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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, July 20, 2002

Taken... Where?

One final liquid nitrogen note: In Googling for one of the links in the previous post, I ran across this wonder of pseudo-science, which contains the slightly alarming suggestion that:

Liquid Nitrogen taken several minutes after a workout and prior to sleep may potentiate maximum growth hormone output and increase nitrogen! Accretion of new muscle mass must involve an increase in protein syntesis released by nitrogenic compounds and further exacerbated by the influence of growth hormone.

Well. All right, then.

Posted at 10:00 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

The More Demos, the Better

I did my Mr. Wizard act this morning for the high school kids I mentioned a few days ago. It's always good to do these things, or see them done, just as a way of calibrating how jaded scientists can become regarding some fairly amazing things.

My talk was about the basics of laser cooling (there's a nifty explanation at the Physics 2000 web site (it comes complete with video game applets that just have to be seen, and a cheesy question-and-answer format), if you're sick of waiting for me to do a plain-text version), and to provide a little context for what "cold" means in a laser cooling context, I broke out the liquid nitrogen (sorry about the hideous background on that page).

Nitrogen, as any geek can tell you, is a gas which makes up seventy-odd percent of air. If cooled to extremely low temperatures-- around 77 K (where one Kelvin is one degree Celsius above absolute zero-- 77 K is somewhere in the neighborhood of -320 Fahrenheit)-- it becomes a liquid which can be used for all sorts of things, from cooling experimental apparatus, to chilling ceramic superconductors, to freezing baseball legends. It's really common stuff in science circles, and while everybody in physics research has probably wasted at least one day playing with the stuff, it's easy to forget how neat the concept is if you haven't seen it before.

The classic liquid nitrogen demo is to dip flowers into the stuff, and chill them down. After a minute or so, you can tap the frozen flowers on the edge of a table, and they'll shatter like glass. It's a classic, but in some ways, it never gets old. The kids at today's talk loved that one, and several of them stuck around after I had finished to take turns freezing and then breaking things (the newspaper photographers who showed up (helping disadvantaged kids is good PR) loved that one-- they shot several rolls of film of kids breaking stuff. I'll have to check the papers tomorrow to see if that made it in). Another good variation on it is to take something elastic-- a racquetball, say-- and chill it in liquid nitrogen for a while. Where you previously had a nice, springy, bouncy ball, the frozen ball will shatter on a hard wooden floor. It makes a really loud cracking noise, and always gets a big reaction.

(Product Placement Moment: I bought four Penn racquetballs (warning: Flash) to use for this demo. The can advertises a two-for-one guarantee-- two balls to replace any one that breaks before the logo wears off. Prior to the talk, I jokingly suggested that I should send them the shattered fragments, and keep myself stocked up for the future... The first time through (I gave the same lecture twice, to two different bunches of kids-- it was surprisingly tiring...), the ball broke easily. The second time, the damn thing just wouldn't break-- I ended up having to fling it into the floor really hard to get it to crack. A third one was similarly resilient. Rather than sending in the pieces and asking for replacements, I'm tempted to send them a testimonial... "Even in the most extreme conditions, Penn racquetballs hold up!")

Even simpler demos are enough to really impress people who haven't seen the stuff before, though. As a simple demonstration of how cold the liquid is, I dumped probably three liters of the stuff out on a table, a little at a time, to show that it boils instantly on contact with the table. It makes an impressive cloud of vapor, and hisses and spatters all over the place (which makes it a good way of recapturing the attention of an audience that's started to drift...), but to anyone who works with the stuff on a regular basis, that's old hat-- when you fill a dewar with liquid nitrogen, it spatters all over as a matter of course. You learn to stop flinching at the idea of the drops hitting your skin-- they don't do any damage, due to the "Leidenfrost Effect." (This has led some wits in the science community to suggest that liquid nitrogen is best handled naked...) Still, this was impressive enough to some of the students that a couple of them asked me after the lecture if I'd just let them pour some of the nitrogen out on the floor...

The final demo I did is sort of an exercise in showmanship that I lifted from Bill Phillips when he used it for a public talk here. The key to it is that if you blow up a balloon and dunk it in liquid nitrogen, it shrinks dramatically as the gas inside cools, liquifies, or freezes. A balloon about six inches across (just under the width of the dewar) will collapse down to become a little pancake if you stuff it into the liquid. This means you can take a dozen or more balloons, each about six inches around, and stuff them into a dewar that's eighteen inches high. It works really well if you do them a couple at a time, saying "If you want to cool down a sample of gas, you'd think that putting it in liquid nitrogen would be a good way to do it," then cover the dewar, and go on with the lecture. The first two, the students didn't think much of it. The second two, a few of them started to notice that there was something weird going on. By the eight or ninth, I could hear them asking "How's he doing that?" The looks on their faces when I started throwing the pancaked balloons out into the crowd were worth the hassle of dragging the nitrogen tank over into the auditorium where I gave the talk...

(The point of the demo is to show that conventional methods of cooling don't work for getting most gases down to extremely low temperatures, as the gas will liquify, or even solidify. If you want to work at low temperature, and still have a vapor, you need to be clever about it, hence the need for laser cooling...)

The one drawback to doing these sorts of stunts is that the audience tends to remember the demos more than the science being discussed. This crew was no exception-- one pain-in-the-ass kid kept asking nitrogen related questions through the whole talk ("What would happen if you poured it out on your hand?" "It would sting. Please shut up.") Both groups wanted to know where to get liquid nitrogen ("I get it from a big tank in the next building. You can't get it, period. Unless you become a scientist."). Still, both groups had at least one student who asked good questions at the end, one of them a question of the "I was hoping you wouldn't notice that" variety, zeroing in on some stuff I'd swept under the rug. That alone was worth the sacrifice of a sunny Saturday morning.

Oh, and about the statement above that this was all in the interest of providing context for what "cold" means to a laser cooling person? The temperature of the liquid nitrogen Ted Williams is frozen in is roughly one million times higher than run-of-the-mill temperatures in laser cooling experiments-- we routinely deal with samples of atoms at a temperature of 100 micro-Kelvin, or a hundred one-millionths of a degree (Celsius) above absolute zero. With a bit of work, you can push that down by another three orders of magnitude, or more.

The details of how you get those temperatures will have to wait for another post.

Posted at 9:33 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Everybody Walk the Dinosaur

I've been a little too busy to write up the promised remarks on laser cooling, but I did just update the book log, adding Michael Swanwick's Bones of the Earth. Capsule review: You've just got to like a book that contains the sentence: "Ponderously, the two triceratops began to mate."

Posted at 10:07 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Concrete Doesn't Grow

I tend to be skeptical of the frequent claims that we're running out of everything, and it's all America's fault. I'm not skeptical enough to accuse the people pushing these studies of being nothing but jealous Luddites-- I think they're reaching incorrect conclusions from good intentions-- but I really don't buy the idea that our wasteful lifestyle is depriving Bangladesh of critical resources. It's the "children are starving in Africa, so eat your peas" argument-- while it's wasteful to throw food away, eating it won't materially affect the lives of people in the Sudan. Likewise, the water that's stolen from the Colorado River won't magically appear in Ethiopia if only the people in Los Angeles stop showering.

Then again, there are days like today, when I had to step into the street five times on my walk to work, to avoid people's lawn sprinklers (a new record-- the average over the last few weeks has been more like two). Including the one rocket scientist who had placed the sprinkler squarely in the middle of the sidewalk. A couple of tips for my fine suburban friends:

Tip 1: If you raise the blade on your lawn mower to something more than half an inch above the dirt, the grass is much less likely to dry out and turn brown. It's a lawn, not the eighteenth green at Augusta National-- it's OK for the grass to be a little taller.

Tip 2: Having killed your lawn through irrationally exuberant grounds-keeping, you're not going to make it recover by watering the sidewalk. No amount of water poured on concrete will make it bloom, so your sprinkler system is doing about as much good as leaving the tap in your kitchen sink open all night.

A better use for the water in question doesn't immediately spring to mind (other than leaving it in the local rivers, for the next time I decide to go fishing), but anything would be better than this.

The grass is dead. Deal with it. And take the goddamn sprinkler off the sidewalk.

Posted at 11:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Washing the Car to Make It Rain

Dozens of people have observed that an announcement of light blogging to come tends to be followed closely by a caffeine- or boredom-fueled spurt of posting.

With that in mind, let me say that I expect to post several dozen things in the next few days, including a proof of the Riemann hypothesis.

In other news, I added a bunch of stuff to the links bar over on the left, and changed the link to point to Matthew Yglesias's new address.

Posted at 8:27 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Stopped Clocks and Blind Pigs

One of the latest mini-controversies to ravage the "blogosphere" is Brendan O'Neill's screed (astonishingly, the perma-link seems to work) about the quality of most weblog writing. Ginger Stampley calling him a "pompous little wanker" is one of the milder comments.

The hell of it is, he's sort of got a point. I don't want to diminish his pomposity and... wankitry? wankerdom? wankerhood?-- he is a pompous wanker, as his later rant about the superiority of British spelling makes perfectly clear. I'm not likely to ever win favor with him-- after all, I just posted 15 kB about public speaking-- but brushed clean of the spittle flecking his original post, some of his advice is halfway decent, particularly "Think before you blog" and "Be accurate."

You don't have to reject the whole blogging ethos or set yourself up as some sort of Credential Police to wish that people would take a little more care about what they post. I'd be embarrassed if I sent out email to friends containing some of the egregious spelling and grammar errors I've seen posted in the "blogosphere," let alone posting them for all the world to read, and I'm hardly the strictest grammarian you'll ever encounter (as anyone who's witness to my serial punctuation abuse can tell at a glance). As I tell my students when I talk about grading lab reports, there's no better way to convince a professor that you're an absolute moron than to turn in written work containing an obvious spelling error in the first sentence ("We preformed this experiment in order to..."). The same goes for weblog posts-- I tend to check after I update my book log, and look at weblogs with interesting titles, and there's nothing that makes me hit the "back" button faster than posts with bad spelling, cutesy IRC abbreviations, and no capital letters.

And would it kill people to check links before posting them? (This means you, Glenn Reynolds...) Everybody knows that Blogspot makes hash of archive links, and yet I see one post after another where the link 404's, or goes to a page that doesn't actually contain the post in question. It takes two minutes to run a post through a spell-check, and another two minutes to make sure that the links you include go where you want them to-- that's hardly a lot to ask. This stuff is being posted on the World Wide Web, for God's sake, to be read by hundreds or thousands of people-- it's in your own best interest to proofread your posts so you don't look like an idiot.

As for "think before you blog," I'm hardly speaking from the dizzying pinnacle of the Moral High Ground (again, 15 kB of rambling about public speaking...), but O'Neill's advice here is sound. Take a minute before you hit "publish," and re-read what you wrote. Then get a cup of coffee, check your email, and read it again to see if it still makes sense, or comes off as incoherent babbling. If it's babble, fix it or delete it. Yeah, fine, this will hold you to four hundred posts a day rather than eight, but the increase in quality should more than offset the decrease in quantity.

This is not a new argument to me-- I've spent a lot of time on Usenet, and this comes up again and again when some free spirit breezes in and can't be bothered with basic rules of English grammar and posting etiquette. And here as there, I just don't understand the motivation. You are what you post, in a very real sense, and I just can't see why you wouldn't take the minimal time required to make sure that your posts are coherent, easily readable, and as error-free as you can make them before you send them out before an audience of thousands, whose entire opinion of you will be based on what you write.

Sadly, these basic and sensible points, which the "blogosphere" would do well to heed, have been almost completely obscured by the more hysterical elements of O'Neill's rant.

(In accordance with the Iron Laws of the Internet, of course, this post will contain at least one error of the sort I'm complaining about...)

Posted at 11:03 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

You Talkin' to Me?

Having been tiresomely political for the past few days, I feel like I ought to provide some actual physics content. Happily, I'm supposed to be giving a lecture to a bunch of high school kids on Saturday, as part of a program to encourage poor and minority students to attend college, so I can use this web log to help pull some of my scattered thoughts together into a moderately coherent public lecture. Of course, being an inveterate procrastinator, I'm first going to babble a bit about the different kinds of talks you get to give as a physicist.

One of the biggest misconceptions about science and engineering is that scientists and engineers don't need to be able to write well, or speak well. The popular image of a scientist is a sort of socially retarded obsessive, thoroughly enraptured by odd details of science, but shy and mumbling and inarticulate when talking to other people. There's a little bit of truth to this, mostly in the "obsessive" part, but the reality is that communication skills are at least as important in science as in other disciplines. You can have Nobel Prize-worthy data, but if you can't explain the results, in print and in person, well enough to convince other people of their worth, you'll never shake hands with the King of Sweden. There's a lot of writing involved in science, and a lot of public speaking, though not the same sort of public speaking done by people giving oral reports to their high-school English class.

First off, it's worth noting a cultural difference between disciplines. In the humanities, when somebody "presents a paper," that's exactly what they do. They write a paper on the topic of their research, and then stand up in front of an audience, and read the paper to them. Visual aids are rare, as far as I can tell, and while some people write and speak in a lively enough manner for this to be bearable, it seems generally to be about as awful as you'd expect from this description.

In the sciences, on the other hand, visual aids are mandatory-- if you're ever asked to give a presentation to scientists, show some pictures. The pictures needn't be all that relevant, but scientists are used to getting pictures to look at when we listen to a talk, and without some sort of visual element, we get cranky. It's also considered very bad form for a scientist to prepare detailed remarks in advance-- exceptions are made for people talking in a language that's not their best, but reading from index cards, or even sounding like you've memorized the text of the talk, will start dark muttering among a scientific audience. You're expected to be able to present a series of data slides, and talk about them in a more or less extemporaneous manner-- you can have bullet points or snatches of text on the slides as a reminder to yourself of what goes where, but on a sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word level, you're supposed to put it together as you go along. I've never heard an explicit statement of why that's the rule (you never do, with these "community standards" sorts of things), but I think the idea is that you ought to know your work well enough to be able to ad-lib a coherent explanation of it. Figuring out how to cope with these restrictions is something of an art, especially since they're so different from the standard public speaking tips and techniques you get in school, which are aimed at someone who's planning to give the Gettysburg Address, not a scientific presentation.

(Historically, there's also been a rather rigid division between scientific disciplines as to what visual medium they use. Doctors and biologists inevitably used slides, while physicists always used overhead projectors and transparencies (often hand-written). It used to be that you could walk into a room at a conference, and make a good guess at the background of the speaker based on how he was presenting his data. These days, though, more and more people are doing PowerPoint slide shows, in all disciplines.)

Within those constraints, there are three rough categories of talks a physicist can be asked to give: Research Talks, Classes, and Public Lectures. There's some overlap between categories (you can teach a class about your research, for example), and there are subdivisions within the categories, but those pretty much span the full range of possibilities, unless you include things like commencement addresses and admissions pep talks, which I'm not going to concern myself with, since I don't often get asked to do those.

Research Talks are talks given to other scientists, though not necessarily people in the same field. This category contains the two extremes of the difficulty scale, in terms of preparing a talk.

The easiest sort of talk to put together is, somewhat surprisingly, a long research seminar. These generally run something like forty-five minutes to an hour, and are given to an audience of other physicists in approximately the same sub-field you work in. These can be a gruelling experience to deliver, depending on how many questions are asked during the talk itself (I gave a talk to my old research group at NIST a couple of years ago, and brought slides for the thirty-minute version of my research talk (I knew the group well, you see...). An hour and twenty minutes in, we called a halt to let people go to lunch, and I skipped the last five slides in my stack. It wasn't hostile questioning-- on the contrary, that's one of the most enjoyable talks I've given-- but they weren't letting any details pass unquestioned). They're easy to prepare, though, because if you're any good at all, you know the research inside and out, backwards and forwards, upside down and sideways, and could talk about it for two hours standing on your head underwater. The biggest challenge here is realizing that the stuff you spend 95% of your time working on holds absolutely no interest for the audience-- nobody cares about debugging code or aligning optics, no matter how clever you were about doing those things. As long as you stick to the essential physics, though, these are easy to do, and the format is open enough to allow digressions and extensions if necessary.

The hardest sort of talk to prepare, also in the research category, is the contributed paper at a conference. Not coincidentally, these are also the hardest sort to listen to, as so many are done badly. Contributed talks are generally given a ten or twelve minute slot, with a couple of minutes at the end for questions. There can be almost a dozen of these in a session at a conference, so the time limits are fairly strictly enforced. These usually take at least three drafts before they're really presentable, and even the best of them are little more than a teaser for the real work, a plea for members of the audience to ask questions after the session is over, when they can be answered in detail.

The problem with contributed talks is that it's nearly impossible to condense actual new research down into ten minutes, and have the result be comprehensible even to other physicists. You need to ruthlessly trim out all sorts of material, provide just enough of a sketch of the background problem to put the work in context, and present a single new result in the most concise manner possible. This is exceptionally difficult to do-- worse yet, these talks mostly fall to grad students and junior postdocs, who often don't have much speaking experience, so the information transfer from listening to the average ten-minute talk is near zero. Unless the session is on work that's directly related to something I'm doing at the moment, or something I've done in the past, I tend to skip sessions consisting of contributed talks, and either seek out sessions with longer invited talks, or gossip in the hall with other people who are also bagging the contributed sessions.

Somewhere in between these extremes are the half-hour invited talk at a conference (generally given to senior post-docs or established researchers with important new results. I've been lucky enough to give a fair number of these, and they're nice-- not as easy to put together as a full seminar, but much more relaxed than a ten-minute talk), and the general colloquium (generally an hour-long talk, given to students and faculty in a variety of fields, which may not overlap your own. These take a bit more work, because you need to provide more context for people who don't know the details of the field; on the other hand, you're not likely to get asked really difficult questions in one of these, and it can be really rewarding if done well. I like to think I'm good at this sort of talk, and that's what got me my current job, but I could be kidding myself).

Classes are a different sort of thing altogether. When you're teaching a class, there's generally a very tightly prescribed amount of material you have to cover, and at the end of it, the students need to understand it well enough to answer questions about it later. That means there's no fudging on the math or glossing over the messy technical details (as there can be in a research talk, where the idea is to get the general impression of the key results across). On the bright side, though, it also means you're allowed to have notes-- indeed, it's a terrible idea to try to teach a class without notes. The three or four worst classes I've ever sat through, an the very worst class I've ever taught, were done without the benefit of lecture notes.

The requirement that students leave the class with some understanding of the material also means that for every new concept you introduce, you need to have three or four different explanations (there's always at least one student who doesn't get the first explanation, but will be enlightened by a different approach), preferably with concrete examples or at least analogies drawn from everyday life, to drive the point home. Demos are a good idea, too. Happily, physics is a field with lots of quality demos-- I can't begin to think how I would go about teaching a math class.

The biggest problem in prepping a class often turns out to be finding the enthusiasm for the material-- when you're talking about research, you're necessarily talking about something that you find interesting enough that you've chosen to dedicate at least part of your life to studying it in detail. I can babble for hours about my research, without getting tired of it. I can't work up the same enthusiasm for a lecture on, say, rotational kinematics or vector multiplication. But however dull you may find the material personally, you still need to find a way to put it across to the students well enough that you can use it as a jumping-off point for more interesting material later. Even if you're bored stupid by the whole concept of rotational kinematics, you need to pretend it's fascinating material in order to get students to remember it later. It's a challenge, and it doesn't always come off, but it's an interesting sort of problem, and fun when it works (sadly, it also tends to leave the students with the impression that you're absolutely the biggest dork ever to stalk the groves of academe, but there's little that can be done about that).

The last category is the Public Lecture, which is basically what I have to put together for Saturday. This is a talk about physics to an audience who knows nothing about the subject (or at least an audience who can't reliably be expected to know anything about the subject). These are also amazingly difficult-- probably just below the ten-minute talk, and just above the class lecture. (Happily, I've already got some slides for a freshman-level talk about laser cooling, and the sterling example of Bill Phillips's public talks to crib from guide me.) The challenge here is to distill the material down to the central, really cool essence, without sacrificing too much, and without actually lying to the audience. You're not trying to teach people the full details of what you do, but you're trying to get across the basic idea, and give some hint of the vast and exciting possibilities. Again, demos and real-life examples are a good idea, the more the better.

I haven't done a lot of these-- most of the public-type things I've done have been presented to people who already have a reasonable background in the sciences, which makes it easier. In a lot of ways, though, this is the most rewarding sort of talk to do. To get the basic message across, you really need to recall what it was about the field you're in or the problem you're working on that drew you in in the first place-- you just don't get to the Ph.D. level in a science without thinking, on some level, that the field you're in is just the absolute coolest endeavor ever conceived since our many-times-great-grandparents first rubbed two sticks together and set fire to the savannah. It's that excitement and enthusiasm that you need to convey, even in the smallest part, to accomplish your purpose.

Reminding yourself of that excitement is also a wonderfully re-energizing thing-- recapturing even a small part of whatever spark drove you into and through grad school is enough to wipe away a week's worth of aggravation from, say, tracking lost purchase orders and fixing stupid little parts. The gleam in the eye of someone who heard you talk and Got It is reward enough to wipe out the effects of years of toil and drudgery. That's why I volunteer to do talks like I'll give on Saturday, that's why I got a job teaching undergraduates, and it's a part of why I'm doing this weblog.

Wow. That ran a lot longer than I expected. Next time out, I'll talk about laser cooling. For now, I have talk notes to prepare.

Posted at 10:02 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

When Is a Terrorist Not a Terrorist?

I've been discussing this a little over in Matthew Yglesias's comments section (Blogspot has made hash of his perma-links as usual-- it's the item that begins with a reference to this Matt Welch piece). The latest comment was starting to run a bit long, so I figured I should really swing it over here.

The issue at hand is the FBI's refusal to label the shootings at the El Al counter in Los Angeles International Airport as an act of terrorism. This has caused no end of consternation in the "blogosphere," with ringing denunciations of the cowardice of the FBI from all the usual quarters. I think this is a simple case of variant definitions, though, and I actually approve of the FBI's decision to back off calling it "terrorist."

I'm not going to pretend that the motivation of the LAX shooter wasn't essentially the same as that of Hamas or Al Qaeda. That would be ridiculous-- this was clearly a deranged act springing from the same source.

On the other hand, though, it's important to make the distinction between the deranged acts of lone maniacs who share a psychosis with Al Qaeda, and the acts of people taking their orders from Al Qaeda. This was, apparently, in the former category, rather than the latter, which is why the FBI is refusing to call it a "terrorist" act.

Yes, it's possible to maintain this distinction while calling the shooting what it was, an act of terrorism. I have no problem with that, Matthew has no problem with that, numerous other sensible commentators have no problem with that.

But it's a distinction easily blurred when the papers break out the 48-point type for "FBI Calls LAX Shooting Terrorist Act." We all know what would happen if the FBI had opted to call this terrorism from Day One-- the Washington Post and New York Times would have big headlines trumpeting the announcement, but also mentioning that he acted alone, the Washington Times and New York Post would scream "Terrorist Shoots Up LAX!", and bury the "acted alone" information on the bottom of page nine, and Fox News would openly call for bombing Baghdad in retribution. Within a few days, everyone would just assume that Hadayet took his orders directly from Osama Bin Laden. You can already see a bit of that in the scarier corners of the "blogosphere," though the FBI's actual announcements have served to focus the indignation on the FBI instead.

Losing the distinction between "act of terror by a lone individual working from the same hateful delusions as Al Qaeda" and "act of terror by someone working for Al Qaeda" is a step on the road to the Coulter/ Sullivan position that all Muslims are potential Al Qaeda fifth columnists, which is a step in a direction that I really don't want to see this country move. (Though the utterly loathsome new program mentioned by many yesterday seems to indicate that some of Our Intrepid Leaders are hell-bent on taking us down that road...)

One of the few bright spots in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was the relative lack of anti-Muslim violence and hatred in this country. Yes, there were some incidents, but compare the handful of violent attacks here to the spate of anti-Semitic crimes in Europe. Indeed, there were enough positive incidents of people reaching out to Muslim neighbors and acquaintances to more or less offset the bad.That's something we can be proud of-- even in the darkest moments in recent memory, we were big enough, as a nation, to realize that there's a distinction between those abroad who hate us and would destroy us, and their co-religionists here, who don't, and wouldn't.

Since then, though, there's been a steady, poisonous drip of information and allegations seeking to undermine that. There are the continual "warnings" about possible Al Qaeda cells still active, possible future terrorist acts, and so on-- whether you think these are frantic ass-covering or cynical politicking (funny how the warnings seem to coincide with the release of new scandalous information), I think these have a corrosive effect. There are also things like this terrorist urban legend (via Little Green Footballs, where the comments section includes such charming sentiments as: "I should think any honest person who just happens to look Arab would be happy to be searched because it ensures his safety, too," apparently without irony), the aforementioned "TIPS" program, and the continued rantings of Anne Coulter and Andrew Sullivan, as they tip-toe their way along the line separating rational punditry from virulent bigotry.

I might be worried about nothing, here-- pulling a Kaus, as it were. But I'd rather not see any more fuel provided for those who like to insinuate that all Muslims are dangerous, and I think that's the intention behind the FBI's refusal to call Hadayet a terrorist. I'm not convinced they're really succeeding, but they're at least fumbling after the right idea, and I'm willing to give them credit for good intentions.

Posted at 11:24 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Monday, July 15, 2002

Department of Series Crossovers

Much-delayed posting tonight, because I wanted to put the new book log entry up first. Over the weekend, I picked up D. Graham Burnett's A Trial by Jury from the library, which I finished yesterday. This morning, Arts and Letters Daily provides a link to this article in The Atlantic about the problem of false convictions. It seems like an obvious sign that I really ought to talk about legal matters.

In some ways, the Atlantic article provides a bit of what I was hoping for in Burnett's book, but didn't get. The case Burnett drew for his jury service was a lurid one-- a stabbing in what may or may not have been a gay tryst gone awry. The defendant claims he was lured to the room under the impression that the victim was female, and the killing was in self-defense, to avoid being raped. The victim's somewhat campy friends claim that the defendant was, in fact, involved in a relationship with the deceased, and the killing was some sort of lovers' quarrel. Neither side seems particularly reliable-- the victim's friends didn't see the actual killing, and can't agree on many of the details of the case, while the defendant is almost certainly fudging some of the details of how he wound up in that apartment, possibly out of shame over occasional homosexual encounters (a possibility which resonates with some of Iain Jackson's recent comments). There's ample material here for exploring the murky workings of the justice system, and how consensus is reached in the jury room when presented with unreliable and conflicting testimony, but Burnett doesn't go far enough into that to satisfy me.

The Atlantic article covers some of the same ground, focussing on how it is that innocent people end up being convicted, and a couple of proposals to fix that problem, particularly in capital cases-- the article claims that something like 100 death row inmates have had their convictions overturned in the past three decades, a fairly appalling statistic (if accurate-- I'm too lazy to check it tonight). One of the problem areas mentioned-- witness identifications-- comes up in Burnett's book, but it quickly dismissed.

There's some fascinating material here, though it's not really treated in depth in either place. The problem of witness identifications alone is a good one, touching on all the classic problems of the fallibility of memory and so on (the tv show Homicide: Life on the Street did a good episode about this (a rare thing that late in the show's run), with multiple witnesses insisting they saw the crime, but unable to agree on any of the details; if you want something more highbrow, albeit not crime-related, see Copenhagen, or John M. Ford's "Erase/Record/Play"). Also dealt with in the Atlantic piece is the question of false confessions, which was the subject of a fascinating article in the Washington Post about post-Miranda interrogation techniques-- among other things, it asserted that the false confession rate now is approximately the same as it was back when cops were allowed to beat the hell out of suspects (alas, the article is long since vanished into their pay archives).

The most surprising thing is that, despite the simplicity of the fixes suggested (double-blind line-ups for witness identifications, and videotaping all interrogations), there's substantial resistance to implementing the changes. Which is surprising mostly because you would think that the police, too, would (or at least should) have an interest in seeing that innocent people are not convicted by mistake (though lawyers can quibble about the numerical aspects).

Then again, given travesties like this South Carolina case, maybe it shouldn't be so surprising.

Posted at 10:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Split Screen Republicanism II: Electric Boogaloo

The term "split-screen Republicanism" is generally used to refer to Andrew Sullivan's assertion that "We do the national greatness stuff abroad and the leave us alone stuff at home." It occurred to me while reading recent news stories that another, no less fatuous split seems to be developing.

In foreign policy matters, it seems that George Bush is a master manipulator, managing to out-maneuver and out-wit all the leaders of Europe and the Middle East put together. It's all part of the grand scheme, what Charles Dodgson referred to as "an elaborate series of bluffs, feints, and jabs, a kind of diplomatic blindfold chess, at once treacherous and Machiavellian in its methods, and nobly Jeffersonian in its outlook and aspirations ."

Meanwhile, at home, he's a sort of, well, dim-witted rube, who can sit on the audit committee of a corporation that's engaging in dodgy accounting to cover its shaky financial situation, and get memos about the various problems, without managing to pick up any hint that it might possibly be a good idea to unload some stock before the excrement comes in contact with the ventilation system. He had absolutely no clue whatsoever, and just sold because he felt like it.

There's been a fair amount said touting Bush's extensive business experience as a job qualification. Now, even his own press people are making him out to be just another pointy-haired boss.

Posted at 4:46 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

For Those Who Care...

Speaking of books, I just added a new book log post, on the first of Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael books, A Morbid Taste For Bones.

Posted at 11:07 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

My Theory's Better Than Your Theory

I don't really intend to have a regular Sunday item featuring the best book review quote of the week, but I'm doing it again.

I don't actually read a lot of pop-science books (a quick check of the book log turns up three in the last year: Nine Crazy Ideas in Science, The Odd Quantum and The Science of Discworld), a fact which occasionally surprises people who want to ask me about the latest Steven Hawking book. It's just a little too similar to work, so I prefer to unwind with, well, genre trash, mostly. I don't even read a whole lot of "hard" science fiction any more, for much the same reason that Kate, a proto-lawyer, can't watch "Law and Order" without yelling at the tv (she did an internship with the Manhattan DA, and reports a conspicuous lack of dark wood paneling in the real DA offices...).

That said, I do scan book review sections (including the reviews in Physics Today. Yes, I'm a geek...) for interesting possibilities. One such turned up in the New York Times today, where verteran pop-physics writer Lawrence Krauss reviews Hydrogen by John Rigden. The subject matter (at least as described in the review) makes for a fascinating story, and if nothing else, it produced a great swipe at string theorists:

Indeed, at a time when many books and news reports describe speculative theories that hope to probe deep cosmic mysteries but so far have failed to touch base with a single observation or experiment, it is a pleasant change to find a book on a humble topic that demonstrates the remarkable beauty and subtlety of nature, and of the experiments scientists have developed to explore it.

As a colleague of mine in physics puts it, the merger of quantum mechanics and special relativity that has allowed us to compare theory and observation at the level of better than a part in a billion -- the most successful confrontation between theory and experiment known in science -- may not be a theory of everything, but it is at least a theory of something.

It goes on the list of books I'll look for the next time I'm in Borders.

Posted at 10:28 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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