the subject of the test. While what they actually did is reprehensible, there's no reason, in principle, why the Education Department couldn't find passages of actual literature that would suit their purposes. Failing that, they could always commission some-- I'm sure the slush piles of New York publishing houses are chock full of manuscripts which are so blandly (and unreadably) inoffensive that they could serve as an ideal source of intellectual Nerf for reading comp questions.
Literature is fundamentally about creative imagination. If one imaginary world doesn't suit your purposes, you can find or make another that does. You shouldn't twist someone else's creation to suit your own purposes, but there's nothing wrong with creating a new one out of whole cloth.
Science is not about creative imagination. History is not about creative imagination. The globe is either warming, or it's not, and there were either prostitutes in the Old West, or there weren't. You don't get to re-write the facts to suit yourself-- everything in science and history is ultimately subject to checking against the real world. If you don't like the facts of science, you don't get to make up new ones and have them be true. If your history makes you uncomfortable, you don't get to invent a new one, and pass it off as reality. That's lying, in a much deeper and more fundamental way than the Regents Exam censorship is.
The game they're playing in Texas is the same game played by the Intelligent Design crowd, and, for that matter, every tyrant from the dawn of time right down to Stalin and Mao who ever tried to re-write history to make himself look better. And as with all those other cases, it's so fundamentally and appallingly wrong, it borders on the obscene.
I Gotcher Comments Right Here
As you can tell from the new link at the bottom of this post, I've added comments to this weblog. Rather, the inimitable Kate has added comments for me, having prior experience with BlogKomm, and a better track record with freeware programs writen by German Unix geeks (I'm something like 1-for-9 lifetime with getting free programs from .de addresses to actually work).
A few words about the comments, and the reason for putting them up (I'm tempted to just send people to Ginger Stampley's policy statement for What She Really Thinks, but the overlap isn't 100%, and I like to hear myself type...).:
I have, in the past, castigated the "blogosphere" (parts of it, anyway) for suffering badly from an "echo chamber" effect. I still feel this is the biggest weakness in the whole weblog phenomenon, and the crucial fact that undermines all triumphalist claims that blogging will revolutionize Journalism As We Know It. It's simply too tempting, and too easy to select out only the easy targets, and studiously ignore the more thoughtful opposition-- to whale on Ted Rall while ignoring Charles Dodgson. This strikes me as fundamentally dishonest, especially if one plans to crow about "fact-checking" big name journalists, while engaging in selective commentary that's every bit as blinkered and biased as the worst the New York Times may have to offer.
In response to this, it's sometimes claimed that weblogs are a self-correcting medium. While it's true that someone else with a weblog may catch any errors you make, there's no obligation to actually link to them, meaning that many a reader of InstaPundit or Andrew Sullivan (to cite the two Big Name bloggers who are the worst offenders in this regard, of the weblogs I read) will see shaky, disingenuous, or flat-out duplicitous arguments presented as essentially unchallenged. There may be excellent arguments against their stated positions elsewhere on the web, but you're unlikely to find really good counter-arguments from their sites, or most of the sites they do link to.
I wouldn't attempt to enforce my standards of correct behavior on other weblogs, nor would I like to see anyone granted the power to do so. What I can do is attempt to hold myself to what I consider honest and (for lack of a better word) honorable behavior in my own weblog. I will make an effort, insofar as I can manage it, to present as reasonable a picture of both sides of any political issue I deal with here, and I will try to seek out and address the best arguments available for the opposite side in as fair a manner as I can manage.
The comments links are there so you, the readers (both of you), can keep me honest. If you think I'm mischaracterizing (or caricaturing) a position quoted here, post a comment and let me know. If there's a weblog out there that vehemently disagrees with my position on an issue, post a link to it. If you think I'm unaware of or deliberately ignoring crucial information that would undermine my position, provide it. I'll try to directly address any good counter-arguments (subject to the constraint that I have finite free time and don't want this weblog to eat my life), but even if I don't, the comments will be there for the reader to see, read, and make up his own mind.
The usual policy caveats apply-- obnoxious or obscene posts will be summarily deleted; anyone who persists in hostile behavior will have their IP banned and their host contacted; etc. I also make no promises to engage in comment-thread debates which run to seventy-odd posts (that finite time thing again), but I won't stop anyone from carrying one on (I should be so lucky as to have to worry about that).
Anyway, fire away.